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Petraeus: U.S. Troops Could Quit Baghdad 'By July'

General David Petraeus
LONDON (Reuters) -- U.S. combat troops could be pulled out of Baghdad within 10 months because of declining violence in the Iraqi capital, General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, has said.

Petraeus's comments to the "Financial Times" newspaper came as the United States and Iraq seek to finalize a security pact that will govern the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

There are about 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Petraeus was referring in his interview to the roughly 16,000 stationed in Baghdad, the paper said.

Asked whether it was feasible that U.S. combat forces could leave Baghdad by July, Petraeus said: "Conditions permitting, yeah. The number of attacks in Baghdad lately has been ... I think it's probably less than five [a day] on average, and that's a city of 7 million people."

The U.S. military handed over Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi forces on September 1, less than two years after it almost lost the western region to a Sunni Arab insurgency.

Anbar was the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi leaders have said the United States and Iraq have agreed on a 2011 date for U.S. troops to leave the country, but U.S. officials said negotiations were continuing. Washington has been reluctant to embrace fixed timetables for withdrawal.

The terms of the future U.S. troop presence in Iraq are under close scrutiny as the United States prepares for a presidential election in November.

Democratic contender Barack Obama is pushing for a 16-month timeframe for withdrawal, while Republican John McCain has argued against a set timeline for removing troops.

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RFE/RL Iraq Report


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Rights Group Says Iran's Security Forces 'Intentionally' Shot Protesters In The Eyes

A group of Iranian protesters who were blinded by metal pellets and rubber bullets

The Iran Human Rights group (IHRNGO) said the Islamic nation's security forces “intentionally targeted” the eyes and faces of protesters during a violent crackdown on demonstrations last year sparkled by the death of a young woman in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab law.

In an analysis published on September 22, the Norway-based rights group said it was able to verify 138 cases of eye injuries sustained during the months-long, nationwide protests in Iran last year. Many of the victims lost vision in one eye, some in both.

“IHRNGO’s analysis shows that the brutal crimes committed during the protests by the Islamic republic were planned, coordinated and calculated,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of the rights group.

“The Islamic republic leader, Ali Khamenei, and all the perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable.”

Reports of Iranian security forces shooting protesters in the eyes emerged in the first months of the demonstrations, which began immediately following the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022. The victims say they were purposely singled out before being wounded.

The Iranian government and senior security officials have rejected the accusations.

WATCH: Amateur video shows the moment Erfan Ramizipour was shot in the eyes by Iranian security forces as he took part in mass anti-regime protests in 2022. The 24-year-old is just one of many protesters who have been shot in the eyes, in what appears to have been a deliberate tactic. Now in Germany, he is receiving medical care -- and continuing to battle for justice in his homeland.

Half-Blinded By Iranian Police: A Protester's Story
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The victims include eight children, the youngest a 5-year-old girl, Iran Human Rights said.

Women accounted for 28 percent of those with eye injuries but only 9 percent of deaths, implying the "repressive forces have chosen to intentionally target women’s eyes instead of fatally shooting them,” the group said in its report.

In a smaller sample collected from the city of Mahabad, northwestern Iran, women constitute 56 percent of those with eye injuries, the group said.

Most eye injuries were caused by pellets made of metal and plastic. In nine of the cases, the injuries were caused by projectiles fired from paintball guns.

The rights group’s data shows that Iran’s security forces started shooting protesters in the eyes from the first days of protests in September 2022, while the last documented cases are from December 2022.

The actual number of protesters who have been blinded by security forces after being shot in the face is unknown.

The New York Times has estimated some 500 young Iranians were treated in Tehran hospitals for eye injuries during the first three months of the protests.

Iranwire, which documents human rights abuses in Iran, said it had confirmed some 580 cases of blinding in Tehran and the province of Kurdistan alone, “but the actual numbers across the country are much higher.”

RFE/RL is unable to verify such reports.

Rights activists have reported several cases of protesters with eye injuries who were arrested in an apparent attempt to be silenced.

In addition to eye and other serious injuries, more than 500 people, including 71 children were killed during the demonstrations trigged by the death of Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating strict dress rules for women.

The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Navalny Placed In Punitive Confinement One Day After Serving Previous Solitary Incarceration

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, seen on a TV screen as he appears in a video link, attends a hearing at the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow on August 23.

Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is serving a total of 19 years in prison on extremism and other charges, has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement for the 20th time since August 2022. A post on Navalny's Instagram account said on September 21 that he was sent to solitary confinement until September 26 for unspecified reasons one day after he served his previous 13-day punitive incarceration. The post says the solitary confinement term was only four days this time because his appeal against his conviction is scheduled to be considered by a court on September 26. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Ramp Up Military Spending in 2024

Russian soldiers attend a memorial to their comrades killed in Russia's war on Ukraine at a military unit in the Leningrad region, Russia, on September 22.

Russia plans to significantly ramp up military spending next year as its invasion of Ukraine falters and a presidential election looms, Bloomberg reported, citing a draft budget submitted to parliament on September 22.

Russia intends to allocate 10.8 trillion rubles ($112 billion) to military needs next year, a jump by two-thirds compared with 2023, Bloomberg reported.

If the plans materialize, military spending will account for 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), Bloomberg calculated, making it the largest item in the budget.

Russia’s 19-month-long invasion of Ukraine is struggling, requiring the Kremlin to allocate ever more money to the military to prevent a rollback if not an outright defeat.

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 counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.


Ukraine’s Western-backed forces have been making minor gains since its latest counteroffensive began in June. Any major Ukrainian victories in the coming months would be a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for reelection in March 2024.

While there is little doubt Putin will win the tightly controlled election should he run, setbacks could nonetheless make the election more problematic for the Kremlin.

To appease the population ahead of the election, Putin will also boost social spending by 1 trillion rubles ($10 billion), Bloomberg reported, citing the draft budget.

Another 11 trillion rubles ($114 billion) in spending next year is classified. That budget line item is also up two-thirds from last year.

Russia anticipates budget revenues will jump by more than a fifth next year, keeping the budget deficit below 1 percent.

Russian budget revenue is highly dependent on oil prices, which have rallied more than a quarter over the past three months, surpassing $90 a barrel.

Analysts forecast oil prices to remain high in the near-term.

Reporting by Bloomberg

Three Kazakh Civil Rights Activists Detained On Unspecified Charges

Civil activist Abzal Dostiyarov and lawyer Zhanar Balgabaeva at a police station in Almaty on September 22.

Police in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, have detained three civil rights activists on unspecified charges. Abzal Dostiyarov, Marat Turymbetov, and Maira Gabdullina were detained separately on September 22. Dostiyarov's lawyer Zhanar Balghabaeva told RFE/RL that her client is suspected of violating a law on mass gatherings. Police gave no more details, the lawyer said. Human rights activist Rinat Rafqat said the trio's detainments were linked to their participation in a rally in front of a court on September 19, demanding the release of imprisoned activist Aigerim Tileuzhan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Government Reportedly Ratcheting Up Pressure On Families Of Dead Iranian Protesters

The family home of slain protester Javad Heydari (right) was raided, leading to the arrest of his father and two siblings.

Iranian security forces are reported to have escalated their actions against the families of protesters killed during widespread protests last year as the government continues to try and put a lid on unrest triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime since the 1979 revolution.

Social media posts from the affected families, corroborated by videos, appear to show that memorial ceremonies in at least 19 cities, including Tehran, have been thwarted by Iran's security apparatus, including the western city of Ilam, where the tomb of Mohsen Ghaisari became a focal point of tension when his brother and several others were apprehended.

Ghaisari, a 32-year-old Kurdish Iranian, was fatally shot in the chest and head by a special unit officer during the 2022 nationwide protests after the death of Amini.

Meanwhile, in Qazvin, the family home of slain protester Javad Heydari was raided, leading to the arrest of his elderly father and two siblings, according to Fateme Heydari, Javad's sister.

Despite video showing the incident, Abbas Kazemi, the deputy governor of Qazvin for political, security, and social affairs, denied any official presence at the Heydari residence, framing the incident as a move to "protect local residents."

"The judiciary, the police, the security apparatus, all have collaborated to intimidate us bereaved families," said Farzaneh Barzekar, whose 21-year-old son was killed by security forces a year ago.

Barzekar herself was arrested earlier in September after attending a memorial ceremony for Javad Rouhi, a protester who recently died in prison.

Human rights groups highlighted similar incidents across the country, including the Human Rights Network of Kurdistan, which reported disruptions to memorial ceremonies in several cities, including Kermanshah and Quchan.

