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Obama Calls For 'Exit Strategy' As Part Of New Afghan Policy

U.S. President Barack Obama told "60 Minutes" that "there has got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."
U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that a U.S. "exit strategy" should be part of a new comprehensive policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan that he is expected to unveil soon.

Obama said his call for sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan should be part of a comprehensive strategy that has military, economic, and diplomatic components.

"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems," Obama told the CBS News program "60 Minutes" in a wide-ranging interview broadcast March 22. "So what we are looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there has got to be an exit strategy. There has got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

Obama is expected as soon as this week to announce his administration's strategy for fighting militants in Afghanistan, and a senior administration envoy has reportedly already begun outlining the plans to NATO allies.

Civilian and military advisers have recommended that U.S. efforts in the region should focus on one overriding priority. Obama told "60 Minutes" that a series of changes are needed to achieve that focus, but that "making sure that Al-Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interest and our allies...is our No. 1 priority."

"In service of that priority, there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan. We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies," Obama said. "But we can't lose sight of what our central mission is -- the same mission that we had when we went in after [September 11, 2001]."

Envoy's Role

Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has been working for months to help draft the new strategy.

Holbrooke on March 21 revealed that the draft plan calls for a significant increase in the size of the Afghan National Police. Holbrooke explained that the Bush administration's projections on the growth of the Afghan National Police during the next three to four years had been a mere 4,000 new officers -- raising the total number of Afghan police to about 82,000.

"Everyone we talked to, without exception -- Afghans, insurgency experts, the government, American military -- everyone agreed that was not sufficient. So we are looking, in conjunction with our allies and friends in the Afghan government, at a very significant increase for the police," Holbrooke said, according to Reuters. "But here's the problem: The police aren't very good right now. We know they are the weak link in the security chain. So we have to figure out a way to increase the size and make them better at the same time."

The draft strategy reportedly calls for U.S. military aid to Pakistan to be made dependent on measurable cooperation against extremists in Pakistan's border areas near Afghanistan -- including Baluchistan Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Another recommendation in the draft plan is increased intelligence-sharing between Pakistan, the U.S. military, and Afghanistan -- including boosted surveillance and more so-called coordinating centers like one that opened recently at the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Talks Within NATO

Holbrooke met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels on March 23 before briefing ambassadors from the 26 countries in the alliance about the new U.S. strategy.

Reuters quoted NATO spokesman James Appathurai as saying the meeting appeared intended to "give the broad lines of the U.S. strategy review as it now stands."

"I don't know that they've arrived at any final conclusions on which President Obama has signed off on, but their thinking is now very close to the conclusion of the process," Appathurai added.

Jamie Shea, director of policy planning in the private office of the NATO secretary-general, told RFE/RL ahead of the March 23 briefing that NATO has "got to bring Pakistan as closely as we can into a regional approach in order to be successful in Afghanistan."

"We realize fully well that we cannot solve the situation in Afghanistan without the active cooperation of Pakistan," Shea said. "We want to step up our cooperation, and the good news is that Pakistan wants also to engage more with NATO -- for instance, improving the lines of communication, setting up a NATO liaison office in Islamabad, stepping up the cooperation on the border [where] we are in the process of setting up six border cooperation centers, sharing intelligence."

Other aspects of the Obama administration's draft strategy reportedly include proposals for increasing U.S. nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan -- in particular, aid for creating jobs to lure militant mercenaries from the battlefield.

with additional wire reporting

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U.S. Announces Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Network Used To Purchase Drone Parts

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the new sanctions on March 21. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals accused of procuring equipment used to make drones.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) coordinated with the FBI to designate four entities and three people in Iran and Turkey for allegedly buying equipment to be used for Iran’s drone and weapons programs.

“Iran’s well-documented proliferation of [drones] and conventional weapons to its proxies continues to undermine both regional security and global stability,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a news release issued on March 21.

“The United States will continue to expose foreign procurement networks in any jurisdiction that supports Iran’s military industrial complex," he said.

Among those blacklisted in the new round of sanctions are the Iran-based Defense Technology and Science Research Center (DTSRC), its procurement firm Farazan Industrial Engineering, and two other firms along with the companies’ purchasing agents.

