Saudi, Syrian Leaders Visit Beirut In Bid To Ease Sunni-Shi'ite Tensions
It is the first visit to Lebanon by Assad since the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri -- an event that soured bilateral relations and forced the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence there.
Assad and King Abdullah arrived together from Damascus this afternoon aboard King Abdullah's jetliner. They were greeted at Beirut airport by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- the son of the slain leader.
They were shuttled quickly to Lebanon's presidential palace for a mini-summit that was hastily organized to address tensions over reports of impending indictments against members of Lebanon's Shii'te militant Hizballah group for Rafiq Hariri's murder.
The visit comes amid concerns that clashes may break out between Lebanon's Shi'ite and Sunni communities if an international tribunal investigating Hariri's killing implicates Hizballah, the Shi'ite militant group that is backed by Iran and Syria.
Dealing With Damascus
Hariri was a Sunni leader who had strong links to Saudi Arabia. Many Lebanese initially blamed Syria for the bomb attack that killed Hariri -- alleging that Syria had a role in the 2005 assassination. But Damascus denies the charge.
A United Nations investigation into the killing pointed, at first, to possible Syrian involvement. More recently, Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah stoked tensions further on July 26 with a speech claiming the UN tribunal may indict some members of his group.
Analysts say any indictment of Hizballah members would severely strain Lebanon's unity government -- which is led by Hariri's son, Saad, as prime minister and includes Hizballah ministers.
Hariri's son initially also blamed Syria for his father's death. He has since repaired relations with Damascus and has made four trips to the Syrian capital for talks with Assad.
Today's summit marks the first time the Syrian president is visiting Lebanon since the assassination and the subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian troops.
Paul Salem, of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says Syria has been gradually rebuilding relations and restoring its influence in Beirut since it was forced to end its nearly three-decade military presence in Lebanon.
"[Syria] certainly has -- through its allies in Lebanon and through rebuilding relations with Saudi Arabia and other players in the region -- regained a lot of influence in Lebanon," Salem said. "It's not the way it was before, but it is certainly significant. It's also interesting that the Syrian president does not come alone to Lebanon in this visit -- he is coming with another major force in the region and in Lebanon, who is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.''
Indeed, Syria's rapprochement with Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia -- which backs Saad Hariri -- has been well received in Beirut. The improved relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia -- which support rival political players in Lebanon -- helped the young Hariri form the national unity government after defeating the pro-Syrian Shi'ite Hizballah movement and its allies in a 2009 election.
On the streets of Beirut, many Lebanese said the visit by King Abdullah and Assad was a positive sign for their country.
''The phase of internal tension that we are going through makes it necessary for Arab leaders, especially President Assad, to cool things down," Naeem Saleh, a newspaper vender in the Lebanese capital, told Reuters. "As you can see with the international tribunal and dangerous accusations that have arisen, this will lead to a crisis in the country. So the visit is necessary and it is the right time for it.''
Beirut resident Nazih Sleem says this summit is vital if violence is to be prevented.
''The visit is important 100 percent for the interest of Lebanon and the Lebanese people because we are going through a sensitive period and the people here are talking about, God forbid, internal Lebanese conflict or war between Lebanon and Israel," Sleem told the same agency. "Hopefully, with his visit, these fears will be calmed.''
The UN tribunal was set up after a request made by the Lebanese government in December of 2005. Established in 2007 by a UN Security Council resolution, the mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is to prosecute persons responsible for the attack that killed Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people.
But the international court's jurisdiction could be extended beyond the February 14, 2005 bombing if the tribunal finds that other attacks in Lebanon during from October 2004 and to December 2005 were connected.
Hizballah leaders have been quoted as saying that today's summit should be decisive in determining the political implications of indictments by the UN court.
based on agency reports
New U.S. Aid Package For Ukraine Includes Rockets With Longer Striking Range
A new package of U.S. military aid for Ukraine announced on February 3 includes rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in a $2.2 billion U.S. military aid package announced by the Pentagon. GLSDBs has a range roughly double that of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied. As part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the United States “will be providing a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine," Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
U.S. Targets Executives Of Iranian Drone Maker In Latest Sanctions Designation
The United States has imposed new sanctions on a previously designated Iranian drone maker, Paravar Pars, this time targeting the board of directors.
