Iraq Tightens Security For Shi'ite Pilgrimage Amid Bombings
Police said one pilgrim was killed and nine were wounded in eastern Baghdad in the attack, which came as thousands make their way, some walking for days, to Karbala to mark the birth of Imam al-Mahdi, a revered figure in Shi'ite Islam.
On August 14, 19 people were killed and 75 wounded when a female suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest among pilgrims travelling toward the city.
Iraqi security forces, backed by helicopters and hundreds of snipers perched on rooftops, say they will search pilgrims and use bomb-sniffing dogs to ferret out explosives as part of an effort to avoid the bloodshed that continues to mar such religious events even as overall violence in Iraq drops sharply.
"We have set up scores of watch towers, and have cameras placed in open areas, crossroads and major entrances," said Karbala police chief Major General Ra'd Shakir.
Female Officers Deployed
A string of bomb attacks in Karbala during a pilgrimage in 2004 killed 171 people and wounded scores in one of the worst attacks heralding the outbreak of Iraq's sectarian conflict.
Shakir said around 2,000 female police officers would be searching women making the annual Sha'abaniyah pilgrimage.
Suicide bombings by women have become far more common this year in Iraq, where U.S. forces blame Sunni Al-Qaeda militants for deploying female bombers to evade security searches. Three female suicide bombers struck the last big Shi'ite pilgrimage in Baghdad last month, killing nearly 30 worshippers.
In Karbala, police in fatigues and red berets checked ID cards and patted down faithful entering the golden-domed Imam Husayn Mosque, strung with brightly colored neon lights.
Outside the mosque, throngs of pilgrims, some of them women barely visible under their black abayas, sat on blankets.
Authorities have banned people from carrying weapons and chanting sectarian slogans. On the roads to Karbala, police watch over pilgrims carrying belongings on their backs in the scorching summer heat.
Bracing For The Worst
Despite the precautions, Karbala is bracing for the worst. Local health director Alaa Hammudi said that 40 medic units were standing by, and that extra hospital beds were made ready.
Near the mosque, makeshift clinics were set up in tents and trailers. Some pilgrims donated blood.
Shi'a believe that al-Mahdi, the 12th imam, disappeared in the ninth century but never died. They believe his return will signal the advent of peace and justice on Earth.
The pilgrimage is one of several annual events that have become shows of force for Iraq's Shi'ite majority since the fall of Sunni Arab leader Saddam Hussein, who restricted Shi'ite religious practice. Sunni Arab militants often strike them.
Last year's pilgrimage was marred by gunbattles in Karbala between Shi'ite factions, which led to a cease-fire by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that U.S. forces say is one of the factors contributing to Iraq's fall in violence.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said that U.S. forces would support Iraqi troops if needed.
15th U.S. Death So Far In August
The United States has been seeking to highlight its secondary role in such security operations as U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiate an agreement to outline the U.S. presence in Iraq after a UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government is hoping that U.S. forces will halt patrols of Iraqi cities and towns by the middle of 2009, and withdraw combat troops by 2010 or 2011.
So far, President George W. Bush has resisted a firm timetable, but has spoken of a "time horizon" and "aspirational goals" governing a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The U.S. military announced the death of a Marine killed by small-arms fire in western Iraq, the 15th U.S. service member to die in Iraq this month. Just 13 died in all of July, the least deadly month since the war began.
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Six Russian Diplomats Expelled From Montenegro Amid Espionage Probe
Montenegro on September 29 ordered the expulsion of six Russian diplomats who worked for the Russian Embassy in Podgorica amid an investigation into alleged spying.
The six were declared personae non gratae due to "activities that are contrary to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," the Foreign Ministry tweeted.
Moscow retaliated by closing its consulate in Montenegro "indefinitely," Russia's Embassy said in a statement.
The embassy said in a statement that due to "hostile actions by Montenegrin authorities toward the Russian embassy in Montenegro," the work of the consular department in Podgorica has been "suspended indefinitely."
Authorities earlier searched several homes and other locations as part of an investigation into suspected espionage, state prosecutors said.
At the request of the special prosecutor’s office for the criminal offense of espionage, searches were conducted at several locations in Podgorica, a spokesman for the special prosecutor, Vukas Radonjic, told RFE/RL on September 29.
Individuals are suspected of "creating a criminal organization and espionage," Radonjic said, adding that there were no arrests.
Local media reported that police detained six Russian diplomats and up to 30 Russian citizens with temporary residency permits, alongside two Montenegrin citizens, on suspicion of working for Russian intelligence.
Outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said the operation was undertaken alongside Montenegro's international partners in order to "preserve national interests."
Abazovic told reporters he hoped it would diminish "malign influences" in Montenegro.
Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and adopted Western sanctions against the Kremlin following Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has been cited as the source of a cyberattack that disabled state IT infrastructure beginning at the end of August and whose consequences are still being felt. Experts from the FBI assisted Montenegro in the investigation of the cyberattack.
With reporting by AFP
Finland Joins Baltics, Poland In Shutting Border To Russian Tourists
Finland will ban Russian citizens with tourist visas from entering the country starting on September 30, shutting off a route to the European Union for Russians trying to flee a military mobilization announced last week by President Vladimir Putin.
The move means Finland joins Poland and the Baltic states in barring tourists crossing their shared land borders with Russia. The bans were part of a series of sanctions and other steps taken against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine launched in February.
“The decision in principle aims to completely prevent Russian tourism to Finland and the related transit through Finland,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said during a news conference.
The government said the move would lead to a significant drop in cross-border traffic after almost 17,000 Russians crossed the border during the weekend.
The government justified its decision by citing security concerns related to Russia's war in Ukraine, “illegal” referendums arranged by Russia in parts of Ukraine, and what it said was sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines from Russia under the Baltic Sea.
Finland had already slashed the number of visas issued to Russian citizens to one-tenth of the typical number in a show of solidarity with Ukraine. But until the decision on September 29 it had provided one of the last easily accessible land routes to Europe for Russian holders of European Schengen-zone visas.
Russian citizens can still enter Finland for family reasons, to study, or work. Also, Russian political dissidents may seek to enter for humanitarian purposes.
The EU has banned all flights from Russia, leaving only rail and road transport links available, and this month it agreed to limit issuing free-travel Schengen zone visas to Russians.
Based on reporting by AP and Reuters
Washington Indicts Russian Billionaire For Sanctions Violations Related To The Birth Of His Child In The U.S.
WASHINGTON -- The United States has charged Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska with violating sanctions by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrange to have his partner flown to the United States twice to give birth to his child.
The acts violated U.S. sanctions that were imposed in 2018 against Deripaska, 52, because of his close ties to the Russian government and its seizure of the Crimea region of Ukraine, the Justice Department said in a news release.
The Justice Department unsealed the charges on September 29 following at least a yearlong investigation into the tycoon’s business dealings in the United States that included a raid on his home in Washington in October 2021.
