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Landmark Census Of Marine Life Finds 'Riot Of Species'

A bottom-dwelling grenadier fish (photo: MAR-ECO/Oystein Paulsen-IMR)
Crawling down underwater canyons, scampering among deep-sea jets of superheated gas, and crowding each drop of water under a scientist's microscope; life exists everywhere beneath the ocean waves.

Now, after a decade of research, hundreds of ocean expeditions, and thousands of hours of work by scientists from more than 80 countries, the Census of Marine Life project has revealed the most comprehensive look at undersea life ever.

Researchers say they discovered "an unanticipated riot of species" and that the census's findings constitute an unprecedented catalog of life in the planet's oceans. Scientists say they are also excited that they now have critical information to help them assess man's impact on undersea life.

"The scientific community was very interested in understanding what is out there [in the oceans], what don't we know, what can we discover, what's the distribution of species," James Baker, an oceanography specialist and member of the census's steering committee, said. "But we never had the ability -- either in terms of trying to bring everybody together, or the funding -- and so the scientific community, I think, is very excited about the fact that we were able to do something that we simply couldn't have done before."

The $650 million project received funding from more than 600 groups, including governments, corporations, nonprofits, and universities.

Just one of the thousands of new species discovered was a creature in the Atlantic Ocean that scientists described as nearly a missing link between backboned and invertebrate animals.

In total, the census recorded more than 6,000 potentially new species and increased the estimate of known marine species by 20,000 -- from 230,000 to some 250,000. Moreover, the study says, that amount may represent as little as one-fourth of the total number of organisms inhabiting the world's oceans.

Ian Poiner, a marine ecologist and chair of the census's steering committee, told Reuters that scientists were surprised to discover how closely different species in the world's oceans are connected.

"We have tunas that move from the west coast of the U.S. to Japan and back to the west coast of the U.S. We have sharks that move from the southwest coast of Australia to South Africa and back," Poiner said. "That sort of connectedness we didn't understand [before]."

Researchers found a similar degree of connectedness on the genetic level.

A cranchid squid (photo: MAR-ECO/Marsh Youngbluth)
Among fish, the bits of genetic code that scientists have analyzed so far suggest that species differ by less than 15 percent.

Checking Marine Health

But perhaps the broadest implication of the census is that it establishes a benchmark against which scientists can measure changes in the health of the world's oceans.

In a fortunate coincidence, the project included an in-depth study of the Gulf of Mexico, which was completed ahead of April's catastrophic BP oil spill. In one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, millions of barrels of crude were released from a damaged underwater well before it was plugged in July.

In its 2009 study of the gulf, the census found more than 8,000 species, including fish and mammals, living in the waters where the spill occurred.

Now, post-disaster, that finding will help marine biologists evaluate how well the ecosystem is recovering and what needs to be done to help.

Two of the five people on a U.S. presidential commission formed to investigate the spill also served on the census's research team.

"The census had collected the most detailed description of species in the Gulf of Mexico, and this was the first time that we had had such a wonderful description of species before a big oil spill took place," Baker said. "Now, the scientific results [on the oil spill's impact] are not in yet, but because of this existing new database, we'll have a much better way of looking at what is the impact of the surface oil and the oil that is dispersed in the water column."

The project's data will also help scientists evaluate the effects of global warming and related ocean acidification, which are already proving to have a profound impact on undersea life.

Around 40 percent of plankton -- the tiny creatures at the core of the ocean's food chain -- has disappeared in the last 30 years, which the study attributes to a rise in water temperatures.

The results are also said to contain valuable information for how to maintain a sustainable world fishing industry.

At the census's unveiling in London on October 4, co-founder Jesse Ausubel said it had "far exceeded any dream."

He and the more than 2,000 experts who worked on the project, he said, "felt like the people who created the first dictionary and encyclopedia 250 years ago."

with additional wire reporting

More News

India's Modi Cancels Meeting With Putin Over Ukraine War

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on December 6, 2021.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has canceled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin set for December as Delhi seeks to distance itself from the Kremlin leader's threat to use nuclear bombs in Ukraine, Bloomberg reported, citing unidentified officials from both countries. Russia and India have held a summit every year since the beginning of the 2000s with the exception of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An Indian official told Bloomberg that a meeting with Putin under the current circumstances would not help Modi's image. Modi criticized Putin publicly in September over his invasion of Ukraine and threat to use any weapons systems to win, saying "today's era is not an era of war." India and Russia have historically had good relations dating back to the Soviet era. To read the full story by Bloomberg, click here.

