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U.S. Warship Delivers Humanitarian Aid to Georgia, While Russian Troops Remain

U.S. Navy Captain John Moore (center) of the 'USS McFaul' walks with other U.S. officers after the U.S. military ship arrived in Batumi with humanitarian aid.

A U.S. warship carrying humanitarian aid has arrived in Georgia, as authorities assess the damage to the country's main east-west rail line after a fuel train hit a mine and exploded.

The guided missile destroyer "USS McFaul" entered Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi, carrying humanitarian goods such as blankets, hygiene kits, and baby food. It's the first delivery of U.S. aid to Georgia by sea.

"First of all, it is a sign, meaning that Georgia is not alone, that Georgia will not be let alone in times of hardship," Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili told reporters, adding that it also means Russia will not be allowed to interfere in Georgia or anywhere else on post-Soviet territory.

Other U.S. vessels are scheduled to follow later this week. The United States has already delivered aid by military cargo plane.

The United Nations says the conflict has displaced 150,000 people in Georgia, including South Ossetia.

Reports say Batumi is not a natural harbor for a naval vessel the size of the "McFaul." But Russia, ignoring Western demands to remove its remaining troops from Georgia's heartland, are still in control of the key Georgian port of Poti, some 80 kilometers north of Batumi.

Kezerashvili also said infrastructure at Poti was severely damaged during the fighting, preventing ships the size of the "McFaul" from using the port at this time, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reports.

Russian Checkpoints

The secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Aleksandre Lomaia, told Reuters that Tbilisi had reached a deal with Moscow for the withdrawal of the Russian soldiers from Poti on August 24, but Russian officials said they could not confirm this.

Russian forces also continue to man checkpoints near the strategic town of Gori, in central Georgia.

Russia says its remaining troops are peacekeepers needed to avert further bloodshed and to protect the people of Georgia's separatist, pro-Moscow provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Moscow maintains its current positions are in accordance with the six principles of a French-brokered cease-fire plan, an assertion contradicted by Georgian, U.S., and European leaders.

On August 23, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered a cease-fire between Moscow and Tbilisi, urged the Russian military to pull its troops back from its remaining positions deep within Georgia.

"Putting up permanent facilities and checkpoints are inconsistent with the [cease-fire] agreement," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush.

A fuel train tanker burns after it hit a mine near Gori.

Fuel Train Explodes

Georgian officials are assessing the scale of the damage from the fuel-train blast, which has added to simmering tensions and could potentially disrupt a key trade route for oil exports from Azerbaijan to European markets.

"The railway is vital not just for the Georgian economy, but for the economy of neighboring countries," Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told Reuters.

Officials in Azerbaijan said oil cargoes were being held up at the Georgian border following the explosion.

A huge plume of black smoke could be seen pouring from the wreckage of the train outside the village of Skra, 5 kilometers west of Gori.

The governor of the surrounding Shida Kartli region, Vladimer Vardzelashvili, said the train was traveling near a military base that had been occupied by Russian troops until August 22. He said no one was injured in the explosion.

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said the blast had also set off explosions at an abandoned munitions dump nearby. He blamed the incident on Russian troops. The Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment.

The director of Georgia's railways, Irakli Ezugbaia, said an investigation is under way and that other mines had been found on the tracks. Georgian forces also removed a large artillery shell that had been jammed under the tracks and covered with stones.

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Goga Aptsiauri reports that a 47-year-old woman was killed when she stepped on a mine in front of her apartment building in a suburb of Gori. In a separate incident, a young Georgian man is in critical condition after he stepped on a mine in the village of Tirdznisi, north of Gori.

David Tkeshelashvili, the state minister for regional governance, told RFE/RL that authorities have begun to demine areas previously occupied by Russian forces. But he said the latest incidents show that the authorities will have to expand the scope of their efforts.

"Unfortunately, a lot of surprises of this nature are still in front of us," Tkeshelashvili said.

with agency reports

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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Bulgaria Suspects Russian Role In Bomb Threats Closing Schools For Second Day

Children and teachers gather outside a Sofia school on March 27 that received an e-mailed bomb threat.

Dozens of Bulgarian schools were closed for a second day on March 28 following bomb threats with investigators saying they were looking into potential Russia-linked terror actions meant to disrupt the upcoming snap parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2.

Most of the schools targeted in the threats -- first made by e-mail and phone on March 27 -- were located in the capital, Sofia, and the Black Sea port cities of Varna and Burgas. The threats prompted the disruption of classes and the evacuation of students.

More threats were made on March 28, with Sofia's Economic University among the institutions targeted by the calls that appeared to be hoaxes after police teams searching for explosives failed to find any devices.

The Interior Ministry said it suspected Russia may be behind plans to disrupt the April vote, since most polling across Bulgaria will take place at schools, with Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev saying similarly worded threats had been sent to other European schools before.

"What is happening to us has been happening in many European countries recently," Demerdzhiev told the media on March 28 in the city of Malko Tarnovo in the Burgas region, adding that the ministry's investigation is taking into account a possible hybrid attack originating in Russia.

Demerdzhiev said EU and U.S. partner agencies were aiding Bulgaria in its effort to pinpoint the source of the threats.

EU and NATO member Bulgaria is among the countries that imposed sanctions on Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and has since been regarded as a hostile country by the Kremlin.

Asked about how authorities will respond if bomb threats continue through election day on April 2, Demerdzhiev said, "The election process will only be interrupted if there is a credible threat."