The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 3 that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had designated eight senior executives of Paravar Pars.
The drone maker was previously blacklisted by OFAC for making Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Treasury Department said in a news release.
"Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran's IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia's combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program,” added Nelson, who is the U.S. Treasury's top sanctions official, in the statement.
Among the eight individuals blacklisted are Paravar Pars’ managing director and CEO, Hossein Shamsabadi, and the company’s chairman, Ali Reza Tangsiri, who is also the commander of the IRGC Navy. Tangsiri, who the Treasury Department said has overseen the testing of UAVs and cruise missiles, was previously designated for U.S. sanctions in 2019.
The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdictions by the eight individuals. People in the United States who engage in transactions with the individuals designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.
The department earlier his week put new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones that the Treasury Department said Russia has used to attack Ukraine.
In response, Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York said sanctions have no effect on Iran's drone production capacity because its drones are all produced domestically.
“This is a strong indication that the drones shot down in Ukraine and using parts made by Western countries don't belong to Iran," it said, according to Reuters.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and more than 30 other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by restricting its access to defense needs.
With reporting by Reuters
Iranian Film Director Panahi 'Temporarily ' Released From Prison, Wife Says
Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been temporarily released from prison days after going on a hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
"Today, on the third day of Jafar Panahi's hunger strike; Mr. Panahi was temporarily released from Evin prison with the efforts of his family, respected lawyers, and representatives of the cinema," a statement on Panahi's wife's Instagram page said on February 3.
The post added that further details would follow from Panahi's legal team.
She gave no further details, but a photo of the couple in a car was attached to the post.
The U.S.-based US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) also said on Twitter that Panahi had been released.
Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.
Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.
Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.
Several high-profile actresses have taken pictures without a head scarf in defiant support of the protesters, whose demonstrations pose one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.
Panahi was awarded the Special Jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September for his latest film, released while he was in prison, No Bears.
The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for his film Three Faces in 2018.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups.
Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Ukraine's Security Service Exposes 'Large-Scale' Embezzlement Scheme
Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it has uncovered a large-scale embezzlement scheme to siphon off public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military as it battles to repel Moscow's nearly yearlong invasion.
The SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram on February 3 that as a result of the fraud, the Defense Ministry incurred losses of more than 119.5 million hryvnyas ($3.24 million).
The findings are part of a scandal that broke on January 22 when allegations surfaced in local media that the ministry was overpaying suppliers for food for troops. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had actually changed hands. The ministry said the accusations were baseless.
Eradicating endemic corruption is one of the chief requirements presented by the European Union to Kyiv as Ukraine is pressing Brussels to speed up its accession into the 27-member bloc even as it is fighting Russian troops that invaded on February 24 last year.
On the eve of a meeting between EU leaders and Ukrainian officials on February 3, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged "new steps" to continue "our fight against the internal enemy," a reference to the battle against graft. He did not give any details.
The SBU said in its statement explaining the scheme that officials from one ministry department made agreements with the heads of two commercial enterprises regarding the wholesale supply of food to locations where the military is deployed.
Funds from the ministry's budget were then transferred to the accounts of firms that "lacked a production base and technological equipment" to provide the relevant services.
"Instead of supplying the armed forces with the agreed quantities of food products, the participants in the fraudulent mechanism diverted the funds through a number of affiliated shadow companies," the statement said.
The SBU added that, based on evidence found, two heads of companies involved in the fraudulent scheme were notified of being suspected of "[illegal] appropriation, waste of property, or possession of [such property] through abuse of an official position."
It noted that SBU agents are still conducting an investigation to establish the involvement of Defense Ministry officials in any illegal activities.
"In addition, SBU officers exposed the commander of a military unit in the Kyiv region who embezzled almost 2.4 million hryvnyas ($68,000) allocated for military personnel's food," the statement said, adding that the commander had as accomplices four of his subordinates and businessmen who concealed the "kickbacks" through falsified documentation.
