Kyrgyzstan's Leader Says Voters Approve New Constitution
Security was tight amid fears of further unrest, but many say they hope the June 27 referendum will enable the country to establish Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy.
Election officials say that with nearly all votes counted, over 90 percent of participants backed the proposed constitution. Turnout was put at nearly 70 percent. Final results are expected later this week.
At a news conference in Bishkek, interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbaeva said that voters have approved a new constitution and had chosen to put the country on a new course and break with its "authoritarian" past.
"This is a historic day for our republic. We believe the referendum was valid and a new constitution has been adopted despite fierce opposition from adversaries of this constitution," Otunbaeva said.
"More than half the country's citizens voted in the referendum, meaning our people have put a decisive end to the era of authoritarian rule by one family under two previous presidents."
WATCH: People across Kyrgyzstan vote on a new constitution. (Reuters video)
The new constitution reduces the president's powers and paves the way for the Central Asian country to become the first parliamentary democracy in a region generally run by authoritarian rulers.
Otunbaeva cast her ballot this morning in Osh, a southern city partially ruined in bloody ethnic violence this month that killed at least 275 people and forced another estimated 400,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, from their homes in the region. The area is a stronghold of deposed former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, whom the government accuses of provoking this month's violence.
In addition to approving the new constitution, voters were asked to give legitimacy to Otunbaeva's presidency, which will last until December 2011. She said she would form a new caretaker government that will take over from the current interim government. It came to power in the aftermath of a popular uprising that ousted Bakiev from the presidency in April.
The new government will stay in power until parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for October. Future parliamentary elections will be held every five years and the presidency limited to one six-year term.
Otunbaeva said she had voted in Osh to show the country is united.
Low Voting In The South
Few international observers monitored the referendum. Officials said turnout was highest in Bishkek and northern provinces, where official figures said more than 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Voting numbers, however, were by far the lowest in the south, with around 50 percent turning out to vote in Osh city.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement on June 28 that the vote was "largely transparent" but noted the need for improvements ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
Officials took mobile voting stations into some villages. RFE/RL correspondents in the area say people were too afraid to leave their homes in some areas, where officials sent buses to transport voters to polling stations.
There were mixed feelings about the referendum among ethnic Uzbeks.
Osh resident Hayrulla Jalolov, who was wounded during the violence, said he cast his vote in the hope it would bring peace to Kyrgyzstan and put an end to the chaos.
Another ethnic Uzbek resident of Osh, Gulasal Vohidjonova, said she and many of her relatives did not take part. "One reason is that I don't have any identification documents, they were all destroyed when my house was burned down," she said.
Many others said their passports were also destroyed during the violence or raids by security forces.
The referendum took place amid tight security. The Interior Ministry said it stationed nearly 8,000 police officers, with some 12,000 volunteers mobilized to help the police. The army was also put on standby.
Critics say the referendum should not have been carried out so soon after this month's violence. But deputy leader of the interim government, Almazbek Atambaev, said putting off the vote would have handed victory to those who the interim authorities say provoked the violence to exploit problems that have lasted for the past two decades.
"Kyrgyzstan's main problem is poverty. Because if someone's poor, he starts to blame neighbors, other people who speak different languages or follow different faiths. The problem is that for the past 20 years, the country worked to support whichever family was in power," Atambaev said.
After casting her ballot in the capital Bishkek, Rizbe Butova said she believed the government would be able to establish real democracy in Kyrgyzstan because that's what society wants.
Butova said this month's violence was Kyrgyzstan's equivalent of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and that most people want to step away from the brink of ethnic conflict.
Otunbaeva on June 27 said she would appoint a government commission to conduct an investigation into the cause of the violence, and that international experts would take part.
Gregory Feifer reported and wrote from Bishkek, with Farangis Najibullah in Prague. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.
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20 Countries Pledge Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine, Says U.S. Defense Secretary
Twenty countries have pledged new military aid for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian military forces, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on May 23 following the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting.
Denmark has agreed to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon launcher and missiles to “help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said at a press conference following the virtual gathering.