The Treasury Department said this procurement network operates on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which oversees several firms involved in drone and ballistic missile development.

U.S. defense officials say Iran is supplying Russia with drones, which have been used on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as the Kremlin presses its invasion.

The action follows OFAC’s designations on March 9 of a network based in China in connection with Iran’s drone procurement efforts, as well as several previous OFAC actions targeting Iran’s UAV manufacturers and their executives since September 2022.

The individuals named are Amanallah Paidar, who has served as a commercial manager and procurement agent for the DTSRC; Murat Bukey, a procurement agent who has supported Paidar and his DTSRC-related procurement; and Asghar Mahmoudi, who has facilitated the supply of items, including marine electronics, to Paidar and the DTSRC, according to the OFAC.

Bukey attempted to provide European-origin engines with drone and surface-to-air missile applications to Paidar and Farazan Industrial Engineering, OFAC said, adding that he separately sold more than 100 European-origin drone engines and related accessories worth more than $1 million to companies that likely shipped the items to Iran.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdiction by the three individuals and the entities. In addition, people in the United States who engage in transactions with those designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

With reporting by AP

Protests In Western Iran Met With Force Despite New Year Holiday

People attend a protest on the Persian New Year holiday in western Iran on March 20.

Fresh anti-government protests in several Kurdish cities in western Iran, held as the country celebrates the Persian New Year holiday, have been met with violence from security forces.

Reports published on social media show that in the western cities of Iran, including Mahabad, Oshnavieh, Bukan, Piranshahr, Saqez, Sanandaj, and Dehgolan, people took to the streets on March 20 with several of the gatherings encountering attacks by government forces.

According to local sources, including the website of the Hengaw human rights group, people in the western Iranian city of Saqez gathered at the grave of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody last September -- an event that sparked months of protests across the country.

Those who gathered to protest chanted anti-government slogans, as well as "The martyr will never die."


Meanwhile, protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood and elsewhere in the capital chanted "Death to the dictator," a reference to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from windows and rooftops as the Persian New Year began.


Amini's death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests that authorities have met with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed -- without providing evidence -- the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Court In Italy Approves Decision To Extradite Son Of Russian Region's Governor To U.S.

Artyom Uss (file photo)

A court of appeals in the Italian city of Milan has approved a motion to extradite Artyom Uss, the son of the governor of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai region, to the United States, where he may face up to 30 years in prison on charges of sanctions evasion and money laundering.

The La Repubblica newspaper reported on March 21 that the 41-year-old Uss has been placed under house arrest near Milan.

Uss was arrested in October at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained at Milan's Malpensa airport, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. The move appeared aimed at heading off his extradition to the United States.

Uss asked to be handed over to the Russian authorities in January.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in October that another suspect in the case against Uss, Yury Orekhov, was arrested in Germany.

A 12-count indictment was unsealed on October 19 in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging the two men along with three other Russian nationals -- Svetlana Kuzurgasheva, Timofei Telegin, and Sergei Tulyakov. In addition, two Venezuelan nationals -- Juan Fernando Serrano Ponce and Juan Carlos Soto -- were charged with brokering illicit oil deals for a Venezuelan energy company.

According to the statement, Uss and Orekhov owned Nord-Deutsche Industrieanlagenbau GmbH (NDA GmbH), which bought U.S. military technologies and dual-use technologies, including semiconductors and microchips that are used in military jets, missile systems, modern ammunition, radars, and satellites. Kuzurgasheva served as the company's executive director.

The items bought in the United States by the company in question were then passed on to Russian companies -- Radioavtomatika, Radioexport, and Abtronix -- owned by Telegin and Tulyakov.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Office said the items were discovered in Russian military vehicles and in equipment captured by Ukrainian forces during Russia's ongoing full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

According to the indictment papers, Uss and Orekhov also used NDA GmbH to illegally smuggle hundreds of millions of tons of oil from Venezuela to companies in China and Russia, including one that might be linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Aleksandr Uss, Artyom's father, has served as the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai since 2018.