No names were given in the statement, which comes after a number of senior Ukrainian officials resigned or were fired beginning on January 24 as Zelenskiy vowed to eradicate corruption from his administration amid a high-profile graft scandal.
Ukraine Unveils Criminal Case Against Russia's Wagner Boss
Ukraine has unveiled a criminal case against the boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary company and promised to track down and prosecute the company's fighters who try to flee abroad. Wagner, run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited thousands of fighters, including convicts from Russian prisons, to wage war in Ukraine. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has served a notice of suspicion to the head of the private military company Wagner," Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said in a statement on Facebook that did not identify Prigozhin by name. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranian Protesters Burn Government Propaganda Banners
Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a continued show of defiance amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms with chants from windows and rooftops of "Death to the dictator," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Similar scenes were repeated in other neighborhoods of Tehran, as well as in other areas of the country.
Several videos published on social networks showed people setting fire to the government's propaganda banners for the 44th anniversary of the revolution that brought Iran's clerical rulers to power. The anniversary falls on February 11.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.
The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Germany Confirms Approval Of Leopard 1 Tank Deliveries To Ukraine
Germany has approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine from industry stocks, a government spokesperson said on February 3 at a regular news conference in Berlin. The spokesperson declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported. The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week, but could be delivered sooner. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Emaciated Iranian Activist Meysami Vows To Continue Hunger Strike
Farhad Meysami has vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities stop executing protesters, release six political prisoners, and stop their harassment of women over the compulsory hijab rule despite photos on social media showing him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his state of health.
"I still stand by my three demands," Meysami, a doctor, said in a letter published on February 2 along with the photos that show him looking frail and sickly.
Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and bodies in public.
He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.
Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi has warned that Meysami’s condition is worsening and that his life is in danger.
Last month, Moghimi said Meysami's weight had dropped to 52 kilograms and that he had been beaten by guards due to his resistance to being transferred to the criminal-prisoners ward.
Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, have supported Meysami and demanded his release.
On Twitter on February 3, Pahlavi said that the thin body of Meysami, "is another symbol of the boundless cruelty of the Islamic regime."
Prominent Iranian oppositionist Hamed Esmaeilion said he holds the government responsible for Meysami's condition.
Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration and in most, his demands are related to social conditions in Iran and other activists and prisoners.
In May, Meysami went on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Brussels university professor with dual Iranian-Swedish citizenship. He ended the hunger strike after 145 days.
He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.
The news comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
NATO Calls On Russia To Fulfill Obligations Under Nuclear Arms-Reduction Treaty
NATO called on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the nuclear reductions treaty START, it said in a statement on February 3. "We note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally-binding obligations, including on inspection and call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistan 'Will Have To Agree' To IMF Conditions For Bailout, PM Says
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said on February 3 the government would have to agree to International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout conditions that are "beyond imagination." An IMF delegation landed in Pakistan on January 31 for last-ditch talks to revive vital financial aid that has stalled for months. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis as it attempts to service high levels of external debt, amid political chaos and deteriorating security.
CPJ Condemns Kyrgyz Threat To Block Media Outlet Kloop's Websites Over Article
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned a warning by Kyrgyz authorities that threatens to block the websites of investigative journalist outlet Kloop if it does not take down an article over the controversy surrounding the cost of reconstructing public facilities destroyed in border clashes with Tajikistan last year.
"Kyrgyzstan authorities' attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country's most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted," said Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.
While Kyrgyzstan is known for having a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its Central Asian neighbors, human rights groups have warned that the climate for free expression has deteriorated since President Sadyr Japarov first came to power in October 2020, especially with the approval of the Law on Protection from False Information, adopted in August 2021.
In late October, Kyrgyz authorities blocked the local-language websites of RFE/RL, known as Radio Azattyk, after it refused to take down a video about deadly clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
In the case of Kloop, the Ministry Of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policies objected to part of a January 20 report regarding allegations that the state Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) had inflated its construction costs.
On January 25, Kloop reported that ARIS denied the allegations, but the ministry sent a letter dated February 1 that demanded Kloop "immediately" remove or amend the January 25 article, as ARIS objected to the summary of its denial, the article's headline, and the mention of a government official who accused the agency of inflating its costs.
