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Religious Freedom Group Sees Rise In Persecution

A Shi'ite Muslim in Iraq holds chains used in self-flagellation outside the Imam Hussein shrine during the Ashura observation in Karbala in December 2009.
A new report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warns that religious freedom across the globe is increasingly being threatened and oppressed by governments in human rights "hot spots."

In 2009, the group -- an independent U.S. government commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide -- surveyed 28 such countries and found evidence that freedom of religion was "being obstructed and trampled."

This year's list includes 13 "countries of particular concern," including all eight named last year (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan) plus Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

The commission makes policy recommendations to the U.S. president, secretary of state, and Congress that are aimed at improving conditions in what it calls "that small but critically important point of intersection of foreign policy, national security, and international religious freedom standards."

After researchers and analysts document the laws, practices, and policies in places that prevent people from worshiping freely and without fear of persecution, the group issues an annual report aimed at "exposing, countering, and correcting religious freedom abuses."

Cathy Cosman, a senior policy analyst at the commission, says the findings show that restricting religious worship has become an important tool for repressive governments to hold onto power.

"If one assumes that the governments are primarily concerned with retaining their power and remaining in office, then they have engaged in systematically restricting the public influence of civil society in various ways, and then of course also [restricting] the media," Cosman says. "If one thinks of other potential groups that [have] the ability to mobilize large numbers of people, it [is] religious communities that are more or less the only groups that are left."

The report identifies what it calls "disturbing" trends in threats to freedom of religion around the world.

It cites evidence of the "exportation of extremist ideology," as in Saudi Arabia's dissemination of educational materials that the group says "instill hate and incite violence throughout the world."

It also finds states that are persecuting political opponents in the name of religion under blasphemy and apostasy laws, such as in Iran.

And it documents several examples of state-sponsored repression of religion.

According to the report, in Vietnam, people are imprisoned for reasons directly related to their exercise or advocacy of freedom of belief or religion; the government of "Egypt denies Baha'is, Coptic Christians, and other religious minorities basic rights; North Korea bans virtually all worship and imprisons in its labor camps even the grandchildren of people caught praying; and China seriously restricts religious activities, church governance, and places of worship."

For the first time in its 11 years of reporting on religious freedom around the world, the group has called on the U.S. government to impose a visa ban on and freeze the U.S. assets of one individual: Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya.

The group says the action is justified by Kadyrov's "leadership the Chechen armed forces, which the European Court of Human Rights has found [to be] involved in severe human rights abuses."

Cosman says in former communist Europe and Central Asia, governments seem increasingly willing to try and gain influence over citizens' very thoughts.

"I think that this is an expression of the most Soviet impulses of the government of [this] part of the world, where they want to control what people think, and how they think," Cosman says. "And increasingly, they're acting on it."

She adds that, along with Russia, some Central Asian countries have recently widened the category of religious activities they feel justified in persecuting people for.

"The Uzbeks keep changing and expanding their definition of so-called religious extremism, so that now people who read the materials of a Turkish theologian called Said Nursi are viewed as engaging in extremist activities and unfortunately, that trend is also seen in Tajikistan and Russia," Cosman says.

The commission says it works closely with President Barack Obama's administration to make policy recommendations on how Washington can promote religious freedom through U.S. foreign policy channels.

But the White House did not officially accept the 2009 findings or named the specified countries as violators of religious rights. Neither did the administration of President George W. Bush between November 2006 and January 2009.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on RFE/RL Broadcast Countries

"In Afghanistan, conditions for religious freedom remain problematic, despite gains in freedom of religion or belief since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The lack of effective government authority outside of Kabul and major provincial centers contributes to a deteriorating situation for religious freedom and other related human rights in many areas of the country. The government's inclination to accommodate traditional, restrictive views of human rights, specifically regarding women, was demonstrated in the controversy over a new family or personal status law for Shi'a Muslims. Nascent efforts at national reconciliation could potentially return Taliban or other insurgents hostile to international human rights standards to positions of influence."

"Harsh religious freedom conditions in Belarus continued during the reporting period. The Belarusian government still restricts religious freedom under its 2002 religion law. Authorities harassed and fined members of certain religious groups, particularly Protestants. Foreign missionaries, clergy, and humanitarian workers affiliated with churches faced increased restrictions, including deportation and visa refusal or cancellation. Close supervision of religious life is state policy under the religion law, and an extensive government apparatus has stepped up efforts to limit the influence of religion and the activities of foreign religious workers."

"The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. During the past year, and particularly since the June 2009 elections, the Iranian government's poor religious freedom record deteriorated, especially for religious minorities, in particular Baha'is as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims, including intensified physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment. Dissident Muslims were increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the capital crime of moharebeh, or 'waging war against God.' A revised penal code that would codify serious punishments, including the death penalty, on converts from Islam remains under consideration by the Iranian parliament. Heightened anti-Semitism and repeated Holocaust denial by senior government officials have increased fear among Iran's Jewish community. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, members of minority religious communities have fled Iran in significant numbers for fear of persecution."


"In Iraq, the government continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against the members of Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities - Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis. Members of these groups continue to suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which they receive insufficient government protection. They also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect. In addition, there continue to be attacks and tense relations between Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis. Other egregious, religiously motivated violence against women and girls, homosexuals, and Muslims who reject certain strict interpretations of Islam also continues."

"Serious religious freedom concerns persist in Pakistan, where religiously discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of intolerance. Positive steps taken by the current government have failed to reverse the resulting erosion in the social and legal status of members of religious minority communities and the ability of members of the majority Muslim community to discuss freely sensitive religious and social issues. A number of Pakistan's laws abridge freedom of religion or belief. Blasphemy laws have been used to silence members of religious minorities and dissenters within the majority Muslim community, and frequently result in imprisonment on account of religion or belief and/or vigilante violence. The Hudood Ordinances, Islamic decrees predominantly affecting women that are enforced alongside Pakistan's secular legal system, provide harsh punishments for alleged violations of Islamic law. Anti-government insurgents espousing an intolerant interpretation of Islam continue to impose a harsh, Taliban-style rule in areas under their control. The government's response to sectarian and religiously motivated violence continues to be inadequate, despite increased security operations against extremists."


"The status of religious freedom in Russia continued to deteriorate due to several negative new policies and trends, particularly government use of anti-extremist legislation against religious groups that are not known to use or advocate violence. National and local government officials increasingly violate the religious freedoms of Muslims and groups they view as non-traditional by enforcing other laws, including those on religious organizations and non-governmental organizations. Russian officials continue to describe certain religious and other groups as alien to Russian culture and society, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance. Continued high levels of xenophobia and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, have resulted in violent, sometimes lethal, hate crimes. The Russian government has chronically failed to address these serious problems adequately, consistently, or effectively. The U.S. government should urge Russia to reform its overly broad law on extremism and other laws negatively affecting human rights and freedom of religion or belief, so as to ensure that they are not used to limit the fundamental freedoms of peaceful religious groups."

