U.S. Afghan Envoy Expresses Doubts About Possible U.S. Troop Surge
According to a report today in "The Washington Post" newspaper, Eikenberry sent two memos last week to the White House which question requests by U.S. military commanders for more troops.
Senior U.S. officials say both of Eikenberry's memos express deep reservations about the erratic behavior of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and about rampant corruption within the Afghan government.
Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, has years of first-hand military experience in Afghanistan. He was the commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He also served during 2002 and 2003 as the U.S. security coordinator and as the chief of the Office of Military Cooperation in Afghanistan.
Obama, who has been deliberating for weeks with his national security advisers about how to defeat Taliban militants in Afghanistan, reportedly has been presented with four different strategy options.
The option with the lowest number of deployments would send an additional 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Most would be designated as trainers for Afghan security forces. The three other options are said to call for deployments of an additional 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. soldiers. Those options envision an expanded combat role for U.S. forces in provincial areas where the Taliban holds sway.
Met With Top Aides
The White House says Obama is still weeks away from making a decision, and that he will continue mulling over the options during a nine-day trip to Asia that begins today.
On November 11, in his eighth White House meeting with top aides about Afghanistan, Obama reportedly pushed for revisions to all four strategy options. The focus of all those revisions was the question of how long it will take to see results and how soon U.S. troops would be able to hand over security duties to Afghan forces.
Obama, who has been deliberating for weeks with his national security advisers about how to defeat Taliban militants in Afghanistan, reportedly has been presented with four different strategy options.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, participated via teleconference. In September, McChrystal sent an assessment to Obama's national security team warning that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat was likely.
McChrystal's assessment said "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum" during the next 12 months would risk conditions in which defeating the insurgency is no longer possible. He stressed that Afghanistan's own security forces need to be bolstered as soon as possible.
McChrystal also warned that the Afghan government was riddled with corruption and that international forces are undermined by tactics that are alienating Afghan civilians.
Arnold Fields, the U.S. special inspector-general for Afghanistan reconstruction, tells RFE/RL that the corruption issue is important not just for the issue of troop deployments to Afghanistan but also for the disbursement of reconstruction aid from international donors.
"We need to maintain confidence among those who are providing the funding for this reconstruction effort -- the United States about $40 billion [and] the collective international community about $63 billion," Fields says.
"So in order for that confidence and those funds to continue to flow into Afghanistan, the donors need to be confident that those monies are, in fact, being used for the purposes for which the were made available."
Fields, a former major general in the U.S. Marine Corps, says he hasn't given up hope on Karzai's government.
"Let me reiterate that the corruption issue is a significant one. But I also acknowledge that it is one that has been recognized by the government of Afghanistan," Fields says.
"During the three meetings that I have been privileged to have with President Karzai, in each of those meetings he has mentioned the issue of corruption and he has made a request of my office...In so doing, [he has made] a request from the United States of America for assistance in dealing with the corruption issue."
Reports from Washington say Obama seems intent on putting more pressure on Karzai, whose credibility is in doubt after his fraud-tainted reelection.
Whichever strategy option Obama chooses, he is expected to impose further demands on the Afghan government to ensure that Afghan security forces are strengthened. That would allow a timeline to be established for transferring security duties to Afghan forces.
Over 500 Dead Since Start Of Unrest In Iran, Activists Say
At least 527 people have been killed in Iran since the beginning of the anti-government demonstrations more than four months ago, said a report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency on January 29. Among them were 71 minors and 70 members of the police and other security forces, according to the group's tally. In total, nearly 20,000 people have been arrested. More than 100 of them are facing death sentences. Several demonstrators have already been executed. The Iranian authorities have not yet provided information on the total number of deaths and arrests.
Azerbaijan Evacuating Embassy In Iran After Fatal Shooting
Azerbaijan will evacuate embassy staff and family members from Iran on January 29, the Foreign Ministry said, two days after a gunman shot dead a security guard and wounded two other people in an attack Baku branded an "act of terrorism." Police in Tehran have said they have arrested a suspect. Iranian authorities condemned the January 27 incident but said the gunman appeared to have had a personal, not a political, motive. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
At Least 12 Children Dead After Boat Capsizes In Northwestern Pakistan
Pakistani officials say at least 12 children were killed on January 29 after their boat overturned in Tanda Lake, a popular tourist destination in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Bilal Faizi, a spokesperson for local emergency services, said at least five children were rescued but that they are in critical condition. Police said at least 25 children -- students of the Mirbaz Khel religious school -- were on the boat when it capsized. The death toll was expected to rise as rescue efforts continued. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.