The Czech Republic also agreed to send “substantial support” to Ukraine including “a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks, and rocket systems,” Austin added.
Overall, 20 countries “announced new security assistance packages,” Austin said, including “donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, and tanks and other armored vehicles.”
“Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin added.
A total of 47 countries participated in the contact group’s second meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.
The group was briefed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on the current situation in the three-month-old war.
"Today, together with Minister Reznikov and his team, we've gained a sharper and shared sense of Ukraine's priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield," Austin said.
Since the first meeting of the group at a U.S. military base in Germany four weeks ago, Austin said, "the momentum of donations and deliveries has been outstanding."
He said Ukraine's needs have not changed much since the previous meeting, that the war continues to be driven by artillery, supported by tanks, drones, and other equipment.
"The fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase, and we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks," Austin said.
He added the Ukraine Contact Group would meet next in person on June 15 during a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
With reporting by AFP and CNN
Ukraine's First Lady Says Russian Invasion Will Leave Lasting Negative Health Impact
Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told an assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the impact of Russia’s invasion on health care and mental well-being could last for decades.
In a video address to the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 23, Zelenska said that "Russia's war has shown horrors we could not have imagined," stressing the consequences for mental health.
"WHO is committed to protecting the most crucial human rights to life and health. Now they are both being violated in Ukraine," she said.
"The consequences of this war unfortunately will remain for years and decades," said Zelenska.
Zelenska's comments came as countries at the World Health Assembly prepare to discuss a resolution to be presented by Ukraine and its allies on May 24, harshly condemning Russia's invasion, especially its more than 200 attacks on health care, including hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine.
Currently, Zelenska said, "no Ukrainian, neither adult nor small children, can be sure that they will wake up tomorrow and a missile will not fly into their house."
"Doctors can't be sure that their ambulances will not be bombed on the way to reach the patient."
The resolution also voices alarm at the "health emergency in Ukraine," and highlights the dire impacts beyond its borders, including how disrupted grain exports are deepening a global food security crisis.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on May 23 that the "resolution uses strong language," and voiced confidence it had enough support to pass.
Top health officials addressing the Geneva gathering on May 23 voiced support for the resolution while condemning Russia's invasion.
"We gather here today in a peaceful European city with no need to fear the sound of incoming missiles or artillery... or to fear rape and execution at the hands of invading troops," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the assembly.
"As a group of nations we cannot be pro-health, pro-humanity, without being against such brutal violence," as is happening in Ukraine, he said.
"So, it is absolutely right that we vote on a motion condemning [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin's unjustifiable aggression."
Echoing those sentiments was U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Loyce Pace.
"Russia's attacks have destroyed numerous health facilities. Civilians and health workers have been maimed and killed," she said.
"The international community must and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine."
Without mentioning the resolution specifically, Russia claimed the WHO and its decision-making body were being politicized.
"With deep concern, we have recently been taking note of politicization attempts of the prganization's work, as well as deviations from the principle of "impartiality" in its work," Russia's Deputy Minister of Health Aleksandra Dronova told the assembly.
She called on WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "to prevent the WHO from becoming a political platform."
With reporting by AFP and TASS
Another Imprisoned Kazakh Activist's Term Replaced With A Parole-Like Sentence
QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.
Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.
Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.
The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.
The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."
Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.
In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.
“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.
Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.
DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.
Former U.S. Marine Describes Harsh Conditions Of Russian Imprisonment
Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.
In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.
"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.
"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."
Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."
He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.
Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.
Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.
“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.
"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”
He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."
“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”
Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.
“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.
Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.
Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.
"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.
"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."
Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine
Starbucks Corp says it will be closing its 130 stores in Russia and exiting the market after nearly 15 years because of the war against Ukraine.
The Seattle-based coffee giant informed its employees on May 23 that it will shut its operations in Russia, though the company will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 Russian employees for six months to help them as they search for new jobs.
"Starbucks has made the decision to exit and no longer have a brand presence in the market," the company said in a statement. In March it announced a suspension of operations because of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.
McDonald's announced on May 19 that it had signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee that will give him the global fast food giant's entire portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.
Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.
At Least Five Dead, 80 Trapped Under Rubble After Building Collapses In Iran
At least five people were killed and 27 injured when parts of an unfinished 10-storey building in Iran's southern city of Abadan collapsed, trapping at least 80 more people under the rubble.
A rescue operation was being carried out, Iranian state TV reported on May 23, with emergency teams being sent in from other cities to help.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency said the building was a residential-commercial property on Amir Kabir Street in the city, which is close to the border with Iraq.
Most of those trapped under the rubble were people who were shopping on the ground floor in one of the finished parts of the building, reports said. The collapse caused nearby buildings to "shake violently," they added.
State TV showed footage of angry Abadan residents shouting slogans against the city authorities.
The ILNA news agency reported that the mayor of Abadan, Hossein Hamidpour, was beaten by the angry mob. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident while the owner and the contractor who built the building have been arrested, state TV said.
'Ashamed' Russian Diplomat In Geneva Resigns In Protest Against War In Ukraine
A diplomat at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva says he has resigned in protest at the "needless" war Russia has launched against Ukraine.
Boris Bondarev said in a statement placed on his LinkedIn page on May 23 that he has "never been so ashamed of my country as on February 24," when Russia launched an invasion of its neighbor.
"The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia," Bondarev, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a counsellor at the mission who worked on arms control, wrote.
"Those who conceived this war want only one thing -- to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this," Bondarev's statement added.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN.
Bondarev confirmed the statement to both Reuters and the Associated Press, telling Reuters that he started to imagine making such a move a few years ago "but the scale of this disaster drove me to do it."
He added that he had raised concerns about the invasion with senior embassy staff, only to be told to "keep my mouth shut."
"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless, and absolutely needless ignominy," Bondarev concluded in his statement.
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine, which has involved tens of thousands of troops, as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in the war despite claims by Russia that it has not targeted them.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Ukraine Warns Of Increased Military Moves By Belarus Near Border
Ukraine's Armed Forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.
"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.
"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.
After the Ukrainian statement, Belarus's Defense Ministry said that it had started what it called "another phase of checks" of military equipment to observe their mobility and capacity.
Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.
But in a sign of how Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have closed ranks in the face of international isolation, the two met for the third time in the last month on May 23.
The meeting, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, centered on the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Lukashenka thanking the West for "giving an impetus to our own development."
With reporting by BelTA and Interfax
'Putin Is The Devil!' Daghestani Schoolgirl Protests Ukraine War At Graduation Ceremony
IZBERBASH, Russia -- A young girl from Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan has chosen her high-school graduation ceremony to express her opposition to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
A video of the girl, which went viral on social media on May 22, purportedly shows her shouting: "No to war! Liberty to Ukraine! [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the devil!"
The video shows that the girl's action was apparently applauded by members of the audience, comprising students, parents, and teachers.
Pro-government Daghestani Telegram channels say the footage was taken from a graduation ceremony at school No. 11 in the city of Izberbash, adding that the girl was charged with an administrative offense, namely taking public actions to discredit the Russian Federation's armed forces.
According to the Telegram channels, the girl’s mother was charged with "failing to properly bring up a minor." The identity of the girl was not officially disclosed, but various media outlets said her name is Zukhra Albekova. She and her mother may face fines.
The Daghestani Interior Ministry refused to comment on the incident.
A source in the Education Ministry of Daghestan told RFE/RL that "the girl did it after she made a bet with her classmates."
Later in the day, several online social groups in Daghestan showed the girl and her mother apologizing for the "incident."
The girl said she regretted her action, which was prompted by her desire "to attract classmates' attention to her."
Her mother said she fully supports Putin and his policies, including what Russian officials call the "special military operation in Ukraine."
A source in the Daghestani government told RFE/RL that the girl and her mother were forced to make online statements after the regional head Sergei Melikov personally called Izberbash's mayor ordering him "to clear up the situation."
Izberbash authorities refused to provide any comments to RFE/RL.
For The First Time, Number Of Forcibly Displaced People Tops 100 Million
Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world to more than 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.
