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Thailand To Charge Seized Plane's Crew

BANGKOK (Reuters) -- Thailand will press charges against the crew of a plane forced to land in Bangkok and found to be carrying arms from North Korea, officials said, adding it was unclear where the plane had been going.

Military and police sources, declining to be named, said the United States had tipped the Thai authorities off about the 35 tons of arms that the plane held, which flouted United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

They said the five crew members -- four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus -- were saying little.

Police spokesman Pongsapat Pongcharoen said the five would be charged with illegal possession of weapons on December 14, adding they were denying the charge and saying they had no idea they were transporting arms.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the authorities believed the plane had initially planned to refuel in Sri Lanka and it was not clear why the crew had asked to make an emergency landing in Bangkok to refuel and check a wheel.

"The Thai authorities acted on tips from intelligence agencies of many countries," he said, adding the crew had initially declared the cargo to be oil-drilling equipment.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Thailand had acted in accordance with United Nations resolutions.

"What I understand is that the plane was to have refueled at Sri Lanka. The goods are from North Korea. The people are from Kazhakstan and Belarus and the plane is from Georgia," he said on Thai television.

North Korea has been hit with fresh United Nations sanctions to punish it for a nuclear test in May. These are aimed at cutting off its arms sales, a vital export item estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1 billion a year.

The North's biggest arms sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states being customers, according to U.S. government officials.

Asked To Investigate

An air force official involved in the inspection of the craft, who declined to be named, said on Saturday the Thai authorities had been asked by the United States to investigate the plane and its cargo.

"We were approached by the United States, seeking our cooperation to examine the suspected plane. It came from North Korea and was heading for somewhere in South Asia, probably Pakistan," the official told Reuters.

Monthon Sutchukorn, a deputy spokesman for the Thai Air Force, told Reuters the plane was impounded at 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) on December 11.

"The air force took control of the plane in the evening of December 11," he added. "We found a huge amount of weapons ... all of which was transferred to be kept at a safe place belonging to the air force."

The authorities have declined to give details about the arms.

A military source said the haul included rocket-propelled grenades, missile and rocket launchers, missile tubes, surface-to-air missile launchers, spare parts and other heavy weapons. Experts will be taking a closer look on December 15.

The plane was an Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft, registered in Georgia.

A police source said the final destination could have been somewhere in South Asia or the Middle East, after a scheduled refuelling stop in Sri Lanka.

Military officials in Colombo said the consignment had not been destined for Sri Lanka.

"Why should Sri Lanka buy from North Korea when the same is available in China?" one official said.

The U.N. sanctions and the cut-off of handouts from South Korea have dealt a heavy blow to the North, which has an estimated GDP of $17 billion, and may force it back into nuclear disarmament talks in the hopes of winning aid, analysts said.

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Kazakhstan To Be Represented For First Time In Wimbledon Singles Final

Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina celebrates winning her semifinal match against Romania's Simona Halep on July 7.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan has become the first player from the country to reach the women's singles final at Wimbledon.

Rybakina overpowered former champion Simona Halep in straight sets in their semifinal match on July 7.

The 17th seed in the London tournament broke Halep, the 2019 champion, four times in the match in a dominant display.

The Russian-born Rybakina, who switched her allegiance from Russia to Kazakhstan four years ago, will play Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in the final on July 9.

Jabeur earlier on July 7 became the first Arab to reach a grand slam final by defeating Tatjana Maria of Germany in three sets in the earlier semifinal.

Based on Reuters and AFP

Ukraine Expects Continued Support From Britain After Johnson Resignation

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv on June 17.

The news of the resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was met "with sadness" in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said in a statement that also said Kyiv expects the support Johnson showed for Ukraine to continue.

"We have no doubt that Great Britain's support will be preserved, but your personal leadership and charisma made it special," said the statement issued on July 7 after the two leaders spoke by phone.

The statement thanked Johnson for defending Ukraine's interests after Russia's invasion and said the news of his resignation had been sad not only for Zelenskiy "but also the entire Ukrainian society, which is very sympathetic to you."

Johnson described Zelenskiy as a "hero" and said there is “unwavering cross-party” support in Britain for Ukraine, a Downing Street spokeswoman said, adding that he also pledged that defensive aid would continue for as long as needed.

“He thanked President Zelenskiy for everything he’s doing to stick up for freedom, for his friendship, and for the kindness of the Ukrainian people," the spokeswoman said.

“The prime minister finished the call by praising President Zelenskiy, saying, ‘You’re a hero, everybody loves you.'”

Johnson said earlier he was resigning as British prime minister amid a wave of scandals and defections by his Cabinet ministers.

Johnson appeared outside Downing Street, saying he had appointed a new Cabinet and would remain in his post until a new leader of his Conservative Party is chosen.

"It is clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister," he said.

According to the BBC, an election for the Conservative Party leadership will take place over the summer, with a formal announcement of a new prime minister by early October.

The 58-year-old Johnson swept to power in December 2019 on a promise to sort out Britain's exit from the European Union after years of wrangling.

His resignation followed a flood of departures by Cabinet officials, many who have excoriated Johnson for a series of scandals including one involving a Conservative Party lawmaker who quit his post over accusations that he groped men in a private member's club.

Johnson was forced to apologize after it emerged that he was aware that the lawmaker had been the subject of previous sexual misconduct complaints before Johnson appointed him.

He earlier survived a no-confidence vote over a damning report into parties that were held at his official government residence and office that broke strict COVID-19 lockdown rules. He was fined by police.

With reporting by BBC, Reuters

Debate Derailed In North Macedonian Parliament Amid Unrest Over Proposed Deal With EU, Bulgaria

Thousands of people march at a rally in Skopje on July 6 protesting against the compromise proposal aimed at ending the dispute with Bulgaria and opening negotiations for EU membership.

SKOPJE -- Parliamentary talks in North Macedonia over a French proposal to unstick Skopje's EU negotiations have been delayed amid finger-pointing and calls for calm after a fifth straight night of clashes over possible concessions on sensitive cultural and historical issues.

Bulgaria, which has previously blocked North Macedonia's EU bid, has endorsed the French proposal, which could lead to mentioning the Bulgarian minority in the preamble to the Macedonian Constitution, among other things.

Macedonian critics, including the leading opposition party, have attacked the proposal as a national betrayal that threatens to "Bulgarianize" their country, which declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and has been an EU candidate for 16 years.

