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U.S. Pledges $16 Billion To Train, Equip Afghan Army, Says Kabul

Afghan soldiers, armed with U.S.-made M16 rifles, take part in combat training at a training camp on the outskirts of Kabul on December 28.
KABUL (Reuters) -- The United States has pledged $16 billion to spend on training and equipping Afghanistan's army and air force, but the country needs more to build a force that can guarantee stability, an Afghan army official said today.

Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimy said Kabul hoped a donor conference in London next month would provide cash and supplies needed for ambitious plans to expand the army to 240,000 soldiers, from over 100,000 at present.

"For the expansion process of the army, the United States has pledged $16 billion," Azimi said, adding that the cash would be spread out over the period needed to scale up the army, currently estimated at around four years.

"This is not enough by any means and we are hopeful to receive more assistance in London conference [from other NATO allies]."

He was speaking at a joint news conference with a spokesman for NATO-led forces, who did not dispute the $16 billion figure.

With violence at the highest level in years, U.S. President Barack Obama is sending in 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to try to turn the tide. Other NATO countries are sending some 7,000 more.

But Washington's plan also calls for U.S. troop levels to be scaled down from July 2011 as they gradually hand over security to the Afghans and the White House has said the United States will not be in Afghanistan in eight or nine years time.

Part of the U.S. cash is likely to cover planned spending on over 150 aircraft -- including helicopters, and reconnaissance, combat and transport planes -- that are vital for traversing Afghanistan, a rugged country with weak infrastructure.

Other assistance will target extra training and construction of bases as well as providing NATO-standard weapons, Azimy said.

The army is seen as a relative success story both for the Afghan government and its Western allies. Washington has poured $17 billion into building up the forces since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001, Azimy said.

But it has also faced some problems with desertions in the past and several attacks by Afghans on the foreign troops they serve beside have highlighted sometimes testy relations between the two, prompting public debate in the West about the war.

Last month, an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers at a military compound in southern Helmand Province. The Taliban said he was one of their fighters who had infiltrated the force.

In the latest attack, an Afghan soldier on December 29 shot dead an American soldier and wounded two Italian troops in a joint Afghan and foreign base in northwestern Badghis Province.

Azimy said the assault was a result of a "verbal argument" between Afghan and foreign soldiers, not a Taliban attack.

A spokesman for the NATO-led force said the incident would not dent trust between Afghan and foreign troops.

"Every time the insurgents will try to use one type of incident against us, try to break that partnership, we won't let that happen," Wayne Shanks said. "Our forces gain strength by operating beside their Afghan partners and will continue to do that."

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U.S. Launches Program To Document War Crimes In Ukraine

Cemetery workers exhume the corpse of a civilian killed in Bucha, outside Kyiv, from a mass grave in April.

The U.S. State Department has announced the launch of a new program to capture and analyze evidence of war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

The goal of the program will be the documentation, verification, and dissemination of open-source evidence to ensure that Russia is held accountable for its actions, the U.S. State Department said on May 17 in a statement.

Known as the Conflict Observatory, the program will make its reports and analyses available on its website.

"The Conflict Observatory will analyze and preserve publicly and commercially available information, including satellite imagery and information shared via social media, consistent with international legal standards, for use in ongoing and future accountability mechanisms," the statement said.

The online platform will help refute Russia's disinformation efforts and shine a light on abuses, the statement added.

Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.

'I Came To Identify My Son': In Bucha, Relatives Retrieve Bodies Of Loved Ones
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Russia denies targeting civilians and claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said last week there were many examples of possible war crimes in Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court is also working with Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Polish prosecutors in investigating war crimes allegations against Russian forces.

With reporting by Reuters

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Surprises Cannes Film Festival

Volodymyr Zelensky appears on a screen during the opening ceremony of the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 17.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has delivered an unscheduled address to the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival, assuring attendees that "hatred will disappear and dictators will die."

The actor-turned-politician referred to the connection between cinema and reality, making references to films like Apocalypse Now and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which mocked Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

"We need a new Chaplin who will demonstrate that the cinema of our time is not silent,” Zelenskiy said in his surprise video message to the ceremony in Cannes, France.

"Today, the cinema is not silent. Remember these words. The power they've taken from the people will be returned to the people."

He received a standing ovation from the audience gathered at the festival's main venue.

The festival, which was canceled in 2020 and scaled back last year because of COVID-19, had an eye turned to the war in Ukraine as it kicked off this year largely without pandemic protocols.

Several films from Ukrainian filmmakers, including Sergei Loznitsa's documentary The Natural History Of Destruction, are scheduled to be shown.

Mariupolis 2, a documentary about the conflict by Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was killed in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last month, will get a special screening.

Twenty-one films will vie for the festival's top award, the Palme d'Or, over the next 12 days. Top Gun: Maverick!, Elvis!, and the zombie comedy Final Cut are all premiering during the festival.

Final Cut, whose premiere opened the festival, was renamed from its original title, Z, after Ukrainian protesters noted that the letter Z symbolizes support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Festival organizers have barred Russians with ties to the government.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Russia Scraps Several Key Car Safety Standards As Western Producers Exit Market

Russian employees work at the assembly line of the Lada Izhevsk automobile plant, part of the Avtovaz Group, in Izhevsk.

MOSCOW -- Russia's government has relaxed safety and emission standards for locally built vehicles as it looks to stimulate production following an exodus of Western manufacturers over Moscow's war in Ukraine.

According to a government resolution quietly approved on May 12, airbags and seat-belt pretensioners, which lock seat belts in place in the event of a crash, will no longer be mandatory in automobiles.

