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New Bulgaria Government To Back Russia Pipeline Plan

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov: "Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals."
SOFIA (Reuters) -- Bulgaria's new center-right government has agreed to stay onboard with Russia's planned South Stream gas pipeline but cast doubts over the future of two other joint energy projects.

Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said after meeting Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko that Sofia would benefit from the South Stream pipeline, designed to bring Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea and bypass Ukraine.

The new Bulgarian government, which won July elections, has been reviewing South Stream as well as plans to build a nuclear plant and participate in a trans-Balkan oil pipeline, to check if they match national interests and the European Union agenda.

Observers and diplomats say the review shows Bulgaria's readiness for closer ties with the EU after the previous Socialist-led cabinet irked Brussels and the United States by appearing to side with Russia.

The new government of the GERB party has already said it will give priority to the EU-sponsored Nabucco pipeline project, due to bring Caspian gas via the Balkans to Central Europe and thereby reduce the bloc's dependence on Russian gas.

"It was important for us to hear that Nabucco and South Stream are not rivals," Borisov told a joint news conference with Shmatko. "We equally participate in both. The benefit for us is that the Russian gas will come to our border."

He said work on the project will accelerate in the next two months.

Despite fears in Brussels that South Stream may hurt Nabucco's prospects, European companies are eager to join it.

Earlier this week, French power group EDF said it was in talks to take part in South Stream and Italian oil group ENI is already involved in the project.

The EU receives one-quarter of its gas from Russia and has so far managed to do little to secure supplies for Nabucco after a price row between Moscow and Kyiv disrupted supplies to Europe in January and Bulgaria was among the worst hit.

"When there is a lack of a coherent EU energy policy, in this game every country will do its best to serve its own interests," said Kiril Avramov of Political Capital think tank.

But he said Sofia's leverage in talks with Moscow was limited by the country's near full dependence on Russian energy.

Audit Of Nuclear Project

Shmatko said Moscow was ready to provide funding for some joint energy projects as Bulgaria struggled to raise money for the Belene nuclear power plant. He did not give details.

"We discussed the situation with Belene and we share the opinion of the Bulgarian side to make a quick audit of the project so that we can work out a joint approach...on funding the project," he told the same news conference.

The previous Bulgarian government had contracted Russia's Atomstroiexport to build the 2,000 MW plant and picked Germany's RWE for a 49-percent stake.

Soaring costs, which Sofia say could reach 10 billion euros, dwindling budget revenues, and lack of funding have prompted a rethink on Belene.

The new cabinet says Bulgaria does not need the extra electricity from Belene for domestic consuption and the project should be considered on purely economic terms.

Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister Traicho Traikov told the news conference Sofia would consider cutting its 51 percent stake in the project to attract more investors. He did not rule out Russian companies buying a stake.

Shmatko agreed to respond soon to Sofia's concerns about a planned oil pipeline due to carry Russian crude through Bulgaria to Greece. Borisov has said Bulgaria was worried about the environment and saw little benefits in the project.

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Several People Killed In Shooting At Copenhagen Shopping Mall

A rescue team arrives at Fields shopping center in Copenhagen on July 3 after Danish police said they received reports of a shooting at the site.

Copenhagen police say that several people were killed in a July 3 shooting at a shopping mall and that a 22-year-old male has been arrested.

“We know that there are several dead” and “several injured,” police inspector Soren Thomassen told a news conference.

He said terrorism could not be ruled out and that the shooter likely acted alone. The suspect was described as an “ethnic Dane.”

Thomassen did not provide further details on the victims or suspect or say how many people were killed or wounded.

Images of the scene at the Fields shopping mall showed people running out of the site, the largest shopping center in Denmark with 140 stores.

One witness said the shooter was carrying a hunting rifle.

Laurits Hermansen told Danish broadcaster DR he was in a clothing store at the shopping center when he heard “three-four bangs. Really loud bangs. It sounded like the shots were being fired just next to the store.”

Copenhagen’s main hospital told Reuters it had received a "small group of patients" for treatment and called in extra staff to handle the load.

Based on reporting by the BBC, AP, Reuters, and AFP

Georgians Take To Streets Of Tbilisi In Pro-EU, Anti-Government Rally

Tens of thousands of Georgians rallied on the streets of Tblisi on July 3.

TBILISI -- Tens of thousands of Georgians rallied on the streets of Tbilisi, angered by what the opposition sees as the government’s failure to make progress on reforms that can boost the Caucasus country’s hopes of joining the European Union.

Participants of the July 3 event, organized by the Shame civic movement and other pro-democracy groups, also displayed support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, which occupies segments of Georgian territory captured in a short 2008 war.

Protesters holding flares and waving Georgian and EU flags and banners blocked traffic on the central Rustaveli Avenue and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and for a new government of “national accord” to be formed.

