U.S. Marines, Afghan Forces Launch Major Offensive In Helmand
With thousands of Marines and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers involved, the operation is seen as a key challenge in turning around the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and improving security for the August 20 presidential election.
It is being described as the largest offensive conducted by the U.S. Marines since Vietnam.
Hundreds of military vehicles rolled into Helmand along with some 4,000 marines and 650 Afghan police and soldiers to launch operation "Khanjar," or Dagger, shortly after midnight.
Their mission is to turn around the situation in Helmand, where security has not been established despite the presence of more than 8,000 British troops. Helmand accounts for a lion's share of the world's opium supply and large swaths of the province are controlled by the Taliban.
Julian Lindley-French, a professor of military operational science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands who closely follows the developments in Helmand, tells RFE/RL that past efforts to secure the province failed "because there simply wasn't the mass of military boots on the ground to make the security effort over the space -- it is a big space in the south of Afghanistan -- credible."
"Now there is -- with these additional American forces -- a genuine credible force that has a credible chance of making that space more stable for the all vital stabilization and reconstruction work," Lindley-French says, before praising the approach of the commander of U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
"General [Stanley] McChrystal, absolutely rightly, has said that the people are the critical ground -- they are the key to the success of the entire coalition strategy," Lindley-French says. "Now there is a genuine chance that progress can be made given the reinforcements that have been deployed particularly to Helmand."
The operation in Helmand is the first major Marine operation in Afghanistan since their recent deployment as part of the United States' 21,000-strong troop increase.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the opening of the offensive isn't entirely military. He said the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, are simultaneously playing a complementary role.
Once the Marines clear an area in Helmand, Kelly said, civilian assistance groups will move in, working with the Marines to help hold the territory and start building. For now, they'll be under the supervision of three civilian officials, but he added that their number will soon grow.
"These added civilians are part of the larger increase of more than 450 civilians that the State [Department] and other civilian agencies are sending to Afghanistan to work alongside our military personnel," Kelly said. "Their deployments have been and will continue to be closely coordinated by [the U.S.] Embassy [in] Kabul and U.S. forces [in] Afghanistan."
The Taliban guerrilla campaign is at its height in Helmand -- with suicide bombings, hit-and-run tactics, and deadly improvised bomb attacks -- and is believed to be financed in large part by the lucrative illegal drug trade in the region.
U.S. military commanders are taking a new approach with this offensive, the thrust of which is focused on Taliban strongholds in Nawa and Garmsir.
"What makes Operation Khanjar different from those that have occurred before is the massive size of the force introduced, the speed at which it will insert, and the fact that where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," says Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in Helmand.
Hemand Province Governor Gulab Mangal anticipates an effective operation, and tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Afghan security forces will build bases to provide security for locals.
He predicts that "when the operations are over, and after the Taliban and other armed opponents have been cleared out, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police units will be based there, and they will be supported by the ISAF troops so that we can secure them forever."
"This [security presence] is very important," Mangal adds. "The second important thing is that we have planned very significant reconstruction programs for these same regions."
The Royal Military Academy's Lindley-French suggests that the operation is also linked to the anti-Taliban offensive in Pakistan, where the Pakistani army is engaged in expanded operations against the Taliban is Pashtun regions bordering Afghanistan.
"The offensive is primarily designed to keep the pressure on the Taliban on both sides of the 'Af-Pak' border," Lindley-French says, noting that Pakistani forces are increasingly active beyond the Swat Valley and into Waziristan.
"The essential objective is to disrupt their lines of communication, prevent them from infiltrating with such alacrity through the south -- in a sense so that the original objectives of clear build and hold can be further developed," Lindley-French says. "This is start of a critical period -- pre-election, postelection in Afghanistan -- so the operation has to be seen within that broader political-strategic, regional-strategic context."
The Pakistani military announced on July 2 that it has deployed troops along a stretch of the Afghan border to stop Taliban militants fleeing the U.S. offensive in Helmand.
On the ground in Helmand, U.S. Marine Captain Zachary Martins is quoted by the Pentagon TV channel as saying by the Marines are taking the fight to the Taliban.
"As marines, we are going to go there and we are going to go to the far reaches where the Taliban isn't looking for us, where they are not expecting a fight, where they are not sitting in prepared defensive positions, and that's going to keep them off balance," Martins says.
Draft Law On Foreign Agents Passes Republika Srpska's Legislature
The National Assembly of Republika Srpska has adopted a controversial draft law that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb entity to register and report on their work.
The so-called foreign agents law, formally known as the Special Register and Publicity of the Work of Nonprofit Organizations law, passed on September 28.
Whether the draft law will receive final approval and be implemented remains uncertain. It must still go through additional procedural steps before taking effect.