Ukrainian Tanks Crews Arrive In Britain For Training
Ukrainian tank crews have arrived in Britain to begin training for their continued fight against Russia, the British Defense Ministry said on January 29, just days after Britain and other NATO countries pledged more than 130 tanks to Ukraine.
“The UK will provide Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine alongside global partner nations -- demonstrating the strength of support for Ukraine, internationally,” the ministry tweeted on January 29.
The United States and Germany agreed last week to send Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks, respectively, to Ukraine, while the United Kingdom earlier in January said it would send 14 Challenger 2 tanks. Germany also allowed other countries, such as Norway and Poland, to send their German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Poland said it will provide 60 more tanks to Ukraine, in addition to the 14 it has already pledged.
Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly said that they need 300 tanks as they seek to drive Russian forces from their territory. Ukraine has lost more than half of its 850 tanks during the 11-month war, according to Oryx, a website that uses open-source tools to count destroyed equipment.
Russia has many more tanks than Ukraine, but their models are inferior in some key respects to Western models.
Both Russia and Ukraine are expected to launch offensives in the coming weeks, with tanks expected to play a vital role in those battles, experts said.
Meanwhile, the fighting on the front line remains intense, especially in eastern Donetsk region, with major battles under way for Vuhledar and Bakhmut, a town that has been virtually razed by repeated Russian artillery bombardments.
The head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on January 29 that four people were killed and 17 others wounded in Russian strikes on Bakhmut and Kostyantynivka the previous day.
In the southern province of Kherson, authorities said Russian strikes targeted civilian infrastructure in the Beryslav district over the past 24 hours, damaging several houses and farm buildings.
The Ukrainian Health Ministry later said one nurse was injured when a hospital in the city of Kherson was damaged in a Russian military attack.
There were no casualties among the civilian populations as the district’s administrative center, Beryslav, and the villages of Mylove and Tyahynka came under the Russian attack, the district chief, Volodymyr Litvinov, said on Telegram on January 29.
Ukraine's military, meanwhile, said its forces repelled an attack in the area of Blahodatne in the eastern part of the Donetsk region, while Russia's Vagner mercenary group claimed it had taken control of the village.
With reporting by Reuters
Pakistani Government Lifts Price Caps On Gasoline, Diesel Fuel
Pakistan's Finance Ministry announced on January 29 that gasoline and diesel prices would rise by $0.14 a liter after the country's currency plummeted in value this week when price caps were removed. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said he hoped the announcement would dispel speculation on social media of a higher price hike or that gasoline supplies would run dry. He said the hike was recommended by oil and gas authorities due to the higher cost of buying energy in the global market. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Earthquake Strikes Northwestern Iran, Killing At Least Three
A 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck northwestern Iran near the border with Turkey late on January 28, killing at least three people and injuring 816, state media said. The shallow quake hit the city of Khoy in West Azerbaijan Province at 9:44 p.m., the Seismological Center of the University of Tehran said. Iran sits astride the boundaries of several major tectonic plates and experiences frequent seismic activity. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Russia Rules Out Talks With Japan On Fishing Near Disputed Islands
Russia said on January 29 that it will not hold annual talks with Japan on renewing a pact that allows Japanese fishermen to operate near disputed islands, saying Japan has taken anti-Russian measures. The islands are known in Russia as the Kuriles and in Japan as the Northern Territories and have been at the core of decades of tension between the neighbors. Japan imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals and organizations soon after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
At Least 40 Killed In Fiery Bus Crash In Southwest Pakistan
At least 40 people died when a bus plunged off a bridge in southwestern Pakistan and burst into flames, a government official said on January 29. Hamza Anjum, a senior official of the Lasbela district in Balochistan Province, said at the accident site that three survivors had been rescued. The bus was reportedly carrying 48 passengers when it hit a pillar on the bridge and careened off course. Ramshackle highways, lax safety measures, and reckless driving contribute to Pakistan's dire road safety record. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Armed Drones Attack Iranian Defense Factory; Tehran Says Only Limited Damage
Drones equipped with explosives targeted an Iranian defense factory in the central city of Isfahan overnight, the Iranian Defense Ministry announced on January 29, causing some damage at the facility.