Georgia has been gripped by protests after EU leaders last month deferred Tbilisi's membership candidacy, recognizing it as a “perspective member” but insisting that candidate status could only be granted as soon as “set priorities are met" and widespread reforms are put in place.

While deferring on Georgia, the EU at the same time formally agreed to take the historic step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s bitter denunciations of the two countries’ intensions.

Garibashvili has said his government is "mobilized" to meet the requirements set by Brussels "so that we get candidate status as soon as possible."

No immediate estimate on the number of rally participants was available, but an estimated 120,000 people took part in each of two previous rallies in the Georgian capital.

In one demonstration, Shota Digmelashvili of the Shame movement read out a manifesto and announced the launch of a new popular movement that will include opposition parties, civil society organization, journalists, and labor unions to make demands on the government.

The manifesto asserted that the country’s “main obstacle on its European path is Bidzina Ivanishvili," the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely believed to be the top decision-maker in the South Caucasus country even though he does not hold office.

In May, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy. Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.

In a Facebook statement, rally organizers called on Ivanishvili to "relinquish executive power and transfer it, in a constitutional manner, to a government of national accord."

The statement said a new government could "carry out the reforms required by the EU, which will automatically bring us the status of an EU membership candidate."

"A next stage of our protests begins today. We will not disperse."

The government led by the Georgian Dream party has been hit by increasing international criticism over perceived backsliding on democracy, damaging its EU hopes.

The European Commission said the conditions that Tbilisi must fulfill include ending political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and "de-oligarchization."

Georgian Dream officials insist they are following democratic principles and accused the opposition of "plans to overthrow the authorities by organizing anti-government rallies."

Opinion polls show that at least 80 percent of the Georgian population favor plans to join the EU, as well as NATO, amid perceived threats from Russia.

Georgia’s aspirations to forge closer ties with the West have long angered Russia. Tensions culminated in Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 after which Russia recognized South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, as independent countries and stationed thousands of its soldiers in those areas.

With reporting by AFP

Australian PM Offers Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine During Kyiv Visit

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on July 3.

During a visit to Kyiv, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pledged that his country will provide additional support to Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Albanese said on July 3 while meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that the new military assistance will include 14 armored personnel carriers, 20 Bushmaster armored vehicles, and a number of drones, worth a total of about A$100 million (US$68 million).

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zelenskiy said Australia was giving Ukraine "considerable aid, in particular defense support," and that the Australian-made Bushmaster vehicles were “highly valued.” The Bushmaster is designed mainly as a troop-transport vehicle.

Albanese also said Australia would slap sanctions and travel bans on 16 more Russian ministers and oligarchs, bringing to 843 the total number of Russians sanctioned by Australia.

The visit was the first ever to Ukraine by an Australian prime minister. Many Western leaders have also traveled to Kyiv to show support for Ukraine during the war with Russia.

"It is my great honor to be the first Australian prime minister to visit Ukraine," he said.

The trip will "show very clearly to the world the solidarity that exists between the Australian people and the people of Ukraine," Albanese added.

Albanese also visited the towns of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, where Ukraine says Russia committed atrocities against civilians. Moscow denies the allegations, despite widespread evidence.

"Australia supports Ukraine and wants to see justice meted out for the crimes committed here," Kyiv Oblast Governor Oleksiy Kuleba quoted Albanese as saying during his visit to the devastated towns.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

U.S. Marks Belarus National Day, Cites Reprisals, Lack Of Freedom For Government Opponents

Police use a water cannon agains demonstrators at a rally in Minsk following a presidential election in August 2020 that handed Alyaksandr Lukashenka victory despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department marked Belarus National Day, sending “warmest wishes” to the people but reminding the world that they remain under the harsh conditions imposed by authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with hundreds of political prisoners still behind bars.

“On behalf of the United States of America, I send my warmest wishes to the people of Belarus, wherever they may be,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on July 3.

However, “despite being an occasion to celebrate hard-won freedoms, Belarusians remain unable to determine their country’s future or express their views without fear of harsh reprisal,” he added.

“For the second year in a row, too many Belarusian families will mark this Independence Day separated from their loved ones, as more than 1,200 political prisoners languish in prisons for trying to exercise the freedoms this day is supposed to symbolize.”

Glaring Lights, Lukashenka Speeches: Former Belarusian Political Prisoners Describes Jail Conditions
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Belarus was hit by a wave of protests against the results of a presidential election in August 2020 that handed Lukashenka victory despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.

Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and a brutal police crackdown.

Western nations have also slapped Belarus, like its close ally Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine and Belarus’ efforts to aid the Russian invasion.

Kyiv Says Turkey Detains Russian Cargo Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain

The Russian-flagged cargo ship Zhibek Zholy, seen off the coast of Black Sea port of Karasu on July 3, is believed to be carrying 7,000 tons of Ukrainian grain.

Ukraine's ambassador to Ankara said Turkish authorities have detained a Russian cargo ship that is believed to be carrying stolen Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.