Demerdzhiev said authorities plan to review the procedures that assess the seriousness of a threat before evacuating public institutions.

"Within days, a change in the protocol for action in such situations will be prepared. At this stage, we have no confirmed information about the original source of the bomb threats to Bulgarian schools," said Demerdzhiev.

The Sofia City Prosecutor's Office, meanwhile, said that it had opened an investigation into a potential act of terrorism.

Father Of Russian Sixth Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Escapes House Arrest, Given Prison Term In Absentia

Aleksei Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine.

A man in Russia's western region of Tula whose daughter last year drew an anti-war picture at school has been sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces. The Yefremov district court said after pronouncing the sentence on March 28 that Aleksei Moskalyov had escaped house arrest. Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine. The charges against him stemmed from a subsequent investigation into his own online posts that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Official Calls On Kyrgyzstan To Prevent Russia From Evading Sanctions

Kyrgyz Economy and Commerce Minister Daniyar Amangeldiev told RFE/RL that Bishkek cannot guarantee that no sanctioned goods are being exported to Russia. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- David O'Sullivan, the European Union's special envoy for the implementation of sanctions, has called on Kyrgyzstan and other nations in Moscow's political and economic sphere to avoid assisting Moscow's attempts to evade sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Talking to reporters in Bishkek on March 28, O'Sullivan questioned the final destination of many goods imported to Central Asian nations, as well as to Armenia, Georgia, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates, after data showed a 300 percent increase of goods coming into the area from the EU in recent months.

"The transportation of goods previously exported to Russia from the European Union, but stopped after the sanctions, has increased," he said.

O'Sullivan pointed out that 770 items imported from the EU to other countries had been found in Russian military equipment and weapons used in its war against Ukraine, a clear sign that some nations were being used as transit points for goods to flow into Russia.

He added that he hopes to meet with top officials from Kyrgyzstan to discuss the exporting of goods from the Central Asian nation to other countries to prevent the products from making their way to Russia.

Kyrgyz Economy and Commerce Minister Daniyar Amangeldiev told RFE/RL that Kyrgyzstan's trade with other nations is being carried out in accordance with all laws and regulations, adding however, that Bishkek cannot guarantee no sanctioned goods are being exported to Russia.

Kyrgyzstan is one of Russia's active trading partners and a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a trading bloc dominated by Russia that also includes Belarus, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. The grouping was conceived by Moscow as a counterweight to the European Union, though experts view it as being mainly a way for Moscow to exert economic leverage over the other countries.

Since the start of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine, the EU and the United States have sanctioned thousands of entities and individuals, while the U.S. Commerce Department has imposed prohibitive controls on exports to Russia and its ally Belarus.

The United States said earlier this month that Russian companies have evaded the sanctions using intermediaries in China, Armenia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

In April last year, the deputy chief of the presidential office in Kazakhstan, Russia's largest trade partner in Central Asia, said his country will not help Russia evade Western sanctions, but added it will continue its economic ties with Russia within the Eurasian Economic Union, as "there is no way for our economy to do it differently."

Bosnian Serb Entity Says Controversial Draft Law Will Monitor NGOs' Financial Flows

President Milorad Dodik

A controversial draft law approved by the government of Republika Srpska that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb entity to register and report on their work will require them to submit their "financial flows" to the Justice Ministry of Republika Srpska.

The draft law, approved by the Republika Srpska's executive on March 23, is now being debated by the entity's parliament -- the National Assembly. After a two-month period for public discussion, an adapted version of the law would then return to the National Assembly for approval.

The proposal has been sharply criticized by the United States and the European Union, with American officials calling it "repressive, anti-democratic legislation."

Justice Minister Milos Bukejlovic, however, justified the move, saying in a video message released on March 28 that the goal of the legislation is "to prevent the misuse of nonprofit organizations."

"There are organizations that use these funds through illegal financial flows for social destruction, destabilization, and eventual financing of terrorist organizations," Bukejlovic said.

If adopted, it would then be signed into law by the entity's president, Milorad Dodik, who has been backing the measure.

After approving the draft on March 23, the government issued a statement justifying the move as necessary to plug a hole in the current legislation that does not require the NGOs to exercise financial transparency.

It said this gap in regulation creates a situation that could lead to "the collapse of the legal system and constitutional framework of [Republika Srpska], while harmful consequences are caused for the institutions and organizations of [Republika Srpska]."

Dodik, who has been blacklisted by the United States and Britain in multiple rounds of sanctions over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption, has claimed the draft law is based on 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 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.

"[The law], if implemented, would drastically impinge on the rights and freedoms of the people living in the Republika Srpska. This legislation would benefit only the ruling coalition in its effort to consolidate power. It will hurt everyone else," the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said on March 10.

Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska say the proposed foreign agents law has more in common with the Russian law than with the U.S. FARA. They also said is about "establishing supervision and total control over the work of civil society."

The EU delegation in Bosnia has said in a statement that the move is "regrettable, as it further limits the work of civil society organizations, and thus the realization of freedom of association and assembly."

In a statement released on March 27, the delegation also voiced its hope that Republika Srpska authorities will withdraw proposed laws on introducing criminal sanctions for defamation and controlling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

As per the electronic register of associations and foundations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are currently around 25,600 nongovernmental organizations. More than 7,500 of these are registered in Republika Srpska. However, there is no data on how many of them are funded from abroad.

Russian Court Cancels Acquittal Of LGBTQ Activist In Case Of 'Pornographic' Art

Yulia Tsvetkova leaves after a court session in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on April 12, 2021.

