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Obama Urges Senate Ratification Of START

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked the Senate to ratify the new START treaty.
U.S. President Barack Obama has urged the Senate to ratify the new START arms control agreement with Russia before the end of this year's congressional term.

Obama's Democratic Party saw its majority in the Senate trimmed after midterm elections on November 2.

The brief post-election legislative session is known as the 'lame-duck' session because it includes lawmakers who lost their re-election bid in the ballot.

Obama called the treaty "an issue of American national security."

The Russian Duma has also yet to ratify the treaty, which was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April.

compiled from agency reports

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Amnesty Regrets 'Distress' Caused By Report Accusing Ukraine Of Endangering Civilians

Ukrainian soldiers ride through a street in Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on July 8.

Amnesty International said on August 7 it "deeply regrets the distress and anger" caused by a report accusing Ukraine of exposing civilians to Russian fire.

The August 4 report said the Ukrainian military is endangering civilians by basing themselves in residential buildings, schools, and hospitals and launching counterattacks from heavily populated areas.

The head of Amnesty's Ukraine office resigned in protest, accusing the rights organization of parroting Kremlin propaganda.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the rights group had tried to "amnesty the terrorist state and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim."

"We fully stand by our findings," the rights group said, but it stressed that "nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations."

"This does not mean that Amnesty International holds Ukrainian forces responsible for violations committed by Russian forces, nor that the Ukrainian military is not taking adequate precautions elsewhere in the country," it said.

Amnesty's report listed incidents in which Ukrainian forces appeared to have exposed civilians to danger in 19 towns and villages in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Mykolayiv regions.

In its statement on August 7, the rights group refused to back down on that assessment.

It "found instances where Ukrainian forces had located themselves right next to where civilians were living, thereby potentially putting them at risk from incoming Russian fire."

Nevertheless, Amnesty acknowledged the scale of reaction its report had triggered.

"Amnesty International deeply regrets the distress and anger that our press release on the Ukrainian military's fighting tactics has caused," it said.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

EU, Russian Negotiators Optimistic About Progress In Iran Nuclear Talks

EU top negotiator Enrique Mora sits with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani during the latest round of talks in Vienna.

Top negotiators involved in renewed talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement with Iran have said that they are optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement.

Enrique Mora, the European Union's top negotiator, said over the weekend he is "absolutely" optimistic about the talks' progress so far.

"We are advancing, and I expect we will close the negotiations soon," Enrique Mora, the European Union's top negotiator, told Iranian media on August 7.

Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov said on August 7 there are "three or four issues" left to be resolved.

"We stand 5 minutes or 5 seconds from the finish line," Ulyanov told reporters outside the Palais Coburg hotel where the talks are being held.

A successful conclusion can be reached "very soon, but no guarantees -- as always, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," he said.

"They are sensitive, especially for Iranians and Americans," Ulyanov said. "I cannot guarantee, but the impression is that we are moving in the right direction."

Negotiators from Iran, the United States, and the European Union resumed indirect talks over Tehran's nuclear deal on August 4 after a months-long standstill in negotiations.

Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran reacted by gradually backtracking on its obligations under the deal, such as uranium enrichment.

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China. The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of U.N. inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on August 7 in a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that his country is "serious about reaching a strong and lasting agreement." But he added that the outcome will depend on whether the United States wants to make an agreement.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said last week that U.S. expectations for the Vienna talks are "in check" but the United States is prepared for a good faith effort to reach an agreement.

For their part, Britain, France, and Germany have called on Iran "not to make unrealistic demands" in the talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, Mehr and AFP

UN Chief Calls For International Access To Ukraine Nuclear Plant After New Attack

A soldier with a Russian flag on his uniform stands guard near the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on August 4.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the shelling of Europe's largest atomic site over the weekend.

Any attack on a nuclear plant "is a suicidal thing," Guterres told a news conference in Japan.

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, Western military aid, worldwide reaction, and the plight of civilians and refugees. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

His comments followed a visit to Hiroshima over the weekend, where Guterres gave a speech to mark the 77th anniversary of the world's first nuclear bomb attack.

Ukraine said renewed Russian shelling on August 6 had damaged three radiation sensors and hurt a worker at the Zaporizhzhya power plant, the second hit in consecutive days on the site.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia of waging "nuclear terror" that warranted more international sanctions, this time on Moscow's nuclear sector.

"There is no such nation in the world that could feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant," Zelenskiy said in a televised address on August 7.

The plant, about 200 kilometers northwest of the Russian-held port of Mariupol, has been under Russian supervision since Moscow's troops seized it early in the war, but the Ukrainian staff continues to operate the facilities.

The Russian-installed authority of the area said Ukrainian forces hit the site with a multiple-rocket launcher, damaging administrative buildings and an area near a storage facility. The Russian Embassy in Washington also released a statement blaming ‘Ukrainian nationalists” for the damage.

The fighting at the Zaporizhzhya site has alarmed the world.

Guterres said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needed access to the plant.

"We fully support the IAEA in all their efforts in relation to [creating] the conditions of stabilization of the plant," Guterres said.

IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi warned on August 6 that the latest attack "underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster.”

Grossi urged all sides in the conflict to exercise the "utmost restraint" near the nuclear site.

The IAEA chief added that it was "of paramount importance" that the agency be allowed access to the plant "to provide technical support for nuclear safety and security."

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Zelenskiy Rules Out Talks If Russia Holds Referendums In Occupied Areas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that if Moscow holds referendums on joining Russia in occupied areas of his country, there could be no talks with Ukraine or its international allies.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that Ukraine was holding fast to its position of yielding no territory to Russia.

"If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referendums, they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point,” he said on August 7.

Russian troops and Moscow-backed separatists now hold large swaths of territory in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region and in southern areas. Russian-installed officials in both areas have raised the possibility of holding referendums on joining Russia. Some of them were offering residents benefits for taking part.