Ukrainian Refugees To Attend Euro 2024 Qualifier At Wembley

More than 5,000 Ukraine supporters are expected to be at the game in London on March 26. (file photo)

The Football Association has invited more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees and their host families to attend England's Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine at Wembley on March 26. There are around 117,000 Ukrainian refugees in the United Kingdom, many of them housed with people who volunteered to open up their homes to those fleeing the conflict. There are expected to be 4,200 Ukraine supporters among the sell-out crowd, in addition to those invited from the scheme.

Jailed Belarusian RFE/RL Journalist Losik May Be In Solitary Confinement

Belarusian journalist Ihar Losik (file photo)

Jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik may still be in solitary confinement, sources told RFE/RL's Belarus Service, following a rights-group report that he had been taken to hospital after cutting himself with a sharp instrument to protest against orders given to him by prison guards.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center quoted sources on March 20 as saying Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck" while on a hunger strike in punitive solitary confinement.

Prison officials have not commented on the situation, and Losik's family and lawyer have said they are trying to get information on his status as they have not been able to communicate with him for weeks.

Sources close to penitentiary services told RFE/RL on March 21 that Losik cut his hand and neck to protest an order to clean his barracks. According to the sources, the incident took place on March 15 and since the wounds were not serious, Losik may still be in solitary confinement at correctional camp No. 1 in the city of Navapolatsk in the country's northeast.

RFE/RL journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, who has served time in Belarusian correctional facilities, told RFE/RL that, in general, inmates clean their premises and the places they live themselves.

But in situations when guards order a cleaning of the premises, especially restrooms, inmates sometimes choose to disobey such orders, or even inflict bodily harm on themselves, to protest against carrying out the task.

"To follow such an order automatically places an inmate among prisoners who have a so-called 'lower status'," Hruzdzilovich said.

Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on a number of indictments, including "organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred," and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and says all the charges against him are politically motivated.

In January, Losik's wife, Darya Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

On March 21, the Belarusian Supreme Court rejected her appeal against the sentence.

The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Paulina, is currently in the custody of Darya Losik's parents.

The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Ihar and Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded the couple's immediate release and condemned their imprisonment.

Seven Out Of 30 Allies Met NATO Military Spending Target In 2022, Says Stoltenberg

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

Seven out of 30 allies met NATO's military spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022, one country less than in 2021 before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the alliance's chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said on March 21, urging allies to boost defense investment more quickly. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that the alliance originally had expected two more countries to meet the goal. "But because GDP has increased more than expected for a couple of allies, two allies that we expected to be at 2 percent are now slightly below 2 percent," he said.

U.S. Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery To Ukraine War Zone

U.S. officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version of the Abrams tank to Ukraine as they will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain. (file photo)

The Pentagon is speeding up its delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, opting to send a refurbished older model that can be ready faster, with the aim of getting the 70-ton battle powerhouses to the war zone in eight to 10 months, U.S. officials told the Associated Press. The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or two to build and ship. But officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version, which can be taken from U.S. Army stocks and will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain as they fight Russia's invasion. The officials spoke on March 21 on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been publicly announced. To read the original report by AP, click here.

Moscow Resident Gets Jail Time For Ukrainian Symbol On His Phone

The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. (file photo)

A Moscow court said on March 21 it has sentenced local resident Yury Samoilov to 14 days in jail for having an image of the shoulder sleeve insignia of Ukraine's Azov Regiment as a screensaver on his smartphone. Samoilov was found guilty of distributing extremist materials. The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. Samoilov was charged after a fellow passenger on a subway train reported him to police. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Rights Groups Call On Belarus To Halt Extradition Of Tajik Opposition Activist

Nizomiddin Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded.

Human Rights Watch and several other groups have urged Belarus on March 21 not to extradite Tajik opposition activist Nizomiddin Nasriddinov, saying he "would be at serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture on the basis of his political beliefs." Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded. Nasriddinov has refugee status in Germany. Dozens of opposition figures, journalists, and rights activists have been handed lengthy prison terms in Tajikistan in recent years. To read a joint statement from the rights groups, click here.