At least 500 people have been killed around the country since authorities began the current crackdown on her sympathizers, with thousands more detained or harassed.

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

Dozens Of Children In Uzbekistan Hospitalized With Poisoning Symptoms

More than 70 children were hospitalized with symptoms of being poisoned in the eastern region of Namangan earlier this week.

Uzbekistan's Health Ministry said on September 22 it has taken under "strict control" the hospitalization of more than 70 children with symptoms of being poisoned in the eastern region of Namangan earlier this week. The statement said 10 children were released from the hospital after their health improved, but did not reveal what caused the illness, saying lab tests continue. The ministry said earlier that children from nine kindergartens and two secondary schools in the Chust district had been rushed to hospitals with poisoning symptoms. The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a probe into the situation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Russia Calls Bulgaria's Decision To Expel Cleric 'Blasphemous,' Summons Ambassador

A Bulgarian lawmaker earlier this month called Archimandrite Vassian, whose secular name is Nikolai Zmeyev, “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.” (file photo)

Moscow has reacted angrily to Bulgaria’s decision to expel the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia, calling the move “blasphemous” and an “unfriendly” act as it closed the Russian Church in the Bulgarian capital in response.

The Russian state news agency TASS reported on September 22 that the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow Atanas Krastin would be summoned for talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry over the expulsion of Archimandrite Vassian and two other clerics, both Belarusian citizens, for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.

Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the clerics were summoned to Bulgaria’s immigration service on September 21 and were handed a notice to leave the country within 24 hours.

It added that the three were transported “like criminals in a vehicle with barred windows” back to the church to pack their belongings and added that they would be transported to the Serbian border.

Bulgarian authorities have not given any details on the whereabouts of the clerics.

“We are outraged and shocked by what happened,” the ministry’s spokeswoman Mariya Zaharova said in the statement, adding that the responsibility for the “rapid deterioration of Russian-Bulgarian relations lies entirely with the Bulgarian side.”

Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, added in an interview on state television that Russia would not take action directly against the Bulgarian Church in Moscow.

Archimandrite Vassian, whose secular name is Nikolai Zmeyev, was appointed by the Moscow Patriarchate as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia in 2018 -- days after the Russian Patriarch Kirill visited Bulgaria.

Questions over Archimandrite Vassian have swirled around Bulgaria for several months.

Earlier this month, lawmaker Atanas Atanasov called the cleric “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”

In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian.

The decision to expel the three clerics comes amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which the Russian Orthodox Church has supported.

The European Union imposed sanctions as a response to Moscow’s war, and Russia added the EU member states, including Bulgaria, to its list of “unfriendly countries.”

In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.

Azerbaijani Trade Unions Activist Arrested On Assault Charge

Afiaddin Mammadov

A Baku court ruled on September 21 to arrest a coordinator of Azerbaijan's Alternative Confederation of Trade Unions, Afiaddin Mammadov, and placed him to pretrial detention for two months. Mammadov was detained near his home in Baku on September 20 and charged with premeditated infliction of bodily damage and armed hooliganism after an unidentified man claimed Mammadov had stabbed him with a knife. He rejects the charge. If convicted, Mammadov faces up to eight years in prison. Also on September 21, another court in Baku handed a 30-day jail term to journalist Nurlan Qahramanli on a charge of the distribution of false materials, which the reporter also rejected. To read the original report by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.


Updated

Canada Pledges More Military Aid As Kyiv Confirms Hitting Russian Black Sea Fleet HQ

Earlier on September 22 Ukrainian forces appeared to have carried out a successful missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, located on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional C$650 million (US$482 million) for Ukraine during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky to Ottawa as Kyiv announced a successful strike on Russia's Black Sea fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea.

The latest Canadian aid, to be delivered over a three-year period, would include some 50 armored vehicles as well as training for F-16 pilots, Trudeau told parliament. Canada has now committed over C$8 billion in aid to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion.

"Canadian support for Ukraine with weapons and equipment has allowed us to save thousands of lives," Zelenskiy said in an address to Parliament following his meeting with the president.

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 counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

The pledge comes fast on the heels of a U.S. announcement made a day earlier while Zelenskiy was in Washington to send more aid to Ukraine.