In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula following a disputed referendum that was widely believed to have been falsified, with results showing that nearly 97 percent of voters supported joining Russia.

In eastern Ukraine, the separatists seized chunks of territory in 2014, held independence referendums, and proclaimed "people's republics" in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Moscow recognized the "republics" on the eve of its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian officials held several sessions of talks in March, but little progress was made, with each side blaming the other for the halt in contact.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Iran Says Revival Of Nuclear Deal Depends On Washington

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Iran’s foreign minister has said the outcome of the ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at reviving a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers depends on Washington’s flexibility.

During a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 7, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reiterated that his country was "serious about reaching a strong and lasting agreement,” the Foreign Ministry said on August 7.

"The outcome of this matter depends on whether the United States wants to make an agreement," he added.

Talks to salvage the 2015 agreement resumed on August 4, months after they had stalled. But prospects for a breakthrough have dampened as Iran rapidly advances its nuclear work and political opposition to the deal increases in Washington.

Iran has backtracked on its obligations to curtail its atomic activities, such as uranium enrichment, after Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has found that Iran subsequently exceeded the agreed enrichment rate of 3.67 percent, rising to 20 percent in early 2021.

It then crossed an unprecedented 60-percent threshold, getting closer to the 90 percent needed to make a bomb.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP

Tehran Says It Will Control 'From Day One' Iranian Satellite To Be Launched By Russia

An Iranian satellite called Khayyam will be sent into orbit by a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on August 9. (file photo)

Tehran says Iranian experts will control “from day one” an Iranian satellite due to be launched by Russia next week, rejecting reports that it will be first used by Moscow to "enhance its surveillance of military targets" in Ukraine.

"All orders related to the control and operation of this satellite will be carried out and issued from day one and immediately after launch by Iranian experts based in Iran's...space bases," the Iranian Space Agency said in a statement on August 7.

The spacecraft, a remote sensing satellite called Khayyam, will be sent into orbit by a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on August 9, according to Russia's State Space Corporation.

A report by The Washington Post on August 4 claimed that Russia "plans to use the satellite for several months or longer" to assist its war efforts in Ukraine before allowing Iran to take control of it.

Citing anonymous Western intelligence officials, the report said the satellite will provide Tehran with "unprecedented capabilities, including near-continuous monitoring of sensitive facilities” in Israel and in the Gulf.

But the Iranian space agency dismissed the claims as "untrue,” and said "no third country is able to access the information" sent by the satellite due to its "encrypted algorithm.”

Iran successfully put its first military satellite into orbit in April 2020, followed by the launch of military reconnaissance satellite Nour-2 in March 2022.

Last year, Moscow denied a U.S. media report that Russia is set to deliver an advanced satellite system to Iran that will vastly improve its spying capabilities.

Western governments worry that satellite launch systems incorporate technologies interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Iran insists its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only.

Based on reporting by AFP and mehrnews.com

Well-Known Russian Reformer Chubais Discharged From Italian Hospital

Anatoly Chubais (file photo)

Post-Soviet reformer Anatoly Chubais, who left Russia following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, has reportedly been discharged from a hospital in Italy where he was being treated for a rare immunity disorder.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported on August 6 that Chubais walked out of the medical facility in Sardinia with no assistance that day and had left for Frankfurt, Germany, for rehabilitation.

Chubais, 67, had been receiving treatment for the past week for suspected Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, which can lead to numbness of the limbs and eventually paralysis.

While the results of toxicological tests have not yet been received, La Repubblica reported, doctors said the well-known former official had responded well to treatment and were certain they were dealing with Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Chubais's hospitalization -- coming after he reportedly resigned from his post as a special representative to Russian President Vladimir Putin in March because he disagreed with Moscow's invasion of Ukraine the month prior -- had led to some speculation by Russian opposition activists that he might have been poisoned.

Several opponents of Putin’s rule have suffered from poisoning attacks, often outside Russia. The Kremlin has denied trying to poison its foes despite strong evidence in many cases implicating Russian authorities.

Italian police were investigating the situation for any signs of foul play, but reportedly did not think poisoning was the cause of Chubais's illness.

Chubais's hospitalization while vacationing on the resort island of Sardinia was reported on August 1 by Russian TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.

Sobchak wrote on Telegram that Chubais's wife, Avdotya Smirnova, had told her that Chubais had been placed in intensive care.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that he had no information about any requests from Chubais, who once served as former President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, or his representatives for help.

"Certainly, this is sad news and we wish him a quick recovery," Peskov said.

Before leaving Russia in March, Chubais resigned from his position as President Putin's envoy for stable development.

He did not say why he was leaving either the post or the country, but many observers suggested it was the highest-profile protest inside the Kremlin against Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Bloomberg had reported that Chubais expressed opposition to the invasion of Ukraine upon his departure.

Chubais is well-known in Russia, having held high-profile posts since the early 1990s, when he oversaw the efforts to sell off some of the country's biggest industrial assets during Yeltsin's time in office.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Kosovo Accuses 'Illegal Serbian Groups' Of Attack On Border Patrol; Russian Journalist Detained

Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla (file photo)

Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla has blamed "illegal Serbian groups" allegedly seeking to "disrupt the work of the Kosovo authorities" for an August 6 attack on border police, while also claiming that the arrest of a Russian journalist trying to cross into the country from Serbia was a sign that Russia was supporting alleged Serbian efforts to destabilize Kosovo.

Authorities in Kosovo said on August 6 that a police unit came under fire earlier that day near the country's border with Serbia, where tensions have been high between the two neighboring Western Balkan nations.

Svecla claimed on August 6 that the unnamed groups said to be behind the incident had the protection and public support of unidentified Serbian structures.

Later that day, Svecla emphasized that Russian journalist Daria Aslamova's attempted entry and arrest the same day coincided with recent unrest in the country's north and with the shooting incident.