The law would require mandatory additional registration requirements and the submission of detailed financial reports. It also would prohibit NGOs receiving foreign funding to take part in political activities and would give the justice minister the authority to propose a ban on noncompliant organizations.
The draft law has been sharply criticized by U.S. and EU officials, who have called it repressive and anti-democratic.
In presenting the law to the National Assembly, Justice Minister Milos Bukejlovic said he would monitor the activities of organizations receiving foreign funding "across the territory of the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
The draft law was approved by Republika Srpska's executive in March, and Bukejlovic said then the goal was "to prevent the misuse of nonprofit organizations."
The law was proposed last year by Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian president of the Republic of Srpska and leader of the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party. At that time Dodik claimed that the law's framework “would be inspired by the American model,” a reference to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
A similar foreign agents law in Russia has proved controversial and has been used to disrupt the work of media organizations, including RFE/RL. Russia also claimed its law was in response to the FARA.
U.S. officials have argued that Russia uses its foreign agents law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas and have said there is there "no equivalence" between FARA and Russia’s foreign agents law.
Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska say the law has more in common with the Russian law than with FARA.
In addition to U.S. and EU criticism, the proposed legislation has drawn negative assessments from various organizations, including NGOs and domestic and international entities.
Transparency International of Bosnia said it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms, the constitutions of both the state and Bosnia's entities, as well as existing laws within Republika Srpska.
Swiss Accuse Daughter Of Ex-Uzbek President Of Running Criminal Organization
Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office." Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecom companies. Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Britain's Shapps Meets Zelenskiy On First Visit To Kyiv As Defense Minister
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps discussed how to bolster Ukraine's air defenses during talks in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president's office said on September 28. The visit to the Ukrainian capital was Shapps's first to wartime Kyiv since he became defense secretary last month. Britain has been a staunch ally of Ukraine throughout the full-scale invasion launched by Russia in February 2022. "On behalf of the whole nation, I thank you for everything you are doing for us. We are grateful for your help -- military, financial, humanitarian," a statement released by Zelenskiy's office quoted the president as saying. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
One Killed, More Than 160 Injured In Blast At Warehouse Close To Tashkent Airport
TASHKENT -- A powerful explosion struck a warehouse near the main airport in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, overnight, killing a 16-year-old youth, injuring at least 160, and causing extensive damage.
At least 24 people are in critical condition in intensive-care units at local hospitals.
The powerful blast, which occurred around 3 a.m. in the Sergeli district of the Uzbek capital, sent shock waves throughout the city and was followed by a massive fire.
The Emergency Situations Ministry of Uzbekistan said the explosion was followed by a fire.
“Sixteen fire crews and three ladder trucks were sent to the scene of the explosion. They arrived at 2:48 a.m. and began extinguishing the fire and eliminating the consequences,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry said that some 1,000 troops were involved in dealing with the consequences of the incident.
Authorities have opened an investigation into the cause of the blast that hit the warehouse belonging to the Inter Logistics company.
A government commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Achilbay Ramatov was created to deal with the situation, authorities announced.
With a population of nearly 35 million, Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asian former Soviet republics.
The explosion reportedly broke windows of nearby apartment blocks, shops, and other buildings.
Local media reports said a person born in 2006 died after being crushed by a window frame during the blast.
Video footage posted on social media showed a column of flames and smoke rising into the sky.
Uzbek national news agency UzA said that despite the blast, the Islam Karimov International Airport, Uzbekistan's largest, is functioning normally.
Fires triggered by outdated equipment and noncompliance with safety standards are a regular occurrence in Uzbekistan.
The acting mayor of Tashkent, Shavkat Umurzakov, promised that the city would compensate those whose houses incurred damage as a result of the explosion within two to three days.
With reporting by AFP
NATO Chief Says Ukraine 'Gradually Gaining Ground' As Kyiv Repels Massive Russian Drone Barrage
Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a previously unannounced visit to Kyiv on September 28, hours after the Ukrainian military said it had repelled a massive wave of Russian drone attacks on southern Ukraine.
"(Ukrainian troops) face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground, Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.
The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine's ties with the 30-member alliance had never been so close. "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before," he said.
"We are doing everything to bring this time closer," Zelensky said.
At a crucial summit in July, NATO leaders said in a statement that Ukraine's future is inside the alliance, but the bloc will extend an invitation to Kyiv only when "members agree and conditions are met."
The Ukrainian president also called on the alliance to beef up Kyiv's air-defense systems ahead of expected Russian strikes on Ukraine's energy facilities as the cold season approaches.
"The Secretary-General agreed to undertake efforts to help and to support us in this matter, to mobilize the member states of the alliance," Zelensky said, adding, "We need to get through this winter together, to protect our energy infrastructure and people's lives."
Zelenskiy's appeal came just hours after Ukraine's air defense said it had destroyed 34 out of the 44 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched by Russia early on September 28.
"Fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missile units and mobile fire groups were involved in repelling the attack," the air defense said in a message, adding that six Russian reconnaissance drones had also been downed overnight.
Earlier on September 28, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said Russia launched a wave of drone attacks along the entire southern Ukraine.
"Several groups of strike UAVs were launched.... Air defense worked along almost the entire southern direction in the Odesa, Mykolayiv regions. Also, much higher north -- the enemy aimed its attacks at central Ukraine," Humenyuk said.
WATCH: Amid their grinding counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops are training on donated German mobile-bridge equipment that could help them cross rivers and defensive Russian anti-tank ditches.
Russia "does not stop the pressure and searching for new tactics, namely with the use of mass attacks," Humenyuk said on Telegram.
The latest attack came after the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson came under Russian shelling late on September 27.
Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the regional military administration, announced around 10 p.m. local time that Kherson was under massive shelling. Russia has regularly shelled the Ukrainian-controlled part of Kherson since Moscow withdrew from the regional capital last year.
Russian drone attacks and shelling on September 26 briefly disrupted the rail link between Kherson and the city of Mykolayiv, which was also under air alert on September 27.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces fought 26 close-quarters battles over the past 24 hours, repelling several waves of Russian attacks against their positions in the eastern region of Donetsk, mainly in the Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Mariynka areas, while consolidating their hold on the village of Robotyne in the south in the face of Russian attempts to retake it, the General Staff of Ukraine's military said in it daily report on September 28.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
Pashinian Accuses Baku Of Ethnic Cleansing As Exodus From Karabakh Continues
Thousands more people poured into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh on September 28, prompting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to accuse Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warn that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region following a lightning military offensive that gave Baku total control over the ethnic-Armenian populated territory.
Pashinian's spokeswoman, Nazeli Baghdasarian, said that a total of 70,500 people had entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh as of 2 p.m. local time on September 28, amounting to more than half of the region's estimated 120,000 inhabitants.
"This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing that we warned the international community about," Pashinian told a government meeting on September 28, calling for concrete action by the international community.
"Statements condemning ethnic cleansing by various international players are important, but if they are not followed by concrete actions, these statements will be seen as creating moral statistics for history, so that in future different countries will have the opportunity to formally dissociate themselves from this crime, saying we have condemned it," said Pashinian.
Pashinian added that if the trend continued, no ethnic Armenians will be left in Karabakh in the coming days.
Baku has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and said it wants to "reintegrate" the enclave's ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We call on Armenian residents not to leave their homes and become part of Azerbaijan's multi-ethnic society," the ministry said in a statement.
Russia, which used to be Armenia's main military backer but has been criticized by Yerevan for its peacekeepers' failure to prevent the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, said fleeing Armenians had nothing to fear.
"It's difficult to say who is to blame [for the exodus]. There is no direct reason for such actions," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an apparent rejection of Armenia's claims of ethnic cleansing.
"People are nevertheless expressing a desire to leave.... Those who made such a decision should be provided with normal living conditions," Peskov added.
As the exodus continued, sparking more fears of a major humanitarian crisis, the de facto leader of Nagorno-Karabakh said the self-styled separatist entity will cease to exist as of January 1.
Samvel Shahramanian said the move was prompted by the situation created after Azerbaijan's taking complete control of the region. His decree mentioned a cease-fire agreement reached last week to end the fighting under which Baku pledged to permit the “free, voluntary, and unrestrained passage” of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian residents, including ''servicemen who have laid down arms."
WATCH: Thousands of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have flooded into the border town of Goris after enduring an arduous journey out of the the crisis-hit region. RFE/RL spoke with refugees in Armenia who said they left everything behind and hadn't eaten in days.
The exodus began after Azerbaijan opened the only road leading from Karabakh to Armenia four days after a cease-fire agreement that ended the September 19-20 Azerbaijani military operation which gave Baku complete control over the region.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan announced that it had put former Nagorno-Karabakh separatist leader Ruben Vardanian in pretrial detention after charging him with financing terrorism and other crimes.
Vardanian, who served as prime minister in the de facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh for less than four months before being removed from the post in February, was detained on September 27 as he was trying to cross the border into Armenia.
A Baku court ruled that Vardanian should be arrested and placed in pretrial detention for four months, Azerbaijan's state security service said.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
As concerns over the humanitarian situation in the region grew, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington would work with allies and partners on an international monitoring mission.
Yerevan over the weekend asked the UN to send a monitoring mission to assess the human rights and security situation as it attempts to absorb the ethnic Armenians.
The foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey on September 27 held a telephone conversation to discuss the situation, the Armenian Foreign Ministry said.
The foreign ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan also spoke by phone to discuss providing humanitarian assistance and ensuring the rights and security of the local Armenian population, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim visited Azerbaijan and met with President Ilham Aliyev on September 27.