"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on May 23.
The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.
The UNHCR said the "alarming" numbers of forcibly displaced people rose towards 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Burma, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.
"One hundred million is a stark figure -- sobering and alarming in equal measure. It's a record that should never have been set," said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
"This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes."
The figure represents more than 1 percent of the global population, the UNHCR said.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Former Austrian Foreign Minister, Who Danced With Putin, Leaves Rosneft Board
Russian state oil giant Rosneft has confirmed that Austria's former foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, whose wedding in 2018 was attended by President Vladimir Putin, has left the company's board of directors.
Rosneft said in a statement on May 23 that Kneissel had stepped down three days earlier, and that she would not seek to renew her position on the board for a second term.
Her resignation comes after former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder left the board under pressure from lawmakers in the Bundestag, who had announced he would lose his taxpayer-funded office and staff amid the controversy over his close ties to Russia.
Kneissl was confirmed to the Rosneft board as an independent director in June 2021. The move immediately raised eyebrows as it came at a time when the European Union was at odds with Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.
Kneissl had already made headlines with regard to Russia when pictures of her dancing with Putin at her 2018 wedding were splashed across newspapers around the world.
Kneissl, a Middle East expert without political affiliation, was appointed to her cabinet post by the far-right Freedom Party, which had a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party.
She left the government in 2019.
According to Kneissl's personal website, the 57-year-old was recently interviewed by the Kremlin-backed RT media outlet, for which she has written several opinion pieces.
Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil producer, is headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin.
Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life In Prison In First War Crimes Case Since Ukraine Invasion
A court in Kyiv has sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
With a packed courtroom looking on, judges at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 23 handed down the punishment to the Russian sergeant, who had earlier pleaded guilty in the death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the three months since the invasion was launched in February and has said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Independent media and rights groups have also gathered mounting evidence that Moscow has targeted civilians in the fighting.
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in war crimes.
Judge Serhiy Agafonov said Shishimarin had carried out a "criminal order" given to him by a soldier of higher rank when he fired several shots at the victim's head from an automatic weapon.
"Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity, and the international legal order...the court does not see the possibility of imposing a [shorter] sentence," he said.
WATCH: Kateryna Shelipova confronted the Russian soldier who killed her husband during a war crimes trial in a Kyiv courtroom on May 19.
In his final statement to the court last week, Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he didn’t want to kill Shelypov and was "sincerely" sorry for what had happened.
Shishmarin's lawyer, Viktor Ovsyannikov, said the sentence was expected given "certain pressure from society." He said his client would appeal the decision.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the beginning of her findings.
She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha, a town just outside of Kyiv.
The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near the capital revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.
On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.
The council's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.
Influential Gorno-Badakhshan Figure Killed In Tajikistan's Restive Region
One of the informal leaders of Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was killed on May 22 in Khorugh, the region's administrative capital, police said, adding that the death was the result of "internal clashes between criminal groups."
The death of Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov was reported after clashes between protesters and police in recent days in the GBAO left as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.
In an official statement, the GBAO branch of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry described Mahmadboqirov as "the leader of an organized criminal group," saying that his death was "the result of internal clashes between criminal groups.”
The statement said the regional prosecutor's office has launched a preliminary investigation into the incident.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said 19 residents of GBAO's Rushon district, whom it called "members of organized criminal and terrorist organizations," had "surrendered" to police after taking part in anti-government protests on May 15-18.
The list of those detained includes Amirbek Qayobekov and Nuriddin Saidov -- the former leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in Rushon -- as well as 15 members of a group led by Kholbash Kholbashov.
Authorities have accused Kholbashov, his former wife, well-known civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, former opposition field commander Yadgor Ghulomhaidarov, and exiled opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov of organizing the unsanctioned anti-government rallies. Mahmadboqirov was also accused of organizing the demonstrations.
The whereabouts of Kholbashov and Ghulomhaidarov are unknown. Mamadshoeva was arrested last week. Before her arrest, she told RFE/RL that all accusations against her were baseless and that she has had nothing to do with the protests.