Svecla announced on Facebook on August 7 that Aslamova, a correspondent with the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, had been declared an "undesirable person in the Republic of Kosovo."

Kosovar authorities have launched an investigation into the August 6 shooting incident, in which they say 10 shots were fired at a border-surveillance unit attempting to launch a patrol boat in Lake Uyman near the town of Zubin Potok.

Municipalities in northern Kosovo -- including Zubin Potok, northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, and Leposaviq -- are inhabited by an ethnic-Serbian majority in the mainly ethnic-Albanian country.

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have risen recently after Kosovo said it would require Serbs living in the north of the country and using Serbian car license plates to apply for plates issued by Kosovar authorities.

Ethnic-Serbian protesters blocked border crossings in the region in protest at the requirements.

Kosovar authorities agreed to delay implementation of the requirements for 30 days after the border barricades were removed.

Svecla said on Facebook on August 6 that the Russian journalist who was arrested that day was detained after allegedly trying to cross the border into Kosovo from Serbia.

Svecla posted pictures of the journalist, whom he identified as Daria Aslamova, that appeared to show her with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as in camouflage and posing with unidentified soldiers.

Svecla accused Aslamova of working for Russian intelligence and of only posing as a journalist, and said security authorities were trying to determine "her intentions." The Kosovar interior minister also said her attempt to enter Kosovo indicated that "Russia has joined Serbia's propaganda with the aim of destabilizing our country."

Svecla also accused Aslamova of participating in Russia's war against Ukraine by "propagandizing about the Russian invasion" launched by Moscow in February.

In a separate Facebook post on August 7, Svecla announced that he had declared Aslamova to be an "undesirable person" in Kosovo, saying that "anyone who, with certain purposes or directives, violates or attempts to destabilize the country, will face without question the force of the law in the Republic of Kosovo."

As an "undesirable person," Aslamova will be barred from entering Kosovo for five years.

Aslamova, according to Svecla on August 6, was barred from entering "many countries" for her activities. RFE/RL's Moldovan Service has reported that she was denied entry to Moldova in 2017 while working for Komsomolskaya Pravda because she could not justify the reason for her visit.

Former Moldovan President Igor Dodon, who is considered to be pro-Russia, criticized the Moldovan security services for denying Aslamova entry and said she had planned to interview him.

Komsomolskaya Pravda said without addressing Svecla's accusations that she had been released and was now in Serbia. Russia has not responded to Svecla's claim about aiming to destabilize Kosovo.

Russia is a main ally of Serbia and does not recognize Kosovo's declaration of independence from Belgrade.

Kosovo has condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and is a potential candidate for accession to the European Union.

About 50,000 ethnic-Serbs live in the north of Kosovo, but they do not recognize the country’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, and they maintain close ties to Belgrade.

Western-backed Kosovo is recognized by more than 100 countries, although not by Serbia, Russia, China, and others.

With reporting by Reuters and RFE/RL's Moldovan Service
Updated

Second Caravan Of Grain Shipments Leaves Ukrainian Ports

The Star Helena cargo ship is seen near Odesa on August 7 after grain exports from Ukrainian ports had restarted.

Ukraine has announced that a second caravan of ships carrying grain has left the country's ports as part of a deal with Russia to unblock Ukrainian sea exports.

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, Western military aid, worldwide reaction, and the plight of civilians and refugees. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The four ships that departed on August 7 were loaded with nearly 170,000 tons of grain, according to Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov.

Three ships laden with up to 80,000 tons of corn set sail from Ukraine on August 5. The first ship to leave Ukraine under the deal brokered last month by Turkey and the United Nations departed on August 1.

That ship, the Razoni, was expected to reach Lebanon on the evening of August 7, but is reportedly delayed and is currently located off the Turkish coast.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Lebanon informed Western media outlets that the Razoni, which is carrying more than 26,000 tons of corn, would not be arriving in Tripoli as scheduled. The source gave no details as to when the ship will arrive, or why it was delayed.

Nine ships are still awaiting to leave Ukraine from the three ports agreed upon under the deal, which cleared the way for Ukraine to resume grain exports by sea for the first time since Russia invaded the country in February.

In Rome, Pope Francis welcomed the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine as "a sign of hope" that showed dialogue was possible to end the war.

"I sincerely hope that, following this path, we can put an end to the fighting and arrive at a just and lasting peace," the pontiff said on August 7.

The halt of grain shipments from Ukraine, one of the world's biggest grain exporters, contributed to a spike in global food prices and caused concern about countries in the Middle East and Africa receiving enough grain and other commodities to feed their populations.

Ukraine blamed a Russian blockade of its ports for the halt in grain shipments, while Russia claimed that mines placed in the water by Ukraine were to blame.

On August 6, the first foreign-flagged ship arrived in Chornomorsk, a Ukrainian port on the northwestern coast of the Black Sea.

The arrival of the Fulmar S was described by Kubrakov as "an important signal to the market that the grain corridor is a safe and, most importantly, profitable business opportunity for ship owners to return to Ukrainian ports."

Ukrainians Thank North Macedonia For Supply Of Soviet-Era Tanks

The Defense Ministry of North Macedonia said last week that it would supply Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine. (file photo)

An adviser to the Ukrainian president has thanked North Macedonia for military aid, saying his country will “never forget” the help from the small Western Balkan nation as it battles to hold off Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“A friend arises in a time of difficulty,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, wrote on Twitter.

“No matter what the size of your country or the volume of GDP, it matters where your heart is.”

“Many nations today show more courage than half of the [Group of 20 nations]. Like North Macedonia, which lends a hand to Ukraine in the form of tanks and airplanes.”

The Defense Ministry of North Macedonia – a country of about 2.1 million people – last week said it would supply Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine.

It did not mention planes, but some media reports have said North Macedonia will send four warplanes to Ukraine.

North Macedonia’s Defense Ministry said the “decisions made so far do not violate the combat readiness of our army."