A court of appeals in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok has canceled the acquittal of LGBTQ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova in a high-profile pornography case involving nude drawings and other artwork.

The Court of Appeals No. 9 ruled on March 28 that the case must be sent for retrial in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

The 29-year-old Tsvetkova, who was acquitted in November, is currently out of Russia.

She initially was found not guilty in mid-July 2022 before prosecutors, under pressure from anti-LGBTQ activists, appealed the ruling. But the appeal was rejected by a court in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on November 22.

Tsvetkova draws women's bodies and is widely known for her advocacy of LGBTQ issues.

She administers a social media page called The Vagina Monologues. The pages contained drawings and other images that resembled female genitalia, which had attracted the attention of authorities.

She was charged with producing and distributing pornographic material and prosecutors said at the time that they sought a 38-month prison sentence in the case.

Tsvetkova’s trial began in April 2021 after an investigation of almost 18 months, during which she was fined for spreading LGBTQ "propaganda" and put under house arrest.

The trial was held behind closed doors because prosecutors said they needed to show the images as evidence.

In May 2021, Tsvetkova launched a hunger strike to protest the case against her, accusing the state of the “cowardly” handling of her case and treatment that amounted to “torture.”

In June 2022, the Justice Ministry added Tsvetkova to its list of “foreign agents.”

Amnesty International has said the case against Tsvetkova amounts to political repression and “Kafkaesque absurdity,” adding that the artist was criminally charged with “producing pornography“ simply for "drawing and publishing images of the female body and freely expressing her views through art.”

In November, Tsvetkova's paintings were exhibited in Marseille, France.

U.S. Performances By Pro-Kremlin Opera Singer Canceled

Ildar Abdrazakov in 2018

Two venues in the United States have canceled performances by Russian opera singer Ildar Abdrazakov over his open support of the Russian government's policies.

Activists of the Arts Against Aggression group in the United States told RFE/RL that concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall and in Boston have been canceled at the request of Russian-speaking communities in the two cities. The communities pointed to Abdrazakov’s links with the Kremlin as the reason for their requests.

Abdrazakov, who has not commented publicly on the issue, was scheduled to perform in Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in Boston. The concert's organizers replaced Abdrazakov with German baritone Mathiass Goerne following the protesters' demands.

At Carnegie Hall, Abdrazakov was expected to sing in the opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk and has been replaced by Austrian bass opera singer Gunther Groissbock amid the protests.

Last month, Abdrazakov's performances were canceled at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan.

Austria's Opern News periodical has written about Abdrazakov’s links with the Russian government. According to the media outlet, which focuses on the opera world, Abdrazakov took part in a concert in Moscow where he sang with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Abdrazakov also has taken part in numerous public events and concerts promoting the Russian government's policies.

After Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February last year, another well-known Russian singer, soprano Anna Netrebko, started having problems organizing concerts in the European Union and the United States over her open support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk in 2014. Netrebko also publicly supported President Vladimir Putin in his election campaigns.

On February 28, 2022, four days after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Metropolitan Opera stopped its cooperation with Netrebko, saying the collaboration with her might be restored only after Russia stops its war against Ukraine and compensates Kyiv for damages.

Kremlin-friendly Russian pianist Denis Matsuyev's concerts in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy have been also canceled since the start of the war in Ukraine. The Sergei Rachmaninoff Foundation in Switzerland halted Matsuyev's membership in its council in April.

Russia Says It Will Keep Calling For Nord Stream Probe After UN Failure

The leak spewed gas into the Baltic Sea.

The Kremlin said on March 28 that it would keep demanding an international investigation into explosions that damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea last year, after failing to win backing for a probe at the United Nations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said everyone should be interested in an impartial investigation in order to find the culprits. On March 27, Russia failed to get the UN Security Council to ask for an independent inquiry into explosions in September that ruptured the Nord Stream gas pipelines connecting Russia and Germany and spewed gas into the Baltic Sea. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Belarus Alleges Western 'Pressure' Prompted Decision To Host Russian Nukes

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka outside Moscow on February 17.

Belarus claims it was "forced" to agree to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory in response to what it called "unprecedented political, economic, and information pressure" from the West.

A statement placed on the website of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on March 28 accused the United States, Britain, and the European Union of "direct and blatant interference into the internal affairs of an independent state aiming to derail the geopolitical course and change the internal political order of Belarus."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The statement comes three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had reached agreement with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders NATO and EU member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well Russia and Ukraine.

Lukashenka has become an international pariah since claiming victory in an August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and West says was rigged.

His subsequent brutal crackdown on dissent spurred the European Union, United Kingdom, United States, and many other Western nations to impose crippling sanctions on Minsk and most of Lukashenka's regime.

Amid the growing international isolation, Lukashenka has turned to traditional ally Russia for support. In return, he has also allowed Moscow to use Belarus as a staging area for launching the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry statement said that in the face of such actions by the West, "Belarus has to undertake responsive actions to strengthen its own security and defense capabilities."

When announcing the move, Putin said Russia was building a storage facility in Belarus and that Moscow would not be transferring control of the weapons to Minsk authorities.

The Belarus Foreign Ministry said the move fits "tightly in accordance with international law" and doesn't contradict the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), though Western leaders have condemned it.

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, on March 26 called the move "an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security" and warned that Minsk faces possible further sanctions if it hosts the weapons.