The Iranian Defense Ministry released few details on the attack and did not say who it suspected was behind it.
Iran has been targeted in the past by suspected Israeli drone strikes. Israeli officials declined to comment on the attack in Isfahan.
In a statement, the Iranian Defense Ministry said three drones had reportedly targeted the facility, with two of them shot down.
A third apparently made it through to strike the building, causing “minor damage” to its roof and wounding no one, the ministry said.
Video footage downloaded on social media showed what appeared to be the moment the drone struck along the Imam Khomeini Expressway that heads northwest out of Isfahan.
The Iranian Defense Ministry described the site as a “workshop” but did not elaborate on what type of work it was engaged in.
Isfahan is located some 350 kilometers south of Tehran. It is home to both a large air base built for its fleet of American-made F-14 fighter jets and its Nuclear Fuel Research and Production Center.
Separately, Iran’s state TV said a fire broke out at an oil refinery in an industrial zone near the northwestern city of Tabriz. It said the cause was not yet known, as it showed footage of firefighters trying to extinguish the blaze.
The attack comes after Iran's Intelligence Ministry in July claimed to have broken up a plot that it said was aiming to target sensitive sites around Isfahan.
Iranian state TV in October broadcast what it claimed to be confessions by alleged members of Komala --a Kurdish opposition party that is exiled from Iran and now operates out of Iraq -- that they planned to target a military aerospace facility in Isfahan after being trained by Israel's Mossad intelligence service.
The incident at Isfahan is the latest attack on Iranian military or nuclear facilities.
Last year, Iran said an engineer was killed and another employee was wounded in an unexplained incident at the Parchin military and weapons development base east of the capital, Tehran. The ministry called it an accident, without providing further details.
Parchin is home to a military base where the International Atomic Energy Agency has said it suspected Iran conducted tests of explosive triggers that could be used in nuclear weapons.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Poland Recruits Record Number Of Soldiers Following Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
Poland's armed forces have recruited the largest number of soldiers since it ended conscription in 2008 as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked greater interest in defending the homeland. Poland recruited more than 13,500 professional soldiers last year, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on January 28. The number is equivalent to about 8 percent of Poland’s total armed forces of 164,000. Poland, which borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, intends to increase its armed forces to 300,000 professional soldiers in the coming years.
Five Russian Men Who Fled Mobilization Stranded At Seoul Airport As They Await Asylum Hearing
Five Russian men who fled their country after President Vladimir Putin announced a military mobilization have been stranded for months at an airport in South Korea. Seoul denied the men’s request for asylum upon their arrival in October and November. They have been living at their airport since then as they wait for their appeal to be heard. Russian nationals are allowed visa-free entry to South Korea, but immigration officials can deny permission to enter the country. The five men, whose identities are unknown, were among hundreds of thousands who fled Russia after the draft was announced. To read the original story by CNN, click here.
Russian Cash Transfers To Caucasus, Central Asia Surged In 2022 Amid Ukraine Invasion
Residents of Russia sent money to accounts in Central Asian and the Caucasus at the greatest rate in more than a decade as hundreds of thousands of people fled the country following its invasion of Ukraine, the RBC news agency reported.
Residents of Russia last year transfered $2 billion to Georgia, the largest since 2012, and more than $2.5 billion to Kyrgyzstan, the biggest since 2005, RBC reported. More than $3 billion was transferred to Armenia.
Uzbekistan received $14.5 billion, more the double the total for 2021, while Kazakhstan received $775 million.
Russians fled their country in a first wave after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February, triggering Western financial and trade sanctions that made it difficult for many citizens to work and conduct transactions.
Russians relocated en masse to Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus, as well as Central Asia, where they could access dollar bank accounts and Western technology.
Hundreds of thousands more Russians fled to those nations after Putin announced in September the mobilization of up to 300,000 men for the war in Ukraine.
The number of Russians traveling to the Caucuses and Central Asia reached a five-year high last year, RBC reported.
Migrants may have also contributed to the jump in cash transfers in 2022.
Millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus work in Russia and regularly send money to their families back home.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent Western economic sanctions have triggered a recession in Russia. As a result, many migrants have lost their jobs, forcing them to return home and repatriate their money.
