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Petraeus Visits Kyrgyzstan Amid U.S. Plans For Counterterror Center

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev (left) meets with the head of the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, in Bishkek today.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, has met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek to discuss bilateral cooperation and the situation in Afghanistan.

The visit comes a day after U.S. diplomats confirmed Washington will provide $5.5 million to the Kyrgyz government toward the construction of a counterterrorism training center in southern Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, in a "talking points" memo issued on March 9, said construction of the center will begin next year, and that it will belong to Kyrgyzstan.

The memo also stated that "the U.S. does not have and is not seeking to obtain a base in southern Kyrgyzstan." Nevertheless, Petraeus's visit today came amid speculation that the planned training center could irritate Russia, which has plans for a military base in that area, as well as regional actors like Iran, which today expressed concerns over the presence of "foreign military bases" in the region.

The meeting was not open to the media and was not followed by a press conference, but a statement on the Kyrgyz president's website said Petraeus thanked Kyrgyzstan for its support of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

U.S. military cargo continues to move through the Manas "transit center."
Bakiev said that "all the main challenges and security threats to Central Asia" come from Afghanistan, adding, "Therefore, Kyrgyzstan is interested in providing security and stability in this country, and it will continue to offer its endeavor for rebuilding Afghanistan -- along with the international community."

Bishkek's Role In Afghan Mission

Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. transit center in Manas airport outside Bishkek, which plays a key role supplying U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and has been at the center of international attention for months.

A U.S. air base was located in Manas from December 2001, but during a visit to Moscow in early 2009, Bakiev announced that the base would be closed down within six months. The decision was reportedly due to Bishkek and Washington's failure to agree on a higher rent for the base. But speculation was rife that Moscow, which had expressed concerns over the duration of the U.S. stay at Manas, had won Bakiev over with pledges to provide more than $2 billion in loans, debt forgiveness, and other incentives.

That announcement was followed months later by an announcement by the Russian-dominated Collective Security and Cooperation Organization that it planned to set up an counterterrorism facility in the Batken region. Kyrgyzstan is already home to a Russian air base in Kant, some 40 kilometers from Manas.

Just ahead of the six-month deadline for U.S. forces to evacuate Manas, a series of negotiations between Kyrgyz and U.S. officials resulted in a new lease under which the status of the property was changed from "air base" to "transit center." Washington agreed to pay $60 million annual rent for Manas, three times more than previously.

However, the new Manas lease will expire in June 2010, prompting U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke during his recent visit to Bishkek to express Washington's willingness to extend the contract. The issue also was seen as a likely topic of conversation during Petraeus's visit today.

New Counterterror Center

On the eve of Petraeus's visit, in announcing the planned funding for the construction of an counterterrorism training center, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said it was "part of broader U.S.-Kyrgyz security cooperation that has recently included the construction of the Besh-Kungei Military Hospital and the Special Forces, 'Scorpion' compound in the town of Tokmok."

The March 9 memo also said the United States has also undertaken several humanitarian projects in Kyrgyzstan, including the renovation of a school in Birdik and the planned construction of a women's shelter at a women's business development center.

President Bakiev has frequently expressed concerns over security in recent years. In June 2009, while the Pakistani government was engaged in a major offensive against Taliban insurgents dug in along its northwestern border with Afghanistan, he noted the seriousness of the situation. "If the conflict against the Taliban further deepens in Afghanistan, then toward which direction would they escape?" he asked. "God save us, but they would [move] toward Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan."

Why Batken?

Bakiev has also in the past underlined the possible threats of extremist groups infiltrating southern Kyrgyzstan, which was once targeted by Uzbek militants.

Armed fighters from the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) entered Batken in 1999, kidnapping the local mayor and Japanese geologists. The hostages were subsequently freed after a large ransom was reportedly paid and a helicopter was provided to fly the militants to Afghanistan.

Located in the volatile Ferghana Valley, Batken also borders Tajikistan's Tavildara area, a onetime stronghold of Islamic opposition forces with close ties to IMU leaders. The U.S. plans for a counterterrorism training center will apparently bolster Kyrgyzstan's efforts to strengthen security in its southern region, but some observers believe the plan could upset Moscow.

