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Iraq Sees Bloodiest Day In Over A Year

The Karrada attack on April 23 targeted police and Red Crescent workers who were distributing aid.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Two suicide bombers wearing vests full of explosives blew themselves up in separate attacks on April 23, killing 76 people, including many Iranian pilgrims, in what appeared to be Iraq's bloodiest day in over a year.

Shortly after the two attacks, the authorities in Baghdad said they had arrested the purported leader of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. His arrest, which has been reported before, could not be confirmed.

The blasts occurred as apprehension grows in Iraq ahead of a pullout by U.S. troops from city centres in June, and after warnings from officials that insurgent groups may try to take advantage of that to launch attacks.

A yearend election also threatens to stir a resurgence in violence just as the sectarian bloodshed and insurgency triggered by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion appeared to be receding.

One of the attacks occurred near Muqdadiya, 80 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, in the volatile province of Diyala. The suicide bomber targeted a group of Iranian pilgrims in a crowded roadside restaurant at lunchtime.

All but two of the 48 dead were Iranian pilgrims, who have flocked to Iraq in the millions since the fall of Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein to visit Shi'ite Muslim religious sites. Seventy-seven people were wounded, police said.

It was the single deadliest attack since 50 people were killed by a suicide bomber in a restaurant near the northern city of Kirkuk on December 11.

"I just left the hospital of Baquba. The scenes there are catastrophic," said Abdulnasir al-Muntasirbillah, who marked his first day in office as Diyala governor the same day. "Words can't express it. It is a dirty, cowardly terrorist act."

The other blast took place in central Baghdad as a group of Iraqi national police were distributing relief supplies to families driven from their homes at the height of the violence.

Twenty-eight people died and 50 were wounded, police said. At least five children and two Red Crescent workers were among the dead. Some witnesses said the bomber was a woman.

Red Crescent food parcels, police helmets and shattered packets of chocolate biscuits were strewn in the blood pooled on the pavement after the attack, while a woman dressed in a black abaya robe wailed and beat her thighs in anguish.

"It is a suicide bomber. Obviously that has the fingerprints of al Qaeda," said Baghdad security spokesman Major-General Qassim Moussawi.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Al-Qaeda was trying to trigger broader conflict by targeting the most vulnerable.

"They don't differentiate between people. Their ideology is killing," Dabbagh told the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV station.

Violence across Iraq has fallen sharply over the past year, but insurgents such as Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda still carry out attacks. Suicide bombings are often associated with Al-Qaeda.

Yet while the bombings remain routine, it has been a while since so many people were killed on a single day.

On June 17, a truck bomb in Baghdad killed 63; two bombs on March 6, 2008, killed 68 people, also in Baghdad; and female suicide bombers targeting a pet market killed 99 in the capital on February 1, 2008.

Shortly after these latest bombings, Moussawi's office reported that Baghdadi had been arrested in east Baghdad.

Baghdadi is said to be the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, one of the groups thought to be behind suicide bombings and close to Al-Qaeda's main organization in Iraq, which is led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

"We certainly hope that it's true," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington. "This would be a significant capture if the report is true."

Security experts have speculated that Baghdadi was a character invented by extremists in order to put an Iraqi face to a group criticised for being composed of foreign fighters.

But Whitman said the U.S. military did believe there was a single Al-Qaeda leader with that name.

Some Iraqis expect violence to increase in Iraq as rival political and armed groups position themselves ahead of a national election due to take place at the end of the year.

Iraqi officials say Al-Qaeda and others are also likely to try to test Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops prepare to pull out of cities ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.

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Leaders Of Azerbaijan, Armenia Meet In Brussels To Discuss Nagorno-Karabakh

European Council President Charles Michel (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Brussels on May 22.

The leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia met in Brussels to discuss a peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh, even as opponents in Yerevan accuse Prime Minister Nicol Pashinian of what they say are unacceptable concessions made during negotiations with Baku over the disputed region.

European Council President Charles Michel on May 22 held bilateral talks with both Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev before a trilateral meeting in which the Karabakh situation was discussed.

Azerbaijan said in a statement that Aliyev told Michel "that Azerbaijan had laid out five principles based on international law for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and for the signing of a peace agreement."

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 22.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 22.

In Yerevan, Armenian police have detained hundreds of protesters during opposition-led demonstrations seeking to force Pashinian from office.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.

Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian and Azerbaijani services and Reuters.

Germany's Scholz Seeks To Pursue Energy Projects With Senegal Amid Russian Supply Uncertainties

Senegal's President Macky Sall (right) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hold a press conference at the presidential palace in Dakar on May 22.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says his country wants to “intensively” pursue gas and renewable energy projects with West African nation Senegal amid uncertainties with Russian supplies following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

"It is a matter worth pursuing intensively," Scholz said on May 22 at a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall during his first trip as chancellor to Africa.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Senegal, a country of some 16 million people, has billions of cubic meters of gas reserves and is expected to become a major gas producer in the region.

Berlin is seeking to reduce its heavy reliance on Russia for gas following the country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Scholz says his country has initiated talks with Senegal concerning gas extraction and liquefied natural gas.

Prior to his arrival, a German government official said Germany could help explore a gas field in Senegal.

Berlin has invited both Senegal, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, and South Africa to attend the G7 summit in Germany in June as guest nations.