On August 3, Russia said it considered North Macedonia's donation of T-72 tanks to Ukraine "a major mistake that will only help the criminal actions of the Kyiv regime."

North Macedonia said the tanks had originally been purchased from Ukraine in 2001 when ethnic Albanians launched an armed insurgency seeking greater autonomy from Skopje.

Ukraine has received substantial military aid from many G20 nations, including the United States and Britain, but many others have so far declined to provide military assistance.

With reporting by Reuters

Foreign-Flagged Cargo Vessel Arrives At Ukrainian Port For The First Time Since The Start Of The War

A Barbados-flagged cargo ship has arrived in the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk. (illustrative photo)

Ukraine’s infrastructure minister says that a foreign-flagged ship has arrived at a Ukrainian port for the first time since Russia’s invasion began in February.

Oleksandr Kubrakov said on August 6 that a Barbados-flagged general cargo ship was in the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk to take on a load of grain.

"The Fulmar S is the first vessel to enter our seaport for loading since the beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Kubrakov wrote on Facebook.

“The guarantors of the agreement, Turkey and the UN, have confirmed that it is possible for the vessel to enter the port of Chornomorsk,” he added.

“This event is also an important signal to the market that the grain corridor is a safe and most importantly profitable business opportunity for ship owners to return to Ukrainian ports,” he said.

The final destination of the vessel after unloading was to be the Turkish port of Iskenderun.

"We are planning to quickly load the vessel and send it to the destination port. With that, we are ready to facilitate the capacity of the ports to handle at least 100 vessels a month," the minister said.

A day earlier, the Turkish and Ukrainian authorities said three vessels carrying a total of up to 80,000 tons of corn had been cleared to leave Ukrainian ports as part of a deal to unblock grain exports.

In a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations last month, Moscow and Kyiv agreed to resume shipments of wheat and other grain from three Ukrainian ports for the first time since Russia invaded more than five months ago.

The halting of grain shipments from Ukraine, one of the world's biggest grain exporters, contributed to a spike in food prices and caused concern about countries in the Middle East and Africa receiving enough grain and other commodities to feed their populations.

Ukraine blamed a Russian blockade of its ports for the halt in grain shipments, while Moscow blamed mines in the water placed by Ukraine as protection from a Russian amphibious assault.

With reporting by Ukrainska Pravda and Reuters

Kosovo Police Say A Patrol Unit Near The Serbian Border Came Under Fire

Kosovar police say a border surveillance unit was attacked at Lake Uyman near the town of Zubin Potok. (file photo)

Authorities in Kosovo say a police unit came under fire in the north of the country near the border with Serbia, where tensions have been high between the two neighboring Western Balkan nations.

Kosovar police said on August 6 that a border surveillance unit attempting to launch a patrol boat was attacked in Lake Uyman near the town of Zubin Potok.

"There were approximately 10 gunshots. The shots were consecutive, from the rest of the lake, and struck near the police boat," authorities said, adding that there were no injuries.

Municipalities in northern Kosovo – including Zubin Potok, northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, and Leposaviq --have an ethnic-Serbian majority in the mainly ethnic-Albanian country.

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have risen recently after Kosovo said it would require Serbs living in the north of the country and using Serbian car license plates to apply for plates issued by Kosovar authorities.

Ethnic-Serbian protesters blocked border crossings in the region in protest at the requirements.

Kosovar authorities agreed to delay the implementation of the requirements for 30 days after the border barricades were removed.

About 50,000 ethnic-Serbs live in the north of Kosovo, but they do not recognize the country’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, and they maintain close ties to Belgrade.

Western-backed Kosovo is recognized by more than 100 countries, although not by Serbia, Russia, China, and others.

With reporting by Reuters

Amnesty Ukraine Chief Quits Over Rights Report

Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty International Ukraine, said she had tried to warn the rights watchdog's senior leadership that the report was one-sided. (file photo)

The head of Amnesty International's Ukraine office has resigned, accusing the rights watchdog of parroting Kremlin propaganda in a report that criticized Kyiv's military response to Russia's unprovoked invasion.

Amnesty sparked outrage in Ukraine with the publication of a report on August 4 that accused Kyiv's forces of endangering civilians by basing themselves in residential buildings, schools, and hospitals.

"If you don't live in a country invaded by occupiers who are tearing it to pieces, you probably don't understand what it's like to condemn an army of defenders," Oksana Pokalchuk said on Facebook, announcing her resignation late on August 5.

"And there are no words in any language that can convey this to someone who has not experienced this pain."

Pokalchuk said she had tried to warn Amnesty's senior leadership that the report was one-sided and failed to properly take into account the Ukrainian position, but she was ignored.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard responded to Pokalchuk's resignation, saying: "Oksana has been a valued member of Amnesty staff and has led the Amnesty International Ukraine office for seven years with many significant human rights successes.

"We are sorry to hear that she is leaving the organization, but we respect her decision and wish her well," Callamard said.

Amnesty says it contacted defense officials in Kyiv with its findings on July 29, but had not received a response by the time of publication -- but Pokalchuk argued that this wasn't nearly enough notice.

"As a result, the organization unintentionally put out a statement that sounded like support for Russian narratives. Striving to protect civilians, this research instead became a tool of Russian propaganda."

Amnesty listed incidents in which Ukrainian forces appeared to have exposed civilians to danger in 19 towns and villages in the Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolayiv regions.

"We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas," Amnesty chief Callamard said.

"Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law."

Ukraine's government pushed back hard against the report, which the Kremlin and Russian media have already quoted extensively.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba branding the allegations "unfair" and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov called the report a "perversion."

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the rights group had tried to "amnesty the terrorist state and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim."

"If someone makes a report in which the victim and the aggressor are supposedly equal in some way, if some data about the victim is analyzed, and the aggressor's actions at the same time is ignored, then this cannot be tolerated," he said.