"We have full cooperation,” Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Ukrainian television on July 3. “The ship is currently standing at the entrance to the port. It has been detained by the customs authorities of Turkey."

Turkish officials did not immediately comment.

Kyiv on July 1 said it had asked Ankara to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship, the Zhibek Zholy, because it was carrying grain stolen from Ukraine.

"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Bodnar said on Twitter.

"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said. said the 140-meter general-cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about a kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.

On June 30, Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Moscow-appointed administration in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram that the ship had left the Berdyansk port and was headed for "friendly countries."

He said the ship was loaded with 7,000 tons of grain, but he did not specify which countries were considered friendly nor did he give any details on the origins of the grain.

Bodnar said investigators would meet on July 4 to determine the ship's fate and that Ukraine was seeking return of the grain.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has contributed to a global food shortage.

Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain, but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Grain is one of Ukraine's main industries. Exports totaled $12.2 billion last year and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the country's exports. Ukraine's Black Sea ports, including Berdyansk, handled about 6 million tons of grains and other crops each month before the war.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Reuters

Fatalities, More Than 1,000 Injuries Reported In Karakalpakstan Unrest

People protest in Nukus and other parts in Karakalpakstan on July 1.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev acknowledged that there have been fatalities among security personnel and civilians during unrest in Karakalpakstan, the Central Asian nation’s restive autonomous republic, with another report saying that more than 1,000 people had been injured in the turmoil.

In a speech reported by his press office on July 3, Mirziyoev did not provide numbers or details of deaths or injuries during protests ignited by his plans, now dropped, to make constitutional changes to weaken the autonomous republic’s status.

"Unfortunately, there are fatalities among civilians and law-enforcement officers," Mirziyoev said, according to his press office.

Accurate information is difficult to obtain from the region, with locals reporting that Internet and phone services have been severely limited and a state of emergency restricting movement.

In an online statement, Mirziyoev said protesters had taken "destructive actions" in Nukus, the regional capital, throwing stones, starting fires, and attacking law-enforcement personnel.

Uzbek news website quoted Sultanbek Ziyayev, head of Karakalpakstan’s Ministry of Health, as saying that Nukus hospitals were full of patients who had been hurt in clashes with police.

"Many of the wounded were hospitalized and are being treated. They are being provided with medical care," he said.

The news site quoted a ministry official as saying that "more than 1,000 of [the protesters] were injured in the riots." It was not clear if Ziyayev was the ministry official being quoted in that statement.

Reuters earlier quoted Pulat Ahunov, an exiled opposition politician, as saying that his contacts with local sources and video evidence indicated that at least five people had been confirmed dead, but he added it was feared dozens more had been killed.

Protests broke out in Nukus and other cities after changes initiated by Mirziyoev were proposed on June 27 to the Uzbek constitution, including removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose so in a referendum.

But during a visit to Karakalpakstan on July 2, Mirziyoev backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.

Uzbek authorities on July 2 declared the month-long state of emergency in areas of Karakalpakstan, a northwestern region spanning some 167,000 square kilometers with a population of about 2 million, split nearly evenly among ethic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks.

In the next few months, Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum on the changes to the constitution, which also include language that would allow Mirziyoev to run for office for another two terms.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, AFP, and Reuters

Former Iranian President's Daughter Charged With Anti-State Propaganda, Blasphemy

Faezeh Hashemi, the activist daughter of late Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in 2018.

The daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been charged with “propaganda activity against the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran and blasphemy,” Iran’s judiciary announced on July 3.

An indictment for the arrest of Faezeh Hashemi, a 59-year-old former lawmaker and rights activist, has been issued, but it was not reported whether she had been taken into custody.

The charges reportedly stem from comments Hashemi made during a social-media forum in April. She was reported to have said that Iran’s insistence that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of terrorist organizations was “damaging” to Iran’s national interests.

Tehran’s demand has become a key obstacle to restoring the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Hashemi reportedly also called the wife of the Prophet Mohammed a “businesswoman” whose money the prophet spent. She later called the comments a “joke…without any intention of causing insult.”

In 2012, Hashemi served six months in jail on charges of propaganda against Iran.

Rafsanjani served as president of Iran from 1989 to 1997. He was considered a pragmatic conservative who sought to avoid conflict with the United States and the West. He died in 2017.

Based on reporting by AFP, IRNA, and Asharq Al-Awsat

Czech Republic To Patrol Slovak Airspace, Says PM

Slovakia ordered 14 F-16 fighter jets from the United States to replace its Russian-made MiGs, and the first planes were scheduled to arrive this year. However, unexpected delays have pushed back that date to 2024.

Beginning in September, the Czech Republic will send fighter jets to patrol the airspace of neighboring Slovakia, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said on July 3.

“I don’t see any problem there,” he said. “The government will certainly approve it.”