"Religious freedom conditions in Tajikistan have deteriorated significantly over the past several years, as Tajik law and government policies place major restrictions on religious freedom. These restrictions primarily affect Muslims, but also single out minority religious communities. In 2009, the Tajik government passed a new religion law that codified some restrictions that had been informally implemented and introduced a framework for further restrictions. Also in 2009, a court ordered a Protestant church to vacate its building and its property was expropriated by the Dushanbe city government. Tajik authorities demolished several mosques in 2007, and in 2008 one church and the nation's only synagogue were bulldozed. Bans imposed in 2007 continued on Jehovah's Witnesses and two Protestant churches."


"Significant religious freedom problems and official harassment of religious adherents persist in Turkmenistan. Police raids and other forms of harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continue more than three years after the death of longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. The repressive 2003 religion law remains in force, imposing major difficulties for the legal functioning of religious groups. Despite decreased emphasis, the Turkmen government still maintains the former president's personality cult through the Ruhnama as a mandatory feature of elementary public education. Although the new president has taken some isolated positive steps, including the release of the country's former chief mufti, promised systemic legal reforms directly related to religious freedom and other human rights have not been made."

"The government of Uzbekistan continues to systematically abuse religious freedom and related human rights throughout the country. The government exercises tight control over all religious practice, and continues to arrest Muslims and close mosques that do not conform to government-prescribed practices or that it alleges are associated with extremist political programs. As of 2009, at least 4,500 non-conforming Muslims, including an increasing numbers of women, were estimated to be in prison, many of whom reportedly are denied the right to due process and subjected to torture. Official repression has extended to members of the country's small Protestant and Jehovah's Witnesses communities that until recently had been somewhat shielded from the government's anti-religious campaign. Uzbekistan has a highly restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious communities to function, leaving more than 100 religious groups currently denied registration."

written by RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Washington

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Bulgarian Government Adopts Green Transition Plans Amid Protests By Energy Sector Workers

Energy sector workers block a road as part of protests that were held in Bulgaria on September 29.

The Bulgarian government adopted plans on September 29 for the green transition of three coal regions in the country, but the decision met with protests by Bulgarian miners and other energy sector workers who blocked key roads.

The approval of the plans for the transition of the three regions is a condition for the European Commission to allocate 1.2 billion euros ($1.27 billion). The money would be used for the green transformation of the regions, which is intended to create new jobs for coal industry workers.

The plans must include a timetable for reducing the capacities of coal power plants in order to be approved by the European Commission.

But miners and energy workers do not want the coal power plants and mines to close, saying that they would lose their jobs. The protesters want the government to guarantee that coal power plants and mines would continue to operate without setting any dates for their shutdown.

Despite the demonstrations, which drew hundreds of people onto the streets to block roads in the coal-mining regions of Stara Zagora, Pernik, and Kustendil, the government approved the plans and said it would send them to the European Commission on September 30.

Bulgaria is already late in submitting the territorial plans for the transition of the three coal regions and lost almost 100 million euros ($106 million) for 2022 from the EU and risks losing another 800 million euro ($850 million) for 2023.

Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said the end of September was the deadline for the government to approve and submit the plans so that the country does not lose the funding for 2023.

Denkov said that the government would not close coal power plants in Bulgaria before 2038 and that this would be clearly stated in the plans that would be sent to the European Commission.

He said that the plans would not specify dates for closing coal power plants but added that “gradually some of them will drop out of the energy system because it will not be economically possible for them to function anymore.”

“That is why it is extremely important to create mechanisms by which people who have the necessary qualifications can find employment in the same region,” Denkov added.

The government also agreed to pay compensations of 36 months' salary for energy sector workers who decide to quit.

Denkov called on the protesters to stop the demonstrations, saying that their demands have been fulfilled.

The Bulgarian government said last month that it had finished the draft territorial plans for the transition and vowed to send them to the European Commission by the end of September.

But it faced protests by miners and energy workers who were not satisfied with the plans.

The government held negotiations earlier in September with the trade unions that represent the protesting miners and energy workers and agreed on the creation of a state enterprise in which all those currently working for the state-owned mines and coal power plants would be reassigned.

Bulgaria is the only EU country that has not submitted its plans for what the European Commission formally calls the Just Transition Mechanism.

The country previously was among the last to submit its Recovery and Resilience Plan -- another European mechanism that provides funding for a transition to renewable energy. But this funding is now blocked following a parliament decision in December 2022 demanding that the government renegotiate Bulgaria’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants by 40 percent by 2026.

The European Union aims to be climate-neutral by 2050 -- an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The bloc has allocated billions of euros in funding for its member states to fulfill this objective.

Russians Allowed To Take Part In Paris 2024 Paralympics As Individual, Neutral Athletes

Russian para-athletes will be allowed to compete at next year's games, but without national flags, colors or emblems. (file photo)

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) voted on September 29 to allow Russian para-athletes to compete as individual and neutral athletes at the Paris 2024 Paralympics. The decision came hours after the IPC voted against a full ban on the Russian athletes. They will be allowed to take part in the Paralympics scheduled for August 28- September 8, 2024, without national flags, colors or emblems. After Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the IPC banned Russian athletes from taking part in the Paralympics.

NATO Says It Will Send More Troops To Kosovo Amid Deteriorating Security Situation

German KFOR soldiers on duty in the northern Kosovar town of Zvecan. (file photo)

NATO on September 29 said it would beef up its KFOR peacekeeping Kosovo force amid rising tensions in the predominantly ethnic-Serb north. "Yesterday the North Atlantic Council authorized additional forces to address the current situation," the alliance said in a statement on September 29. It did not say how many more troops it would send to Kosovo. Four people were killed on September 24 in an attack at a 14th-century Orthodox monastery in north Kosovo when some 30 gunmen stormed the monastery, sparking a gunbattle with Kosovar police. In May, violence erupted when Kosovar authorities tried to install mayors in some Serb-majority towns. Dozens of KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters were injured.

Swiss Accuse Late Uzbek President's Daughter Of Running Criminal Organization

Gulnara Karimova (file photo)

Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the imprisoned daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office."

Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecoms companies.

Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland.

According to the statement, Karimova's network began its operations in Switzerland in 2005 “in order to conceal the capital originating from its criminal dealings in Swiss bank accounts and safes and by purchasing real estate.”

"‘The Office conducted its criminal activities as a professional business, complying with mandatory regulations and observing a strict allocation of tasks, while also resorting to violence and intimidation," the prosecutors' statement said.

In 2012, Switzerland said it froze around 800 million Swiss francs ($871.3 million) in connection with criminal proceedings against Karimova, a pop diva and businesswoman who had a public falling out with her late father and is currently in an Uzbek prison on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.