Deeper tensions between the government and residents of the region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into the state structures as part of the peace deal that Russia helped broker.
The current protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
With reporting by AFP
Moscow Accused Of 'Scorched-Earth Tactics' As It Steps Up Assaults In Eastern Ukraine
Moscow has intensified its offensive in the eastern Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military said on May 23, with Severodonetsk under "round-the-clock" indiscriminate bombardment as Russian troops attempt to encircle the city, while U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Russia wants to "eliminate" Ukraine's national identity.
The heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a severe toll on Russia's military, British intelligence has said, estimating that during the first three months of its war in Ukraine, Moscow has suffered a number of deaths similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine-year war in Afghanistan.
Biden, who was speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on May 23 during his Asia tour, said Russian President Vladimir Putin can't occupy Ukraine, but he can "try to destroy its identity." Biden warned that Putin will have to "pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine."
Russian forces tried to storm Severodonetsk but were unsuccessful and retreated, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.
In total, Ukrainian defenders have repelled 11 enemy attacks in the last 24 hours as Russian troops repeatedly tried to break through, stepping up their use of aircraft to destroy infrastructure, Ukraine's General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said early on May 23.
Regional Governor Serhiy Hayday said Russian forces attempting to encircle Severodonetsk were "using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying" the city.
Hayday said Russia was concentrating forces brought from a vast area -- those withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, others that had been involved in Mariupol's siege, Moscow-backed separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilized from Siberia -- and concentrating their attacks on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
At least seven civilians were killed and eight wounded on May 22 across the Donetsk region, according to the Ukrainian Army's Facebook page.
Russian shelling and missile strikes also kept pounding Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the north, as well as Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya in the south, Ukrainian officials said.
The British military, in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 23, said that Russia's high casualty rate "continues to rise in the Donbas offensive" as a result of converging factors such as poor low-level tactics, insufficient air cover, poor flexibility, "and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes."
The bulletin cautioned that a continuously rising death toll could spark public discontent back home, where Russians in the past proved sensitive to losses suffered during wars of choice.
Ukrainian officials have said little since the start of the war about the extent of their armed force’s casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a news conference on May 22 that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.
Russia's war in Ukraine has also pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.
"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," said the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
In Ukraine, 8 million people are internally displaced, while another 6 million have left the country, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.
In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy on May 23 told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.
"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.
In Kyiv, a court sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Shishimarin has admitted to killing a 62-year-old civilian in the early stages of the invasion, but told the court he was pressured into an act for which he was "truly sorry."
Meanwhile, Ukraine's armed forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.
"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance. Additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.
"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.
Officials from Belarus did not immediately comment.
Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa, BBC, and CNN
With World At Turning Point, Zelenskiy Says Sanctions Must Send Clear Message
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on the world to tighten punitive sanctions against Russia as a warning to other countries that they face severe consequences if they turn to aggression to achieve their goals.
In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.
"I am thankful to you and your countries for being united in your support to Ukraine and efforts to punish Russia for the war it launched against our country. But I have to say it's only being done now, while we've been talking about the possibility of full-scale aggression by Russia since 2014. If the world's actions were preemptive, and not reactive, this war could have been prevented," Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy said that the world faces a turning point in the face of Russia's actions and that failing to act resolutely enough would mean international companies would "be a part of war crimes committed by Russia."
"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy emphasized that his country needs more weapons to stand up to Russia, while diplomatic measures such as pushing all foreign companies to exit the Russian market, an embargo against Russian crude oil, the complete blocking of all Russian banks, and cutting off trade with Russia are needed to stop the war and send a message to other countries with similar aggressive aspirations.
“If we had obtained 100 percent of the weapons we needed at the very beginning [of the war] in February, tens of thousands of lives would be saved. This is why Ukraine needs all the weaponry that we are asking for and not just the ones that we have been supplied with," Zelenskiy added.
Armenia-Azerbaijan Joint Commission To Meet At Border 'Soon,' EU Says
The first meeting of a joint commission on the demarcation and security of the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be soon held on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, European Council President Charles Michel said on May 22 in Brussels after talks with the leaders of the two South Caucasus countries.