Both countries abstained from voting on a UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Sall, speaking in his role as African Union chairman, said many African countries did not want to take sides in the war.

"Very clearly, we want peace," he said. "We're working for a de-escalation. We're working for a cease-fire, for dialogue.... That is the African position."

The war in Ukraine -- a major grains and food supplier for the world -- has sparked supply disruptions that have pushed up food and energy prices in Africa.

Sall said he would travel to Russia and Ukraine soon on behalf of the African Union.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Imprisoned Iranian Activist Taken To Hospital Following Hunger Strike, Lawyer Says

Farhad Meysami (file photo)

Iranian activist Farhad Meysami has been taken to the hospital following a two-week hunger strike protesting the threatened execution of Swedish-Iranian doctor Ahmedreza Djalali, according to Meysami’s lawyer.

Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi wrote on Twitter on May 21 that Meysami’s condition was worsening and that his life was in danger.

Meysami, a medical doctor, has been on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Djalali, who was arrested in 2016 during an academic visit to Tehran.

Djalali specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups and the Swedish government have condemned his detention.

He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.

Amnesty International and other groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

Djalali was scheduled to be executed on May 21, but his wife said it did not take place. There was no comment from Iranian authorities.

Iran has said the decision to execute Djalali was “final,” but it also said in recent days the judiciary was studying a request by his lawyers to delay the action.

Meysami was detained in July 2018 for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and body in public.

He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.

He ended that hunger strike after 145 days.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia-Appointed Head Of Occupied Ukrainian Town Reportedly Hurt In Explosion

An exterior view of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant (file photo)

The Kremlin-appointed head of an occupied Ukrainian town near Europe's largest nuclear power plant was severely injured in an explosion, according to a Ukrainian official and a Russian news agency.

Andrei Shevchik was in intensive care following the blast, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said on May 22, citing an emergency services source in the southern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar.

Shevchik was named mayor of Enerhodar by Russia following its occupation of the town.

Dmytro Orlov, who Ukraine still recognizes as the legitimate mayor of the town that had a prewar population of about 50,000, reported the incident on the Telegram messaging app.

"We have accurate confirmation that during the explosion, the self-proclaimed head of the 'people's administration' Shevchik and his bodyguards were injured," Orlov wrote.

He said Shevchik had been taken to a hospital in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol to be treated.

One local report said the blast occurred around the porch of Shevchik’s residence.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion or whether it was an intentional act.

Many of Enerhodar’s residents had worked at two nearby power plants, one of which is the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.

Based on reporting by Reuters and RIA Novosti

Member Of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Shot Dead Outside His Home

A senior member of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been shot and killed outside his home east of Tehran, state media reported, citing the IRGC.

Sayyad Khodaei “was assassinated during a gun attack carried out by two motorcyclists in Tehran's Mohahedin-e Eslam Street," state-run IRNA reported on May 22.

IRNA described him as a "defender of the shrine," which the IRGC uses to indicate he had fought in Syria or Iraq on behalf of Iran as part of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force.

Iran backs Shi’ite militia groups in the two Middle East nations.

There was no claim of responsibility.

On its website, the IRGC identified Khodaei as a colonel and denounced the killing as a "terrorist act," blaming "elements linked to global arrogance" -- a reference to the United States and its allies.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

France's European Minister: A Ukraine EU Bid Would Take At Least 15-20 Years

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune (file photo)

France’s European affairs minister said that any bid for Ukraine to join the European Union would take at least 15 to 20 years to complete, putting a damper on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's hopes of gaining a quick entry into the bloc.

"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J on May 22. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."

"I don't want to offer Ukrainians any illusions or lies," he added.

The comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.

“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint news conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on May 21, “because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who visited Kyiv on May 22, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s bid to join the EU in the face of opposition by some other bloc members.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Ukrainian Parliament Extends Martial Law For 90 Days

Martial law was first imposed on February 24 following the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military assault.

KYIV -- The Ukrainian parliament has extended martial law for another 90 days as the country continues to battle against the unprovoked invasion of Russian forces.

The Verkhovna Rada said in a statement on May 22 that the decision to extend martial law until at least August 23 came at the request of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy submitted the bill to the parliament on May 18 seeking an extension of martial law, which was first imposed on February 24 following the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military assault.

“We are imposing martial law throughout our country,” Zelenskiy said at the time while urging citizens to “please stay at home” amid the military actions and go on “without panic.”

Following its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, or other major cities in the north and west of the country, Russia has turned its focus to Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, seeking to link up those areas with Crimea -- which it illegally annexed in 2014 -- and areas held by Kremlin-backed separatists in the east.

Ukraine Again Rules Out Concessions As Polish President Arrives To Offer Support

Polish President Andrzej Duda addresses lawmakers during a session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on May 22.

Ukraine continued to rule out any "concessions" to Russia despite the intensive onslaught by Kremlin forces and as Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a surprise visit, urged Kyiv not to give in to the demands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The war must end with the complete restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said in a Twitter post on May 22.

"That is, our victory. Our common victory with the civilized world. After all, today [Ukraine] is defending not only itself," he said, adding that it was defending all of Europe.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Yermak's tweet, consistent with previous Ukrainian remarks, came as Duda became the first foreign head of state to address Ukraine’s parliament since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 as he sought to bolster resolve and offer support for the country's EU hopes.