U.S. Announces New $275 Million Aid Package For Ukraine, Including Air-Defense Systems

A man stands next to cars destroyed by a Russian missile strike in a residential area in Kharkiv on December 8.

The White House has announced a new $275 million aid package to help boost Ukraine's air defenses, in particular against Russian drones. White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on December 9 that the aid "will soon be on its way" to provide Ukraine with new capabilities to boost its air defenses and counter the threats that Ukraine is facing from drones. Russia has been shelling Ukraine daily, targeting the country's energy infrastructure in particular in an attempt to increase suffering and break Ukrainians' will to resist. Ukraine has been requesting greater air-defense support for months. To read the original story by AP, click here.

NATO Chief Fears Ukraine War Could Become A Wider Conflict

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

The head of NATO has expressed worry that the fighting in Ukraine could spin out of control and become a war between Russia and NATO, according to an interview released on December 9. "If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in remarks to Norwegian broadcaster NRK. "It is a terrible war in Ukraine. It is also a war that can become a full-fledged war that spreads into a major war between NATO and Russia," he said. "We are working on that every day to avoid that." Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, said in the interview that "there is no doubt that a full-fledged war is a possibility," adding that it was important to avoid a conflict "that involves more countries in Europe and becomes a full-fledged war in Europe." To read the original story by AP, click here.

Uncertainty Prevails Over Prominent Chechen Blogger After Reported Death

Tumso Abdurakhmanov last YouTube video was posted several weeks ago. (file photo)

Swedish police say they have no new comment on the situation surrounding Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, who colleagues say has disappeared, after separatist leaders said they had been told he is alive and under police protection.

Abdurakhmanov, 36, is said to have been missing for several days when unconfirmed reports emerged on social media on December 1 that he had been killed and his brother was under police protection.

Chechen opposition groups said they were unable to contact the blogger and that his representatives said they had not been in contact with him or his brother.

The 1ADAT channel on December 5 quoted unidentified sources as saying Abdurakhmanov had been shot dead and that his brother, Mukhammad, was under police protection.

However, a spokesman for Chechen separatists living in exile told RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities on December 9 that Abdurakhmanov was "alive and under the protection of Swedish police."

He gave no evidence to back up the claim, saying that he was citing "his own sources of information."

Swedish police spokesman Irene Sokolow said in response to the claim that, just as with the initial reports of Abdurakhmanov's death, they couldn't confirm the reports or comment further on the matter.

"We have nothing to add," she said.

On December 8, Sokolow said the reports had not led to "any actions" on the part of the Swedish Police Authority.

Abdurakhmanov, a popular YouTube blogger who has been harshly critical of Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his government in Chechnya, left Russia in 2015.

He has since been living in Sweden, where he was granted political asylum and survived an assassination attempt in February 2020, when an intruder broke into his home and attacked him with a hammer.

In January 2021, two Russian citizens from Chechnya were handed long prison sentences by a Swedish court after being convicted of attempted murder in the case.

One of the men, Ruslan Mamayev, testified that he had been acting on the behest of Chechen authorities who promised to pay him 50,000 euros ($52,700).

Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since 2007 with a cult of personality around him, is frequently accused by Russian and international human rights groups of overseeing grave human rights abuses including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and targeting the LGBT community.

Several Chechen dissidents and Kadyrov critics have been killed outside of Russia since 2004. Chechen blogger Imran Aliyev was killed in Lille, France, in January 2020, while former Chechen independence fighter Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in Berlin in August 2019.

Abdurakhmanov has not posted on his Telegram channel since the evening of November 30. "Normally, Tumso warns when his Telegram channel won't be active, but yesterday he did not," one commentator wrote below the post.

Abdurakhmanov's last YouTube video was posted several weeks ago.

Family Says Son Died After Torture By Iranian Security Agents

Shadman Ahmadi died in police custody in Kurdistan.

The family of a 22-year-old Iranian protester says their son has died in a detention center after being tortured for hours following his arrest during a protest in the western Iranian city of Dehgolan.

The France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network quoted Shadman Ahmadi's family as saying that their son was killed after being taken into custody on December 8 "due to the torture of police forces at a police station."

