U.S., Afghan, Pakistani Presidents To Hold War Council
The meeting at the White House will be the first time Obama meets with the Afghan and Pakistani leaders since he became president in January.
The extraordinary three-way gathering underlines the seriousness of what is rapidly becoming Washington's hottest foreign-policy challenge.
That challenge is how to roll back a resurgent Taliban whose fighters are widening the territory they control in northwest Pakistan despite government crackdowns, truces, and peace deals. Northwest Pakistan is the same area the Taliban and Al-Qaeda also use as a rear area and safe haven for their operations in Afghanistan.
The gravity of the Taliban threat in Pakistan has been amply on display in recent weeks. Militants who were already in control of Swat Valley following a peace deal with the government moved into neighboring areas as well, bringing them to within 100 kilometers of the capital, Islamabad.
Pakistani forces have pushed the militants back and launched a major offensive into Swat Valley itself. On May 5, the government urged people to evacuate their homes in Swat Valley's main town and some 500,000 people are expected to try to flee to safety.
The new refugees will join some 1 million mainly ethnic-Pashtun refugees who have already fled from other areas in northwest Pakistan over the past five years to escape the Taliban and periodic combat between Pakistani forces and the Islamist militia.
With the Taliban waging war on both the Pakistani and Afghan governments, many U.S. officials view both countries as engulfed in a single crisis. The acronym for it in Washington is the "Af-Pak" crisis.
In the run-up to the May 6 meeting, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggested that prospects for winning the war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now increasingly depend upon the Pakistani government.
"Pakistan is of such immense importance to the United States, strategically and politically, that our goal must be unambiguously to support and help stabilize a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president, Asif Ali Zardari," Holbrooke said in his first appearance before the U.S. Congress since becoming special envoy.
"We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it's a state under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies," Holbrooke said. "And we have, Mr. Chairman, the same common enemy."
The Taliban's recent move closer to Islamabad has raised concerns not only over the Pakistani Army's readiness to confront the militants but also over the stability of the government itself. Any creeping Talibanization of Pakistan also brings concerns over the security of the country's nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said on May 5 that Zardari will tell Obama that "Pakistan has the will to confront violent extremism and terrorism, but we need American support to do it."
Obama is due to meet alone with Zardari for a 30-minute session, then for an additional 30 minutes with both Zardari and Karzai together. The U.S. president is expected to present his two counterparts with his strategy for confronting the Taliban threat.
The strategy emphasizes closer cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad, including a joint tightening of security along the two countries' porous border. That would help prevent militants from moving from one theater of operations to the other.
Obama is also likely to stress the importance of Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election for building support for the Kabul government.
The Afghan president's administration is frequently attacked by critics as weak and permissive of corruption and Karzai needs a strong new popular mandate if he is to address such problems in his second term.
Karzai, speaking in Washington on May 5, sought to reassure a U.S. audience of his commitment to the kind of free-and-fair elections that could give him, or a rival, strong popular support.
"The future of Afghanistan really lies in a free election, and fair election. The future of democracy lies there," Karzai said at the Brookings Institution think tank.
"I hope that the Afghan government, of which I've given the clearest possible instructions, and our partners in the international community will make sure that Afghans go to a free and fair election, which is the best and the only way of institutionalizing democracy."
The Afghan president, looking ahead to the meeting with Obama and Zardari, also said he recognizes that his country and Pakistan are linked in a common struggle.
"The return of the Taliban is because we did not address the question of sanctuaries [in Pakistan] in time," he said. "Unfortunately, today, Pakistan is suffering with us massively as a consequence of that."
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Spirits Low After Russian Vodka Brand Auction Runs Dry
The spirits of shareholders of dismantled Russian oil company Yukos were low on December 6 after the top bid in an auction of several iconic vodka brands came up short. The financial holding company GML, the majority shareholder in Yukos before the Kremlin dismantled it in 2003, was hoping to sell the rights to Russian vodka brands Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya. Two bidders each placed a $250,000 deposit hoping to win the rights to use the trademarks in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. But GML reserved the right to reject the winning bids, and did so, deeming them as too low. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iran Rebroadcasts 'Confessions,' Raising Fears Four Kurds May Have Been Executed
Iranian state television has aired for the second time the "confessions" of four Kurdish political prisoners -- admissions their families and supporters say were coerced -- raising fears that they may have been executed.