Failure to obey the demand would result in Kloop's websites being blocked for at least two months under the false-information law.
Kloop has denied the article contains any false information and has refused to take it down.
"Authorities should withdraw their threat to block Kloop's website, repeal the false information law, and cease their escalating repression of the independent press," the CPJ's Said added.
In the case of RFE/RL, the video in question was produced by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.
Kyrgyz officials have claimed that the authors of the video "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.
In response, RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.
Days after the blocking of the RFE/RL local websites, the government froze Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities have also suspended the accreditation of 11 RFE/RL correspondents at parliament.
RFE/RL has said it is "will pursue all available legal means to preserve our operations in the country."
Dozens of media organizations, domestic and international rights groups, Kyrgyz politicians, and lawmakers have urged the government to unblock Radio Azattyk's websites.
EU 'Deeply Disturbed' Over Navalny Solitary Reports On Second Anniversary Of Sentencing
The European Union, marking the second anniversary of the "politically motivated" sentencing of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, says it is "deeply disturbed" over reports of his treatment behind bars.
The 46-year-old Kremlin critic was handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole when he was medically evacuated in a coma after suffering a near-fatal poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security operatives acting at President Vladimir Putin's behest.
The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case. In March 2022, Navalny was handed a separate nine-year prison term on charges of contempt and embezzlement through fraud that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.
"The verdict came after A. Navalny's arbitrary arrest and imprisonment upon his return to Russia after receiving life-saving medical care in Berlin. He needed it after an attempted murder in Russia in August 2020 using a chemical-warfare nerve agent prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia is a state party," the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement to mark the second anniversary of the sentencing on February 2.
Concern has been growing in recent months over Navalny's health and his treatment in prison.
Navalny, who has been a persistent thorn in Putin's side by exposing corruption and organizing pro-democracy protests, said on social media on February 1 that he was being placed in a solitary confinement cell for six months.
That comes on top of spending more than 100 days in solitary in the past six months for what he and his supporters say are dubious reasons.
"The main torment of imprisonment is, of course, the inability to see the faces of your family, to talk to your loved ones. I haven't had any visits for 8 months and yesterday I was told that I'd be transferred to a cell-type facility for the maximum possible term of 6 months," he wrote on Twitter.
"Even maniacs and serial killers serving life sentences have the right for meetings, but I do not," he added.
"When such thing happens to you, you understand even more acutely how important it is to fight this unscrupulous government, how important it is to do at least something to free Russia from the yoke of these scoundrels from Russia and dispel the dope with which they have enveloped the heads of millions," he added.
Since January 1, dozens of lawmakers, lawyers, and physicians in Russia have urged Putin, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the presidential Council for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of Navalny amid reports his health has dramatically worsened.
"Reports of repeated ill-treatment, physical and psychological torture by the Russian prison authorities against A. Navalny are deeply disturbing. The Russian authorities are responsible for his safety and health, and we call them to account," Borrell said in his statement.
He added that the EU "stands in solidarity" with Navalny and others, including ordinary Russian citizens, "who dare to speak the truth despite the great risk to themselves."
Pakistani Troops Kill Two Militants In Raid Near Afghan Border
Troops have raided a militant hideout in a former Pakistani Taliban stronghold near the border with Afghanistan, triggering a shoot-out that killed two insurgents, the Pakistani military said. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif summoned the country's opposition leader to forge a response to the recent surge in violence, including a mosque bombing that killed 101 people. Troops on February 3 recovered a cache of weapons in a militant hideout in North Waziristan, a district of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The militants killed during the raid had been involved in past attacks on security forces, the military said. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Poland Expects 40 Countries To Oppose Russian Athletes At Olympics
Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk on February 2 said he expected several dozen countries to come out against the inclusion of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics. "I think that next week...a very firm stance on the part of representatives from these 40 countries will see the light of day," he told state television. The position will "very clearly oppose the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the Olympic Games," he added. He said he believed the countries would notably include members of the European Union and Britain.