"The announcement of the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus will certainly lead to the announcement of additional sanctions. The level of sanctions will be much more severe for the Lukashenka regime," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said during a news conference in Bucharest on March 28.

NATO, meanwhile, said it is "closely monitoring the situation" and accused Moscow of "consistently" breaking arms-control commitments, including its recent suspension of the New START treaty."

The White House has also said it is monitoring the situation, though it saw no immediate reason to adjust its nuclear stance nor any indications Russia is preparing to use such weapons.

Military experts told RFE/RL that Putin's announcement was just as much a political card being played as it was a military move.

"The placement of the nuclear weapons in Belarus, in the ongoing situation, is blackmail targeting not only NATO but Ukraine as well. The signal is sent to make Europeans worry, to scale down their assistance to Ukraine. And it is a warning to Ukraine -- if you want to shoot down our jets based in Belarus, remember, there is a nuclear option," Russian military expert Pavel Luzin said.

According to Luzin, Lukashenka may not have taken into account that any placement of nuclear arms in his country will prolong the presence of Russian troops in Belarus.

"Since late 2021, Russian troops have been in Belarus temporarily. After [nuclear arms] depots appear in Belarus, Russian troops will stay in the country on a permanent basis," Luzin said.

Meanwhile, Pavel Podvig, a senior research fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, told RFE/RL that "it is unlikely that Russian nuclear weapons will appear in Belarus" as there are no proper facilities to keep such weapons there.

"As far as I understand, [the statement's] goal was mostly political -- to demonstrate the strengthening of the alliance between Belarus and Russia. There was no military expediency in it," Podvig said.

The NPT is a landmark pact aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Signed by more than 190 countries, it entered into force in 1970.

U.K., Poland To Build New Temporary Villages In Ukraine

A Polish soldier passes by as people sit in a bus after they crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border on March 18, 2022. More than 3 million Ukrainians fled across the border, mostly women and children, after Russia's invasion, according to the UN.

Britain and Poland will build two temporary villages in western and central Ukraine to provide housing for those forced from their homes by Russia's invasion, London said, pledging 10 million pounds ($12.3 million) in funding. Almost 118,000 Ukrainians have been hosted by British families as part of the government's response to Russia's February 2022 invasion, but some are finding it increasingly difficult to get permanent housing. Britain's government said the villages in Lviv and Poltava would be able to house more than 700 people, a fraction of the millions either displaced in Ukraine or who have fled the country. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

IS-K Claims Suicide Attack Near Foreign Ministry In Kabul That Killed Six

Taliban fighters stand guard at the explosion site near the Foreign Ministry in Kabul on March 27.

Islamic State-Khorasan, an offshoot of the Islamic State militant group, has claimed a suicide attack that killed six people and wounded 12 others on March 27 near the Foreign Ministry in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

After the Taliban's return to power in 2021, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.

Ahead of the March 27 attack, security forces spotted the bomber and shot at him but could not prevent him from reaching a checkpoint in Malik Asghar Square, where he detonated his explosive vest, according to Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban's security command in Kabul.

A Kabul hospital run by EMERGENCY, an Italian NGO, said on Twitter that it had admitted 12 wounded patients, including a child, as well as two people who were dead on arrival.

IS-K later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in a statement on Amaq, the militant group's news arm.

The attack took place a day after the Taliban claimed it had killed three key Islamic State militants during a raid in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh Province.

Islamic State has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently.

On January 11, an IS suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry, not far from the site of the March 27 attack.

IS also claimed a bombing near a checkpoint at the Kabul military airport on January 1 that killed up to 20 people and an attack in December on a Kabul hotel frequented by businesspeople. At least five Chinese nationals were wounded in the December attack on the hotel.

In September, two Russian Embassy employees were killed in an IS suicide attack outside Moscow's mission in Kabul.

The Taliban has responded to the attacks by stepping up raids on suspected IS hideouts.

Last month, Taliban security forces said they had killed two senior IS members -- Qari Fateh, the regional IS intelligence and operations chief, and another senior leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar, in two separate raids in Kabul.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa
Updated

Prominent Afghan Girls' Education Advocate Detained By Taliban

Matiullah Wesa

A prominent activist for the right to education for Afghan girls, Matiullah Wesa, has been detained by the Taliban, his brother and the United Nations said on March 28.

Wesa was detained outside his home in Kabul by Taliban security forces, his brother, Muhammad Wali Akhlaqi, told RFE/RL. He was beaten and thrown in a car that sped away, Akhlaki said.

After returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban adopted a hard line, crushing women’s rights and restricting freedoms, including imposing a ban on girl’s education beyond the sixth grade, despite initially promising to be more open to women’s rights.

Women were forced to cover themselves, banned from public spaces, and forbidden to work for domestic and foreign NGOs; traveling or working outside the home is largely restricted.

The UN Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported Wesa's arrest in a statement on Twitter on March 28, while UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett tweeted that he was "alarmed" by the news of the activist's arrest.

"Matiullah Wesa, head of PenPath1 and advocate for girls’ education, was arrested in Kabul Monday," UNAMA said. "UNAMA calls on the de facto authorities to clarify his whereabouts, the reasons for his arrest, and to ensure his access to legal representation and contact with family."

"Alarmed by reports that Matiullah Wesa, famous educator especially for girls, leading civil society member, & founder of PenPath1, has been arrested in Kabul by the Taliban. His safety is paramount & all his legal rights must be respected," Bennett tweeted.

The Taliban has not commented on Wesa's arrest.