The department said that Natalia Bardakova, 45, a Russian citizen based in Russia and U.S.-based Olga Shriki, 42, a naturalized U.S. citizen, helped Deripaska arrange for Yekaterina Voronina, 33, to travel to the U.S. by private jet on a tourism visa in 2020 for the birth of their first child and again for the birth of their second in 2022.
The first effort was successful and the child was born in the United States and automatically received U.S. citizenship. But in June 2022 Voronina was refused entry after concealing the tycoon was funding her trip.
Authorities said Deripaska spent at least $300,000 on medical care, housing, childcare, and other logistics to support Voronina when she traveled to the U.S. in 2020.
Following the birth, Deripaska's three co-defendants conspired to conceal that the Russian tycoon was the child's father by slightly misspelling the child's last name, the indictment said.
Bardakova and Shriki also worked to manage Deripaska's properties in the United States and to launder some $3 million from the sale of one of his businesses, a music studio in California, according to the Justice Department.
Only one of the four people charged -- Shriki -- is in custody. She was arrested on September 29 and released on a $2 million bond after an appearance in federal court. She did not enter a plea.
Prosecutors said in the news release that Deripaska lied and evaded U.S. sanctions as he sought to benefit from life in America “despite his cozy ties with the Kremlin and his vast wealth acquired through ties to a corrupt regime.”
Erich Ferrari, a lawyer for Deripaska, declined to comment, according to Reuters.
Deripaska, Bardakova, and Shriki, are charged with one count of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Shriki is further charged in one count of destruction of records, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Bardakova and Voronina are each further charged with one count of making false statements to federal agents, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Deripaska and Bardakova reside in Russia. The Justice Department could request their extradition should they travel to any of the dozens of countries that have such treaties with the United States.
The United States sanctioned Deripaska in April 2018 as part of a sweeping package of asset freezes and financial restrictions slapped on more than two dozen Russian political and business elites thought to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Washington sought to punish the Kremlin for “malign activity around the globe,” including aggression against Ukraine.
Deripaska is one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, owning stakes in a wide range of businesses including aluminum, power, and auto production. He acquired his initial wealth during the chaotic privatizations of the 1990s when he scooped up stakes on the cheap in aluminum smelters.
His business empire flourished during Putin’s first two terms in office from 2000 to 2008 when he snapped up businesses in various industries and, at one point, became the nation’s wealthiest man. According to Forbes magazine, he is worth $2.8 billion.
In targeting Deripaska with sanctions, the United States claimed he acted or purported to act for senior Russian government officials as well as for operating in Russia’s energy sector.
Evidence of Deripaska’s close ties to the Russian government surfaced when a video was published online showing him vacationing in 2016 on a yacht near Norway with Sergei Prikhodko, who at the time was a deputy prime minister and top foreign policy adviser.
The sanctions put a freeze on any assets belonging to Deripaska in the United States, including bank accounts and property.
However, Deripaska continued to “maintain and retain” the three luxury properties, including the one in Washington and two in New York, with the help of his associates and shell companies.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP
U.S. Charges Former Army Officer, Wife With Conspiracy Over Medical Data Leaks
A former U.S. Army officer and his wife have been criminally charged by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly plotting to leak sensitive health-care data about military patients to Russia.
Jamie Lee Henry, a former major, and his wife, Dr. Anna Gabrielian, an anesthesiologist, have been charged in connection with a plot that the Justice Department says started in August and was linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Justice Department on September 29 unsealed the indictment charging them with conspiracy and the wrongful disclosure of health information about patients at a U.S. Army base in the state of North Carolina.
The couple allegedly told an undercover agent they were motivated by an allegiance to Russia and a belief that U.S. actions in Ukraine were an expression of U.S. hatred toward Russia.
The couple were scheduled for their initial court appearance on September 29.
Prosecutors said the pair wanted to try to help the Russian government by providing data to "gain insights into the medical conditions of individuals associated with the U.S. government and military."
The two met on August 17 with an individual whom they believed was a Russian official, but who in fact was an FBI undercover agent, the Justice Department said.
Gabrielian told the undercover agent she was motivated by "patriotism toward Russia" to provide any assistance she could, even if it meant "being fired or going to jail," the indictment says.
In the meeting, which took place in a hotel in Baltimore, she volunteered to recruit her husband, saying he had information about prior military training the United States provided to Ukraine, among other things.
Henry later told the undercover agent he was committed to Russia and claimed he had contemplated volunteering to join the Russian Army.
"The way I am viewing what is going on in Ukraine now, is that the United States is using Ukrainians as a proxy for their own hatred toward Russia," he allegedly told the agent.
In a subsequent meeting, Gabrielian pledged to provide Russia with access to patients at the U.S. Army base in North Carolina and later in August handed over information on current and former military officials and their spouses, the department said.
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of five years for conspiracy, and a maximum of 10 years in federal prison for each count of disclosing health-care information.
With reporting by Reuters
Russia Says Sanctions Prevent It From Maintaining Gas Pipeline To Turkey, Balkans
The Russian operator of a pipeline that supplies Turkey and the Balkans with natural gas said it would suspend some maintenance and repair work, citing European Union sanctions, a move that threatens to deepen Europe’s energy crisis.
Oleg Aksyutin , the director of South Stream Transport B.V., sent a note earlier this month to division managers informing them that Netherland’s import and export authority would be revoking its export license as of September 17.
South Stream Transport is the Dutch-unit of the Kremlin-controlled natural gas giant, Gazprom, which manages the TurkStream pipeline running under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and on to the Balkans and Central Europe.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL, Aksyutin ordered them to “suspend the execution of all contracts related to the technical support of the gas pipeline, including design, manufacture, assembly, testing, repair, maintenance and training.”
He said gas exports should continue but only with emergency support in order to prevent damage to the environment.
Deyan Kalaydzhiyev, the head of contracts, told employees in a letter that was also obtained by RFE/RL to inform Western suppliers of goods and services -- such as control valves, technical support, telecommunications for pipeline maintenance, and pipeline repair – that purchase agreements were to be suspended as of September 16.
South Stream Transport has applied for a new license but it doesn’t know if it will receive it, a company source told RFE/RL.
Dutch and Turkish officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
TurkStream has the capacity to deliver 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas a year with half of it destined for Turkey and the other half for the Balkans and Central Europe.
Serbia and Hungary are the main European consumers.
TurkStream lies three kilometers below the sea in waters with high seismic activity. Specialized ships regularly monitor the pipeline for damage in order to quickly make repairs. The equipment needed to monitor and repair the pipeline is largely imported from the West.
South Stream Transport’s suspension of contracts means that “no one will be able to carry out repairs if a pipe is damaged, gas leaks, or if a part of the pipeline comes apart due to an earthquake. In fact, the company has lost operational control over the pipeline, the Russian branch has lost contact with the corporate center," a company source told RFE/RL.