Slovakia earlier asked NATO allies to patrol its skies after it decided to ground its own fleet of Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets. Bratislava intends to send the MiGs to Ukraine to help Kyiv fight off Russia’s invasion.

Slovakia ordered 14 F-16 fighters from the United States in 2018 to replace its MiGs, and the first planes were scheduled to arrive this year. However, unexpected delays have pushed back that date to 2024.

Slovakia has provided over 154 million euros ($160.6 million) in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russian Journalist Accused Of Discrediting Army Sent To Psychiatric Hospital

Maria Ponomarenko gestures from a court cell on May 20.

Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was detained in St. Petersburg in April on accusations of discrediting the Russian armed forces in social-media posts about the war in Ukraine, has been transferred to a Siberian psychiatric hospital, her lawyer reported on July 2.

Lawyer Sergei Podolsky said Ponomarenko will be evaluated at the Altai Clinical Psychological Hospital for 28 days.

Ponomarenko, who lives and works in the Altai region city of Barnaul and is the mother of two young children, was transferred from St. Petersburg to Barnaul late last month.

“Today I went there and handed over a parcel for her,” Novosibirsk activist Yana Drobhokhod told RFE/RL. “She is not allowed to receive letters or visits from relatives. She is allowed to meet with her lawyers.”

Ponomarenko faces up to 10 years in prison for a Telegram post about the Russian bombing of a theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in which hundreds of civilians were killed. A Russian law passed in March criminalizes the dissemination of "fake" reports that "discredit the armed forces."

Ailing Russian Scientist Accused Of Treason Dies In Custody

Scientist Dmitry Kolker, who was being treated for late-stage pancreatic cancer at a Novosibirsk clinic when he was arrested, was accused of passing state secrets to China. (file photo)

A Novosibirsk scientist who was detained on June 30 on suspicion of treason has died, Russian media reported on July 3.

Lawyer Aleksandr Fedulov, who was representing physicist Dmitry Kolker, 54, told Reuters that the scientist died on July 2.

“He died yesterday,” Fedulov said. “Tomorrow we will lodge a complaint over his detention.”

Kolker’s daughter confirmed that his family had received a telegram informing them that Kolker had died but added that the message contained so little information that the family cannot confirm his passing.

“My brother at first posted the information on VK, but I asked him to take it down,” she told the Sibermedia Telegram channel. “We need to get confirmation.”

Kolker, who was being treated for late-stage pancreatic cancer at a Novosibirsk clinic when he was arrested, was accused of passing state secrets to China. A Moscow court on July 2 ordered him held in custody for two months pending the investigation, which was being conducted by the Federal Security Service.

Kolker’s son, Dmitry, told journalists at the time of his father’s arrest that Kolker was unable to eat on his own and was being fed intravenously at the Novosibirsk clinic.

Kolker, who holds numerous patents and headed the Laboratory of Quantum Optics at Novosibirsk State University, had given lectures at Chinese universities.

Another scientist with the Institute of Theoretical and Practical Mechanics of the Siberian Academy of Sciences, 75-year-old Anatoly Maslov, was also detained in connection with the case.

He is reportedly being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.

Over the past five years, at least 12 employees of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been targeted in criminal investigations.

With reporting by Reuters

Thousands Protest In North Macedonia Against Compromise With Bulgaria

The July 2 rally in Skopje came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise agreement was near over the long-standing dispute.

SKOPJE -- Tens of thousands of people gathered in North Macedonia’s capital to protest against a French proposal that seeks to end a dispute with Bulgaria that is blocking Skopje’s bid to join the European Union.

The July 2 rally, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise agreement was near over the long-standing dispute.

North Macedonia's prime minister, Dimitar Kovachevsk, said the proposal is a “solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country.”

However, VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in a dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

Macron did not provide details when he made the comment on June 30 at a news conference at the close of the NATO summit in Spain.

EU officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the proposal takes into account concerns expressed by both sides, potentially breaking a deadlock that has prevented the start of accession talks for more than two years.

Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the deadlock in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.

Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping their opposition, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership.

Bulgaria, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was hate speech against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia said that its identity and language weren’t open for discussion.

The French proposal would have Skopje include ethnic Bulgarians in its constitution "on an equal footing with other peoples" and change history textbooks.

Bulgaria claims the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian, and both countries lay claim to certain historical events and figures, mainly from the Ottoman era.

With reporting by AP and AFP

Famed Soviet Animator Leonid Shvartsman Dies At Age 101

Soviet and Russian animator Leonid Shvartsman reacts on his balcony while being greeted with a private performance arranged by the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio in honor of his 100th birthday in August 2020.

Famed Soviet and Russian animator Leonid Shvartsman has died at age 101, Russia’s TASS news agency reports on July 2.

"Leonid Aronovich Shvartsman, a legend of animated cinema, a unique artist and director who gave millions of people kind, cheerful fairy tales, colorful book illustrations, has passed away," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said in a statement on Telegram.