The resolution, which will be valid until February 1, 2023, also allows the production of vehicles without anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic stability controls (ESC), and emergency signal systems, all standard safety equipment for new cars in most parts of the world.

The safety systems were introduced in car-making standards in Russia after leading foreign automobile makers came to the market in the early 2000s.

However, major car producers have exited the market since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The most recent major automaker to leave was Renault, which on May 16 said it was selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute, with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next 6 years."

'Deeply Alarmed' UN Calls On Tehran To Halt Imminent Execution Of Iranian-Swedish Doctor

Ahmadreza Djalali with his wife, Vida Mehrannia.

The United Nations says it is "deeply alarmed" by the imminent execution in Iran of Swedish-Iranian doctor and academic Ahmedreza Djalali, and called for an immediate halt to it.

Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement on May 17 that the authorities in Tehran should revoke Djallali's death sentence immediately.

Djalali, a medical doctor and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was arrested in Iran in 2016 during an academic visit. Jalali specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups have condemned his detention.

He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.

Iran has threatened to execute him by May 21.

"Use of the death penalty for espionage offenses is incompatible with international human rights law. Countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the 'most serious crimes,' which is interpreted as crimes of extreme gravity involving intentional killing," Throssell said in the statement.

Many Western groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current trial of an Iranian in Stockholm for his alleged role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

Tehran has denied the cases, which have strained relations between Iran and Sweden, are linked.

Russia Leaves Baltic Council Amid Standoff With West Over Ukraine War

Russia says it is quitting the Council of the Baltic Sea States, accusing the organization of becoming "an instrument of anti-Russian policy" and "increasingly bogged down in Russophobia and lies."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 17 that it is leaving the regional grouping that also includes Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and the European Union amid tensions with the West over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The statement came as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country will intensify its military collaboration with Sweden and Finland as the two countries seek NATO membership in the wake of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

Last month Russia quit the Council of Europe under threat of expulsion after its membership was suspended over its invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Belarusian Publisher, Associate Arrested After Opening New Bookstore

The Knihauka bookstore in Minsk

MINSK -- Police in Minsk have detained the director of a publishing house, Andrey Yanushkevich, and his associate, Nasta Karnatskaya, after they opened a general bookstore in the Belarusian capital.

Yanushkevich and Karnatskaya were detained on May 16 soon after a visit from well-known pro-government propagandist journalists Ryhor Azaronak and Lyudmila Hladkaya.

Azaronak and Hladkaya started berating the bookstore staff for selling books in Belarusian that they said were inappropriate.

The two questioned why the store was selling a book about the Radziwill family, who influenced historic developments in what is today Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.

They also accused the bookstore owners of selling a book with a photo of a gathering that was "reminiscent of a Nazi parade." The picture in the history book was actually of Lithuanian armed forces in Vilnius in 1939.

Hours after the visit of the two journalists, police arrived at the bookstore and conducted a search, after which, Yanushkevich and Karnatskaya were detained.

Andrey Yanushkevich publishes books on a variety of subjects, mainly in Belarusian.
Andrey Yanushkevich publishes books on a variety of subjects, mainly in Belarusian.

Yanushkevich's relatives say they do not know the grounds on which the two were detained. It also remains unclear whether Yanushkevich and Karnatskaya are facing any charges.

Yanushkevich Publishing House issues books on a variety of subjects, mainly in Belarusian.

In January 2021, the State Control Committee confiscated the publishing house's equipment and suspended its bank account for several months. Earlier this year, city authorities ordered it to vacate its offices in Minsk.

In recent months, Belarusian authorities have suspended the activities of several independent publishing houses -- Limaryus, Knihazbor, Haliyafy, and Medysont -- for the "violation of regulations on registration at the Information Ministry."

A crackdown on independent media and publishing houses has intensified in the country since mass anti-government protests followed an August 2020 presidential election that proclaimed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the winner, while the opposition and the West say the poll was rigged.

With reporting by Nasha Niva

Russia Will Not Ban YouTube, Minister Shadayev Says

Maksut Shadayev, Russia's Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media Minister (file photo)

The Russian minister overseeing digital communications says the government has no plans to block the video sharing platform YouTube despite threats to do so over parent company Alphabet Inc's failure to delete content Moscow has deemed illegal.

Speaking at an education event in Moscow on May 17, minister of digital development, communications and mass media, Maksut Shadayev, said "Russia must remain part of the global network," though it must "learn to filter information" in the Internet.

"We do not plan to ban YouTube. First of all, when we restrict something, we must clearly understand that our users do not suffer... A ban is an extreme move that can be only possible, to my understanding, when we have a competitive alternative," he said.

Last month, Russia's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, openly accused YouTube of "spreading fake news" about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In March, Roskomnadzor demanded Alphabet stop the spread of videos on its YouTube platform that it said were "threatening Russian citizens."

Shadayev said Russia "must build up barriers to avoid too much pressure on Internet users."

Days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Roskomnadzor ordered media across the country to publish information about the war in Ukraine only if it is provided by official sources.

It also has forbidden describing what several Western nations have called an "unjustified and unprovoked" attack on Ukraine as an invasion or a war, instead insisting it be called a "special military operation."

Over the past year, Russia has tightented the screws on opposition voices, forcing the closure of most independent media outlets and limiting the free flow of information.

On March 4, Roskomnadzor blocked Facebook, claiming the world's largest social-media platform was discriminating against Russian media and information resources such as RT, RIA Novosti, and Sputnik.

