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Joint Arab-Kurd Patrols Begin In Tense North Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Joint patrols between Iraq's largely Arab army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops that U.S. officials hope will build trust have started in tense disputed areas, the U.S. military commander in Iraq has said.

General Ray Odierno, who leads the 107,000-strong U.S. force still deployed in Iraq, said around 70 percent of planned joint patrols, which are being supervised by U.S. soldiers, have been trained and deployed and the rest would follow within days.

"We hope that by the 31st, in a few days, we'll be at 100 percent," Odierno told western media, ending months of speculation about when the controversial operations would begin.

"They all know that this is about protecting the population in these disputed areas who have been targets of al Qaeda and others who are trying to exploit the political differences," he added. "So far so good."

Tensions between semi-autonomous Kurds in their northern enclave and the Arab-led government in Baghdad represent a potentially explosive threat to stability in Iraq almost seven years after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Overall violence has fallen sharply although Sunni Islamist insurgents continue to stage major attacks, such as suicide bombings against three hotels in Baghdad on Monday aimed at undermining the Shi'ite-led government before a March 7 poll.

Ethnic Kurds have staked a claim to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the north, many of which contain massive known oil reserves or potential deposits. Their aspirations to have them wrapped into their region are fiercely opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.

Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have come close to blows on several occasions over the past two years as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought to strengthen central government presence in and around disputed areas.

Intervention by the U.S. military has often been the only thing that prevented fighting from breaking out.

Odierno proposed the joint patrols as a way to foster greater trust between the two sides, arguing that Al-Qaeda and other groups were taking advantage of a lack of cooperation between Arab and Kurdish security forces to launch attacks.

Politicians in disputed areas, in particular on the Arab side, have opposed the move, fearing the plan would legitimize the presence of Kurdish fighters in areas where Iraqi Arab leaders thought they had no right to be.

Fouad Zaidan Mustafa, head of the Turkman Doctors Union in Kirkuk, which also includes Arabs, said he believed the Peshmerga could not be trusted.

"We look at this temporary solution like other temporary solutions. A mistake is being used to correct a mistake and we are the ones who will continue to suffer," he said.

Hussein Ali al-Salih, also known as Abu Saddam and head of the district council in the tense, predominantly Sunni Arab town of Hawija southwest of Kirkuk, rejected the idea utterly.

"There is no justification for this. We already have an Iraqi Army and police, and they include all ethnicities and sects," he told Reuters recently.

Odierno said he was pleased with the joint patrols to date.

"There will be some local political challenges to it," he said. "We'll work our way through that."

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Siberian Actor Slits Wrist On Stage To Protest Anti-War Director's Firing

Artur Shuvalov slashes his wrist on stage at the Russian Drama Theater in Ulan-Ude on March 29.

ULAN-UDE, Russia -- An actor in a theater in the Siberian region of Buryatia has slashed his veins while on stage to protest the firing of the company's artistic director last year over his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude, slashed his wrist with a knife at the end of a play on March 29 in front of a live audience, saying that he and his colleagues had been under pressure for their attempts to get the theater's artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, back after he openly condemned the war in Ukraine.

Shuvalov said that hours earlier his wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who is an actress in the same theater, filed her resignation after coming under constant pressure from management for urging Levitsky's reinstatement.

Shuvalov is currently hospitalized with wounds to his arms. Buryatia Culture Minister Soelma Dagayeva said Shuvalov's life was not in danger.

Since Levitsky was fired last year, the theater's actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have held different types of protest, including removing the symbols of Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the theater's facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.

The actors also complained that the new art director, Vyacheslav Dyachenko, had called them prostitutes by calling them "representatives of the oldest profession in the world," and demanding they perform "simple plays that are comprehensible to ordinary people."

"I do not want to hear that actors are similar to representatives of the oldest profession. I think our audience deserves smart performances, not those demanded by our artistic director. I am sorry. I am tired. I do not have any other choice," Shuvalov said before slashing his wrist, adding that Dyachenko and the theater's executive director, Natalya Svetozarova, would be responsible for his death.

Buryatia government officials said they were investigating the incident, including "events that preceded the incident."

Dagayeva added that Shuvalov's wife resigned of her own free will.

Tajik Opposition Politician's Son Extradited From Germany Sentenced To Seven Years In Prison

Abdullo Shamsiddin (file photo)

A son of Tajik opposition politician Shamsiddin Saidov, who was recently extradited to Tajikistan from Germany, has been sentenced to seven years in prison in Dushanbe after a trial Human Rights Watch (HRW) called unfair.