In his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, Duda said that "worrying voices have appeared, saying that Ukraine should give in to Putin's demands. Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future."

He added that surrendering any Ukrainian territory would be a blow to the entire West and repeated Poland’s firm support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.

Shortly after his address, and another one by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, air-raid sirens were heard across the capital, a sign that dangers remain there, although the front lines have shift to the east and south of Kyiv.

In April, Duda visited Kyiv for talks with Zelenskiy as part of a delegation with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

During this trip, Duda offered strong support for Ukraine's bid to join the EU, despite reluctance to move quickly by some major powers, including France and Germany.

Duda said those who "shed their blood" in the fight to belong to Europe must be respected -- "even if the situation is complicated, even if there are doubts."

"I have no doubt that the European Union will make such a gesture," he said.

He pointed to a European Council decision on Kyiv’s candidate status set for June 24, saying it would be "extremely important, above all psychologically and politically."

Zelenskiy on May 21 rejected a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.

“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “Because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”

An elderly woman stands outside her heavily damaged house after it was hit by a Russian missile in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukrane on May 22.
An elderly woman stands outside her heavily damaged house after it was hit by a Russian missile in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukrane on May 22.

On May 22, France’s European affairs minister told French radio that any bid by Ukraine to join the EU would likely take at least 15 to 20 years to finalize.

"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."

Duda’s visit came as Russian forces stepped up offensive operations across broad swathes of eastern Ukraine. There was heavy shelling around the northeastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukraine’s military said.

Ukraine’s lead negotiator, presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak, told Reuters on May 21 that Kyiv had ruled out any cease-fire agreement with Russia that included ceding any Ukrainian territory.

“The war would not stop,” he said, in the event of such an agreement. “It would just be put on pause for a time. They’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale.”

WATCH: Burned-out armored vehicles, notebook doodles, shattered weapons, and the wreckage of a fighter jet are among items belonging to the Russian military to go on display at Ukraine's National Military History Museum in Kyiv.

Destroyed Russian Military Equipment On Display In New Ukrainian Museum Exhibit
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Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation the same day that the war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and newly appointed French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna have agreed on the importance of continuing “steadfast support” for Ukraine, the State Department said.

The two also discussed the importance of “maintaining significant costs” on Russian President Vladimir Putin “for his war of choice,” a statement released on May 22 said.

The two diplomats also discussed steps Washington and Paris could take to best support Finland and Sweden’s recently announced bids to join NATO, decisions that have angered Putin, who said he invaded Ukraine in part to prevent the expansion of the Western military alliance.

“Both agreed on the need to respond to the urgent food security and nutrition needs of millions of people in vulnerable situations around the world, which have been exacerbated by Russia’s continued brutal war in Ukraine,” the statement said.

French President Emmanuel Macron on May 20 named Colonna -- Paris’s current ambassador to Britain -- as foreign minister following his reelection as French leader. She replaced veteran Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Amid Russian Calls For 'Tribunals,' Concerns Expressed Over Fate Of Azovstal Defenders

A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on May 16.

Concerns have been expressed over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after abandoning the Azovstal steel-mill complex in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.

Prominent Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the State Duma and chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on May 22 that the fate of the captured soldiers, many of whom are members of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, “should be determined by a tribunal.”

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

“My opinion remains unchanged: There must be no exchange of members of the Azov [Regiment], which is outlawed in Russia,” Slutsky wrote on his Telegram channel.

Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers have urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on May 21 that Kyiv “will fight for the return” of every one of them.

The Russian Defense Ministry on May 20 asserted its forces had complete control of the massive factory following weeks of intense fighting in the city that has left thousands feared dead.

Ukraine has described the withdrawal from Azovstal as an authorized “evacuation,” rather than a surrender.

Russia has said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken into custody at the plant. Denis Pushilin, the head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”

The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists.

The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Formerly known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultra-nationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.

The Russian state news agency Interfax earlier reported that Moscow was considering exchanging Azovstal prisoners for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is facing criminal charges in Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry on May 21 released video purportedly showing Russian troops taking Serhiy Volynskiy, commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, into custody.

An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol and are facing a major health and sanitation catastrophe, officials say. Local officials have accused Russia of concealing atrocities -- including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater in which hundreds of civilians were sheltering -- by burying slain civilians in shallow mass graves. Satellite images released in April seemed to show possible mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.

“The city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko posted on Telegram.

With reporting by Interfax, AP, and Reuters

Russia Bans 963 Prominent Americans From Entering Russia

The list includes actor Morgan Freeman, who is accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.

Russia has published a list of 963 government officials and leading Americans who are banned from entering the country in retaliation for similar moves by Washington since the offensive in Ukraine.

The list, published on May 21, includes U.S. President Joe Biden, business leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Jamie Fly, president of RFE/RL, along with several current or former members of the board that oversees RFE/RL.

The largely symbolic move names several top officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The list also includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), and the president's son, Hunter Biden.

Fly said on Twitter that he was “proud to be included on this list. RFE/RL being attacked by authoritarians is nothing new. We know that history is on the side of the Russian people. We’ll continue to expand our reporting for Russian audiences at this critical moment.”

Moscow had already announced sanctions targeting many of those on the list.