A day later, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a penalty possible of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

Multiple websites of RFE/RL, BBC, and other independent media outlets have been blocked over what Russian regulators claim is erroneous reporting.

Some Russian journalists have left Russia after their companies had to stop or suspend operations following the criminalization of the coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Several have since started up their own streams on YouTube to cover and discuss the ongoing war.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Moscow Expels Two Finnish Diplomats In Tit-For-Tat Move

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinisto are seen at a joint news conference on Finland's security policy decisions in Helsinki on May 15.

Moscow says it is expelling two Finnish diplomats in retaliation for Helsinki's decision to expel a similar number of Russian diplomats in April.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on May 17 that it had summoned Finnish Ambassador to Russia Antti Helantera to inform him of the move, citing "Finland's confrontational course towards Russia."

Finland has provided arms to Ukraine, which Russia invaded in February, and lawmakers in Helsinki are expected later on May 17 to formally endorse joining the NATO security alliance.

Last month Finland expelled two staff members of the Russian embassy in Helsinki in reaction to Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

European nations have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomats since the unprovoked invasion was launched on February 24.

Moscow Court Postpones Hearing Into Navalny's Appeal For Week

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link before a court hearing to consider an appeal against his prison sentence on May 17.

MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has delayed a hearing into jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's appeal against his latest sentence.

The court started the hearing on May 17 but postponed it for one week after Navalny, who took part in the hearing via a video link from a prison in the Vladimir region, asked the court to give him time to get better acquainted with case documents. The next hearing will be held on May 24, the court said.

Navalny, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in March while he was already serving another prison term from a separate case, said he wanted to compare the texts of his verdict and sentence with what a court pronounced at his trial.

Navalny also said that his family members were scheduled to visit him on May 20, and he did not want to lose the visit, which is granted just a few times a year, as he may be transferred to another penal colony if his sentence is upheld.

A court handed down a new sentence against Navalny -- nine years in prison -- on March 22 after finding him guilty of embezzlement and contempt of court charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated. That sentence is expected to come into force if the Moscow court rejects the appeal.

Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his arrival to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent. He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.

International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner. The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded Russian authorities release the 45-year-old Kremlin-critic.

Navalny is currently serving his term in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov, some 200 kilometers east of Moscow.

With reporting by Mediazona

Sweden, Finland To Submit Bids To Join NATO Together

Sweden's Foreign Minister Ann Linde signs the country's application for NATO membership on May 17.

Finland and Sweden announced they will submit their bids to join NATO together, as the two countries expect to be able to smooth out a threat from Turkey to block the military alliance's expansion.

"I'm happy we have taken the same path and we can do it together," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on May 17 during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Finland's parliament on May 17 overwhelmingly endorsed a bid to join NATO, abandoning more than seven decades of neutrality.

Lawmakers voted 188-8 in favor of the proposal put forward by Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, which came hours after neighboring Sweden signed a formal request to become a member of the Western alliance.

However, opposition from Turkey, which accuses Sweden and Finland of failing to take a clear stance against terrorism, has complicated their accession, which must be unanimously approved by the alliance's 30 members.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants, and Turkish Justice Ministry sources quoted by the official Anadolu news agency said Sweden and Finland had failed to respond positively to 33 Turkish extradition requests over the past five years.

But Niinisto told Sweden's parliament in an address to lawmakers on May 17 that he was confident that "with the help of constructive talks, the situation will be resolved."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he also was confident Turkey would support the move by both countries, and U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price likewise expressed confidence that Ankara would not block their entrance into the alliance.

The White House said earlier that U.S. President Joe Biden will host Niinisto and Andersson for a meeting on May 19 to discuss the applications as well as the broader topic of European security.

The two countries have moved quickly toward joining NATO since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

The steps taken by the two Nordic neighbors have prompted warnings from Russia, which would see NATO expand right up to its western border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on May 16 that while Russia did not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, any deployment of military infrastructure there may trigger a response from Moscow.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 17 echoed Putin's comments, saying that Finland and Sweden joining NATO probably wouldn't make "much of a difference," as the two countries had long participated in the alliance's military drills.

But he warned that Russia would closely monitor NATO's activities in the future member states.

"NATO takes their territory into account when planning military advances to the east. So in this sense there is probably not much difference. Let's see how their territory is used in practice in the North Atlantic alliance."

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Hundreds Detained In Yerevan Anti-Government Protests

Police officers are seen detaining protesters attempting to block streets in Yerevan on May 17.

Armenian police have detained more than 400 people in Yerevan as protesters blocked streets during opposition-led demonstrations to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.

Groups of protesters began blocking streets at 8 a.m. local time in an attempt to disrupt traffic and step up pressure on Pashinian's government. Opposition leaders claimed that demonstrators blocked more than 50 streets in various parts of the capital.

Riot police clashed with protesters and detained many of them as they stepped in to unblock the streets. The police reported a total of 414 arrests by the afternoon, a daily record since the opposition began a civil-disobedience campaign on May 1.

Hundreds Arrested As Opposition Blocks Roads In Armenian Capital
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Demonstrations organized by the opposition since April 17 have called on the public to commit acts of civil disobedience, accusing Pashinian of what they said were unacceptable concessions made during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.

The demonstration and clashes on May 17 came a day after police detained almost 100 drivers who took part in a car rally in Yerevan.

The previous day, police detained almost 100 drivers who took part in a car rally in Yerevan.

Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by AFP

UNICEF Says Ukraine War Exacerbating Issue Of Severe Child Hunger

A Ukrainian farmer is seen in a field with a tractor. Ukraine is one of the world's largest suppliers of grain.