Russia earlier this year slashed exports through Nord Stream 1, its main natural gas export pipeline to Europe, claiming Western sanctions on equipment and services impaired its ability to maintain the underwater pipeline in the Baltic Sea.
The move drove EU gas prices to record highs. Last month, Russia completely cut exports along Nord Stream 1, citing continued maintenance issues.
Western leaders accused Russia of using the sanctions as an excuse to cut natural gas exports to Europe in an attempt to inflict severe economic pain on the bloc , weaken EU support for Ukraine, and reverse sanctions.
The EU last year received 40 percent of its natural gas needs from Russia, giving the Kremlin massive influence over the bloc’s energy industry, including the ability to manipulate prices.
In imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU made carve outs for the gas industry to ensure continued deliveries.
Benjamin Schmitt, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Europe needs to brace for Russia replicating in the Black Sea the strategy it used to halt exports along the Baltic Sea.
"For months, Gazprom has been citing false technical and sanctions claims to justify its significant gas cuts and resultant energy weaponization along the Nord Stream pipeline routes against the EU,” said Schmitt, a former European energy security advisor at the State Department.
“Continuing that same playbook along the TurkStream pipeline route is something the European Union must be prepared for, and the arguments that Gazprom is making for potential cuts along this Black Sea line is consistent with this very approach that has been taken by the Kremlin for months," he said.
Earlier this week, explosions damaged the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, meaning they will be out of operation indefinitely.
The EU and NATO called it “sabotage” with some EU officials accusing Russia of being behind the attack. The Kremlin has denied any involvement and pointed the finger at the United States, an accusation that Washington immediately dismissed.
Russia now has only two out of five natural gas export pipelines to Europe in operation, including TurkStream and one running through Ukraine.
A cut in flows or a complete shutdown of TurkStream would especially hurt Hungary, one of the EU countries most dependent on Russian gas imports.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the most vocal opponent of EU sanctions on Russia, undermining the bloc’s united front against the Kremlin.
His government earlier this month called for holding a non-binding, popular vote to determine if Hungarians want the EU to end sanctions on Russia.
Russia’s halt to maintenance and repairs on TurkStream comes just as Europe rushes to fill its natural gas storage ahead of the winter heating season.
Natural gas is used to heat homes and buildings throughout Europe with demand surging during the winter. It is also used to fire power plants to generate electricity.
Europe could suffer from rolling blackouts this winter if it is unable to secure enough gas, experts say.
UN Telecom Agency Elects First Woman To Top Post In Vote Between U.S., Russian Candidates
American Doreen Bogdan-Martin has been overwhelmingly elected as the first woman to lead the UN's telecom agency in a vote that pitted her against a Russian candidate.
Bogdan-Martin will become the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She claimed a landslide 139-25 victory on September 29 over Russia's former deputy telecom minister, Rashid Ismailov, at an ITU conference in Bucharest.
The ITU plays an important global role in setting the technical standards underlying mobile phones, television, and the Internet.
The vote to lead the Geneva-based agency was unrelated to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but was seen as a test of Russia's standing in the United Nations.
Though Moscow's reliable friends in UN circles have dwindled, it had enough support among ITU member states to block a bid to stop Russian candidates from running for the top post.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the election of Bogdan-Martin "reflects a broad endorsement by member states of [her] vision for universal connectivity, digital empowerment, and leadership at the ITU that is innovative, collaborative, and inclusive."
Bogdan-Martin said in her campaign that she supported getting more of the world connected to the Internet and pushing forward on high-speed access.
"The world is facing significant challenges: escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food security, gender inequalities, and 2.7 billion people with no access to the Internet," she said.
Bogdan-Martin will take over from Houlin Zhao of China when his second four-year term as ITU secretary-general expires at the end of the year.
With reporting by AFP
Police In Russia's Tyva Disperse Anti-Mobilization Rally, Detain Women
KYZYL, Russia -- Police in Russia's Siberian Tyva region have detained at least 27 women and dispersed a rally against the mobilization of local men for Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Dozens of women chanted "No to mobilization! No to genocide!" before the rally was dispersed just minutes after it started on the central Arat Square in Tyva's capital, Kyzyl, on September 29.
One of the detained women told RFE/RL that police registered the women's personal data and took their fingerprints.
After the rally was dispersed, seven police vehicles remained on the square and a specially equipped vehicle came to the site and started washing the square with water.
Tyva's military commissioner, Artyn Demir-Ool, said that the republic had "accomplished its mobilization quota," adding that an unspecified number of Tyvan men had been mobilized since the call-up was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21.
They have had been settled at the base of the 55th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, which is engaged in the ongoing war in Ukraine, he said.
Last weekend, a protest was held by women in another region in Russia's Far East, Yakutia, over what locals feel is a "disproportionate" recruitment of ethnic minorities to the war in Ukraine, calling it "a genocide" against them.
The largest protest against the mobilization by an ethnic region was held over the weekend in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan in the North Caucasus.
The mobilization for the war in Ukraine has been met with countrywide protests in general and the mass flight of men potentially eligible for military duty from Russia.
Some estimates say that almost 300,000 men have left the country since the mobilization was announced.
Iran Reportedly Fires On Iraqi Kurdish Regional Capital
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) has fired on targets in the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Irbil, and the eastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, the Iranian state news agency IRNA has reported.
Nine people were killed and 32 wounded in the attacks, Kurdish regional Health Minister Saman Barazanchi said in a statement on September 29.
"Some of the wounded are in critical condition and the death toll could rise," Barazanchi added.
The attacks were carried out against Kurdish political parties, as well as an Iranian Kurdish refugee camp, while a senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of its offices were struck as well.
The attacks come amid massive protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody after being arrested by the so-called morality police for allegedly wearing an Islamic headscarf, or hijab, improperly.
The protests started in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan Province and quickly spread to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.
Tariq Haidari, mayor of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Koye, told Reuters that two people including a pregnant woman were killed and 12 wounded. Some of the wounded were rushed in critical condition to a hospital in Irbil, he said.
The spokesman of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it would summon the Iranian ambassador to voice Iraq's opposition to the attacks, which Baghdad considers to be a violation of its sovereignty.
The IRGC has repeatedly attacked areas in Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days and said in a statement that it will continue to target "terrorists" in the region.
"This operation will continue with our full determination until the threat is effectively repelled, the bases of terrorist groups are dismantled, and the authorities of the Kurdistan region assume their obligations and responsibilities," the IRGC said in its statement.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Rights Group Says Russian Historian Under Pressure In Prison
A human rights group in Russia says Yury Dmitriyev, the imprisoned historian and former head of the Memorial human rights group in the northwestern region of Karelia, is being mistreated at his prison in Mordovia.
The Memorial Society said on September 28 that Dmitriyev had been placed in punitive solitary confinement three times since mid-September for unwarranted reasons.