According to HRW, a court in the Tajik capital sentenced Abdullo Shamsiddin on March 29 after finding him guilty of "public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan."

"The trial started on March 28 and did not adhere to fair trial standards, including the right of defendants to challenge the evidence used against them, based on information available. Authorities should publicly present the evidence used to justify his conviction and in the meantime he should be immediately released from detention," the HRW's statement said.

Tajik authorities have yet to officially confirm the sentencing but Shamsiddin's father, Shamsiddin Saidov, who is currently residing in the European Union, confirmed to RFE/RL that his son was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Saidov is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In January 2018, he was sentenced in absentia in Tajikistan to 15 years in prison on extremism charges.

Saidov said earlier that his 32-year-old son, who had lived in Germany since 2009, was deported from Germany due to his failure to reregister with the country's migration authorities on time.

The IRPT said at the time the decision to deport Shamsiddin might have been because he provided incorrect data to the immigration service.

The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015.

Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing criticism from human rights groups.

Tajik authorities have been criticized for cracking down on dissent for years.

Captured Russian Soldier Given 12-Year Prison Sentence

The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier to 12 years in prison on a charge of violating of the laws of war, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 30. The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Ukraine handed a similar sentence to Russian Air Force officer Aleksei Loboda for bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's eastern region of Kharkiv in March 2022. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Smaiylov Reappointed Kazakh PM

Alikhan Smaiylov (file photo)

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev reappointed Alikhan Smaiylov to the prime minister's post on March 30 after the newly elected parliament approved his candidacy. A day earlier, Smaiylov's government officially resigned as the parliament that was elected in snap polls on March 19 held its first session. The 50-year-old Smaiylov was promoted to the prime minister's post from the deputy prime minister position in January 2022 after the standing of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev dramatically weakened following unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests that turned to mass unrest, leaving at least 238 people dead. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russia's Ukraine Invasion 'Threatens' European Security, Says Britain's King Charles

King Charles III attends a state banquet held by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin on March 29.

Europe's security has come under threat amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Britain's King Charles told German MPs on March 30, adding however that "we can draw courage from our unity." "The scourge of war is back in Europe. The war of aggression against Ukraine has brought unimaginable suffering on so many innocent people," he said. "The security of Europe as well as our democratic values are under threat. But the world did not stand idly by.... We can draw courage from our unity."

Russian Actress, Kremlin Critic Akhedzhakova Leaves Moscow Theater Amid Pressure

Ukraine-born Liya Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism. (file photo)

Popular Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova, known for her open criticism of Kremlin policies including its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has left the prominent Moscow theater Sovremennik (Contemporary) amid pressure from authorities and pro-government activists.

Akhedzhakova told the Novaya gazeta newspaper on March 30 that she submitted her resignation letter 20 days earlier and she now plans to switch to touring activities. The theater has not commented on the issue.

She said she does not plan to leave Russia despite the pressure campaign imposed on her over her stance against Russia's war against Ukraine.

On February 8, the administration of Sovremennik, where Akhedzhakova had performed since 1977, canceled a performance of Playing Genie with Akhedzhakova's participation. The theater explained the move by saying Akhedzhakova was "unwell," a claim Akhedzhakova rejected, telling Novaya gazeta that she wanted to perform.

Akhedzhakova also said the theater's director had complained to her that he was "literally overwhelmed by angry letters condemning her" for her stance against the war in Ukraine.

In December, a theater in St. Petersburg canceled another play Akhedzhakova was scheduled to perform in following her public calls to stop the war in Ukraine.

Ukraine-born Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism.

In 2021, Sovremennik canceled a play in which she had a leading role after the Kremlin-backed Officers of Russia nongovernmental organization accused her of propagating same-sex relations and insulting World War II veterans.

The Sovremennik theater was founded in the late 1950s by a group of young Soviet actors during the Khrushchev Thaw. Dozens of actors who were extremely popular in the former Soviet Union started their careers at the Sovremennik.