The United Nations' children's agency says war in Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain suppliers, is threatening to plunge the world into a "spiraling" food crisis, exacerbating the problem of severe hunger among a growing number of children.

UNICEF said in a report released on May 17 that the cost of life-saving treatment for the most severely malnourished children is set to jump by as much as 16 percent due to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which comes on top of strains on the food system created by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

“Even before the war in Ukraine placed a strain on food security worldwide, conflict, climate shocks and COVID-19 were already wreaking havoc on families’ ability to feed their children,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

“The world is rapidly becoming a virtual tinderbox of preventable child deaths and child suffering from wasting,” she added.

The report says prices of raw ingredients for ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) have jumped amid the global food crisis sparked by the war and pandemic, while global financing to save the lives of children suffering from wasting is also under threat.

Without an influx of funds before the end of the year, as many as 600,000 more children could join the 10 million severely wasted children already suffering from not having access to the food packets.

“For millions of children every year, these sachets of therapeutic paste are the difference between life and death. A 16 percent price increase may sound manageable in the context of global food markets, but at the end of that supply chain is a desperately malnourished child, for whom the stakes are not manageable at all,” Russell said.

Severe wasting – where children are too thin for their height resulting in weakened immune systems – is the most immediate, visible and life-threatening form of malnutrition. Worldwide, at least 13.6 million children under five suffer from severe wasting, resulting in one in five deaths among this age group, according to UNICEF.

To prevent a worsening of the crisis, the agency called on governments to increase wasting aid by at least 59 percent above 2019 levels, and to include treatment for child wasting under health and long-term development funding schemes.

Ukraine Hopes Soldiers Evacuated From Mariupol Can Be Part Of Prisoner Exchange

A video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on May 17 shows Ukrainian soldiers as they are searched by separatist military personnel after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol.

Ukraine's deputy defense minister has expressed hope that the 264 Ukrainian fighters evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol will be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war.

Hanna Malyar's comment at a briefing came after Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the evacuated soldiers "criminals" who must be "brought to justice." Volodin said the Azovstal fighters should be excluded from any future exchanges, according to Interfax.

Malyar said Volodin's comments were a political statement "conceived as internal propaganda." She said that from Ukraine's perspective both the operation to evacuate more soldiers from the steelworks and the process of negotiating the fate of those already out are ongoing.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said earlier that the Ukrainian fighters -- including 53 who were "seriously wounded" -- were ferried out of the plant on May 16 and taken to Russia-controlled territory and that efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Hundreds Of Ukrainian Fighters Evacuated From Mariupol
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Russia's Defense Ministry said 256 Ukrainian fighters had "laid down their arms and surrendered," including 51 gravely wounded.

Malyar said the badly wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while another 211 were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Both areas are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Months of Russian bombardment reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of civilians before Ukraine ceded control of the strategic Sea of Azov port, where hundreds of troops and civilians had been holed up for weeks in underground bunkers in the sprawling Azovstal industrial complex.

While Russia called it a surrender, Ukraine said the plant’s garrison had successfully completed its mission to tie down Russian forces and called the defenders heroes.

"The 'Mariupol' garrison has fulfilled its combat mission," the General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces said in a statement on May 17.

"The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel.... Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time," the statement added.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on May 16 that Ukrainian military and intelligence negotiators as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations orchestrated the evacuation.

"Ukraine needs its heroes alive," Zelenskiy said.

However, he warned that the Ukrainian fighters may not be freed immediately, adding that negotiations over their release will require "delicacy and time."

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 17 that Ukrainian fighters who "surrendered" would be treated "in accordance with international standards," and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed this.

The Russian Defense Ministry earlier announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by separatists, while Kyiv said the Ukrainian fighters would be exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.

The Ukrainian military leadership said the Azovstal defenders forced Moscow to station some 20,000 troops in Mariupol, preventing them from rapidly capturing other parts of the country.

While the evacuation of the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol marked a defeat for Ukraine, Russia's bombardment turned the port with a prewar population of some 400,000 into rubble and rendered it unusable.

British military intelligence said in its daily bulletin on May 17 that Russia's growing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment in the conflict betrayed a limited capacity to accurately identify targets and "an unwillingness to risk flying combat aircraft routinely beyond its own front lines."

The bulletin posted on Twitter said that in another operational theater, the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv, Russia's heavy use of artillery destroyed or damaged an estimated 3,500 buildings during its failed advance toward the Ukrainian capital.

Some 80 percent of the damage has been caused to residential buildings, the U.K. bulletin said, cautioning that Russia will likely continue to rely heavily on massive artillery bombardment in its attempt to regain momentum in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military said Russia was "continuing its offensive" in the east of the country, adding "the enemy focused its main efforts on Donetsk" in the east.

Russia is drawing forces to Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region, an analyst told RFE/RL's Donbas.Realities.

"We are now receiving indirect evidence that forces are concentrated in the area of the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk...which Russian forces are likely to try to surround," analyst Kirill Mikhailov of the Conflict Intelligence Team said.

Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling struck a hospital in Severodonetsk.

"Massive artillery shelling, including from tanks, continues in Severodonetsk. The hospital in Severodonetsk came under artillery fire. The building is almost completely destroyed. The number of victims is currently being determined," police said.

The report could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on May 17 in a speech to European Union defense ministers and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Russia was preparing for a long-term military operation as its forces try to take full control of the east and south of Ukraine.

The Kremlin's main efforts are now focused on "encircling and destroying groups of the armed forces of Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, creating and maintaining a land corridor from Russia to Crimea, and completing the occupation of southern Ukraine," Reznikov said.