After Netanyahu Talks, Macron Warns Of Iran Nuclear 'Consequences'
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced late on February 2 the "headlong rush" of Iran's nuclear program after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris to seek a stronger European stance against Tehran. In a statement released after a dinner meeting in the Elysee Palace, Macron warned that Tehran continuing with the atomic project "would inevitably have consequences." Israel has long accused Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, while Tehran insists its nuclear program is aimed solely at generating energy.
Ukraine's Allies Push IMF To Approve $14 Billion-$16 Billion Loan
Ukraine's allies are pushing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to finalize plans for a multibillion-dollar lending program, the Financial Times reported on February 3. IMF representatives are planning to meet Ukrainian officials in mid-February to advance discussions over a loan that could range from $14 billion to $16 billion, the report said, citing officials familiar with the talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
EU Urges Ukraine To Continue On Membership Path But Sets No Timeline For Accession Talks
The European Union acknowledged Ukraine's "considerable efforts" in recent months to advance toward membership in the 27-nation bloc and urged Kyiv to continue on that path after EU leaders met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the Ukrainian capital in a show of support.
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting on February 3 with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, Zelenskiy pressed again for negotiations to start relatively soon.
As air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv and across Ukraine, Zelenskiy told the news conference that Ukraine's goal was to start negotiations this year, adding "this is not just a purpose but a major overwhelming goal."
Von der Leyen said there were no rigid timelines for Ukraine to join the European Union, and reiterated that Kyiv must meet certain benchmarks as part of its membership push.
A joint statement published after the meeting mentioned Ukraine's determination to start talks "as soon as possible" without providing a date. It also said that a formal review of Kyiv's efforts to fulfill a set of conditions to begin accession talks is due later this year.
Ukraine was granted candidate status for membership in the 27-member bloc in June.
However, Brussels has been firm in its position that while it backs Ukraine's bid, the country will need to implement a wide array of democratic and economic reforms and root out endemic corruption before it can be admitted, and that the admission process could take many years.
Among the reforms are changes to the selection procedure for constitutional judges and the passage of legislation limiting the influence of oligarchs.
Zelenskiy has pledged to root out entrenched corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating with Moscow's unprovoked invasion.
Several high-ranking officials' homes were raided by anti-corruption agents on February 1 in a second sweep in a week.
Both von der Leyen and Michel made positive public statements about Ukraine's progress and the EU's commitment to supporting Ukraine's goal.
Von der Leyen commended the Ukrainian government for taking swift action against corruption, and Michel said Ukraine and the EU "are family" and the future of Ukraine "is within the European Union." But he did not comment on a timeline.
Von der Leyen, who arrived in Kyiv on February 2 with a team of 15 commissioners, told the news conference that the EU's next sanctions package against Russia would target components used in Russian drones that have been deployed in Ukraine.
Responding to a remark by Zelenskiy, who said Kyiv hopes the bloc's sanctions campaign will gain momentum again after appearing to have "slightly slowed down" recently, von der Leyen said:
"We will introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by February 24 -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place."
The summit comes after the EU commissioners met their counterparts in the Ukrainian government for the first-ever joint meeting on February 2.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP and AP
Ukraine Will Hold Bakhmut, Zelenskiy Vows, Amid Warnings About New Offensive In The East
Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to the eastern city of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 3 amid warnings of continued intense fighting and a coming offensive by Russian forces.
"Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," Zelenskiy said as he hosted European Union leaders to discuss Kyiv's desire to join the bloc and an additional sanctions package.
Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability as he delivered his message on Bakhmut, which has been the focal point of Russia's monthslong battle in Donetsk.
"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.
Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States has advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.
The official, who spoke to Bloomberg anonymously, said the United States believes a withdrawal from Bakhmut would not affect the war, and Russia would not be able to use it to capture Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
Zelenskiy said Kyiv’s forces “have a chance” of beating back the looming offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.
Kyiv has continued to request more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new onslaught by the Kremlin’s troops in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow says Russian forces are encircling Bakhmut from several directions and battling to take control of a road that serves as a supply route for Ukrainian forces.
The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.
The leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania met on February 3 in Riga, calling afterward for weapons deliveries to Ukraine to be sped up, saying the coming months may be decisive in the course of the war.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said arms supplies from Ukraine's allies should not come too late.