A Telegram channel close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps appeared to confirm the death, saying a young "rebel" who "destroyed public property and created intimidation and disruption of public order" was arrested during the Dehgolan protests before dying of drug use. No evidence was given to back up the cause of death.

The protests, which have snowballed into one of the biggest threats to the clerical establishment that has ruled since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini 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 unrest was initially centered in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan region before quickly spreading to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.

Tehran has claimed, without providing evidence, that Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have been supporting the demonstrations.

According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, since the beginning of nationwide protests at least 115 Kurdish citizens, including 12 minors, have been killed by the military and security forces in protests in the cities of the western province of Kurdistan.

Activist reports also indicate that hundreds of people have been arrested and scores injured, with many people missing after being detained by security forces.

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

IOC To Explore Asian Proposal To Host Russian, Belarusian Athletes

Maria Lasitskene of Russia competes in the women's high jump final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August 2021.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will "explore" a proposal allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in international events in Asia. Athletes from Russia and Belarus were banned from competition in February after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. But at the Olympic summit in Lausanne on December 9, the IOC said it would "lead the further exploration" of a proposal by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) to host athletes from the two countries. "The OCA offered to facilitate the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in competitions in Asia under its authority, while respecting sanctions in place," the IOC said.

Russia Deports U.S. Woman Who Spent Almost One Year In Prison

Sarah Krivanek attends a court hearing in Ryazan in November.

A day after one of the most high-profile prisoner exchanges between Washington and Moscow in years, Russian authorities have deported U.S. citizen Sarah Krivanek, who spent almost one year in detention on charges of assaulting her Russian partner.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on December 9 that while he was aware of Krivanek's departure, he did not have any details on her deportation.

"I do not know how physically [the deportation was conducted], but I understand that it is a fact that her deportation was carried out," Ryabkov said, declining to answer a journalist's question on whether Krivanek left Russia along with American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was exchanged for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout the day before.

A court in the city of Ryazan, some 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow, ruled in November that Krivanek must be deported.

Krivanek, who is from Fresno, California, was sentenced last year to 15 months in prison after she hit her partner, a Russian man, with a knife. The American insists she was defending herself in a domestic violence situation. The man sustained minor injuries.

Krivanek complained that her stay in prison was harsh, leaving her at times "fearing for my life" because of bullying from inmates and mistreatment from prison guards.

Russia has sentenced several U.S. citizens to prison terms in recent years.

Griner, who returned to the United States earlier on December 9, spent nearly 10 months in detention in Russia for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

In October, a court in Russia's western city of Voronezh sentenced a former U.S. Marine Robert Gilman to 4 1/2 years in prison for attacking a police officer while drunk.

Paul Whelan, another former U.S. Marine, is serving 16 years in prison on espionage charges, which he denies.

In April, Russia and the United States swapped Trevor Reed for a Russian pilot convicted of drug smuggling. Reed, also a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced to nine years in prison after allegedly attacking police officers while drunk.

With reporting by Interfax

Putin Says Further Prisoner Exchanges With United States Possible

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov at a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Bishkek on December 9.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that further prisoner swaps between the United States and Russia are possible, and that contacts between the two countries' intelligence services will continue. Putin was speaking at a news conference in Bishkek on December 9, a day after the United States freed arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner. Putin was asked if other exchanges were possible. "Yes, anything is possible," he replied. "Contacts continue. In fact, they have never stopped.... A compromise was found, we do not reject continuing this work in the future." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Turkish Businessman Over Iran Oil Trade

According to the U.S. Treasury, Sitki Ayan also used one of his companies to buy a Panamanian-flagged liquefied natural gas tanker for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (file photo)

The United States has blacklisted prominent Turkish businessman Sitki Ayan for allegedly operating a trading network that facilitated oil sales on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Ayan's companies have established international sales contracts for Iranian oil, arranged shipments, helped launder the proceeds, and obscured the origin of the oil on behalf of Iran's Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, the U.S. Treasury said on December 8 in a statement.

Ayan, his son, Bahaddin Ayan, and Kasim Oztas, a senior official of ASB Group, a Gibraltar-registered holding company for several businesses controlled by Ayan, were all designated for sanctions in an action that the Treasury said supplements one in May targeting other elements of the network.