One exception is Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who had not previously been cited by Russian authorities. He is now accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.

Russia also banned three former senators who are deceased: John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), and Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah).

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement the move was in response to "the constantly imposed anti-Russian sanctions" and said it aimed "to constrain the U.S. which is trying to impose a neocolonial 'world order' on the rest of the change its position and recognize new geopolitical realities."

It added that Moscow remained open to "honest dialogue" and drew a distinction between the people of the United States and authorities who it said have been "inciting Russophobia."

The ministry also said it also banned 26 more Canadians, including Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The Washington Post

Turkey Sets Conditions For Backing Swedish, Finnish NATO Membership

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a NATO summit in Brussels on March 24.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set out his conditions for Sweden and Finland to earn his backing for their NATO membership bids, saying they must abandon financial and political support for "terrorist" groups threatening Turkey's national security.

Erdogan spoke by phone separately on May 21 with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, telling Andersson that Stockholm must stop its "political, financial, and military support" for terrorist groups, according to Erdogan's office.

Longtime NATO member Turkey has been especially critical of Sweden for showing leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey and its Western allies list as a terrorist group, and the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara holds responsible for an attempted coup in 2016.

Erdogan has pressed for his concerns to be addressed as Sweden and Finland pursue membership in NATO, which requires the consent of all 30 current member states.

Turkey expects Sweden to "take concrete and serious steps" that show it shares Ankara's concerns over the PKK and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots, Erdogan told Andersson, according to the presidency.

Erdogan also told Andersson to "lift restrictions imposed on Turkey in the defense industry," referring to an arms embargo in place since Sweden and Finland joined other countries in imposing restrictions after a Turkish military offensive in 2019 against the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG).

Addressing these areas would show that Stockholm shares Ankara's security concerns, Erdogan said, according to the statement.

Andersson said she appreciated the call and Sweden hoped to strengthen bilateral relations with Turkey.

"I emphasized that Sweden welcomes the possibility of cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and emphasized that Sweden clearly supports the fight against terrorism and the terrorist listing of the PKK," she said in a statement.

In his call with Niinisto, Erdogan said turning a blind eye to "terror" organizations posing a threat to a NATO ally was "incompatible with the spirit of friendship and alliance."

Erdogan also said it was Turkey's natural right to expect respect and support for its "legitimate and determined struggle against a clear threat to its national security and people," the presidency said.

Niinisto said he held "open and direct" talks with Erdogan and agreed to continue close dialogue.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February has shifted political opinion in both Nordic countries in favor of joining NATO.

The two countries shed their longtime neutrality this week by formally submitting applications to join the alliance, and Andersson and Niinisto were welcomed to the White House on May 19 by U.S. President Joe Biden, who strongly backed their bids.

Erdogan also spoke with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on May 21, telling him that Ankara will not look positively on Swedish and Finnish membership unless the two countries clearly show cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other issues.

Erdogan said in a statement after the call with Stoltenberg that he supported NATO's open-door policy.

Stoltenberg said on Twitter that he and Erdogan "agree that the security concerns of all Allies must be taken into account and talks need to continue to find a solution."

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP

EU Justice Official Says War Crimes in Ukraine 'Will Not Go Unpunished'

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders (file photo)

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has vowed that war crimes in Ukraine will be criminally prosecuted and that atrocities committed during the Russian invasion "will not go unpunished."

Reynders told the Italian daily La Stampa on May 21 that 11 EU member states were investigating war crimes in Ukraine with more than 600 suspects identified so far.

Reynders said investigations were proceeding in Ukraine but also in various other European countries with testimony from people who fled the violence.

He cautioned that evidence of war crimes must be collected correctly or else, "if you were to include false information or fake news, it would be a disaster."

Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.

Despite ample, concrete evidence of Russian attacks on civilian areas documented by reporters, including RFE/RL correspondents on the ground, Moscow denies targeting civilian areas. Russia also claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.

On May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.

With reporting by dpa

Britain's Truss Says Moldova Should Be 'Equipped To NATO Standard'

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (file photo)

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says Moldova should be "equipped to NATO standard" to protect itself against potential Russian aggression.

In an interview with The Telegraph published on May 21, Truss said talks were under way with allies about how to help smaller countries defend themselves, given Russian President Vladimir Putin's "ambitions to create a Greater Russia."

She said the aim was to ensure Ukraine is "permanently able to defend itself," and this also applies to other "vulnerable states" such as Moldova, which is also not a member of the NATO alliance.

"What we’re working on at the moment is a joint commission with Ukraine and Poland on upgrading Ukrainian defenses to NATO standard," Truss told The Telegraph.

Pressed on whether she wants to see Western weaponry and intelligence provided to Moldova, Truss said: "I would want to see Moldova equipped to NATO standard. This is a discussion we're having with our allies."

Asked if this is because Russia poses a security threat to Moldova, she said: "Absolutely. I mean, Putin has been clear about his ambitions to create a Greater Russia."

The Telegraph quoted an aide as saying "NATO standard" would involve members of the alliance supplying modern equipment to replace gear from the Soviet era, and providing training in how to use it.

Moldova and its tiny breakaway region of Transdniester share a roughly 1,200-kilometer border with Ukraine and fears of a spillover have intensified since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in late February.