Belarusian Supreme Court Rejects Darya Losik's Appeal Against Her Two-Year Prison Term

A court sentenced Darya Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. (file photo)

The Supreme Court of Belarus has rejected an appeal filed by Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, against a two-year prison term she was handed in January for giving an interview to an independent media outlet.

The court took little time in handing down its ruling announcing it shortly after the start of the hearing on March 21. No details of the ruling were immediately available.

A court in the western city of Brest sentenced Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

Losik's husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on several charges, including organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred, and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and calls all charges against him politically motivated.

On March 20, the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group said Ihar Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck," while being kept in a punitive solitary confinement.

Vyasna described the incident as an "attempted suicide," though it was not clear how Losik was injured, to what extent, or when the incident occurred.

The Supreme Court of Belarus on March 21 also rejected an appeal filed by military expert Yahor Lyabyadok against a five-year prison term he was handed in late December for giving an interview to an unspecified independent media outlet.

The cases highlight the harsh crackdown by the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka against any dissent since an August 2020 presidential election, which he claims he won, while opposition politicians and activists say the vote was rigged.

The 68-year-old, who has been in power since 1994, has directed a campaign to arrest tens of thousands of people.

He has refused to negotiate with the opposition, and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

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

Russian Foreign Ministry Summons Canadian Diplomat Over FM Melanie Joly's Comments

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, shown meeting with Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on February 14, said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine."

Russia's Foreign Ministry on March 21 summoned Minister Counsellor Brian Ebel of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow over Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's recent statements regarding her country's efforts against Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The ministry called Joly's opinions "another Russophobic move...that will have the most serious repercussions for the bilateral relations." On March 10, Joly said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine," calling to ensure that President Vladimir Putin and his associates are "held to account" for the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

UNICEF Warns That Millions In Pakistan Still Lack Safe Water Following Floods

A man swims in floodwaters while heading for higher ground during the monsoon season in Charsadda, Pakistan, on August 27, 2022.

The United Nations children's agency UNICEF says that six months after catastrophic floods struck Pakistan, more than 10 million people, including children, living in flood-affected areas still have no access to safe drinking water.

UNICEF said in a statement on March 21 that the lack of clean water is forcing many families with no alternative but to drink and use "potentially disease-ridden water."

The prolonged lack of access to safe drinking water and sewage systems, along with the continued proximity of vulnerable families to bodies of stagnant water, are contributing to the widespread outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dengue, and malaria, UNICEF said, adding that unsafe water and poor sanitation are key underlying causes of malnutrition.

"Safe drinking water is not a privilege, it is a basic human right," said UNICEF's representative in Pakistan, Abdullah Fadil.

“Yet, every day, millions of girls and boys in Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against preventable waterborne diseases and the consequential malnutrition."

Last summer unprecedented monsoon rains and the flooding they sparked caused more than 1,500 deaths across Pakistan, including more than 550 children.

Many roads and bridges were washed away or are badly damaged by the disaster, leaving thousands of families with little access to food, safe water, and medicines.

In January donors pledged more than $9 billion to help Pakistan recover and rebuild following the devastating floods, which environmentalists and scientists blamed on climate change.

But the funds have been slow to come, with UNICEF saying in its statement that its current appeal of $173.5 million to provide life-saving support to women and children affected by the floods remains less than 50 percent funded.

"It is imperative that the voices and the needs of children in Pakistan are prioritized at all costs and that children are placed at the heart of all post-flood recovery and resilience plans," said Fadil.

Hungary Obstructs EU Statement On Putin's International Warrant

Hungary's move forced EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a personal statement instead, "taking note" of the ICC move.

Hungary has used its veto power to block a joint statement by European Union member states on the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported on March 21, quoting sources familiar with the matter. Hungary's move forced EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to issue a personal statement instead, "taking note" of the ICC move. Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mate Paczolay denied the report, telling Bloomberg, "It's a lie that Hungary vetoed an EU statement on the ICC case." To read the original report by Bloomberg, click here.