Pejman Fatehi, Vafa Azarbar, Mohsen Mazloum, and Hajir Faramarzi have been detained for four months and are thought to be part of a group of people who were identified by security police in November as allegedly being "Mossad-related agents."
On December 5, Javana Teymasi, the wife of Mohsen Mazloum, wrote in a tweet that she has no information about her husband's condition and that the rebroadcast of what she called his forced confession has added to her worries.
"We don't even know if their trial was held and if a verdict was issued or not. What is clear is that the link in their case is with the accusations of 'espionage,'" she wrote.
"Rebroadcasting forced confessions and raising these accusations has worried the families."
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has previously identified the group as operatives from the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, but the party itself has denied the claim. It has said previously that several of its members have been arrested.
In early November, the judiciary of the Islamic republic announced the indictment of 10 people who were identified as "Mossad-related agents" and announced that four of them were accused of "corruption on earth" -- a charge that is punishable by death and often leveled in cases allegedly involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran's government.
Earlier this week, Iran executed four people it accused of working for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.
The four were identified as Hossein Ordukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmudabadi, Milad Ashrafi, and Manuchehr Shahbandi. They were accused of receiving weapons and funds in the form of cryptocurrency from Mossad.
Israel, as is its policy, has not commented on the accusations.
Iran is currently in the throes of unrest as people take to the streets across the country to protest against the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was detained by the notorious morality police for wearing a head scarf improperly.
Amini, who was taken into custody in Tehran, was from the Kurdish region of western Iran and many of the largest protests have taken there.
Police have met the unrest with deadly force.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters have been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran this year exceeds 500.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Iranian Lawmaker Says Government Is Seeking Alternative Punishments For Hijab Violators
A member of the Iranian parliament has unveiled the government's plan for alternative punishments -- including financial ones -- to try and force women to wear a hijab in public despite massive protests across the country over the issue.
Hossein Jalali, a member of the Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament, said that under the new plan, the actions of morality police would be curbed, allowing for less intrusive methods to be used for ensuring compliance.
"It is possible to notify nonhijab wearers in the form of a text message that they did not observe the hijab rule and that they must respect the law," Jalali said in an interview with Iranian media.
He added that after two warnings, the government would move to block the bank account of the offender as a way of punishing them. He did not explain how the government intends to recognize the identities of those who are supposedly in violation of the hijab law.
The issue has sparked massive protests across the country after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in police custody. She was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, or head scarf, improperly.
The government has responded to almost three months of unrest with deadly force as it tries to suppress one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979.
Since the outbreak of the unrest, morality police have been less visible in cities. Still, their status is unclear since the country's chief prosecutor said over the weekend that the notorious force had been closed, only to then walk it back by saying it was a decision for the Interior Ministry, which has jurisdiction over the force.
On December 5, a spokesman for the morality police said that the mission of the police unit has ended and that new methods should be used to enforce the country's mandatory hijab law, but the ministry itself has not commented on the issue.
The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of nine after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Jalali said that there will be no backing away from the hijab and chastity plan laid out by the state.
"Moving away from the hijab means a retreat of the Islamic republic," Jalali added.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Iranian Sunni Cleric Says He Has Received Reports Of Sexual Assaults On Female Prisoners
Iran’s top Sunni cleric, a vocal critic of the government, says he has received reports of sexual assaults on female prisoners in Iranian prisons.
Molavi Abdolhamid wrote on his Twitter account on December 6 that the assaults on female prisoners were being committed with the intention of humiliating, suppressing, and obtaining forced confessions from them.
"If proven, the real corrupters on earth are the perpetrators of these crimes," Abdolhamid added, and asked the judiciary to punish these people severely.