Kyiv is preparing for a long war with Russia and needs continued Western military and financial support to beat back Moscow's forces. While support has remained high in Canada, home to one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the world, it has been sagging in the United States.

The U.S. Congress is currently debating whether to approve another $24 billion aid package to Ukraine that would cover the country's needs through the end of the year.

A $45 billion package approved in December is expected to be depleted soon. A faction within the Republican Party has opposed approving more support to Ukraine, holding up passage of the bill.

Future U.S. aid could hinge on Ukraine's progress in the war.

Missile Strike

A day after Zelenskiy's meetings in Washington with members of Congress, the Ukrainian military announced it had stuck the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Moscow-controlled Crimea.

Video on social media shows the headquarters on fire just as a missile slams into the building, causing an explosion. It is unclear if the fire was caused by a first missile.

"The Ukrainian defense forces carried out a successful attack on the command post of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in temporarily occupied Sevastopol," the military said.

The Russian Defense Ministry wrote on Telegram on September 22 that a member of the military is missing after the city came under attack by cruise missiles. The ministry had previously announced that one soldier was killed before updating its statement.

WATCH: Ukrainian units have become adept at using captured Russian tanks against Moscow's invading forces.

Ukrainian Crews Put Hundreds Of Captured Russian Tanks Into Action
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“Russian air-defense systems shot down five missiles while repelling an attack on Sevastopol," the ministry said. "Due to the attack by cruise missiles, the historical building of the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet was damaged.”

RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, a regional outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reported on September 22 that three powerful explosions were heard in the city, which is home to a large port used by the Russian Navy.

Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula illegally seized and annexed by Moscow in 2014, said in a series of Telegram posts that at least one missile launched by "the enemy" struck the headquarters. He did not give details on casualties.

Razvozhayev warned residents of the city on the southwestern tip of the peninsula that “another attack is possible,” and urged them to stay in their homes and to not attempt to travel to the city center. He said that roads in the center had been closed.

“Those who are near the fleet headquarters, head to the shelters if you hear the siren,” he wrote.

Razvozhayev asked residents not to post photos or videos on social media.

A few hours later, various Telegram channels reported that several explosions were heard in an area close to a thermal power plant in Sevastopol. The blasts occurred while rescue teams were cleaning up debris caused by the missile attack on headquarters.

The Krymsky Veter Telegram channel reported that the thermal power plant in Sevastopol was not damaged. Razvozhayev has yet to comment on the situation.

Ukraine has made striking targets in Crimea a priority in recent months. Russia supplies its forces fighting in southern Ukraine partially from Crimea, where it also has several bases.

To halt military and other critical supplies, like gasoline, from arriving in Crimea, Ukraine has been targeting a bridge connected mainlaind Russia with the peninsula.

Traffic on the bridge was halted on two separate occasions on September 22 amid bombing fears.

Meanwhile, Russia has restarted its systematic campaign of air attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure ahead of winter, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on September 22.

During last winter, Russia targered power plants, transmission lines, and other critical infrastructure necessary to heat homes and buildings in an attempt to freeze Ukrainians into submission. It failed.

Renewed attacks will do no better this year, Shmygal said.

"We are much better prepared and stronger than we were last year," he said.

Ukraine Allows Russia-Related Words To Be Written In All Lowercase

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk

Ukraine's National Commission of Language Standards has allowed for all letters in "Russia," "Russian Federation," "Russian Empire," "Moscow," and other related words to be written in lowercase. The commission said that with the ruling, such usage will not be considered a violation of Ukrainian language standards in unofficial documents. The move was made while taking into account the "heroic fight of the Ukrainian people for Ukraine’s independence," the commission said. The decision was made after Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk called on the formalization "of what Ukrainians are already doing." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Scores Of Detentions Reported In Yerevan As Protesters Aim To Oust Armenian Prime Minister

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan on September 22.

YEREVAN -- Dozens of people have been detained as anti-government protests continued in the Armenian capital on September 22.

Armenian police said after noon local time that 84 people had been detained and charged with disobeying police orders. Armenian opposition groups later claimed some 350 supporters had been detained.

The developments came after opposition leaders called for street blockades and other protest actions to be held on September 22 in an effort to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from power.

Protesters have vowed to continue their action until Pashinian is removed and have said they plan to disrupt a meeting of his cabinet expected later in the day.

