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U.S. Welcomes Iraq's Approval Of Status Of Forces Agreement

U.S. soldiers must leave Iraq's cities by June 2009.
(RFE/RL) -- Iraq's presidential council has approved a security pact with the United States -- the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA -- which calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.

Washington hailed the Iraqi decision. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is pleased with the approval of the security agreement and an accompanying strategic framework agreement, calling the two pacts "landmark agreements that will guide our relationships with Iraq, help solidify Iraq's democratic gains that they've made over the past few years, affirm Iraq's sovereignty, and put its relations with the United States on a strong footing."

The Iraqi presidential council's secretary, Nasir al-Ani, said in Baghdad that the council did not change any of the language in the draft of the Status Of Forces Agreement approved by parliament.

The agreement lays out the rights and responsibilities of U.S. forces in Iraq once the UN mandate for their presence in the country expires at the end of this year.

It calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, and for U.S. troops to pull out of populated areas in Iraq by the end of June 2009.

The controversial security pact was approved by Iraq's parliament in November after months of wrangling. But it still required the approval of the presidential council -- a body made up of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents, a Shi'ite and a Sunni Arab.

The blessing given on December 4 means the agreement has cleared its final hurdle in terms of government or legislative approval.

Still, as part of the political bargaining that led up to parliament's approval in November, the Iraqi government agreed to demands to conduct a public referendum on SOFA no later than July 30.

Perino says that regardless of the outcome of that referendum, the United States is prepared to pull troops out of Iraq -- as long as progress on security and democracy can be consolidated there.

"I think that the fact that their representative leadership has signed this agreement today [shows] that they recognize that they are going to continue to need our help for the next little while," Perino said. "But we have a path now to help our troops get home. And we are already bringing troops home, and we're going to be able to continue to do that as long as we solidify the gains that we've made."

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, says President Bush called the Iraqi president on December 4 to thank him for his personal leadership in securing passage of SOFA.

Johndroe says Bush also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to thank him for his help in reaching the accord.

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Iran, U.S. To Hold Indirect Talks In Doha After EU Push to Restart Talks On Nuclear Deal

ran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, will travel to Doha for the nuclear talks.

Indirect talks between Iran and the United States are set to take place on June 28 in Doha, Qatar, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said amid a push by the European Union to break an impasse in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran said the discussions would be mediated by EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora and no direct talks between Iran and the United States were planned.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, will travel to Doha for the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Naser Kanani told state news agency IRNA.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.l

The talks will be separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.

The U.S. State Department confirmed the meeting and reiterated Iran needed to drop additional demands that go beyond the scope of the pact.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the deal.

Trump subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently warned that Iran will be able to produce the raw material for a nuclear bomb within a few weeks. Tehran has repeatedly stressed that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposed.

News of the talks in Qatar came shortly after Iran said it tested a booster rocket designed to send a research satellite into space.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Iranian-Norwegian Lawmakers Condemn Oslo Attack By Man Of Iranian Descent

People taking part in a spontaneous Pride parade arrive at the London Pub, a popular gay bar and nightclub, to pay tribute to the victims of the shooting after the official event was cancelled in central Oslo on June 25.

Iranian-born Norwegian lawmakers Masud Gharahkhani and Mahmoud Farahmand have condemned an attack by a man of Iranian descent in Oslo that killed two people and wounded eight others.

Gharahkhani, the speaker of Norway's parliament, said the weekend shooting near the London Pub, which describes itself on its website as "the largest gay and lesbian venue in Oslo," reminded him of "how hatred grows on social media when we celebrate gender diversity, and that is sad and unacceptable."

In an interview with Radio Farda on June 27, Farahmand, a Conservative deputy, said the attack showed that freedoms need to be defended more vigorously than ever and that "the use of violence" should be resisted.

The 43-year-old Iranian-born politician, who represents the Conservative Party (Hoyre), added that without individual freedoms, "a democratic society cannot survive."

The suspect, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent who has been charged with terrorism, was known to police and had previously been detained for "minor convictions," according to prosecutor Christian Hatlo.

Oslo's annual LGBT Pride parade was scheduled to take place on June 25, but was canceled following the shooting, which took place early that day.

A senior Norwegian police official said only one assailant had been identified in the attack and no other suspects had been identified.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Iranian Pensioners Return To Streets, Say Government Failing To Meet Promises

Retired people gather for a protest in Kermanshah on June 26.

Iranian pensioners and retired public employees showed no signs of letting up in their protests against what they say is the government's failure to address deteriorating living conditions.

Videos posted on social media on June 27 showed retirees gathering in at least four cities, Ahvaz, Kermanshah, Arak, and Rasht, chanting slogans against the government of President Ebrahim Raisi.

The recent wave of protests by pensioners and retirees comes after the government announced on June 6 that it would increase the monthly salaries of non-minimum-wage retirees by 10 percent, far below a previous pledge for a hike of 38 percent plus 5.15 million Iranian rials ($16).

Legislation to enact the increase was rejected by parliament, leading to the lower increase, which pensioners say is too little given that the inflation rate currently stands at more than 45 percent.

In recent weeks, Iran has witnessed protests from a broad cross-section of society, most of which have been met with security crackdowns, most notably after a round of nationwide teachers' protests in May.

Taxi Drivers Strike, Pensioners March As Inflation Protests Continue Across Iran
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The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council announced on June 26 that since then, a total of 230 teachers and union activists had been detained or imprisoned in various cities.