Anti-Kremlin Movement Claims Role In Deadly Fire At Russian FSB Compound

Smoke from fire caused by an explosion rises above a building belonging to the border patrol section of Russia's FSB federal security service in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on March 16.

A Russian partisan group called Chyorny Most (Black Bridge) has claimed responsibility for a fire in the compound of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the Ukrainian border that killed at least four people and injured five others on March 16. The group said on Telegram on March 21 that it was "a co-author" of the incident by contributing to its preparations and implementation. It did not name any others involved. Black Bridge positions itself as a guerrilla movement fighting against President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

HRW Urges Pakistan To Drop Terrorism Charges Against Opposition Supporters

Police detain supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad on March 18.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says authorities in Pakistan have committed abuses while confronting supporters of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan during recent protests. Dozens of members of Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf party, including Khan, have been charged with terrorism offenses, criminal intimidation, and rioting. "The use of Pakistan’s vague and overbroad anti-terrorism provisions against opposition protesters is very worrying," said HRW's Patricia Gossman in a statement on March 21. "It is vitally important for the police to respect the right to peaceful assembly while holding those responsible for unlawful violence to account."

Updated

Head Of Disbanded Nobel Winner Memorial In Moscow Charged With Discrediting Armed Forces

The former offices of the Memorial human rights center in Moscow. Russian authorities ordered the closure of Memorial in December 2021 under the controversial "foreign agent" law amid a continued crackdown on civil society.

The head of the disbanded Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, Oleg Orlov, was charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces who are involved in the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the group said on March 21. Earlier in the day, police searched his home and the residences of other Memorial employees in Moscow. Russian authorities ordered the closure of Memorial in December 2021 under the controversial "foreign agent" law amid a crackdown on civil society. Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year together with jailed Belarusian dissident Ales Byalyatski and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Local Pakistani Official Among 11 People Killed In Attack On Car

Eleven people were killed on March 20 in an armed attack on a vehicle in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The dead included Atif Munsif Jadoon, chairman of the Havelian area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Tariq Mazhar, a police official in Havelian, told RFE/RL that it is not known who carried out the attack. Another police official said the attack may have been caused by enmity within the Jadoon family. Pakistani media say four of the dead were bodyguards for the family, which has not commented on the attack. Jadoon was independently elected in last year's elections but later joined the Tehrik-e Insaf party. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, click here.

U.S. Says China, Russia Blocking UN Action On North Korea

An image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on March 20 shows a missile being fired by the North Korean military at an undisclosed location.

The United States has accused China and Russia of shielding North Korea from any action by the UN Security Council for its unprecedented spate of intercontinental ballistic missile launches, which violate multiple UN resolutions and jeopardize international aviation and maritime safety. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on March 20 told a council meeting that Chinese and Russian "obstructionism" was encouraging North Korea "to launch ballistic missiles with impunity" and advance its development of more sophisticated and dangerous weapons. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Updated

Japanese PM Kishida Arrives In Kyiv As Intense Fighting Continues In Eastern Ukraine

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the site of a mass grave in Bucha, outside of Kyiv, on March 21.

Russia's sustained offensive in the eastern Donetsk region has intensified, the Ukrainian military said on March 21, as Japan's prime minister arrived in Kyiv in a show of support that coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow.

The commander of Ukraine's ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskiy, said Russian assault groups have been attempting to advance toward the center of Bakhmut, the Donetsk region city that has been the focal point of a months-long raging battle that has prompted heavy losses to both sides.

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"Attempts by enemy assault units are trying to advance from the outskirts to the center of [Bakhmut], but the Defense Forces are working to destroy them 24/7," Syrskiy wrote on Telegram.

Russian and Ukrainian forces have invested heavily in the battle for Bakhmut, even though analysts say the city -- which has been reduced to little more than rubble -- carried little strategic value.

Ukrainian defenders repelled 120 attacks focused primarily on Bakhmut, the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said earlier in its daily report, adding that Russians also attempted advances in the directions of Avdiyivka, Lyman, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk.

Russian forces shelled civilian and infrastructure targets in 11 settlements along the line of contact, the Ukrainian military said.