"The focus of the group’s discussion was the urgent humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh," USAID said in a statement.
Aliyev's press service said during the meeting opinions were exchanged about the current situation, which arose as a result of "anti-terrorist measures" implemented in the region. Aliyev noted that talks are under way between representatives of Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh in the direction of reintegration, the press service said.
Aliyev also said Baku is ready to organize a visit to the region of a UN liaison office representative accredited in the country in the near future.
The U.S. delegation visited Azerbaijan after a trip to Armenia, where Power said Washington would stand in solidarity with Yerevan. She also announced a $11.5 million humanitarian aid package for Armenia, but said it is essential the international community gain access to Nagorno-Karabakh amid reports of injuries and a lack food and other essentials.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Navalny Says He Will Be Transferred To Strictest Prison Cell For 12 Months
Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny says he was informed a day after a court rejected his appeal against a 19-year sentence that he will be transferred to the strictest possible prison cell for one year.
"Yesterday, right after my appeal, I was taken to a commission and told that due to my incorrigibility I will be transferred to an 'EPKT' for a period of 12 months," he said on September 27 on X, formerly Twitter, referring to cells widely considered to have the harshest confinement conditions.
"A year of EPKT is the strictest possible punishment in all kinds of prisons," he said.
It was unclear if the punishment will be carried out in a special-regime prison or in the maximum-security IK-6 prison 250 kilometers east of Moscow where he is currently held.
Navalny has been in and out of solitary confinement in recent months, and his allies say his health has deteriorated.
Last month he had his sentence more than doubled to 19 years, with the court also ruling to send him to a harsher "special-regime" facility, rather than the maximum-security prison where he currently is held.
A court in Moscow on September 26 rejected Navalny's appeal of the sentence, which came after the Moscow City Court on August 4 convicted him of extremism charges, ruling that his previous sentences will be served concurrently.
The ruling came 18 months into Russia's invasion in Ukraine, which brought with it an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices. Navalny has repeatedly denounced the Kremlin's military offensive from behind bars and called on Russians not to lose "the will to resist."
The charges against Navalny are widely seen as retribution for his efforts to expose what he describes as the pervasive lawlessness, corruption, and repression by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political system.
Navalny was Russia's loudest opposition voice and galvanized huge anti-government rallies before he was jailed.
His previous sentence was handed down in 2021 after he arrived in Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blamed on the Kremlin.
Before the most recent conviction, he was serving a combined 11 1/2 years for embezzlement and violating the terms of his parole while he was in Germany being treated for the poisoning.
With reporting by AFP
U.S. Imposes Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Drone-Procurement Network
The United States has imposed sanctions on entities in Iran, Hong Kong, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. Treasury Department says comprise a network for the procurement of parts for Iran's drone program.
The network has facilitated shipments and financial transactions in support of a critical component used in Iran's Shahed drones, which Iran has been supplying to Russia for use against Ukraine, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said on September 27.
The critical component is known as a servomotor and is used in Iran’s Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The OFAC said the sanctions took aim at the procurement of servomotors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) aerospace organization.
The OFAC said one of the servomotors procured by the network was recovered in the remnants of a Russian-operated Shahed-136 that was recently shot down in Ukraine.
"Iranian-made UAVs continue to be a key tool for Russia in its attacks in Ukraine, including those that terrorize Ukrainian citizens and attack its critical infrastructure," Undersecretary of the Treasury Brian Nelson said in a news release.
Two of the five entities designated for sanctions are Iran-based Pishgam Electronic Safeh Company (PESC) and Hongkong Himark Electron Model Limited. The other three are based in Turkey and the U.A.E., the OFAC said.
PESC has procured thousands of servomotors with one-way attack UAV applications worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the IRGC, the OFAC said. The company's CEO, Iran-based Hamid Reza Janghorbani, was also designated for sanctions along with Hongkong Himark official Fan Yang, who is based in China.
The OFAC said Fan had represented Hong Kong-based Hongkong Himark in fulfilling servomotor orders worth more than $1 million for PESC. In addition to selling servomotors to PESC, Fan attempted to hide that an Iranian company was behind the shipments by falsifying invoices, the OFAC said.
Hongkong Himark is being designated for having provided or attempted to provide financial, technological, or other support for PESC. The firms based in Turkey and the U.A.E. have been designated for facilitating financial transactions, shipping, and material and technical support for PESC’s servomotor procurement from Hongkong Himark.
The sanctions build on designations announced in November 2022 by the OFAC aimed at Iran's Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center. The Iranian firm is subordinate to the IRGC's aerospace organization and designs and manufactures the Shahed-136, the Treasury Department said.
The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals hold in U.S. jurisdiction and block people in the United States from having any dealings with the entities and individuals named.