"Corruption on Earth," is a common charge often leveled by Iran’s judiciary in cases involving attempts to overthrow the government.
Molavi Abdolhamid is regarded nationwide as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, who are a minority among the mainly Shi'ite population of Iran. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.
CNN first published an investigative report last month about the "sexual assault and rape" of some of the detainees from recent protests while they were being held in Iran's prisons. Citing the testimony of a number of released detainees or hospital sources, CNN said it has confirmed that young women and teenage boys and girls have been raped in prisons.
In response to the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the Iranian authorities' use of sexual violence as a tool for protest suppression.
Price said on November 23 that the United States “is disgusted by the reports and eyewitness accounts of protesters, including minors, being sexually assaulted while in the custody of law enforcement.”
Previously, in an open letter to Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist imprisoned in the notorious Evin prison, called for a special investigation into the assault of detained women.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Top Official At Kazakh City's Thermal Power Plant Found Dead Amid Heating Crisis
A top official at a heating plant in Kazakhstan’s northern city of Ekibastuz, Sergei Vidlog, has been found dead as parts of the city have been left without heat since late November. Authorities said on December 6 that Vidlog's body was found in his car in a garage two days earlier. Last week, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev sacked the region's governor after experts described the situation in Ekibastuz, where temperatures have been minus 30 degrees Celsius for weeks, as "catastrophic." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Hungary Vetoes EU Aid For Ukraine; Bloc Delays Decision On Funds For Budapest
Hungary vetoed an 18 billion euro ($19 billion) EU loan for Ukraine and EU finance ministers delayed a decision on whether to unfreeze billions of euros in aid earmarked for Budapest. At a meeting in Brussels, Hungarian Finance Minister Mihaly Varga confirmed his government's opposition to supporting Ukraine with the loan. Locked in a tug-of-war with Hungary, the ministers decided to take off their agenda on December 6 any decision about 7.5 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in EU funds earmarked for Hungary, according to EU officials. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service story, click here.
Gas Explosion Kills At Least Eight In Siberia
A gas explosion has killed at least eight people and destroyed five apartments in a five-floor residential building in the Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk in Siberia. Local officials said on December 6 that teams continue search-and-rescue operations after the explosion, which took place two days earlier. Ten other apartments were also at least partially damaged in the blast. Gas explosions occur with some frequency in Russia due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.
Man In Military Uniform Opens Fire At Police In Russia's Rostov Region
A man in military dress opened fire with a machine gun at a group of police officers on December 6, wounding one of them, in the southwestern Russian region of Rostov, which borders Ukraine. The region's governor, Vasily Golubev, said on Telegram that the wounded officer was being treated in a hospital in the town of Novoshakhtinsk, where the incident took place. Law enforcement is working on locating the perpetrator, whom media described as a possible deserter from the war in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Ukraine Says Embassies In Denmark, Romania Receive More 'Bloody Packages'
Ukrainian embassies in Denmark and Romania have received more "bloody packages," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an online interview on December 6 with the Ukrinform news agency. Last week, Ukrainian embassies and consulates in several European countries received "bloody packages" that contained animal eyes as Russia continues its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in late February. To read the original story by Ukrinform, click here.
Zelenskiy Makes Lightning Trip To Ukraine's Donbas As Battle Rages
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made a working trip to the Donetsk region and met with the Ukrainian troops close to hotly contested battle lines with Russia. The president's office said in a statement on its website that Zelenskiy made the December 6 visit to hand the soldiers state awards on Ukraine's Day of the Armed Forces. The statement said that Ukraine's east "today is the most difficult front." Russia has backed separatists in the region since 2014 and the region is the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine at the moment.
Russia Extradites Nephew Of Jailed Informal Leader Of Restive Tajik Region
DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have extradited a nephew of Tolib Ayombekov, the jailed informal leader of Tajikistan's volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Law enforcement sources in the Central Asian country told RFE/RL that Russian police arrested 33-year-old Qurbonjon Ayombekov on December 1 as he was trying to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, and extradited him to Dushanbe days later.