Dozens of police have been reported injured, including two seriously, since thousands of critics of the initiative launched nightly rallies in the streets of Skopje on July 2, with some hurling stones and bottles and at least one report of gunfire.

President Stevo Pendarovski on July 7 condemned the use of "violence and inciting violence for political purposes" as "unacceptable" as his Balkan nation confronts another perceived challenge to its national identity following a name change to mollify Greece that was aimed at reopening a path to EU membership three years ago.

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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"I appeal to all the organizers of the protests that are taking place in North Macedonia these days to take responsibility and continue to exercise their democratic right to protest with dignity and without violence," Pendarovski said in a statement.

Pendarovski praised the police for "timely action that prevented major clashes" on July 6 and called for those responsible to be detained and punished.

He said the events of the previous evening "must not be repeated" and discouraged the carrying of firearms except by security authorities.

Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski -- whose Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) organized the first street protest on July 2 -- shared a photo overnight on July 6-7 of a protester brandishing a gun, alleging that "this is the man who was going to kill me tonight" and demanding his arrest.

Some of the comments underneath Mickoski's post made references to staged provocations or threatened to "take justice into our own hands."

Bulgaria has used its veto power on new EU members to raise decades-old grievances over Macedonians' national and linguistic roots, but parliamentarians in Sofia last month endorsed the initiative from France.

The proposal would reportedly require a Macedonian commitment to some of the half-dozen or so demands that Sofia has been pushing, including better implementation of a 2017 Friendship Treaty.

Bulgarian officials, including President Rumen Radev, have reportedly narrowed Sofia's demands to a mention of the Bulgarian minority in the preamble to the Macedonian Constitution, a vague concession on language, and a commitment to fighting hate speech.

Critics say incorporating Bulgarian demands in North Macedonia's framework for negotiations with the European Union is a huge risk that hands Sofia perpetual veto power over accession.

But Pendarovski has publicly expressed his support, and Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski called the French document a "solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country."

Visiting European Council President Charles Michel said on July 5 that "together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country's EU accession process" and urged Kovachevski to seize on a "historic opportunity."

Analysts have warned of the risk the Bulgarian-Macedonian impasse poses to the European aspirations of Macedonians and to the much-needed reforms in the country but also the risks for Serbians, Montenegrins, and others who have campaigned for decades to join the bloc.

The European Union is ideally intended to help put aside such historical disputes, according to Oxford School of Global and Area Studies lecturer Dimitar Bechev. He tweeted on July 7 that at least Bulgarian and Macedonian leaders "should agree to disagree on the past and focus on what really matters to citizens on both sides of the border."

Lawmakers and other Macedonians appeared bitterly divided along partisan lines.

The ruling Social Democratic Party (SDSM) and the opposition have traded accusations of responsibility for the violence, including a suggestion by a VMRO-DPMNE lawmaker and protest organizer that "police provocateurs" were to blame.

Police in riot gear stand guard against protesters, who threw roses at their feet.
Police in riot gear stand guard against protesters, who threw roses at their feet.

The VMRO-DPMNE legislator, Dragan Kovacki, alluded to backing for the French compromise as a "betrayal."

A stumbling block emerged quickly after Macedonian lawmakers convened in parliamentary groups on July 6 over whether parliament's stance would only apply to the framework for EU negotiations or also to other documents, including a proposed bilateral protocol with Sofia.

Warnings by Kovachevski and Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski of alleged plots of violence and a repeat of protesters' clashes with police then put those parliamentary proceedings on hold.

More street protests were planned for late on July 7.

Deputy Prime Minister Artan Grubi suggested a compromise in which the government would forward the French proposal to parliament alongside the proposed bilateral protocol with Bulgaria and other documents.

Grubi, a member of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party, the country's third-largest, also likened the current unrest in Skopje to the roiling in Montenegro ahead of its accession to NATO.

He suggested, without providing evidence, that foreign elements like Russia might be behind the political violence of the past week in North Macedonia.

Grubi said the majority of Macedonians are protesting legitimately and are merely concerned about the future of the common state and don't oppose EU-integration efforts.

U.S. Basketball Star Brittney Griner Pleads Guilty To Drug Charges In Russian Court

Brittney Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on drug possession and smuggling charges. 

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling charges in a Russian court in the latest hearing in her prosecution, a case that has sparked back-and-forth sniping by American and Russian officials.

Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the charges.

She was arrested earlier this year after Russian authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in her luggage when she passed through Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to play for a Russian team in the off-season of the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association.

Griner was escorted into the Khimki City Court courtroom on July 7 dressed in a red T-shirt and pants and wearing handcuffs.

"I'd like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn't want to break the law," Griner said, speaking English, which was then translated into Russian. "I'd like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare," she added.

The next court hearing was scheduled for 14 July.

Griner's case has drawn increasing public attention and involvement by top U.S. officials, who say she has been wrongfully detained.

A day earlier, the White House released a statement saying President Joe Biden had called Griner's wife, Cherelle, promising he was working to free her and one other American.

The other U.S. citizen whose detention has drawn vocal U.S. protests is Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine and private-security consultant who was detained in December 2018, accused of espionage.

He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

Russia has repeatedly signaled its interest in exchanging detained U.S. citizens for Russians held in U.S. prisons.

In late April, Moscow released another former U.S. marine, Trevor Reed, in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had been jailed on drug-trafficking charges in the United States.

Earlier on July 7, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov complained that the "hype" around Griner's case does not help.

"Attempts by the American side to make noise in public...don’t help in the practical settlement of issues," he was quoted as saying.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and TASS

Finland Moves To Fortify Border With Russia

Finnish lawmakers allowed the closure of the entire 1,300-kilometer border between Finland and Russia.

Finland moved toward fortifying its border with Russia, as lawmakers authorized barriers and allowed the closure of the entire 1,300-kilometer border under exceptional circumstances.

The July 7 vote by the Finnish parliament comes as the country moves rapidly to join the NATO alliance, abandoning decades of neutrality in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The legislation, which passed by a supermajority, gives the government authorization to build fences or other barriers near Finnish borders. It also restricts all asylum applications to be processed at designated border crossings, such as an airport.

Finland, along with Sweden, last month gained formal approval from the alliance to join. Now each of the 30 members must ratify the accession protocol, something that is already under way in several countries.

Public opinion in both Sweden and Finland shifted drastically in favor of NATO membership after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Russia has angrily condemned the moves by Stockholm and Helsinki and threatened unspecified retaliation.