Callamard tweeted later on August 4, saying that Ukrainian and Russian "social media mobs and trolls" were attacking Amnesty International.

"This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation. This won't dent our impartiality and won't change the facts," she said.

With reporting by AFP

Extradited Russian Suspected Of Bitcoin Fraud Appears In U.S. Court

Russian cybercrimes suspect Aleksandr Vinnik (file photo)

A Russian national wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly being involved in a massive bitcoin theft scheme was extradited to the United States where he made his first appearance in court, the Department of Justice confirmed on August 5.

Aleksandr Vinnik, 42, known as Mr. Bitcoin, was arrested on a U.S. warrant in 2017 on a Greek beach, but eventually was extradited to France where he also faced charges.

Vinnik was sentenced to five years on money-laundering charges, and on August 4 was released, but immediately sent back to Greece, which had requested his return so it could execute the original U.S. warrant for allegedly operating a digital currency website that was used by cybercriminals worldwide to launder money. Russia had also sought Vinnik on lesser, unrelated criminal charges.

"The alleged operator of the illicit cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e was extradited yesterday from Greece to the United States to face charges in the Northern District of California," the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Vinnik was taken into custody in Greece in July 2017 at the request of the United States, the statement said, adding that he made his initial appearance earlier on August 5 in federal court in San Francisco.

Vinnik was charged in a 21-count indictment in January 2017, the statement said.

According to relatives and Vinnik's French lawyer, he may face up to 50 years in prison if convicted in the United States.

The timing of Vinnik's transfer to the United States, which coincided with a Moscow court sentencing U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drug smuggling charges that President Joe Biden called "unacceptable," has given rise to speculation that Vinnik may be used in a possible prisoner swap.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed by phone a proposal that Blinken said involved Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison term in Russia on espionage charges that he and his supporters reject.

He did not say who Russia would receive, but media reports said the swap would likely include Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is being held in the United States.

Lavrov and Blinken said on August 5 that they were now ready to further discuss a prisoner exchange.

Vinnik has claimed he is innocent of the charges but also admitted he was involved in hacking and money laundering in Russia, and would cooperate with Moscow on his extradition to Russia.

Vinnik was one of seven Russians detained or indicted worldwide in 2018 on U.S. cybercrime charges.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax

Fenerbahce Hit With Fine, Partial Stadium Closure After Fans' 'Putin' Chants

Fenerbahce fans started chanting Vladimir Putin's name during their team's Champions League qualifier against Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv. (file photo)

European soccer body UEFA has hit Fenerbahce Istanbul with a partial stadium closure and a fine after Turkish fans chanted the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a Champions League qualifier against Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv last month.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the war has caused thousands of deaths while millions have been displaced.

The chanting started after Oleksandr Karavayev scored the winner for the Ukrainian side in the tie's second leg in Istanbul as they ran out 2-1 victors on aggregate on July 27.

The incident led to Dynamo's Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu boycotting the post-match news conference, and UEFA has now sanctioned the Turkish club for the behavior of its fans.

The club have been fined 50,000 euros ($50,900), while a partial closure of at least 5,000 seats has been ordered for Fenerbahce's next European home game for "the throwing of objects and transmitting a provocative message of an offensive nature, i.e. illicit chants," UEFA said.

Fenerbahce's club president, Ali Koc, has called the chants "inappropriate" but refused to apologize.

"I think it was an inappropriate and unnecessary chant, far from how we view ourselves as a club. But what can we do? Shut their mouths," Koc said.

"We're not going to apologize to Ukraine."

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

U.S., EU Diplomats Urge Leaders Of Armenia, Azerbaijan To Calm Tensions Over Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with both the Armenian prime minister and Azerbaijan's president on August 5. (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan on August 5 to call for dialogue in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Blinken spoke by phone separately to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

"Secretary Blinken assured Prime Minister Pashinian that the United States is watching the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh closely," Price said in a statement on the call with the Armenian premier.

In his conversations with the two leaders, Blinken "urged direct dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve issues related to, or resulting from, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," Price said.

European Council President Charles Michel also spoke by phone with Aliyev on August 5 and expressed his concern about rising tensions in the region.

Michel stressed that the European Union will continue its efforts to ensure lasting peace and stability in the region in accordance with the Brussels peace agenda, the president’s press service said.

Aliyev told Michel that “the entire responsibility for the tension that occurred rests with Armenia."

Aliyev also said that Armenia has not withdrawn its troops from the Karabakh region as agreed in the November 10, 2020, truce brokered by Moscow that brought a halt to a six-week war in which more than 6,500 people died.

In the aftermath of the war, Armenia ceded swaths of territory it had controlled for decades to Azerbaijan, and Russia deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to oversee a truce.

Renewed fighting this week left three people dead, with each side accusing the other of violating the cease-fire.

Baku said it had lost a soldier and the Karabakh army said two of its troops had been killed in the recent clashes.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades prior to the war in 2020, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

With reporting by AFP

U.S. Ambassador To UN Says Russia's War On Ukraine Will Worsen Food Insecurity

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (file photo)

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says Russia’s war in Ukraine has only made an already “horrific” global food crisis even more dire.

Speaking on August 5 in Ghana, Linda Thomas-Greenfield predicted that the war will cause food insecurity for an additional 40 million people and that sub-Saharan Africa will be hardest hit.

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Thomas-Greenfield said that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the number of people considered food insecure to nearly double to 190 million. Since Russia's unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the UN estimates that this number could rise to 230 million.

“That would mean that more than 40 million people will have become food insecure since [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin chose to invade his neighbor and steal their land. That’s more people than the entire population of Ghana,” she said.

She linked the increase to Russia’s capture of some of Ukraine’s most productive farmland, its spoiling of fields with mines and bombs, and the theft or destruction of agricultural equipment and infrastructure.

“The fact is, this hurts Africa,” she said, adding that she understands that Africans "don't want to be pressured to pick a side,” but said they need to know the facts.