The council also said that over the past two weeks it had not received any information on the situation of three imprisoned teachers: Rasoul Badaqi, Mohammad Habibi, and Jafar Ebrahimi.

Devastated by years of harsh economic sanctions imposed by Washington since the United States pulled out of an accord with global superpowers aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program, many Iranians have launched protests in recent months to decry the government's inability to help their lives.

In addition, Iran’s economy has struggled to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left at least 2 million Iranians jobless and resulted in soaring consumer prices.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Uzbek Constitutional Amendments To Change Status Of Karakalpakstan

President Shavkat Mirziyoev (front left) visits Karakalpakstan's Bozatau district in September 2021.

Constitutional amendments initiated by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev will annul the current right of the Karakalpakstan region to seek independence.

According to the draft amendments, Karakalpakstan will retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants will be taken out.

Local media quoted officials as saying that the amendments were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well, due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."

Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Of the 170 amendments planned to be introduced to the constitution, the most controversial will change presidential eligibility from two five-year terms to two seven-year terms, while nullifying the previous presidential terms of a president.

This means Mirziyoev, who is in his second term, would be able to seek a new term in office.

Mirziyoev opened up Central Asia's most populous country of some 35 million people to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, eased restrictions on religious freedoms, and released dozens of political prisoners after he came to power following the death of his authoritarian predecessor, Islam Karimov, in 2016.

But like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.

The 64-year-old was reelected to his second presidential term in October 2021. He faced four little-known candidates who were largely pro-government. Three opposition parties were not allowed to register or have candidates in the race.

With reporting by Mediazona and

Exiled Tajik Journalist's Relatives Questioned Over Her Articles About Deadly Protests In Remote Region

Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova worked for the BBC for many years until 2018 and is currently working as a freelance journalist and blogger. (file photo)

Exiled Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova says two of her relatives have been detained for questioning in Tajikistan over her online articles about deadly protests last month in her native Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Sarkorova told RFE/RL that police detained her 68-year-old mother and a brother and released them hours later after they questioned them about her current address and journalistic activities.

Sarkorova, who lives in an unspecified country in the European Union, emphasized that she considers the questioning a pressure tactic to force her to stop writing about the human rights situation in the Central Asian country.

The authorities in Tajikistan acknowledged in recent weeks that several informal leaders of Gorno-Badakhshan, whom they called criminals, have been killed and dozens arrested in the restive region.

They have yet to say anything about the questioning of the mother and brother of Sarkorova, who worked for the BBC for many years until 2018 and is currently working as a freelance journalist and blogger using her Facebook account.

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

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

The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

U.S. Basketball Star Griner To Stand Trial, Faces 10 Years On Drug Charge

Speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Britney Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap. (file photo)

A Russian court has set July 1 for the trial of U.S. basketball star Britney Griner, who was detained more than four months ago on charges of illegal drug possession and smuggling.

The court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on June 27 told Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, that she faced up to 10 years in prison for the offense, which stemmed from being found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage when she was at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February.

Griner was also told at the closed-door hearing that her detention had been extended for another six months.

The arrest came as Moscow was building up troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which has severely strained relations with Washington.

Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap similar to one in April that saw jailed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.

Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

Some have suggested Moscow is seeking to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

At Least 15 Dead In Russian Rocket Attack On Shopping Center In Ukraine

Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike in Kremenchuk on June 27.

A Russian missile strike that hit a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk has killed at least 15 people and injured more than 50 others, an attack immediately condemned by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other senior Ukrainian officials.

Regional Governor Dmytro Lunyn said on June 27 on Telegram that at least 15 people died.

Lunyn said the mall was "completely destroyed" by the missile strike. He posted a video showing firefighters searching through the debris.

The prosecutor-general's office said more than 40 people were missing and of the 59 people who sought medical assistance almost half were in serious condition.

Zelenskiy accused Russia of being the "largest terrorist organization in the world" in a video on Telegram.

"Everyone in the world should know that buying or transporting Russian oil, maintaining ties with Russian banks, paying taxes and duties to the Russian state is giving money to terrorists," he said.

Ukraine called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the strike, which came on the second day of a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Germany and ahead of a NATO summit scheduled to begin later this week in Madrid.

The missile strike will be the main focus of the meeting on June 28, said a spokesman for the Albanian mission, which currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency.

Mayor Vitaliy Maletsky wrote on his Facebook page that the strike "came in a very crowded place, which is 100 percent irrelevant to hostilities," while Zelenskiy said "more than 1,000 people were gathered" at the mall and that "it is impossible to even imagine the number of victims."

Video recorded at the shopping center and posted on Telegram by Zelenskiy showed it engulfed in flames as huge plumes of black and gray smoke billowed out.

"No danger to the Russian Army. No strategic value. Only an attempt on the people who try to live a normal life, which so angers the [Russians]," he wrote.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed repeatedly that it is not targeting civilians in the unprovoked war it launched on Ukraine just over four months ago.

It has not commented on the strike.

Leaders of the G7 called the missile strike a war crime and vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking from the G7 summit, said the Kremenchuk attacked demonstrated the "depths of cruelty and barbarism" of Putin.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the world was "horrified" by the strike, saying on Twitter it was the latest in a string of atrocities.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned it as "deplorable," and French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the deadly strike as a "complete horror" and said France shares the pain of the families of the victims and the anger in the face of such "meanness."

He included a video of the inferno in his tweet and said, "The Russian people must see the truth."

