U.S. Afghan Review Expected As Early As Next Week
"Our aim is to finish the review by the end of next week, if possible, or early the following week," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The administration aims to have the main outlines of the strategy for U.S. allies before a March 31 international conference on Afghanistan and a NATO summit in early April.
President Barack Obama launched the review soon after he entered office in January.
The official said the review will seek a return to the "first principles" of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, seven years after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
For Pakistan, the administration is preparing what the official described as "quite a comprehensive approach" to shoring up the country's security, economics, and politics.
The review will set out concrete goals over the next three to five years, the official said.
Russian Strike Hits Kharkiv As Ukraine Says Still Holding Last Part Of Luhansk Region
Two Russian missiles hit the center of Kharkiv in Ukraine's northeast, with one of the missiles striking a residential building, local officials said on February 5.
"A residential building in the city center was hit. A fire broke out. So far, three victims are known: a 54-year-old woman and two men aged 51 and 55," said Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional military administration.
He said the woman was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds.
Meanwhile, Serhiy Hayday, the governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said Ukrainian forces remained in control of the village of Bilohorivka, adding that the situation there on February 5 was tense, but under control.
"Information is being spread in the Russian Federation about the alleged capture of Bilohorivka and the removal of our people from there," Hayday told the national broadcaster.
Some Moscow-installed officials and pro-Russian military bloggers have recently claimed Russian advances in the direction of Bilohorivka, the last part of Luhansk held by Ukrainian forces.
"The Russian Federation is concentrating its efforts on conducting offensive actions in the Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka and Novopavlivka directions," Ukraine's military General Staff said in its February 5 report.
In Russia, the head of the private Wagner militia said on February 5 that fierce fighting was continuing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces' attention for weeks.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner Group, said his soldiers were "fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell" against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.
Russian forces have been attempting to encircle and capture Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donbas region, for weeks, and appear to be making slow, grinding, and costly progress.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz again rejected concerns that Berlin's recent decision to supply Ukraine with its Leopard tanks could make Germany an active party to the conflict with Russia.
"We have carefully weighed every arms shipment [to Ukraine], coordinated them closely with our allies, first and foremost with the United States," Scholz told Germany's Bild am Sonntag, in comments seen by dpa ahead of publication on February 5.
"This joint approach prevents an escalation of the war," said the German chancellor, who has faced much criticism over his initial reluctance to send the Leopards.
Scholtz also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin in his telephone conversations "has not made any threats against me or Germany."
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week said Putin had threatened him with a missile strike that would "only take a minute." The Kremlin said Johnson was lying.
Scholz said the conversations he had with Putin made it clear they had very different views of the war in Ukraine. "I make it very clear to Putin that Russia has sole responsibility for the war," Scholz said.
Meanwhile, a former Israeli prime minister who served briefly as a mediator at the start of Russia's war with Ukraine has said he drew a promise from the Russian president not to kill his Ukrainian counterpart.
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became an unlikely intermediary in the war's first weeks, becoming one of the few Western leaders to meet with Putin during the war in a snap trip to Moscow in March 2022.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa
Opposition Figure Musavi Calls For 'Free' Referendum In Iran, Drafting Of New Constitution
Iranian opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi has called for a "free" referendum in Iran and the drafting of a new constitution. Musavi who has been under house arrest since 2011, made the call in a statement released on February 4 in which he said Iranians want fundamental change based on the slogan "Woman, life, freedom," which many have been chanting during recent antiestablishment protests. Musavi said the the three words are "the seeds of a bright future free of oppression, poverty, humiliation, and discrimination." Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi were put under house arrest in February 2011 for challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the disputed 2009 presidential vote and criticizing human rights abuses. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Venezuela's Maduro, Iranian Diplomat Discuss Defense Against 'External Pressures'
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the visiting Iranian foreign minister have discussed the need for "vigilance in defending their national interests against external pressures," according to a statement released on February 4. The Caracas visit by Foreign Minister Ossein Amir-Abdollahian underlined the strength of an alliance between two countries seen as outcasts by much of the international community, both of them subject to U.S. sanctions. Maduro received Abdollahian on the evening of February 3 in the Miraflores presidential palace after the Iranian minister arrived from Managua, Nicaragua. "I am sure that our relations will continue to strengthen for technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural exchanges that benefit both peoples," Maduro wrote on Twitter, calling the meeting "productive."