Earlier this month, European Council President Charles Michel promised to boost military aid to Moldova, whose Moscow-backed separatist region of Transdniester has reported several incidents that led to accusations Russia is seeking to destabilize the former Soviet republic and possibly involve it in its war against Ukraine.

Russia still maintains some 1,500 soldiers in Transdniester who are said to be guarding a huge Soviet-era arms depot.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

U.S., Others Reportedly Walk Out of APEC Talks Over Russia's Ukraine Invasion

Representatives of the United States and several other countries have walked out of an Asia-Pacific trade ministers meeting in Bangkok to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine, officials and diplomats say.

Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia joined the Americans in walking out of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting on May 21, two Thai officials and two international diplomats said.

The walkout took place while the Russian representative was delivering remarks at the opening of the two-day meeting of the group of 21 economies.

Another diplomat told Reuters the five countries that staged the protest wanted "stronger language on Russia's war" in the group's final statement to be issued on May 22.

World leaders have strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine that was launched on February 24.

In past weeks, the European Union, the United States, and several other Western allies have also slapped sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian economy, and many of the country's billionaires.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Ukraine Expects Positive Response From West To Request For More Sophisticated Weapons

A Russian soldier stands in the Mariupol Drama Theater, which was bombed by Russian forces on March 16 with civilians sheltering inside, with estimates of the resulting casualties reaching into the hundreds.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he has "high expectations" for a second round of meetings scheduled for next week of the partner countries supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy told reporters on May 21 that he expects positive responses to his requests for multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) and U.S. jets at the meetings, scheduled to take place on May 23 online in a follow-up to a meeting of about 40 ministers from countries backing Ukraine militarily held last month at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany.

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"To be honest, we have high expectations. I would call it a long-awaited process. We are grateful for the great military support provided by various states. We expect a positive [response] on the supply of MLRS," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying in response to questions from reporters following talks with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa in Kyiv.

"I have no secrets, we appeal to all countries -- from the United States to every European country on MLRS,"

He said the MLRS "just stand still" in other countries but would be "key" to Ukraine's ability to take the initiative and liberate its territory.

Zelenskiy also addressed reservations expressed by some countries that Kyiv will use rocket systems to attack Russia, saying those who have such concerns should consider that the war continues on Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas area.

"These are our territories, and we are going step by step to liberate them. We cannot pay the price of tens, hundreds of thousands of people. So please help us," he said.

Costa became the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv. In addition to meeting Zelenskiy, the Portuguese leader met Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and signed an agreement for unspecified financial support.

Kyiv also got another huge boost of aid from the United States when U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill to provide nearly $40 billion in military, economic, and humanitarian aid to the country.

"Look forward to new, powerful defense assistance. Today it is needed more than ever," Zelenskiy said on Twitter.

Zelenskiy said earlier on Ukrainian television that his country could be victorious on the battlefield -- but that things could only come to a conclusive halt "at the negotiating table."

He warned that there will be more fighting but the conflict "will only definitively end through diplomacy.”

The developments in Kyiv came as Russia moved nearer to taking control over Ukraine's Donbas region, claiming victory in the monthslong battle for Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant while launching a major offensive in the eastern Luhansk region.

The last Ukrainian forces holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered on May 20, Russia's Defense Ministry said.

It came after a devastating siege that has left Mariupol in complete ruins, with some 20,000 feared dead.

"The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces," the ministry said in a statement.

It said 531 people were in the group that gave up most recently and that brought to 2,439 the total number of defenders who had surrendered in the past few days.

Mother Of Ukrainian Soldier Missing In Azovstal Steel Plant Shares His Messages
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There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine, but Zelenskiy said earlier than the Azovstal defenders got a clear signal from military command that they could get out and save their lives.

Zelensky said in the television interview that the Ukrainian Army had inflicted serious damage on Russia's armed forces despite the fall of Mariupol, which Russia sought to capture to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014.

Concern mounted for the fate of the Ukrainian defenders who held out at the steelworks for weeks and now are prisoners in Russian hands.

Denis Pushilin, the head of a Moscow-backed separatist group in the Donetsk region, said on May 21 that the Ukrainians were sure to face a tribunal.

"I believe that justice must be restored. There is a request for this from ordinary people, society, and, probably, the sane part of the world community," Russian state news agency TASS quoted Pushilin as saying.

He said on Russian state TV that some foreign nationals are among those who surrendered but did not provide further details.

Family members of the fighters who held out in the steelworks have pleaded for them to be given rights as prisoners of war (POWs) and eventually returned to Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross said on May 20 it was registering them as POWs.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said again on May 21 that authorities “will fight for the return of every soldier” captured from the Azovstal steelworks.

Meanwhile, Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the Luhansk region.

"The Russian Army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Severodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house," Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said on his Telegram channel.

In early hours of May 21, air-raid sirens were going off in much of Ukraine, including in the Kyiv region and the southern port of Odesa.

Ukraine's military General Staff said it had pushed back an offensive on Severodonetsk, part of what it described as major Russian operations along a stretch of the front line.

Russia had sought control of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and to free up troops to join the battle for control of the Donbas region.

Zelenskiy said Russia should be made to pay for every home, school, hospital and business it destroys. He called on Ukraine's partners to seize Russian funds and property under their jurisdiction and use them to create a fund to compensate those who suffered.