Ukrainian forces also repelled Russian attacks in Kupyansk, in the northern region of Kharkiv, it said.

Japan's public television NHK broadcast video footage on March 21 of Fumio Kishida walking on the platform of a Kyiv train station accompanied by several people who appeared to be Ukrainian officials, including First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Japarova.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry earlier said Kishida will visit Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with Japanese television showing the prime minister boarding a train at the Polish border town of Przemysl.

WATCH: A special RFE/RL investigation looks into allegations of Russian sabotage, cover-ups by Bulgarian authorities, and whether Bulgarian arms depots are still at risk as Russia's war in Ukraine enters a second year.

Bulgarian Blasts And Russia's War In Ukraine
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Kishida will voice solidarity and support for Ukraine following Russia's invasion more than a year ago, the ministry said in a statement.

Kishida's meeting with Zelenskiy comes as Japan prepares to host a Group of Seven (G7) summit in May that the Japanese leader has said should exude a strong signal that international order and the rule of law must be upheld in opposition to Russia's unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow launched in February of 2022.

Kishida's arrival also coincides with Xi's visit to Moscow to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has become increasingly isolated on the international stage because of the invasion.

Ukrainian officials have said they hope Zelenskiy will get a chance to talk with Xi by phone while the Chinese leader is in Moscow, but such a conversation had yet to be scheduled by midday on March 21.

IN PHOTOS: Ukraine continues to hold on to eastern city of Bakhmut despite the Wagner mercenary group claiming to have seized up to 70 percent of the ruined city.

As Kishida was beginning his visit to Ukraine, Russia's Defense Ministry said on March 21 that two of its strategic bombers flew over the Sea of Japan for more than seven hours.

The Tupolev Tu-95MS planes are capable of carrying nuclear weapons and Moscow regularly flies them over international waters in the Arctic, North Atlantic and Pacific as a show of strength.

Separately, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate said on March 20 that the Russia-installed chief of a notorious detention center in the city of Nova Kakhovka in the Russia-occupied part of the Kherson region has been "liquidated."

The directorate said Serhiy Moskalenko, a native of the city who was accused of helping Russian troops detain and torture Ukrainians, was killed days earlier.

According to media reports, Moskalenko was killed in a car-bomb attack in the southern Ukrainian town of Skadovsk on March 19.

There have been several attacks, some deadly, against Ukrainian citizens who collaborated with Russian military forces after Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on March 21 that he and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola have discussed steps to establish a special tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine.

During the call, Kuleba tweeted, he encouraged the European Parliament "to keep up its vital role in tackling impunity."

In January, the European Parliament adopted a recommendation for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russia's aggression against Ukraine and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted unanimously to establish such a tribunal.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Updated

Putin, Xi Begin Formal Talks, China's Proposal On Ukraine War On Agenda

Chinese Leader Xi Holds Second Day Of Talks In Moscow
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Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have opened talks on the second day of the Chinese leader's visit to Moscow as the Russian president sought to brush off his deepening international isolation over the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Putin and Xi, who had called each other "dear friend" the previous day, shook hands and listened to their national anthems but made no statements before starting the meeting, Russian state television images showed.

The meetings with Xi, who arrived on March 20 for a three-day meeting, give a rare opportunity to Putin to claim that Russia is not completely walled off from the rest of the world despite his being targeted by an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.

The two are also expected to discuss a Chinese proposal for a political settlement in Ukraine that Western countries said echoes Russian talking points.

Ahead of the meeting, China and Russia touted their "no-limits friendship" and rebuffing what they say is Washington's attempt to isolate them and hold back their development. Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, Moscow's reliance on China, which has not directly criticized Russia for the war, has increased.

The two made brief statements at the start of their first meeting on March 20.

"We hope that the strategic partnership between China and Russia will on the one hand uphold international fairness and justice, and on the other hand promote the common prosperity and development of our countries,” Xi said as he and Putin began their meeting.

The first meeting ended after more than four hours, including a dinner at which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would likely offer Xi a "detailed explanation" of Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that Xi and Putin seem to be connected in "a marriage of convenience" rather than one of affection.

"These are two countries that have long chafed at U.S. leadership around the world," he said.