At Least Two Civilians Wounded In Bomb Blast In Kabul
At least two civilians were wounded in a bomb blast in Kabul city on February 4, police said. Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran said that the blast was caused by a magnetic bomb that was attached to a private vehicle. An investigative team was inspecting the scene of the explosion, police added. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack that comes after several weeks of calm. When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the Islamic State group intensified its attacks in Afghanistan, mainly targeting religious minorities, members of the Taliban, and areas where foreign diplomats live.
WHO Report On Ukraine Health Emergency Sparks U.S.-Russia Dispute
The United States and Russia faced off on February 4 over a World Health Organization (WHO) report on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with Moscow saying it was politically motivated and Washington calling for it to be swiftly updated. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus's report was presented to the organization's executive board, on which both Russia and the United States sit. It covered events in the first nine months of 2022 and classed the situation in Ukraine, which Russia invaded on February 24, as one of eight acute global health emergencies. The report documented more than 14,000 civilian casualties, with 17.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees displaced across Europe. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Weighs Sanctions For Chinese Companies Over Iran Surveillance Buildup
The United States is considering new sanctions on Chinese surveillance companies over sales to Iran's security forces, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 4, citing people familiar with the matter. U.S. authorities are in advanced discussions on the sanctions and have zeroed in on Tiandy Technologies Co, an electrical equipment manufacturer based in the Chinese city of Tianjin whose products have been sold to units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the report added. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Three Bulgarians Detained At Border With North Macedonia
North Macedonia's Interior Ministry has said that three Bulgarian citizens were detained on February 4 at the Deve Bair border crossing with Bulgaria for disturbing public order.
A group of Bulgarian citizens were waiting to enter North Macedonia on February 4 to pay their respects at the tomb of revolutionary Goce Delchev on the occasion of the 151st anniversary of his birth.
Delchev is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero in the fight for the liberation from the Ottoman Empire.
The ministry announced on February 4 that the three were detained for disturbing public order and peace.
The three Bulgarians, identified only as G.Z. (35), A.H. (50), and R.H. (54), "first behaved verbally impudently and inappropriately using most derogatory words and then tried to physically attack the police officers who took legal action, detaining the three while work is being done to completely clear up the case," the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry said that all border crossings between the two Balkan neighbors were forced to close for several hours because of a fault in the border-control system. Border traffic resumed after the fault was fixed, it said.
Earlier this week, the interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during Delchev's upcoming celebration.
Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the Fberuary 4 celebration in Skopje.
The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev’s birth caused further concern.
A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.
Bilateral tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating in Ohrid of Hristijan Pendikov, a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.
Following the incident, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje.
Demerdziev said on January 30 that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in the Republic of North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.
Relations between the two neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.
Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.
Pakistan Blocks Wikipedia Over 'Blasphemous Content'
Wikipedia was blocked in Pakistan on February 4 after authorities censored the website for hosting "blasphemous content" in the latest blow to digital rights in the deeply conservative country. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and social-media giants Facebook and YouTube have previously been banned for publishing content deemed sacrilegious. Pakistan had earlier in the week given Wikipedia a 48 hour ultimatum to remove material, without publicly specifying its exact objections.
Ukraine, Russia Exchange Prisoners; Kyiv Recovers Bodies Of Foreign Humanitarian Volunteers
Russia and Ukraine on February 4 announced an exchange of prisoners that led to the release of 63 Russians and 116 Ukrainians and the return of the bodies of two foreign volunteers who were involved in humanitarian work in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the return of its 63 Russian soldiers in a statement on its Telegram channel. The statement said that among those released were persons belonging to a "sensitive category," without elaborating.
It added that the exchange was facilitated "thanks to the mediation of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates."
Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, reported that 116 prisoners had returned home.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential office, wrote on Telegram that among them were "defenders of Mariupol, Kherson partisans, snipers from the Bakhmut area."
In addition, Yermak wrote, the bodies of two dead foreign volunteers -- Briton Christopher Matthew Parry and New Zealander Andrew Tobias Matthew Bagshaw -- as well as the body of deceased Ukrainian volunteer Yevhen Kulik, who served in the French Foreign Legion, were returned to Ukraine.
Parry and Bagshaw, two volunteers who were helping with the evacuation of civilians and delivering humanitarian aid, were reported missing on January 7 in Donetsk.