Kremenchuk, an industrial city of just over 200,000, lies on the Dnipro River in the Poltava region and is the site of Ukraine's biggest oil refinery.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Ukrainian Billionaire Akhmetov Sues Russia Over Losses Caused By War

Rinat Akhmetov (file photo)

Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), demanding compensation for losses caused by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Akhmetov's System Capital Management (SCM) holding company said in a statement on June 27 that the tycoon had lost billions of dollars in business since Russia launched the war more than four months ago.

"As the owner of Azovstal and many other industrial facilities that have been targeted by the invading Russian armed forces, Mr. Akhmetov seeks to ensure that Russia is held accountable for the destruction it is wreaking across Ukraine," the statement said.

Russian troops took over the Azovstal steelworks in the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in May after a siege that lasted weeks as Ukrainian fighters held out inside the massive plant.

Akhmetov is also seeking an order from the court "preventing Russia from engaging in further blockading, looting, diversion, and destruction of grain and steel" produced by his companies, the statement said.

"Evil cannot go unpunished. Russia's crimes against Ukraine and our people are egregious, and those guilty of them must be held liable," SCM quoted Akhmetov as saying.

The statement said Akhmetov was seeking compensation from Russia for the "trampling of his property rights." It also said that while the precise amount of damages cannot yet be assessed, "it is anticipated that Mr. Akhmetov is due billions of dollars from the Russian Federation for its violation of his human rights."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to a question regarding Akhmetov's lawsuit, told reporters in Moscow that Russia was no longer under the jurisdiction of the ECHR, which is in Strasbourg, France.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 11 signed a law under which Russia will not follow ECHR rulings made after March 15.

With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, RIA Novosti, and TASS

Moldovan President Visits Kyiv, Will Meet Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) with his Moldovan counterpart, Maia Sandu, in Kyiv (file photo)

President Maia Sandu traveled to Ukraine on June 27 in her first trip to Moldova's neighbor since start of the war and visited the towns of Bucha and Irpin -- sites of alleged Russian atrocities against civilians.

“No matter the economic costs, no matter the political costs we have to stop war and we have to make sure that these kinds of atrocities will never repeat,” Maia Sandu said. She said it was “heartbreaking” to hear accounts from witnesses and victims of the war.

"Was left speechless by the level of violence & destruction we saw," Sandu wrote separately in English on Twitter. "It’s an unimaginable tragedy & we wholeheartedly wish the brave selfless Ukrainian people peace, freedom & prosperity, & life of their own choosing."

Sandu was expected to meet with her Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during her visit, her office said on social media.

Her visit to Ukraine comes just days after both Ukraine and Moldova obtained the status of EU candidate countries -- a historic move for both former Soviet republics.

Moldova absorbed one of the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees after the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24.

With reporting by AP

In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Places Sanctions On 43 Canadians

The head of the Liberal Party of Canada, Suzanne Cowan, is among the Canadian citizens who have been hit by Russian sanctions. (file photo)

Russia says it is placing sanctions on 43 Canadians, including federal and regional officials, members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal party, and public figures, in retaliation for similar steps taken by Ottawa in May against leaders of large Russian companies and members of their families.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on June 27 that it had banned the Canadian citizens, including Suzanne Cowan, head of the Liberal Party of Canada, from entering Russia.

Last month, Canada imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals, including oligarchs and people close to the Kremlin and Russia's Defense Ministry, as well as several Russian companies, over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to pro-Western Ukraine on February 24, many Western countries, including Canada, slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow.

These measures include the exclusion of several Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior Russian officials.

Putin To Meet Tajik Counterpart Rahmon In Dushanbe As War In Ukraine Continues

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, in Dushanbe on June 28 as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched more than four months ago, continues to raise concerns in Central Asia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on June 27 that the talks will be held in a face-to-face format. He did not elaborate.

Putin's visit to the Tajik capital will take place three days after he told another ally, Belarus's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Moscow will supply Minsk with an Iskander-M mobile missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers as the standoff between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine escalates.

Russia, Belarus, and Tajikistan, along with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Earlier this month, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev of Kazakhstan, attending an economic forum in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, pushed back against Moscow's narrative in the invasion of Ukraine, rejecting recognition for "quasi-states" like the Russia-backed-separatist-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine.

He also vowed that Kazakhstan wouldn't break international sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

Moscow has stationed about 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division at three facilities that are considered part of a Russian base in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

With Russia A 'Direct Threat,' Stoltenberg Says NATO To Boost Troops On 'High Readiness'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the western military alliance will boost its high readiness forces to "well over 300,000" in response to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid, Stoltenberg said on June 27 that the alliance will enhance its battle groups on its eastern flank up to brigade levels.

"We will strengthen our forward defenses...We will transform the NATO Response Force and increase the number of our high readiness forces to well over 300,000," Stoltenberg told reporters.

The NATO Response Force, currently has about 40,000 troops.

The Madrid summit, which runs from June 28 to 30, will also change NATO's language on Russia that says the alliance sees Moscow as a strategic partner. That language dates back to 2010.

"That will not be the case in the strategic concept that we will agree in Madrid," Stoltenberg said.

"I expect that allies will state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security, to our values, to the rules-based international order."

Jailed In Belarus, Russian Sapega Asks Lukashenka For Clemency

Russian citizen Sofia Sapega attends a court hearing in Hrodna in May.

Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who is serving a six-year prison term in Belarus after being arrested along with her then boyfriend Raman Pratasevich after their commercial flight was forced to land in Minsk last year, has asked Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka for clemency.

Sapega's lawyer, Anton Hashynski, told the BBC on June 27 that his client officially filed her clemency request last week. Relatives had said that Sapega asked Lukashenka for clemency in December as well, though there was no further information given on that request.