Russia "would feel the true weight of every missile, every bomb, every shell that it has fired at us," he said in his nightly video address.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Russia Adds Chess Champion Kasparov, Former Tycoon Khodorkovsky To 'Foreign Agents' Registry

At a forum in Vilnius on May 20, Garry Kasparov told reporters that the Russian public does not yet understand that the war is heading toward defeat and "Putin's dictatorship will not survive." (file photo)

The Russian Justice Ministry has added Kremlin critics Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, to its registry of "foreign agents."

The two prominent critics of the Russian government, both of whom live abroad, were labeled "foreign agents" for their connections to Ukraine, the ministry said on May 20.

The ministry said that Khodorkovsky, 58, and Kasparov, 59, had "sources" in Ukraine to finance their activities. Kasparov's ties to a U.S. human rights organization were also cited as a reason.

Those on the "foreign agents" registry must meet several requirements, including financial reporting and an obligation to label all posts on social media with a disclaimer. Violations are subject to administrative and criminal liability.

Russia has used the "foreign agents" label extensively against opponents, journalists, and human rights activists accused of conducting foreign-funded political activities.

Kasparov has lived in the United States for almost a decade. Khodorkovsky was one of Russia's most powerful businessmen in the 1990s before clashing with the Kremlin when President Vladimir Putin came to power. He spent 10 years in prison on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging Putin politically and then moved to London.

For years, he helped to finance the Russian opposition organization Open Russia, which dissolved itself in May 2021 in the face of growing repression.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks in Vilnius at a forum in August 2021.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks in Vilnius at a forum in August 2021.

In addition, two online publications, Open Media and the MBKh news sites, and a legal aid group, Human Rights Postcards, backed by Khodorkovsky ceased operations in August after the sites were blocked by the Russian authorities.

Kasparov and Khodorkovsky, who actively oppose Putin and the war in Ukraine, participated in a conference organized by the Free Russia Forum on May 20 in Vilnius to discuss the consequences of the Kremlin's war in Ukraine for Russia and Europe.

Kasparov told reporters after a meeting with Lithuanian parliament speaker Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen that the Russian public does not yet understand that the war is heading toward defeat and "Putin's dictatorship will not survive."

According to the Baltic Times, Kasparov said sanctions against Russia should remain in place until it compensates Ukraine for war damage and those guilty of war crimes are brought to justice.

"Even if someone says the sanctions are not working, this is going to take time because the sanctions are actually stifling the Russian economy, and no Russian government can survive if the sanctions continue," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and the Baltic Times

Russia Stops Gas Flow To Finland Over Refusal To Pay In Rubles

The move follows Finland and Sweden's decision earlier this week to apply to join NATO.

Russia's Gazprom has halted natural-gas exports to neighboring Finland, Finnish state-owned energy company Gasum said, the latest escalation of an energy payments dispute with Western countries.

Gazprom Export has demanded that European countries pay for Russian gas supplies in rubles because of sanctions imposed over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but Finland has refused to do so.

"Gas imports through Imatra entry point have been stopped," Gasgrid Finland said in a statement.

Imatra is the entry point for Russian gas into Finland.

Gazprom confirmed it had "completely stopped gas deliveries," as it had not received ruble payments from Finland's Gasum "by the end of the working day on May 20."

Gasum added that gas would instead be supplied from other sources through the Balticconnector pipeline, which connects Finland to Estonia.

The move follows Finland's decision earlier this week to apply to join NATO as it seeks to bolster its security in light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

Matti Vanhanen, the former Finnish prime minister and current speaker of parliament, said the effect of Moscow's decision to cut off gas after nearly 50 years since the first deliveries from the Soviet Union began was above all symbolic.

In a May 21 interview with the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, Vanhanen said the decision marked the end of "a hugely important period between Finland, the Soviet Union, and Russia, not only in energy terms but symbolically."

"That pipeline is unlikely to ever open again," Vanhanen told YLE, referring to the two parallel Russia-Finland gas pipelines that were launched in 1974.

Moscow has already cut off gas to other countries, including Bulgaria and Poland, after they refused to comply with the new payment terms.

The majority of gas used in Finland comes from Russia, but gas only accounts for about 5 percent of its annual energy consumption.

Finland also agreed on May 20 to charter a storage and regasification vessel from a U.S company to help replace Russian supplies. The vessel turns supercooled liquefied natural gas back into gas.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Wimbledon Stripped Of Ranking Points Over Ban On Russian, Belarusian Players

Wimbledon said it was left with "no viable alternative" when it decided in April to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year's tournament.

The women's and men’s professional tennis associations will not award ranking points for Wimbledon this year because of its ban on players from Russia and Belarus.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced their decisions on May 20, one month after the organization that runs Wimbledon, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), decided to ban Russian and Belarusian players in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, making it the first major tennis tournament to do so.

The ATP said in a statement that the ban undermined its fundamental principle that players of any nationality may enter tournaments "based on merit, and without discrimination."

The WTA said that while it holds solidarity with the people of Ukraine and reiterated its condemnation of Russia's attack, the organization was "founded on the fundamental principle that all players have an equal opportunity to compete based on merit and without discrimination."

A statement from WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said, "The stance we are taking is about protecting the equal opportunities that WTA players should have to compete as individuals."