Russia has not officially commented on the announced U.S. plans for a base in Batken. But Aleksandr Knyazev, a political analyst for the CIS Institute in Bishkek who is seen as favoring the Kremlin's point of view, says Bishkek is being "irresponsible," seeing as the Kyrgyz economy depends on Russian investment to a great extent.

Throwing Down The Gauntlet

"Such a demonstrative act by the Kyrgyz side to agree -- or to initiate, most likely -- to [build the U.S.-funded counterterrorism center] is like throwing down a challenge to Russia and China," Knyazev says. "From a purely military point of view, any American military base on Kyrgyz territory cannot threaten Russian interests. Russia dominates in this region in any case. It's clear. But [Bishkek's plan] is only an irritation of a political nature for Russia, and a reason to withdraw from investment projects."

One country has officially commented on the presence of Western military facilities in Central Asia this week. Without mentioning any specific location, Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on March 8 that "foreign military bases in the region do not contribute to the strengthening of [regional] stability, but originate from interventional and expansionists aims."

Mottaki said regional leaders -- before signing agreements over hosting foreign military bases in their territories – should consider whether these bases wouldn't create threats to neighboring countries.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

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Belarusian Journalist, Wife, Colleague Handed Prison Terms Over Reporting On Border Crisis

Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Luksha and his wife, Palina Palavinka were sentenced to four and 2 1/2 years, respectively.

MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced journalist Dzmitry Luksha; his wife, Palina Palavinka; and cameraman Dzyanis Yarouski for their reporting on a migrants' crisis along the Belarusian-Polish border last year.

The Minsk City Court on December 2 sentenced Luksha, a freelance correspondent for Kazakhstan's Khabar 24 television channel, and Palavinka to four and 2 1/2 years in prison, respectively, after finding them guilty of discrediting Belarus and "actively participating in group activities that blatantly disrupt social order."

Yarouski was sentenced to 18 months in prison on the same charges.

A fourth defendant in the case, Kanstantsin Nikanorau, was handed a parole-like sentence on a charge of discrediting Belarus.

The charges against the four stemmed from Luksha's video reports from the Belarusian-Polish border for Khabar 24.

The reports covered the situation along the border, where thousands of migrants mostly from the Middle East tried to illegally enter EU-member Poland from Belarusian territory.

European nations have condemned the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for masterminding the crisis in response to Western sanctions imposed on him over an ongoing crackdown on dissent and independent media that followed his disputed win in a 2020 presidential election.

Separately on December 2, the Minsk City Court started the trial of another journalist, Henadz Mazheyka, who is accused of insulting Lukashenka and inciting hatred over his report about a police shootout at a Minsk apartment last year that left an IT worker and a KGB officer dead.

Little is known about the September 2021 shooting that resulted in the deaths of Andrey Zeltsar, who worked for U.S.-based IT company EPAM, and KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.

Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.

Mazheyka pleaded not guilty.

Exiled Former Tajik Vice President Narzullo Dustov Dies In Tashkent At 82

Narzullo Dustov served as Tajikistan's vice president in 1991-1992.

Former Tajik Vice President Narzullo Dustov, wanted in his native country over the organization of a mutiny against the government in 1998, died in Uzbekistan last month at the age of 82. Former Chairman of the Socialist Party of Tajikistan Mirhusain Nazriev told RFE/RL on December 2 that Dustov died on November 1 of cancer. Dustov served as Tajikistan's vice president in 1991-1992. The post was later eliminated. His former ally, Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, who also led the failed deadly mutiny, fled the country for Uzbekistan, as well. To read the original story of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Updated

Several Ukrainian Diplomatic Missions Receive 'Bloody' Parcels

Police stand outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid after a blast injured one employee while handling a letter on November 30.

Ukrainian diplomatic missions in several countries have received “bloody parcels” containing animals' eyes, the country's Foreign Ministry said on December 2.

Spokesman Oleh Nykolenko added on Facebook that the parcels were soaked with an unspecified liquid "of a specific color and smelled correspondingly."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

According to Nykolenko, the parcels were delivered to Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The packages arrived amid Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine, and Nykolenko said "we are studying the meaning of this message."

Police in the Czech Republic said earlier in the day that Ukraine’s consulate in the country’s second-largest city, Brno, received "a suspicious letter" similar to letter bombs sent to high-profile targets in Spain in recent days.

The police said later that "an animal tissue" was found in the package.