Sapega and Pratasevich, a dissident blogger, were detained after their commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk in May 2021.

They were immediately detained upon leaving the aircraft and Sapega was accused of administering a channel on the Telegram messenger app that published the personal data of Belarusian security forces. She was sentenced on May 6, and three days later, Pratasevich announced that he had married another woman.

'Wrong Place, Wrong Time'? The Woman Detained With Belarusian Activist After Flight Diverted To Minsk
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Belarus said it had ordered the plane to land after an anonymous bomb threat. Evidence later revealed that Belarusian officials conspired to fake the bomb threat as a pretense for diverting the plane so they could detain the two.

Pratasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel on Telegram. He has yet to go on trial and the status of the investigation against him is unclear.

He faces charges in connection with civil disturbances that followed a disputed presidential election in August 2020, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta-Live, which covered mass protests denouncing the official results of the election, which the opposition said was rigged.

Pratasevich, who was transferred to house arrest after his initial detention, made several appearances on Belarusian state television last year, which prompted the opposition and Western officials to accuse Lukashenka's regime of extracting video confessions under torture and called for his and Sapega's immediate release.

In January, Pratasevich said in a televised interview that he was not under house arrest, though again it was not clear if he made the statement freely.

Lukashenka has denied stealing the election and has since cracked down hard on the opposition, whose leading members have been jailed or forced to flee the country fearing for their safety.

With reporting by the BBC

Iranian Steel Firm Halts Production After Cyberattack

The Khuzestan Steel Company said it was unable to continue production "due to technical problems" following "cyberattacks." (file photo)

One of Iran's biggest steel companies said on June 27 that it was forced to halt its operations until further notice after being targeted by a cyberattack.

The Khuzestan Steel Company said in a statement that experts had determined that the firm was unable to continue production “due to technical problems" following “cyberattacks.” The company's website appeared to be out of service.

A purported hacking group called "Predatory Sparrow" claimed responsibility for the cyberattack in a message and video on social media. It said that two other state-owned steel companies -- Mobarekh and Hormozgan -- had been targeted in the attack, adding that all three companies were affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"These companies continue to operate despite international sanctions against them," the message said.

The company did not blame any specific group for the assault.

Iran has previously accused the United States and Israel for cyberattacks that have targeted and crippled the country's infrastructure.

With reporting by AP

G7 Leaders Look To Adopt Price Cap On Russian Oil To Limit Moscow's Energy Revenues

G7 and EU leaders pose for a family photo during the summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations, meeting for a second day at a summit in Germany, are expected to agree to a price cap on Russian oil to limit Moscow's energy revenues as the centerpiece of new sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Several international media outlets quoted U.S. officials on June 27 as saying details of how the price cap would work are being ironed out during the summit, which ends on June 28.

"The dual objectives of G7 leaders have been to take direct aim at [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's revenues, particularly through energy, but also to minimize the spillovers and the impact on the G7 economies and the rest of the world," Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying in a background briefing on the sidelines of the annual G7 summit.

The group of wealthy Western nations has been looking to ratchet up pressure on Moscow while trying to minimize any harm that could be done to their own economies. Oil prices have jumped since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24 as sanctions limit Russian crude exports.

Many Western nations and the European Union already have imposed several rounds of sweeping sanctions against Moscow to isolate President Vladimir Putin and cripple Russia's economy to try and force the Kremlin to end the war.

The White House said leaders at the summit will also make an "unprecedented, long-term security commitment to providing Ukraine with financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support as long as it takes," including the timely provision of advanced weapons.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters and The New York Times.

Finland, Sweden Will Talk NATO Bid With Turkey's Erdogan On June 28, Says Finnish Presidency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left), Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (center), and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (composite file photo)

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will discuss their stalled NATO bids with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 28 ahead of a summit of the 30-member alliance in Madrid, Helsinki said on June 27.

"President Niinisto will meet tomorrow in Madrid with Turkish President Erdogan, Swedish Prime Minister Andersson and NATO Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg," the Finnish presidency tweeted.

It said the meeting "will be preceded today (June 27) by a round of talks between Finnish, Swedish, and Turkish officials hosted by NATO in Brussels."

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden to apply to join NATO.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

The Turkish leader has also called on Sweden and Finland to lift arms embargos imposed against Turkey in 2019 over Ankara's military offensive in Syria.

Erdogan indicated on June 25 that no progress had been made in Sweden's bid to join NATO, urging Stockholm to take "concrete actions" to meet Ankara's concerns, his office said.

Turkish officials said Ankara does not view the summit as a final deadline for resolving its objections.

With reporting by Reuters

G7 Leaders Call Russian Missile Strike On Shopping Mall A War Crime, Vow To Hold Putin Responsible

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses Group of Seven leaders and EU representatives via video link at the G7 summit in Germany on June 27.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies called a Russian missile strike on a crowded shopping center in Ukraine on June 27 a war crime and vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.

The leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, meeting on the second day of a summit in Germany, issued a statement after 13 people were reportedly killed and 50 wounded in the attack in the central city of Kremenchuk.

"Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime," the leaders said in the statement, adding that they "solemnly condemn the abominable attack" in Kremenchuk.

An earlier Russian missile strike in Lysychansk on June 27 killed eight and wounded 21 others, said Serhiy Hayday, the head of the military administration of Luhansk where Lysychansk is located. Lysychansk is the last big city still held by Ukraine in the eastern Luhansk region.