According to Memorial, Dmitriyev was initially sent to solitary confinement, a tiny concrete room with no toilet or running water, for three days on September 16 for failing to properly greet a guard. After serving that punishment, Dmitriyev was immediately returned to the punitive cell for five days for having a cat on his bed.
The human rights group added that on September 26, the administration of the prison in Mordovia -- an area historically associated with some of Russia's most brutal prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners -- again put the 66-year-old historian in solitary confinement for five days for "failing to quickly follow a guard’s command to put his hands behind his back."
"Constant and baseless placement in a punitive cell is one of the known methods of pressure imposed by penitentiary administrations on inmates," Memorial said, adding that it continues to follow the historian's time in the prison.
The high-profile case against Dmitriyev dates back to 2016, when the academic, who spent decades researching extrajudicial executions carried out in Karelia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, was arrested over photographs of his foster daughter that investigators found on his computer.
The authorities said the images were pornographic, but Dmitriyev said they were made at the request of social workers concerned about the child's physical development.
He was acquitted in April 2018, but the Karelia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by prosecutors and ordered a new trial. He was rearrested in June 2018 and then charged with the more serious crime of sexual assault against a minor.
In July 2020, Dmitriyev was sentenced to 3 1/2 years for "violent acts of a sexual nature committed against a person under 14 years of age." He has rejected the charge, insisting that he is being targeted because of his research into the crimes of Stalin's regime.
Prosecutors, who had asked for 15 years in prison in the high-profile case, said the original sentence was "too lenient" and appealed it. Dmitriyev's defense team, meanwhile, also appealed, insisting he was innocent.
In September 2020, weeks before he was due to be released because of time served, the Supreme Court of Karelia accepted the prosecutors' appeal and added another 9 1/2 years onto Dmitriyev's sentence.
Dozens of Russian and international scholars, historians, writers, poets, and others have issued statements in support of the scholar, while the European Union has called for Dmitriyev to be released.
Dmitriyev's research has been viewed with hostility by the government of President Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, Stalin has undergone a gradual rehabilitation, and the Russian government has emphasized his leadership of the Soviet Union while downplaying his crimes against Soviet citizens.
Under Stalin, millions of people were executed, sent to labor camps, or starved to death in famines caused by forced collectivization. During World War II, entire ethnic groups were deported to remote areas as collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
Belarusian Journalism Advocates Handed Lengthy Prison Terms
A court in Minsk has sentenced six members of the journalism advocacy group Busly Lyatsyat (Storks Are Flying) to lengthy prison terms on terrorism charges that rights activists say are politically motivated.
The Vyasna human rights center in Minsk said Judge Anastasia Papko on September 28 sentenced Andrey Buday to 15 years, Alyaksey Hamez to 14 1/2 years, Alyaksey Ivanisau to 14 years, Alyaksandr Muravyou and Alyaksandr Sidarenka to 12 years each, and Mikalay Biblis to 8 1/2 years in prison.
The judge also ordered each defendant to pay hefty fines
The six men were found guilty of being members of Busly Lyatsyat, which was officially declared a terrorist organization and banned in Belarus in November 2021.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
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The group's members also were convicted of participating in activities disrupting social order, conducting a terrorist act against a state official, premeditated damage to private property, incitement of hatred, and public calls for international sanctions against Belarus. The trial was held behind closed doors.
The men were arrested in September-October 2021 amid a crackdown on independent journalists, opposition politicians, and rights activists following unprecedented mass protests challenging the results of an August 2020 presidential poll that declared authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner.
Rights activists and opposition politicians say the poll was rigged to extend Lukashenka's rule. Thousands have been detained during countrywide protests and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition.
Vyasna said on September 29 that lawyer Dzmitry Pigul, who represented one of the defendants at the trial of the Busly Lyatsyat group, was arrested late on September 28 on a charge of "revealing data related to a preliminary investigation or closed trial."
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the police crackdown.
Anti-Government Protests Sparked By Death Of Detained Woman Continue In Iran
Anti-government demonstrations sparked by the death of a young Iranian woman after being detained by the morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab continue across the country despite official warnings that an already deadly crackdown on unrest would be tightened.
Videos published on social media overnight showed demonstrations and protest gatherings being held in at least six cities of Iran, including Tabriz, Najafabad, Isfahan, Tehran, Mashhad, Sanandaj, and Urmia.
Activists and relatives say 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed as a result of blows to the head sustained in detention. The authorities claim she died of a heart attack.
Simmering anger over Amini's death in Tehran has struck a nerve in a country already wracked by unrest in recent months over poor living conditions and economic hardships exacerbated by crippling U.S. economic sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program.
The outrage also has reignited decades-old resentment at the treatment of women by Iran's religious leadership, including laws forcing women to wear Islamic scarves to cover their heads in public, and have reverberated outside Iran.
Many Iranians living abroad announced on social media that they are going to gather in more than 70 cities around the world on October 1 in support of the protests in Iran.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on September 29 she was pushing for EU sanctions on Iran over the lethal crackdown after summoning the Iranian ambassador to Berlin.
"The clubs and the tear gas are not an expression of power -- the violence of the system in Iran speaks of pure fear," Baerbock wrote on Twitter.
"Within the framework of the EU, I am doing everything I can to get sanctions under way against those in Iran who are beating women to death and shooting demonstrators in the name of religion."
The Iranian government has imposed a near-total Internet shutdown as the nationwide protests continue, which has helped thin crowds by making it harder to communicate and suppressing the publishing of video of the protests. Meanwhile, videos released from Shiraz show police and security agents attacking a protest gathering at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences on September 28.
WATCH: Demonstrations across Iran appear be to waning as security forces continued their deadly crackdown on protests that have shaken the country for two weeks. Fewer protest videos have appeared on social media after authorities restricted Internet access and launched the crackdown.
The Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says at least 25 journalists have been arrested since the protests erupted, including Elahe Mohammadi, who covered Amini's funeral and was detained on September 29.
In a sign of the rising stakes over the protests, Iranian oil industry workers warned the government on September 29 that if it does not end its crackdown on protesters, they will strike, a move that could cripple one of the few sectors of the economy still generating money for the state.
Meanwhile, on September 28 the musicians of the Iran's National Orchestra refused to appear onstage, forcing the cancellation of a concert that was supposed to be held on the anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war.
Music journalist Bahman Babazadeh said on Twitter that the musicians refused to take the stage due to requests made to them on social media pages.
Employees at two Iranian startup giants, Snapp and Digikala, also joined the nationwide strikes in support of the protests by publishing a joint statement on their social media.
"The violent suppression of the people's protests is intolerable and unforgivable" Digikala employees wrote in their statement, adding, "We join the nationwide strikes in solidarity with the grieving and suffering people of Iran."
Reports indicate that security forces tried to prevent a gathering of protesters in the central Iranian city of Najafabad on the evening of September 28.
Unconfirmed reports that security forces were using young Iranians to quell the protests, prompting child and youth literature activists in Iran to publish a statement on September 29 condemning the arrest of protesting teenagers and the possible presence of youths in special units to suppress protests.