Nykolenko said that unknown individuals called the Ukrainian Embassy in Kazakhstan saying that there was a bomb in the mission's building, which turned out to be false.

He added that the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States received a letter harshly criticizing the Ukrainian government.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the situation "a well-planned campaign of terror and intimidation of Ukraine's embassies and consulates."

"Not being able to stop Ukraine on the diplomatic front, [Russians] try to intimidate us. However, I can say with confidence that these attempts are futile. We will continue to effectively work on Ukraine's victory," Kuleba said.

A day earlier, bomb disposal experts in Spain defused a letter bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the sixth such device sent to high-profile targets in Spain in the past several days.

The campaign began with a letter bomb sent to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last week. Similar devices have been sent to the Defense Ministry, an air force base, a weapons manufacturer, and the Ukrainian Embassy.

Orban Says Hungary Opposes Global Minimum Corporate Tax

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses workers at the car-manufacturing plant of Audi Hungaria Kft., an affiliate of German carmaker Audi AG, in Gyor, Hungary, in 2020.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian public radio on December 2 that Budapest continues to be against a global minimum corporate tax rate, arguing it would reduce the number of jobs in Hungary, which has used its low-tax regime to attract investment. Hungary's 9 percent corporate tax rate and government subsidies have brought major investments by German carmakers and Asian battery manufacturers. "This is a job-killing tax hike, which, if implemented with Hungary's approval, would wipe out tens of thousands of jobs," Orban said. To listen to Orban's interview with Radio Kossuth, click here.

Updated

IAEA Chief Says Progress Being Made on Zaporizhzhya Safety Zone

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February. 

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says progress is being made to reach a deal to create a safe zone around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which has come under repeated shelling during the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces since late February.

Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in an interview published on December 2, Grossi said he is committed to finding a solution to ensuring the safety of Europe's largest nuclear power station, "hopefully by the end of the year."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"On the safety of Zaporizhzhya there is a concrete proposal and important progress has been made," the head of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog told the newspaper.

"My commitment is to reach a solution as soon as possible.... Our aim is to avoid a nuclear accident, not to cause a militarily favorable situation for one or the other," he added.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February.

The reactors at the Soviet-designed plant have been shut down, but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if power supplies to the plant's cooling systems are cut off.

The plant has been forced to operate on backup generators a number of times since the Russian invasion, but no radioactive emissions are believed to have leaked since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Grossi said the two sides are now "in agreement on some fundamental principles" around securing the plant.

"The first is that of protection: It means accepting that you don't shoot at the facility, nor from the facility. The second is the recognition that the IAEA represents the only possible way" to ensure the safety of the plant, he said.

Grossi said it's possible he could soon meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to work out details of a deal.

Rosatom Chief Executive Officer Aleksei Likhachev was quoted by Russian state media as saying Moscow's representative at the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, is "actively working" on the issue, though he said "the decision is not on the Russian side" as the Russian government has outlined its position on creating a safety zone around the plant.

The safety zone should be set up "as soon as possible," he added.

With Russian strikes over the past weeks decimating Ukraine's energy infrastructure, Grossi said he is concerned about other nuclear plants in Ukraine, which have at times lost external power, creating potentially dangerous situations.

"The Ukrainian authorities have made a formal request to have a permanent presence of the IAEA in these plants, as in Zaporizhzhya. In this way, the agency's personnel will be deployed throughout Ukraine and will ensure that nuclear power plants are not used by anyone as weapons of blackmail in the conflict," he said.

Based on reporting by La Repubblica

Finnish PM Warns Russian Win Would Empower Aggressors

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (second right) met with other EU leaders in Prague on October 27.

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin warned an Australian audience on December 2 that a Russian victory over Ukraine would empower other aggressors and urged democracies against forming “critical dependencies” on authoritarian states such as China. Marin was speaking in Sydney at the end of the first-ever visit by a Finnish prime minister to Australia and New Zealand. She used a speech to urge democracies to ramp up sanctions against Russia. To read the original AP story, click here.

Russia Tests New Missile-Defense System Rocket

A missile of the Russian missile-defense system is launched at the Sary-Shagan military range in Kazakhstan in 2021.