Relatives told RFE/RL that Qurbonjon Ayombekov, who has resided in Russia since autumn 2021, decided to flee Russia for Ukraine after his uncle Tolib was handed a life sentence in November along with several other prominent Gorno-Badakhshan figures on charges of murder, hooliganism, robbery, drug and weapon smuggling, inciting hatred, organizing mass disorder, and creating a criminal group.
Also last month, Tolib Ayombekov's brother, Inoyatsho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while 16 years were added to the prison term of another brother, Okil, who in 2013 was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Also in November, another of Tolib Ayombekov’s nephews, Mamadamon Ayombekov, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Earlier in August, Tolib Ayombekov's three sons were handed lengthy prison terms.
Details of the charges and sentences are not clear as all the trials were held behind closed doors.
The crackdown on informal leaders and activists in Gorno-Badakhshan has been under way since May, when police violently dispersed protesters in the restive region.
Demonstrators in Gorno-Badakhshan had demanded a thorough 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 and mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."
Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them during and after the rallies.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Darya Losik, Wife Of Jailed RFE/RL's Journalist, May Face Up To Seven Years In Prison
MINSK -- Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, may face up to seven years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity in Belarus.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said on December 6 that an investigation of the case against Darya Losik had been completed and sent to court, meaning that her trial is expected to start soon.
According to the statement, the charge against Darya Losik stems from an interview she gave to the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. During the interview, she "positioned herself as the wife of a 'political prisoner,'" the statement said.
"She expressed her personal negative assessment of state organs involved in criminal prosecution and justice. She also said her husband had not committed any crimes and had been illegally convicted. She called on relatives of other convicts to follow her example," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in the statement.
Darya Losik was detained in October after police searched her home.
The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded her immediate release and condemned her detainment.
Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on charges that remain unclear.
The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.
Losik and other defendants have insisted that the case against them is politically motivated.
Separatist Leader In Ukraine's Donetsk Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 60 Prisoners Each
The leader of the Kremlin-backed separatists in the occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 60 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 6 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
Iran Sentences Five To Death Over Killing Of Basij Paramilitary
Iran has sentenced to death five people over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests, the judiciary said on December 6. Another 11 people, including three children, were handed lengthy jail terms over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences could be appealed. Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking 40 days since her death.
EU, Western Balkans Nations Hold Summit In Tirana Amid Ukraine War
EU leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts worked to strengthen their partnership amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine as they met at a summit on December 6 in the Albanian capital, Tirana, where topics covered included migration, cybersecurity, and diplomatic ties.
In a written declaration released after the meeting, the EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks.
Brussels wanted to use the one-day gathering -- the first EU-Western Balkans summit to be held outside the European Union -- to tell leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to provide concrete signals, rather than just vague promises, that they will join that the 27-country bloc one day.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama jointly chaired the summit with European Council President Charles Michel, and thanked him and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and determination to ensure membership talks with the Western Balkans did not “die in agony."
Von der Leyen warned that Russia and China are trying to exert influence in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
"Will autocracies and the law of the strongest prevail? Or will democracy and the rule of law prevail?" von der Leyen said as she arrived at the summit. "This wrangling is also noticeable in the Western Balkans -- Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence," asking whether the Western Balkans are "on the side of democracy - that is the European Union, your friend and partner" or want to take a different path.
The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has reiterated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six countries is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security given Russia's war in Ukraine.
Tensions have also mounted in the Balkans since the start of the conflict and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders. Brussels is also wary of the battle to increase influence in the region by Moscow and Beijing.
"In the Western Balkans, several crises are looming, and partners feel the immediate damaging impact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said last month.
"The shock waves of this war are hitting the Western Balkans. To counter that, we are stepping up our engagement as the Western Balkans remain our geostrategic priority -- the closest and most important geostrategic priority."
The declaration adopted after the summit emphasizes the call for speeding up the accession process, while a separate paragraph is dedicated to the war in Ukraine.
In return for the EU's commitment to a "membership perspective" for the Western Balkans, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies, according to the declaration.