The Uzbek Justice Ministry said earlier that it was working with authorities in Switzerland, the United States, France, Russia, and several other nations on the return of Karimova assets that it said were "earned through criminal activities."

In 2020, the Swiss government said a nonbinding framework agreement signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan meant any returned assets "shall be used for the benefit of the people of Uzbekistan."

Once seen as a possible successor to her father, Karimova was placed under house arrest in Tashkent in 2014 while her father was still alive and running the country. Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded him soon afterward.

Criminal investigators in Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands have linked Karimova to a massive, yearslong bribery scheme that revolved mainly around foreign telecommunications companies gaining access to the Uzbek market.

In December 2017, a Tashkent court sentenced Karimova to a 10-year prison term, but the sentence was later commuted to house arrest for five years. She was detained in March 2019 for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.

In February 2020, Karimova sent a letter to Mirziyoev offering to return $686 million to the country's treasury in exchange for the dismissal of the court case against her at home.

But a month later, she received an additional 13-year sentence after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and other crimes.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

German Chancellor Scholz, Five Central Asian Leaders Meet As Berlin Looks To Blunt Moscow's Influence

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (center) holds talks with Central Asian leaders in Berlin on September 29.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and five Central Asian nations' leaders have discussed cooperation and ties as Berlin looks to gain influence in the region that has been traditionally a sphere of dominance for Russia.

Scholz greeted presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Shavkat Mirziyoev of Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan's former president and current chairman of the People's Council, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, in the German capital, on September 29.

The gathering comes amid efforts to counter Russian influence on the Central Asian states during the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year.

Scholz and Toqaev held talks a day earlier, at which the German chancellor praised Kazakhstan's efforts to stop the circumvention of sanctions against Russia imposed by the West over its aggression against Ukraine.

Since the unprecedented sanctions were implemented, exports from the five Central Asian states to Russia have significantly increased, sparking concerns that some Western companies are using these former Soviet republics to evade the measures taken against Moscow.

As the summit started on September 29, a group of about a dozen Central Asian rights activists rallied in front of the German chancellor's office, demanding the immediate release of political prisoners in region amid signs of backsliding on free speech.

Rahmon's car was pelted with eggs, at least one of which splattered on the window and car seat where the president was sitting as the vehicle stopped near the Chancellery.

On September 28, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Scholz to focus on human rights in the five tightly controlled Central Asian nations during the summit.

"Germany plays a strong role on Central Asia, as a leading trade and investment partner and a key political motor behind the European Union’s Central Asia strategy. It should use this position to make clear that upholding fundamental human rights standards and respecting rule of law are essential to any long-term partnership between Europe and these authoritarian states," the HRW statement said.

Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden held talks with presidents of the five Central Asian nations in New York amid the United Nations General Assembly.

With reporting by dpa and

Prosecutors Seek Up To Five Years In Prison For Russian-Swede Accused In Spying Case

Police secures the area around the house where Sergei Skvortsov was arrested on suspicion of espionage in November 2022.

Swedish prosecutors have asked a court to sentence a Russian-Swedish citizen, Sergei Skvortsov, to up to five years in prison on a charge of passing Western technology to Russia. Skvortsov, who was arrested in November last year in a dramatic dawn raid on his suburban home, went on trial in Stockholm on September 4. The 60-year-old dual national has lived in Sweden since the 1990s, where he has run import-export companies. He pleaded not guilty to the charge of "unlawful intelligence activities" against the United States and Sweden. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


U.S. Urges Serbia To Pull Back Large Military Deployment Along Border With Kosovo

A senior U.S. official says Belgrade has initiated an "unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units" at the border with Kosovo. (file photo)

The White House has urged Serbia to pull back what it said is a large military deployment from its border with Kosovo amid rising tensions after deadly clashes this week in a Kosovar village.

"We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on September 29, adding that the build-up was a "very destabilizing development."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Serbian officials, and national-security adviser Jake Sullivan has spoken with Kosovar officials, Kirby said.

"We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border that includes unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilizing development," Kirby said in a conference call.

He also said there would be an increase in the peacekeeping force known as KFOR in northern Kosovo. There currently are about 600 U.S. forces participating in the force, he said.

Milan Radoicic, the top official of the main ethnic-Serb political party in Kosovo, admitted earlier to organizing and participating in the events that sparked the most recent clash with police, which occurred at an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo and left four people dead.

In a statement read by his lawyer on September 29 in Belgrade, Radoicic said that he “personally made all the logistical preparations,” adding that the Serbian government had no knowledge of what was happening.

Milan Radoicic (file photo)
Milan Radoicic (file photo)

Radoicic described his actions as a way to “encourage Serbs” from the region to resist what he called “the terror of [Kosovo Prime Minister Albin] Kurti's regime.”

The admission comes days after Kosovo accused the ethnic-Serb politician of organizing and participating in the attack in Banjska on September 24, in which three attackers were killed, along with a Kosovar police officer.

Pristina has said that at least six of the suspected attackers who escaped were in Serbia and demanded Belgrade hand them over to Kosovar authorities.

Kosovo's interior minister, Xhelal Svecla, published a video on September 26 showing heavily armed men in the monastery complex and said that among them was Radoicic. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify his identity in the video, which Svecla said was shot on September 24, though Radoicic's admission appears to confirm the footage.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic acknowledged on September 27 thatRadoicic was in Serbia.

Vucic, who has denied claims that Serbia was involved in the clashes saying the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to withstand the terror” of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian authorities, told Serbian state television that Radoicic would be questioned by the Serbian authorities about the matter.

“He will certainly respond to the invitation of the competent authorities of Serbia, I am convinced that he will be heard,” Vucic said.

“He considers himself a fighter for freedom, he has never given up on his comrades and he will never give up, but there are things and questions that he will have to answer,” he added.

Radoicic is a construction tycoon as well as a top official of the main ethnic Serb political party in Kosovo, Serbian List, funded mainly by Belgrade. He was hit with sanctions by the United States and Britain in 2021 for allegedly being part of an organized crime group.

Kosovo has accused Serbia of direct involvement in the clashes, which Belgrade denies.

Xhelal Svecla told the Associated Press in a September 28 interview that investigators were looking at evidence linking Russia, an ally of Serbia, to the armed assault.

Russian weapons, other equipment and documents suggesting Russian involvement were discovered after the daylong gunbattle, he said.

Svecla also alleged that the insurgents had come from Serbia and that they were trained in camps in Serbia.

“We found some documents which lead us to a suspicion that there were individuals coming from Russia too,” he added.

“For the equipment, we have evidence, but for the people we still have only suspicion.”

The monastery attack further raised tensions in the region at a time when European Union and U.S. officials have been pushing for a deal that would normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo.