Ukraine immediately called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. A spokesman for the Albanian mission, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, said it would take place on June 28.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who earlier on June 27 addressed the G7 summit, said Russia should be legally recognized as the largest terrorist organization in the world.

"The Russian state has become the largest terrorist organization in the world. And this is a fact. And this must be a legal fact," Zelenskiy said in a video. "And everyone in the world should know that buying or transporting Russian oil, maintaining ties with Russian banks, paying taxes and duties to the Russian state is giving money to terrorists.”

The G7 leaders said earlier they would keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and intensify international economic and political pressure on Putin and his supporters in Belarus.

The earlier statement said the G7 countries were "committed to sustaining and intensifying" sanctions and would continue to use them as needed "acting in unison at every stage."

The statement adds that the G7 countries "will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military, and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the pledges were necessary to maintain pressure on Putin.

"Imagine if we allowed Putin to get away with the violent acquisition of huge chunks of another country, sovereign, independent territory," Johnson told the BBC. "The lessons for that would be absolutely chilling. The point I would make to people is I think that sometimes the price of freedom is worth paying."

The G7 leaders are committed to exploring new ways to isolate Russia from participating in the global market and to crack down on evasion of existing sanctions, the statement said.

The countries pledged to take steps to further reduce their dependency on Russian energy and to expand sanctions to further restrict Russia's access to services and technologies, particularly those supporting its armament industry, the statement said. They also pledged more sanctions on individuals responsible for war crimes.

The statement, issued by Germany, the current holder of the G7's rotating presidency, also said the group was ready to provide more funding to help shore up Ukrainian government finances. The budget support that has been pledged and provided thus far in 2022 amounts to $29.5 billion, the statement said.

The G7 leaders said they recognized the devastating level of destruction of infrastructure in Ukraine caused by the war and stood ready to support an international reconstruction plan.

'We Won't Surrender': Slovyansk Prepares For Russian Offensive
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Separately, the United States said it was finalizing a weapons package for Ukraine that would include long-range air-defense systems -- arms that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy specifically requested when he addressed the leaders by video link earlier in the day.

Zelenskiy urged G7 leaders to do everything in their power to end Russia's invasion of his country by the end of the year as Ukraine's military says it continues to fend off an attempted encirclement in the eastern city of Lysychansk.

Zelenskiy told the leaders that he wanted the war to end before the winter set in and battle conditions would make it tougher for his troops as they mount their fightback, several diplomats were quoted as saying by international media outlets after the speech.

Zelenskiy also asked for air-defense systems, more sanctions on Russia, and security guarantees as he addressed the summit at the Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, diplomats said, adding that the Ukrainian leader stressed the necessity to keep applying "heavy" punitive actions on Russia and "not lower the pressure" following multiple rounds of sanctions that Western allies have imposed on Moscow.

Zelenskiy also asked for help to export grain from Ukraine and for reconstruction aid, they said.

The Ukrainian military command said earlier that it had repelled Russian attacks west of Lysychansk and prevented an encirclement of the strategically important Donbas city.

"Near Verkhnyokamyanka, the defense forces inflicted significant losses on the enemy and forced them to retreat," the Ukrainian General Staff reported. Verkhnyokamyanka is located on an important supply road only a few kilometers west of Lysychansk.

Serhiy Hayday, the head of the military administration of Luhansk, where Lysychansk is located, urged inhabitants of the city to leave immediately as Russian forces level large swaths of the town, where about 100,000 people lived before the invasion.

"The disastrous 'Russian World' is trying to wipe from the world's map our history by destroying the cultural institutions and architectural monuments of the Luhansk region," Hayday wrote on the Telegram messaging app, accusing Russian forces of already destroying more than 60 such institutions and monuments in the city.

The military command separately said on June 27 that a missile strike had hit the Odesa region in southern Ukraine, a day after Russia launched strikes against the capital, Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities.

The command said the missile, which was fired from a Russian-type Tu-22 strategic bomber, caused six casualties including a child. It was not clear whether the authorities were reporting injuries or deaths.

"The strike in a residential area of a civilian settlement destroyed several residential and farm buildings over around 500 square meters," the command said, adding that firefighters were still battling the flames.

Ukrainian Firefighters Rescue Residents, Clear Rubble As Russian Missiles Hit Housing Area
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Meanwhile, the United States plans to announce as soon as this week that it has purchased an advanced, medium- to long-range surface-to-air missile defense system for Ukraine, CNN and AP reported on June 27, citing sources familiar with the issue.

Ukrainian officials have asked for the missile defense system known as NASAMS that can hit targets more than 160 kilometers away, the sources said.

Washington last week announced an additional $450 million in military assistance for Ukraine, giving it four more multiple launch rocket systems and artillery ammunition for other systems.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration said it was providing an additional $1 billion military aid package to Ukraine that will include additional howitzers, ammunition, and coastal defense systems.

More and more analysts envision a protracted battle in the eastern part of Ukraine, with high human and equipment losses on both sides.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 27 that, in the following weeks, Russia, which has reportedly suffered a high rate of casualties, is "highly likely" to rely increasingly on reservists.

However, British intelligence suggested that the Russian leadership "likely remains reluctant to order a general mobilization," despite a permanent shortfall in the number of reservists who can be deployed in Ukraine.

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

G7 Announces Infrastructure Program To Counter China's Belt And Road Initiative

A working dinner during the first day of the G7 summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

The Group of Seven (G7) has formally launched a global infrastructure and investment partnership aimed at countering a Chinese program that has been embraced by many developing countries.