He implored the ministers not to let Russia prolong the conflict and called on them to coordinate arms deliveries to Ukraine.

"We want to defeat the enemy and liberate our territories as soon as possible,” he said. "That is why we are very interested in receiving international aid, buying weapons as quickly as possible, and in the right quantities. We need tanks, armored vehicles, long-range weapons."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting that the European Union “will not let Ukraine run out of equipment."

In Kyiv, Zelenskiy said he had a "long and meaningful" phone conversation on May 17 with French President Emmanuel Macron about the war.

The two leaders spoke about "the course of hostilities, the operation to rescue the military from Azovstal, and the vision of the prospects of the negotiation process," Zelenskiy said on Twitter. He said he also raised the issue of fuel supply to Ukraine.

Among the other topics discussed were more defense support from France, a sixth package of EU sanctions, and possible ways to export Ukrainian agricultural products.

Macron told Zelenskiy that arms supplies from Paris would "increase in intensity in the days and weeks to come," according to a statement from the French presidency. The supply of humanitarian equipment would also increase, the statement said.

The U.S. State Department on May 17 announced the launch of a new program to capture, analyze, and preserve evidence of war crimes and other atrocities.

The State Department said the Conflict Observatory will encompass the documentation, verification, and dissemination of open-source evidence of the actions of Russian forces in Ukraine.

The new program, which is being established with an initial $6 million investment, will include satellite imagery and information shared on social media.

"This new Conflict Observatory program is part of a range of U.S. government efforts at both national and international levels designed to ensure future accountability for Russia’s horrific actions," the State Department said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Sweden on May 17 signed a formal request to join NATO, a day after Stockholm said it would seek membership in the 30-member Western military alliance amid security concerns sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The move came a day after Finland also announced that it was seeking to join the alliance.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, and TASS

Four Journalists, Including From RFE/RL, Attacked After Deadly Anti-Government March In Tajikistan

Protesters are seen in Khorugh, Tajikistan, on May 16.

Two journalists with RFE/RL's Tajik Service were attacked on May 17 by unknown assailants after they interviewed an activist accused of organizing a protest march in Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan region that turned deadly.

The journalists' vehicle was blocked by another car in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, and several men in civilian clothes came out of the car, forced journalists Mullorajab Yusufi and Barot Yusufi out of their vehicle, and attacked them.

The men punched Mullorajab Yusufi several times in the body and head and confiscated the journalists' equipment and personal phones.

The attackers refused to identify themselves or explain their behavior. Before leaving the scene, they told the journalists their equipment would be returned.

About 30 minutes later, two other journalists, Anushervon Orifov and Nasim Isamov of Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, were attacked the same way, apparently by the same assailants.

The attacks took place after the journalists conducted separate interviews with well-known civil rights activist Ulfatkhonum Mamatshoeva, whom Tajik authorities accused of organizing the May 16 deadly protests in the volatile Badakhshan region. Mamatshoeva denies the accusation.

RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly condemned the attacks in a statement.

"We strongly condemn the two separate attacks on our Radio Ozodi and Current Time journalists in Dushanbe earlier today. We have called on the Tajik authorities repeatedly to stop the government’s pressure campaign against free media," Fly said.

Fly said he has written to Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhruddin to complain about accreditations that have been withheld and threats against RFE/RL journalists.

"It is time for the Tajik government to stop trying to undermine independent reporting that benefits the Tajik people," Fly said.

Earlier in the day, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry said one protester was killed and three law enforcement officers were wounded the previous day as security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters calling for the resignation of political leaders in the region.

A large group of youths began a march in Khorugh, the region's capital, after authorities in Badakhshan refused to consider the resignation of the head of the region, Alisher Mirzonabot, the mayor of the city, and other officials.

Local Protests in Tajikistan Turn Deadly
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The Interior Ministry said in a statement that one of the protest leaders, whom it identified as Zamir Nazrishoev, born in 1993, was "wounded and died in hospital" as security forces repulsed "an armed attack" when protesters headed toward regional administration buildings.

RFE/RL cited several sources claiming that Nazrishoev died under different circumstances. No details were immediately available.

Video footage sent to RFE/RL shows law enforcement officers using rubber bullets and tear gas on demonstrators. Two sources in Khorugh confirmed to RFE/RL that three people were injured and were taken to the hospital.

The ministry said that the regional prosecutor's office initiated a criminal case against the organizers of the protest.

The situation in Badakhshan has been tense since November 2021, when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Local people rallied at the time, demanding a probe into Ziyobekov's death.

The rally turned violent when protesters tried to seize the local government building, prompting security forces to fire into the crowd, killing at least one person.

Violence continued for several days.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled country of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

Tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict.

Orban Warns Of Recession, Other Problems For Hungary

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signs the documents in parliament in Budapest declaring him prime minister for the fourth consecutive time on May 16.

BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned of an era of insecurity and war in Europe after the National Assembly elected him prime minister following the victory of his Fidesz party in elections last month.

Orban, who took the oath of office after the assembly voted 133-27 to elect him to his fourth consecutive term, said the country faces a decade of war and a recession, but he pledged to protect jobs, family benefits, and pensions.

"This decade will be an era of dangers, insecurity, and wars," he said in his acceptance speech.

The war in Ukraine and the European sanctions policy in response to it have led to an energy crisis and inflation that he predicted will cause "a period of recession and economic downturn."

While Orban repeated familiar complaints about Brussels "abusing its power" by pushing back member states' sovereignty, he said Hungary's place is in the European Union for the next decade.