With reporting by Novaya gazeta

EU Says China's Role In Ukraine Conflict Is Vital To EU Relations

Ursula von der Leyen

China must play a part in pressing for a "just peace" in Ukraine and its role in the conflict will be vital in shaping relations with the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point," von der Leyen said in a speech in Brussels on the eve of a trip to Beijing. "How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Four Bankers Who Helped Putin's Friend Set Up Swiss Bank Account Convicted

Sergei Roldugin (file photo)

Four bankers who helped a close friend of Vladimir Putin move millions of francs through Swiss bank accounts have been convicted of lacking diligence in financial transactions. The four were found guilty of helping Sergei Roldugin, a concert cellist who has been dubbed "Putin's wallet" by the Swiss government. The executives -- three Russians and one Swiss -- helped Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin's eldest daughter, Maria, deposit millions of francs in Swiss bank accounts between 2014 and 2016. The men, who cannot be identified under Swiss reporting restrictions, were given suspended sentences of seven months each. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


Russia Formally Arrests Wall Street Journal Reporter; Newspaper Denies Allegation Of Spying

Evan Gershkovich was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and earlier this week was the author of a story focused on the economic slowdown in Russia sparked by Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion.

A Moscow court has granted a request from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to arrest Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) who was detained in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and accused of espionage, a charge the U.S.-based newspaper said it "vehemently" denies.

Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow as a correspondent for the WSJ, had been in Yekaterinburg for several weeks reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin's war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.

During a closed-door session on March 30, the Lefortovo district court in Moscow agreed to an FSB request to hold Gershkovich under arrest for two months.

"The court ruling on Gershkovich: the court has ordered [his] arrest until May 29, 2023," the court's press service said.

Mediazona reported from the courthouse that Gershkovich's lawyer, Daniil Berman, was not allowed to be present at the hearing as another lawyer had been appointed to the case to represent his client.

Berman and journalists were blocked by security forces from the fifth floor of the court's building where the hearing took place.

Citing law enforcement sources, the TASS news agency reported that the materials of the case against Gershkovich had been classified as "top secret" and that he had entered a not-guilty plea.

Mediazona and the newspaper Izvestia posted videos taken after the court hearing that showed a person who appeared to be Gershkovich -- wearing a hood over his head and with his hands cuffed behind his back -- being escorted out of the court.

The person can then be seen being loaded into a black van in a courtyard at the court building before being driven away.

The FSB alleged that, on instructions from the United States, Gershkovich "was collecting information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret." The charge carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

"The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich," the WSJ said in an e-mailed statement.

Gershkovich's detention appears to be the first time a U.S. correspondent has been put behind bars since the end of the Cold War and highlights the growing tensions between Moscow and Washington amid the Kremlin's war in Ukraine, launched in February 2022.

The Meduza website quoted one of Gershkovich's colleagues as saying the reporter recently traveled to the city of Nizhny Tagil, 140 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, where Russia's major tank-producing facility, Uralvagonzavod, and several other factories producing military equipment are located.

Local media outlets in Yekaterinburg and the surrounding Sverdlovsk region reported that several men in civil clothes detained an individual near the Bukowski Grill restaurant in Yekaterinburg late on March 29, pulling his sweater over his head and taking him away in a car. The reports suggested it was Gershkovich, a veteran reporter who has worked in Russia for almost six years.

An unofficial Telegram channel of the Sverdlovsk region's governor later confirmed Gershkovich was the person detained in Yekaterinburg, adding that "the situation is very serious."

Gershkovich was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and earlier this week was the author of a story focused on the economic slowdown in Russia sparked by Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram that "what the employee of The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg was not journalism" while the Kremlin said Gershkovich was caught "red-handed." Neither, however, gave any evidence to back up their claims.

Gershkovich, whose family emigrated from Russia to the United States when he was a child, previously worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. His last article was published by The Wall Street Journal on March 28.

"The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich," the WSJ said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) immediately condemned Gershkovich's detention, calling it "retaliation" for reporting the facts from Russia.

"[Gershkovich] was investigating the Wagner military group. RSF is alarmed by what seems to be a 'retaliatory' measure: journalists must not be targeted!" the rights group's statement said.

Some analysts speculated the move may follow a similar pattern to the last American reporter to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges.

In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff was a correspondent for the U.S. News and World Report when he was detained by the KGB. He was held -- without formal charges being laid -- for 20 days until he was swapped for an employee working at the Soviet Union's United Nations mission in the United States who had been arrested by the FBI.