Tensions continued to mount in the region after Pristina tried to forcibly install four mayors in mostly Serbian northern municipalities following boycotted by-elections to fill posts vacated by protesting Serbs.

The clashes that erupted following the elections injured dozens of NATO-led peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters.

With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters

More Than 50 Killed In Blasts At Two Pakistan Mosques

Volunteers carry a blast victim on a stretcher at a hospital in Quetta on September 29.

An explosion at a religious gathering in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan on September 29 killed at least 52 people and dozens more wounded, police and hospital officials told RFE/RL.

Separately, at least four people were killed in explosions that targeted a mosque and a police station in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, according to police and media reports.

The first blast, in Balochistan's Mastung district, some 60 kilometers from the provincial capital, Quetta, targeted a procession celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad, Jan Muhammad Achakzai, Information Minister in Balochistan's caretaker government, told RFE/RL on the phone.

Rashid Mohammad Shahi, head of the Mastung Health Department, told RFE/RL that 55 people were injured in the incident.

Some 500 people had gathered in Mastung for the celebration, known as Mawlid an-Nabi, during which Muslims usually hold gatherings and distribute free meals to the poor.

No group has claimed responsibility so far for the blast, which prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency in the hospitals in Quetta.

Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran, is regularly targeted by Islamist militants, sectarian groups, and nationalist separatists.

Balochistan is sparsely populated but rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, and gas and has been marred by instability and violence.

The most prominent militant group in the region, the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces.

The BLC claims that ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities.

Islamabad rejects the charges. Ethnic Baluchis account for just under 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 231 million.

In the second incident, at least four people were killed, including a police officer, and 12 others were wounded in blasts that targeted a police station and a mosque in the Doaba area of Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa.

The roof of the mosque, located on the premises of the police station, caved in under the force of the second explosion, which happened as the mosque was full of people attending Friday Prayers.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Dawn

Kremlin Tasks Senior Ex-Wagner Commander With Forming Volunteer Corps

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and former Wagner senior commander Andrei Troshev (right).

The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with Andrei Troshev, the former chief of staff of the Wagner mercenary group, and handed him the responsibility for establishing new volunteer fighting units.

“At our last meeting, we talked about the fact that you will be engaged in the formation of volunteer units that can perform various combat tasks," Putin said at a meeting with Troshev and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov on September 28, according to a transcript of the conversation published a day later.

Putin stressed that Troshev "is aware of issues that need to be solved beforehand to secure better and successful combat activities."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 29 that Wagner's former chief of staff is now working at the Defense Ministry.

In August, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Wagner's commanders had accused Troshev and other top officials of the mercenary group of "betraying Wagner for the Russian Defense Ministry-affiliated Redut private military company."

Redut, a combination of several minor veteran groupings of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Russian Air Force, and units of the Russian Defense Ministry, has been active in the war in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

The ISW report came three days before a plane linked to Wagner founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed between Moscow and St. Petersburg on August 23, killing all 10 people on board.

On August 27, Russian authorities said Prigozhin’s body had been identified by medical examiners, along with those of nine other people on board the Embraer 600 jet that crashed in the Tver region in suspicious circumstances.

Two months before his death, on June 23-24, Prigozhin sent thousands of his fighters in a short-lived rebellion against the military command fighting in Ukraine, imposing one of the biggest challenges to Putin in his more than two decades in power.

The insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies, as Wagner's fighters played the major role in heavy fighting for the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's east.

In mid-September, the British government added Wagner group to its list of terrorist organizations, saying it remains a threat to global security even after Prigozhin's death.

Earlier in January, Washington designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization.


Britain Slaps More Sanctions On Russian Officials One Year After 'Sham' Votes In Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

The United Kingdom announced a fresh set of sanctions against Russian officials and Moscow's electoral authority on the one-year anniversary of "sham" elections held in occupied Ukrainian regions.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement that the new measures targeted 11 Russian officials and the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Russia for the "sham elections" that amounted to "a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize Russia's illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory."

Those who orchestrated the referendums in late September 2022 and general elections earlier this month in occupied Ukrainian territories in the east and southeast "all directly acted to undermine Ukraine and threaten its territorial integrity," the statement said.

"You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country," Cleverly said in the statement.

Natalya Budarina, one of the most senior CEC officials, Andrei Aleksyenko, the chief of the Russia-controlled part of the southern region of Kherson, and Marina Zakharova, the Moscow-installed head of the Kherson electoral authority, were among those sanctioned with asset freezes and travel restrictions.

The latest set of punitive measures brings the total number of individuals and entities sanctioned by Britain since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine to more than 1,600.

The measures were announced a day after British Admiral Tony Radakin, chief of the Defense Staff, and the United Kingdom's new Defense Secretary Grant Shapps visited Kyiv.

Earlier on September 29, Russian troops launched a missile attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv, damaging infrastructure, a regional official said, as the governor of Russia's Kursk region bordering Ukraine said a drone attack has cut off the energy supply of several settlements in the area.

"On the morning of September 29, around 4:13, the city of Mykolayiv was targeted by a missile attack," the head of Mykolayiv regional military administration, Vitaly Kim, said on Telegram. "An infrastructure objective was damaged on the outskirts of the city. The resulting fire was extinguished at 6:45. Detailed information is being clarified," Kim wrote.

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.

Meanwhile, Roman Starovoit, the governor of Russia's Kursk region that borders Ukraine, said on September 29 that a Ukrainian drone attack on a power substation in the region's Belovsky district left five settlements without electricity.

“One of the transformers caught fire. Five settlements and a hospital were left without power. Fire crews have left for the scene. They will begin restoring power supply as soon as it is safe,” Starovoit said on Telegram. Russia's Defense Ministry later said in a statement that it had shot down 11 drones overnight -- 10 over the Kursk region and one over the Kaluga region.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces continued to conduct both defensive and offensive operations in the east and south, where they fought 26 close-quarters battles against Russian troops over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily update on September 29

On September 28, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Kyiv that Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders.

"[Ukrainian troops] face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground," Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.

WATCH: Ukraine's homegrown UAV producers are modifying their drone fleets with the latest, cutting-edge technology. The domestic company Warbirds of Ukraine says that the development of so-called smart drones will play a key role in the outcome of the war.

Ukrainian UAV Manufacturers In Race For 'Smart Drone'
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The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.

With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters

UN To Send Humanitarian Mission To Nagorno-Karabakh As Exodus Of Ethnic Armenians Continues

Tens of thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians have been leaving the breakaway Azerbaijani territory in recent days.

The United Nations will send a mission to Nagorno-Karabakh this weekend, a UN spokesman said after Azerbaijan invited UN agencies to visit the region to monitor the situation there as an exodus of ethnic Armenians continued on September 29.