African governments have largely avoided taking sides in the conflict and have refused to join Western condemnation and sanctions.

Thomas-Greenfield said she wanted to “present the facts” to Africans that Russia’s blockage of the Black Sea kept more than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain from global markets and threatened food security across the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile, food prices worldwide are 23 percent higher than a year ago, she said.

Moscow has consistently denied responsibility for worsening the food crisis, blaming Western sanctions for slowing its food and fertilizer exports.

Thomas-Greenfield strongly refuted that claim, calling it “a regular piece of disinformation.”

She said U.S. sanctions do not apply to food and fertilizer and the U.S. has taken extra steps to make sure that companies and financial institutions understand that food and fertilizer are not the target of the U.S. measures.

“The fact is that our sanctions are targeted at Putin and his supporters, not agriculture and food, which are specifically carved out of the sanctions,” she said.

"Regardless of how you feel about Russia, we all have a powerful common interest in mitigating the impact of the war in Ukraine on food security," she added.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Atomic Energy Chief Warns Of Risk Of 'Nuclear Disaster' At Ukraine Power Plant

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant near Enerhodar has been under Russian supervision since Moscow's troops seized it early in the war.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed grave concerns about the shelling of the massive Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, saying it heightens the risk of “nuclear disaster.”

Director-General Rafael Grossi’s comments on August 6 came as Kyiv and Moscow traded blame for the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya site, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.

"I'm extremely concerned by the shelling yesterday at Europe's largest nuclear power plant, which underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster that could threaten public health and the environment in Ukraine and beyond," Grossi said in a statement.

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, Western military aid, worldwide reaction, and the plight of civilians and refugees. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Grossi urged all sides in the conflict to exercise the "utmost restraint" near the nuclear site.

The IAEA chief added that it was "of paramount importance" that the agency be given access to the plant "to provide technical support for nuclear safety and security."

The plant, about 200 kilometers northwest of the Russian-held port of Mariupol, has been under Russian supervision since Moscow's troops seized it early in the war, but the Ukrainian staff continues to operate the facilities.

On August 5, Ukrainian officials said a high-voltage power line at Zaporizhzhya had been hit by Russian shelling, but they added that the plant was still operating and no radioactive discharges had been detected.

Ukraine's Energoatom nuclear power company blamed Russian forces for the damage, while Russia's Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of shelling the site.

Grossi said military action near the plant "is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs."

"Any military firepower directed at or from the facility would amount to playing with fire, with potentially catastrophic consequences."

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia must take responsibility for an "act of terror" after Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the strikes at Zaporizhzhya.

"Today, the occupiers have created another extremely risky situation for all of Europe: they struck the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant twice. Any bombing of this site is a shameless crime, an act of terror," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

"Russia must take responsibility for the very fact of creating a threat to a nuclear plant," he said.

Valentyn Reznichenko, the regional governor in Dnipropetrovsk, said that Russian forces the day before shelled a city across the Dnieper River from the plant.

Military experts quoted in U.S. media reports say they believe Russia is shelling the area intentionally, knowing that Ukrainian forces cannot risk returning fire because it could damage the reactors or disturb nuclear waste sites.

Separately, British military intelligence said Russia's war in Ukraine is about to enter a new phase, with the heaviest fighting shifting along the Dnieper River to a nearly 350-kilometer front that stretches southwest from near Zaporizhzhya to Kherson.

In the east, Russian forces launched an offensive on Bakhmut and several other cities in Donetsk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces reported on August 6.

“In the Donetsk direction, the enemy is conducting an offensive operation, concentrating its main efforts in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka. It is utilizing ground attack and army aviation,” the General Staff said on Facebook.

The General Staff said in its morning report that Russian attacks were successfully repulsed in Yakovlivka, Vershyn, Kodem, and Zaitseve.

The reports could not be independently verified.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin that Russian forces are now almost certainly massing in the south in anticipation of Ukraine’s counteroffensive or in preparation for a possible assault.

British intelligence reported that Russia has been moving long columns of military trucks, tanks, towed artillery, and other weapons away from the Donbas in the east toward the southwest.

Russia has been also moving equipment and personnel into the annexed Crimea from Russian-occupied Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol, and from mainland Russia via the Kerch Bridge.

The extra equipment and personnel, which includes battalion tactical groups that comprise between 800 and 1,000 troops, will "almost certainly be used to support Russian troops in the Kherson region," British intelligence suggested.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have been countering the enemy's moves focusing more often on targeting bridges, ammunition depots, and rail links in the southern regions, including the strategically important railroad spur that links Kherson to Crimea, the bulletin said.

Ukrainian forces are almost certainly using "a combination of block, damage, degrade, deny, destroy, and disrupt effects to try to affect Russia’s ability to logistically resupply," it said.

Ukraine's southern frontline city of Mykolayiv imposed an unusually long curfew from late August 5 until early on August 8, Vitaliy Kim, the head of the regional military administration, announced on Telegram. Kim said the measure is meant to allow authorities to identify and detain people collaborating with Russia.

Ukraine's State Security Service (SBU) said it detained two men suspected of being Russian spies responsible for identifying targets for Russian missile strikes that badly damaged ship-building infrastructure in the port city.

The men "collected and transmitted intelligence to the enemy about important infrastructure facilities, fuel depots, the deployment and movement of personnel and equipment of [Ukrainian) armed forces," the SBU said.

The agency said without specifying the timing that several ship-building operations and fuel depots were damaged.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AFP, and AP

Floods In Historic Iranian City Fuel Concerns Over World-Renowned Monuments

The recent flooding in Yazd has intensified concerns about the state of the Amir-Chaghmaq complex, a 15th-century jewel of Persian architecture, which was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2017. (file photo)

Recent floods in central Iran have fueled concerns about the preservation and restoration of historic monuments in the city of Yazd, a World Heritage Site.