The two countries held a prisoner swap in December 2022 involving American basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

With reporting by Meduza, TASS, and Mediazona

Father Of Russian Sixth-Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Detained In Minsk

Aleksei Moskalyov

A Russian man sentenced to two years in prison after his daughter's anti-war drawing brought attention to his social media posts against the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been detained in Belarus after escaping house arrest in Russia just before sentencing.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said on March 30 that Aleksei Moskalyov was detained in Minsk at Moscow's request.

His lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said earlier on March 30 that his client was most likely located and arrested after he switched on his mobile phone in Minsk. Zakhvatov added that Moskalyov's phone currently was not responding.

Moskalyov was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on March 28 by a court in the town of Yefremov after it convicted him of "discrediting Russia's armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine.

Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his 12-year-old daughter Maria drew a picture at school last year depicting a woman standing next to a Ukrainian national flag and protecting a child from missiles coming from Russia.

The school's principal reported Maria Moskalyova to the police over her picture, after which law enforcement searched Moskalyov's apartment.

Police then found Moskalyov's online posts condemning the war in Ukraine, which featured a caricature of President Vladmir Putin.

Moskalyov was initially charged with "discrediting Russia's armed forces" and ordered to pay a 32,000-ruble ($415) fine after a court found him guilty. In December, a criminal case was launched against him on the same charge. He was placed under house arrest and his daughter was sent to a shelter, where her phone was confiscated and she was not allowed to communicate with her father.

On March 12, authorities in Yefremov asked a court to deprive Moskalyov of custody over his daughter. The same motion was made against Moskalyov's estranged wife.

Putin signed a law shortly after launching Russia's invasion last February that criminalizes the expression of any thoughts or reports contradicting official statements regarding the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

Moskalyov is one of dozens of Russian citizens, including politicians, journalists, and rights activists, who have been handed prison terms for voicing dissent since the law was approved.

With reporting by SOTA and Dozhd TV

Pakistani Taliban Kills Four Police Officers In Bomb Attack

The banned Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack. (file photo)

Four Pakistani policemen, including a senior officer, were killed and several were wounded in a roadside bomb attack as they were rushing to rescue colleagues besieged by militants in a police station in northwestern Pakistan late on March 29, authorities said.

Gunmen attacked a police station in the district of Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, close to the North Waziristan tribal region, and an intense firefight ensued, district police spokesman Shahid Khan told RFE/RL.

A police team led by deputy superintendent Iqbal Mohmand rushed to the aid of their colleagues but their armored personnel carrier was blown up by a remote-controlled bomb planted by the side of the road some 3 kilometers before reaching their destination.

Four police officers, including Mohmand, were killed and six were wounded in the explosion, Khan said.

The banned Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for both the roadside bomb blast and the attack on the police station.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the attack.

"Our police officers have made unforgettable sacrifices in the war against terrorism," Sharif said in a statement.

Momand was also a well-known poet who wrote in Pashto.

The TTP in November ended a monthslong cease-fire with the government following more than a year of inconclusive peace talks.

The TTP claimed that promises made during the negotiations had not been fulfilled and announced the resumption of attacks.

The announcement was followed by a wave of deadly attacks targeting Pakistani security forces.

North Waziristan was once the stronghold of the TTP. However, the Pakistani military conducted a massive operation in mid-2014 to expel the militants.

The TTP commanders have reportedly taken refuge across the border in Afghanistan, triggering protests by authorities in Islamabad against Kabul's Taliban rulers.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

'Slaughter-Fest': Ukrainian Forces Hold Out In Bakhmut As Kyiv Renews Appeal For Modern Fighter Aircraft

A Ukrainian tank unit crew takes cover and waits for shelling to cease in a bunker near the bombed-out eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on March 29.

Ukrainian forces continued to hold their ground on the eastern front over the past day, the military said on March 30, repelling dozens of attacks in and around Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region that has been the focal point of Russia's offensive over the past several months.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily bulletin on March 30 that Russian forces continued to concentrate their offensive on Bakhmut and several other locations in Donetsk -- Avdiyivka, Maryinka, Belohoryivka, and Lyman -- having launched a total of 60 attacks in those locations over the past 24 hours.

In Bakhmut alone, Ukrainian forces repelled 28 enemy attacks, the military said.

Russian forces launched five missile strikes and 25 air strikes, as well as 34 rocket salvos over the past day, it said, adding that indiscriminate shelling of civilian and energy infrastructure continued.

The relentless attacks on Bakhmut and its surroundings have taken a heavy toll on Russian forces.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told American lawmakers that Moscow has failed to make any advances in Bakhmut in the last couple of weeks while Russian casualties continued to go up.

Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on March 29 that Russia has not made "any progress whatsoever" around Bakhmut over the past weeks and that the Wagner mercenary group has been "suffering an enormous amount of casualties" in the area.

He said Bakhmut has become a "slaughter-fest for the Russians."

The commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, on March 30 issued a video depicting the actions of Ukraine's air force in the war. In the video, the commander of Ukraine's tactical aviation brigade, Oleksiy Manyushkyn, appeals to Kyiv's allies to supply it with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.

Manyushkin says Ukrainian pilots are motivated and ready to master any Western equipment in the shortest possible time to bring Ukraine closer to victory.

So far, only NATO members Poland and Slovakia have offered Ukraine fighter jets, but they only agreed to deliver old Russian-made MiG-29 aircraft, which Ukrainian pilots know how to operate.

On March 28, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Service Committee that during the current phase of the conflict, providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets will do little to help.

In PHOTOS: The Ukrainian military claims Moscow's forces are showing signs of "exhaustion" as the battle over the destroyed eastern city of Bakhmut rages on.

"Regarding the F16 fighters, if such a decision is made, it will take approximately 18 months to provide these capabilities. However, this will not help the Ukrainians at this stage of the war," Austin told U.S. lawmakers.

"Can the Ukrainians get fighters in the future? We all believe so. Potentially, these could be either F-16s or other fourth-generation aircraft. So we will continue to work with our partners to ensure that Ukraine has exactly what it needs," he said, arguing that Kyiv now needs more air-defense systems, armored vehicles, and long-range weapons.

"And we provide them with a significant package of such opportunities," Austin said.

Last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said that arming Ukraine with warplanes "currently makes no sense," adding in an interview with German television that Berlin does not have any of the F-16 fighters that Ukraine has requested.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

No Forced Eviction From Kyiv Monastery But Property Must Be Vacated, Ukrainian Security Official Says

Representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church held a last service at the Pechersk Lavra on March 29.

Force will not be used to evict representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) from the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on March 29 after monks who have been ordered to leave the historic site refused to go.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Danilov, speaking on Ukrainian television, said while there will be no evictions, the monastery must be turned over to the Ukrainian government.

“If someone thinks that he has the right not to follow the laws of our country, then he is deeply mistaken.... The laws of Ukraine must be followed by everyone,” Danilov said. He added that the monks are expected to leave quietly.

Metropolitan Pavlo, an abbot of the monastery, told worshippers on March 29 that the UOC would not leave the site pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed last week to stop the eviction. Pavlo said the UOC had been notified that the handover of the property would begin on March 30, according to the AP.

The 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site, which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.

The UOC is a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that previously was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May over Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.

In November, security agents conducted a “counterintelligence” operation at the Pechersk Lavra and other facilities of the UOC as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russia activity.

Danilov said the termination of the lease is in the interest of national security. The work of the UOC cannot be done inside Ukraine “from the point of view of our security” and must be stopped, he said.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country’s main Orthodox church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.

With reporting by AP

Russia Stops Sharing Advance Missile Test Info With U.S.

A Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia, in October 2022.

Russia will no longer give the United States advance notice about its missile tests as envisioned under a nuclear pact the Kremlin has suspended, a senior Moscow diplomat said on March 29, as its military rolled missile launchers across Siberia in a show of the country’s massive nuclear capability amid fighting in Ukraine. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow has halted all information exchanges with Washington under the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States after suspending its participation in it last month. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Construction Contracts For Serbian Tennis Open Under Scrutiny In Republika Srpska

Banja Luka Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic (file photo)

Authorities have inspected documents related to the construction of a tennis stadium in Banja Luka for the Serbian Open tennis tournament organized by the family of the world's second-ranked men's player, Novak Djokovic.

Banja Luka Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic confirmed at a news conference on March 29 that the inspections took place after the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament, which is scheduled to take place April 17-23.

Questions have been raised about the procurement process for stadium construction contracts. The construction is being financed by public funds from the city of Banja Luka and the government of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities.

The tournament is usually held in Belgrade but has been moved to Banja Luka for 2023 while the existing grounds in the Serbian capital are renovated.

The construction of the 6,000-seat stadium and the surrounding infrastructure is expected to cost about 12 million euros. Work began in November, although the construction permit was not issued until January 20 and it only covers preparatory work.

Funds were transferred to the Tennis Association of Republika Srpska, which picked the contractors without a public procurement process, even though the funds are entirely public.

The Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska told RFE/RL that the inspection of the documents took place at the request of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Republika Srpska.

The prosecutor's office told RFE/RL that the request came after complaints against Stanivukovic and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic.

Both officials were reported on February 9 to the prosecutor's office by Nebojsa Vukanovic, a member of the Republika Srpska parliament, who accused them of negligence in their work as public servants and the inappropriate spending of public funds.

Stanivukovic acknowledged that the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament. He said he had nothing against the prosecutors doing their job, adding that all documents that the city has related to the construction are publicly available and have been discussed by the City Council.

"I know that we have worked perfectly and honestly and will continue to do so," Stanivukovic said.

The government of Republika Srpska also issued a statement saying the inspections of the documents were "acts prescribed by law."

It said Viskovic supports the arrival of Djokovic and other professional tennis players in Banja Luka but added that it appears this “bothers some people in Republika Srpska because they are trying in every way to minimize and compromise this great sports event, and therefore Banja Luka and Republika Srpska.”

Djordje Djokovic, the brother of the tennis star and one of the principal organizers of the Serbian Open, said on March 7 during a press conference that "neither construction permits nor politics” are part of his job as the tournament organizer.

With reporting by Goran Katic

Ukraine Condemns IOC Recommendations Allowing Russian, Belarusian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach attends the opening of the Executive Board meeting at the Olympic House in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 28.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports has condemned what it called the "partial change of position" of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sports competitions.

The ministry statement on March 29 came a day after the executive board of the IOC recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes.

"We have consistently advocated and will continue to insist that under the conditions of the unprecedented, unprovoked military aggression of the Russian Federation with the support of Belarus against Ukraine, which contradicts the principles of the Olympic Charter, representatives of the aggressor states should not be present at international sports arenas," the ministry said in its statement.

The ministry also expressed regret that the IOC used concern expressed by UN special rapporteurs over discrimination solely on the basis of the nationality of athletes as an excuse to radically change its “previous well-argued position.”

The ministry added that it will continue to work on barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports competitions, including the Olympics, as long as Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine continues.

The board’s six recommendations, issued on March 28 after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, say that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.

The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes who could not display national symbols. The recommendations also bar teams from the two countries, athletes who actively support the war, and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."

The recommendations roll back sanctions imposed by the IOC in February 2022 recommending that international sports federations and organizers of sports events "not invite and not allow” Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials to international competitions.

The IOC board signaled two months ago that it wanted to find a pathway to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan.

The idea has been criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and several of Ukraine’s allies. Ukraine has raised the possibility of boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on March 29 he would work to build a coalition to seek the withdrawal of what he said was a "bad and wrong decision."

IOC President Thomas Bach has indicated he backs allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as individual neutral athletes. He said on March 28 that athletes should not be punished for their passports.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the IOC recommendations “were characterized as containing elements of discrimination, which is unacceptable." He added that Russia “will continue to defend the interests of our athletes in every possible way."

With reporting by Reuters

Missing Iranian Cleric Warns Of His Possible Detention, Death

Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi

Four months after the disappearance of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi, the Sunni imam from the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchistan Province who disclosed the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander, a video has surfaced in which he warns of the possibility that he may be "assassinated" or "apprehended."

Naqshbandi disappeared after he was summoned to a court in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad late last year. Since attending a court session in December, his whereabouts have been unknown and his family says they have no information on where he might be detained.

The news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander sparked mass protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. The protesters demanded accountability and were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces.

Almost 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured by security forces in the unrest, which came on top of protests touched off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Tehran's morality police for an alleged violation of the hijab law.

"If I am killed, those who did not tolerate my words, they are the cause of my murder," Naqshbandi says in the recording, released on his official Telegram social media channel.

He goes on in the video to mention the possibility he will be arrested and tortured.

"If they arrest and imprison me, because they have the power to arrest us again and again, they can also broadcast forced confessions from us in front of the television," he says, appearing to indicate any confession that may come out would not be of his own volition.

The date of the recording, which lasts about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, is not known. The post appeared on the site on March 28.

The disappearance of Naqshbandi came after an apparent attempt to discredit a top Sunni cleric by the local representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In December, a leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency said Khamenei told security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Another prominent Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdulmajid, is also among those to have been detained.

In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL, Abdulmajid criticized the government for generating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province and a hotbed of the protest movement, and said the protests in the city will continue.