Police, who have used stun grenades during clashes with demonstrators since protests began in Yerevan on September 20, had warned that they would implement "special measures" if the clashes continued.

Police reportedly detained one of the protest organizers, Andranik Tevanian, during the demonstrations on September 22. The former parliamentarian was released after being questioned by the Investigative Committee.

Tevanian said during demonstrations on September 21 that "with disciplined and united efforts" Pashinian's ouster as prime minister "will happen in a very short time, even within days."

Embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian
Embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian

A son of Armenia's former President Robert Kocharian, Levon Kocharian, was among the detained protesters. His lawyer said law enforcement officers "severely beat" his client during his apprehension.

Pashinian has come under criticism for the government's response to Azerbaijan's lightning offensive earlier this week against Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory that has a large ethnic Armenian population.
Azerbaijan has claimed that the offensive, which it describes as an "anti-terrorist operation," has brought the breakaway region back under its control.

Pashinian told his government on September 22 that Yerevan would accept an influx of ethnic Armenians if they chose to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, but that such a massive resettlement would only occur if it became impossible for them to remain there.

Demonstrators have decried what they call inadequate government support for the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, while opposition leaders have announced plans to initiate impeachment proceedings against Pashinian.

As anti-government demonstrators blocked roads and assembled in Yerevan's central Republic Square on the morning of September 22, Pashinian expressed hope that ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh can remain there.

WATCH: Thousands of ethnic Armenians gathered at Nagorno-Karabakh's only airport where Russian peacekeepers are based. They were seeking protection and possible transit to Armenia following two days of fighting.

Ethnic Armenians Converge On Airport As 'Reintegration' Talks Held In Nagorno-Karabakh
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Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has reportedly indicated it envisages an amnesty for Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh who give up their arms amid a tentative cease-fire that stopped the fighting, which broke out when Azerbaijani forces launched a 24-hour military offensive on September 19-20.

"Even with regard to former militaries and combatants, if they can be classified in such a way, and even for them we are envisaging an amnesty or alluding to an amnesty as well," Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev president, told Reuters.

Hajiyev also said that ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have asked for humanitarian aid, which he said would begin to arrive on September 22. Media reports said at least four trucks with aid were seen headed toward Nagorno-Karabakh along the Agdam corridor that runs through Azerbaijan.

Hajiyev said that Baku seeks the peaceful reintegration of Karabakh Armenians.

The ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh said on September 22 that an agreement had also been reached for humanitarian aid to be trucked in from Armenia. The leadership said, however, that there had been no deal on security guarantees sought by Karabakh Armenians in exchange for giving up their weapons, or regarding a possible amnesty proposed by Baku.

On September 21, representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region failed to reach a breakthrough during closely watched "reintegration" talks in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax.

The two sides exchanged accusations and denials over reports of gunfire and apparent cease-fire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, but more meetings are expected.

Separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement following the meeting that they were ready to continue talks with Azerbaijani authorities.

"The parties especially stressed the need to discuss all existing issues in a peaceful environment, noting the readiness to continue meetings," the statement said.

Pashinian said on September 22 that the situation remains tense in Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s.

During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.

Some 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Pashinian on September 22 expressed optimism that they can get a real opportunity to return to their homes. At the same time, Pashinian noted a dire humanitarian crisis continues in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In a nationwide address on September 21, Aliyev declared victory in the offensive launched by his forces on September 19 after Baku accused "Armenian sabotage groups" for two separate deadly explosions in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that are under the control of Russian peacekeepers.

The same day, UN Security Council members including the United States, Turkey, Russia and France called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoian, who called for the emergency meeting, accused Baku of an “unprovoked and well-planned military attack” and said Azerbaijan was likely to use force against civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh again unless prevented by global powers.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov countered by accusing Yerevan of spreading misinformation, insisting that Baku had carried out an anti-terrorism operation against Armenian forces.

The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a cease-fire proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanian has said that at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the casualty figures.

Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office on September 21 said six Russian peacekeepers had been killed during Baku's military offensive, five "by mistake" by Azerbaijani forces and one by Karabakh Armenian fighters.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS

CPJ Urges Probe Into Threats Against Two Prague-Based Russian Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the Czech Republic to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into recent threats received by journalists at the independent investigative news website IStories and ensure the journalists’ safety. Between March and September, IStories received four threatening messages on the outlet’s website. The messages mentioned the names, addresses, and travel plans of reporters Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina, according to IStories. Both Marokhovskaya and Dolinina live in Prague, where most of IStories’ editorial staff relocated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent criminalization of “false information” about the Russian military.