Russia on December 2 tested a new missile-defense system rocket, the Defense Ministry said, adding that the missile was launched from the Sary Shagan testing range in Kazakhstan. Other than saying the test was successful, the ministry gave few other details. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Ukraine War Shows Europe 'Not Strong Enough,' Says Finnish PM

Visiting Australia, the leader of the pending NATO member said Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and occupation of neighboring Ukraine had exposed both European weaknesses and strategic blunders in dealing with Russia. (file photo)

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on December 2 offered a "brutally honest" assessment of Europe's capabilities in the wake of Russia's war on Ukraine, stating that "we're not strong enough" to stand up to Moscow alone. Visiting Australia, the leader of the pending NATO member said Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and occupation of neighboring Ukraine had exposed both European weaknesses and strategic blunders in dealing with Russia.

Updated

Fighting Rages In East As Zelenskiy Aide Says Up To 13,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed In War

Medics and members of Ukraine's 24th Mechanized Brigade of King Danylo treat a wounded soldier at a field clinic used to stabilize patients before they are sent to a hospital, near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on December 1.

Fierce fighting continued in the east, where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported early on December 2, as an aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the war.

In the southern region of Kherson, three people were killed and seven wounded by Russian shelling of over the past 24 hours, the regional governor said on December 2.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces said in its daily update that Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements including Belohoryivka in Luhansk and Bakhmut in Donetsk while carrying out 30 air strikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian settlements along the contact line.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The Russians were on the defensive in Kupyansk and Lyman in the east and in Zaporizhzhya in central Ukraine, the General Staff said, while in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka directions in the east Moscow's forces were on the offensive.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy, told Ukraine's Channel 24 television on December 1 that as many as 13,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since Russia's invasion in February.

"We have official estimates from the General Staff.... They range from 10,000...to 13,000 dead," Podolyak said.

He said Zelenskiy would make the official data public "when the right moment comes." Podolyak's comments have not been confirmed by the military.

In June, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was losing "60 to 100 soldiers per day, killed in action, and around 500 people wounded in action."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in September that 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in the nearly seven months of fighting to that point.

The figures could not be independently verified, and it is believed that both sides are minimizing their losses to avoid lowering the troops' morale.

U.S. General Mark Milley said last month that more than 100,000 Russian military personnel and 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded since the start of the war.

The figures advanced by Milley -- which could not be independently confirmed -- are the most precise to date from the U.S. government.

In the recently liberated southern region of Kherson, Russian missiles killed three people over the past day, Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Yanushevych said Russian troops had bombarded the city of Kherson and other parts of the region 42 times in the same period.

Shelling the night before damaged power lines in the city, where electricity had only begun to be restored nearly three weeks after Russian troops withdrew to the eastern side of the Dnieper River.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Moscow, defended recent missile strikes, saying they targeted Ukraine's civil infrastructure to prevent Kyiv from importing Western arms.

"We disable energy facilities (in Ukraine) that allow you (the West) to pump lethal weapons into Ukraine to kill Russians," Lavrov said. "So don't say that the U.S. and NATO are not participants in this war -- you are directly participating."

NATO, the United States, and other Western allies have sent weapons requested by Kyiv to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion and its attacks on energy infrastructure. Western countries recently have agreed to send generators and other equipment to help Ukraine repair the damage caused by the Russian attacks.

In a sign some channels of communication remain open, Russia's Defense Ministry and the head of Ukraine's presidential administration said the two countries swapped 50 service personnel on December 1.

Russia's Defense Ministry published a video of prisoners of war cheering as they crossed the border in a bus. "We're going home!" said one as his fellow soldiers waved at a camera.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and BBC

Reports: EU Close To Agreeing On $60 A Barrel Cap For Russian Seaborne Oil

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian seaborne crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap. (file photo)

EU governments have tentatively agreed on a $60 a barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil aimed at reducing Moscow's ability to finance its war in Ukraine.

"The price cap is set at $60 with a provision to keep it 5 percent below market price for Russian crude, based on [International Energy Agency] figures," an EU diplomat said, according to Reuters on December 1.

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he was encouraged by the news about the tentative agreement on the price cap -- an idea supported by the United States and the other Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations -- adding that he expects the European Union to iron out details and reach a final agreement.

EU countries have wrangled for days over the details of the price cap. Poland, which had pushed for the cap to be as low as possible, had as of late on December 1 not confirmed its support for the deal, Reuters and AFP reported.

The initial G7 proposal last week was for a cap of $65-$70 per barrel with no adjustment mechanism.

Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia rejected that level because Russian Urals crude, the main variety sold by Russia, was trading at below $70 a barrel on December 1 and last week traded at about $55.

The G7 price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil is to kick in on December 5, replacing an outright ban on buying Russian seaborne crude.

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.

The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.

The adjustment mechanism would mean the price cap would be reviewed in mid-January and every two months after that.

The document outlining the tentative agreement, quoted by Reuters, said a 45-day "transitional period" would apply to vessels carrying Russian-origin crude oil that was loaded before December 5 and unloaded at its final destination by January 19, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that any attempt by the West to cap the price of Russian oil would have "grave consequences" for world markets. But the G7 vowed to go ahead.

Oil ministers from OPEC+ cartel of petroleum exporting countries, of which Russia is a member, will meet in Vienna on December 4.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, and AFP

Leaked Document Says Iranian Leadership Is Seeking To Discredit Sunni Cleric

Iranian Sunni theologian and spiritual leader Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah (file photo)

A leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency says Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has told security and military officials to try and disgrace a top Sunni cleric, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

The document was published on November 30 after the hacktivist group Black Reward announced that it had succeeded in hacking the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group released dozens of documents and videos it said were prepared by the news agency.

The cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah, is regarded across the country as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.

"He [Molavi Abdolhamid] should not be arrested. Rather, he should be dishonored," according to one of the documents, which are delivered as bulletins prepared by Fars and delivered to senior IRGC officials, which was handing down comments from the Ayatollah.

Early last month, Molavi Abdolhamid said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called "Bloody Friday" massacre in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces in the incident, which came during protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

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

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Molavi Abdolhamid is based, but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

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

Dutch Prosecutors Won't Appeal In MH17 Case, Making Verdicts Final

A Dutch court last month convicted three former Russian intelligence agents in absentia and sentenced them to life in prison for the downing of the jet.

Dutch prosecutors said on December 1 that they will not file an appeal regarding the outcome in the trial over the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, making the verdicts final. A Dutch court last month convicted three former Russian intelligence agents in absentia and sentenced them to life in prison for the downing of the jet. All 298 people aboard were killed. The three men were found to have helped arrange the transport of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Biden, Macron Vow To Hold Russia Accountable For 'Widely Documented Atrocities' In Ukraine

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) greets French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House in Washington on December 1.

U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on December 1 renewed their commitment to fighting Russia's invasion of Ukraine during a meeting at the White House.

The two leaders said in a joint statement that they were determined to hold Russia to account "for widely documented atrocities and war crimes, committed both by its regular armed forces and by its proxies including mercenary entities such as Vagner" in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Speaking at a joint news conference after their meeting, Biden said he was ready to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin "if he is looking for a way to end the war," while Macron vowed not to push Ukraine into a compromise it can't accept.

They also reaffirmed their continued support for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity “for as long as it takes.” The support includes significant resources to help Ukrainian civilians through the winter.

The United States and France also intend to continue providing “robust direct budget support for Ukraine, and to urge the international financial institutions to scale up their financial support,” the joint statement said.

He said the two countries were "facing down Vladimir Putin's grasping ambition for conquest" and "defending the democratic values and universal human rights which are the heart of both our nations."

"It doesn't mean that every single solitary thing we agree on," Biden said, speaking after meeting Macron. "But it does mean we agree on almost everything."

Macron said the two nations had a shared responsibility to protect democracies on both sides of the ocean and face the direct and indirect consequences of the war in Ukraine together.

Biden and Macron covered several other topics during their meeting, including energy, emerging technologies, trade, and nuclear deterrence.

The two leaders said in their joint statement that they will continue to coordinate on their concerns regarding "China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change."

Prior to their meeting, Macron raised French and European concerns about subsidies in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a $430 billion bill that offers massive subsidies for U.S.-made products and is aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

European leaders say the legislation signed by Biden in August is unfair to non-American companies and would be a serious blow to their economies as Europe deals with the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Biden is hosting Macron for the first state visit since he took office last year. He and first lady Jill Biden are playing up the pageantry with a colorful arrival ceremony planned and 200 live lobsters flown in from Maine for a glittering state dinner.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Armenia, Hungary Agree To Restore Diplomatic Relations After 10-Year Suspension

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (front left) and his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan (front right) meet in Lodz on December 1.