For that reason, some alliance members have pushed for quick accession, saying the two Nordic nations would be in danger in the interim period leading to their protection under NATO's Article Five -- the clause that stipulates that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members.

With reporting by Reuters and Helsingin Sanomat

Russia Says Warplane Hits Snake Island After Ukrainian Forces Raise Flag There

Soldiers raise a Ukrainian flag next to destroyed buildings on Snake Island in this image grab released on July 7. It was unclear when the video was filmed. 

Russia's military said a Russian jet attacked Snake Island overnight, after Ukrainian troops claimed to have raised their flag on the strategic Black Sea outpost.

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Тhe attack occurred early on July 7, “destroying” part of the Ukrainian detachment on the island, said Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, a Defense Ministry spokesman.

"At about 5 a.m., several Ukrainian servicemen landed on the island from a motorboat and took pictures with the flag. An aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces immediately launched a strike with high-precision missiles on Snake Island, as a result of which part of the Ukrainian military personnel was destroyed," Konashenkov said in a video.

Serhiy Bratchuk, the head of the Odesa regional administration, confirmed that the island had been attacked, though did not provide details of damage or casualties.

The tiny island has strategic importance because of its proximity to the sea lanes to Ukraine's port of Odesa. But it also has symbolic importance in the nearly five months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian forces withdrew from it on June 30 after coming under heavy bombardment from Ukrainian artillery.

On July 7, video of three soldiers raising a large Ukrainian flag on the island was posted to several official Telegram channels, including that of Andriy Yermak, chief of staff for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

It was unclear when the video was filmed.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, authorities again called on people in the eastern Donetsk region to flee, as Russian forces continued their slow, grinding advance that has taken more territory and taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian military commanders said on July 6 that they had repelled Russian advances in several locations in and around the administrative border between Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions located in the Donbas region.

Russia earlier this week claimed control over the entire Luhansk region, after pushing Ukrainian forces out of the cities of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk. Russian commanders have then pushed further west and south, advancing toward the city of Slovyansk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also declared the complete seizure of Luhansk.

However, Luhansk’s administration chief, Serhiy Hayday, denied that the Russians had completely captured the province, and he said there was heavy fighting in villages around Lysychansk.

“The Russians have paid a high price, but the Luhansk region is not fully captured by the Russian Army," Hayday said in a televised interview. “Some settlements have been overrun by each side several times.”

Ukrainian commanders claimed to have repelled Russian attacks on a town and village north of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk military administration, urged the province's more than 350,000 remaining residents to flee earlier this week

In his nightly video address on July 6, Zelenskiy said that of all the battles in his country, “the most brutal confrontation” is raging in the Donbas. He also said that Western artillery and rocket systems were having a “very powerful” effect on the battlefield.

Russia's Defense Ministry also claimed that Russian rockets had destroyed two HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems that the United States had supplied to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military denied Moscow’s claims.

Russian forces made no claimed or assessed territorial gains “for the first time in 133 days of war,” according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

“Russian forces will likely confine themselves to relatively small-scale offensive actions as they attempt to set conditions for more significant offensive operations and rebuild the combat power needed to attempt those more ambitious undertakings,” the institute said in its daily assessment on July 6.

With reporting by AP
Updated

University Confirms Detention Of Polish Scientist After Iranian Report On Foreigners’ Alleged Spying

This image grab from footage released by Iranian state television on July 7 shows a man claimed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps to be Giles Whitaker, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Tehran, allegedly seen in the Shahdad desert, in the southeastern province of Kerman.

A Polish professor has been detained by Iran since September, a spokesman with the university confirmed to RFE/RL on July 7 after Iran claimed that it had arrested a group of foreigners on spying charges.

Maciej Walczak, a professor at Copernicus University in Poland, was detained along with two colleagues, who were later released, university spokesman Marcin Czyzniewski told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Maciej Walczak
Maciej Walczak

The confirmation came after Britain's ambassador to Iran said a British diplomat whom Tehran claimed was among the foreigners it had detained on spying charges had in fact left the country late last year.

The ambassador’s comments followed contradictory reports about the status and whereabouts of Giles Whitaker, Britain's deputy chief of mission in Tehran, and several other foreigners.

Czyniewski said Walczak was put on trial and sentenced to three years in prison on unknown charges. The spokesman added that Polish diplomats managed to visit him twice in prison and the university has been in contact with the Polish Foreign Ministry to push for his release.

Earlier, a statement from the Polish Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrest of a Polish "recognized scientist" without giving details about his identity.

The statement said Polish diplomats had been contact "with our citizen and his family," adding that "the detainee" had also received legal aid.

The statement was issued a day after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) accused the British diplomat and other foreigners of “espionage” and taking soil samples from prohibited military zones.

The state-controlled television aired footage purportedly showing Walczak and three others collecting earth samples from a restricted area in the central desert of Iran. It said their sample collection coincided with a missile test in Iran's southern Kerman Province.

The IRGC said the group was arrested but did not say when or whether they were currently in custody.

The semiofficial Fars news agency also published a photo showing four people in a desert setting, identifying them as the group that had been detained. Fars also said Whitaker had been expelled from Iran after apologizing.

Britain's Foreign Office on July 6 rejected the report that a diplomat had been arrested, calling it "completely false."

"These reports that our Deputy Ambassador is currently detained are very interesting," Ambassador Simon Shercliff wrote on Twitter on July 7. "He actually left Iran last December, at the end of his posting."

Neither Shercliff nor the Foreign Office indicated whether Whitaker had been detained prior to his departure.

Iran has in the past arrested dual nationals and those with Western ties, often on espionage charges, and leveraged them as bargaining chips in talks over other issues such as nuclear negotiations.

Talks to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers have been stalled for months.

A recent effort to break the deadlock between U.S. and Iranian negotiators ended last week without a breakthrough.

Also on July 7, the British Defense Ministry announced that British naval ships had raided Iranian vessels earlier this year and seized weapons in waters south of Iran.

The seizures occurred on two separate occasions -- January 28 and February 25 -- and involved Royal Marines who "approached the vessels on two Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats before securing and searching the vessels." On one occasion, a U.S. naval helicopter was indirectly involved as well.

Weapons seized included multiple rocket engines for an Iranian cruise missile and 358 surface-to-air missiles, the ministry said.

No further details were given, and it was unclear why the ministry made the announcement on July 7, months after the two incidents, though the timing suggested a coordinated effort by London to send a warning to Tehran.