Michel held bilateral meetings with both Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev before a trilateral meeting in which a peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh was discussed.
"We discussed humanitarian issues in detail, including demining, the release of detainees, and the fate of the missing. The first meeting of the joint commission on the border will be held in the coming days at the interstate border, where all issues related to demarcation and ensuring the best security of the border will be discussed,” Michel said, without giving a precise date.
Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.
Azerbaijan said in a statement that Aliyev told Michel "that Azerbaijan had laid out five principles based on international law for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and for the signing of a peace agreement."
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In Yerevan, Armenian police have detained hundreds of protesters during opposition-led demonstrations seeking to force Pashinian from office.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian and Azerbaijani services and Reuters
Germany's Scholz Seeks To Pursue Energy Projects With Senegal Amid Russian Supply Uncertainties
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says his country wants to “intensively” pursue gas and renewable energy projects with West African nation Senegal amid uncertainties with Russian supplies following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
"It is a matter worth pursuing intensively," Scholz said on May 22 at a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall during his first trip as chancellor to Africa.
Senegal, a country of some 16 million people, has billions of cubic meters of gas reserves and is expected to become a major gas producer in the region.
Berlin is seeking to reduce its heavy reliance on Russia for gas following the country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Scholz says his country has initiated talks with Senegal concerning gas extraction and liquefied natural gas.
Prior to his arrival, a German government official said Germany could help explore a gas field in Senegal.
Berlin has invited both Senegal, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, and South Africa to attend the G7 summit in Germany in June as guest nations.
Both countries abstained from voting on a UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Sall, speaking in his role as African Union chairman, said many African countries did not want to take sides in the war.
"Very clearly, we want peace," he said. "We're working for a de-escalation. We're working for a cease-fire, for dialogue.... That is the African position."
The war in Ukraine -- a major grains and food supplier for the world -- has sparked supply disruptions that have pushed up food and energy prices in Africa.
Sall said he would travel to Russia and Ukraine soon on behalf of the African Union.
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
Imprisoned Iranian Activist Taken To Hospital Following Hunger Strike, Lawyer Says
Iranian activist Farhad Meysami has been taken to the hospital following a two-week hunger strike protesting the threatened execution of Swedish-Iranian doctor Ahmedreza Djalali, according to Meysami’s lawyer.
Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi wrote on Twitter on May 21 that Meysami’s condition was worsening and that his life was in danger.
Meysami, a medical doctor, has been on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Djalali, who was arrested in 2016 during an academic visit to Tehran.
Djalali specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups and the Swedish government have condemned his detention.
He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.
Amnesty International and other groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.
Djalali was scheduled to be executed on May 21, but his wife said it did not take place. There was no comment from Iranian authorities.
Iran has said the decision to execute Djalali was “final,” but it also said in recent days the judiciary was studying a request by his lawyers to delay the action.
Meysami was detained in July 2018 for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and body in public.
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.
He ended that hunger strike after 145 days.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Russia-Appointed Head Of Occupied Ukrainian Town Reportedly Hurt In Explosion
The Kremlin-appointed head of an occupied Ukrainian town near Europe's largest nuclear power plant was severely injured in an explosion, according to a Ukrainian official and a Russian news agency.
Andrei Shevchik was in intensive care following the blast, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said on May 22, citing an emergency services source in the southern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar.
Shevchik was named mayor of Enerhodar by Russia following its occupation of the town.
Dmytro Orlov, who Ukraine still recognizes as the legitimate mayor of the town that had a prewar population of about 50,000, reported the incident on the Telegram messaging app.
"We have accurate confirmation that during the explosion, the self-proclaimed head of the 'people's administration' Shevchik and his bodyguards were injured," Orlov wrote.
He said Shevchik had been taken to a hospital in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol to be treated.
One local report said the blast occurred around the porch of Shevchik’s residence.
It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion or whether it was an intentional act.
Many of Enerhodar’s residents had worked at two nearby power plants, one of which is the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.