The G7 program seeks to raise $600 billion in investment to boost infrastructure development in lower- and middle-income nations, the White House said in a statement on June 26.

Unlike China's program, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the one proposed by the G7 would provide funding largely from private investors.

Western officials have argued that China’s BRI uses strong-arm tactics that trap countries in debt and employs investments that benefit China more than the countries participating in the program. Among the countries that have signed long-term BRI deals are Afghanistan, Iran, and Hungary.

The United States says the G7-backed effort, announced during a summit taking place in Germany, promotes responsible investments that aim to benefit the communities that receive the investment.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the G7 is offering “sustainable, quality infrastructure” and will be “listening closely to the recipient countries.”

The plan, a relaunch of a program unveiled during last year's G7 summit, will target countries desperately needing everything from roads to harbors that until now often relied on China’s BRI.

Among the first initiatives are a $2 billion solar farm investment in Angola, a $320 million investment for hospital construction in Ivory Coast, and a $40 million investment to promote regional energy trade in Southeast Asia.

The $600 billion investment target is only aspirational, but a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters denied that China has a real advantage.

"There's no doubt that the Belt and Road Initiative has been around for several years and it's made a lot of cash disbursements and investments -- and that we're coming to this after years of their investments," the official said. "But I would argue that it is definitely not too late. And I'm not even sure that it is late."

The official also said that many countries that have partnered with China come to regret it and conclude that Beijing is more interested in establishing economic and geostrategic footholds than helping them develop.

The G7 program, on the other hand, will offer to make investments that "have lasting effects” on the countries’ economies and population, the official said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa

Iran Reports Test Of Satellite Launcher As Diplomats Announce Restart Of Nuclear Talks

Video footage released on June 26 by Iran state TV shows an Iranian satellite-carrier rocket, called Zuljanah, blasting off from an undisclosed location in Iran.

Iran says it has tested its Zuljanah satellite launcher for a second time ahead of the expected start of talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

State-run media on June 26 broadcast footage of the rocket blasting off, and Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for Iran's Defense Ministry, said the 25.5-meter-long rocket was capable of carrying a satellite that would ultimately gather data in low-Earth orbit and promote Iran's space industry.

"The second launch of the Zuljanah satellite carrier has taken place in order to achieve the predetermined research objectives," said Hosseini, according to state news agency IRNA.

It was not clear when or where the rocket was launched. Earlier this month, Hosseini said the ministry planned three test launches, including one that had already been carried out.

The White House said it was aware of Iran’s announcement and criticized the move as “unhelpful and destabilizing.”

The launch comes a day after European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Borrell announced on June 25 that talks over the nuclear deal would resume in the coming days in a Persian Gulf country.

Borrell did not name the country, but RFE/RL reported on June 26 that the Secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council had reported that "given Qatar's continued efforts to resume talks on lifting sanctions, Doha has a chance to host future talks."

Iranian media also reported that Qatar would likely host the negotiations.

Tehran has long asserted that its satellite program is aimed at scientific research and civilian goals and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal. But Western critics are skeptical of the claims because some of the same technology used in satellite launches can be used in the development of long-range missiles.

A previous test of the Zuljanah took place in February 2021. At the time, Iran said the new satellite-carrying rocket could reach an altitude of 500 kilometers.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on June 25 repeated his hopes that Tehran could successfully negotiate in EU-brokered talks an end to international sanctions, including through restoration of the nuclear pact with world powers.

During his visit to Tehran, Borrell met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who described the meeting as "long, but positive," but said Iran was prepared to resume talks with world powers in the coming days.

"What is important for Iran is to fully receive the economic benefits of the 2015 accord," he said.

Under the deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart when the U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government, which denies that its nuclear program seeks to build a bomb, backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement but the talks in Vienna abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Reuters, AP, and AFP

Lithuania's President Vows To Stick To Kaliningrad Restrictions

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda: "It is absolutely clear that Lithuania must implement and will implement EU sanctions." (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has stressed that his Baltic country "must" and "will" enforce EU sanctions on Russian goods amid harsh rhetoric from Moscow over Vilnius's recent restrictions affecting the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

He called for an "urgent" start to consultations with the European Commission to protect Lithuania's interests and international obligations in the shadow of sanctions against Ukraine's "aggressor."

Russia this week summoned an EU envoy to "strongly" protest and threaten unspecified "retaliation" over the overland curbs on shipments to its sliver of land between Poland and Lithuania.

"It is absolutely clear that Lithuania must implement and will implement EU sanctions," Nauseda, whose country was reoccupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II and regained independence in 1990, said via Facebook.

"Lithuania must maintain and will maintain control of goods transported through its territory and there can be no talk of any 'corridors' as well as any thoughts of degrading Russia in response to Kremlin's threats," he said.

Vilnius shut the route for transport of steel and other ferrous metals, which it says it is required to do under EU sanctions that took effect on June 18. The EU imposed the punitive measures on Russia after it launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Kaliningrad's Moscow-backed leadership has said more than half of the exclave's imports are affected by the Lithuanian blockage, which is most acutely felt on rail routes.

Lithuanian officials have rejected Moscow's language of a blockade, as Kaliningrad is Russia's only ice-free port year-round and goods can be shipped there by sea.

"The government must urgently begin consultations with the European Commission so that the implementation of sanctions do not harm Lithuanian interests or international agreements," Nauseda said. "Only by acting together will we achieve that sanctions are painful for the aggressor country."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on June 21 that EU Ambassador to Moscow Markus Ederer was informed of the "inadmissibility of such actions" and warned "retaliation will follow" if the restrictions aren't removed immediately.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said it was "ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties" from Russia, which she accused of violating "possibly every single international treaty."