Wesa, who is 30, launched the PenPath1 project some 14 years ago, campaigning for schools for girls and distributing books in rural areas.

PenPath also talks about the importance of girls' education to villagers in remote areas.

Wesa has continued to campaign for girls' education even after the Taliban's ban on secondary school education for girls.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Russia Launches Fresh Wave Of Drones Against Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers of the 28th Brigade walk together at their position on the front line near Bakhmut on March 27.

Russia launched another wave of Iranian-made drones on Kyiv and its surroundings, but Ukraine's air defenses shot down almost all of them and there were no immediate reports of casualties, the military said on March 27, as heavy fighting continued in and around Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

An air-raid alert initially declared late on March 27 in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Luhansk was later extended to the regions of Kherson, Zhytomyr, and Kirovohrad.

"Russian forces used 15 Shahed-136 attack drones to launch air strikes on Ukraine, and 14 of them were destroyed by the Ukrainian military," the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its daily bulletin.

"The probability of launching further missile and air strikes remains high throughout the territory of Ukraine," the General Staff cautioned.

Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv City Military Administration, reported that 12 drones were shot down overnight near the Ukrainian capital.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported explosions in the Obolon and Svyatoshyn districts of the capital. A fire engulfed a shop in the Svyatoshyn district but it was rapidly contained and no victims were reported, Klitschko said. The fire was apparently triggered by falling debris from a downed drone.

In the east, the General Staff said that fighting raged on several fronts in the Donetsk region, where Ukrainian forces repelled 62 attacks over the past 24 hours. Russian forces continued to launch assault after assault on Bakhmut, the ruined mining city that has become the epicenter of Moscow's offensive.

Lately, the Russian military has also stepped up the shelling of Maryinka and Avdiyivka, two Ukrainian-controlled towns on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk that has been under the control of Moscow-backed forces since 2014.

In Avdiyivka, Russian shelling has shut down all public services and municipal workers have been evacuated. Only about2,000 civilians out of a prewar population of some 30,000 remain in the city.

Vitaliy Barabash, the chief of Avdiyivka's military administration, has said continuous Russian bombardments have turned the town into "a place from postapocalyptic movies."

WATCH: Ukrainian soldiers have been honing their skills to shoot down Iranian-made drones with machine guns.

Sky Hunters: Ukrainian Border Guards Gun Down Iranian-Made Drones
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Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit on March 27 to frontline positions in the region of Zaporizhzhya, where he also met with UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi to discuss the protection of Europe's largest nuclear power station.

Zelenskiy told the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it was not possible to restore safety at the plant with Russia still in control of the facility.

"Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and adjacent territory, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure," Zelenskiy told Grossi, according to a statement from the president's office.

He also drew Grossi's attention to the constant pressure that power plant personnel are under from Russian forces, the statement said.

"I met with Zelenskiy today in Zaporizhzhya City & had a rich exchange on the protection of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and its staff. I reiterated the full support of the IAEA to Ukraine’s nuclear facilities," Grossi said on Twitter.

Zelenskiy's office said in an earlier statement that the president had met with troops "in frontline positions" in the Zaporizhzhya region.

The latest fighting came as Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany has delivered 18 of the promised advanced Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Amnesty Report Says 'Hypocrisy' Of Western States Laid Bare By Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

Shoes symbolizing war crimes committed against Ukrainian civilians are seen in Old Town Square in Prague in an installation marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 unleashed numerous war crimes and generated a global energy and food crisis, but it also laid bare the hypocrisy of Western states that reacted to the Kremlin’s aggression, Amnesty International said in its annual report on human rights.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Amnesty International said that while the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was swift and forceful, countries applied human rights law on a case-by-case basis in a "staggering show of blatant hypocrisy and double standards" and left a lack of meaningful action on grave violations by some of their allies.

“States cannot criticize human rights violations one minute and in the next condone similar abuses in other countries just because their interests are at stake. It’s unconscionable and undermines the entire fabric of universal human rights," said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, in a news release accompanying the report.

The organization said its report examining the human rights situation in 156 countries in 2022 highlights double standards throughout the world on human rights and the failure of the international community to unite around human rights and universal values. It also found that double standards and inadequate responses to human rights abuses around the world fueled impunity and instability.

The report said, for example, that while EU member states opened their borders to Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression, many kept their doors shut to those escaping war and repression in Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya.

It also said that while the United States has been a vocal critic of alleged Russian violations in Ukraine and has admitted tens of thousands of Ukrainian war refugees, it expelled more than 25,000 Haitians between September 2021 and May 2022.

The report cited in particular the refusal to confront Israel’s "system of apartheid against Palestinians" and inaction against China's human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Province.

These double standards emboldened countries like China, and enabled Egypt and Saudi Arabia to evade, ignore, and deflect criticism of their human rights record, Amnesty International said.

Callamard also said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a "chilling example" of what can happen when states think they can flout international law and violate human rights without consequences.

“Had the system worked to hold Russia accountable for its documented crimes in Chechnya and Syria, thousands of lives might have been saved then and now, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead, what we have is more suffering and devastation,” Callamard said.

Russia has been accused by other human rights groups and Western governments of being responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya and of human rights abuses in Syria, including its participation in bombing of civilian targets.

Russia Fails At UN To Get Nord Stream Blast Inquiry

The two Nord Stream gas pipelines linking Russia and Europe were hit by unexplained leaks in September 2022, raising suspicions of sabotage.