"It is of clear importance that we see the results as quickly as possible including results [on] the battlefield. Aid to Ukraine must not be too late and it should not be fragmented," Kallas said.
"Russia is preparing for a new large scale offensive and our assistance to Ukraine must be sufficient in order to confront it," she said.
The Ukrainian military said earlier on February 3 that Russian troops are not slowing their push in several areas of Donetsk region despite suffering heavy losses.
The Russian attacks over the 24 hours that ended early on February 3 were concentrated mainly on four directions -- Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka -- the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported in its morning briefing.
At the same time, the General Staff said, Russia's continued attacks on Ukraine's civilian and infrastructure objectives have resulted in civilian deaths and damage.
With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP
U.S. Judge Clears Way For Seizure Of $5.4 Million In Assets Belonging To Russian Oligarch
A federal district judge in New York ruled on February 2 that prosecutors may seize $5.4 million belonging to Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, paving the way for the funds to be used to help rebuild Ukraine. The ruling marked the first forfeiture order for a Russian oligarch's assets since the Justice Department in 2022 launched a task force aimed at squeezing the finances of Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies in response to the invasion of Ukraine. U.S. authorities have accused Malofeyev of financing separatists in Crimea. Malofeyev has denied financing the separatists. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Serbia Could Become 'Pariah' If Normalization Plan Over Kosovo Rejected, Vucic Warns
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has warned that Serbia could become a “European pariah” completely isolated from the rest of the continent and without access to European funds if it rejects a Western plan for normalizing relations with Kosovo.
Vucic made the comments in a speech to parliament on February 2 in which he faced a hostile response from opposition politicians, who accused him of buckling under pressure from the United States and the European Union to agree to the plan.
Vucic said 90 percent of what has been made public about the proposal so far is correct and said there are good things in the plan. But he said that he would discuss only what is worst for Serbia, adding that more important than the plan is "the political framework, the momentum in which everything happens."
Vucic said the plan stipulates that Serbia wouldn’t object to Kosovo’s inclusion in international organizations, though it wouldn’t have to formally recognize its statehood.
He reiterated that the European-American diplomatic team told him during a meeting in Belgrade last month that there will be consequences if Serbia does not accept the plan. This includes the halting of the accession negotiations with the European Union and the withdrawal of current and future investments in the country, he said.
“We would be a European pariah, completely isolated. No one would talk to us," Vucic said. "We would not have access to European funds," adding that it is in Serbia's "vital interest" to stay on a path to EU membership.
He also stated that Serbia would not be seen as an ally in the conflict in Ukraine “due to the fact that Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia."
Vucic said that Serbia's policy will be to preserve peace and stability at all costs and that Belgrade will continue to back the formation of an association of municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has repeatedly rejected the creation of the association, which was part of an earlier agreement between the parties reached in 2013.
During his speech, Vucic was interrupted by members of the right-wing opposition, who engaged in shouting matches and scuffled with members of Vucic’s ruling party as they urged parliament to reject the plan and accused Vucic of betraying Serbia.
Opposition members chanted, “Treason! Treason!” and, “We won’t give up Kosovo.” They also demanded Vucic's resignation.
He responded by shouting at the protesting lawmakers that they are “thieves and traitors” and said capitulation and surrender were not options.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade has never recognized it. Belgrade and Pristina have been in an EU-led dialogue on the normalization of relations since 2011.
The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension in the Balkans since the 1998-99 war, which ended with a NATO bombing campaign. With concern rising about Russia’s influence in the region in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the United States and the European Union recently stepped up efforts to reach a deal to normalize relations.
Vucic said the purpose of the parliamentary session was not to shift the responsibility to the parliament or to the people.
"The purpose is to appear in front of you and the citizens and honestly and openly share what lies ahead and what we are facing," said Vucic. He said he has signed nothing so far and talks on the proposal continue.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Vucic ahead of his speech to parliament to thank him for his “openness to the EU proposal to ensure peace and stability in the region.”
Blinken said on Twitter that this is “of essential importance for the European future of Serbia.”
With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters
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