Afghans Who Recently Arrived In U.S. Get Temporary Legal Status

Afghans disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul in Rota in southern Spain on August 31, 2021.

The Biden administration said on September 21 that it was giving temporary legal status to Afghan migrants who have already been living in the country for a little over a year. The Department of Homeland Security said in the announcement that the decision to give Temporary Protected Status to Afghans who arrived after March 15, 2022, and before Sept. 20, 2023, would affect roughly 14,600 Afghans. This status doesn't give affected Afghans a long-term right to stay in the country or a path to citizenship. It's good until 2025, when it would have to be renewed again. To read the original story by AP, click here.

U.S. Judge Hands Former Russian Gas Company Executive Seven Years For Tax Evasion

Mark Gyetvay

A former top executive at Novatek, Russia's largest independent natural gas producer, has been sentenced by a Florida court to more than seven years in prison for tax evasion.

Judge Joan Ericksen on September 21 sentenced Mark Gyetvay to 86 months behind bars after a jury in March found him guilty of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns.

He was ordered to pay more than $4.3 million in restitution and fines.

Gyetvay, 66, served as Novatek’s chief financial officer for more than a decade and was the face of the company to its Western stock investors. He later became deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board.

An accountant who was born and grew up in New Jersey, Gyetvay joined Novatek in 2003 when it was a bit player in Russia’s gas market and received a small stake in the company.

The value of his Novatek stock surged over the years after French giant TotalEnergies and then later Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, took large stakes in the fast-growing company.

Novatek was valued at around $5 billion at its initial public offering in 2005. It would reach about $80 billion at its peak in 2021.

By 2010, Timchenko, who is sanctioned by the West, had become Novatek's largest shareholder.

Novatek enjoyed preferential treatment due to Timchenko's ties to Putin, analysts have said. The company received large gas fields and the right to export liquefied natural gas.

Timchenko sold his stake in his holding company Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed in 2014 following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.

Wealth Hidden

According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005 to 2015 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release following his March conviction.

Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before joining Novatek.

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

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

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

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

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

Tensions High In Armenian Capital As Opposition Protesters Blame Government For Karabakh Defeat

Armenian riot police on duty amid a tense situation in Yerevan's Republic Square on September 21.

Tensions remained high in central Yerevan on September 21 as government opponents gathered to protest against what they say was inadequate support for ethnic Armenians in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Opposition leaders called on protesters to block the main government building to disrupt executive sessions, with some calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to resign. On September 20, separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh were forced to agree to lay down their arms in the face of overwhelming Azerbaijani military actions. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.

Thousands Of Russians In Latvia To Be Told To Leave

Russian citizens attend a Latvian language class in Riga. To continue living in the country, many Russian nationals must apply for permanent residence status and prove a decent knowledge of Latvian. (file photo)

Around 3,500 Russian citizens in Latvia will receive letters from the migration authority this week asking them to leave the country. The government body said on September 21 that they were people who hadn't submitted documents to extend a permanent residence permit or hadn't registered for a Latvian language test by September 1. They must leave Latvia by November 30, it said. An amendment passed by parliament in 2022 tightened residency rules for Russian citizens in response to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To continue living in Latvia, they must apply for permanent residence status and prove a decent knowledge of the Latvian language.

Kyrgyz Investigative Group Says Charity Led By President's Wife Received Foreign Funding

Kyrgyz first lady Aigul Japarova (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz investigative group Temirov Live said a charity led by the Central Asian nation's first lady received enormous funding from foreign sources, even as the government seeks to adopt a law that would allow authorities to register organizations receiving financing from abroad or foreign nationals as "foreign representatives."

The investigative group said Aigul Japarova's Ene-Balaga Tirek (Mother-Child's Pillar) foundation received more than 9.1 billion soms ($102 million) from the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last year.

Temirov Live also said Ene-Balaga Tirek received 563 million soms ($6.3 million) from a private medical institution owned by foreigners last year.