Five out of six Western Balkan countries back the EU's sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine, but Serbia is yet to endorse the punitive measures.
"On the issue of sanctions, we have a disagreement with Serbia," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after the meeting.
The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia, was uncertain until the day before the summit.
Vucic said after the summit that the talks were mostly devoted to energy but also covered Serbia's decision not to impose sanctions on Russia. Vucic said that it was "not natural" for Serbia to introduce sanctions against Russia.
He added that, after his initial hesitation about whether to attend, his decision to participate was a good one, and he had "the most open and honest conversation so far" with EU and Western Balkan officials. He said that Serbia did not agree with the declaration that was adopted at the close of the summit, but he personally had nothing against it.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Iran Arrests 12 With Alleged European Links: Report
Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested 12 alleged members of a European-linked group accused of planning acts of sabotage in the country, Tasnim news agency said. Iran has been rocked by more than two months of what it calls deadly "riots" that it says have been fomented by the United States, its allies, and foreign-based opposition groups. In a statement quoted by Tasnim, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Markazi Province, southwest of Tehran, said it had arrested "a network with 12 members with links abroad."
Prosecutors Seek Life Sentence For Former Russian Lawmaker Arashukov, Father
Prosecutors in Moscow are seeking a life sentence for a former member of the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, Rauf Arashukov and his father, Raul, both of whom a jury found guilty in September of organizing two murders.
The request was made on December 5 at the post-verdict sentencing stage of the trial at the Moscow City Court.
In late September, a jury found Rauf Arashukov guilty of organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.
The jury also found Arashukov's father, Raul Arashukov, guilty of ordering the two killings. Raul Arashukov was a lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.
Rauf Arashukov, 36, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house, after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.
The younger Arashukov was also charged with participating in a "criminal community" and witness tampering.
He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His membership in the regional branch of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party was suspended after his arrest.
His 62-year-old father was also arrested at the time along with several other people, including Rauf Arashukov's cousin.
Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the case against him and his father is politically motivated.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax
Father Of Jailed Belarusian Opposition Figure Kalesnikava Allowed Brief Visit
Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, the father of jailed Belarusian opposition activist Maryya Kalesnikava, has been allowed to see his daughter for 10 minutes after she spent several days in an intensive care unit following a surgery to save her life.
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram that Kalesnikau met his daughter under supervision of guards in the penitentiary's infirmary on December 5, where Kalesnikava was transferred over the weekend. She will remain in the infirmary for at least 10 days.
Babaryka quoted medical personnel as saying that Kalesnikava, who lost a significant amount of weight, had a ruptured ulcer.
Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a prison in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.
Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that have lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 years and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021 after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.
Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
Drone Strikes Airfield In Russia's Kursk Region, Governor Says
A drone has struck an airfield in the Russian region of Kursk bordering Ukraine, setting fire to an oil storage tank, the regional governor said on December 6. "There were no casualties. The fire is localized. All emergency services are working at the site," Governor Roman Starovoyt said on the Telegram messaging app. Starovoyt did not say who was responsible for the incident. Russia previously accused Ukraine of carrying out drone strikes inside Russian territory, including on December 6. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Russia Deploys Defense Missile System On Kurile Island Near Japan
Russia's Defense Ministry says it has deployed mobile coastal-defense missile systems on a northern Kurile island, part of a strategically located chain of islands that stretch between Japan and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula. Japan lays claim to the Russian-held southern Kurile Islands, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, a territorial row that dates to the end of World War II, when Soviet troops seized them from Japan. The Russian Bastion systems, which have missiles with a flight range of up to 500 kilometers, were deployed on the island of Paramushir, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Latvia Cancels License Of Exiled Independent Russian TV Dozhd
Latvia's electronic media authority has revoked the broadcasting license of the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain), the authority's chief announced on December 6.
The decision, due to come into force on December 8, was made "in connection with the threat to national security and public order," National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) Chairman Ivars Abolins said.
The TV channel's management "does not understand and is not aware of the significance and seriousness of the violations, and therefore cannot operate on the territory of Latvia," Abolins said.