That network facilitated the sale of Iranian oil for both the IRGC Quds Force and Hizballah with the backing of senior levels of the Russian government and state-run entities, Treasury said.

Ayan used the network of his Gibraltar-registered ASB Group, which was also blacklisted by the Treasury on December 8, to hide the origins of the oil and the destination of the payments, Treasury said.

Bahaddin Ayan directs and owns shares in at least five ASB Group-associated companies, while Oztas "directly handles much of Ayan's business," the department said.

It said Ayan has helped the Quds Force by arranging the sale and shipment of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil the IRGC controls to China and other East Asian buyers, Europe, and the United Arab Emirates.

He has also helped move the proceeds from the sales to the IRGC, the Treasury said.

Ayan also used one of his companies to buy a Panamanian-flagged liquefied natural gas tanker for the IRGC, it said.

The Treasury also placed around 20 companies in the ASB Group and Ayan-affiliated companies on its blacklist. The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals or companies have under U.S. jurisdiction, inhibits their access to global financial markets, and bars people based in the U.S. from dealing with them.

Ayan, his son, and Oztas were not immediately available for comment, Reuters reported. Ayan's ASB Group and Turkey’s Directorate of Communications did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Washington maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran and has looked for ways to increase pressure as efforts to resurrect a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have stalled.

The agreement limited Iran's uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear arms in return for lifting international sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden sought to negotiate the return of Iran to the nuclear deal after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Brother Of Iranian Doctor Handed Death Sentence Says Wife's Confession Came After She Was Tortured

Radiologist Hamid Qarahasanlou and his wife, Farzaneh

The brother of Iranian doctor Hamid Qarahasanlou says interrogators severly tortured his brother's wife to extract a confession from her against her husband as security forces looked to pin the blame on protesters for the death of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide demonstrations.

Iran's judiciary said on December 6 that it had sentenced 16 people to sentences ranging from long-term imprisonment to death for their alleged roles in the killing of Ruhollah Ajamian, who was part of the Basij, a volunteer militia under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hamid Qarahasanlou, who is in hospital recovering after reportedly being tortured as well, was one of five accused to be handed death sentences over the killing of Ajamian.

Qarahasanlu's brother said in an interview with RFERL’s Radio Farda that, during the interrogations, Farzaneh, Hamid’s wife, was tortured to the point where to save herself, she lied and said that her husband may have kicked the victim.

“She resisted the first day. On the second day, they told her that we know your son is in the dormitory of Tabriz University, and if you don't confess by tonight that Hamid hit the victim, we will arrest your son and he will suffer the same torture that you are suffering, and he may be killed,” Farzaneh Qarahasanlou’s brother in law told Radio Farda.

“This is the only evidence they have against Hamid, and Farzaneh later recanted the statement and told the court that her confession was obtained under torture and has no validity,” he added.

Hassan Qarahasanlou also told Radio Farda that the judicial authorities threatened their lawyers and finally, upon the withdrawal of the lawyers, they forced them to accept a public defender.

"The public defender spoke against my brother in court. He told Hamid that you are lying, and that you hit Ajamian and were not tortured."

According to Qarahasanlou’s brother, the public defender personally went to the hospital where Hamid was admitted and without taking into account medical opinions, determined that Hamid Qarahasanlou was capable of appearing in court.

“The forensic doctor had said that Hamid could not be present in the court, that he could not even have a video call. That’s why he was absent from the first session of the trial, but still, they took him to the court for the second session,” Hassan Qarahasanlou said.

Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking the 40th day since her death.

The four others sentenced to death were not named. Of the 11 people sentenced in the case, three were minors, judiciary spokesman Massud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding that the sentences can be appealed.

Hamid Qarahasanlou, who is a radiologist, was seriously injured during the arrest and interrogation.

According to his brother, one of Hamid's ribs was broken during detention and five more during interrogation. Finally, these fractures resulted in internal bleeding and he was taken to hospital.

After Qarahasanlou regained consciousness following surgery, judicial authorities came to the hospital in the middle of the night to wake him and hand him the death sentence, Hassan Qarahasanlou said.

The cases were rushed through three hearings within six days before the sentences were handed down.

Human rights organizations have strongly objected to the death sentences being issued against protesters in Iran after "sham trials."