Bulgarian Parliament Approves Sending Antiaircraft Missiles To Ukraine
Bulgaria's parliament approved on September 27 a decision to provide missiles for S-300 air-defense systems to Ukraine. The missiles are defective and more than 30 years old, but Ukraine can use them for spare parts, Bulgarian parliamentary Defense Committee Chairman Hristo Gadjev said after the vote. Russia reacted with a statement urging Bulgaria to reconsider the decision. It said providing the missiles to Kyiv would violate an agreement for military cooperation between the Russia and Bulgaria that dates back to 2002. Bulgaria has been providing military aid to Ukraine since December 2022 following a decision by parliament. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.
Imprisoned Father Of Russian Girl Who Drew Anti-War Picture Placed In Solitary Confinement Five Times
A Russian man who was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces in April after anti-war drawings by his 13-year-old daughter drew attention to his online posts about the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine has been placed in punitive solitary confinement five times since August. Aleksei Moskalyov's lawyer said on September 27 that his client's latest, 14-day stint in solitary confinement was imposed on September 22. All punitive confinements have been imposed on Moskalyov for minor "violations" such as "failure to get up quickly," or "not having his hands behind his back," the lawyer said. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Poll Shows Slovaks Split Ahead Of Elections With Ukraine In Spotlight
Slovak opposition party Direction-Social Democracy (Smer), led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, holds a narrow lead over its liberal challenger, Progressive Slovakia (PS), ahead of weekend elections that have revealed stark dividing lines over whether the country should continue to support Ukraine or instead seek closer ties with Russia.
In the final opinion poll conducted by the IPSOS agency prior to the September 30 vote, Smer, which has taken a more pro-Russian stance over the war in neighboring Ukraine than other European Union members, garnered support at 20.6 percent compared with 19.8 percent for PS, which has shown a late surge in popularity.
No matter which party wins, they are likely to need at least two coalition partners to form a government, according to the poll, conducted for news website Dennikn.sk, among 1,000 participants between September 22 and September 25.
During the campaign, Fico, 59, has criticized Slovakia's arms supplies to Ukraine while pledging to stop shipments to Kyiv if he takes power. He has also dismissed further EU sanctions against Russia, questioned the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and repeated Kremlin narratives that NATO caused the war.
"Why aren't we holding peace talks, for God's sake? Why are we always talking about what kind of munitions we're going to send to Ukraine, what kind of tanks we'll send there, how many billions of euros will be spent on further armaments?" he asks in a statement that mirrors the thinking of Viktor Orban, the leader of neighboring Hungary.
"It's naive to think Russia will leave Crimea, it's naive to think that Russia will leave the territory it controls. So, explain to me, what's the good of all this killing?" Fico added.
Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka has warned such a policy shift could push the country into isolation. He has promised to maintain support for Ukraine as it tries to repel Russia's invasion, in line with EU and NATO partners.
Slovakia has provided neighboring Ukraine with substantial military and humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.
But a study by the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec conducted earlier in 2023 noted that 69 percent of respondents agreed that by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia was provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to war.
Slovaks' support for NATO membership has also shrunk to 58 percent this year from 72 percent in 2022, the poll showed. Globsec analysts say the results are due to disinformation.
Fico was Slovakia's prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018.
He remained a member of parliament and in 2022, he faced criminal charges of using sensitive information on political opponents. He denied the charges, which were eventually dropped, and has been seeking the removal of the special prosecutor who investigates high-level corruption allegations.
With reporting by Ray Furlong in Bratislava, Reuters, and AFP
Russian Court Rejects Appeal Of Ukrainian Activist From Crimea Against 15-Year Prison Term
A military court in Russia has rejected an appeal filed by Ukrainian activist Bohdan Zyza from Russian-occupied Crimea against the 15-year prison term he was handed in June on terrorism charges, Zyza's sister, Oleksandra Barkova, said on September 27. Zyza was arrested in May 2022 after he splashed yellow and blue paint -- the colors of the Ukrainian flag -- on a building of the Russian-imposed administration in the Crimean city of Yevpatoria. He also threw a Molotov cocktail at it. Earlier in June, Barkov held a 17-day hunger strike, demanding all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian custody be released. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Eight Killed, Including Five Children, In Explosion Of Stray Ordnance In Pakistan
Eight people -- five children, a man, and two women -- were killed on September 27 after a rocket-launcher round exploded inside a house in the Kashmor district of Pakistan's southeastern Sindh Province, police said. The round was found by children in the fields who brought it home, local police officer Rohail Khosa told RFE/RL. He said investigations were under way to establish the circumstances of the blast.