The mission will mainly assess humanitarian needs, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that the body had not had access to the region "in about 30 years."

"The government of Azerbaijan and the UN have agreed on a mission to the region. The mission will take place over the weekend," he told reporters.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said earlier in a statement that the UN agencies had been invited to send a mission "to become acquainted with the current humanitarian activities being carried out by Azerbaijan in the region."

The ministry said the group members would also be shown "the process of rebuilding certain infrastructure, disarmament, and confiscation of ammunition from illegal Armenian armed forces, as well as the dangers posed by mines."

The announcements come 10 days after a lightning military offensive that gave Azerbaijan complete control over its breakaway region.

The United States and others have called on Baku to allow international monitors into Nagorno-Karabakh amid concerns about possible human rights abuses and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The UN World Food Program has already set up tents in Goris to help provide meals to the refugees, and representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijani officials also met for the third time since September 19 in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax. The sides again discussed humanitarian issues and the reintegration of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijani society.

Armenia's government estimated that nearly 93,000 Armenians -- more than three-quarters of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh -- had crossed onto its territory as of 4 p.m. local time on September 29.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has accused Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warned that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region in the following days.

"This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing that we warned the international community about," Pashinian told a government meeting on September 28, calling for concrete action by the international community.

WATCH: Armenian volunteers are doing what they can to provide relief to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have flooded into the country since Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19.

Armenian Volunteers Rush To Help Flood Of Refugees From Nagorno-Karabakh
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Baku has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and said that it wanted to "reintegrate" the enclave's ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh despite reports of detentions of former leaders of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces.

Sources close to ethnic Armenian de facto authorities in the region confirmed to RFE/RL on September 29 reports that Azerbaijani officials detained Levon Mnatsakanian, a former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist armed forces, at a border checkpoint with Armenia.

In addition, Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on September 29 it had detained Davit Manukian, former deputy commander of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces, on "terrorism" charges. Two days earlier, Azerbaijan arrested the former de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, billionaire Ruben Vardanian.

WATCH: RFE/RL spoke with refugees in Armenia who said they left everything behind and hadn't eaten in days.

'I Have Nothing': Ethnic Armenians Face Dire Conditions Amid Mass Exodus From Nagorno-Karabakh
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The de facto Internal Affairs Ministry in the breakaway region said on September 29 that the remains of 170 people have been found at the site of an explosion at a fuel depot, which occurred on September 25 as people sought to fuel their vehicles in order to leave the region. The remains are being transferred to laboratories for medical examination, the ministry said.

The official confirmed that the death toll stands at 68, with more than 290 injured. The cause of the blast has not been determined.

Russia, which used to be Armenia's main military backer but has been criticized by Yerevan for its peacekeepers' failure to prevent the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, said fleeing Armenians had nothing to fear.

"It's difficult to say who is to blame [for the exodus]. There is no direct reason for such actions," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an apparent rejection of Armenia's claims of ethnic cleansing.

"People are nevertheless expressing a desire to leave.... Those who made such a decision should be provided with normal living conditions," Peskov added.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.

The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.

That fighting ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Swiss Court Acquits Former Belarusian Security Force Member In Disappearance Case

Defendant Yury Harauski enters a court building in Switzerland on the first day of hearings on September 19.

A former member of Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s special security forces was acquitted in Switzerland on September 28 of involvement in the disappearances of prominent opposition figures more than two decades ago.

A district court in Rorshach acquitted Yury Harauski, 45, after a two-day hearing last week.

A court statement said that due to the defendant's contradictory statements his actual involvement in the disappearances of former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar, and businessman Anatol Krasouski, who had gone missing in 1999, “cannot be considered legally proven."

The court also said the involvement of the Belarusian government in the disappearances could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt because it was not represented in the proceedings.

Harauski sought asylum in Switzerland in 2018 arguing that his life was at risk in Belarus due to his willingness to speak out about his involvement with a special unit that made opponents of Lukashenka disappear.

In explaining his decision, the judge said during the interrogation, “the accused got confused in contradictions” and evaded the questions. The ruling concluded that Harauski may have served in Lukashenka’s special security forces but his role in the abductions remains unclear.

Harauski was arrested in 2021 and formally charged last year. He confessed to taking part in the abduction of the three men but said he was not aware why they were kidnapped and said he did not take part in their killings.

In an interview published earlier this month, the accused said he was involved in arresting the men, but he "neither ordered nor carried out the murders” and was “merely a witness to them."

During his testimony, Harauski said Zakharanka was kidnapped in Minsk on May 7, 1999, driven to a military base outside the Belarusian capital, and then shot by his superior, Dzmitry Paulichenka, a lieutenant colonel who had headed the special unit.

He added that Hanchar and Krasouski were abducted in September 1999 while they were leaving a sauna in Minsk and later shot execution style by Paulichenka.

The case followed criminal claims by the daughters of two of the disappeared men, supported by Geneva-based group Trial International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Vyasna Human Rights Center.

The groups said they were disappointed with the outcome, while one of the daughters said she would appeal the court's decision, according to Reuters.

With reporting by Reuters

Kazakh President Assures Germany His Country Follows Sanctions Regime Against Russia

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (right) meets with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Berlin on September 28.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says his country will not help Russia circumvent Western sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine amid suspicions that Moscow is still receiving goods via Central Asian nations.

"Kazakhstan has unambiguously stated that it will follow the sanctions regime," Toqaev said on September 28 following talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Toqaev was on the defensive because his country has been repeatedly accused of helping its larger neighbor obtain goods in violation of sanctions.

Kazakhstan is a close economic and military ally of Moscow that shares a 7,500-kilometer border with Russia, but it has not recognized Ukrainian regions occupied by Moscow as part of Russia.

The European Union has sought to crack down on re-exports of sensitive goods by third countries to Russia with a measure allowing it to restrict certain exports to states that fail to cooperate.

Toqaev maintained that Kazakhstan has “contacts with the relevant organizations to comply with the sanctions regime.” He added that there should be no concerns on the German side about possible actions aimed at circumventing the sanctions regime.

Toqaev also said he did not fear any territorial claims from Moscow.

"The border between Kazakhstan and Russia has been set out, largely demarcated, confirmed, and ratified by the parliaments of both countries. We therefore have no concerns about Russia's territorial claims," he said, according to his press office.

In recent months, Kazakh citizens have faced trial for pro-Russian separatism in Kazakhstan, mainly in the north of the country.

Scholz is scheduled to host Toqaev along with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan for joint talks on September 29.

The meeting with the five Central Asian leaders will be the first joint gathering of its kind with an EU country.