With reporting by Fars and Reuters

Kazakh President Calls For New Oil Export Routes After Russia Suspends Key Pipeline

An oil tanker being loaded at the Russian port of Novorossiisk. (file photo)

Kazakhstan’s president called for diversifying the country’s oil supply routes, a day after a Russian court suspended operations on a major export pipeline.

The comments by Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev on July 7 highlighted Kazakh worries about getting its oil--which is a major source of government revenue--out to world markets. It also underscored potential tensions between Kazakhstan and Russia, whose relationship has turned prickly amid the Russian war against Ukraine.

Around 80 percent of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow via the Caspian Pipeline to the terminal in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

On July 6, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, whose members include U.S. oil giants Chevron and ExxonMobil, and other international companies, said Russian regulators had been ordered to inspect the facilities of the Russian part of the consortium.

Authorities originally gave the consortium until November 30 to correct the violations in how it deals with oil spillage. But regional regulators unexpectedly demanded the closure of a Russian terminal on July 6, which a local court then approved, Russian news agencies reported.

In his comments to Kazakh officials on July 7, Toqaev ordered a study on the possibility of building a pipeline under the Caspian Sea, a previously proposed project that would allow Kazakh oil to be exported to Western markets while bypassing Russia.

The pipeline disruption comes with global energy prices soaring, due in large part to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Western sanctions that were imposed in punishment.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Russian oil but has said flows from Kazakhstan through Russia should run uninterrupted.

Any lengthy suspension to the Caspian pipeline, which carries around 1 percent of all global oil supplies, would further strain the global oil market.

Kazakhstan and Russia are major trading partners and share a lengthy border. Longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev cultivated close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Toqaev, who succeeded Nazarbaev in 2019, has shown signs of cooler ties, particularly since the Ukraine invasion.

The most recent sign of tensions came last month at an economic forum in St. Petersburg when Toqaev reiterated Kazakhstan’s refusal to recognize what he called "quasi-state" entities in eastern Ukraine -- comments he made while seated alongside Putin.

At the forum, Toqaev also criticized Russian politicians and commentators, whom he accused of sowing "discord" between the two countries by launching public attacks on Kazakhstan.

With reporting by Reuters

UN: Inflation Has Pushed More Than 71 Million People Into Poverty Since Ukraine Invasion

A man begs on the street in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Uzbekistan is one of the countries hardest hit by inflation since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (file photo)

Soaring food and energy prices have pushed more than 71 million people worldwide into poverty since late February when Russia launched its war on Ukraine, a United Nations agency said.

The report by the UN Development Program, released on July 7, also warned of the danger of social unrest in some places due to the economic turmoil

Achim Steiner, the administrator of the agency, said an analysis of 159 developing countries showed that spiking commodity prices this year was slamming parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, Asia, and elsewhere.

"This cost-of-living crisis is tipping millions of people into poverty and even starvation at breathtaking speed," he said in a statement accompanying the report. "With that, the threat of increased social unrest grows by the day."

Ukraine is a major grain producer and exporter, and its food shipments are critical to many countries in the Middle East and Africa. But its Black Sea ports have been blockaded by Russian forces, driving up food prices, and pushing tens of millions into poverty.

Russia and Ukraine combined accounted for almost one-quarter of global wheat exports and more than half of sunflower oil exports.

Energy prices have also shot up amid uncertainty over the war, but also as Russia has cut back on some oil and gas exports. Before the war, Russia was the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second-biggest exporter of crude oil.

Western sanctions on Russia, to punish Moscow for the Ukraine invasion, have also exacerbated inflationary pressures.

Some of the countries hardest hit by inflation, according to the UN agency, include Haiti, Argentina, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.

In countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen, the impacts of inflation are even harder for those already at the lowest poverty line.

The total number of people living in poverty, or who are vulnerable to poverty, stands at over 5 billion, or just under 70 percent of the world’s population, according to the UNDP.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Britain Says Iranian Media Reports On Arrest Of British Diplomat 'Completely False'

The photo that Fars published of foreign nationals amid claims that they were spying.

Britain's Foreign Office said on July 6 that reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran "are completely false."

Iranian media reported earlier that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) detained several foreign nationals, including Britain's second-ranking diplomat, over accusations of spying.

The IRGC identified and arrested the foreigners, saying they were observed by drones taking soil samples in a prohibited area in the central desert of Iran, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency said.

The country's state-run IRNA news agency reported that the foreigners had been arrested but did not say when or whether they were currently in custody.

Britain's deputy ambassador is among the people who went to the Shahdad desert with his family as a tourist, Fars reported.

A photo accompanying the Fars report showed four people in a desert setting. Another photo showed two people who appear to be looking for soil samples after parking their bicycles.

"These spies were taking earth samples in Iran's central desert where the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace missile exercises were conducted," state TV said.

Fars claimed the British diplomat, Giles Whitaker, was expelled from the country after apologizing.

A spokesperson for Britain's Foreign Office said: "Reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran are completely false."

State TV also identified Maciej Walczak, a Polish scientist at Kopernik University in Poland, as one of the accused foreigners. The report said another of the detained individuals is the husband of Austria's cultural attache in Iran.

It said their sample collection coincided with a missile test in Iran's southern Kerman Province.

The United States earlier on July 6 designated 15 individuals and entities for alleged engagement in illegally selling and shipping Iranian oil and oil products.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the entities -- located in Iran, Vietnam, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong -- "have supported Iranian energy trade generating millions of dollars' worth of illicit revenue."

The U.S. Treasury Department said the entities and individuals used a web of Persian Gulf-based front companies to facilitate the delivery and sale of the Iranian oil and oil products from Iranian companies to East Asia.

"While the United States is committed to achieving an agreement with Iran that seeks a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we will continue to use all our authorities to enforce sanctions on the sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals," Brian Nelson, undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said.

Talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal have been stalled for months. Iran has said it is ready for new indirect talks to overcome the last hurdles to revive the 2015 nuclear deal amid a growing crisis over the country’s nuclear program.

With reporting by Reuters, Fars, and AP

Iranian Lawmaker Says Explosions At IRGC Base Were Sabotage

Esmail Kosari (file photo)

A member of Iran's parliament has confirmed that explosions that occurred last week at an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) base in Tehran were sabotage.

A video published on social media showed at least two explosions inside the Malik Ashtar base compound in the southeast of Tehran.


At the same time, the official website of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) published the news of the explosions at 9:15 p.m. on July 1.