More migrants could lose their jobs in 2023 as Russia’s economy contracts for a second straight year amid the weight of the war.
Italy Signs $8 Billion Gas Deal With Libya As It Seeks To Cut Russian Dependence
Italy’s state-run energy company ENI has signed an $8 billion deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields as European nations seek to cut their dependence on Russian energy.
ENI will help develop two offshore fields, with production expected set to start in 2026, the company said on January 28. ENI estimated the fields could produce about 7.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year or more than two-thirds of the amount Italy imported from Russia last year.
European nations have been rushing to purchase natural gas from non-Russian sources, including North Africa, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia, the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe prior to the invasion, sharply cut exports to the continent last year in what EU officials said was an attempt to blackmail Brussels into cutting support for Ukraine. Italy had been the second-largest consumer of Russian gas in Europe after Germany.
The Russian energy cut caused natural gas prices in Europe to skyrocket to record levels, forcing companies and consumers to slash consumption. Prices have since returned to prewar levels amid a warm winter.
The ENI announcement came as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni toured energy-rich North Africa.
Days earlier, Meloni visited Algeria, Italy’s main supplier of natural gas, to sign memorandums on energy. Italy in May signed a deal with Algeria to increase imports starting in the autumn of 2022. That agreement called for up to an additional 9 bcm in 2023-24.
During her visit to Libya, Meloni said Italy wasn’t seeking a “predatory” role but wants to help African nations “grow and become richer.”
Libya’s exports to Italy have fallen by 5.5 bcm, or two-thirds, since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising overthrew longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, ushering in a period of instability and underinvestment.
In addition to North Africa, European nations have sought more natural gas imports from the United States and Qatar.
Russian gas exports to Europe via pipelines plummeted to a post-Soviet low in 2022 and are expected to fall further this year.
The EU is aiming to end Russian imports of natural gas via pipeline later this decade, a business that had generated Moscow tens of billions of dollars annually.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Gazprom Says It Will Ship 24.3 Million Cubic Meters Of Gas To Europe Via Ukraine
Russia's Gazprom said it will ship 24.3 million cubic meters (mcm) of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine on January 28. The previous day, Gazprom announced the shipping of an almost identical quantity -- 24.2 mcm. Gas is no longer flowing through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 Baltic Sea pipelines, so the Ukrainian pipelines are the last remaining direct routes to Europe. Russian gas exports to Europe via pipelines plummeted to a post-Soviet low in 2022 as deliveries plunged because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Countries in Europe are working to find alternative supplies of gas due to the war. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Death Toll In Afghanistan Cold Snap Rises To 166
At least 166 people have died in a wave of bitterly cold weather sweeping Afghanistan, the Disaster Management Ministry said on January 28. Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius since January 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales, and regular electricity outages. Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan's 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly 4 million children were suffering from malnutrition. The ministry said on January 28 that the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Zelenskiy Adviser Slams International Olympic Committee For 'Antihuman Policy'
Senior Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak criticized the International Olympic Committee on January 28 for siding with Russia after the IOC said the Olympic Council of Asia had offered Russian and Belarusian athletes a chance to compete in the Paris 2024 Olympics. "#IOC proposes to the world promotion of violence, mass murders, destruction. That's why it insists Russian athletes should participate in contests as real 'ambassadors of death'," Podolyak wrote on Twitter. "Sport doesn't exist outside politics -- sport promotes it. Thus, the IOC promotes the [Russian] anti-human policy."
Australian Open Chief Tells Djokovic's Family To 'Be Really Careful'
Australian Open chief Craig Tiley on January 28 advised tennis ace Novak Djokovic's family to be "really careful" of people using the tournament's global exposure as a platform for "disruptive" purposes. It follows a video posted on the Internet showing Djokovic's father, Srdjan, posing in Melbourne with a fan holding a Russian flag featuring Vladimir Putin's face. It sparked a backlash from Ukraine, which is battling Russia's full-scale invasion. "My advice is that you have to be really careful because, if this is an event of global significance, it's a platform," Tiley said he told them. To read the original article by AFP, click here.