Born in Minsk, Shvartsman began working with Soyuzmultfilm in Moscow in 1951 and remained there his entire career, being credited with work on 70 films at the studio.

He is credited with creating the visual image of Cheburashka, a popular fictional character created by Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky in a 1965 children's book.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

Russian Forces Blast Key Donetsk City After Claiming Capture Of Luhansk Region

Many residents refuse to leave Slovyansk despite Russian bombardments and increasingly difficult living conditions. (video grab)

Russian forces stepped up their onslaught on Ukraine’s Donetsk region on July 3, shelling the key city of Slovyansk after claiming earlier in the day to have taken the entire territory of the neighboring Luhansk region.

Slovyansk Mayor Vadim Lyakh reported in a Facebook post that his city had been hit by "shelling from multiple rocket launchers…the heaviest for a long time.”

“There are 15 fires. Many dead and wounded,” he added.

After failing to take the capital, Kyiv, Russia revised its military focus on Ukraine's east with the goal of capturing the Donbas, which is composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Slovyansk, which had a pre-war population of about 107,000, has long been a focal point of Moscow’s territorial ambitions in the Donetsk region. It was captured by Russia-backed separatists in April 2014 but retaken by Ukrainian forces three months later.

Parts of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been under the control of pro-Russia separatists since 2014, when Russia also invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a move not recognized by the rest of the world.

Early on July 3, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the Russian military had taken the entire territory of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to TASS.

Russian state media quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying, “Russian troops…are fighting inside Lysychansk, completing the defeat of the encircled enemy.”

Late on July 3, Ukraine’s military command acknowledged that its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk, saying they had decided to pull back.

In the face of “Russian occupation troops multiple advantage in troops in artillery, aviation, multiple launch rocket systems, ammunition and personnel, the continuation of the defense of the city would lead to fatal consequences.”

“In order to save the lives of Ukrainian defenders, it was decided to withdraw,” it said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his nightly national address, also confirmed the withdrawal from Lysychansk but vowed his forces would eventually regain the territory.

"If the commanders of our army withdraw people from certain points at the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in fire power, and this also applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing -- that we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons,” he said.

Russian troops blasted Lysychansk with rocket and missile attacks over the past several days, and the latest fighting comes a week after the fall of its sister city, Syevyerodonetsk, just across the Siverskiy Donets River. That city had been reduced to rubble by Russian forces prior to the takeover.

'We Won't Surrender': Slovyansk Prepares For Russian Offensive
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Also on July 3, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv, said at least three people were killed and numerous buildings damaged overnight in the regional capital in what a senior Russian lawmaker called “a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine.”

In a post on Telegram on July 3, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported numerous explosions in Belgorod, a city of some 400,000 people about 40 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine. He said at least 11 apartment buildings and 39 detached houses were damaged or destroyed in the overnight incident.

At least four people, including a 10-year-old child, were injured, Gladkov claimed.

Russian Federation Council lawmaker Andrei Klishas directly blamed Ukraine for the purported incident.

“The death of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Belgorod are a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine and require the most severe -- including a military -- response,” Klishas wrote on Telegram.

The claims of the Russian officials could not be independently verified, and Ukraine made no immediate response. Videos posted on social media purported to show explosions and fires in the city.

The same day, the governor of Russia’s neighboring Kursk region, which also borders Ukraine, wrote on Telegram that “our air defenses shot down two Ukrainian Strizh drones” during the night, adding that there were no casualties in the incident. Unverifiable video posted on social media purported to show a large plume of smoke near the city of Kursk.

There have been numerous reported incidents of fires and explosions in Belgorod and other regions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for any of them.

The report from Belgorod comes as the Russian military has stepped up missile attacks across Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and millions displaced since the war began, although Russian officials have denied targeting civilians.

Ukraine on July 3 claimed it carried out dozens of missile strikes against a Russian military base in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol. Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov posted on Telegram from Ukrainian-controlled territory that the base had been “taken out of action.” He added that partisan action had derailed a Russian military train carrying ammunition outside Melitopol on July 2.

Russian media quoted a Russian-appointed local occupation official as saying two missile strikes had been recorded in the city overnight and that there were no casualties.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, and dpa

Iranian Foreign Minister Travels To Damascus Amid Tensions Between Syria, Turkey

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has traveled to Damascus in a bid to "prevent a new crisis" amid tensions between Syria and Turkey over Ankara’s threats to launch a new offensive against Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

Amir-Abdollahian said on July 2 that his trip "was aimed at establishing peace and security in the region between Syria and Turkey."

"Developments are happening in the region [and Iran should] try to prevent a new crisis in the region," he said.

The Syrian civil war killed thousands of people and drove millions from their homes and the country.

Iran and Russia backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the United States supported differing rebel groups.

Ankara has also conducted military operations against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, accusing them of having links to Kurdish separatist groups inside Turkey.