Esmail Kosari, a member of parliament and former IRGC commander, confirmed on July 5 that the explosions occurred in the IRGC base.

Kosari did not mention any casualties from the two explosions and played down the incident.

"First of all, it was not an explosion, but two very weak, improvised explosive devices detonated," the Khabar Online website quoted him as saying.

The MKO "use internal agents with promises. It was Friday and a day off. They came at 9 p.m., using the darkness, they did such a move and took a video," Kosari added.

There have been several assassinations and deaths in recent months in Iran under unclear circumstances. Officials have blamed some of them on Israel.

The MKO has also increased its activities inside Iran in recent months and carried out cyberattacks on the country's infrastructure.

In the latest incident, the MKO-affiliated group Rise to Overthrow on July 3 claimed that it hacked and disabled the website of the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization.

Ukrainian Airline Sues Iran Over Shooting Down Of Passenger Jet

UIA flight PS752 crashed on January 8, 2020, while en route to Kyiv, killing all 176 people on board.

Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) has filed a lawsuit against the Islamic republic over the 2020 shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The lawsuit, seen by Radio Farda, filed in a court in Ontario, is dated January 2022. It lists the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IRGC as the two defendants and demands compensation from Iran.

UIA flight PS752 crashed on January 8, 2020, while en route to Kyiv, killing all 176 people on board.

After days of official denials, Iran admitted that an IRGC unit had inadvertently shot down the plane amid heightened tensions with the United States over the U.S. drone assassination of a top IRGC commander, Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad.

Most of the victims were Iranians and Canadians but 11 were citizens of Ukraine. The families have demanded transparency and accountability.

The Iranian government has allocated $150,000 to compensate the family of each passenger, but some families have refused the money.

Canada said last year that it found no evidence of premeditation in the downing of the airliner. A Canadian court awarded $84 million and interest to the families of six of the victims.

On June 28, the Group of Seven industrialized economies, at the end of their three-day summit in southern Germany, said in a joint statement that Iran should be held accountable for the shooting down of flight PS752.

"We continue to support international efforts to hold Iran accountable for the illegal downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752", the statement said.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Updated

EU's Von Der Leyen Warns Of Danger Of Complete Cutoff Of Russian Gas

Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said that the European Union needs to make emergency plans to prepare for a complete cutoff of Russian gas in the wake of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

Von der Leyen said the commission plans to announce EU-wide emergency plans in mid-July to ensure "gas flows towards where it is most needed" in the event of a complete end to Russian gas deliveries.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on Russia, and is moving away from Russian-controlled deliveries. But the head of the EU's executive branch said the bloc needed to be ready for shock disruptions coming from Moscow.

"We also need to prepare now for further disruption of gas supply and even a complete cutoff of Russian gas supply," von der Leyen told the EU legislature on July 6 in Strasbourg, France.

"It is obvious Putin continues to use energy as a weapon," she said, adding that Russia had already cut gas deliveries to 12 EU member states. "We need to make sure that in case of full disruption, the gas flows towards where it is most needed. We have to provide for European solidarity."

Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine has prompted the 27-member bloc to rethink its energy policies and reduce purchases of Russian energy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also accused Russia of using energy as a weapon and said Germany had relied too long on energy supplies from Russia.

"Today we have to realize: Russia is using energy as a weapon. No one believes that Russia is reducing its gas supplies for technical reasons alone," Scholz said on July 6 at a gathering of the German Renewable Energy Association.

Russia cited technical matters last month when it severely curtailed gas deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline.

The problems could get worse after annual maintenance work on Nord Stream 1 begins on July 11. The main worry is that Russia will not turn on the gas tap after the maintenance is completed.

The German government has already started planning for the "worst case" by ensuring that gas storage facilities are being filled and that investments are being made in terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Scholz went on to say that the German government will go into "turbo gear" in expanding renewable energies.

"Every wind turbine, every photovoltaic plant, every biomass plant is a step on the way to making our energy supply more independent and sustainable to ensuring that it is secure and remains affordable," he said.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and AFP

Belgium Provisionally Clears Iran Prisoner-Swap Treaty

Iranian opposition activists, members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, protest with a poster depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi, in Brussels in October 2018.

Belgian lawmakers have given initial clearance to a prisoner-exchange treaty with Iran that could pave the way for the release of an Iranian diplomat convicted of planning to bomb the rally of an exiled opposition group outside Paris.

The Foreign Relations Committee of Belgium's lower house of parliament debated the treaty over two days before finally approving it on July 6.

The measure still needs to be put before the full 150-member lower house, most likely in the next two weeks, but the chamber normally follows the votes of its committees, given that they have similar party compositions.

The prisoner exchange might secure the release of a Belgian aid worker who was detained in Iran in February. It could also help Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali, who has taught in Belgium and been sentenced to death in Iran.

Iran has called for the release of Assadollah Assadi, sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium in 2021 for a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group, near Paris in June 2018.

Several lawmakers voiced concern that the treaty, as proposed, might lead to "hostage diplomacy" and put other Belgians at risk of detention.

Amnesty International called on Belgium to ensure that the bill is fully consistent with the country's obligations under international human rights law.

"In particular, the bill should include adequate judicial safeguards to prevent the treaty being used to grant impunity for state officials and agents responsible for serious human rights violations and crimes under international law," the London-based rights group said on July 5.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Iran Accuses Detained French Couple Of 'Undermining' Security

Teachers have in recent months taken to the streets on several occasions to protest their conditions and demand higher wages. They have also called for the release of their jailed colleagues.

Iran has accused a French couple detained in May of "undermining the security" of the country.

The pair stand "accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country", judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told reporters in Tehran on July 6.

French teachers' union official Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris, were arrested in early May in Tehran while on vacation sightseeing in the Islamic republic. They are accused by the authorities of seeking to stir up labor protests.

Iran said they were accused of "entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society."

The French government has condemned their arrest as "baseless" and demanded their immediate release.

"These two people are currently in police custody," Setayeshi said, adding that "the prosecution is dealing with this case."

In June, Iranian authorities announced they had arrested a left-wing activist on suspicion of working to "incite sedition and turmoil among the working class," and who they said was suspected of meeting the French couple.

Teachers have in recent months taken to the streets on several occasions to protest their conditions and demand higher wages. They have also called for the release of their jailed colleagues.