The AELTC said it was a "deep disappointment" that the ATP and WTA stripped the tournament of ranking points. The decisions, it said, were "disproportionate in the context of the exceptional and extreme circumstances of this situation."

In April the club defended the ban as necessary given the tournament's high profile, the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime, and concerns for public and player safety.

It would be unacceptable for Russia "to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players” since launching its “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression," the AELTC said at the time.

It drew immediate criticism from the ATP and WTA and some prominent players, including defending champion Novak Djokovic.

Numerous Russian and Belarusian sports teams have been barred from global competitions over opposition to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Russia also has been stripped of hosting various tournaments over its invasion of Ukraine.

The International Tennis Federation, however, still allows individual Russian and Belarusian players to play in tournaments, though without national flags.

Russian player Daniil Medvedev said earlier he would not sue Wimbledon over the tournament's ban.

"If I can't play, I'm not going to go to court for this one," Medvedev told reporters on May 20 ahead of the French Open in Paris, which begins on May 22.

In addition to Medvedev, the Wimbledon ban affects Russia’s other top player on the men’s side, Andrey Rublev, ranked eighth, and Belarusian women’s players Viktoria Azarenka, ranked 15th, and Aryna Sabalenka, ranked seventh.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Former German Chancellor Resigns From Board Of Russian Oil Giant Rosneft

Gerhard Schroeder (left) hugs Russian President Vladimir Putin at the opening of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow in June 2018.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and German businessman Matthias Warnig have announced their resignations from the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, the company said.

Schroeder, chairman of Rosneft's board since 2007, and Warnig said it was impossible for them to extend their mandates on the board, Rosneft said in a statement, giving no further details.

A longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Schroeder has come under increasing international pressure since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.

Schroeder, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He has faced fierce criticism in Germany for years over his work for state-controlled Russian energy companies.

Schroeder also has worked for Gazprom and holds leading positions in the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 natural gas Baltic Sea pipelines for the delivery of Russian gas.

Warnig is also managing director of Nord Stream 2, which has been completed but its operations were switched off following Moscow's invasion. He was included on the U.S. sanctions list after the invasion.

Schroder's decision to step down from the board of Rosneft comes after he had his right to an office at the German parliament in Berlin removed. He is also facing calls to be sanctioned from the European Parliament.

Germany's current chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the SPD, has urged Schroeder to leave the party.

Scholz on May 20 backed the German parliament decision to shut down Schroeder's office and renewed a call for the ex-chancellor to give up all his Russian energy posts.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

HRW Says Tehran Again Trying To Stifle Civil Groups Amid Growing Protests

Security forces attack a protester in Tehran.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Iranian government has once again resorted to suppressing dissent and detaining protesters as it looks to quell discontent over rising prices and workers' rights and low wages.

The rights watchdog said in a statement on May 20 that Iranian authorities have arrested several prominent activists since the protests broke out two weeks ago, including a prominent sociologist and four labor rights defenders.

"The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country," said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.

"Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran's government treats them as an inherent threat," she added.

Even though many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet amid a poor economy crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement, President Ebrahim Raisi announced earlier this month a series of economic measures, including cutting subsidies and increasing the prices of several staples such as flour and cooking oil.

The move sparked protests in several cities across the country, with security forces arresting dozens of people. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died during the unrest.

Meanwhile, bus drivers and other employees of the Tehran Bus Company have held strikes since May 16, fueling a transportation crisis that has led the city to use police buses and drivers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of the military, to keep routes open.

The bus employees, angered by the government's failure to deliver fully on a promised wage hike and undeterred by the arrest of their union leader as well as 12 strikers, have vowed to continue their protests until municipal authorities pay up.

The bus strike is widely seen as separate from the street protests over the country's worsening economic situation, some of whom have chanted for the end of the clerical regime.

But observers have suggested that Tehran is eager to prevent the two protests from merging, and have questioned the veracity of the city's announcement on May 17 that it was closing schools and government offices due to high air-pollution levels.

Authorities have also cut Internet services in many areas to try and keep the protests from spreading further.

"Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country," Sepehri Far said.

"The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides."

G7 To Provide $9.5 Billion In New Aid To Support Ukraine's Economy

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (file photo)

The Group of Seven (G7) leading economies have agreed to provide $9.5 billion in new economic aid to Ukraine to help Kyiv pay public-employee salaries and ensure the government can continue to function as it defends itself from Russia's invasion.

German Finance Minister Christian Lindner told reporters on May 20 that with the addition of the $9.5 billion pledged during a meeting of the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors in Germany this week, the support for Ukraine so far this year totals $19.8 billion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"We agreed that Ukraine's financial situation must have no influence on Ukraine's ability to defend itself successfully," Lindner said. "We need to do our utmost to end this war."

The new pledges include $7.5 billion in grants from the United States and $1 billion in grants from Germany. The remaining $1 billion will be provided by the other G7 countries in the form of guarantees and loans, the German Finance Ministry said.

"We will continue to stand by Ukraine throughout this war and beyond and are prepared to do more as needed," the G7 ministers said in a communique at the end of the two-day meeting in Koenigswinter, a town outside Bonn.

Russia's invasion touched on almost every topic covered during the meeting of finance ministers and central-bank governors from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

"Russia's war of aggression is causing global economic disruptions, impacting the security of global energy supply, food production and exports of food and agricultural commodities, as well as the functioning of global supply chains in general," the statement says.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other leaders spoke earlier about the need for allies to provide enough additional aid to help Ukraine "get through" the Russian invasion.