Based on reporting by Reuters and RIA Novosti
Member Of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Shot Dead Outside His Home
A senior member of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been shot and killed outside his home east of Tehran, state media reported, citing the IRGC.
Sayyad Khodaei “was assassinated during a gun attack carried out by two motorcyclists in Tehran's Mohahedin-e Eslam Street," state-run IRNA reported on May 22.
IRNA described him as a "defender of the shrine," which the IRGC uses to indicate he had fought in Syria or Iraq on behalf of Iran as part of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force.
Iran backs Shi’ite militia groups in the two Middle East nations.
There was no claim of responsibility.
On its website, the IRGC identified Khodaei as a colonel and denounced the killing as a "terrorist act," blaming "elements linked to global arrogance" -- a reference to the United States and its allies.
Based on reporting by AFP and AP
France's European Minister: A Ukraine EU Bid Would Take At Least 15-20 Years
France’s European affairs minister said that any bid for Ukraine to join the European Union would take at least 15 to 20 years to complete, putting a damper on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's hopes of gaining a quick entry into the bloc.
"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J on May 22. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."
"I don't want to offer Ukrainians any illusions or lies," he added.
The comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.
“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint news conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on May 21, “because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who visited Kyiv on May 22, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s bid to join the EU in the face of opposition by some other bloc members.
Based on reporting by AFP and dpa
Ukrainian Parliament Extends Martial Law For 90 Days
KYIV -- The Ukrainian parliament has extended martial law for another 90 days as the country continues to battle against the unprovoked invasion of Russian forces.
The Verkhovna Rada said in a statement on May 22 that the decision to extend martial law until at least August 23 came at the request of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy submitted the bill to the parliament on May 18 seeking an extension of martial law, which was first imposed on February 24 following the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military assault.
“We are imposing martial law throughout our country,” Zelenskiy said at the time while urging citizens to “please stay at home” amid the military actions and go on “without panic.”
Following its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, or other major cities in the north and west of the country, Russia has turned its focus to Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, seeking to link up those areas with Crimea -- which it illegally annexed in 2014 -- and areas held by Kremlin-backed separatists in the east.
Ukraine Again Rules Out Concessions As Polish President Arrives To Offer Support
Ukraine continued to rule out any "concessions" to Russia despite the intensive onslaught by Kremlin forces and as Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a surprise visit, urged Kyiv not to give in to the demands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The war must end with the complete restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said in a Twitter post on May 22.
"That is, our victory. Our common victory with the civilized world. After all, today [Ukraine] is defending not only itself," he said, adding that it was defending all of Europe.
Yermak's tweet, consistent with previous Ukrainian remarks, came as Duda became the first foreign head of state to address Ukraine’s parliament since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 as he sought to bolster resolve and offer support for the country's EU hopes.
In his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, Duda said that "worrying voices have appeared, saying that Ukraine should give in to Putin's demands. Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future."
He added that surrendering any Ukrainian territory would be a blow to the entire West and repeated Poland’s firm support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
Shortly after his address, and another one by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, air-raid sirens were heard across the capital, a sign that dangers remain there, although the front lines have shift to the east and south of Kyiv.
In April, Duda visited Kyiv for talks with Zelenskiy as part of a delegation with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
During this trip, Duda offered strong support for Ukraine's bid to join the EU, despite reluctance to move quickly by some major powers, including France and Germany.
Duda said those who "shed their blood" in the fight to belong to Europe must be respected -- "even if the situation is complicated, even if there are doubts."
"I have no doubt that the European Union will make such a gesture," he said.
He pointed to a European Council decision on Kyiv’s candidate status set for June 24, saying it would be "extremely important, above all psychologically and politically."
Zelenskiy on May 21 rejected a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.
“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “Because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”
On May 22, France’s European affairs minister told French radio that any bid by Ukraine to join the EU would likely take at least 15 to 20 years to finalize.
"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."
Duda’s visit came as Russian forces stepped up offensive operations across broad swathes of eastern Ukraine. There was heavy shelling around the northeastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukraine’s military said.