The verdict comes after weeks of increased threats by authorities that they will react harshly to any unrest. Lawmakers have pushed the judiciary to render harsh penalties -- including the death penalty -- in trials for those arrested during protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, reported on December 8 that 24-year-old Mohsen Shekhari had become the first protester to be executed after an appeal of his sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Iran is currently in the throes of unrest as people take to the streets across the country to protest Amini's death on September 16.

Police have met the unrest with deadly force.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran exceeds 500 this year.

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

Woman Linked To Russian Defense Minister Stripped Of Residence Permit in Lithuania

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting with officials of the Defence Ministry in an unknown location

A Vilnius court on December 9 cancelled the residence permit of Yelena Kaminskas, aka Shebunova, a Russian citizen who is reportedly the mother of two extramarital children from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The court hearing was held behind closed doors. Lithuania’s State Security Department said earlier that Shebunova's presence "may impose a threat to the country's national security over her links with Russian structures." Shebunova's husband, Adolfas Kaminskas, may be stripped of his Lithuanian citizenship for having Russian citizenship as well. Dual citizenship is banned in Lithuania. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Austria's President Blasts Own Government For Blocking Romania And Bulgaria's Schengen Entry

Austria's Presiden Alexander Van der Bellen (file photo)

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said on December 9 that he regrets a government decision to block Romania and Bulgaria from joining Europe's open-borders Schengen Area.

Croatia, which was admitted to the European Union in 2013, received the go-ahead on December 8 to join Schengen in January during a meeting in Brussels of EU interior and justice ministers.

Admission to the Schengen zone requires unanimity, and Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the European Union together in 2007, faced opposition from Austria, while Sofia's accession was also blocked by the Netherlands.

Both Austria and the Netherlands cited concerns about illegal migration as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.

Last month, the European Commission ruled that all three countries meet the technical criteria for joining, and the European Parliament has also voted in favor of their membership.

Van der Bellen criticized the Austrian government's move, which he said would add to the migration crisis instead of alleviating it.

"It is true that Austria is in a difficult situation due to the very high number of asylum seekers. But the Schengen blockade does not contribute to a solution," he wrote on Twitter.

"On the contrary, the Austrian economy is now threatened with fines as a result of Romanian countermeasures," he tweeted.

Van der Bellen expressed hope that a solution through dialogue with European Union partners would be found soon.

"We can only meet the challenges in the area of flight and migration together with our partners in the EU. I hope that a solution through dialogue is possible soon," he said.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have said they will continue efforts to join the Schengen Area.

“Bulgaria performed very well, the very conclusion of the European Commission and the reports and opinions showed that Bulgaria and Romania meet all the requirements for our admission to Schengen. The issue was political,” Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev told Bulgarian journalists in Brussels on December 8.

But Romania, while vowing to reapply for membership, was vocal in criticizing Austria's opposition, and recalled its ambassador to Vienna.

"We regret and honestly do not understand the inflexible position taken by Austria," Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said.

Media reports said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had called for the resignation of Interior Minister Lucian Bode for his failure to secure Romania's membership in Schengen, while some politicians have blamed Iohannis -- an ethnic German -- for not doing enough to help ensure accession.

Romanians on social media have also called for a generalized boycott of Austrian products and urged compatriots to stop doing business with Austrian-owned banks and avoid the gas stations operated by Austria's OMV oil company in Romania.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Romanian and Bulgarian services,, and

Tajik Journalist Mamadshoeva Sentenced To 21 Years In Prison

Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva (left) and her former husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, were shown on TV confessing to organizing the protests after their arrest.

DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan's Supreme Court has sentenced noted journalist and civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva to 21 years in prison on charges related to deadly May protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, which rights watchdogs have called trumped-up.

Sources close to law enforcement structures told RFE/RL on December 9 that Mamadshoeva was sentenced earlier in the week. The trial was held behind closed doors.

Mamadshoeva and her former husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, were arrested in May and charged with publicly calling for the violent change of Tajikistan's constitutional order, organizing a criminal group, murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.

Kholbashov was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in September.

Shortly after their arrest, Kholbashov and Mamadshoeva were shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they were among the people who had planned and organized the protests.

The day before her arrest, Mamadshoeva told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the regional capital Khorugh, and in the district of Rushon.

Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL 21 bodies were found at the sites where the clashes took place.

The escalating violence in the region sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Says Russian And U.S. Diplomats Have Met In Istanbul

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (file photo)

Russian and U.S. diplomats met in Istanbul on December 9 to discuss a number of technical issues in the bilateral relationship, Russian state media quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. The TASS news agency said the two sides would discuss "difficult questions" including visas, embassy staffing levels, and the work of each side's institutions and agencies abroad, among other unspecified issues. Ryabkov said the meeting was between heads of department from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department. He said it was a technical meeting and not a sign that the two sides were ready to resume discussing "major issues." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Office Of Foreign Assets Control Allows Kazakhstan To Operate Russia's Mir Cards

Many banks in several nations stopped operations with Mir in recent months amid warnings to adhere to international sanctions against Moscow. (file photo)

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has permitted Kazakh banks to operate with Russia's Mir payment cards, which had been blocked due to international sanctions against Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Kazakh Agency of Financial Market Regulation said on December 9 that the OFAC permission was received a day earlier and relates only to individuals, namely Russian citizens who moved to Kazakhstan. Many banks in several nations stopped operations with Mir in recent months amid warnings to adhere to international sanctions against Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russian Officer Who Fled To Kazakhstan To Avoid Mobilization To Ukraine War Faces Deportation

Many Russian men who fled Russia over the Ukraine mobilization went to Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries, often waiting in line for long periods to get across the border. (file photo)

An officer with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) who fled to Kazakhstan to avoid Moscow's military mobilization for the war in Ukraine is in custody and faces deportation from the Central Asian nation.

According to Siberian journalist Yevgenia Baltatarova, who is currently based in Kazakhstan, 36-year-old Major Mikhail Zhilin managed to send his wife and children to Kazakhstan after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in September to beef-up his armed forces as they suffered setbacks from the strong resistance being put up by Ukraine's military.

Zhilin had to cross the border illegally as he knew that, as an FSB officer, he would not be allowed to leave the country. He asked for political asylum, but his request was rejected by Kazakh authorities and he was arrested, Baltatarova added in a Telegram post on December 8.

Baltatarova said that Zhilin, who fled his country along with hundreds of thousands of other men who were worried about the mobilization, now faces possible extradition to Russia, where he is wanted on a charge of desertion.

"In Russia, Mikhail will face a lengthy prison term or service in the death battalions [of private Vagner mercenary group that recruits inmates for the war in Ukraine]," Baltatarova wrote.

Kazakhstan's Migration Service has refused to give any information on Zhilin's case to RFE/RL. It has requested that written questions be sent to it.

Many Russian men who fled Russia over the mobilization went to Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries.

Kazakh Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov said at the time that the Central Asian nation would extradite only those Russian citizens who are added to Russia's wanted list.

With reporting by Reuters

Griner Arrives In U.S. As Biden Continues Fight To Free Whelan, Others From Russian Prisons

Viktor Bout (left), a suspected Russian arms dealer, and women's basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (right)

American basketball star Brittney Griner arrived in the United States on December 9 after being freed from a Russian jail in a high-profile prisoner exchange.

Griner, who was detained 10 months ago at a Moscow airport for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil, landed in Texas, where she was expected to be taken to a military hospital for observation.

The Biden administration's deal with Russia to free Griner, 32 and a star player with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was months in the making.

Griner's arrest and tough sentence came amid tense relations between Russia and the United States over a host of issues, including Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison for possessing less than one gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. She said she didn't intend to break Russian law.

The United States accused Russia of using Griner as a pawn and worked to free her, eventually agreeing to swap her for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The 55-year-old Bout arrived back in Russia the same day after 12 years in U.S. custody. Russia had been fighting for years to release Bout.

The swap was the second prisoner exchange between the two countries this year and more could follow.

The Biden administration and the Kremlin had been discussing a larger swap of prisoners, including securing the release of former U.S. marine Paul Whelan from a Russian jail, but failed to find a compromise.

Whelan was detained four years ago on charges of espionage that he and the U.S. government say are bogus. The Kremlin reportedly was only willing to swap Griner for Bout, noting that Whelan's charges were more serious.

Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on December 9 that he was open to further exchanges and the Biden administration reiterated that it is committed to bringing Whelan and others back home.