Armenia and Hungary have agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2012 after Hungary extradited Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov to Baku. Safarov at the time was serving a life sentence in Hungary for axing to death Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian in 2004 during NATO training courses. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on December 1 that the Armenian and Hungarian foreign ministers, who met in Poland, expressed their intention to open a new chapter in Armenian-Hungarian relations. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

Iran Hands Death Sentences To Four Accused Of Collaborating With Israel

A screengrab from a video released in which an Iranian appeared to admit that he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat, as well as an American general and a journalist in France. (file photo)

Iran has sentenced to death four people accused of collaborating with Israel, the semiofficial Mehr News agency reported.

According to a report by Mehr News on November 30, the four were arrested in June and were accused of having interrogated people in Iran with intelligence cooperation from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Three other people on trial in the case were handed sentences by the Supreme Judicial Court of Iran of between five years and 10 years for "acting against the country's security," kidnapping, and the possession of weapons.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war. Tensions between the two have soared in recent years.

The report on the sentencing comes after Tehran accused Israel of carrying out a recent spate of assassinations and sabotage attacks inside the Islamic republic.

Earlier this year, Israeli media reported that Mossad captured and interrogated a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran.

Later, a video was released in which a person who identified himself as Mansur Rasuli, admitted that he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat working in the country's consulate in Istanbul, as well as an American general stationed in Germany and a journalist in France.

Mehr News has not specified whether the people who were sentenced to death were related to that case or not.

Iran has been roiled in recent months by nationwide protests sparked by the death of a young woman while she was being held in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

Tehran has blamed Israel, the United States, and other Western countries for the unrest, which has seen security forces kill more than 400 people, according to human rights groups, including dozens of minors.

Officials have not shown any evidence to back up their accusations that the West has been involved in the anti-government uprising.

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

Ukrainian Power-Grid Operator Receives 300 Million Euro Loan From European Bank, 72 Million Euro Grant From Netherlands

Workers repair broken power lines damaged by shelling in Ukraine's Donetsk region on November 25.

Ukraine's Ukrenerho grid operator has secured 300 million euros ($315 million) in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to restore power infrastructure damaged in Russian attacks and improve financial stability, the company said in a statement on December 1. Ukrenerho said 150 million euros of the loan and a 72 million euro grant from the Netherlands will be used for the purchase of equipment needed for the repairs. The remaining 150 million euros of EBRD funds will be allocated for the company's financial obligations in the electricity market, Ukrenerho said. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Leaves Intensive Care Unit After Surgery

Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kalesnikava (file photo)

Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year, was transferred from an intensive care unit to a regular unit in a hospital after a surgery.

Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram on December 1 that doctors informed Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, that his daughter felt better and ate yogurt and porridge in the morning.

Kalesnikau has not been allowed to see his daughter and still does not know her diagnosis. Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, has not been able to see his client either due to "the absence of a request from the convict."

Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a penal colony in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.

Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.

Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.

Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.

Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates who also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.

Jailed Russian Opposition Politician Navalny Again Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the eighth time since August, Navalny's press secretary Kira Yarmysh tweeted on December 1. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days for a "violation of the dress code." The violation was for failing to have on a prison jacket during a check at 5:12 a.m. Navalny has called all his previous incarcerations in solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Tajik Prosecutors Seek 30 Years In Prison For Activist From Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region

Former Tajik lawmaker Faromuz Irgashev (file photo)

DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors have asked a court in Dushanbe to convict and sentence to 30 years in prison Faromuz Irgashev, an activist and former lawmaker in the volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO), on charges of receiving illegal financial support from abroad, organizing an unsanctioned rally, and participating in the activities of a criminal group.

Two sources close to the trial, which started in October and is being held behind closed doors, told RFE/RL on December 1 that the prosecutor asked the court to sentence Irgashev last week.

The 32-year-old lawyer was arrested in May with several other activists in the wake of the deadly dispersal of protesters in GBAO. It is not known how he pleaded.

Irgashev was a lawyer for the Commission 44 group, which was created in November last year in GBAO to facilitate a dialogue between regional authorities and anti-government protesters. The group’s efforts led to the peaceful resolution of protests in the region.

In May, the protests in GBAO resumed as people demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of the regional governor and the mayor of GBAO's capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."

Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them. Irgashev and at least six other members of Commission 44 were among those apprehended. Two of them were later sentenced to 18 years in prison each.