Prosecutors Seek Five Years In Prison In Retrial Of Protest Artist Krisevich
Krisevich was arrested in June last year on Moscow's Red Square and charged with hooliganism after he fired two blanks into the air while shouting: "There will be shots before the Kremlin's curtain." He then held the gun to his head and fired another blank.
Krisevich's girlfriend, Anastasia Mikhailova, said at the time that the goal of the protest performance was to support political prisoners in Russia.
Declaring that his protest was aimed at "state intimidation," Krisevich described the performance as "a kill shot" -- an expression used by hired assassins in Russia's criminal underworld to describe a gunshot to the head of a victim to ensure they are dead.
"The state labels protests as crimes," Krisevich's statement said. "It forces us to think that we are criminals in our cells and chats. But what is it without state intimidation? Clearly, it is an empty space."
Krisevich, who is originally from Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, has been jailed in the past over his protests in the Russian capital.
In November 2021, he was sentenced to 15 days in jail for a protest in front of the Federal Security Service’s headquarters in Moscow in which he was staged a mock crucifixion of himself over burning files. He said that protest symbolized criminal cases against Russian citizens.
In addition to jail time, he was also expelled from the university in Moscow he was attending.
In May 2022, Krisevich was sentenced to 10 days in jail for taking part in an action to support political prisoners in Russia by displaying their paintings in central Moscow.
Binance, World's Largest Cryptocurrency Exchange Company, Quits Russian Market
Binance, the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange company, said on September 27 it will sell all of its Russian operations to a newly established company, CommEx. Binance’s chief compliance officer, Noah Perlman, said that "as we look toward the future, we recognize that operating in Russia is not compatible with Binance's compliance strategy.” The process of leaving the Russian market will last for up to one year to ensure a smooth process for clients in Russia, the company said. All assets of current Russian users are safe and securely protected, the statement added. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Rights Watchdog Urges Uzbekistan To Ensure Safety Of Imprisoned Karakalpak Journalist
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Uzbek authorities to ensure the safety of imprisoned Karakalpak activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in January for joining mass anti-government protests in Uzbekistan's Karakalpak Autonomous Republic last year.
HRW cited Tajimuratov's lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, in a statement late on September 26 as saying that his client’s rights “are being violated while he is serving his prison sentence.”
According to Mayorov, his client has been refused adequate health care and food. He added that Tajimuratov doesn’t have access to a prison library or media, and that he is being isolated in a single cell, while prison officials refuse to assign him work detail, further limiting his contact with other prisoners.
"Tajimuratov had noticeably lost weight and the conditions of his imprisonment were taking a serious toll on his physical and psychological health,” the HRW statement quoted Mayorov as saying.
HRW Senior Researcher Mihra Rittmann said that "like any detainee," Tajimuratov has a right to "absolute protection against inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his other basic rights including to adequate nutrition and health care."
"Tajimuratov, whose 'crime' was to call for a peaceful protest and speak out against proposed constitutional amendments that would have stripped Karakalpakstan of its sovereign status, should not be languishing in prison," Rittmann added.
The HRW statement said that Uzbek authorities have the responsibility to ensure Tajimuratov suffers no further harm in prison and that he is not isolated from others without just cause.
Tajimuratov, a lawyer for the El Khyzmetinde (At The People's Service) newspaper, where he previously was the chief editor, was sentenced on January 31 by the Bukhara regional court along with 21 other defendants.
In March, another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in the protests in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, were convicted with 28 of them sentenced to prison terms of between five and 11 years, while 11 were handed parole-like sentences.
Uzbek authorities say 21 people died during the protests in early July 2022, which were sparked by the announcement of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.
However, the Austria-based Freedom for Eurasia human rights group said in July that at least 70 people were killed during the unrest.
The violence forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.
Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.
The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.
Chief Editor Of Belarusian Newspaper Goes On Trial On Charge Of Discrediting Belarus
A court in the city of Maladechna near Minsk began the trial of journalist Alyaksandr Mantsevich on September 27 amid an ongoing crackdown on independent journalists and democratic institutions. The chief editor of Rehiyanalnaya hazeta (Regional newspaper) was arrested in mid-March and charged with discrediting Belarus and its government entities. The charge stems from the newspaper's coverage of the political situation in the country in 2020-2023. Belarusian rights watchdogs have designated Mantsevich as a political prisoner. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Polish Minister Says Talks With Ukraine On Track After Grain Import Ban
Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus said on September 27 that talks with Ukraine were on track as the two countries try to resolve a dispute about a ban imposed by Warsaw on Polish grain imports. Telus spoke at a press conference after online talks with Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky. Warsaw and Kyiv are allies, but relations have soured since Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia decided to extend a ban that was introduced to protect their farmers from a surge in grain and food imports from Ukraine after Russia's invasion last year. The Polish government is also under pressure from the far right to take a tougher stance on Ukraine before October 15 elections. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Baku Detains Former Russian Businessman Vardanian, Who Briefly Served As Nagorno-Karabakh's De Facto PM
BAKU -- Azerbaijan's State Border Service (DSX) said on September 27 that it has detained billionaire Ruben Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent, who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for less than four months before he was dismissed from the post in February.