Dozhd said in a statement that the move was "unfair and absurd."
"The TV channel will stop broadcasting on cable but will remain on YouTube. We continue to work and believe all accusations against us to be unfair and absurd," Dozhd said on Twitter.
The NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On December 2, Dozhd was fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."
The same day, Latvia's state security service said it had launched an investigation in connection with statements "which raise suspicions about the assistance provided by this TV channel to the soldiers of the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine."
Dozhd anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the station's audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes.
In making the request, he said, "We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."
The security service said in a news release, "No provision of support to the aggressor Russia is justifiable," adding that anyone helping the Russian forces was subject to criminal liability.
Other news organizations have also relocated operations to Riga.
Following the forced suspension of its operations in Russia in March, RFE/RL opened a news bureau in the Latvian capital, which is also currently hosting Novaya Gazeta Europe and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle's Moscow bureau.
The city has also hosted independent news website Meduza since 2014.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Bulgaria Denies Border Police Fired At Refugees Illegally Crossing From Turkey
Bulgaria has denied that its border police fired at refugees on the border with Turkey a day after the release of a video showing a man being shot at the border.
The denials are included in statements on December 6 from Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev, and the press center of the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry statement said there was no evidence that Syrian refugees were shot at the Bulgarian-Turkish border on October 3, when border patrols prevented an attempted border crossing by a group of about 65 people.
The ministry said the group retreated back to Turkish territory after spotting the border patrol but returned “displaying aggressive and hostile behavior which escalated into physical violence," resulting in the injury of a border police officer, who was hit by a stone, and damage to a police vehicle and the windows of a guard booth.
Noting that the incident was two months ago, Geshev said he hoped it would not be used “situationally to harm the people because Bulgaria does not deserve that.” Bulgaria is “a European country and we use European standards," Geshev said on December 6, adding that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has not established that a shooting against refugees took place, and saying this was similar to the conclusion of the Interior Ministry.
The video, which was released on December 5, showed an asylum seeker collapsing to the ground after being struck by a bullet that penetrates his hand and lodges in his chest. In a separate video recorded days later, the man identified himself as 19-year-old Abdullah el-Rustum of Syria. He said he was shot by Bulgarian border guards after his group was caught illegally entering Bulgaria and pushed back to Turkey.
The videos were part of a joint investigation by several European media outlets, including RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Demerdzhiev confirmed at a briefing on December 5 that there was no evidence that shots were fired by officers of the Interior Ministry. The acting minister described the journalistic investigation as biased.
"There is no evidence in this incident that a shot was fired by a Bulgarian border policeman or that active actions were taken that in any way violated the human rights of anyone," Demerdzhiev said.
His statement confirms the official position of the Interior Ministry on the incident, which had been sent to RFE/RL. According to the statement, the refugees showed "aggressive and hostile behavior, which escalated into physical violence -- throwing stones and burning objects at the Bulgarian police officers, their official car, and the security booth."
The ministry’s press center adds that it was not clear in the video from which direction the shot that wounded Rustum came. However, it emphasized that after the investigation it became clear that “no shots were fired from our side."
The European Commission on December 6 urged Bulgaria to thoroughly investigate the shooting. European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper told reporters that Brussels expects authorities in the EU member country to investigate any allegations and to follow up swiftly and effectively.
The Bulgarian government has said its border guards have encountered more aggression from people trying to illegally enter the country. Officials last month reported that a Bulgarian police officer was shot dead by an unidentified person at the border with Turkey and two police officers were killed in August when they were hit by a bus carrying migrants.
With reporting by AP
U.S. Not Encouraging Strikes In Russia, State Department Says After Another Russian Air Base Hit
Another Russian airfield was set ablaze by a drone strike on December 6, a day after Russia said two of its air bases, including one located hundreds of kilometers from Ukraine, had been hit by drones.
The U.S. State Department said there was no confirmation the strikes were carried out by Ukraine, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has "neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia."