In August, Tajikistan's Supreme Court declared Commission 44 to be a criminal group.

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.

Former Russian Lawmaker And His Brother Handed Lengthy Prison Terms On Embezzlement Charges

Former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov (right) and his brother Ziyavudin (file photo)

A court in Moscow on December 1 sentenced former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov and his brother, an ex-tycoon, Ziyavudin Magomedov, to 18 years and 19 years in prison, respectively, on embezzlement charges. The Meshchansky district court also found the brothers guilty of creating a criminal group. Magomed Magomedov used to be a member of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament's upper chamber. In 2017, Forbes estimated Ziyavudin Magomedov's wealth to be $1.4 billion. The two were arrested in March 2018. Both maintain their innocence. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Police In Russia's Tatarstan Search Homes Of Local Journalist, Anti-War Activist

A video in May showed Russia's ambassador to Poland, Sergei Andreyev (right) being doused with red paint by participants of a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine during his attempt to lay flowers at a cemetery in Warsaw.

Police in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, have searched the home of local journalist Nailla Mullayeva over a video of an attack by anti-war activists in Poland against the Russian ambassador in May.

Police in Kazan also searched the home of activist Elina Yasonova on December 1 for unspecified reasons. Both Mullayeva and Yasonova have been known for their public stance against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Mullayeva told OVD-Info, a group that monitors cases of persecution of journalists and activists, that the search of her home was held as part of a probe into a "justification of terrorist action" case.

According to Mullayeva, police are investigating whether she had any involvement in distributing a video in May showing Ambassador Sergei Andreyev being doused with red paint by Polish activists as he attempted to lay flowers at a Soviet military memorial cemetery in Warsaw for Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.

Last month, Tatarstan's authorities added Andrei Grigoryev, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities online project, to the wanted list and issued a warrant for his arrest over the same video, accusing him of publicly calling for terrorist activities via the Internet.

In August, police in Kazan searched the homes of Grigoryev and several other current and former correspondents of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities and Tatar-Bashkir Service, saying they were suspected of having been involved in the video's distribution online.

All of the journalists said they had nothing to do with the video.

Idel.Realities is a regional news outlet in Russian of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

With reporting by OVD-Info

Serbia's Plum Brandy Gets UNESCO World Heritage Status

Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. 

Serbian authorities announced on December 1 that sljivovica, Serbia's traditional plum brandy, is being added to the UN’s list of intangible cultural heritage as "a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity." UNESCO experts gathering in Morocco this week decided that “social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use” of sljivovica deserve UN recognition as an example of an important cultural tradition, Serbia's Culture Ministry said. Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. To read the original AP story, click here.

Streaming Of Foreign Movies, Music Aboard Russia's Aeroflot Aircraft Suspended Amid Sanctions

Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. 

Streaming of foreign movies and music aboard planes operated by Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline, has been suspended after foreign partners refused to provide services due to international sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Calls Trial A 'Circus,' Removed From Courtroom For 'Disrupting Order'

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev stands in a glass cage at the start of his trial at a Bishkek courthouse on December 1.

BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been removed from the courtroom after he called his trial "a circus" and started kicking at the glass cage where he had been placed.

The judge of the Birinchi Mai district court ordered bailiffs to remove Atambaev from the courtroom as the trial of the former leader and three other former officials charged with abuse of office during deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 in the Central Asian nation started on December 1.

The 66-year-old Atambaev, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss in 2013, led Kyrgyzstan's interim government when clashes between Kyrgyz and local Uzbeks shook the Central Asian nation's southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010, following anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

According to Kyrgyz officials, 446 men and women were killed in the ethnic clashes, about 2,000 people were injured, and tens of thousands were displaced.

Atambaev is currently involved in another trial that is related to August 2019 clashes between his supporters and security forces at his residential compound near Bishkek.

The two-day standoff between security forces and Atambaev’s supporters resulted in the death of a top security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.

Atambaev and 13 others are charged in that case with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.

Russia-Backed Separatist Leader In Ukraine Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 50 POWs Each

Denis Pushilin (file photo)

The leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's occupied eastern region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 50 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 1 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. He said 20 of the POWs to be returned to the Russian side are from Donetsk and separatist-controlled districts of another eastern region in Ukraine, Luhansk. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.

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