In April, a court sentenced Rasoul Bodaghi, a member of the teachers' union and a civil activist, to five years in prison after convicting him of illegal assembly and propaganda.

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Bodaghi had been sentenced solely for "peaceful activism."

Kohler and Paris are among the latest Western citizens to be detained in Iran.

Western countries and rights groups have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage.

With reporting by AFP and ISNA

Russian Court Orders Caspian Pipeline Consortium To Suspend Operations

Some 80 percent of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow through the terminal in Russia's southern port city of Novorossiisk.

A Russian court has ordered the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which brings oil from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea, to suspend activity for 30 days.

The CPC, which handles about 1 percent of global oil and includes U.S. majors Chevron and Exxon, said on July 6 the ruling to suspend its operations concerned issues related to the handling of oil spills and that the consortium had to abide by the ruling.

In a statement posted on its website, the CPC added that it planned to appeal against the decision.

"The Caspian Pipeline Consortium acts within the legal framework of the Russian Federation and is forced to execute the court ruling. The ruling will be appealed in accordance with the procedure established by law," the CPC said in the statement.

Some 80 percent of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow through the terminal in Russia's southern port city of Novorossiisk. The terminal can transport 67 million tons of oil annually.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Russian oil over the Kremlin's unprovoked war on Ukraine but has said flows from Kazakhstan through Russia should run uninterrupted.

The CPC said on July 6 that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko ordered regulators, including industrial safety regulator Rostekhnadzor, to inspect the facilities of the Russian part of the consortium.

It said that the inspection had found some "documentary" irregularities on plans how to tackle oil spills. An oil spill occurred at the terminal last year.

An inspection by Russian authorities found that documentation for emergency plans to deal with oil spills was incomplete, the CPC said.

The authorities originally gave the CPC until November 30 to correct the violations, but the regional transport regulator unexpectedly demanded the terminal's closure on July 6, which the court approved.

The court said the stoppage was necessary to prevent possible environmental damage, Interfax reported late on July 5.

The pipeline's operations have already been interrupted by damage to the Black Sea's terminal equipment this year.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa
Updated

Western Artillery Has 'Worked Very Powerfully,' Zelenskiy Says, Amid Stepped-Up Calls For Evacuations

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to the nation late on July 6: "Finally, it is felt that the Western artillery -- the weapons we received from our partners -- has worked very powerfully.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video message late on July 6 that artillery that Ukraine has received from Western partners has had an effect on the battlefield.

"Finally, it is felt that the Western artillery -- the weapons we received from our partners -- has worked very powerfully,” he said, praising its accuracy.

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The Ukrainian military has inflicted “very noticeable blows on warehouses and other points that are important for the logistics of the occupiers,” he said. “And this significantly reduces the offensive potential of the Russian Army.”

Ukrainian forces are currently advancing in several directions, including in the south in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, he said.

"We are fighting for our entire south, for the entire Ukrainian Donbas," he said, noting a "most brutal confrontation" near Slovyansk and Bakhmut and adding that Ukrainian forces also are fighting for the Kharkiv region.

"Let the occupiers not think that their time on this land is long, and the superiority of their artillery is eternal," Zelenskiy said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 6, and they "coordinated steps to accelerate the delivery of heavy weapons from the U.S. and other partners."

Kuleba said he had a similar conversation with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in which he emphasized the urgent need to increase supplies of German self-propelled howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials earlier called on civilians to urgently evacuate the city of Slovyansk and other parts of the Donetsk region as Russia escalates its offensive in the east.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said in a Telegram post that two people died in the city of Avdyivka, which is north of the regional capital.

The Donetsk cities of Slovyansk, Krasnohorivka, and Kurakhove each reported one civilian killed on July 6.

Slovyansk has been subjected to "massive" Russian bombardment in recent days, with at least two people killed and seven others wounded in an attack on a marketplace on July 5, officials said.

"Russia has turned the entire Donetsk region into a hot spot where it is dangerous to remain a civilian," Kyrylenko said on Telegram. "I call on everyone to evacuate. Evacuation saves lives."

Moscow-backed separatists in the region said attacks by Ukrainian forces killed four civilians. The claims could not be independently verified.

Deadly Russian Strike Hits Market In Eastern Ukraine's Slovyansk
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An intelligence report from the British Defense Ministry on July 6 said that "there is a realistic possibility that the battle for [Slovyansk] will be the next key contest in the struggle for the Donbas."

"Russian forces from the Eastern and Western Groups of Forces are likely now around 16 km north from the town of [Slovyansk]," the intelligence report said.

Speaking on July 6, officials said Ukraine had so far thwarted an attempted Russian advance into the north of the Donetsk region. Russia-backed separatists and Russian forces are already in control of the southern part of the Donetsk region.

"We are holding back the enemy on the border of Luhansk region and Donetsk region," Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Hayday told Ukrainian television.

He said Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there in an apparent effort to cross the Siverskiy Donets River and that two small settlements just inside Luhansk's borders were the scene of fierce fighting.

"Luhansk region even now is fighting. Almost all the territory has been captured, but in two settlements fighting is ongoing" he told a video briefing.

Vadym Lyakh, the mayor of Slovyansk, told a video briefing on July 6 that the city had been shelled for the last two weeks.

"The situation is tense," he said.

The southern port city of Mykolayiv was also being heavily shelled, Oleksandr Senkevych, its mayor, told a briefing. Russian forces were using multiple-launch rocket systems to shell the city, which has shed about half of its prewar population of half a million people, he said.

"There are no safe areas in Mykolayiv," he said. "I am telling the people of the city that they need to leave."

To the north of Donetsk, Russian forces also hit Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, with missile strikes overnight, the regional governor said on July 6 on Telegram.

Three districts of the city were targeted, Oleh Synyehubov said. Three people, including a toddler, sustained injuries, he added.

Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces killed up to 100 Ukrainian troops and destroyed four armored vehicles in Kharkiv, and in the Mykolayiv region struck a Ukrainian air-defense radar and a camp housing foreign fighters.

Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said air-launched high-precision missiles also destroyed two HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems sent by the United States along with ammunition for the systems. The Ukrainian military denied Moscow's claims.

Zelenskiy, speaking at a briefing in Kyiv with visiting Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, said the terms of how the war will end depend on international sanctions pressure on Russia and the supply of weapons to Ukraine.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold a press conference in Kyiv on July 6.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold a press conference in Kyiv on July 6.

He said the answer to how long the war will last depends on "how quickly we can make Russia think about peace because we believe that they have not even begun to think about it."