Ukraine To Summon Hungarian Envoy Over 'Unacceptable' Remarks By Orban
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry will summon Hungary's ambassador to complain about "completely unacceptable" remarks Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made about Ukraine, Kyiv said on January 27. Hungary has repeatedly criticized EU sanctions on Russia. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko, writing on Facebook, said Orban had told reporters that Ukraine was a no-man's-land and compared it to Afghanistan. "The Hungarian ambassador will be summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry for a frank discussion. We reserve the right to take other measures in response," Nikolenko said. To read the original article by Reuters, click here.
Russians Launch Deadly Strike On Donetsk City As Fierce Fighting Rages In East
A Russian strike on a city in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least three people on January 28 as Ukrainian forces engaged Russian troops in ferocious battles in several hot spots in the east, where Moscow has been pressing its offensive with increased urgency amid Western pledges of modern tank deliveries for Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used the occasion to call on Western partners to supply his nation with long-range precision missiles, known as ATACMS, to reduce Russia’s ability to target cities.
“It would be possible to stop this Russian terror if we could source the appropriate missiles for our military forces,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on January 28.
A Russian strike on a residential neighborhood in the Donetsk city of Kostyantynivka killed three people and wounded at least two others, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram.
Kyrylenko said four apartment buildings and a hotel had been damaged and that rescuers and police officials were at the site to "carefully document yet another crime by the Russian occupiers."
Earlier on January 28, Kyrylenko said four people had been killed and at least seven wounded by Russian strikes in the last 24 hours.
The January 28 strikes were just the latest in a series by Russian forces to hit Ukrainian civilian targets as Moscow seemingly tries to use terror to weaken the nation’s resolve.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior Zelenskiy aide, said in an interview on January 28 that Ukraine is engaged in “fast-track” talks on the possibility of acquiring ATACMs and jet fighters.
The United States has so far refrained from sending Ukraine either weapon for fear it would be perceived by Moscow as escalatory.
The ATACMs could strike Russian arms depots and other equipment up to 300 kilometers away, weakening Moscow’s ability to supply its troops at the front lines.
U.S. national-security spokesman John Kirby said on January 27 that the Biden administration does not have plans at the moment to send fighter jets to Ukraine.
Air support is a crucial element of a fighting strategy known as "combined arms" that also includes the use of artillery, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and infantry.
The United States and its NATO allies earlier this month announced plans to send tanks, fighting vehicles, and more artillery to Ukraine as it prepares to launch a counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, the fighting on the front line remains extremely intense, especially in Donetsk, where major battles are under way for Vuhledar and Bakhmut, a town that has been virtually razed by repeated Russian artillery bombardments.
The General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said in its daily report early on January 28 that Russian troops continued to press on with a multipronged offensive in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
"The enemy continues to conduct offensive actions in the Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka directions," the General Staff said.
"In the Kupyansk, Lyman, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson directions, the enemy is on the defensive," it said.
Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy told local media that "there is fierce combat" in Vuhledar.
"For many months, the military of the Russian Federation...has been trying to achieve significant success there," he said.
Vuhledar, a town with a preinvasion population of around 15,000 people, has strategic significance as a communications node in southern Donetsk.
The secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, told RFE/RL that Moscow was preparing for a new offensive on February 24, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
"Now they are preparing for maximum activation...and they believe that by the anniversary they should have some achievements," Danilov said. "There is no secret that they are preparing for a new wave by February 24, as they themselves say."
WATCH: Ukrainian combat medic Oksana Lebedenko lost contact with her 11-year-old daughter Yeva after Russian forces occupied her hometown of Vovchansk in Ukraine's Kharkiv region. Lebedenko later discovered that her pro-Russian brother had taken her daughter to Russia without permission. After nearly a year apart, volunteers helped reunite the mother and daughter in Kyiv in December.
Ukraine's Western allies continue to pledge military equipment and aid to shore up Kyiv's defenses.
U.S. national-security spokesman John Kirby said Washington anticipates an “intense period of fighting” in the coming months," adding that there is "no sign" of the war stopping.
Zelenskiy said on January 27 that Ukraine needs up to 500 tanks.
"We need 300 or 500 tanks now. We need tanks to protect our territory, our land. We need armored vehicles to protect our people, that's all," Zelenskiy said in an interview with Sky News.
So far, a total of 321 heavy tanks have been promised to Ukraine by several countries, Ukraine's ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko, said on BFM television on January 27, without giving further details.