With reporting by AFP

Warsaw Denies Belarus Claim That Polish Helicopter Violated Its Airspace

Polish soldiers land from an Mi-8 helicopter (illustrative photo)

Belarus said on September 28 that a Polish helicopter violated its airspace, but Warsaw said none of its helicopters had crossed the border between the two countries.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the aircraft crossed the border between Poland and Belarus at around 3:20 p.m. local time, traveling as far as 1.5 kilometers into Belarusian airspace, and then again at 4:22 p.m., “going 300 meters deep."

Belarus, a close ally of Russia, said the information was "confirmed by objective control data” and said it had scrambled military aircraft in response.

The ministry said it was gathering information about the incident and planned to prepare a joint note of protest with the Foreign Ministry to deliver to Poland.

Warsaw denied that any Polish helicopter crossed the border.

"We inform you that today's statement by the Belarusian side about the alleged crossing of the border by a Polish helicopter is false. This is confirmed by the records of flight control and the radar station -- no such event took place,” the operative headquarters of the Armed Forces of Poland said in a statement posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

The statement emphasized that the Polish Army "invariably respects and complies with all provisions and rules regarding the inviolability of borders" and also notes that “information provided by the Belarusian regime’s media must always be approached with caution and prudence, as it is often an element of provocation and misinforms the public."

Tense relations between Poland and Belarus have been further strained by Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Last month the Polish Defense Ministry said two Belarusian military helicopters that were conducting training exercises near the border violated Poland’s airspace.

The ministry said in a statement on August 1 that the charge d'affaires of Belarus would be summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry to explain the circumstances of the incident.

The statement clarified that the helicopters crossed into Polish airspace at a very low altitude, making them difficult to detect. It said that is why the Polish military initially said that the helicopters had not violated the NATO country's airspace.

After the incident Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak ordered an increase in the number of soldiers on the border. He also allocated additional resources, including combat helicopters.

NATO was also notified about the incident.

With reporting by Reuters

Draft Law On Foreign Agents Passes Republika Srpska's Legislature

The National Assembly of Republika Srpska (file photo)

The National Assembly of Republika Srpska has adopted a controversial draft law that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb entity to register and report on their work.

The so-called foreign agents law, formally known as the Special Register and Publicity of the Work of Nonprofit Organizations law, passed on September 28.

Whether the draft law will receive final approval and be implemented remains uncertain. It must still go through additional procedural steps before taking effect.

The law would require mandatory additional registration requirements and the submission of detailed financial reports. It also would prohibit NGOs receiving foreign funding to take part in political activities and would give the justice minister the authority to propose a ban on noncompliant organizations.

The draft law has been sharply criticized by U.S. and EU officials, who have called it repressive and anti-democratic.

In presenting the law to the National Assembly, Justice Minister Milos Bukejlovic said he would monitor the activities of organizations receiving foreign funding "across the territory of the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The draft law was approved by Republika Srpska's executive in March, and Bukejlovic said then the goal was "to prevent the misuse of nonprofit organizations."

The law was proposed last year by Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian president of the Republic of Srpska and leader of the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party. At that time Dodik claimed that the law's framework “would be inspired by the American model,” a reference to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

A similar foreign agents law in Russia has proved controversial and has been used to disrupt the work of media organizations, including RFE/RL. Russia also claimed its law was in response to the FARA.

U.S. officials have argued that Russia uses its foreign agents law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas and have said there is there "no equivalence" between FARA and Russia’s foreign agents law.

Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska say the law has more in common with the Russian law than with FARA.

In addition to U.S. and EU criticism, the proposed legislation has drawn negative assessments from various organizations, including NGOs and domestic and international entities.

Transparency International of Bosnia said it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms, the constitutions of both the state and Bosnia's entities, as well as existing laws within Republika Srpska.

Swiss Accuse Daughter Of Ex-Uzbek President Of Running Criminal Organization

Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecom companies.

Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office." Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecom companies. Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Britain's Shapps Meets Zelenskiy On First Visit To Kyiv As Defense Minister

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy greets British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps in Kyiv on September 28.

British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps discussed how to bolster Ukraine's air defenses during talks in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president's office said on September 28. The visit to the Ukrainian capital was Shapps's first to wartime Kyiv since he became defense secretary last month. Britain has been a staunch ally of Ukraine throughout the full-scale invasion launched by Russia in February 2022. "On behalf of the whole nation, I thank you for everything you are doing for us. We are grateful for your help -- military, financial, humanitarian," a statement released by Zelenskiy's office quoted the president as saying. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

One Killed, More Than 160 Injured In Blast At Warehouse Close To Tashkent Airport

The powerful blast, which occurred around 3 a.m. in the Sergeli district of the Uzbek capital, sent shock waves throughout the city and was followed by a massive fire.

TASHKENT -- A powerful explosion struck a warehouse near the main airport in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, overnight, killing a 16-year-old youth, injuring at least 160, and causing extensive damage.

At least 24 people are in critical condition in intensive-care units at local hospitals.

The powerful blast, which occurred around 3 a.m. in the Sergeli district of the Uzbek capital, sent shock waves throughout the city and was followed by a massive fire.

The Emergency Situations Ministry of Uzbekistan said the explosion was followed by a fire.

“Sixteen fire crews and three ladder trucks were sent to the scene of the explosion. They arrived at 2:48 a.m. and began extinguishing the fire and eliminating the consequences,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Defense Ministry said that some 1,000 troops were involved in dealing with the consequences of the incident.

Authorities have opened an investigation into the cause of the blast that hit the warehouse belonging to the Inter Logistics company.

A government commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Achilbay Ramatov was created to deal with the situation, authorities announced.

With a population of nearly 35 million, Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asian former Soviet republics.

The explosion reportedly broke windows of nearby apartment blocks, shops, and other buildings.

Local media reports said a person born in 2006 died after being crushed by a window frame during the blast.

Video footage posted on social media showed a column of flames and smoke rising into the sky.

Uzbek national news agency UzA said that despite the blast, the Islam Karimov International Airport, Uzbekistan's largest, is functioning normally.

Fires triggered by outdated equipment and noncompliance with safety standards are a regular occurrence in Uzbekistan.

The acting mayor of Tashkent, Shavkat Umurzakov, promised that the city would compensate those whose houses incurred damage as a result of the explosion within two to three days.

With reporting by AFP

NATO Chief Says Ukraine 'Gradually Gaining Ground' As Kyiv Repels Massive Russian Drone Barrage

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a press conference in Kyiv on September 28.

Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a previously unannounced visit to Kyiv on September 28, hours after the Ukrainian military said it had repelled a massive wave of Russian drone attacks on southern Ukraine.

"(Ukrainian troops) face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground, Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.

The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.

Stoltenberg said Ukraine's ties with the 30-member alliance had never been so close. "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before," he said.

"We are doing everything to bring this time closer," Zelensky said.

At a crucial summit in July, NATO leaders said in a statement that Ukraine's future is inside the alliance, but the bloc will extend an invitation to Kyiv only when "members agree and conditions are met."