Ukraine’s lead negotiator, presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak, told Reuters on May 21 that Kyiv had ruled out any cease-fire agreement with Russia that included ceding any Ukrainian territory.
“The war would not stop,” he said, in the event of such an agreement. “It would just be put on pause for a time. They’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale.”
WATCH: Burned-out armored vehicles, notebook doodles, shattered weapons, and the wreckage of a fighter jet are among items belonging to the Russian military to go on display at Ukraine's National Military History Museum in Kyiv.
Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation the same day that the war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and newly appointed French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna have agreed on the importance of continuing “steadfast support” for Ukraine, the State Department said.
The two also discussed the importance of “maintaining significant costs” on Russian President Vladimir Putin “for his war of choice,” a statement released on May 22 said.
The two diplomats also discussed steps Washington and Paris could take to best support Finland and Sweden’s recently announced bids to join NATO, decisions that have angered Putin, who said he invaded Ukraine in part to prevent the expansion of the Western military alliance.
“Both agreed on the need to respond to the urgent food security and nutrition needs of millions of people in vulnerable situations around the world, which have been exacerbated by Russia’s continued brutal war in Ukraine,” the statement said.
French President Emmanuel Macron on May 20 named Colonna -- Paris’s current ambassador to Britain -- as foreign minister following his reelection as French leader. She replaced veteran Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Amid Russian Calls For 'Tribunals,' Concerns Expressed Over Fate Of Azovstal Defenders
Concerns have been expressed over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after abandoning the Azovstal steel-mill complex in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.
Prominent Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the State Duma and chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on May 22 that the fate of the captured soldiers, many of whom are members of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, “should be determined by a tribunal.”
“My opinion remains unchanged: There must be no exchange of members of the Azov [Regiment], which is outlawed in Russia,” Slutsky wrote on his Telegram channel.
Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers have urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on May 21 that Kyiv “will fight for the return” of every one of them.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 20 asserted its forces had complete control of the massive factory following weeks of intense fighting in the city that has left thousands feared dead.
Ukraine has described the withdrawal from Azovstal as an authorized “evacuation,” rather than a surrender.
Russia has said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken into custody at the plant. Denis Pushilin, the head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists.
The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Formerly known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultra-nationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.
The Russian state news agency Interfax earlier reported that Moscow was considering exchanging Azovstal prisoners for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is facing criminal charges in Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 21 released video purportedly showing Russian troops taking Serhiy Volynskiy, commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, into custody.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol and are facing a major health and sanitation catastrophe, officials say. Local officials have accused Russia of concealing atrocities -- including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater in which hundreds of civilians were sheltering -- by burying slain civilians in shallow mass graves. Satellite images released in April seemed to show possible mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
“The city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko posted on Telegram.
With reporting by Interfax, AP, and Reuters
Russia Bans 963 Prominent Americans From Entering Russia
Russia has published a list of 963 government officials and leading Americans who are banned from entering the country in retaliation for similar moves by Washington since the offensive in Ukraine.
The list, published on May 21, includes U.S. President Joe Biden, business leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Jamie Fly, president of RFE/RL, along with several current or former members of the board that oversees RFE/RL.
The largely symbolic move names several top officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The list also includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), and the president's son, Hunter Biden.
Fly said on Twitter that he was “proud to be included on this list. RFE/RL being attacked by authoritarians is nothing new. We know that history is on the side of the Russian people. We’ll continue to expand our reporting for Russian audiences at this critical moment.”
Moscow had already announced sanctions targeting many of those on the list.
One exception is Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who had not previously been cited by Russian authorities. He is now accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.
Russia also banned three former senators who are deceased: John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), and Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah).
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement the move was in response to "the constantly imposed anti-Russian sanctions" and said it aimed "to constrain the U.S. which is trying to impose a neocolonial 'world order' on the rest of the planet...to change its position and recognize new geopolitical realities."
It added that Moscow remained open to "honest dialogue" and drew a distinction between the people of the United States and authorities who it said have been "inciting Russophobia."
The ministry also said it also banned 26 more Canadians, including Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The Washington Post
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