He also said Hungary would not block EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine as long as they posed no risk to Hungary's energy security.

Hungary and other member states, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have rejected the EU's proposed sanctions designed to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Diplomats in Brussels currently are negotiating the package as they seek to achieve the required unanimity of all 27 EU members.

Orban has clashed with the EU, most recently over LGBT rights and rule-of-law issues, but he said the importance of Hungary being a member of NATO had never been more obvious.

With reporting by Reuters

Kazakh Businessman Abilov Returns To Politics, To Form New Party

Bolat Abilov speaks at a rally in memory of those killed during the January events in Almaty on February 13.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Bolat Abilov, a prominent businessman and once an opposition figure in Kazakhstan, has announced a return to politics after he quit the Central Asian country's political scene almost nine years ago, as he looks to establish a new political party.

Abilov and his associates told reporters in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, on May 16 that the new party will be called Bizding Tangdau (Our Choice).

Abilov said that once the party is registered, it will establish an independent commission to investigate political assassinations in Kazakhstan, including the killings of opposition politicians Zamanbek Nurqadilov in 2005 and Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly in 2006.

It will also look into the deadly dispersal of anti-government protests in January this year, the killing of at least 16 oil workers in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen in 2011, the deadly dispersal of Kazakh youth in Almaty by Soviet troops in 1986, and Soviet-era famine in Kazakhstan in the 1930s.

The 64-year-old politician added that the new party will work on leaving Russian-led groupings such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

According to Abilov, one of the main goals of his party will also be renaming cities, streets, and other geographic objects that are currently named after former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

In September 2013, Abilov, who was then the chairman of the Azat (Free) party, announced his decision to quit politics without giving any explanation.

Abilov is one of the most successful businessmen of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. He left pro-presidential political circles and joined the opposition in the early 2000s.

Before 2013, he faced numerous trials on charges tied to his financial and opposition activities. He was fined or sentenced to several days in jail on numerous occasions at the time.

More Than 90 Detained In Yerevan As Car Protest Snarls Traffic

An opposition protester is arrested in Yerevan on May 16.

YEREVAN -- Police in Yerevan have detained dozens of drivers who took part in a car rally in the Armenian capital as opposition-led demonstrations continue in an effort to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.

Anti-government demonstrations organized by the opposition since April 17 have called on the population to commit acts of civil disobedience, accusing Pashinian of making unacceptable concessions during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. `

Police in Yerevan said on May 16 that at least 91 people who attempted to take part in the car rally were detained, most of them near the Razdan sports stadium on the edge of the city center.

Police warned drivers "to avoid committing traffic violations and any attempts to restrict the rights of other citizens to move around the city."

Opposition politicians said earlier that they planned to resume protests in Yerevan on May 17.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month to start drafting a bilateral peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border at talks in Brussels.

Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other's territorial integrity.

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pussy Riot Member Shtein Placed On Russia's Wanted List

Russian activist Lyusya Shtein (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Moscow municipal lawmaker Lyusya Shtein, who is also a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.

Shtein’s name appeared in the ministry’s registry of wanted suspects on May 16. She is wanted for violating a parole-like sentence she was handed last August for violating coronavirus safety precautions by calling on people to protest against the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The outspoken critic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine left the country last month after her apartment door was marked with a Z-shaped sticker inscribed with the slogan "Collaborator. Do Not Sell The Motherland" in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.

Many Russian military vehicles and tanks have been marked with the letter Z during the ongoing invasion, with the insignia becoming an increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war launched against in February, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin.

Last week, Shtein's partner and a founding member of the Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, told the New York Times that she also had left Russia after a Moscow court changed the remainder of her one-year parole-like sentence to real prison time last month, saying she violated the terms of her punishment.

Alyokhina's whereabouts were unknown for weeks after the Russian Interior Ministry added her to its registry of wanted persons on April 26, five days after a Moscow court approved the change in a parole-like sentence she was handed last September on the same charge as Shtein faced.

Alyokhina, Shtein, and other members of the protest group have been sentenced to up 15 days in jail several times in recent months over taking part in protest actions and unsanctioned rallies.

Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.

Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.

Endangered Caspian Seals, Sturgeon Found Dead On Kazakhstan's Caspian Coast

A dead seal washed ashore the Caspian Sea (file photo)

AQTAU, Kazakhstan -- Officials in Kazakhstan’s western Manghystau region say 64 endangered seals and five huge sturgeon washed up dead on the shores of the Caspian Sea over the weekend.

The Manghystau regional fishery inspection agency said on May 16 that all of the animals found near the port of Fort Shevchenko had been taken for tests to determine the cause of their deaths.

Less than three weeks ago, authorities said the bodies of 94 dead seals were found in the same area. They said at the time that the animals were too decomposed to perform any forensic investigations on them.

On May 4, Ecology Minister Serikqali Birekeshev rejected allegations that the mass deaths of the endangered seals might have been caused by operations of the North Caspian Operating Company, which drills oil wells in the Caspian Sea bed.

The Caspian seal is the only mammal living in the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water.

The endemic species has for decades suffered from overhunting and industrial pollution in its habitat, with their numbers now estimated at less than 70,000, compared with more than 1 million in the early 20th century.

Listed as a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2008, the seal was included in Russia's Red Data Book of endangered and rare species last year.

The Caspian Sea, shared by five riparian states -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan -- boasts vast oil and gas reserves.

Pollution from hydrocarbon extraction and declining water levels are posing a threat to many local species and putting the future of the sea itself at risk.