Meanwhile, Iran is also plagued by Kurdish separatist elements in its own country.

The Iranian foreign minister’s trip to Damascus comes days after he visited Turkey to meet with leaders there.

"We understand Turkey's security concerns very well," he told a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

In Syria, Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by Iranian state news agency IRNA as saying, "After my visit to is necessary to have consultations with the Syrian authorities."

He was also quoted as saying he opposed any new military incursion into Syria by Turkish forces.

With reporting by AFP and AP

After Protests, Uzbek President Backs Down On Proposed Changes To Karakalpakstan's Status In Constitution

The flags of Uzbekistan (right) and Karakalpakstan (file photo)

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has abruptly scrapped plans to abolish the country’s Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic’s right to secede following rare mass protests in the restive region, according to his office.

Mirziyoev’s office on July 2 said the president made the remarks during a visit to Karakalpakstan, declaring that changes to Karakalpakstan’s status must be dropped from a proposed constitutional reform plan.

The decision, if confirmed, would mark an apparent backing down by the Uzbek government, which on June 27 had proposed constitutional changes that included eliminating mention of Karakalpakstan’s long-standing right to seek independence from Uzbekistan.

It is not clear if the move would satisfy the protesters. Hours after Mirziyoev’s announcement, presidential press secretary Sherzod Asadov wrote on Telegram that Uzbekistan was imposing a one-month state of emergency in the region, running to August 2.

According to the draft amendments initiated last month by Mirziyoev, Karakalpakstan would retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants would be taken out.

Other constitutional reforms proposed would allow Mirziyoev to run for two more terms in office.

The planned changes sparked street protests in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, and other regional cities.

Prior to Mirziyoev’s visit to Nukus, regional authorities said protesters “attempted to seize government bodies” after mass demonstrations broke out in the region’s capital over the planned constitutional changes.

Authorities said unnamed "organizers of the riots" had gathered citizens on the square near the complex of administrative buildings in Nukus, "made an attempt to seize these state institutions, and thus split society, and to destabilize the sociopolitical situation in Uzbekistan."

The statement added that security forces "stopped the actions of the instigators," who were detained.

Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry claimed that the protests were "a result of misunderstanding the [proposed] constitutional reforms."

Obtaining accurate information from Karakalpakstan is difficult because of limited or disrupted Internet and telephone service.

Local media had cited authorities as saying that the amendments curtailing the region’s right to seek independence were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well as in Tashkent due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."

Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

The current Uzbek Constitution describes Karakalpakstan, located in northwestern Uzbekistan, as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.

Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months on the new version of the constitution, which would eliminate Karakalpakstan's right to secede.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Britain Condemns Russia's 'Exploitation' Of Ukraine Prisoners Following Capture Of Two More Britons

Britain's Foreign Office has condemned what it called the “exploitation” of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes following the capture of two British men by Russian forces in Ukraine.

“We condemn the exploitation of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes and have raised this with Russia,” the Foreign Office said on July 2. “We are in constant contact with the government of Ukraine on their cases and are fully supportive of Ukraine in its efforts to get them released.”

Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said aid worker Dylan Healy, 22, and military volunteer Andrew Hill have been charged with carrying out “mercenary activities.”

A pro-Kremlin website said Healy and Hill would face the same charges as two British military volunteers captured in Mariupol.

In early June, the two Britons -- Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner -- and a Moroccan national -- Saaudun Brahim -- were sentenced to death by the separatists for "mercenary activities."

All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russia separatists while fighting Russian forces.

Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany condemned the death sentences.

The European Court of Human Rights on June 30 intervened in the case and warned Moscow it must ensure the death penalty is not carried out.

The British government insisted that as legitimate members of the Ukrainian armed forces, they should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

Westerners have been traveling to Ukraine to help defend it against Russia's unprovoked invasion or to assist in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians forced to fleet their homes by the Russian military onslaught.

Based on reporting by PA Media, dpa, and Reuters

Shoot-Out Among Migrants Leaves One Dead, Six Hurt In Serbia, Near Hungarian Border

Refugees and migrants from the Middle East in the forest in Serbia near the Hungarian border in June.

A shoot-out between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border has left at least one person dead and six others wounded, Serbian state-run RTS television reports.

RTS on July 2 said a 16-year-old girl suffered serious injuries in the shoot-out in a forest outside of Subotica, about 160 kilometers north of Belgrade. The injured were taken to the capital for treatment.

Subotica Mayor Stevan Bakic said the victims -- mostly aged 20-30 -- did not have identity documents.

The report said police blocked access to the forest about a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Authorities did not describe what caused the shoot-out, but local media said it occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants, most likely over human trafficking from the area to Hungary, a member of the European Union.