They had last been seen the previous day on their way from Kramatorsk to Soledar, where heavy fighting had been under way between Ukrainian defenders and Russian forces.
Soon after, the family of one of the two volunteers said that the men were killed during an attempt to carry out a humanitarian evacuation.
Yermak also published a short video purporting to show released Ukrainian prisoners traveling by bus and two photos of men holding Ukrainian flags in front of a bus.
U.S. Attorney General Allows First Transfer Of Russian Oligarch's Confiscated Assets To Ukraine
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on February 3 that the frozen assets of a Russian oligarch will be transferred to Ukraine. "Today I am announcing that I have authorized the first-ever transfer of confiscated Russian assets for use in Ukraine," he said. The assets were seized after the indictment of oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev on sanctions-evasion charges. Garland said the assets will be transferred to the State Department to be spent "in support of the people of Ukraine." Garland made the announcement during a meeting with Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Serbian Parliament Adopts Government Report On Negotiations With Kosovo
The Serbian parliament on February 3 adopted the government's report on negotiations with Kosovo. The vote was 154-23 while nine members did not vote. The parliament discussed the report during a two-day session that began after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic received the European Union's proposal for normalizing relations with Kosovo. The proposal, which has not been fully released, has the backing of the United States and the European Union. Vucic discussed some of the provisions of the proposal on February 2 and warned that Serbia could become isolated if it rejects the proposal. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
U.S. Warned Turkey On Exports Seen To Boost Russia's War Effort, Official Says
The United States has warned Turkey in recent days about the export to Russia of chemicals, microchips, and other products that can be used in Moscow's war effort in Ukraine, and it could move to enforce existing bans, according to a senior U.S. official. Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department's top sanctions official, visited Turkish government and private-sector officials on February 2-3 to urge more cooperation in disrupting the flow of such goods, the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iran Slams IAEA Chief After Centrifuge Report; U.S., Allies Criticize Tehran's Response
Iran slammed UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised concerns over covert changes to equipment at its Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, state media said on February 4. The IAEA said in a confidential report seen by AFP on February 1 that Iran had substantially modified an interconnection between two centrifuge clusters enriching uranium to up to 60 percent at thhe Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), without giving prior notice. "We gave a letter to the agency that an inspector...made a mistake and gave an incorrect report," Iranian nuclear chief Mohamad Eslami was quoted as saying by IRNA. The United States issued a joint statement with France, the United Kingdom, and Germany on February 3 criticizing Iran's "inadequate" response to the report on its nuclear program.
Zelenskiy Says Situation In Eastern Ukraine Getting More Difficult As Odesa Battles To Restore Power
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on February 4 that Russia was throwing more and more forces into battle and that the situation on the front lines in the eastern parts of the country was getting more severe.
"The occupier is throwing more and more of his forces into breaking down our defenses," Zelenskiy said in his nighty video address, adding that the situation was "very difficult" in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Lyman, and other areas.
His warning came as Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said that power had been restored to critical infrastructure in the southern port city of Odesa following an accident at a substation.
"Power to all critical infrastructure has been restored. The city will therefore have water and heat," Halushchenko said on Facebook.
"About one-third of the city's consumers now have lighting," he said, without offering more details.
Earlier, regional Governor Maksym Marchenko said a "serious" accident at a high-voltage substation had left a half-million households without power in Odesa, confirming earlier reports about an accident at a facility that was previously targeted in Russian strikes.
"A serious accident occurred at one of the energy facilities, which caused a fire," he said, adding that emergency measures were being taken.
Earlier, an air-raid alert for the whole of Ukraine was canceled without any reports of Russian shelling as Ukrainian defenders faced renewed attacks by Moscow's troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours.
The alert, which lasted for about two hours in the morning, was the third in two days. No massive Russian strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets were reported on February 3 either.
Amid warnings that a massive Russian offensive is in the making as Moscow's unprovoked invasion nears the one-year mark, the military said fighting had intensified in the Donbas.
"The enemy continues offensive operations in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk], suffering heavy losses," Ukraine's General Staff said in its report.
Battles have been raging for months for the city of Bakhmut, where waves of Russian attackers are piling increasing pressure on the Ukrainian forces.
Witnesses have told RFE/RL that street fighting is under way in Bakhmut, with building-by-building combat on the outskirts of the city.
Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to Bakhmut. "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.
Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States had advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.
The General Staff said on February 4 that the Ukrainian military also repelled Russian attacks in the Grekivka, Nevske, Kreminna, and Dibrova settlements in the Luhansk region.
Russian forces carried out 20 air strikes and three missile strikes, the military said, targeting civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv and Mykolayiv regions, causing civilian casualties.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces "have a chance" of beating back a looming Russian offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.
"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.
Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability.
On February 4, Zelenskiy said he discussed the "further expansion of capabilities" of Ukraine's military in a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Zelenskiy said he also thanked Sunak for the start of training of Ukrainian crews on Challenger 2 tanks.
"The prime minister said he was focused on ensuring the U.K.'s defensive military equipment reached the front line as quickly as possible," Sunak's office said in a readout of the call.
"Both leaders agreed that it was vital that international partners accelerated their assistance to Ukraine to help seize the opportunity to push Russian forces back," it added.
The United States on February 3 announced a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that will include rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has.
The Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in the package announced by the Pentagon.
GLSDBs have a range roughly double that of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied.
Kyiv is requesting more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new Russian onslaught in the east.
Meanwhile, Portugal will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on February 4, without specifying how many will be shipped.
Costa added that Portugal is in talks with Germany to obtain parts needed for the repair of a number of inoperable Leopard tanks in Portugal's inventory.
"I know how many tanks will be (sent to Ukraine) but that will be announced at the appropriate time," Costa told the Lusa news agency during a trip to the Central African Republic.
The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.
With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP
EU Agrees On Price Caps On Russian Refined Oil Products
European Union countries agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow's funds for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU said on February 3. EU diplomats said the price caps are $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, principally diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount, such as fuel oil. Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. The price caps follow a $60 per barrel cap on Russian crude that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations imposed on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
New U.S. Aid Package For Ukraine Includes Rockets With Longer Striking Range
A new package of U.S. military aid for Ukraine announced on February 3 includes rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Kyiv now has. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in a $2.2 billion U.S. military aid package announced by the Pentagon. GLSDBs has a range roughly double that of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied. As part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the United States “will be providing a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine," Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
U.S. Targets Executives Of Iranian Drone Maker In Latest Sanctions Designation
The United States has imposed new sanctions on a previously designated Iranian drone maker, Paravar Pars, this time targeting the board of directors.
The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 3 that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had designated eight senior executives of Paravar Pars.
The drone maker was previously blacklisted by OFAC for making Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Treasury Department said in a news release.
"Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran's IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia's combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program,” added Nelson, who is the U.S. Treasury's top sanctions official, in the statement.
Among the eight individuals blacklisted are Paravar Pars’ managing director and CEO, Hossein Shamsabadi, and the company’s chairman, Ali Reza Tangsiri, who is also the commander of the IRGC Navy. Tangsiri, who the Treasury Department said has overseen the testing of UAVs and cruise missiles, was previously designated for U.S. sanctions in 2019.
The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdictions by the eight individuals. People in the United States who engage in transactions with the individuals designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.
The department earlier his week put new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones that the Treasury Department said Russia has used to attack Ukraine.
In response, Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York said sanctions have no effect on Iran's drone production capacity because its drones are all produced domestically.
“This is a strong indication that the drones shot down in Ukraine and using parts made by Western countries don't belong to Iran," it said, according to Reuters.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and more than 30 other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by restricting its access to defense needs.
With reporting by Reuters
Iranian Film Director Panahi 'Temporarily ' Released From Prison, Wife Says
Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been temporarily released from prison days after going on a hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
"Today, on the third day of Jafar Panahi's hunger strike; Mr. Panahi was temporarily released from Evin prison with the efforts of his family, respected lawyers, and representatives of the cinema," a statement on Panahi's wife's Instagram page said on February 3.
The post added that further details would follow from Panahi's legal team.
She gave no further details, but a photo of the couple in a car was attached to the post.
The U.S.-based US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) also said on Twitter that Panahi had been released.
Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.
Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.
Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.
Several high-profile actresses have taken pictures without a head scarf in defiant support of the protesters, whose demonstrations pose one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.
Panahi was awarded the Special Jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September for his latest film, released while he was in prison, No Bears.
The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for his film Three Faces in 2018.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups.
Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Ukraine's Security Service Exposes 'Large-Scale' Embezzlement Scheme
Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it has uncovered a large-scale embezzlement scheme to siphon off public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military as it battles to repel Moscow's nearly yearlong invasion.
The SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram on February 3 that as a result of the fraud, the Defense Ministry incurred losses of more than 119.5 million hryvnyas ($3.24 million).
The findings are part of a scandal that broke on January 22 when allegations surfaced in local media that the ministry was overpaying suppliers for food for troops. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had actually changed hands. The ministry said the accusations were baseless.
Eradicating endemic corruption is one of the chief requirements presented by the European Union to Kyiv as Ukraine is pressing Brussels to speed up its accession into the 27-member bloc even as it is fighting Russian troops that invaded on February 24 last year.
On the eve of a meeting between EU leaders and Ukrainian officials on February 3, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged "new steps" to continue "our fight against the internal enemy," a reference to the battle against graft. He did not give any details.
The SBU said in its statement explaining the scheme that officials from one ministry department made agreements with the heads of two commercial enterprises regarding the wholesale supply of food to locations where the military is deployed.
Funds from the ministry's budget were then transferred to the accounts of firms that "lacked a production base and technological equipment" to provide the relevant services.
"Instead of supplying the armed forces with the agreed quantities of food products, the participants in the fraudulent mechanism diverted the funds through a number of affiliated shadow companies," the statement said.
The SBU added that, based on evidence found, two heads of companies involved in the fraudulent scheme were notified of being suspected of "[illegal] appropriation, waste of property, or possession of [such property] through abuse of an official position."
It noted that SBU agents are still conducting an investigation to establish the involvement of Defense Ministry officials in any illegal activities.
"In addition, SBU officers exposed the commander of a military unit in the Kyiv region who embezzled almost 2.4 million hryvnyas ($68,000) allocated for military personnel's food," the statement said, adding that the commander had as accomplices four of his subordinates and businessmen who concealed the "kickbacks" through falsified documentation.
No names were given in the statement, which comes after a number of senior Ukrainian officials resigned or were fired beginning on January 24 as Zelenskiy vowed to eradicate corruption from his administration amid a high-profile graft scandal.
Ukraine Unveils Criminal Case Against Russia's Wagner Boss
Ukraine has unveiled a criminal case against the boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary company and promised to track down and prosecute the company's fighters who try to flee abroad. Wagner, run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited thousands of fighters, including convicts from Russian prisons, to wage war in Ukraine. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has served a notice of suspicion to the head of the private military company Wagner," Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said in a statement on Facebook that did not identify Prigozhin by name. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranian Protesters Burn Government Propaganda Banners
Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a continued show of defiance amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms with chants from windows and rooftops of "Death to the dictator," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Similar scenes were repeated in other neighborhoods of Tehran, as well as in other areas of the country.
Several videos published on social networks showed people setting fire to the government's propaganda banners for the 44th anniversary of the revolution that brought Iran's clerical rulers to power. The anniversary falls on February 11.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.
The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Germany Confirms Approval Of Leopard 1 Tank Deliveries To Ukraine
Germany has approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine from industry stocks, a government spokesperson said on February 3 at a regular news conference in Berlin. The spokesperson declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported. The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week, but could be delivered sooner. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Emaciated Iranian Activist Meysami Vows To Continue Hunger Strike
Farhad Meysami has vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities stop executing protesters, release six political prisoners, and stop their harassment of women over the compulsory hijab rule despite photos on social media showing him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his state of health.
"I still stand by my three demands," Meysami, a doctor, said in a letter published on February 2 along with the photos that show him looking frail and sickly.
Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and bodies in public.
He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.
Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi has warned that Meysami’s condition is worsening and that his life is in danger.
Last month, Moghimi said Meysami's weight had dropped to 52 kilograms and that he had been beaten by guards due to his resistance to being transferred to the criminal-prisoners ward.
Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, have supported Meysami and demanded his release.
On Twitter on February 3, Pahlavi said that the thin body of Meysami, "is another symbol of the boundless cruelty of the Islamic regime."
Prominent Iranian oppositionist Hamed Esmaeilion said he holds the government responsible for Meysami's condition.
Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration and in most, his demands are related to social conditions in Iran and other activists and prisoners.
In May, Meysami went on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Brussels university professor with dual Iranian-Swedish citizenship. He ended the hunger strike after 145 days.
He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.
The news comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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