According to Kaveh Mansouri, an expert on the restoration of old monuments, the flooding in Yazd has damaged 240 historic houses and intensified the environmental destruction of the Amir Chakhmaq complex, a site for mourning and religious processions during the Islamic month of Muharram.

Kaveh Mansouri told the ISNA news agency on August 5 that the recent rains caused a large reservoir to form in the western area of the Amir Chakhmaq complex, and water has been gradually absorbed into the basement of the building and has seeped into the bedrock.

Abdul Majid Shakeri, the acting deputy of cultural heritage in Yazd, warned the day before about the possibility of sinkholes and other sinkages in many parts of the historic city, especially if religious gatherings and ceremonies are held in the coming days during Muharram, which started on July 30.

Because of the way it has been adapted to its desert surroundings over the generations, Yazd has a unique Persian architecture. It was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2017.

The Amir-Chaghmaq complex, built in the 15th century, is a prominent structure in the city, noted for its symmetrical sunken alcoves. Concerns about erosion at the complex had increased even before the recent flooding.

Flooding during the rainy phase known as the "Indian Monsoon" through the end of July affected 24 provinces and 1,432 villages in Iran. According to the latest official statistics, 90 people died and eight people are missing.

In addition to the loss of lives and financial losses, the recent flooding caused serious damage to historic monuments across Iran and in some cases their complete destruction.

Iran has seen repeated droughts over the past decade, but also regular floods.

In 2019, heavy flooding in the country’s south killed at least 76 people and caused damage estimated at more than $2 billion. In Fars Province, a flash flood caused the death of 44 people in March 2018.

Experts say climate change amplifies droughts and floods and that their intensity and frequency in turn threaten food security.

Hijab Protester Beaten Before 'Confession' Aired On TV, Says Rights Group

Sepideh Rashno was reportedly taken to a Tehran hospital after confessing on air to violations of Iran's hijab law.

The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) says a woman who confessed on air to violations of the country's hijab law was beaten before making the statement.

Quoting what it called an "informed source," the agency said on August 5 that Sepideh Rashno was taken to a Tehran hospital after making the statement to be examined for internal injuries.

According to eyewitnesses the agency spoke to, Rashno had low blood pressure and had difficulty moving when she was transferred to the hospital. She returned to prison immediately after the examination.

Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist, was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral. The other woman threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without the mandatory hijab -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Rashno was subsequently detained and has been held since without access to a lawyer, nor have the charges against her been made public.

Weeks after widespread concern grew over Rashno's whereabouts, a Twitter storm started with the hashtag "Where is Sepideh?"

Iran's state television subsequently showed her in a video report on July 30 where Rashno's eyes appeared darkened. Witnesses said she was listless and moved slowly.

During a one-sided narrative over the confrontation, Rashno was shown for a few seconds in what looked like a studio setting saying lines that appeared to have been written by authorities.

The confession aired amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.

Iran's notorious Guidance Patrols, or morality police, have become increasingly active and violent. Videos have emerged on social media appearing to show officers detaining women, forcing them into vans, and whisking them away.

A July 5 order by President Ebrahim Raisi to enforce the hijab law has resulted in a new list of restrictions on how women can dress.

Following the order, women judged not to be in compliance have been barred from government offices, banks, and public transportation.

In response, activists have launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #no2hijab to urge people to boycott companies enforcing the tougher restrictions.

On July 12, women's rights activists posted videos of themselves publicly removing their veils to coincide with the government’s National Day of Hijab and Chastity.

The hijab first became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

HRANA is the media outlet for Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), a nonpolitical and nongovernmental organization comprised of advocates who defend human rights in Iran.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Nazarbaev Fund Sues Parent Company Of Investigative Outlet OCCRP

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

The Kazakhstan-based Nazarbaev Fund has filed a lawsuit against a U.S.-based investigative journalism outlet that runs the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), for libel, claiming a report about the Central Asian nation's former President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s multibillion-dollar wealth damaged its reputation.

The lawsuit, filed on July 29 on behalf of the Nazarbaev Fund by the Washington, D.C. firm Boies Schiller Flexner, names the defendant as the Journalism Development Network, Inc. of Baltimore, Maryland, which operates the OCCRP, a global network of investigative journalists that operates in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Central America.

The lawsuit demands compensatory damages "in an amount to be proven at trial in an amount greater than $75,000," as well as punitive damages allegedly caused by the publication of the story: The Nazarbaev Billions: How Kazakhstan’s ‘Leader of the Nation’ Controls Vast Assets Through Charitable Foundations.

The Courthouse News Service online newspaper quoted Drew Sullivan, the Journalism Development Network’s executive director, as saying that the "OCCRP stands by its story," and that the group believes "this suit has no merit."

The OCCRP story, published in January 2022, detailed four separate funds associated with the 82-year-old Nazarbaev, who ran the oil-rich country with an iron fist for almost 30 years before his formal resignation in March 2019.

It says the "assets under the control of charitable foundations include luxury hotels, banks, factories, warehouses, and other possessions amounting to at least $8 billion" and that, while Nazarbayev doesn't formally "own" the fortune, he controls it since he was the founder.

In March 2019, Nazarbaev picked long-time ally Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev as his successor but retained sweeping powers as the head of the Security Council, enjoying powers as "elbasy," or leader of the nation. Many of his relatives continued to hold important posts in the government, security agencies, and profitable energy groups.

Nazarbaev and his clan lost control over the country and Toqaev started distancing himself from his former patron after nationwide protests in early January turned extremely violent and left 232 people dead.

The protests started over a fuel price hike and spread across Kazakhstan amid widespread discontent over the cronyism that has long plagued the country. Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of the Security Council role, taking it over himself.

Since then, several other relatives and those close to the family have been pushed out of their positions or they have resigned. Some have been arrested on corruption charges.