Biden Calls Missile Strike On Kyiv 'Disgusting Barbarism' As G7 Summit Gets Under Way In Germany

G7 leaders pose for a family photo during the summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

U.S. President Joe Biden called a Russian missile attack on Kyiv ahead of the start of a Group of Seven (G7) summit "disgusting barbarism" as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude for the assistance provided thus far, but said more is needed.

The missile attack hit at least two residential buildings in Kyiv, killing one person and injuring six others, including a 7-year-old girl and her mother, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

The strikes on June 26 -- the first to target the Ukrainian capital in three weeks -- also damaged a nearby kindergarten. Another missile strike hit the city of Cherkasy, southeast of Kyiv, that until now had not come under attack.

“It’s more of their barbarism," Biden said, speaking alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other leaders attending the summit at Schloss Elmau in the German Alps.

Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said the Russians launched the missiles from warplanes over the Caspian Sea more than 1,500 kilometers away.

Russia dismissed reports that its missiles struck a residential area, saying the air strikes hit a weapons factory.

Biden, speaking earlier at the summit, emphasized Western unity.

“We have to stay together, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been counting on, from the beginning, that somehow NATO and the G7 would splinter, but we haven’t and we’re not going to,” Biden told Scholz during a bilateral meeting.

“We can’t let this aggression take the form it has and get away with it," he added.

Other leaders echoed Biden’s praise of coalition unity.

The G7 leaders were set to announce the latest in a long series of international economic steps to pressure and isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.

Even before the G7 summit got under way, U.S. and U.K. officials announced that member countries would be imposing a ban on purchases of Russian gold in another blow aimed at elite Russians' wealth.

The missile strikes on Kyiv and on Cherkasy highlighted Ukrainian officials' pleas for more assistance to beat back the 4-month-old Russian invasion.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba shared an image of a 7-year-old girl being rescued from the rubble of her Kyiv apartment building hours before and called for "more sanctions on Russia and more heavy arms for Ukraine" from the G7.

Zelenskiy said late on June 26 that he had a call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and he thanked him for the assistance and "comprehensive support" to counter Russian aggression.

He said on Twitter that he and Trudeau "coordinated positions on the eve of important international events" and "discussed further increase in defense support for Ukraine."

The gathering of the leaders from the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan is the first of two key summits in the upcoming week amid growing global emergencies, with Putin's war in Ukraine and related food and fuel crises high on the list.

After the G7 meeting, NATO leaders will gather for a summit in Madrid on June 28-30.

Zelenskiy is scheduled to speak virtually to the two summits and ask for more arms and air-defense systems.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the G7 and NATO “will continue to do collectively everything we can to make sure that the Ukrainians have what they need in their hands to repel the Russian aggression.’’

Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion are having “a profound impact,” he added in an interview with CNN at the G7 summit.

“Even as [Russia] gets oil revenues with higher prices, it’s unable to spend them because of the export controls,” he said. Russia “can’t acquire what it needs to modernize its defense sector, to modernize its technology, to modernize its energy exploration, which means that over time each of these areas is going to go in decline.”

With reporting by AFP, AP, CNN, and dpa

G7 To Ban Russian Gold In A 'Strike At The Heart' Of Putin's War Effort

Wealthy Russians have been purchasing gold bullion recently to ease the sting of international financial punishments.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized democracies gathering for a two-day summit in the German Alps on June 26 will announce a ban on new imports of Russian gold to boost sanctions, according to British and U.S. officials.

Wealthy Russians have been purchasing gold bullion recently to ease the sting of international financial punishments put in place since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, the British government said in a statement.

"The measures we have announced today will directly hit Russian oligarchs and strike at the heart of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's war machine," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in the statement.

London said Russian gold exports totaled more than $15 billion last year.

The ban should be announced on June 27, will come into force quickly, and will apply to newly mined or refined gold, officials said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said via Twitter that the gold ban represents further "unprecedented costs on Putin to deny him the revenue he needs to fund his war against Ukraine."

Biden called gold a "major export that rakes in tens of billions of dollars for Russia."

The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

G7 leaders will meet beginning on June 26 at a castle in Germany's Alps, with a NATO summit to follow on June 29 in Madrid.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Russia Shows Shoigu Awarding Troops For Ukraine Fighting

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awards a soldier during an inspection of Russian troops reportedly engaged in the Ukraine invasion at an unknown location and date.

Russia's Defense Ministry released a video on June 26 that showed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu among troops and said he had inspected Russian forces involved in the fighting in Ukraine, but it was unclear when or where the video was made.

Shoigu was shown in military fatigues getting off a plane and speaking with military officials.

"At the command posts of Russian units, Army General Sergei Shoigu heard reports from the commanders on the current situation and actions of the Russian Armed Forces in the main operational areas," the ministry said.

There was no indication of Shoigu's specific location.

The ministry said Shoigu had awarded soldiers with medals for their actions in a full-scale invasion that Russia officially calls a "special military operation" following years of support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Shoigu's effectiveness was questioned early in the 4-month-old invasion amid Russian setbacks, retreats, and evidence of conscripts sent into the fighting, despite denials from Moscow.

Based on reporting by dpa and Reuters

Deadly Strikes On Kyiv, Cherkasy Residents Prompt Fresh Ukrainian Pleas For G7 Help

Rescuers work at a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike in Kyiv on June 26.