According to DSX, Vardanian was detained while leaving along with thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh, which is now under the full control of Azerbaijan, for Armenia via the Lachin Corridor. Vardanian was then transferred to Baku, the statement said.
Vardanian's wife, Veronika Zonabend, has confirmed her husband's detention.
"My husband, Ruben Vardanian...has been arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities at the border as he attempted to leave this morning, along with thousands of Armenians escaping Azerbaijani occupation," Zonabend said in a statement released by Vardanian's office.
When Vardanian was dismissed from the post of de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh in February. Media reports in Armenia indicated that Azerbaijan had made the removal one of its conditions in reaching a peace agreement during talks between Baku and Yerevan about the future of the ethnic-Armenian dominated region, which lies wholly inside Azerbaijan's borders.
Vardanian publicly renounced his Russian citizenship in September 2022 and said he made the decision to move to Nagorno-Karabakh with an understanding of all the risks he may face.
He said at the time that after the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in Baku's regaining control over large chunks of the disputed region and seven adjacent districts, “Armenians around the whole world” must be together with Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which along with the seven adjacent districts had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades prior to the war in 2020, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The 2020 war ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire under which Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers.
Last week, Azerbaijani forces staged a lightning offensive, overwhelming Nagorno-Karabakh forces, and taking control, after which tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the region for Armenia.
Vardanian was born in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in 1968. He is the former chief executive officer of Russia’s Troika Dialog investment bank, which was bought by Sberbank in 2011.
In 2021, Forbes estimated Vardanian's assets at $1 billion. Forbes has called Vardanian one of the "founding fathers" of Russia's stock market.
Ukraine To Boycott All UEFA Tournaments With Russian Participation
Ukrainian soccer teams will boycott all competitions featuring Russian sides, while Poland will refuse to play against teams from the country, their national federations said on September 27 following a decision by UEFA to lift a ban on Russia's youth teams. The Ukrainian Football Association called on other UEFA members to boycott matches against Russian teams after the announcement by European soccer's governing body. The president of Poland's Football Association promptly complied, saying Polish national teams will not compete against Russian teams. England's Football Association said its position opposing play against Russian teams remained unchanged. After banning all Russian teams -- national or club sides -- from participating in its competitions following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, UEFA said on September 26 that it was "aware that children should not be punished for actions whose responsibility lies exclusively with adults."
Uzbek Journalists Handed Prison Terms After Closed-Door Trial
A court in Tashkent has sentenced Uzbek journalists Khurshid Daliev and Siyovush Hoshimov to seven years in prison each on charges of slander, extortion, fraud, and tax evasion. On September 26, the Shaikhontohur district court handed a third defendant, a former press secretary of the Employment Ministry, journalist Mavjuda Mirzaeva, a five-year parole-like sentence on a charge of extortion and another defendant Ahmadullo Ahmadjonov a three-year parole-like sentence on a charge of failing to report a crime. Mirzaeva pleaded partially guilty, while Hoshimov rejected the charges. It was not clear how Daliev pleaded in the trial held behind closed doors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
Moscow Bars 23 British Nationals, Including Senior Admiral, From Entering Russia
Russia's Foreign Ministry said on September 27 that it has banned 23 British nationals, including the chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, from entering Russia, saying they have been responsible for training Ukrainian armed forces or have coordinated activities to collect data to fight against Russia. The ministry added in a statement that it will continue to add to the sanctions list as warranted. The British government has so far offered hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Ukraine as its armed forces fight against Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion, which was launched in February 2022.
Iran Claims It Launched Noor 3 Satellite Into Orbit
Iran's Revolutionary Guards successfully launched a third military satellite into orbit on September 27, state media reported, citing Minister of Communications Issa Zarepour. The Noor 3 imaging satellite orbits at an altitude of 450 kilometers above the earth's surface and was launched by the three-stage Qased, or messenger carrier, state media said, which launched its predecessor Noor 2 in 2022. The U.S. military says the same long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also allow Tehran to launch longer-range weapons, possibly including nuclear warheads. Tehran denies U.S. assertions that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development and says it has never pursued the development of nuclear weapons. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Death Toll From Nagorno-Karabakh Fuel Blast Revised Down To 68
The number of confirmed deaths following an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh is 68, the breakaway region's ombudsman, Gegham Stepanian, has told RFE/RL, adding that so far only 21 victims have been identified. Previous media reports had cited Armenia's health minister as putting the death toll at 125. The blast occurred as people seeking to flee to Armenia had lined up to fuel their cars in order to leave the region. The cause of the blast has not been determined. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.