It added that the As-Safa Center, also owned by foreign nationals, provided the charity with technical and humanitarian aid worth of 1.3 billion soms ($14.6 million)

Japarova’s charity didn’t deny it received money from the Chinese Embassy, but insisted the amount was 9 million soms ($101,000) not 9.1 billion, and that it was used for social projects in the southern Batken region.

The foundation said other funds received were used on medical equipment, including wheelchairs, that had been distributed among people in need.

The foundation said it is ready to provide journalists with all necessary documents.

Temirov Live's founder, prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov -- who has extensively reported about corruption among government officials in Kyrgyzstan -- was deported to Moscow in November after a court ruled that he illegally obtained Kyrgyz citizenship.

Temirov, who held Kyrgyz and Russian passports, rejected the accusation and insisted the probe against him was launched after he published the results of his investigation suggesting corruption among top Kyrgyz officials.

Amnesty International Urges Tajik Government To Immediately Release Imprisoned Pamiri Minority Activists

Amnesty International has urged Tajik authorities to immediately release jailed activists from the Central Asian nation's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), which is home to the community known as the Pamiri minority. In its statement on September 21, Amnesty said the activists were "arbitrarily detained, tortured and unfairly convicted." Since May 2022, Tajik authorities have stepped up their ongoing crackdown on the GBAO residents, and imprisoned more than 200 activists, including journalists and rights defenders, on terrorism and extremism charges that domestic and international rights watchdogs call "trumped up."

EU Calls On Bosnian Serb Parliament To Reject Draft Law That Brands NGOs As 'Foreign Agents'

The law is to be adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session starting on September 26. (file photo)

The European Union on September 21 urged authorities in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia to immediately withdraw a draft law that brands nonprofit groups funded from abroad as “foreign agents.” The law is to be adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session starting on September 26. The assembly is dominated by lawmakers who are close to the ministate’s separatist pro-Russian leader, Milorad Dodik. Critics say the draft law resembles a similar one adopted by the Russian Duma on the eve of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Media Watchdog Urges Belarus To Stop Using Extremism Legislation To 'Silence' Independent Reporting

Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said Belarusian authorities "should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press." (file photo)

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the authorities in Belarus to stop using the country’s extremism legislation to “silence independent reporting” and allow the media to work freely.

The media watchdog's statement follows a decision by the authorities in Belarus to label the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC), an independent investigative media outlet based in the Czech Republic, as “extremist.”

“By labeling the Belarusian Investigative Center as ‘extremist,’ the Belarusian authorities are once again seeking to intimidate and obstruct the work of an independent outlet known for its sharp investigations into alleged corruption in the country,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a CPJ statement.

“Belarusian authorities should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press.”

Belarus's independent media has been targeted amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society that started after mass unrest triggered by the "official" results of an August 2020 presidential election, which awarded authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office. The opposition and some Western governments have said the vote was rigged.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, more than 15 media outlets have been labeled as “extremist” in Belarus. The association itself was added to the list in March.

Belarusian authorities also have designated as “extremist” individual journalists, including three RFE/RL journalists -- Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk.

In June 2022, Kuznechyk was sentenced to six years in prison on a charge of creating an "extremist" group.

Many other journalists, rights activists, and opposition figures have also been charged for extremism.

Organizations classified as extremist are banned from operating in Belarus and individual entrepreneurs and legal entities face up to three years in jail for displaying the logo of an organization deemed to be "extremist."

Anyone charged with creating or participating in an “extremist” group faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, with potential sentences of up to eight years for financing extremism and up to seven years for facilitating such activity.

Thousands -- including journalists, rights activists, and representatives of democratic institutions -- have been detained during the countrywide protests over the election results and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Lukashenka 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.

Family Of Iranian Teen Calls Off Memorial Amid Heightened Security Presence

Nika Shakarami's mother, Nasrin, stands beside her daughter's grave. (file photo)

Plans to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old protester believed to have been killed by Iranian security forces during widespread protests last year, have been abruptly canceled amid an increased security presence around her grave site and the detention of several people who tried to come and pay their respects.

Nasrin Shakarami, Nika's mother, said in a post on Instagram that "problems" had forced the family to call off a memorial.

"I don't want to endanger the honorable citizens who intended to join us," she wrote, noting the severe consequences handed to those who have voiced dissent over the situation in Iran.