With reporting by Lada.kz

McDonald's, Renault Latest To Exit Russia Over Ukraine

People stand in line near the entrance to the first McDonalds in Moscow, 31 January 1990.

Global fast-food giant McDonald's and French carmaker Renault have become the latest major corporations to announce their exit from Russia, joining dozens of others in an exodus over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S.-based McDonald's said in a statement from its corporate headquarters in Chicago on May 16 that after more than 30 years of operations in Russia, it will exit the Russian market and has initiated a process to sell its Russian business.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

"The humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, and the precipitating unpredictable operating environment, have led McDonald's to conclude that continued ownership of the business in Russia is no longer tenable, nor is it consistent with McDonald's values," the statement says.

"As part of McDonald's decision to exit, the Company is pursuing the sale of its entire portfolio of McDonald's restaurants in Russia to a local buyer. The Company intends to initiate the process of “de-Arching” those restaurants, which entails no longer using the McDonald’s name, logo, branding, and menu, though the Company will continue to retain its trademarks in Russia," it added.

The announcement came the same day Renault said it had reached an agreement to sell its Russian holdings, including its controlling interest in AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada vehicles.

Renault said that it was selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute (NAMI), with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next six years."

"Today, we have taken a difficult but necessary decision; and we are making a responsible choice towards our 45,000 employees in Russia, while preserving the Group's performance and our ability to return to the country in the future, in a different context," Luca de Meo, the chief executive officer of Renault Group, said in the statement.

Financial details of the transactions were not revealed, but Renault has said it would record a non-cash adjustment charge of $2.3 billion related to Russia in its 2022 first-half results.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said after the announcement that production of passenger cars under the Moskvich brand will resume at the Moscow Renault plant as "we cannot allow thousands of workers to be left without work."

Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ will become a technical partner at the plant. he said.

McDonald's directly manages more than 80 percent of the restaurants in Russia that bear the company's name, and accounts for about 9 percent of its revenue and 3 percent of its operating profit.

Worldwide, McDonald's have more than 39,000 locations in over 100 countries.

Kazakh Opposition Activist Gets Seven Years In Prison, Family Says Will Appeal

Kazakh opposition activist Erulan Amirov and his relative react to his sentencing in court on May 16.

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan -- An opposition activist in Kazakhstan's southern city of Shymkent has been sentenced to seven years in prison on terrorism charges that he rejects.

The Al-Farabi district court sentenced Erulan Amirov on May 16 after finding him guilty of inciting social hatred, propagating terrorism, and involvement in the activities of a banned organization.

After his sentence was pronounced, Amirov said, "I do not know why I am in custody."

An RFE/RL correspondent said a bruise could be seen on Amirov's head, but when asked about it, the activist answered that he was "scared" to talk about it.

Amirov's mother, Sharipa Niyazova, said the court ruling will be appealed.

Amirov, who went on trial in January, was arrested in April last year. But his family only learned that he was being held in a detention center in Shymkent in December after what a Kazakh human rights group said was attempt to commit suicide.

Niyazova says her son suffers psychiatric disorders.

Kazakh human rights organizations have designated Amirov as a political prisoner and have demanded his release.

The charges against Amirov stemmed from his posts on social networks criticizing Kazakh authorities and for his participation in unsanctioned protest rallies organized by the banned Koshe (Street) political party.

Many activists across the Central Asian nation have been handed prison terms or parole-like restricted freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of the Koshe party and its affiliate Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and outspoken critic of the Kazakh government.

Human Rights Watch earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.

The Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Iranian Convicted Of 1992 Murder Of Dissidents Calls For Pressure On Sweden To Release Nouri

Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life in prison over the murder of four Iranian dissidents (file photo)

Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life in prison over the 1992 murder of four Iranian dissidents, has called on President Ebrahim Raisi to pressure the Swedish government for the release of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri, who is on trial in Stockholm over the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners.

In an interview with the hard-line Fars news agency, Darabi, who was released in 2007 after serving 15 years in prison in Germany, claimed Nouri, an alleged former deputy prosecutor and member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was put on trial with “no logic nor evidence.”

Nouri is charged with international war crimes and human rights abuses in connection with the murders of more than 100 people at a prison in Karaj.

Swedish prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Nouri, who has been held in custody in Sweden since his arrest in Stockholm in November 2019. The Stockholm District Court has said that a verdict in the case is expected on July 14.

Tehran has threatened to execute Swedish-Iranian national Ahmadreza Djalali, who is currently being held in Iran and is accused of spying for Israel.

Iranian officials have claimed that the two cases, which have strained relations between Sweden and Iran, are not related.

Darabi whose case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Berlin and Tehran, said the trial with Nouri and other similar court proceedings, are to put “the Islamic republic on trial.”

Iran’s clerical establishment has been accused of having threatened and assassinated dozens of political opponents outside the country.

Iranian officials have denied the accusations.

After the trial of Darabi and four others that lasted more than 3 years, a German court in 1997 concluded that Iranian government was "directly involved" in the 1992 killings of three top members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and one of their supporters at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.

Darabi who had worked as a grocer in Berlin and has steadfastly claimed his innocence, was identified as an agent of the Iranian government who organized the killings.

Sweden Joins Finland In NATO Bid As Putin Warns Of 'Response'

The flags of Finland and NATO (file photo)

Sweden has joined Finland in deciding to apply to join the NATO military alliance in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine as President Vladimir Putin said Moscow will "certainly" react to the alliance's expected enlargement into the two Nordic countries.