"All of us pledged to do what's necessary to fill the gap," Yellen said on May 19 after the first day of the meeting. "We're going to put together the resources that they need."

The International Monetary Fund's latest world economic outlook says Ukraine’s economy is projected to shrink by 35 percent this year and next.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Canada Slaps New Sanctions On Russian Oligarchs, Including Formula One Driver Mazepin

Nikita Mazepin (left) and Dmitry Mazepin (2nd left) speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) at the 2018 Formula One Russian Grand Prix final day events at the Sochi Autodrom racing circuit in September 2018.

Canada has announced new sanctions on 14 Russians -- including Formula One race-car driver Nikita Mazepin -- and a ban on the importing and exporting of certain luxury goods from Russia in response to what it called President Vladimir Putin's "continued aggression" against Ukraine.

"These new measures impose restrictions on 14 individuals including Russian oligarchs, their family members, and close associates of the Putin regime," Canada's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 20.

"These individuals have directly enabled Vladimir Putin's senseless war in Ukraine and bear responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine," it added.

Mazepin and his billionaire father, Dmitry Mazepin, a long-standing associate of Putin, headline the list of those hit with sanctions.

Following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Nikita Mazepin and his father, a prominent racing-team sponsor with close ties to Vladimir Putin, were pushed out of Formula One, while governments around the world have been seizing the family's assets, including a villa in Italy estimated to be worth more than $110 million.

Yelena Timchenko, the wife of billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko, Ksenia Frank and Natalya Browning, Timchenko's daughter, and oil and gas magnate Farkhad Akhmedov, are also on the new list, among others.

The news measures also ban the importing of Russian goods including alcoholic beverages, seafood, and nonindustrial diamonds, while the export ban targets luxury goods such as footwear, luxury clothing, and jewelry.

Detention Of Khachaturov's Son Upheld On Assault Charge During Yerevan Protests

Yuri Khachaturov attends a conference in Moscow in 2018.

YEREVAN -- A court in Yerevan has upheld the detention of Igor Khachaturov, the son of the former chief of Armenia's armed forces, Yuri Khachaturov, after he was charged with assaulting a policeman during opposition protests this week seeking to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.

"Based on the sufficient evidence obtained, Igor Khachaturov was charged with...violence against a government official and a motion was submitted to the court to detain him as a measure of restraint. This motion has been upheld," the Investigative Committee's Serious Crimes Investigation Division said on May 20.

Khachaturov, whose father is also the former secretary-general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, was taken into custody on May 17 after he allegedly struck a policeman, knocking him out.

Khachaturov has denied the allegation, while opposition leaders have accused police of arresting demonstrators "on false, fabricated charges" to deter people from protesting.

Hundreds have been detained this week during demonstrations organized by the opposition over what they say are unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Opposition supporters continued their demonstrations on May 20, starting in front of the presidential palace, where the Armenian president was meeting his Lithuanian counterpart.

Another group of protesters gathered outside the venue where Armenian officials and Western diplomats were attending a democracy forum.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.

Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including the mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia lost control over parts of the region in a 2020 war with Azerbaijan that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Shoigu Says Russia To Strengthen Its Western Defenses In Response To NATO Growth

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (file photo)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Moscow will create new military bases in its western regions and form 12 new units and divisions in response to Sweden and Finland's move to join the NATO military alliance.

"Tension continues to grow in the zone of responsibility of the Western Military District. We are taking adequate countermeasures," Shoigu said at a meeting in televised remarks.

"By the end of the year, 12 military units and divisions will be established in there," Shoigu said, adding that the army expects to receive more than 2,000 units of military equipment and weapons.

Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Western defense alliance NATO on May 18, renouncing their longtime neutrality status amid growing security concerns prompted by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin said on May 16 that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership didn't pose a threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance boosted military infrastructure in the two countries.

The processing of the two Nordic countries' applications is expected to move quickly despite opposition from NATO member Turkey.

U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced strong backing for both NATO applications as he met with the leaders of the two countries at the White House on May 19, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russian Duma Mulls Scrapping Upper Age Limit Of 40 For Military Enrollment

Russian soldiers patrol a destroyed part of Mariupol on May 18.

Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, says it will discuss a draft bill that would remove the upper age limit and allow anyone over the age of 18 to sign up for the military, a possible sign that Moscow has suffered heavy personnel losses in its war against Ukraine.

According to current legislation, only Russians aged 18 to 40 and foreigners aged 18 to 30 are permitted to enroll as professional soldiers in the military.

The amendment, introduced by the head of the Duma's Defense Committee, Andrei Kartapolov, and his deputy, Andrei Krasov, does not mention any new upper age limit.

"For the use of high-precision weapons, the operation of weapons and military equipment, highly professional specialists are needed. Experience shows that they become such by the age of 40–45," the draft, placed on the State Duma website, said on May 20.

Western military experts have questioned how much longer Moscow will be capable of sustaining its offensive operations in Ukraine due to heavy losses it is suspected of having incurred since launching its invasion on February 24.

The amendment would also make it easier for Russia's armed forces to recruit civilian medics, engineers, and operations and communications specialists.

With reporting by Reuters

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