The Ukrainian president also called on the alliance to beef up Kyiv's air-defense systems ahead of expected Russian strikes on Ukraine's energy facilities as the cold season approaches.

"The Secretary-General agreed to undertake efforts to help and to support us in this matter, to mobilize the member states of the alliance," Zelensky said, adding, "We need to get through this winter together, to protect our energy infrastructure and people's lives."

Zelenskiy's appeal came just hours after Ukraine's air defense said it had destroyed 34 out of the 44 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched by Russia early on September 28.

"Fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missile units and mobile fire groups were involved in repelling the attack," the air defense said in a message, adding that six Russian reconnaissance drones had also been downed overnight.

Earlier on September 28, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said Russia launched a wave of drone attacks along the entire southern Ukraine.

"Several groups of strike UAVs were launched.... Air defense worked along almost the entire southern direction in the Odesa, Mykolayiv regions. Also, much higher north -- the enemy aimed its attacks at central Ukraine," Humenyuk said.

WATCH: Amid their grinding counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops are training on donated German mobile-bridge equipment that could help them cross rivers and defensive Russian anti-tank ditches.

Ukrainian Troops Train With Newly Delivered German Bridge-Laying Equipment
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Russia "does not stop the pressure and searching for new tactics, namely with the use of mass attacks," Humenyuk said on Telegram.

The latest attack came after the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson came under Russian shelling late on September 27.

Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the regional military administration, announced around 10 p.m. local time that Kherson was under massive shelling. Russia has regularly shelled the Ukrainian-controlled part of Kherson since Moscow withdrew from the regional capital last year.

Russian drone attacks and shelling on September 26 briefly disrupted the rail link between Kherson and the city of Mykolayiv, which was also under air alert on September 27.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces fought 26 close-quarters battles over the past 24 hours, repelling several waves of Russian attacks against their positions in the eastern region of Donetsk, mainly in the Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Mariynka areas, while consolidating their hold on the village of Robotyne in the south in the face of Russian attempts to retake it, the General Staff of Ukraine's military said in it daily report on September 28.

With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters

Pashinian Accuses Baku Of Ethnic Cleansing As Exodus From Karabakh Continues

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh ride on a truck arriving at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, on September 27.

Thousands more people poured into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh on September 28, prompting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to accuse Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warn that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region following a lightning military offensive that gave Baku total control over the ethnic-Armenian populated territory.

Pashinian's spokeswoman, Nazeli Baghdasarian, said that a total of 76,407 people had entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh as of 8 p.m. local time on September 28, amounting to more than half of the region's estimated 120,000 inhabitants.

"This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing that we warned the international community about," Pashinian told a government meeting on September 28, calling for concrete action by the international community.

"Statements condemning ethnic cleansing by various international players are important, but if they are not followed by concrete actions, these statements will be seen as creating moral statistics for history, so that in future different countries will have the opportunity to formally dissociate themselves from this crime, saying we have condemned it," said Pashinian.

WATCH: The journey out of the crisis-hit region can take days and many arrive exhausted and hungry. Armenian volunteers are doing what they can to provide relief to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have flooded into the country since Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19.

Armenian Volunteers Rush To Help Flood Of Refugees From Nagorno-Karabakh
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Pashinian added that if the trend continued, no ethnic Armenians will be left in Karabakh in the coming days.

Baku has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and said it wants to "reintegrate" the enclave's ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"We call on Armenian residents not to leave their homes and become part of Azerbaijan's multi-ethnic society," the ministry said in a statement.

Russia, which used to be Armenia's main military backer but has been criticized by Yerevan for its peacekeepers' failure to prevent the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, said fleeing Armenians had nothing to fear.

"It's difficult to say who is to blame [for the exodus]. There is no direct reason for such actions," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an apparent rejection of Armenia's claims of ethnic cleansing.

"People are nevertheless expressing a desire to leave.... Those who made such a decision should be provided with normal living conditions," Peskov added.

WATCH: Thousands of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have flooded into the border town of Goris after enduring an arduous journey out of the the crisis-hit region. RFE/RL spoke with refugees in Armenia who said they left everything behind and hadn't eaten in days.

'I Have Nothing': Ethnic Armenians Face Dire Conditions Amid Mass Exodus From Nagorno-Karabakh
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The exodus began after Azerbaijan opened the only road leading from Karabakh to Armenia four days after a cease-fire agreement that ended the September 19-20 Azerbaijani military operation which gave Baku complete control over the region.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.

The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh should be able to remain in their homes with respect for their rights and security, if they choose, and those who leave and return should be allowed safe passage overseen by a neutral, independent third party.

"We would expect that those Nagorno-Karabakh residents who depart for Armenia would be able to return freely to their homes once it is safe to do so," Ambassador Michael Carpenter told an OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna.

He also said Azerbaijan has a responsibility to protect civilians and to ensure the humane treatment of all, including those it suspects of being combatants.

Carpenter reiterated a call for an independent international mission to provide security in the region and called for unhindered access for international humanitarian organizations.

As the exodus continued, sparking more fears of a major humanitarian crisis, the de facto leader of Nagorno-Karabakh said the self-styled separatist entity will cease to exist as of January 1.

Samvel Shahramanian said the move was prompted by the situation created after Azerbaijan's taking complete control of the region. His decree mentioned a cease-fire agreement reached last week to end the fighting under which Baku pledged to permit the “free, voluntary, and unrestrained passage” of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian residents, including ''servicemen who have laid down arms."

That fighting ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.

As concerns over the humanitarian situation in the region grew, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington would work with allies and partners on an international monitoring mission.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Navalny Says He Will Be Transferred To Strictest Prison Cell For 12 Months

Aleksei Navalny appears in a video link from prison durring a hearing at the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow on August 23.

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny says he was informed a day after a court rejected his appeal against a 19-year sentence that he will be transferred to the strictest possible prison cell for one year.

"Yesterday, right after my appeal, I was taken to a commission and told that due to my incorrigibility I will be transferred to an 'EPKT' for a period of 12 months," he said on September 27 on X, formerly Twitter, referring to cells widely considered to have the harshest confinement conditions.

"A year of EPKT is the strictest possible punishment in all kinds of prisons," he said.

It was unclear if the punishment will be carried out in a special-regime prison or in the maximum-security IK-6 prison 250 kilometers east of Moscow where he is currently held.

Navalny has been in and out of solitary confinement in recent months, and his allies say his health has deteriorated.

Last month he had his sentence more than doubled to 19 years, with the court also ruling to send him to a harsher "special-regime" facility, rather than the maximum-security prison where he currently is held.

A court in Moscow on September 26 rejected Navalny's appeal of the sentence, which came after the Moscow City Court on August 4 convicted him of extremism charges, ruling that his previous sentences will be served concurrently.