KYIV -- Russian missile attacks on the Ukrainian capital and the central city of Cherkasy on June 26 killed at least two people and injured 11 others, including a 7-year-old girl pulled from the rubble, with more blasts reported later, in the first major strikes against either city in weeks.

Ukrainian officials who have pledged to retake lost cities responded with a fresh plea for more weapons to fight the Russian invasion as G7 leaders opened a two-day summit at which they are expected to announce further punishing sanctions on Russia.

The bombardments against Kyiv and Cherkasy came as Ukraine's defense forces battled to regroup after the loss of a strategic town to Russian forces on the front lines hundreds of kilometers to the southeast, where some of the most intense fighting is raging four months into Russia's full-scale invasion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko went to the scene in one of that city's historic northern neighborhoods, known as the Shevchenko district, after at least two buildings were affected by the early morning explosions blamed on up to four Russian missiles.

Klitschko said one person was killed and six were injured, including the 7-year-old, who was in stable condition after surgery. The condition of her mother, who was also hospitalized, was much more serious, Klitschko said on Telegram.

Russia said its strike on Kyiv had hit a weapons factory, dismissing as "fake" reports that it had struck a residential area. The Artyom factory "was the target, as military infrastructure," the Russian Defense Ministry said. It claimed in a statement that damage to a nearby residential building had been caused by a Ukrainian air- defense missile.

Klitschko called the attacks on Kyiv an attempt by Russia to "intimidate Ukrainians" ahead of a NATO summit slated for Madrid on June 28-30.

Others suggested they and other bombardments -- including near Ukraine's border with Poland -- might also be an effort to send a message to G7 leaders gathering near Munich to discuss pro-Ukraine measures on June 26.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to the fresh Kyiv attacks with an image of the 7-year-old being lifted from the apartment building rubble and urging "more sanctions on Russia and more heavy arms for Ukraine" from the G7.

Also on June 26, current and former officials in central Ukraine said explosions had rung out in the city of Cherkasy, which had so far avoided being targeted by Russia's worst attacks on Ukrainian cities.

Later, Cherkasy Regional State Administration Chairman Ihor Taburets blamed two Russian missiles for the blasts and said one person had been killed and five more injured.

"Today, the enemy launched missile attacks on the Cherkasy region," Taburets said via Telegram. "There are 2 strikes near the regional center. One dead and five wounded. Infrastructure damaged."

Ukrainian Firefighters Rescue Residents, Clear Rubble As Russian Missiles Hit Housing Area
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Cherkasy has not been targeted previously by major attacks by Russian forces.

Farther to the southeast, Ukrainian forces said a day earlier that they had made a "tactical withdrawal" from the city of Syevyerodonetsk in a blow that could shape the fighting in the east.

But President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed in his nighttime video address that Ukraine would eventually retake the cities it has lost since Russia's all-out invasion began on February 24.

Zelenskiy said the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II had taken a heavy toll on Ukrainians and their defenders but spoke of eventually winning the war.

"We don't have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses, and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy is due to remotely address the G7 on June 27 to urge further international support for Ukraine's defense.

On June 25, Ukraine's military said defense forces had withdrawn from Syevyerodonetsk after weeks of intense battles to fight from higher ground in nearby Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.

Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said his forces were carrying out a "tactical regrouping" by pulling its forces out of Syevyerodonetsk.

Syevyerodonetsk, a city in the Luhansk district of around 100,000 residents before the war, has been devastated as Russian forces sought to concentrate gains in the two eastern districts known collectively as the Donbas.

Russia-backed separatists have controlled swaths of that region since Russia annexed Crimea and helped kick off the eastern Ukrainian fighting in 2014.

Meanwhile, fears mounted of a widening war since Ukrainian officials reported "massive bombardment" from rockets "fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air" and Moscow said it would provide Belarus with an advanced missile system.

In Belarus, strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has increased since a crackdown over protests that began when he claimed a sixth presidential term in flawed elections two years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in St. Petersburg on June 25.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in St. Petersburg on June 25.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with Lukashenka on June 25 that Moscow plans within months to supply Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, a nuclear-capable, mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.

"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said of the missiles launched from Russian warplanes over Belarusian territory.

Lukashenka allowed thousands of Russian troops to stage attacks on Ukraine from the earliest stage of the invasion.

A representative of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, Vadym Skibitskiy, told RBC-Ukraine on June 25 that Belarus is maintaining 4,000-6,000 of its own troops near the Ukrainian border.

He estimated that Russia has around 1,500 of its troops in Belarus to help with air, special forces, and missile components of the invasion.

With additional reporting by Reuters, AP, dpa, and AFP

Ukraine Says It Uncovered Russian Spy Network Involving U.S.-Sanctioned Lawmaker

Andriy Derkach (file photo)

Ukrainian authorities said they have uncovered a Russian spy network involving Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who has previously been accused by Washington of being a Russian agent.

The State Security Service (SBU) on June 24 alleged that Derkach set up a network of private security firms to help facilitate the entry of Russian units into cities during Moscow's February 24 invasion.

Derkach could not immediately be reached for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing, claiming he was being targeted for exposing corruption. His whereabouts are unknown.

The SBU cited testimony from Derkach's parliamentary aide, Ihor Kolykhayev. It said Kolykhayev had been arrested at the beginning of the war, accused of being a go-between between Derkach and Russian military intelligence.

Derkach was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2020 for what it said were attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The Treasury Department alleged at the time that Derkach -- a member of the Ukrainian parliament who studied at the KGB school in Moscow -- had been "an active Russian agent for over a decade."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Reuters

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