He added that it is important to understand what Ukrainians are living through every day with the "ongoing Russian aggression," accusing Russia of "weaponizing winter" through attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, around 90 kilometers north of the Ukraine border, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield, where the governor said an oil storage tank had gone up in flames.
Ukraine did not directly claim responsibility for the strike or two on December 5 that targeted a Russian military air base about 600 kilometers east of Ukraine in the Saratov region and another at an airfield outside Ryazan southeast of Moscow.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the air base in Saratov is Russia's only base fully equipped for the long-range bombers Russia has used in its campaign to damage Ukraine's energy grid.
A senior Ukrainian official quoted on December 5 anonymously by The New York Times, said the drones were launched from Ukrainian territory and at least two planes were destroyed at one of the Russian bases and several more were damaged.
“All this complicates the operation against Ukraine,” Arestovych said. “Yesterday, thanks to their 'unsuccessful smoking,' we achieved a very big result," he said, poking fun at an earlier claim by Russia that explosions at one of its bases had been caused by carelessness with cigarettes.
Russia responded to the December 5 attacks with what it called a "massive strike on Ukraine's military control system," though it did not identify any specific military targets. The Russian missiles destroyed homes and knocked out power as part of the ongoing campaign against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on December 6 that strikes on Ukraine’s energy and transport infrastructure were militarily justified.
The strikes have hit “system of military command, armament plants, and objects connected to them in order to break Ukraine's military potential,” he said.
He claimed that Russian military operations were continuing successfully, and that Moscow's forces had taken a number of settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions while inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainian side.
Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Malyar said very heavy battles were taking place in the Donetsk region, "and the price is very high."
"For us, the epicenter of hostilities today is the Donetsk region, and the enemy has concentrated most of its forces there,” she said.
It was the sixth time in memory that Russian forces had tried to push to the borders of the Donetsk region and failed, she added.
"We must understand that when we liberate the temporarily occupied territories, it is a victory. When we stand firm and don't let the enemy in, it's also a victory," Malyar emphasized.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine earlier reported that Russian troops were concentrating their main efforts on conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian forces fought off a fresh round of Russian attacks in the east, Ukraine's General Staff said on December 6, as Russian troops continued their relentless offensive in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of Donetsk region, and tank and artillery bombardment hit some 20 settlements in the area, including Soledar, Verkhnokamyanske, Andriyivka, and Yakovlyivka.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited troops on the front line in the Donbas region, praised soldiers in a selfie video filmed near Bakhmut. He presented medals and shook hands with troops in a hangar.
The president's office said Zelenskiy made the December 6 visit to hand the soldiers state awards on Ukraine's Day of the Armed Forces.
"Today is the day of our gratitude. This is exactly the meaning of December 6 -- and it is forever," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. Ukrainians celebrate the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine "with words of gratitude, feelings of gratitude, tears of gratitude," he said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa
Romania Starts Sending Natural Gas To Moldova Through Pipeline
Romania has started transporting natural gas to Moldova, which is struggling to meet energy demand amid Russia's war against Ukraine. Gas began arriving on December 3 through a pipeline connecting Iasi in eastern Romania with the Moldovan border town of Ungheni, state news agency Agerpres reported, citing Romanian gas distributor Transgaz. The 43-kilometer pipeline, unveiled in 2014 to reduce dependence on supplies from Russia, has not been used until now. Moldova connected it in 2019 to supply Chisinau, and the compressor stations were commissioned in 2021. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
Montenegro Reaffirms Its Support For Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic Path
The prime minister of Montenegro and president of Ukraine have signed a joint declaration on Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic perspective. Dritan Abazovic and Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed the declaration on December 5 in an online meeting. Montenegro is the third country in Europe after Belgium and the Czech Republic to sign the declaration. It reaffirms Montenegro's support for Ukraine's efforts to become a full-fledged part of the Euro-Atlantic society, the government of Montenegro said. Zelenskiy thanked all Montenegrins for their support and for accepting Ukrainian refugees. Abazovic said that Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereignty and a chance to live in democracy. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
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