Russia has yet to feel the effects of powerful sanctions in part because "unfortunately, there are still some allies who help the Russian Federation or their business," he added.

Martin used the visit to restate Ireland's full backing for continued sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime and for Ukraine's path to membership in the European Union.

"I am grateful that Ireland stands by our side in this crucial time for our country," Zelenskiy told Martin.

Ireland has taken in more than 36,000 Ukrainian refugees and has given 20 million euros ($20.4 million) in humanitarian support and assistance to the country in addition to health equipment and medical donations worth more than 4.5 million euros.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and TASS
Updated

UN, U.S. Demand Independent Probe Into Deadly Unrest In Uzbekistan

Uzbek soldiers patrol the streets of Nukus on July 3.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the United States have called for an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 18 people in protests in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan region.

"The reports we have received about serious violence, including killings, during the protests are very concerning. I call on the authorities to exercise utmost restraint," Bachelet said in a statement on July 5.

"I urge the authorities to immediately open a transparent and independent investigation into any allegations of criminal acts committed in that context, including violations by agents of the state."

The United States separately voiced concern and urged all sides to seek a "peaceful resolution" to the tensions and refrain from violence.

"We urge authorities to pursue a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the violence, consistent with international norms and best practices," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on July 5.

Authorities in Uzbekistan said on July 4 that 18 people died in clashes in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region when demonstrations erupted over planned constitutional changes affecting the territory's status.

The unrest, pitting protesters against security forces, represented the most significant challenge yet to the rule of President Shavkat Mirziyoev since he rose to power from the post of prime minister in 2016 following the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Large protests broke out in the regional capital, Nukus, and other cities after changes initiated by Mirziyoev were proposed on June 27 to the Uzbek Constitution, including removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose so in a referendum.

On July 2, Mirziyoev backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.

He said on July 6 that the commission appointed to investigate the unrest will include members of the public and independent activists. He also said that possible use of excessive force against protesters will also be investigated.

Bachelet said more than 500 people were detained and voiced concern that one person had already been charged, and could face up to 20 years in prison.

"People should not be criminalized for exercising their rights," the former Chilean president said.

"Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uzbekistan is a state party, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs."

All detainees should have prompt access to a lawyer, and their due process and fair trial guarantees must be ensured, said the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Bachelet urged the Uzbek government to lift the Internet shutdown immediately, saying the measure had an indiscriminate reach and broadly impacted upon the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to access information.

She also reminded the authorities that the restrictions under emergency law must abide by international law, and be necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory. They also need to be limited in duration and key safeguards against excesses must be put in place.

With reporting by AFP and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

U.S. To Seek G20 Pressure On Russia To Open Sea Lanes

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have not met since before Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will call on Group of 20 members this week to put pressure on Russia to support UN efforts to reopen sea lanes blocked by the Ukraine conflict and repeat warnings to China not to support Moscow's war effort.

Blinken heads to Asia on July 6 for a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali on July 8. He is due to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, but no meeting is expected with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Ramin Toloui, the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, told reporters Blinken would raise energy security and a UN initiative to try to get Ukrainian and Russian foodstuffs and fertilizer back to global markets.

"G20 countries should hold Russia accountable and insist that it support ongoing UN efforts to reopen the sea lanes for grain delivery," he said. "Whether that happens at the level of the G20, or the level of individual G20 countries, that's an important point that Secretary Blinken will make," Toloui said.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has helped contribute to a global food shortage.

Ukraine, said this week it is holding talks with Turkey and the United Nations to secure guarantees for grain exports.

Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Why Resuming Ukrainian Grain Shipments Won’t Be Easy
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The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, said he expected a "candid" exchange on Ukraine in Blinken's talks with China's Wang.

"This will be another opportunity...to convey our expectations about what we would expect China to do and not to do in the context of Ukraine," he said.

China has refused to condemn Russia's actions and has criticized the sweeping sanctions. U.S. officials have warned of consequences should China start offering material support for Russia's war effort.

"It's absolutely critical that we have open lines of communication with our Chinese counterparts, particularly at the senior level...to ensure that we prevent any miscalculation that could lead inadvertently to conflict and confrontation," Kritenbrink said.

Lavrov and Blinken have not met since before Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said now was not the right time for another meeting. "We would like to see the Russians be serious about diplomacy. We have not seen that yet," he said.

Price did not rule out the possibility of a chance Blinken-Lavrov encounter in Bali, which would be their first since they last met in Geneva in January. Price declined to discuss what he called the "choreography" of the G20.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
Updated

Biden Says Working To Free U.S. Basketball Star, Other Americans 'Wrongfully Detained' In Russia

Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow on June 27.

U.S. President Joe Biden has told the wife of women's basketball star Brittney Griner that he is working to free her and another American who the United States says are being "wrongfully detained" by Russia.

Biden called Cherelle Griner to reassure her that he was "working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible," the White House said in a statement.

The statement added that Biden read her a draft of a letter he plans to send later on July 6 to Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and a star of the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison on drug-possession and smuggling charges. Her trial began last week and is scheduled to resume on July 7.

Authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in Griner's luggage in February when she passed through Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport while returning to play for a Russian team in the WNBA's off-season.

Biden's call with Cherelle Griner followed Brittney Griner's personal appeal to the president in a handwritten letter passed to the White House on July 5.

The letter was passed to the White House by the player's representatives, who said she feared she might never return home and asked that Biden not "forget about me and the other American detainees."

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent, said on July 5 the letter was delivered on July 4. Griner's representatives shared a few lines from the handwritten note.

"As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I'm terrified I might be here forever," Griner wrote.

Griner said on the U.S. Independence Day holiday her family normally honors the service of people who fought for freedom as soldiers in the U.S. military, including her father, a veteran of the war in Vietnam.

"It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year," she said, appealing to Biden to use his presidential powers to bring her home.

The White House statement said Biden called Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world."

Cherelle Griner said for her wife to reach out directly to Biden is an indication of just how afraid she is.

The U.S. State Department in May classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week said U.S. Embassy officials attended Griner's hearing on July 1 and reiterated that her return is a top priority.

Blinken also mentioned Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is being held in Russia on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

"We won't stop working until they are reunited with their loved ones," he said on Twitter.

Some have suggested Moscow is seeking to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Uzbekistan Says Missiles Fired From Afghanistan Damaged Houses

Uzbek soldiers guard a checkpoint over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, near Termez. (file photo)

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has said that five missiles fired on July 5 from Afghanistan at a city in southeastern Uzbekistan caused no injuries but slightly damaged four homes.