"This way of dealing will have unfortunate and irreparable consequences for the perpetrators," they wrote.
The Iran Human Rights Organization said on September 27 that at least 76 people have been killed in the anti-government protests.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
NOTE: This article has been amended to clarify that the number of people attending the protests in Iran appears to be waning.
Kazakh President Endorses Law Abolishing Nazarbaev-Linked Holiday
ASTANA -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has endorsed a law canceling a state holiday instituted in honor of the Central Asian nation's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, the latest move to distance himself from his predecessor.
The bill to exclude from the nation's list of state holidays the Day of the First President -- observed on December 1 each year -- was signed into law by Toqaev on September 29, and the parliament's upper chamber, the Senate, approved the move.
The legislation was approved by the parliament's lower chamber, the Mazhilis, in early September.
The change is the latest in a series of moves Toqaev has taken to push Nazarbaev, who ruled the tightly controlled former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades, further into the background following his resignation in 2019.
Though he officially stepped down as president, Nazarbaev retained sweeping powers as the head of the country's powerful Security Council. He also enjoyed substantial powers by holding the title of "elbasy" or leader of the nation.
Even after Nazarbaev's resignation, many Kazakhs remained bitter over the oppression felt during his reign.
Those feelings came to a head in January when unprecedented antigovernment nationwide protests were sparked by a fuel price hike.
The demonstrations unexpectedly exploded into deadly countrywide unrest over perceived corruption under the Nazarbaev regime and the cronyism that allowed his family and close friends to enrich themselves while ordinary citizens failed to share in the oil-rich Central Asian nation's wealth.
Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of his Security Council role, taking it over himself. Since then, several of Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies have been pushed out of their positions or resigned. Some have been arrested on corruption charges.
In June this year, a Toqaev-initiated referendum removed Nazarbaev's name from the Constitution and annulled his status as elbasy.
Kazakh critics say Toqaev's initiatives were mainly cosmetic and did not change the nature of the autocratic system in a country that has been plagued for years by rampant corruption and nepotism.
Prosecutor Seeks Eight Years In Prison For Tajik Journalist On Charges He Rejects
DUSHANBE -- Prosecutors at the trial of noted Tajik journalist Abdullo Ghurbati have asked a court in Dushanbe to convict and sentence the defendant to the maximum allowed eight years in prison on charges he and his supporters say are unfounded.
Sources present at the hearing told RFE/RL that the request came as the Shohmansur district court resumed the trial behind closed doors on September 29.
Ghurbati is charged with publicly insulting an authority, the minor assault of an authority, and participating in the activities of an extremist group. The first two charges carry only fines, but the third charge carries a penalty of up to eight years in prison.
The latter charge is linked to Ghurbati's business relations with Tajik businessman Idibek Latipov, who has been living and working in Egypt since 2007.
Investigators say Ghurbati received money from Latipov for making a YouTube video advertising his company, while Latipov was included on the Tajikistan National Bank's registry of individuals involved in "terrorist or extremist activities."
According to the sources who talked to RFE/RL, Ghurbati told the court on September 29 that he was not aware that Latipov was on the registry and that his ties with the man were purely business-related.
Latipov told RFE/RL by phone that his inclusion on the National Bank’s registry was groundless.
Ghurbati and blogger Daleri Imomali, known for his articles critical of the government, were detained on June 15 and subsequently sent to pretrial detention for two months.
Imomali was charged with illegal entrepreneurship and premeditated false denunciation. His trial is pending.
In June, Human Rights Watch demanded that Tajik officials immediately release Ghurbati and Imomali, saying that the two men "are being targeted for their professional activities, despite being protected by Tajikistan’s laws and international obligations on freedom of expression and media freedom.”
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has been criticized by international human rights groups for years over his disregard for independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Putin Signs Independence Decrees In Precursor To Seizing Ukrainian Regions
Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to host a ceremony on September 30 at which he will formally move to seize four Ukrainian territories by signing documents that the Kremlin is calling “accession treaties.”
Putin recognized the independence of the Ukrainian regions Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in decrees early on September 30 that are an intermediary step paving the way for the two occupied regions of Ukraine to be annexed by Russia.
The decrees are similar to steps Putin took in February just before launching the invasion of Ukraine regarding Luhansk and Donetsk.
The United States and the United Nations on September 29 strongly denounced Russia's plans to hold the annexation ceremony, which comes on the heels of referendums in Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Luhansk, and Donetsk that Western countries said were a “sham” but that Moscow-installed officials in the regions said overwhelmingly showed support for joining Russia.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would never recognize Russia's claims on Ukraine's territory, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the referendums were "a futile effort to mask what amounts to a further attempt at a land grab in Ukraine," adding in a statement that the results "were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people of Ukraine."
As Washington and the European Union prepared additional sanctions to further isolate Russia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Putin in a call to take steps to reduce tensions, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said annexation would mark a "dangerous escalation" that would jeopardize the prospects for peace.
Guterres said any decision to proceed with the annexation of the four regions "would have no legal value and deserves to be condemned."
The annexations "will prolong the dramatic impacts on the global economy, especially in developing countries, and hinder our ability to deliver life-saving aid across Ukraine and beyond," Guterres said.
The Kremlin announced earlier that it will move to seize the territories through the signing of documents on "the accession of new territories into the Russian Federation."
The territory amounts to about 15 percent of Ukraine's total area and is equal to the size of Hungary.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the signing ceremony involving Putin and Moscow-imposed leaders from the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya would take place at 3 p.m. Moscow time.
Putin will sign accession documents in an ornate Kremlin hall and deliver a speech, Peskov said. A pop concert will be held on Red Square, where a stage with giant video screens has been set up and where billboards proclaim "Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, Kherson -- Russia!"
The announcement prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to call an emergency meeting of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council on September 30, presidential spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov said on Facebook. The agenda and other details will be announced later, Nikiforov added.
Zelenskiy promised a "very harsh" response to the annexation, which he previously said destroyed any chance of reviving peace talks.
"The cost of one person in Russia wanting to continue this war is that Russian society will be left without a normal economy, a worthwhile life, or any respect for humanitarian values," Zelenskiy said in his evening address on September 29.
Zelenskiy also issued a separate video directed at Russia’s ethnic minorities, especially those in Daghestan, one of the country's poorer regions in the North Caucasus.
“You do not have to die in Ukraine,” he said, standing in front of a plaque in Kyiv memorializing what he called a Daghestani hero. He called on the ethnic minorities to resist mobilization.
Further heightening tensions is Putin's partial military mobilization, which has prompted an exodus of Russian men. Putin told a meeting of the National Security Council on September 29 that mistakes made in carrying out the mobilization must be corrected.
He said Russian men mistakenly called up for service should be sent back home and only reservists with proper training and specialties should be summoned to serve.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Russian Opposition Politician Leaves Country After Serving 30 Days In Jail
Russian opposition politician Leonid Gozman has left Russia after serving two consecutive 15-day jail terms on charges of "equating" Soviet-era Russia with Nazi Germany.