Russia failed on March 27 to get the UN Security Council to ask for an independent inquiry into explosions in September on the Nord Stream gas pipelines connecting Russia and Germany. Only Russia, China, and Brazil voted in favor of the Russian-drafted resolution, while the remaining 12 council members abstained. A resolution needs at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, France, the United States, or Britain to pass. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Hungarian Parliament Approves Finland's Bid To Join NATO

The Hungarian parliament votes for the ratification of Finland's NATO membership in Budapest on March 27.

Hungary's parliament on March 27 approved Finland’s bid to join NATO, putting an end to months of delays and bringing the Nordic country one step closer to becoming a full member of the Western military alliance. Hungary's government had frustrated allies in NATO and the European Union by repeatedly postponing the vote after nearly all other alliance members ratified Finland's bid. While Hungary's approval was greeted with relief in Helsinki and elsewhere, NATO accession for Sweden remains up in the air. Finland and Sweden jointly applied for membership following Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Three Kazakh Activists Detained In Almaty After Demonstrating For Release Of Relatives From Xinjiang

The demonstration and detentions in Almaty took place as Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) met in Astana with Ma Xingrui (left), the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, on March 27.

Police detained three Kazakh activists in Almaty on March 27 after they demonstrated near the Chinese consulate to demand the release of their relatives from China’s Xinjiang Province.

Activists Akikat Kaliolla, Nurzat Yermekbay, and Zauatkhan Tursyn were taken to the police department of the Medeu district, according to another activist, Baibolat Kunbolatuly, son of Tursyn. They were held at the police department for several hours and released without charge, Kunbolatuly told RFE/RL.

There was no comment from authorities, and calls by RFE/RL to the police department were not answered.

Kaliolla published a video on Facebook purporting to show the demonstrators and police officers following behind them.

One of the demonstrators, Almakhan Myrzan, held a photograph of her brother, religious researcher Baqytkhan Myrzan, who died earlier this month in custody in a penitentiary in Xinjiang.

Myrzan sharply condemned the authorities for her brother's death, which she confirmed to RFE/RL on March 9. He had been sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2018 for performing an Islamic ritual at a religious event.

She also said that authorities in Xinjiang had ignored demands by Myrzan's relatives in China and Kazakhstan to release him due to a medical condition.

Almakhan Myrzan has been among dozens of people who for more than two years have been picketing the Chinese Embassy in Astana and the consulate in Almaty to demand the release of relatives held in correctional facilities in China.

China has been accused of human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities over the existence of mass detention camps in Xinjiang Province. The crackdown has seen Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Xinjiang's other indigenous ethnic groups sent to the camps.

Beijing denies the facilities are internment camps, saying its actions are aimed at combating terrorism, but people who have fled the province say people from the ethnic groups are undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of facilities officially referred to as reeducation camps.

The demonstration and detentions in Almaty took place as Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev met in Astana with Ma Xingrui, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang.

Toqaev hailed the "eternal friendship" with Beijing as he welcomed the "deepening all-round cooperation with China," Kazakhstan's presidency said.

China is among key investors in the oil-rich country, which is home to a large Uyghur diaspora, while around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang.

Ma said Kazakhstan was a "priority area" of mutual cooperation.

"In general, China's cooperation with Kazakhstan is carried out through Xinjiang," Ma added.

Ma's visit to Astana, which was not widely reported, took place 10 days after the Kazakh ambassador to China, Shakhrat Nuryshev, made a trip to Xinjiang and met with Ma.

Kazakh authorities refrain from openly criticizing the policies of China, one of their main creditors. They have responded to the demands of ethnic Kazakhs for the release of their relatives by saying that what is happening in China is an internal affair of the country, and have said the applications of separated family members are considered "through diplomatic channels."

With reporting by AFP

Iranian Workers' Group Strikes Over Wages As Inflation Continues To Soar

The strike comes after several weeks of protests, dubbed Protest Sundays, in front of government agencies in Shush.

Employees and retirees in the southwestern Iranian city of Shush have gone on strike to protest living standards and to push the government to approve wage and social payment increases in the Iranian New Year.

Videos published on social media showed crowds gathering in front of the local governor's office while chanting, "Enough oppression! Our tablecloth is empty."

The strike comes after several weeks of protests, dubbed Protest Sundays, in front of government agencies in Shush.

On March 26, a rally took place in front of the Shush governor's building, where workers and retirees from the Haft Tapeh sugarcane company joined others to protest.

The Supreme Labor Council has resolved to raise the minimum wage for workers in the Iranian New Year, which commenced on March 21, by only 27 percent compared with the previous year. Annual inflation in Iran has been running at around 40 percent for the past two years.

During a gathering of workers over the weekend, labor activists highlighted the ongoing rise in the inflation rate and the increasing costs of food and other expenses. They argued that the wages set by the Supreme Labor Council are "oppressive" and called for a salary increase that corresponds with price growth and living expenses to better support working families.

Prices have grown as living standards have fallen in Iran due to crushing sanctions imposed on the country by the United States over Tehran's nuclear program.

Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have tried to quell with harsh measures.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Schools Evacuated In Bulgaria Because Of Bomb Threats

Police monitor a school in Burgas, Bulgaria, that received a bomb threat on March 27.

Dozens of schools in Bulgaria were evacuated on March 27 after bomb threats were e-mailed to the schools. Schools in the capital, Sofia, and the cities of Burgas and Varna on the Black Sea were among those affected. Students were told to line up with their backpacks and jackets before being evacuated, and police were sent in to search for explosives. No bombs have been found. Bulgaria is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on April 2, and voting takes place mainly at schools. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, click here.