The missiles landed in Termez, a city on the Amu Darya River in the Surxandaryo region.

The ministry said that Uzbek authorities were attempting to clarify the cause of the incident with the Afghan side.

There has been no official comment on reports that Uzbek fighter planes took off after the incident. Nor has there been official comment on a video purporting to show one of the damaged houses.

The shelling was unrelated to unrest in the Central Asian country that left 18 people dead in the restive autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. The Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 4 that the people were killed during unrest over the weekend.

Protests broke out last week after changes initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoev were proposed to the constitution, including the removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose to do so in a referendum.

Mirziyoev has since backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.

Updated

North Macedonia Has 'Historic Opportunity,' EU's Michel Says Amid Protests

European Council President Charles Michel (left) shakes hands with Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski at a joint press conference in Skopje on July 5.

SKOPJE -- European Council President Charles Michel has urged North Macedonia to back a French-proposed compromise on ending a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that has blocked the country's bid to join the European Union.

Michel told a news conference in Skopje on July 5 that long-delayed talks to admit North Macedonia into the EU could begin immediately if it accepted the proposal.

"Together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country's EU accession process," Michel said, speaking alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski.

Michel said the country had a "historic opportunity" to agree to the beginning of negotiations and again become a "champion of enlargement."

Kovachevski reiterated his support for the "balanced proposal," adding that "our aim is to start membership talks."

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal last week, saying he believed a compromise agreement was near.

But the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in the dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

VMRO-DPMNE has attacked the French proposal as a "legalization of the assimilation of the Macedonian people," accusing Kovachevski's government of accepting "humiliations and distortions of identity."

North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed.

Violent protests against the proposal erupted over the weekend in Skopje. Tensions escalated during a new protest against the proposal on July 5.

Around 100 demonstrators threw rocks, Molotov cocktails, and other objects at the fence surrounding the parliament building and at the policemen defending it. Several policemen were hurt, but the police forces eventually pushed back and arrested several demonstrators.

Thousands of people protested the proposal the night before in Skopje. Some of the protesters threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital.

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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Police prevented the crowd from forcing their way into government offices.

Bulgaria, which has already formally accepted the French proposal, insists that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, and quash "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Bulgaria has been able to block the start of accession talks because unanimity is required under EU rules.

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with Greece, another EU member, by adding the word "north" to its name. Greece had complained that the name Macedonia implied claims on its own territory, history, and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also stalled the progress of Albania toward EU membership because the bloc has tied its accession talks to those of North Macedonia.

With reporting by AP and dpa
Updated

International Ice Hockey Upholds Ban On Russia, Belarus Amid Calls For Sports Suspension

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and IIHF President Rene Fasel attend the opening ceremony of the Night Hockey League in Sochi in May 2021.

The disciplinary board of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has dismissed the appeals of Russia and Belarus against the IIHF's decision to ban them from competition over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The board's decision on July 5 came the same day that 35 allies of Ukraine called for the sports governing bodies of Russia and Belarus to be suspended from international sport federations.

The IIHF board said in a statement on July 5 that it agreed that the decision of the IIHF Council on February 28 "was not a sanction but was a safety policy."

The board also said the policy was not discriminatory and was proportionate.

The IIHF's decision to suspend all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from participation in international competitions was announced four days after Russian troops went into Ukraine.

The IIHF said at the time that the policy was to ensure the safety of players, fans, and other tournament participants.

"The independent board supported our view that it would have been an unacceptable safety risk to either host the [world junior championship] and [world championship] in Russia or to have the Russian and Belarusian teams currently participating in IIHF competitions," IIHF President Luc Tardif said.

Russia and Belarus could still take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Neither Russia nor Belarus played at the men's world championship in May, which host nation Finland won.

Russia was also stripped of the right to host next year's men's world championship, which was to be played in St. Petersburg.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it and several other allies of Ukraine, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, called for the suspension of Russian and Belarusian sports governing bodies.

The statement said sports organizations should also consider suspending the broadcast of competitions into Russia and Belarus.

The joint statement reaffirmed a statement issued on March 8 saying Russia and Belarus should be barred from hosting international sporting events and its athletes subjected to other restrictions.

The July 5 statement said that in cases where sports organizations permit athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, it should be made clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states. The use of Russian and Belarusian flags, emblems, and anthems should be prohibited.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a number of sporting bodies have banned athletes representing Russia and Belarus, which has not sent troops but has backed Russia's military aggression. Among the most notable was FIFA, which suspended Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from international soccer.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Jailed Iranian Activist Says He Will 'Never' Ask For Pardon

Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb (file photo)

Jailed Iranian civil activist Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb has said in a message that he rejected a proposal by prison officials to seek a pardon.

In a message published online on July 4, Ragheb, who is imprisoned in Rajaeeshahr prison, west of Tehran, said that a delegation from the prosecutor's office visited him twice last week and asked him if he wanted to apply for a pardon. "Never," he said he replied.

Ragheb is a former employee of the fire department who has been arrested several times due to his peaceful activism.

He is also one of the 14 civil and political activists who published a statement in June 2018 demanding the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and asking for fundamental change of the constitution.

Ragheb, who has been in prison for the past four months, underwent stomach surgery in June and was returned to prison despite not completing his treatment.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Schools, Government Offices Shut Down In Several Iranian Cities Over Air Pollution

Government offices and educational centers have been shut down in parts of Iran due to high levels of pollution, state media report.

Authorities decided to close offices and educational centers in 16 cities in Isfahan Province, which is home to around 5 million people, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported on July 5.

The Air Pollution Emergency Task Force in Yazd Province also announced late on July 4 that "due to the prediction of dust stability by the General Meteorology Department," all offices and educational activities in this province will be closed on July 5.

At the same time, the director-general of environment of the southern province of Khuzestan also said in an interview, "All offices of Khuzestan Province were closed on July 5, due to the severe dust phenomenon."

On July 4, following the intensification of air pollution, the offices, schools, and universities of Tehran and Alborz provinces, the offices of four cities in Khuzestan Province, as well as educational, sports, and production activities in Isfahan Province were closed.

Climate change, the increasing frequency of droughts, improper management of water and soil resources, deforestation, and theunscientific exploitation of agricultural lands are the most important factors of soil erosion and the occurrence of dust storms in Iran.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

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