The United States has arrested dozens of Russian nationals in recent years, many on charges of cybercrimes, including Roman Seleznev, the son of a member of the Russian parliament.

Russia is reportedly keen on freeing Seleznev, local media have reported.

With reporting by AP

Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Sentenced To Eight Years In Prison

Ilya Yashin gestures inside a defendant's cage prior to his court hearing in Moscow on December 9.

A Moscow court has sentenced opposition politician Ilya Yashin to 8 1/2 years in prison on a charge of spreading false information about the Russian military amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The Meshchansky district court pronounced the decision on December 9.

Yashin, 39, is an outspoken Kremlin critic and one of the few prominent opposition politicians still in Russia after a wave of repression against supporters of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and people who have spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The sentence is the harshest handed down in cases of people charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces since a new law was introduced days after the Kremlin launched the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.

The case against Yashin was launched in July. The charge against him stems from his YouTube posts about alleged crimes committed by the Russian military in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

Yashin has been arrested many times in the past for his protest activities.

In his final testimony at the trial on December 5, Yashin said, "I do not regret anything."

"I could run away, I could keep silent. But I was doing what I had to do. It is better to spend 10 years behind bars than to feel ashamed for what is being conducted in your name," Yashin said.

Yashin has said that the authorities were trying to force him to leave Russia, which he refused to do.

Navalny condemned Yashin's sentencing, calling it "lawless."

"Another shameless and lawless verdict by Putin's court will not silence Ilya and should not intimidate the honest people of Russia. This is yet another reason why we need to keep fighting, and I have no doubt we will ultimately win," Navalny said on Twitter.

With reporting by Meduza

U.K. Says It Has Sanctioned 30 More Political Figures, Rights Violators

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

The United Kingdom has announced a new wave of sanctions that targets 30 individuals and entities -- including several Iranian and Russian officials -- it says are oppressing fundamental freedoms around the world.

This British Foreign Office said the announcement on December 9 to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and Global Human Rights Day includes 18 designations targeting individuals involved in violations and abuses of human rights, six perpetrators behind conflict-related sexual violence, and five individuals for their involvement in "serious corruption and illicit finance."

Among those sanctioned are Andrey Tishenin and Artur Shambazov, Moscow-installed officials in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and Valentin Oparin and Oleg Tkachenko, from the Rostov region of Russia that borders Crimea. All four are accused of using torture on prisoners or of obstructing complaints of torture.

Ten Iranian officials connected to Iran’s judicial and prison systems are on the list, including six individuals linked to courts that have been responsible for prosecuting protesters with "egregious sentences including the death penalty."

"It is our duty to promote free and open societies around the world," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.

"Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights to account. We are committed to using every lever at our disposal to secure a future of freedom over fear."

In total, the new sanctions include targets from 11 countries across seven sanctions regimes -- "the most that the U.K. has ever brought together in one package."

All of the individuals are subject to an asset freeze and travel ban, while all entities are subject to an asset freeze.

The statement said that five individuals, including Slobodan Tesic, "a significant arms dealer based in Serbia," Milan Radojcic, an ethnic Serb businessman from Kosovo, and Zvonko Veselinovic, a construction magnate in Kosovo, were on the list for corruption. The other two are Ilan Shor, a Moldovan politician, and Vladimir Plahotniuc, a businessman and a former politician who is a fugitive from Moldovan justice.

"Lining their pockets through corruption and theft, corrupt actors have a corrosive effect on the communities around them -- undermining democracy and depriving countries of vital resources for their own gain," the statement said.

"As a result, over 2 percent of global [gross domestic product] is lost to corruption every single year," it added.

UN Human Rights Chief 'Determined' To Follow Up With China On Xinjiang Concerns

UN human rights chief Volker Turk (file photo)

UN human rights chief Volker Turk said on December 9 that he was determined to engage with Beijing over the findings of a report issued by his predecessor that said China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity. Grappling with the human rights record of China has been one of the thorniest issues facing Turk since he started his job in October. Beijing pressured Turk's predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, not to publish the report, Reuters revealed, and she only did so a few minutes before the end of her term. To read the original Reuters story, click here.