The ruling came 18 months into Russia's invasion in Ukraine, which brought with it an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices. Navalny has repeatedly denounced the Kremlin's military offensive from behind bars and called on Russians not to lose "the will to resist."

The charges against Navalny are widely seen as retribution for his efforts to expose what he describes as the pervasive lawlessness, corruption, and repression by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political system.

Navalny was Russia's loudest opposition voice and galvanized huge anti-government rallies before he was jailed.

His previous sentence was handed down in 2021 after he arrived in Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blamed on the Kremlin.

Before the most recent conviction, he was serving a combined 11 1/2 years for embezzlement and violating the terms of his parole while he was in Germany being treated for the poisoning.

With reporting by AFP

U.S. Imposes Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Drone-Procurement Network

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stands next to a downed Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone launched by Russia to attack Ukraine.

The United States has imposed sanctions on entities in Iran, Hong Kong, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. Treasury Department says comprise a network for the procurement of parts for Iran's drone program.

The network has facilitated shipments and financial transactions in support of a critical component used in Iran's Shahed drones, which Iran has been supplying to Russia for use against Ukraine, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said on September 27.

The critical component is known as a servomotor and is used in Iran’s Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The OFAC said the sanctions took aim at the procurement of servomotors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) aerospace organization.

The OFAC said one of the servomotors procured by the network was recovered in the remnants of a Russian-operated Shahed-136 that was recently shot down in Ukraine.

"Iranian-made UAVs continue to be a key tool for Russia in its attacks in Ukraine, including those that terrorize Ukrainian citizens and attack its critical infrastructure," Undersecretary of the Treasury Brian Nelson said in a news release.

Two of the five entities designated for sanctions are Iran-based Pishgam Electronic Safeh Company (PESC) and Hongkong Himark Electron Model Limited. The other three are based in Turkey and the U.A.E., the OFAC said.

PESC has procured thousands of servomotors with one-way attack UAV applications worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the IRGC, the OFAC said. The company's CEO, Iran-based Hamid Reza Janghorbani, was also designated for sanctions along with Hongkong Himark official Fan Yang, who is based in China.

The OFAC said Fan had represented Hong Kong-based Hongkong Himark in fulfilling servomotor orders worth more than $1 million for PESC. In addition to selling servomotors to PESC, Fan attempted to hide that an Iranian company was behind the shipments by falsifying invoices, the OFAC said.

Hongkong Himark is being designated for having provided or attempted to provide financial, technological, or other support for PESC. The firms based in Turkey and the U.A.E. have been designated for facilitating financial transactions, shipping, and material and technical support for PESC’s servomotor procurement from Hongkong Himark.

The sanctions build on designations announced in November 2022 by the OFAC aimed at Iran's Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center. The Iranian firm is subordinate to the IRGC's aerospace organization and designs and manufactures the Shahed-136, the Treasury Department said.

The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals hold in U.S. jurisdiction and block people in the United States from having any dealings with the entities and individuals named.

Bulgarian Parliament Approves Sending Antiaircraft Missiles To Ukraine

An S-300 air-defense missile system (file photo)

Bulgaria's parliament approved on September 27 a decision to provide missiles for S-300 air-defense systems to Ukraine. The missiles are defective and more than 30 years old, but Ukraine can use them for spare parts, Bulgarian parliamentary Defense Committee Chairman Hristo Gadjev said after the vote. Russia reacted with a statement urging Bulgaria to reconsider the decision. It said providing the missiles to Kyiv would violate an agreement for military cooperation between the Russia and Bulgaria that dates back to 2002. Bulgaria has been providing military aid to Ukraine since December 2022 following a decision by parliament. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Imprisoned Father Of Russian Girl Who Drew Anti-War Picture Placed In Solitary Confinement Five Times

Aleksei Moskalyov is escorted from a courtroom in Yefremov in Russia's Tula region in March.

A Russian man who was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces in April after anti-war drawings by his 13-year-old daughter drew attention to his online posts about the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine has been placed in punitive solitary confinement five times since August. Aleksei Moskalyov's lawyer said on September 27 that his client's latest, 14-day stint in solitary confinement was imposed on September 22. All punitive confinements have been imposed on Moskalyov for minor "violations" such as "failure to get up quickly," or "not having his hands behind his back," the lawyer said. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Poll Shows Slovaks Split Ahead Of Elections With Ukraine In Spotlight

Party leaders Robert Fico (left to right); Michal Simecka, and Peter Pellegrini wait for a televised debate to begin at TV TA3 in Bratislava on September 26.

Slovak opposition party Direction-Social Democracy (Smer), led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, holds a narrow lead over its liberal challenger, Progressive Slovakia (PS), ahead of weekend elections that have revealed stark dividing lines over whether the country should continue to support Ukraine or instead seek closer ties with Russia.

In the final opinion poll conducted by the IPSOS agency prior to the September 30 vote, Smer, which has taken a more pro-Russian stance over the war in neighboring Ukraine than other European Union members, garnered support at 20.6 percent compared with 19.8 percent for PS, which has shown a late surge in popularity.

No matter which party wins, they are likely to need at least two coalition partners to form a government, according to the poll, conducted for news website, among 1,000 participants between September 22 and September 25.

During the campaign, Fico, 59, has criticized Slovakia's arms supplies to Ukraine while pledging to stop shipments to Kyiv if he takes power. He has also dismissed further EU sanctions against Russia, questioned the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and repeated Kremlin narratives that NATO caused the war.

"Why aren't we holding peace talks, for God's sake? Why are we always talking about what kind of munitions we're going to send to Ukraine, what kind of tanks we'll send there, how many billions of euros will be spent on further armaments?" he asks in a statement that mirrors the thinking of Viktor Orban, the leader of neighboring Hungary.

"It's naive to think Russia will leave Crimea, it's naive to think that Russia will leave the territory it controls. So, explain to me, what's the good of all this killing?" Fico added.

Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka has warned such a policy shift could push the country into isolation. He has promised to maintain support for Ukraine as it tries to repel Russia's invasion, in line with EU and NATO partners.

Slovaks Vote Amid Deep Divide On Ukraine
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Slovakia has provided neighboring Ukraine with substantial military and humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.

But a study by the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec conducted earlier in 2023 noted that 69 percent of respondents agreed that by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia was provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to war.

Slovaks' support for NATO membership has also shrunk to 58 percent this year from 72 percent in 2022, the poll showed. Globsec analysts say the results are due to disinformation.

Fico was Slovakia's prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018.

He remained a member of parliament and in 2022, he faced criminal charges of using sensitive information on political opponents. He denied the charges, which were eventually dropped, and has been seeking the removal of the special prosecutor who investigates high-level corruption allegations.

With reporting by Ray Furlong in Bratislava, Reuters, and AFP

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