Aida Shakarami, Nika's sister, also took to Instagram, reporting an increased security presence around Nika's grave in recent days. She added that several individuals who tried to pay their respects were detained.

The 16-year-old Nika went missing during protests in September 2022 in Tehran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.

In her last communication with her friends, she said she was being chased by security forces.

Eight days later, Nika's body was returned to her family. The official cause of death was cited as "multiple blunt force traumas" to the head, though authorities pushed the narrative that her death was a suicide.

The incident echoed what happened to Amini. Authorities have said she fell into a coma soon after her arrest because of health problems. But her family says she was in good health, while eyewitnesses said the 22-year-old was beaten during her arrest.

Amini's family was also denied access to her grave on the anniversary of her death on September 16.

Amjad Amini, Amini's father, was detained outside his home on September 16 and taken to the Intelligence Ministry in his hometown of Saghez for interrogation in what is widely seen as a thinly veiled attempt to keep him from going to his daughter's burial place.

The public anger at Amini's death has widely been seen as one of the biggest threats to Iran's clerical establishment since the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979.

At least 500 people have been killed around the country since authorities began the current crackdown on her sympathizers, with thousands more detained or harassed.

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

Russian Anti-War Activist Gets Eight Years In Prison Over Online Posts

Russian activist Richard Rouz (file photo)

A military court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on September 22 sentenced anti-war activist Richard Rouz to eight years in prison on charges of justification of terrorism and distribution of false information about Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Rouz was arrested in April 2022. His wife, Maria Rouz, and their 8-year son fled Russia in December. Investigators say Rouz called in social media posts for President Vladimir Putin to be "liquidated" and posted materials allegedly related to atrocities that are believed to have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Updated

Bulgaria Expels One Russian, Two Belarusian Clerics Accused of Spying

Archimandrite Vassian is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. (file photo)

Bulgaria on September 21 said it was expelling one Russian and two Belarusian nationals for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.

The announcement followed a statement by the Russian Embassy in Sofia that said Bulgaria had expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country, Archimandrite Vassian, and two other clerics.

Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said in statement that the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”

The agency did not mention the full name of the expelled citizens. But the Russian national’s initials -- N.Z. -- match those of Archimandrite Vassian’s secular name -- Nikolai Zmeyev.

The three expelled individuals have been stripped of the right of residence and barred from entering Bulgaria for a period of five years.

Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova told the Russian state news agency TASS earlier on September 21 that the three clerics were summoned to the migration office and were told they had to leave Bulgaria because they “represent a threat to Bulgaria’s national security.”

In a statement published on its social media channels, the Russian Embassy in Sofia condemned the expulsion of the three clerics saying it was a “flagrant action.”

Earlier in September, Bulgarian lawmaker Atanas Atanasov said Archimandrite Vassian was “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”

Atanasov’s comments followed reports that Archimandrite Vassian, using diplomatic status, was among three Russian diplomats expelled from neighboring North Macedonia earlier this month.

On September 16 Skopje said it ordered the expulsion of three Russians without mentioning their names or specifying the reasons.

In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian. The Russian Orthodox Church has supported Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.

Russia Suspends Fuel Exports Amid Shortages

The cost of fuel has spiked in Russia amid inflation and an increase in international oil prices. (file photo)

Russia's government announced on September 21 that it had suspended exports of gasoline and diesel fuel to curb price hikes during harvest season amid reports of gasoline shortages in the country's south. The cabinet's press service called the move 'a temporary measure." A day earlier Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak said the government was ready for "radical measures" to curb fuel price hikes caused, among other things, by inflation and an increase in international oil prices. Since late July, the price of diesel fuel, which is widely used in Russia's agriculture sector rose by 25 percent. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

British Prosecutors OK Charges Against Five Bulgarians Suspected Of Spying For Russia

Bizer Dzhambazov (left) and Katrin Ivanova are among those who have been charged. (file photo)

Britain's Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said on September 21 that it had authorized espionage charges against five Bulgarian nationals -- three men and two women -- who are suspected of conspiring to spy for Russia. It said the five were trying to "collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy" to damage Britain's interests and safety. Three of the group -- Orlin Roussev, Bizer Dzhambazov, and Katrin Ivanova -- were arrested in February and later charged with possessing false identity documents. They will appear in a Westminster Magistrates' Court on September 26, the CPS said.

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