Gozman wrote on Facebook late on September 28 that he was at an airport along with his wife, Marina, adding "I am leaving now, and she will one day after me."
He did not say where he was headed.
Gozman's daughter, Olga, had said her father planned to leave Russia once he was released, emphasizing he needs surgery for gallbladder issues.
The 72-year-old Kremlin critic was sentenced to 15 days in prison twice in a row over his online articles written in 2013 and 2020 that said the Soviet regime was no better than the regime that ruled Nazi Germany.
The law criminalizing equating the Soviet and Nazi regimes was adopted in 2021.
Gozman also has openly protested Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
He was a co-chairman of the now defunct Union of Right Forces political party, and a top manager of OAO Unified Energy System of Russia and the Rusnano Group.
After Russia launched its war against Ukraine in late February, Gozman left Russia but returned to Moscow in mid-June.
He was previously investigated on a charge of not reporting his second citizenship. He holds both Russian and Israeli passports. Under Russian law citizens are required to report other citizenships immediately after obtaining them.
Kyrgyz Education Minister Detained Over Allegations Of Taking Bribes For Admissions
BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz Education Minister Almaz Beishenaliev has been detained on charges of taking bribes in connection with student admissions to the Central Asian nation's universities.
The Interior Ministry said on September 28 that Beishenaliev is suspected of accepting a total of $110,000 for arranging foreign students' acceptance to universities in Kyrgyzstan.
The ministry’s statement said detailed information on the case will be made public at a later date.
The 41-year-old Beishenaliev has initiated multiple reforms in the education system since his appointment to the post in November 2020.
Between June 2021 and February 2022, he worked as the Kyrgyz ambassador to Switzerland, after which he returned to the position of education minister.
Neither Beishenaliev nor his legal representative has commented on the situation.
Kyrgyz Investigative Journalist Bolot Temirov Acquitted
BISHKEK -- Noted Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov has been acquitted of drug charges that he and his supporters called politically motivated.
The Sverdlov district court on September 28 found Temirov not guilty on charges of illegal drugs possession and illegal border crossing.
Judge Akylbek Adimov also ruled that Temirov was guilty of document forgery but could not be sentenced for that due to the statute of limitations.
Temirov said in the courtroom before the court's ruling was pronounced that law enforcement and security officers had been actively trying to curb freedom of expression in the country by imposing trumped-up charges against journalists, adding that the trend must be stopped.
Prosecutors had sought five years in prison for Temirov on the charges.
Temirov and traditional bard singer Bolot Nazarov, who performed his anti-corruption songs on the YouTube channel Temirov Live, were arrested in January for allegedly possessing illegal drugs, which the two men say were planted by police.
In April, Bishkek city police filed additional charges against Temirov, accusing him of forgery and illegally crossing the border with Russia.
Police said Temirov, who was born and raised in Russia and holds a Russian passport, used forged documents to obtain a Kyrgyz passport in 2008, which he then used to illegally exit and enter Kyrgyzstan.
Temirov rejected all of the charges, saying they were brought against him after he published the results of his investigation suggesting corruption among top officials of the Central Asian state.
Kyrgyz authorities have denied that investigations of Temirov are politically motivated.
Temirov was among 12 people recognized by the U.S. State Department last year as anti-corruption champions.
13 Killed In Iraqi Kurdistan As Iran Escalates Attacks Amid Unrest At Home
An Iranian bombing campaign targeted Iraq's northern Kurdish region on September 28, killing least 13 people and wounding 58 others, Iraq's state news agency said.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) fired on targets in Iraq's northern Kurdish regional capital of Irbil and the eastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported.
The strikes took place amid protests that erupted nearly two weeks ago in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died on September 16 three days after being detained in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules on head scarves.
The wave of protests and a crackdown that followed have left scores of demonstrators dead over the past 12 nights.
The IRGC has accused Iraq-based Kurdish groups of "attacking and infiltrating Iran to sow insecurity and riots and spread unrest."
IRNA said the IRGC targeted bases of a separatist group in the north of Iraq with “precision missiles” and “suicide drones.”
The attacks targeted the political offices of Kurdish parties as well as the Iranian Kurdish refugee camp.
U.S. Central Command said it downed an Iranian drone while it was on its way to Irbil, adding that the drone appeared to pose a threat to U.S. personnel in the region.
"No U.S. forces were wounded or killed as a result of the strikes and there is no damage to U.S. equipment," it said in a statement.
A senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of their offices were struck.
Tariq Haidari, the mayor of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Koye, told Reuters that two people, including a pregnant woman, were killed and 12 wounded. Some of the wounded were rushed in critical condition to hospital in Irbil, he said.
The United Nations refugee agency in Iraq said on Twitter that the attack "caused damage to the Iranian refugee camps in Koye," and Iranian refugees were among the casualties.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and the Kurdistan regional government condemned the strikes, and Iraq's federal government summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest.
The UN mission in Iraq deplored the attack, saying "rocket diplomacy is a reckless act with devastating consequences,” and the U.S. State Department called the Iranian attacks an “unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The IRGC in the last few days has repeatedly attacked areas in Iraqi Kurdistan. The IRGC said in a statement that it will continue to target "terrorists" in the region.
"This operation will continue with our full determination until the threat is effectively repelled, the bases of terrorist groups are dismantled, and the authorities of the Kurdistan Region assume their obligations and responsibilities," the IRGC said in its statement.
Widespread protests took place for a 12th straight night in Iran on September 27, according to opposition media based outside Iran.
The protests started in Amini’s hometown of Saghez in Iran’s Kurdistan region and spread to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.
The police command was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying that Iran’s enemies and some rioters “seek to disrupt the order, security, and comfort of the nation using any pretext."
It said police officers will oppose “with all their might the conspiracies of counterrevolutionaries and hostile elements, and deal firmly with those who disrupt public order and security anywhere in the country."
The statement came only hours after the UN said its Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres called on Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi not to use "disproportionate force" against protesters.
Raisi planned a television address to talk about domestic and foreign issues facing the country later on September 28, ISNA said.
Raisi last week said the protests over Amini's death were unacceptable "acts of chaos."
Officials say 60 people have died during the protests, but the group Iran Human Rights says at least 76 people have been killed. As of September 26, more than 1,200 people had been arrested, including of activists, lawyers, and journalists.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Armenia Says Three Soldiers Killed In Fresh Cross-Border Clash With Azerbaijani Troops
Renewed fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces broke out on September 28, killing three Armenian troops, Yerevan said as the two sides again blamed each other for shooting first across their shared border.
The Armenian Defense Ministry’s press service said "Azerbaijani forces opened fire from mortars and large-caliber firearms at the eastern direction of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border."