The government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the months of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.

Sunni Muslims make up a majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province and Kurdistan, but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Eastern European Governments Urge Tech Firms To Fight Disinformation

Ukraine and seven other Central and Eastern European nations on March 29 called on the world's top tech firms to take action to fight disinformation by hostile powers on their social media platforms, which they say undermines peace and stability. In an open letter signed by their prime ministers, the countries said tech platforms such as Facebook should take concrete steps, including rejecting payments from sanctioned individuals and altering algorithms to promote accuracy over engagement. The letter was signed by the prime ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Former Executive Of Russian Gas Company Convicted Of Tax Evasion In U.S.

Mark Gyetvay was the face of Novatek to the Western investment community for more than a decade. (file photo)

A former top executive at Russian natural gas producer Novatek has been convicted of tax evasion in the United States.

Mark Gyetvay, who was deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board and its chief financial officer, was convicted of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns, the U.S. Justice Department said.

According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005-15 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release on March 28.

Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before becoming the chief financial officer of Novatek, a large Russian gas company.

Beginning in 2005, Gyetvay opened two accounts at a bank in Switzerland to hold assets amounting to more than $93 million, the Justice Department said.

“Over a period of several years, Gyetvay took steps to conceal his ownership and control over these funds, including removing himself from the accounts and making his then-wife, a Russian citizen, the beneficial owner of the accounts,” the department said.

Additionally, despite being a CPA, Gyetvay did not file his 2013 and 2014 U.S. tax returns and did not file documents on foreign bank accounts, as required, to disclose his control over the Swiss accounts.

As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income, even if he spends most of the year in Russia.

At the time of his arrest in September 2021, Gyetvay called the charges “baseless” and said he had already settled them through a voluntary program. He vowed then to vigorously fight the charges.

Gyetvay was the face of Novatek to the Western investment community for more than a decade, conducting the quarterly earnings conference calls with stock and bond investors, as well as speaking at industry conferences. He now faces more than 10 years in prison at his sentencing on September 21.

Novatek is Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer and analysts say its phenomenal rise from a bit player in the early 2000s to a company that was once valued as high as $79 billion was in large part due to the company’s connections to the Kremlin.

Gennady Timchenko, a major shareholder in Novatek, is considered a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their friendship goes back to the early 1990s.

"Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin," the United States said in a 2014 statement sanctioning Timchenko. Putin has investments in oil trader Gunvor in which Timchenko had been a major shareholder and may have access to Gunvor funds, the United States said.

Timchenko sold his stake in Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed.

Germany To Send Additional 12 Billion Euros In Military Support To Ukraine

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (right) sits in a Leopard 2 tank in Augustdorf, Germany, on February 1.

The German government has agreed to send an additional 12 billion euros ($13 billion) worth of military support to Ukraine. The Budget Committee of the German Bundestag gave the green light on March 29 for the unbudgeted expenditure. The additional funding includes 3.2 billion euros to be disbursed in 2023 and credit lines for the period between 2024 and 2032 amounting to some 8.8 billion euros. "With the money, Ukraine can directly buy armaments with the support of the German government," three politicians representing the coalition government on the committee said in a statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Teachers Protest Conditions Amid Reports Of Unpaid Wages

Teachers protest over economic conditions in Fars Province in February.

Iranian teachers have protested in several different cities around the country over wages and poor living standards as unrest over social and economic issues that has plagued Iran for almost a year continues.

Reports published on social media showed teachers gathered in front of education departments on March 28 in the cities of Tabriz, Bojnurd, Zanjan, Malayer, Ardabil, Kermanshah, and Hamedan demanding better financial conditions. The demonstrations came after a teachers' union had warned the government to meet its demands or face protests.

The rallies also came amid reports from the semiofficial Tasnim news agency that said numerous teachers across Iran had yet to receive their salaries for the previous month.

In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions. In response, the authorities have summoned, detained, and jailed a growing number of protesters and activists, actions that have failed to stop the rallies.

The Coordinating Council of Teachers' Syndicates said on March 19 that imprisonment, dismissal, deportation, and court sentences have failed to deter teachers from their desire to accompany the people of Iran in the direction of fundamental changes in the Islamic republic.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System

The statement, published just ahead of the beginning of the Persian New Year on March 21, referred to the last year as "a year full of glory and complaints" and added that "the stance of teachers and students together will promise days full of awareness."

Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have since tried to quell with harsh measures.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Pussy Riot Member Tolokonnikova Added To Russia's Wanted List

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (file photo)

A member of the Pussy Riot protest group in Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.

Tolokonnikova's name appeared on the ministry’s registry of wanted suspects on March 29. The ministry did not specify on what charges Tolokonnikova is wanted.

Media reports cited sources earlier this month as saying that a probe was launched against Tolokonnikova on a charge of "insulting believers' religious feelings."

According to the sources, the charge against Tolokonnikova stems from unspecified online posts. Rights defender Pavel Chikov said then that Moscow police had conducted a series of searches as part of its investigations.

In late December 2021, the Russian Justice Ministry added Tolokonnikova to its registry of "foreign agents." Russian authorities have used the controversial law on foreign agents to stifle dissent.

Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.

Tolokonnikova and bandmate Maria Alyokhina had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.

While in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were recognized as political prisoners by domestic and international rights watchdogs. Amnesty International named the two activists prisoners of conscience due to "the severity of the response of the Russian authorities."

After the Pussy Riot stunt, Russian authorities adopted a law criminalizing what it called "insulting believers' religious feelings."

Russia's Wagner Chief Says Battle For Bakhmut Has Damaged His Forces

Yevgeny Prigozhin

The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group acknowledged on March 29 that fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut had inflicted severe damage on his own forces as well as the Ukrainian side. "The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian Army, and unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner Private Military Company," Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message. British military intelligence said on March 29 that Ukrainian forces had successfully pushed the Russians back from one of the city's main supply routes. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Architect Sentenced To More Than Five Years In Prison For Posting 'Fakes' About Ukraine War

Oleg Belousov appears in court in in St. Petersburg on March 29.

A Russian court has sentenced architect Oleg Belousov to 5 1/2 years in prison for discrediting Russia's armed forces with "fake" social-media posts about the war in Ukraine and calls for extremism. The district court in St. Petersburg on March 29 also barred Belousov from administering websites for four years. Belousov, who has a medical condition, was added to Russia's list of "foreign agents" in January. He is one of dozens of Russian citizens prosecuted for criticizing Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Montenegro Says U.S., South Korea Requesting Extradition Of Korean Cryptocurrency Fugitive

Do Kwon (right) is escorted to court in Podgorica on March 24.

Montenegrin Justice Minister Marko Kovac said on March 29 that both South Korea and United States are requesting the extradition of Do Kwon, the former CEO and co-founder of cryptocurrency company Terraform Labs, who is suspected in the loss of investments worth more than $40 billion.

Do Kwon and his business partner, Hon Chang-joon, were arrested in Montenegro on March 23 while trying to flee to Dubai with falsified documents, according to the Justice Ministry.

Kovac said South Korea had requested the extradition of both Do Kwon and Hon Chang-joon.

He said that United States also requested Do Kwon's extradition.

"The existence of the international warrant regarding these two persons and the submitted request for extradition creates the ground for the extradition procedure to be initiated," Kovac told a news conference in Podgorica on March 29.

He did not clarify to which of the two countries they will be extradited, adding the ministry will inform the public if any other country sends an extradition request.

"In case we receive several extradition requests, I would like to say that determining which state they will be extradited to will be based on several factors, given the severity of the criminal offense committed, the location, and the time when the criminal offense was committed, the order in which we received the request for extradition, and several other factors," Kovac said.

He added that South Korea and the United States had also requested the laptops seized from the two suspects.

On March 24, Montenegro charged the two with forgery after their arrest.

The two men were taken into custody because they are considered a flight risk, authorities said. The suspects can be detained for a maximum of 30 days, a Podgorica court said.

Do Kwon is wanted by the United States, South Korea, and Singapore for what the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calls "orchestrating a multibillion-dollar crypto-asset securities fraud."

"We allege that Terraform and Do Kwon failed to provide the public with full, fair, and truthful disclosure as required for a host of crypto-asset securities, most notably for Luna and Terra USD," SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in a statement in February.

Terra USD was a crypto-asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Kwon's crypto-asset securities, the SEC said.

"We also allege that [Terraform and Kwon] committed fraud by repeating false and misleading statements to build trust before causing devastating losses for investors," he added.

Many investors lost their life savings when Luna and Terra USD collapsed, falling to a value of near zero. The fallout from the collapse of Terraform Labs also affected the wider cryptocurrency market.

With reporting by AFP

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