The United States, Poland, Germany, and the United Kindom alone pledged more than 130 advanced tanks, with Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, and other countries expected to announce donations soon.
Russian forces in Ukraine have built hundreds of kilometers of field fortifications over the past few months. Breaking through those lines will require tanks in a coordinated attack with other weapon systems to punch through those defenses.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also reassured Ukraine of the bloc's unconditional support. Speaking in the German city of Duesseldorf on January 28, von der Leyen said, "We stand by Ukraine's side without any ifs and buts."
Von der Leyen and her fellow EU commissioners plan an EU-Ukraine summit on February 3.
The Kremlin has reacted with fury to the latest gestures of Western solidarity with Ukraine and said it saw the promised delivery of advanced tanks as evidence of escalating "direct involvement" of the United States and NATO in Russia's war of aggression, something both deny.
In a separate development, Ukraine said it would summon Hungary's ambassador to complain about "completely unacceptable" remarks Prime Minister Viktor Orban made about Ukraine, Kyiv said on January 27.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nykolenko said Orban had told the media that Ukraine was a no-man's-land and compared it to Afghanistan.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Kurti Resisting Western Proposal Even Though It Could Cost Kosovo Critical Support
PRISTINA -- Prime Minister Albin Kurti has remained defiant over a Western proposal for improving relations with Serbia even as he says it could cost Kosovo critical support.
In an interview with RFE/RL on January 27 in Pristina, Kurti again rejected a request to create an association of Kosovo municipalities with an ethnic Serbian majority, a step the West says is necessary to resolve tensions between the two Balkan neighbors.
Kurti said the association should not be based on ethnicity.
Kosovo and Serbia agreed in 2013 to the creation of an Association of Serbian Municipalities when they signed the Western-backed Brussels Agreement. However, Pristina has failed to implement it.
Gabriel Escobar, the U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, told RFE/RL last month during a visit to region that the creation of the association was a priority for the United States, the biggest backer of Kosovo.
Escobar’s visit came amid protests by ethnic Serbs in Kosovo that have accerbated already tense relations between the two countries.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following a bloody war in the 1990s. While most European countries and the United States have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia has refused to do so, preventing both from potentially joining the bloc.
The United States and the European Union have been trying to reconcile the two countries, opening the door to joining Western organizations.
The EU last summer submitted its plan for normalizing relations to Pristina and Belgrade. According to a copy of the document seen by RFE/RL, the proposal calls for equal rights for Kosovo and Serbia, respect for territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, recognition of state symbols, and a special arrangement for the Serbian community in Kosovo.
It does not, however, mention mutual recognition. The creation of the association is not part of the EU plan.
In his interview with RFE/RL, Kurti said that the plan "does not contain everything Kosovo would want."
"It is not even called a final deal and I believe that it rightly isn't [called so] because discussions are needed. It is a common platform for discussions. It is not a final version of the 'take it or leave it kind,'" he said.
Kurti said that the West had alluded to downgrading its support for Kosovo if it does not back the plan and the association proposal. Kosovo is dependent on Western financial and technical aid.
However, he said he was not concerned about a weakening of Western support.
"We are very constructive on top of being very determined and creative," Kurti said.
Dialogue between Kosovo's and Serbia's leaders has intensified in the months since the EU submitted its plan.
Last week in Pristina, Kurti met with several Western emissaries led by Miroslav Lajcak, the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.
Lajcak said his group expected a "better understanding" from Kurti on the opportunities the proposal offers.
Separately, the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo will host a meeting expected to take place on January 31 to discuss the association proposal.
During the interview, Kurti said that he had not received an invitation to the meeting but added that he is interested in continuing talks in hope of reaching tangible results by March of this year.
Serb Who Joined Russian-Backed Forces In Ukraine Has Jail Sentence Overturned
A Serbian court has overturned the one-year prison sentence handed down to a citizen who fought for Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine in 2015.
The Court of Appeal in Belgrade let Vlado Stanic go free after lowering his conviction to a suspended sentence, according to his lawyer.
The decision was made on December 13, 2022, but Stanic's lawyer only received the official decision yesterday.
Stanic was arrested at Belgrade's airport on July 15, 2022, and charged with joining the Russian-backed Hussar Regiment paramilitary formation.