Kherson Under 'Massive Shelling' As Cities In Southern Ukraine On Alert
The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson again came under Russian shelling late on September 27 after Russian troops struck two businesses in the regional capital, local authorities said.
The State Emergencies Service reported on Telegram that firefighters rushed to the businesses after they were hit but had had to return several times to extinguish the flames.
Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the regional military administration, announced around 10 p.m. local time that Kherson was under massive shelling. Russia has regularly shelled the Ukrainian-controlled part of Kherson since Moscow withdrew from the regional capital last year.
Russian drone attacks and shelling on September 26 briefly disrupted the rail link between Kherson and the city of Mykolayiv, which was also under air alert on September 27.
Earlier, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces were making gains against Russian troops in the eastern region of Donetsk as Moscow launched fresh artillery strikes on Ukraine's southern region of Nikopol and Kherson overnight, wounding civilians and damaging houses and infrastructure.
"We are advancing in the Donetsk direction," Zelenskiy said after a conference call with military officials, adding that he was also briefed on the situation in the partially liberated southern region of Kherson, which has been targeted for months by Russian shelling.
"The Russians continue to terrorize the territories their [artillery] can reach," he said.
In the Nikopol region, two people were wounded by Russian shelling, Serhiy Lysak, the head of Dnipropetrovsk region's military administration, said on Telegram on September 27.
"At night, the enemy fired heavy artillery at Myrivska Hromada and [the city of] Nikopol itself," Lysak wrote, adding that the two men who had been wounded were in a moderate condition in hospital. He said a two-story building was set on fire during the attack. "Rescuers put out the fire," Lysak said.
The General Staff of Ukraine's military said in its daily update that Ukrainian forces were conducting offensive operations in the direction of the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut and the southern region of Melitopol, adding that a total of 26 close-quarters battles were fought along the front line over the past 24 hours.
On September 26, Russia again struck grain-exporting facilities in the Odesa region, causing damage and injuries among the local inhabitants, Ukrainian officials said.
Odesa Governor Oleh Kiper said Izmayil, one of the two Danube ports that Ukraine uses to export grain, was hit, and a checkpoint building, storage facilities, and more than 30 trucks and cars were damaged. Two people were wounded, Kiper said.
Russia has stepped up its aerial bombardments of Ukrainian sites, targeting in particular Ukraine's grain-exporting infrastructure in the southern Odesa and Mykolayiv regions.
Ukraine has resumed exporting grain despite Russia’s pulling out of a United Nations-brokered deal allowing safe grain shipments in July.
Zelenskiy has vowed new Ukrainian actions against Russia following a missile strike last week against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters that Kyiv said killed nearly three dozen officers, including its top commander.
"We clearly see which directions of pressure on Russia need to be strengthened to prevent [its] terrorist capabilities from growing," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on September 26.
"Sanctions are not enough," he said.
Ukraine's claim about its strike against the Russian Black Sea Fleet could not be immediately confirmed, and Russia released markedly lower casualty figures from the September 22 attack in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
But the strike itself was the latest in a series of increasingly audacious attacks by Ukrainian forces on Russian ships and Black Sea facilities -- attacks that Western experts say may have drastically curtailed Russia’s naval operations in the region.
In a statement on September 25, Ukraine’s special operations forces cited “new information about the losses of the enemy as a result of the special operation,” claiming that 34 officers, including the fleet commander, were killed when cruise missiles -- believed to be either British or French -- hit the Sevastopol building. At least 105 others were wounded, it said.
The Ukrainian statement did not name the naval commander. The current top officer in the Black Sea Fleet is Admiral Viktor Sokolov.
Asked by reporters on September 26 about the Ukrainian claim, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no comment.
Sokolov was shown on Russian state television on September 26 among other senior officers attending a video conference with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although it was not clear when the footage has been recorded.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
After Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Bulgaria Is Rapidly Trying To Modernize Its Armed Forces2
'Chaos, Screams, And Explosions': Ukrainian Forces Make Modest But Important Gains In Grueling Counteroffensive3
U.S. Condemns Attack In Kosovo's North As Country Observes Day Of Mourning4
Karabakh Separatists Say They Are Implementing Withdrawal Deal As Aid Arrives Through Lachin5
Ukraine Hails Arrival Of First U.S. Abrams Tanks As Occupation Officials Claim Missile Attack On Sevastopol Repelled6
Crimea: The Last 'Gentleman's War'7
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine8
Kherson Under 'Massive Shelling' As Cities In Southern Ukraine On Alert9
Who Was Behind The Deadly Attack At The Orthodox Monastery In Kosovo?10
Roads Clogged As Ethnic Armenians Flee Nagorno-Karabakh; Mass Casualties Reported In Fuel Depot Blast