Putin Signs Ban Keeping Investors From 'Unfriendly' Countries From Selling Stakes In Key Companies

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree that bans investors from so-called "unfriendly countries" from selling shares in certain strategic enterprises until the end of the year.

According to the decree, signed on August 5, the ban also applies to stakes in banks and in the Sakhakin-1 oil and gas development in Russia's Far East.

The decree also says that the government and the Central Bank must prepare within 10 days a full list of companies affected by the move. The ban is effective immediately, though Putin can decide to issue a special waiver in certain cases.

International investors have been exiting the Russian market amid Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

An unfriendly countries registry created by the Russian government mostly includes Western nations involved in the sanctions.

With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, and TASS
Updated

Putin, Erdogan Agree To Boost Economic Ties At Sochi Meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi on August 5.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed during a meeting on August 5 to boost cooperation in the transport, agriculture, and construction industries.

"Despite the current regional and global challenges, the leaders reaffirmed their common will to further develop Russian-Turkish relations," the Kremlin said in a statement. Putin and Erdogan agreed to ramp up trade and boost economic and energy cooperation, the Kremlin added.

They also stressed the need to ensure the implementation of the Istanbul agreement on the export of grain from Ukraine, including unimpeded exports of Russian grain, TASS reported, citing a joint statement by Putin and Erdogan.

The joint statement also said Putin and Erdogan confirmed their determination to work against terrorist organizations in Syria.

The Interfax news agency cited Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak as saying they also agreed to switch part of payments for Russian gas to rubles.

The meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi lasted about four hours. It was the second between Putin and Erdogan in less than a month.

Ending the war in Ukraine and the prospect of a Turkish incursion in Syria were expected to dominate talks, with Erdogan arriving after his diplomatic success in helping orchestrate a UN-brokered deal to resume Ukrainian grain shipments across the Black Sea.

In remarks at the start of the meeting, Putin told Erdogan that he was expecting to sign an agreement to boost trade and economic ties.

"I hope that today we will be able to sign a relevant memorandum on the development of our trade and economic ties," Putin said as the two leaders sat down for talks.

The Turkish leader, who has tried to use his warm relations with both Ukraine and Russia to play a role in ending the war launched by the Kremlin on February 24, told his host that he was hoping the two of them would open "a different page" in bilateral ties.

Ankara's planned military incursion to attack a Kurdish militia in northern Syria is due to be one of the main topics of discussion as well, according to Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

Moscow, which has been backing President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, had recently advised against such an offensive.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia the People's Defense Units (YPG) to be a terrorist group and suspects it is linked to domestic insurgents.

A Turkish offensive in Syria's north has been on hold since 2019 following two cease-fire deals brokered by Washington and Russia.

According to the Kremlin, the potential sale of unmanned combat drones from NATO member Turkey to Russia is also on the agenda.

Putin has recently suggested that Russia cooperate with Turkey's Baykar drone producer, local broadcaster CNN Türk had quoted Erdogan as saying last month.

The Ukrainian Army has been using Baykar's Bayraktar TB2 drones against Russian forces since start of the invasion in February.

With reporting by AFP, TASS, and dpa

European Commission Rejects Russian Claim That Sanctions Are Holding Up Gas Turbine

Siemens Energy has repeatedly rejected the accusations that it has failed to provide the relevant paperwork to ship a gas turbine for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. (file photo)

A European Commission says Western sanctions against Moscow are not an impediment to the delivery of a gas turbine from Germany to Russia.

Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom cut flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to one-fifth of capacity as of July 27, saying the move was necessary because it hadn't received the turbine after it was sent out for maintenance. Gazprom says the sanctions make the delivery of a Siemens engine to the Nord Stream Portovaya compressor station impossible.

But both Germany and the EU have said there was no technical justification for slowing the flow of gas and that Russia's moves were politically motivated and linked to EU sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

"There is nothing in the sanctions that prohibits the turbine, which is the Siemens turbine, currently meant for Russia, to go there," Eric Mamer, chief spokesperson of the European Commission, said on August 5.

Some officials in the EU have accused Russia of weaponizing energy supplies, saying the turbine maintenance excuse was another example of Moscow making up excuses in an attempt to break the bloc's unity against Russia over the invasion, which is now in its sixth month.

Since June, Russia has significantly reduced gas deliveries through Nord Stream 1. Gazprom has justified this by blaming the reduction on the absence of the turbine, which had been sent to Canada for repairs.

Siemens Energy has repeatedly rejected the accusations that it has failed to provide the relevant paperwork to ship the turbine.

With reporting by TASS

Religious Cleric In Restive Tajik Region Gets Five Years On Extremism Charges

Muzaffar Davlatmirov (file photo)

KHORUGH, Tajikistan -- A noted religious cleric in Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region (GBAO) has been sentenced to five years in prison on extremism charges that his relatives call "wrong and unjust."

Relatives of Muzaffar Davlatmirov -- one of the most well-known leaders of the Ismaili Shi'ite Muslims in the volatile region, who was detained on July 26 -- told RFE/RL on August 4 that he had been sentenced after a court in the regional capital, Khorugh, found him guilty of public calls for extremist activities.

One of the relatives said the 58-year-old cleric was sentenced for his criticism of local authorities during the deadly dispersal of protests earlier this year.

"In his sermons he called on people to be calm and tolerant, but frequently criticized the illegal actions of the authorities. Law enforcement officers could not stand his fight for justice and the fact that Davlatmirov was well respected both by ordinary people and by informal leaders in the region," the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A close associate of Davlatmirov suggested that the cleric's imprisonment was most likely "retaliation" by local authorities for his leading of religious services at the funerals of three local informal leaders who were killed in May and June by police during what authorities called special operations against extremists.

Davlatmirov also took part in negotiations between the GBAO's nongovernmental organizations and authorities earlier this year regarding protests in the region bordering with Afghanistan.

Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of the GBAO have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

The latest crackdown on activists in the GBAO followed protests that were initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorist operation."

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

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

While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

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