The White House remains concerned that China might provide lethal weapons to Russia, Kirby said.

He also said Washington encouraged Xi to press Putin directly "on the need to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity" and said Xi should speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about the impact of the war on Ukraine.

PODCAST: What do visits from Xi Jinping and Bashar al-Assad say about Russia’s clout beyond the former Soviet Union, and how will an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin affect Moscow’s standing?

Putin’s Arrest Warrant And Russia’s Influence
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Putin has welcomed China's proposal of a peace plan, which blames the West for the unprovoked invasion and calls for a cease-fire and peace talks among other provisions.

"We are always open to negotiations," Putin told Xi. "We will certainly discuss all these issues, including your initiatives which we treat with respect, of course."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced skepticism over the proposal, warning it could be a "stalling tactic" to help Russia on the ground in Ukraine.

"The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms," Blinken told reporters at the State Department.

Blinken also denounced Xi's visit, saying the timing showed Beijing was providing Moscow with "diplomatic cover" to commit further crimes.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Zelenskiy Notes Expanding Support For Creation Of Tribunal On Russian Aggression

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers his nightly address on March 20.

The number of countries that support the creation of a UN-backed special tribunal to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine is increasing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on March 20.

Zelenskiy said in his evening address that he held conversations earlier in the day with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to thank them for joining an international group that is preparing the creation of the special tribunal.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The circle of partners who are ready to work together to punish Russia for aggression is inevitably expanding. And it makes the prospect of punishment more and more realistic," Zelenskiy said.

He said he also spoke about the special tribunal on March 20 in an address to a conference of European justice ministers in London.

"I appealed to the participants of the conference and called on them to support all elements of the international effort so that the aggressor would be accurately punished," he said.

The European Parliament in January adopted a recommendatory resolution on the creation of a special tribunal regarding the crime of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted unanimously one week later to establish the tribunal.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), however, has said he opposes the EU proposal. Karim Khan said in December that his court is capable of effectively considering war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine.

The ICC on March 17 issued a warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing the Russian leader of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. The court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official who allegedly directs the removal of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Kremlin dismissed the warrant, arguing that it is void because Russia is not in the ICC's jurisdiction. Ukraine is also not a member of the ICC.

Millions In Extra Funding Pledged For ICC Work In Ukraine

British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account." (file photo)

An international conference in London has raised 4 million pounds ($4.9 million) to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Justice ministers from over 40 countries met in London on March 20 after the court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him in the abduction of children from Ukraine. British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account," adding, "Let's make sure that we back up our words with deeds." To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iran's Protest Anthem Played At White House Norouz Celebration

First lady Jill Biden accepts the award for best song for social change on behalf of Shervin Hajipour for Baraye at the 65th annual Grammy Awards on February 5.

A video of Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour performing the protest anthem Baraye played on March 20 at a White House celebration marking Norouz, the Persian New Year. The video was played just before President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hosted the event. Biden told the audience that the traditional New Year inspired "hope for women of Iran who are fighting for their human rights and fundamental freedoms." The song instantly became associated with the political upheaval in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody for an alleged violation of Iran's hijab law.

EU Extends Iran Sanctions To Judges, Clerical Council

European ministers agreed to add eight Iranians and one of the Tehran government's most powerful bodies to EU sanctions lists, alleging human rights violations. The individuals -- including clerics, judges, and a broadcaster -- are accused of playing leading roles in Iran's crackdown on anti-government protests. The EU said it was in particular "sanctioning members of the judiciary responsible for handing down death sentences in unfair trials and for the torturing of convicts." The government institution, the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, was said to have "promoted several projects undermining the freedom of girls and women and discriminating against minorities."

Iranian Teachers' Union Warns Government Over Failing To Meet Its Demands

In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions.

A teachers' union in Iran has warned the government that if its demands are not met, its members will take to the streets in May, adding to the social and economic unrest that has plagued the country for almost a year.

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

"The tyranny can no longer stand against The Power of Powerless", the statement added, referring to a political essay written by the Czech communist-era dissident Vaclav Havel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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