Iranian Lawmaker Says New Hijab Plan Prohibits Physical Punishment

Iranian parliament member Hossein Jalali (file photo)

An Iranian parliamentarian says the government's new strategy to enforce the compulsory wearing of the hijab will eliminate physical punishment for women and instead carry financial and administrative penalties that have been approved by the leader of the Islamic republic.

Iranian parliament member Hossein Jalali said on March 27 that the new plan includes a financial penalty of up to 30 billion Iranian Rials ($60,000) for those who breach the compulsory hijab law, while additional penalties consist of revoking a person's driver's license, canceling their passport, and prohibiting Internet access for those women who do not adhere to the hijab requirement.

Under the new proposals, physical punishment will not be allowed, Jalali said. Violators instead will be punished according to a predetermined table.

To help limit physical confrontations, surveillance cameras will be used to monitor public spaces for women not wearing the hijab and offenders will be tracked down and punished afterward. Police and judicial authorities will be tasked with collecting evidence and identifying violators, Jalali said.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System

The Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament said earlier that shop owners and the operators of businesses such as shopping malls and accommodation centers will also be responsible for implementing the rules.

Officials have recently moved to seal off the businesses of some "violators," including this week when a hotel in the city of Kashan and a shopping center in the capital, Tehran, were closed because employers were not observing the mandatory hijab rule.

The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

Long-simmering tensions boiled over after the death in custody in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly, with Iranians flooding streets across the country in protest. Women and even schoolgirls have put up unprecedented shows of defiance in the unrest, one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters. Rights groups say more than 500 people have died in the protests.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

As Expected, Kazakhstan's Ruling Party Takes Majority Of Seats In Parliamentary Vote

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev speaks at Norouz celebrations in Astana on March 21.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- As expected, the ruling Amanat party won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan earlier this month, official results show, in a vote the Central Election Commission said had several "minor" violations but that some opposition politicians claimed was marred by issues.

The Central Election Commission said on March 27 that Amanat received 53.9 percent of the votes to win an allocation of 40 seats of the 69 seats on offer in parliament through the party list distribution system. In addition, according to the commission, candidates nominated by Amanat won 22 of the 29 seats on offer in single-mandate contests.

The March 19 vote followed a referendum in June 2022 that marked the end of special privileges for long-reigning former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and snap presidential elections in November that handed 69-year-old incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev a fresh seven-year presidential term.

It was the first vote since 2004 in which candidates without party affiliations could stand for seats in the lower house, called the Mazhilis, as part of a package of electoral reforms initiated by Toqaev in the wake of the unrest in January 2022 that left at least 238 people dead.

The second-place Auyl party won eight seats in the party-list distribution after it took 10.9 percent of the votes; the Respublika party won six seats with 8.59 percent; the Ak Zhol party won six seats with 8.41 percent; the People's Party of Kazakhstan won five seats with 6.8 percent; and four mandates were handed to the opposition Nationwide Social Democratic Party (JSDP), which had 5.2 percent of the votes.

The return of single-mandate district races added some dynamism to a ballot dominated by system candidates in a country where no elections have been deemed free or fair by international election monitors since Kazakhstan gained independence more than 30 years ago.

But several opposition-minded figures were excluded from races at the parliament and city council level on administrative pretexts, while others complained of government pressure on their campaigns.

Several candidates said after the elections that they would not recognize the results because of "various violations" of voting laws and that they would launch a court appeal because "the votes of independent candidates were stolen."

The various violations include improper counting of ballots and government pressure on public employees to vote for certain parties.

The Oraganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted after the vote that "limits on the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms remain and some political groups continue to be prevented from participating as political parties in elections."

While the voting "was organized in a smooth manner overall," the OSCE said "significant procedural irregularities were observed."

Of the seven parties to compete in the elections, the most well-established is the ruling Amanat party, a renamed version of the Nur Otan party led by Nazarbaev, who remained powerful even after stepping down and allowing Toqaev to succeed him in 2019.

Last year’s crisis effectively ended the political career of Nazarbaev, who relinquished his remaining positions to Toqaev, while denying rumors of a rift with his protege.

Updated

Suicide Attack Near Foreign Ministry In Kabul Kills At Least Six

Taliban fighters stand guard at the site of the explosion near the Foreign Ministry in Kabul on March 27.

At least six people were killed and 12 others were wounded on March 27 when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for the Taliban's security command in Kabul, said security forces spotted the bomber and shot at him but could not prevent him from reaching a checkpoint in Malik Asghar Square, where he detonated his explosive vest.

A Kabul hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, said on Twitter that it had admitted 12 wounded patients, including a child, and two people were dead on arrival.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, but after returning to power in 2021, the Taliban has been targeted by Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an offshoot of the Islamic State militant group that has emerged as the Taliban's main rival in the war-wracked country.

IS-K has staged several attacks in Afghanistan recently.

On January 11, an IS-K suicide bomber killed at least 10 people when he blew himself up near the Foreign Ministry, not far from the site of the March 27 attack.

IS-K also claimed a bombing near a checkpoint at the Kabul military airport on January 1 that killed up to 20 people and an attack in December on a Kabul hotel frequented by businesspeople. At least five Chinese nationals were wounded in the December attack on the hotel.

In September, two Russian Embassy employees were killed in an IS-K suicide attack outside Moscow's mission in Kabul.

The Taliban has responded to the attacks by stepping up raids on suspected IS-K hideouts.