Migrants often use the so-called Balkan route in hopes of reaching Western Europe, many fleeing poverty or conflict in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

Based on reporting by AFP and RTS Television

Greece Authorizes Release Of Iranian-Flagged Oil Tanker Seized In April

The Liberian-flagged oil tanker Ice Energy (left) transfers crude oil from the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Lana (former Pegas), off the shore of the Greek island of Evia on May 26.

Greece said on July 2 that an Iranian-flagged tanker seized by Athens in April was being towed to the port of Piraeus following a decision by a Greek judicial panel to release the vessel.

The Lana has been anchored off the Greek island of Evia for the past two months in a diplomatic standoff that has strained relations between Athens and Tehran.

The vessel was seized by Greek authorities on April 15 when it anchored off the port of Karystos on Evia. At the time, it was flying a Russian flag and was carrying a crew of 19 Russians.

The Greek Coast Guard said it was seized over suspicions it had breached EU sanctions imposed against Russia due to the war in Ukraine.

The oil on the ship was confiscated by the United States and transferred to another vessel.

It was unclear whether the oil was seized because it was Iranian oil subject to U.S. sanctions or whether it was due to sanctions on the tanker, which recently changed its name from Pegas to Lana and which has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.

A source at Greece's Shipping Ministry quoted by Reuters said the U.S. Department of Justice had "informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil."

The decision to seize the ship was overturned on June 10, but it remained anchored over claims by another company over debts owed for towing services.

The ship was eventually released after the debt was paid off, Reuters quoted legal sources as saying.

The Greek judicial panel overturned the ruling that had allowed the United States to seize the cargo, but it was not immediately clear if the Lana would attempt to retrieve the oil.

The incident prompted Iranian forces in May to seize two Greek tankers in the Persian Gulf and sail them back to Iran, with Tehran warning of "punitive action" against Athens. They are still being held.

Greece's Foreign Ministry protested to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf. “These acts effectively amount to acts of piracy," it said.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Germany To Open New LNG Ports By Early 2023 In Bid To Cut Dependence On Russia

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has "never been seen before in Germany." (file photo)

Germany will begin operation of two temporary terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by early 2023, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in an interview published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on July 2.

In all, the German government has leased four floating LNG terminals in its aggressive effort to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.

“Two ships are already available this year and are to be deployed in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel at the turn of the year 2022-23,” Habeck said.

He said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has “never been seen before in Germany.”

Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany’s Network Agency, which oversees energy supplies, said on July 2 that he fears Russia could cut off gas supplies to Germany entirely.

The same day, Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, was also quoted by Welt am Sonntag as saying rationing of hot water for residences in the city could be imposed if Russia reduces gas supplies.

“In an acute gas shortage, warm water could be only made available at certain times of day,” Kerstan said, urging citizens and companies to reduce energy consumption to help the government fill storage capacity ahead of the winter heating season.

Kerstan said a temporary LNG terminal planned for Hamburg would not be operational until mid-2023 at the earliest.

Russia reduced gas supplies to Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia last month, citing technical issues with the Nord Stream-1 pipeline. At the time, Habeck said there were no technical issues and that Germany was “in a trade dispute” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In June, the European Union as a whole imported more LNG from the United States than pipeline gas from Russia for the first time ever.

Nonetheless, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, wrote on Twitter that “the drop in Russian supplies calls for efforts to reduce EU demand to prepare for a tough winter.”

With reporting by Welt am Sonntag, Reuters, TASS, and dpa

Fatalities Reported As Earthquake Rocks Southern Iran

The epicenter of the quake was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.

A powerful earthquake rocked southern Iran overnight, officials reported on July 2.

Iranian state television reported that at least five people had been killed and 80 injured in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the epicenter of which was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.

Rescue workers were on the scene as aftershocks continued to drive locals into the streets.

The early morning earthquake damaged dozens of buildings and other structures in the village of Sayeh Khosh, where about 300 people live. Homozgan Governor Mehdi Dousti told the IRNA news agency that Sayeh Khosh was largely destroyed.

It was not clear where the fatalities occurred.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi traveled to the province on July 2 and told journalists that the government’s top priority was to restore water and electricity service in the affected areas.

Iran straddles several tectonic plates and is crisscrossed by seismic fault lines.

In 1990, the country was struck by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in the northern part of the country that killed more than 40,000 people. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake in southern Kerman Province left more than 31,000 people dead.

Based on reporting by IRNA, Tasnim, Reuters, and AP

Ukraine Asks Turkey To Detain Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain

The Azov Sea port of Berdyansk (file photo)

Ukraine has asked Turkey to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship believed to be carrying Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Ankara on July 1 said the Zhibek Zholy had reached the Turkish port of Karasu after setting sail from Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.

"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Twitter.

"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said.

The ambassador's tweets did not specify the ship's cargo. said the 140-meter general cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about 1 kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.

Yevhen Balytskiy, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk. He said it was headed for "friendly countries" but did not name them or give any details on the origins of the grain.