Popular Russian Social Network VK Starts Marking Materials Containing LGBT Text

(file photo)

Four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding a ban on the promotion of "LGBT propaganda," the popular VKontakte (VK) social network has started putting a special disclaimer on online groups that post materials about LGBT communities. The disclaimers, which began appearing on December 9, warn that some groups may post "materials that may be considered in violation of the laws of the Russian Federation," including the LGBT law. Human rights defenders and activists working with LGBT+ groups have said the new law will make it impossible for public organizations that help LGBT+ organizations function. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Erdogan Says He Is Set To Speak To Putin, Zelenskiy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he will speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on December 11, and he will also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in order to strengthen the UN-backed Black Sea grain deal. Erdogan was making a speech at a conference in Istanbul on December 9, which Zelenskiy also addressed via video link. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Presses Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As U.S. Readies More Military Aid For Kyiv

A woman stands near the debris of her house following Russian shelling in the Donetsk region on December

Russian forces pounded the entire front line in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk and Luhansk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said on December 9, as U.S. officials said that Washington was preparing to send Ukraine a $275 million military aid package containing new capabilities to defeat drones and strengthen air defenses.

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, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Ukrainian forces repelled dozens of Russian attacks in the Bilohoryivka area in Luhansk as well as Klishchyivka and Maryinka in the Donetsk region, the General Staff said in its daily update.

"Over the past day, the enemy launched five missile strikes and three air strikes, as well as 54 salvoes from multiple rocket systems," it said, adding that the Russians continued to threaten Ukraine's already badly damaged energy infrastructure system as winter settles in.

The fiercest fighting continued near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a television interview. Artillery slammed into the town of Toretsk southwest of Bakhmut, killing one civilian and damaging 12 buildings, Kyrylenko said.

"The entire front line is being shelled," he said, adding that Russians were also trying to advance near Lyman, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces last month in one of a number of setbacks suffered by Moscow since invading its neighbor in February.

In Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, witnesses said.

The recently liberated city of Kherson sustained another wave of Russian bombardments targeting the energy and civilian infrastructure, according to Yuriy Sobolevskiy, the deputy head of the Kherson regional council.

"The night in Kherson was restless, with the sounds of explosions from enemy aircraft. The orcs were once again hitting civilian infrastructure," Sobolevskiy said on Telegram on December 9.

In Washington, officials said the United States is preparing to send Ukraine an additional $275 million in military aid, including large amounts of ammunition and high-tech systems that can be used to detect and counter drones.

Numerous waves of Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure over the past months have caused huge damage and left millions of people without electricity, heating, and water as freezing temperatures kicked in.

The fresh U.S. package, which could be announced as early as December 9, is also expected to include rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers made by Lockheed Martin Corp, 155-millimeter ammunition, Humvee military vehicles, and generators, according to the officials familiar with the issue.

A National Security Council spokesperson declined to comment on the aid package, which is smaller than most of the recent ones that the United States has delivered, and it comes as some military officials and experts predict a reduction in military hostilities during the winter.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Russia appears to be slowing its military activities to regroup and launch a new offensive when the weather warms.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed on December 8 to continue the attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

"There's a lot of noise about our strikes on the energy infrastructure of a neighboring country," Putin said at a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin. "This will not interfere with our combat missions," Putin added.

In yet another sign that Moscow was bent on keeping up the military pressure during the cold months, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 8 that its soldiers were preparing for fighting in winter conditions by taking part in tactical training exercises in Belarus.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the Belarusian strongman who relied on Russian troops to help put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed his country to serve as a launch pad for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. House Overwhelmingly Approves Bill Backing Record Military Spending

The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. (file photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives has backed legislation paving the way for the defense budget to hit a record $858 billion next year, $45 billion more than proposed by President Joe Biden. The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. The fiscal 2023 NDAA authorizes $858 billion in military spending and includes a 4.6 percent pay increase for the troops, funding for purchases of weapons, ships and aircraft, and support for Taiwan as it faces aggression from China and Ukraine as it fights an invasion by Russia. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

One Dead In Shopping Mall Fire In Moscow Suburb, Authorities Say

Authorities said that the flames at the Mega shopping center in Khimki spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters.

Fire engulfed the Mega shopping center in Khimki near Moscow early on December 9, emergency services said, adding that the fire was apparently caused by a short circuit. The flames spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters, authorities said. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said that one person died, apparently a security guard who did not have time to get out of the fire. Mega had been home to a large number of Western retail chains before the companies' departure from Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

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