Last month, Taliban security forces said they had killed two senior IS-K members -- Qari Fateh, the regional IS-K intelligence and operations chief, and another senior leader, Ijaz Amin Ahingar -- in two separate raids in Kabul.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa

Poland Detains Man For Allegedly Spying For Russia

The flags of NATO, Poland, and Ukraine. Poland, the largest country on NATO's eastern flank, finds itself increasingly targeted by Moscow's intelligence services as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues.

Poland has detained a foreign citizen on charges of spying for Russia, prosecutors said on March 27, as the largest country on NATO's eastern flank finds itself increasingly targeted by Moscow's intelligence services. Prosecutors in the northern Polish city of Gdansk said in a statement that the suspect had been detained on March 21. "The findings made in the case show that the suspect acted for the benefit of Russian intelligence by obtaining and collecting information...on critical infrastructure in the Pomeranian and Kuyavian-Pomeranian regions and on the activities of services and bodies responsible for security," they said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

IOC Should Stick To Ban On Russian, Belarusian Athletes, Poland Says

IOC President Thomas Bach (file photo)

Russian and Belarusian athletes should be banned from the 2024 Olympics in Paris unless Moscow pulls its forces out of Ukraine, Poland said on March 27, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it plans to let them compete as neutrals. "We strongly believe that now is not the time to consider the opening up of a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to the Olympic Games in any status," the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Saudi, Iranian Foreign Ministers To Meet During Muslim Holy Month

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have agreed to meet during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi state news agency SPA said on March 27, under a deal to restore ties. Both ministers spoke by phone for the second time in a few days, SPA said. "The two ministers also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting between them during the ongoing month of Ramadan," SPA said. Ramadan is likely to end on April 20. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Zelenskiy Makes Surprise Trip To Zaporizhzhya, Meets IAEA Chief

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on March 27.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit to frontline positions in the region of Zaporizhzhya, where he also met with UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi to discuss the protection of Europe's largest nuclear power station as fighting rages with invading Russian forces across the eastern flank of the country.

Zelenskiy told the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on March 27 that it was not possible to restore safety at the plant with Russia still in control of the facility.

"Without the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and adjacent territory, any initiatives to restore nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure," Zelenskiy told Grossi, according to a statement from the president's office.

The president also drew Grossi's attention to the constant pressure that power plant personnel are under from Russian forces, the statement said.

There has been no comment from the IAEA on Grossi's meeting with Zelenskiy, but Grossi tweeted earlier that the meeting was to discuss safety issues around the nuclear plant, which is held by Russian forces and has been forced to switch to emergency diesel generators on several occasions after fighting nearby knocked out power lines.

"I met with Zelenskiy today in Zaporizhzhya City & had a rich exchange on the protection of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant and its staff. I reiterated the full support of the IAEA to Ukraine's nuclear facilities," he said.

Grossi said he would be visiting the plant "to assess first-hand the #nuclear safety & security situation at the facility."

Zelenskiy's office said in an earlier statement that the president on March 27 spoke with troops "in frontline positions" in the Zaporizhzhya region and presented them with state awards, while also being apprised of the "operational situation in the relevant areas of the front, the provision of ammunition and equipment."

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued unabated in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian military said, with the Russians keeping up the pressure on the ruined city of Bakhmut, the focal point of Moscow's offensive in the east, and also increasingly targeting Avdiyivka, another city in Donetsk.

Two civilians were killed and 29 injured in Russian shelling of the city of Slovyansk, local officials said.

Zelenskiy released a video of the shelling in Slovyansk on his Telegram channel, describing the attack as "terrorism."

Ukrainian forces repelled more than 60 Russian attacks in Bakhmut and its surroundings, the General Staff of the Armed Forces said in its daily report, as the invading forces continued to indiscriminately bombard both military and infrastructure targets, causing damage and casualties among civilians.

"The probability of missile and air strikes on the entire territory of Ukraine remains high, as the enemy uses terror tactics," the General Staff said, adding that Russian attacks mainly targeted Avdiyivka, Lyman, Kupyansk, and Maryinka.

Russia has repeatedly denied it has targeted civilian infrastructure since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 even as residential and cultural buildings across the country have been constantly hit during the war.

The situation in Bakhmut remains "continually difficult," the commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces, General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said during a visit to the front line on March 27, according to the Defense Ministry.

IN PHOTOS: Following months of brutal assaults spearheaded by Russia's Wagner mercenary troops, Ukraine's military claims to have stabilized the beleaguered eastern city of Bakhmut.

The current fighting in and around Bakhmut has reached "the most intense phase," Syrskiy said, adding, "The enemy has suffered significant losses in human resources, weapons, and military equipment but continues to conduct offensive operations."

Ukrainian military officials say Russian forces are appearing to also be turning their focus on Avdiyivka, less than 100 kilometers southwest of Bakhmut, where incessant Russian shelling has shut down all public services and municipal workers have been evacuated from the city. Only about 2,000 civilians have been left out of a pre-war population of some 30,000.

Avdiyivka is some 20 kilometers northeast of Donetsk, the city that has been under Russian-backed forces' occupation since 2014.

Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city's military administration, said on Telegram on March 26 that Avdiyivka has been turned into "a place from post-apocalyptic movies" by intensive Russian shelling.

The latest fighting came as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany has delivered promised Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine.

"Yes, we delivered Leopard tanks as we announced," Scholz told a press conference in Rotterdam when asked to confirm a news report that Germany had delivered 18 of the advanced Leopards.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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