Armenia's Defense Ministry said in a statement three died on the Armenian side as a result.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said in a tweet that three of his troops had been killed in "an attack against Armenian independence, sovereignty and democracy."
"Withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops and deployment of an international observer mission on the Armenian territories affected by Azerbaijani occupation and bordering areas is an absolute necessity," he wrote.
The Armenian side resorted to retaliatory actions after the shooting started, Defense Ministry spokesman Aram Torosyan said.
The Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan blamed the Armenian side, saying it violated the cease-fire. According to Baku, one Azerbaijani soldier was wounded.
"All responsibility for the incident lies with the military and political leadership of Armenia," the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said.
The ministry said despite the cease-fire agreement the Armenian armed forces opened fire on the units of the Azerbaijani Army around 6 p.m. local time in the Kalbajar region with different types of firearms.
The fighting threatens a fragile cease-fire agreement that ended the worst fighting between the two ex-Soviet Caucasus countries since a 2020 war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
After a flare-up that killed more than 200 soldiers, the two sides on September 23 agreed to the Russia-brokered cease-fire to end the most recent hostilities.
Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.
The two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region, which is part of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent districts.
Under the cease-fire Armenia ceded swaths of territory it had controlled for decades and Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers.
With Moscow increasingly isolated following its invasion of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have taken leading roles in mediating the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization process.
Last week, the two countries' foreign ministers met in New York for talks arranged by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Earlier this year the EU led negotiations in Brussels between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Pashinian at which they agreed to "advance discussions" on a future peace treaty.
They last met in Brussels on August 31, for talks mediated by European Council President Charles Michel.
The issue of ensuring a land link between Azerbaijan and its ally Ankara via Armenian territory has emerged as the primary sticking point.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
NATO Calls Nord Stream Leaks 'Deliberate, Reckless' Sabotage
NATO has voiced "deep concern" over the damage sustained by the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, calling the incidents "deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage."
Three leaks -- two in the Danish zone and one in the Swedish zone -- were discovered earlier this week in the two major Russian underwater pipelines designed to ship natural gas to Germany, while Sweden on September 29 said its coast guard had found a fourth leak.
Seismologists from Sweden and Denmark said they had recorded powerful explosions in the area at the beginning of the week.
The incidents come amid rising tensions between Europe and Russia over the war in Ukraine with both NATO and the European Union saying the leaks were caused by "sabotage" but refraining from directly pinning the blame on Russia.
"All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage," the alliance said in a statement on September 29.
"These leaks are causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage. We support the investigations under way to determine the origin of the damage," it said.
NATO vowed to take strong action to protect critical European infrastructure.
"We, as allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors. Any deliberate attack against allies' critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response," the statement said.
The Kremlin on September 29 said the leaks appeared to be the result of state-sponsored "terrorism."
"It is very difficult to imagine that such an act of a terrorism could have happened without the involvement of a state of some kind," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said later in a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that damage done to the pipelines was an "act of international terrorism."
Putin also called the incident, which caused leaks in multiple places on the underwater pipes in the Baltic Sea, "unprecedented sabotage," according to a Kremlin statement.
CNN, citing two Western intelligence officials and one other source familiar with the matter, reported on September 29 that European security officials observed Russian Navy support ships early last week in the vicinity of the leaks around the time that the leaks may have started.
Asked to comment on the CNN report, Peskov said there had been a much larger NATO presence in the area.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova vehemently rejected suggestions that Moscow was behind the incidents, with the Kremlin calling them "absurd and stupid."
Zakharova said the leaks occurred in territory that is "fully under the control" of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Danish officials have noted that it is not uncommon for Russian ships to be in the area.
Neither pipeline was in use at the time of the suspected blasts, but they were filled with gas that has been spewing out into the Baltic Sea since the September 26 breakages, prompting gas prices in Europe to spike.
Nord Stream AG, the operator of Nord Stream 1, said it intended to start assessing the damage to the pipeline as soon as it receives necessary permits.
It said access to the area of incidents may be allowed only after the pressure in the gas pipeline has stabilized and the gas leakage has stopped. Nord Stream AG told Reuters earlier that the leaks were likely to stop on October 3.
The UN Security Council will meet September 30 to discuss the incident.
With reporting by AFP, CNN, and Reuters
West Prepares New Sanctions To Make Russia Pay 'Severe Economic Cost' For Escalating War Through Referendums
The United States and its allies are preparing to impose fresh sanctions on Russia in the wake of what the West and United Nations have called "sham" referendums in four Ukrainian regions, with the White House saying the measures would exact a "severe" economic price on Moscow.
On September 28, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen introduced a new package of measures, saying they are designed "to make the Kremlin pay" for escalating the conflict in Ukraine.
"We do not accept the sham referenda nor any kind of annexation in Ukraine, and we are determined to make the Kremlin pay the price for this further escalation," she told reporters in Brussels.
The proposed eighth sanctions package includes further import bans on Russian products that are meant to deprive Moscow of an additional 7 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in revenues.
The White House said the United States will "never" recognize Russian attempts to annex parts of Ukraine and is preparing new economic sanctions on Moscow that will impose a "severe economic cost on Russia when they move forward with annexation."
"We will never recognize these illegal and illegitimate attempts at annexation," Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on September 28.
"We will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia and individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia."
The EU will fully ban imports from Russia of steel and steel products, pulp and paper, machinery and appliances, intermediate chemicals, plastics, and cigarettes, according to an EU diplomat.
The sanctions would also ban the export of EU of goods used in aviation, such as tires and brakes, and electrical components including certain semiconductors and less sophisticated components than those already banned, the diplomat added.
In addition, the diplomat said, the proposal also aims to ban the export of specific goods that can be used for torture.
The sanctions package will lay the legal basis for an oil price cap and ban EU citizens from sitting on governing bodies of Russian state-owned companies, von der Leyen said.
The new sanctions also would include restrictions on 37 individuals and companies that are engaged in organizing referendums.
This would include deputy ministers, celebrities, musicians, and people involved in spreading disinformation.
The proposal has been presented to the EU ambassadors of the 27 member countries, who are scheduled to discuss it on September 30. They will have to overcome differences in order to reach the required unanimity.
In Washington, two architects of the U.S. sanctions regime told lawmakers that future sanctions must focus on depriving Putin of what he needs to fund and fight the war.
This includes revenue from Russia's oil and gas sales and access to global supply networks to replenish his military.
Elizabeth Rosenberg, an assistant treasury secretary, stressed that the United States should be "laser-focused" on starving Russia of energy profits.
Rosenberg testified on September 28 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside James O'Brien, head of the State Department's sanction coordination office, as senators complained that the first rounds of sanctions did not hit Moscow as hard or fast as the administration had forecast.
Rosenberg told lawmakers that Russia should be in a fiscal deficit by the end of the year but for now the ruble is managing far better than the United States projected and inflation and its stock market levels aren't out of line with those of other countries.