According to reports, Stanic checked passengers and vehicles entering and leaving Snezno, a town in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine. He allegedly wore the official uniform of the Luhansk and Donetsk separatists.
Stanic was among 300 Serbian citizens who participated on the side of the Kremlin-backed forces from 2014 through 2018, according to estimates of the Embassy of Ukraine in Serbia.
Serbia has historically had close ties with Russia.
Serbia's Criminal Code forbids citizens from participating in foreign wars. The act is punishable with a prison sentence of six months to five years.
The penalty is higher -- from one to eight years --for participating in a war as part of a paramilitary group.
Stanic was sentenced in September to one year in prison by an extrajudicial verdict after pleading guilty. His lawyer, Katarina Nikic, immediately filed an appeal.
Serbia has convicted 32 citizens for participating in the war but the sentences handed down have been mild.
In 28 cases, the court sentenced the defendants to a suspended prison sentence, while four people were sentenced to house arrest for six months.
One of those sentenced to house arrest was a man who helped recruit fighters. According to the Criminal Code, the punishment for recruiting fighters is from two to 10 years.
The lenient punishments have had consequences. Several Serbian citizens convicted of fighting in Ukraine violated their probation and returned to the front.
Russia Summons Latvian Charge d'Affaires Over Riga's Move To Downgrade Diplomatic Ties
Russia's Foreign Ministry said on January 27 it summoned Latvia's Charge d'Affaires Dacija Rutka to express protest over Riga's move to downgrade diplomatic relations with Moscow, expressed days earlier. The ministry requested outgoing Latvian Ambassador Maris Riekstins to leave Russia in two weeks. On January 23, Latvia and Estonia told their ambassadors to leave Moscow after Russia downgraded diplomatic relations with Estonia, accusing it of "total Russophobia." The two Baltic states have been among the strongest backers of Ukraine since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion in February 2022.
Ukraine Bans Officials' Trips Abroad Except In 'Exceptional' Cases
Ukraine's government has approved a resolution banning officials from traveling abroad. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on January 27 that lawmakers, government members, local officials, prosecutors, judges, and other officials can travel abroad only on business trips, for medical reasons, or to take care of minors. "No travel [abroad] to have a rest," Shmyhal wrote on Telegram. A day earlier, lawmaker Mykola Tyshchenko was expelled from the ruling Servant of the People party for being in Thailand without parliament's knowledge. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Ukraine Needs $17 Billion In Additional Financing For Energy Repairs, PM Says
Ukraine will need an additional $17 billion in financing this year for energy repairs, demining, and to rebuild infrastructure, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on January 27. He told a government meeting that five high-voltage substations in the central, southern, and southwestern regions were hit during Russia's air attacks on January 26. The energy sector has been severely damaged following four months of Russian missile and drones attacks. Shmyhal said the government hosted a meeting with Western partners this week to coordinate financial support in a transparent and efficient way. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranians Use End Of 40-Day Mourning Period To Protest Against Government
Iranians continue to gather at the graves of those who have been killed by security forces in ongoing nationwide protests that have rocked the country since the death of a woman in police custody, calling for regime change despite a brutal crackdown on dissent by the authorities.
Since Mahsa Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.
In recent weeks, protesters have turned the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period following a protester's death into a stage for anti-government demonstrations.
Videos published on social media on January 26 showed crowds at the grave of Hamidreza Rouhi, a university student who had a modeling career since childhood and was shot dead during a demonstration in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on November 18.
They chanted "Death to the dictator!," a reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they gathered to honor Rouhi.
In the western city of Khorramabad, people flocked to the cemetery where Nika Shakrami -- a 16-year-old killed after participating in anti-government protests in Tehran on September 20 -- was buried.
Similar scenes were repeated in the central city of Arak, where Mehrshad Shahidinejad was buried. Shahidinejad was a 19-year-old aspiring chef who was reportedly killed after being arrested during a protest.
Reports also indicate that a group of people and family members of Mohammad Mehdi Karami visited a cemetery in the city of Eshtehard to lay flowers at the graves of Karami and another protester, Mohammad Hosseini.
The were hanged in prison on January 7 following threats by Iranian authorities of harsher penalties to those who participate in the unrest.
The activist HRANA news agency said that as of January 15, at least 522 people had been killed during the unrest, including 70 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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