A letter dated June 30 to Turkey's Justice Ministry says the Zhibek Zholy was involved in the "illegal export of Ukrainian grain" from Berdyansk, according to Reuters, which said it had seen the document.

Bodnar last month accused Turkey of purchasing grain seized by Russia from Ukraine during its invasion.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Ankara was investigating reports of Russian-seized Ukrainian grain reaching its shores. He added that Turkey had been unable to find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments to date.

Moscow-installed officials claim that they have nationalized state infrastructure and buy their crops from local farmers.

Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports, endangering the world's food supply.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Detained Russian Hockey Star Fedotov Reportedly Hospitalized

Russian goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov (right)

Russian ice hockey goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov was taken by ambulance from the St. Petersburg military commissariat during the night of July 1-2 and hospitalized, Russian media reported.

Russian authorities made no official statement on the reports, and no information about the state of Fedotov’s health was reported.

Earlier on July 1, Fedotov, 25, had been detained at the request of military prosecutors on suspicion of avoiding military service.

Last month, Fedotov -- one of Russia’s best goalkeepers and a member of the national team -- signed an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers of the U.S. National Hockey League and planned to quit his Russian club, Central Sport Club of the Army (CSKA), to play in the United States.

CSKA is an ice hockey club of the Russian Army and its members are officially considered military personnel. Therefore, termination of CSKA contracts by players may be illegal.

Fedotov played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow in the 2021-22 season, leading the team to the league championship. He was named one of three finalists for the KHL's best goalie award.

Fedotov also played on Russia's 2022 Olympic team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, winning a silver medal as the starting goaltender.

Labor Activist In Iran Ordered To Serve Seven-Year Prison Term

Nasrin Javadi

Nasrin Javadi, a trade union activist in Iran, has begun serving a seven-year prison sentence that she and activists have slammed as retribution for her labor agitation.

The Free Union of Iranian Workers said in a statement on June 30, that Javadi was ordered to report to prison on July 2, following "numerous summonses and pressure from the authorities."

Javadi, 64, was first arrested on May 1, 2019, when she attended a workers’ protest rally in front of parliament in Tehran. She was released from Qarchak prison on May 29 that year after posting bail.

Since then, the labor activist has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison and 74 lashes by the Revolutionary Court for charges including "gathering and conspiring to act against the security of the country," "disturbing public order and peace," and "propaganda against the regime.”

Activists and human rights groups have condemned the charges, saying Javadi has been persecuted for her labor activism.

In the past, Javadi’s lawyer had submitted medical documents to court showing she suffers from “numerous illnesses” that make it impossible for her to serve time in prison.

Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Authorities have cracked down on the protests, arresting many of those taking part.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Visa Delay Denies Iranian Tennis Player Chance To Play In Wimbledon

Mashkat Safi

The British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates failed to issue a visa to the 18-year-old Iranian tennis player Mashkat Safi, denying her the opportunity to become the first Iranian woman to participate in the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

The tennis player’s manager, Amir Sadri, said in a video on June 30 that with Safi’s first match scheduled for July 2 there was no way she could play due to the visa delay.

The reason for the delay in issuing the visa has not been disclosed by the British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, which received Safi's request.

In 2021, when Safi was 17 years old, she won her match in the first round of the Australian Open, achieving a first in Iranian sports.

She is also the first Iranian female athlete to be ranked in the top 100 of the junior world rankings.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Tokyo Scrambles After Putin Orders Transfer Of Joint Oil And Gas Project

The Sakhalin-2 project's liquefaction gas plant in Russia's Far East. (file photo)

Japan's government warned on July 1 that its "interests must not be undermined" after a Moscow decree ordered a transfer of the operations of a multibillion-dollar joint oil and gas project to a new Russian entity.

The decree over control of the Sakhalin-2 project in Russia's Far East was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier and could mark a dangerous new precedent in Moscow's relations with foreign investors.

"Speaking generally, we believe our resource interests must not be undermined," Japanese government spokesman Seiji Kihara said. He said Tokyo was "closely examining the impact on liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports."

Japan relies heavily on LNG imports and had previously ruled out Japanese companies' withdrawal from the Sakhalin-2 project despite Tokyo's support for international energy sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said later that his government did not think the decree "will immediately stop LNG imports," but his economy minister said officials were examining other potential suppliers.

Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda told reporters that Japanese officials do not regard the decree as a requisition but interpret it as Putin asking stakeholders about a possible handover to a new company.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui and Mitsubishi Corp own a combined 22.5 percent in Sakhalin-2.

Russian officials have been stung by massive financial and other sanctions since tens of thousands of Putin's troops rolled across Ukraine's borders on February 24.

Putin's decree reportedly creates a new Russian operator of Sakhalin-2 and requires current owners to apply to Moscow for the right to participate in it.

Asked about Sakhalin-2 as an example of what might happen to other joint projects with Western investors, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would act on a case-by-case basis.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

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