Rosenberg and O'Brien called for stronger action against Russia as U.S. and European officials prepare to impose a system of price caps on Russian maritime oil exports. The system would be designed to keep Russian oil on the world market. The architects of the plan say this would avoid driving up prices even higher, while forcing down the price that Russia gets for its exports.
The next step must be to double down on the global arms procurement networks Russia is using to replenish its weapons and technology for the war in Ukraine, Rosenberg and O'Brien said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa
U.S. Announces $1.1 Billion In Aid For Building Ukraine's Military
The United States will provide an additional $1.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including funding for about 18 more advanced rocket systems and other weapons to counter drones, the White House announced on September 28.
The package is aimed at helping Ukraine secure its longer-term defense needs under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which funds the purchase of weapons and equipment. This means it could take a year or more for Ukraine to get the systems.
Most of the other military aid packages announced by the United States have thus far used Pentagon drawdown authority to provide weapons more immediately.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
The new package "represents a multi-year investment in critical capabilities to build the enduring strength of Ukraine's Armed Forces" as they continue to battle the invading Russian Army, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The package includes funding for 18 units of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, and 12 Titan systems, which are used to counter drones.
The Pentagon and Ukrainian military leaders say HIMARS have been key to Ukraine's recent battlefield successes. Titan systems will be deployed against Iranian-made drones that Russian forces have started to use to target Ukrainian forces.
The announcement came after what Western countries say were “sham” referendums held in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine on joining Russia.
“We will not be deterred from supporting Ukraine, we will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people, and provide them with the security assistance they need to defend themselves, for as long as it takes,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Also in the package is funding for about 150 armored vehicles, 150 tactical vehicles for towing weapons, trucks and trailers, and a variety of radars, communications, and surveillance equipment.
The United States has now committed approximately $16.9 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since January 2021.
Based on reporting by AP and AFP
Activists Push For International Feminist Groups To Show Solidarity With Iranian Women
Hundreds of professors and academic activists have signed an open letter urging international feminist communities to join them in building transnational solidarity with women and marginalized groups in Iran.
The letter is signed by academics from universities in Europe, Britain, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and other countries who say that the death of Mahsa Amini is "among many other state murders committed systemically and purposefully by the gender-apartheid regime of Iran."
The letter, titled Listen to the Voices of a Feminist Revolution in Iran, said that now more than ever "it is critical to show more potent transnational solidarity with women and other marginalized bodies in Iran.”
The letter comes amid anti-government protests over the death of Amini, 22, after she was taken into custody by morality police for the alleged improper wearing of a head scarf or hijab.
"This country-wide revolt is against not only the brutal murder of Mahsa but also the essence of the Islamic regime," the letter said. "The demand is loud and clear: an end to a theocratic regime whose multi-faceted violence against marginalized bodies is manifested in Mahsa’s death."
The country is "witnessing a feminist revolution...ignited by rage at the murder of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini," the letter added.
The protests have galvanized Iranians while also highlighting four decades of state violence and discrimination against women, who have been pushing back against state repression for years.
The government has recently arrested more than 1,200 protesters, including 20 journalists, four lawyers, and about 25 activists and students. According to official figures, more than 40 people have been killed, including several members of the security forces. Rights groups that monitor the country believe the real number of people killed is much higher.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
North Ossetia Imposes Limits On Incoming Cars As Line Grows At Region's Border Crossing With Georgia
North Ossetia has imposed restrictions on cars arriving from other parts of Russia as an exodus of military-age men out of the country has resulted in a long line of vehicles at a remote border crossing with Georgia.
Sergei Menyailo, North Ossetia's governor, said on September 28 that the restrictions were being introduced in Russia's North Caucasus region because it “will not be physically able to ensure order and security if this flow continues to grow."
The restrictions apply to "citizens who are registered with the military not only in North Ossetia, but also in other regions of the country," Menyailo said on Telegram after imposing the restrictions by decree.
Menyailo calls the decision to restrict entry a "forced measure" associated with "a huge amount of transit traffic" and many kilometers of queues at the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border.
Exceptions will be made only for residents of North Ossetia, Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, and Georgia, and tourists who have the necessary documents.
Mobile operational groups are already working at the entrances to North Ossetia and at the entrance to the Upper Lars checkpoint to check whether those entering are subject to conscription.
Representatives of the military registration and enlistment offices in the operational groups have general lists of conscripts from the Ministry of Defense, Menyailo said.
North Ossetian authorities announced the creation of a temporary draft office at Upper Lars on September 27 to issue draft papers to reservists who are attempting to leave Russia in defiance of the mobilization order.
Tens of thousands of draft-age men have been leaving Russia since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization last week. Georgia, which allows Russians to stay without a visa for up to a year, has been one of the most popular destinations.
There are no direct flights between Russia and Georgia, and the Upper Lars crossing, which straddles a remote mountain pass, is the only operational crossing point between them.
The traffic jam at Upper Lars on September 28 stretched more than 20 kilometers, and the wait time was about two days. On September 27, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that the number of trucks and cars waiting to cross the border had grown to 5,500.
In response to the huge traffic jam, Russian citizens have been allowed to cross the border at the Upper Lars on foot despite the border crossing not being intended for this.
Before Putin announced the military mobilization about 5,000 to 6,000 Russian citizens crossed into Georgia through Upper Lars every day. Now the daily influx of Russians is about twice that, said Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri. Georgia does not plan to impose restrictions on Russians.
Georgian authorities on September 28 also condemned the so-called referendums that took place from September 23 to September 27 in four territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
“These attempts to annex Ukrainian territories are unacceptable. Georgia strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement described the referendums as “cynical violations of international law and the will of the Ukrainian people, who continue to fight heroically against the invasion.”
With reporting by Reuters
Russia Strikes Kharkiv, Cuts Power, Hits Railway Yard; Heavy Fighting In Kherson
Russian missile strikes in Ukraine's second city Kharkiv hit a railway yard overnight and knocked out power to more than 18,000 households, officials said on September 28.
Kharkiv governor Oleh Synehubov said Russian forces had fired S-300 missiles, designed as an anti-aircraft weapon but now often re-purposed to hit civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian cities.
The Kharkiv regional emergency service said the blasts destroyed an electrical transformer and hit a workshop.
No casualties were reported, but the regional electricity company said 18,500 customers in the Shevchenkivsky, Kholodnogirsky, and Novobavarsky districts of the city had lost electricity.
The strike came exactly a week after a similar attack that hit a nearby rail freight yard as well as residential blocks.
Heavy fighting also continues in the Kherson region, Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on September 28.
The ministry said the Russian military force in the area, located on the right bank of the Dnipro River, remains vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.
British intelligence also said that Russia is using its forces to continue its "grinding" attempts to advance near Bakhmut in the Donbas despite facing severe pressure on its northern and southern flanks.
The latest fighting came as U.S. officials said Washington was preparing a new $1.1 billion weapons package for Ukraine that will be announced soon.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
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