"The government has decided to inform NATO that Sweden wants to become a member of the alliance. Sweden's NATO ambassador will shortly inform NATO," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters on May 16, effectively ending two centuries of the country's nonaligned status.

"Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO," she said. "We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us."

The move comes a day after Nordic neighbor Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, made a similar announcement. Finland has remained neutral in the postwar era after losing some 10 percent of its territory to the Soviet Union.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin have said that after consulting parliament, their country intends to rapidly apply for NATO membership.

Both countries have moved quickly toward the military alliance since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Their bids to join must be unanimously approved by NATO's 30 members.

In Moscow, Putin said on May 16 that while Russia did not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, deployment of military infrastructure there may trigger a response from Moscow.

The expansion of NATO to Sweden and Finland poses "no direct threat for us...but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response," Putin told a televised summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military alliance.

Earlier in the day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO would be a "grave mistake with far-reaching consequences."

Finland and Sweden "should have no illusions that we will simply resign ourselves to this," Ryabkov said.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Russia "will have to take steps in response to Sweden’s accession to NATO" but this would depend on the terms of Sweden's integration, including possible deployment of offensive weapons on Swedish territory.

Sweden's accession to NATO "will do serious harm to the security of Northern Europe and the European continent in general," a Defense Ministry statement quoted by TASS said, adding that "Russia will have to take response steps of the military-technical and other nature to avert threats to its national security stemming from it."

While no formal date is expected to be announced immediately for when accession could take place, NATO will hold a summit in Madrid on June 28-29.

NATO officials have indicated that the accession protocols for Finland and Sweden could be signed at that time if the formal applications landed on Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s desk by the end of May.

In response to the news, Stoltenberg said their entry would be "smooth and swift."

But the alliance first will have to find a way around Turkey's threat to block the expansion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Turkey's opposition to NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing them of failing to take a clear stance against terrorism, a reference to the harboring of Kurdish militants.

According to Justice Ministry sources quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, Sweden and Finland have failed to respond positively to Turkey's 33 extradition requests over the past five years.

Sweden and Finland have said they plan to send delegations to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials, but Erdogan said they shouldn't bother.

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on May 16 that the U.S. Congress will seek to ratify Finland's application to join NATO before going on holiday in August.

"Certainly we hope to achieve it before the August recess when Congress typically goes out of session," McConnell told reporters in Helsinki after meeting with Niinisto.

McConnell said there was broad bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers for the Finnish membership.

Russian exports of power to Finland were down to zero early on May 16, flow data showed, after Russian utility firm Inter RAO said last week it would halt them because it had not been paid.

Finnish grid operator Fingrid said on May 14 that the suspension of Russian transmission was due to restrictions on payments imposed by Western states. But is added that it can replace Russian supplies with Swedish power and by boosting domestic production.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, Reuters, and TASS

Noted Georgian Journalist Gvaramia Sentenced To Lengthy Prison Term

Georgian opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia is seen in court during his trial on corruption charges.

TBILISI -- Noted Georgian opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term on corruption charges that he and his supporters reject as politically motivated.

A Tbilisi court sentenced the 45-year-old journalist and lawyer to 3 1/2 years in prison on May 16, after finding him guilty of abuse of power related to his activities as director-general of the Rustavi-2 television channel in 2019.

Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze also found Gvaramia guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000-lari ($16,300) fine on that charge.

Gvaramia, however, was acquitted on charges of money laundering, bribery, and forgery.

"Good job!" Gvaramia shouted out in the courtroom in reaction to the judge's ruling.

The court found Gvaramia's co-defendant, Kakhaber Damenia, former financial director of Rustavi-2, guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000-lari fine as well. Another co-defendant, the director of the Inter Media Plus news agency, Zurab Lashvili, was acquitted of all charges.

Gvaramia left Rustavi-2 in 2019 after the European Court of Human Rights upheld a verdict by Georgia's Supreme Court on restoring the ownership of the country's then main opposition channel to its previous owner, Kibar Khalvashi, who was seen as close to the government.

Transparency International-Georgia condemned Gvaramia's conviction, calling it a case of retaliation by the authorities for his journalistic activities.

"Based on the case study and observation of the process, we can conclude that the case is politically motivated with the aim of punishing Nika Gvaramia and disrupting the activities of his TV channel as it was critical of the authorities." Transparency International-Georgia said.

"The use of the justice system for media censorship and intimidation is a dangerous message for other critical media outlets as well."

"At the same time, this verdict is a continuation of the political persecution that has been carried out against the state opponents for years," Transparency International-Georgia concluded.

Georgia ranked 89th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. In 2019 it ranked 60th.

Renault Divests Russian Auto Holdings, But Keeps Option To Buy Back AvtoVAZ

The Renault automobile plant in Moscow (file photo)

French car maker Renault says it has reached an agreement to sell its Russian holdings, including its controlling interest in AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada vehicles, due to Moscow's unprovoked war against Ukraine.

Renault said in a statement on May 16 that it is selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned NAMI research institute (the Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute), with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next 6 years."

"Today, we have taken a difficult but necessary decision; and we are making a responsible choice towards our 45,000 employees in Russia, while preserving the Group's performance and our ability to return to the country in the future, in a different context," Luca de Meo, the chief executive officer of Renault Group said in the statement.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Financial details of the transactions were not revealed, but Renault has said it would record a non-cash adjustment charge of $2.3 billion related to Russia in its 2022 first-half results.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said after the announcement that production of passenger cars under the Moskvich brand will resume at the Moscow Renault plant as "we cannot allow thousands of workers to be left without work."

Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ will become a technical partner at the plant. he said.

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