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Afghans Vote For Parliament Amid Taliban Violence

At a Kabul polling station, an election worker cleans and applies ink on a voter's finger
KABUL -- The Taliban vowed to disrupt Afghanistan's parliamentary polls, but despite making good on their threats the elections went ahead largely as planned.

Across the country attacks by the hard-line Islamic militia killed at least 14 people, including 11 civilians, with the worst raid occurring in the northern Baghlan Province.

There, gunmen killed one Afghan soldier and six pro-government militiamen at a security outpost next to a polling station. Rocket strikes in northern Takhar Province and eastern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces killed another three people.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said 8 percent of the 5,816 polling centers scheduled to be used had either not opened or not reported in, mostly because of security fears.

That was in addition to another 1,019 sites which election officials had earlier decided not to open due to the inability of government forces to guarantee their security.

The UN, NATO, and the European Union all commended Afghans for taking part in the vote. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised voters for their "courage and determination," a sentiment echoed by the EU.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised Afghan citizens for braving Taliban violence, saying in a statement, "I congratulate the Afghan people today on the parliamentary elections, despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people's most basic democratic right."

Turnout was put at some 40 percent.

Ink Complaints

Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Kandahar, Muhammad Sidiq Reshten, said city residents came out to vote in large numbers but residents of smaller towns tended to stay home.

"The initial participation of the people in city centers was large but, in contrast to the city, the number of voters in the rural districts [of Kandahar Province] was very much lower," Reshten said.

"A resident of Nagehan village [in Arghandab district] told me at noon today that up until that time there were no ballot papers and boxes, so they were waiting to be able to vote."

Problems with inadequate numbers of ballots were also reported in some other areas of the country, including in the northern province of Jawzjan.

Hossein Saleh, an activist with a local Turkmen NGO in Jawzjan Province, told Radio Free Afghanistan that ballots in his town ran out just three hours after polling stations opened nationwide at 0700 local time.

There were also complaints by some voters that the ink used to stain their fingers washed off easily. The ink is meant to prevent voters from casting their ballots twice.

Election Ink Raises Concerns In Afghanistan
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(WATCH: Election ink raises concerns in Afghanistan)

Fake Ballots

But of potentially greater concern for voters across the country were worries about fraudulent voter registration cards and fake ballots. Election watchdogs reported thousands of fake voter registration cards across Afghanistan before the poll.

The IEC sought again to quell those fears, saying election officials could distinguish genuine from false papers.

Zekeria Barakzai, the deputy head of the secretariat of the election commission, said "All of our ballot papers have a special code, which cannot easily be falsified."

"We held discussions with security officials about what to do to prevent such falsification from happening. Due to the efforts of the commission, several people were arrested in different provinces of Afghanistan," Barakzai said.

Afghanistan's last election -- the presidential election of 2009 -- was marred by massive fraud during the first round. President Hamid Karzai was subsequently declared reelected after his challenger withdrew before the scheduled second round, saying a fair contest could not be guaranteed.

Despite their concerns about both security and fraud, many voters expressed confidence that casting their ballots was worth the risk.

Sayed Ahmed Jamal Murabez, a voter in the downtown Shahr-i-Now neighborhood, came with two of his sons to vote early in the morning. He said he had confidence his vote can help build a better future for the country.

"Of course, one vote can change the fate of the nation, if the government is established based upon the votes of the people," Murabez said.

As he cast his ballot on one side of the girls' high school that serves as the neighborhood's polling station, the women in his family voted separately on the other.

These legislative elections are widely seen as important because the parliament has grown increasingly assertive over recent years, despite the country's strong presidential system. The lower house has the power to approve or reject laws proposed by the government and to approve the president's choice of ministers.

One woman voting in Kabul, Nafas Gul, said she hoped the parliament would only grow stronger after the elections.

"God willing, they [the ballots] will take the voice of the poor to the parliament, so that people will live in peace and won't be worried [in the future] about conflicts and disagreements," Gul said.

The preliminary results from the voting will not be known until October 8 at the earliest, with final results not expected before October 30.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Masom Miwand contributed to this report

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Washington Lawyers Move To Delay Deadline For Turning Over Lesin Autopsy Records

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) gestures as Media Minister Mikhail Lesin listens to him during a meeting with local press in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in August 2002.

WASHINGTON -- City lawyers in Washington, D.C., have moved to delay turning over autopsy documents related to the death of former Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, following a judge's order to release the files.

The motion, which was dated February 19 but has yet to appear in the court docket, has not yet been ruled on by D.C. Superior Court Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo.

Puig-Lugo on February 13 ordered the city's medical examiner to turn over autopsy records and other files to RFE/RL in response to a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit brought by the news organization 16 months ago.

The motion is the latest development in a long-running fight to gain access to files that could provide a definitive answer on how Lesin, a once-powerful media adviser to President Vladimir Putin, died in a hotel room just blocks from the White House in November 2015.

In their argument, city lawyers said they had not decided whether to appeal the February 13 ruling, but needed the statutory 30-day window to decide -- until March 15.

In the meantime, they said the documents should not be released to RFE/RL.

"The bell of producing the documents cannot be unrung once the documents are produced," they wrote.

A key shaper of the Kremlin's media strategy under Putin, Lesin fell out of favor sometime around 2012 and had largely been out of public view until his body was found in the Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015.

An initial report by the medical examiner's office in March 2016 declared Lesin's death was caused by blunt-force trauma. It said the manner of death was "undetermined."

The final report, released in October 2016 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Washington and city police, called his death accidental -- caused by blunt-force injuries to the neck, torso, and lower upper extremities, "which were induced by falls." Acute ethanol intoxication was cited as a contributing factor.

The report was met with deep suspicion by business acquaintances and others familiar with the once-powerful, wealthy Kremlin insider who was instrumental in Russia's crackdown on independent TV.

Lesin was also behind the creation of RT, the government-funded international TV broadcaster previously known as Russia Today.

Terrorism-Finance Watchdog Gives Iran Until June To Pass Money-Laundering Laws

Iranian protesters show their hands with writing in Persian that reads, "No to FATF," to protest the passage of a related bill outside parliament in Tehran in October 2018.

An international task force to combat money laundering has given Iran four months to pass anti-money-laundering and terrorism-financing rules or face increased international scrutiny of its banks.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization that underpins the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, announced the deadline at its February 22 meeting in Paris.

"If by June 2019, Iran does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran," it said.

FATF acknowledged that Iran had passed a series of legislative measures since 2017, but said more steps were needed.

It also called on Iran to change domestic rules that offer exemptions to UN-designated terrorist organizations if those groups are "attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism, or racism."

Tehran also needed to fully identify and freeze "terrorist assets" in line with UN Security Council resolutions, the task force said.

Foreign businesses say compliance and Iran's removal from the FATF's blacklist are key issues to be resolved before they invest in the country.

Hard-liners in Iran have opposed the measures, claiming it threatens national security.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

IAEA Report Says Iran Still In Compliance With 2015 Nuclear Deal

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran's nuclear activities have remained within key limits of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers -- despite growing economic pressure from U.S. sanctions reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, which monitors Iran's nuclear activities under the 2015 agreement, said in a quarterly report that Iran stayed within the accord's uranium-enrichment limits and complied with limitations on its stock of enriched uranium.

The report was distributed to IAEA member states on February 22 and reviewed by Western news agencies.

IAEA inspectors also said in the report that they did not find any irregularities related to Iran's Arak nuclear research reactor, which originally was designed to produce plutonium as a by-product.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.

But Washington has reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran after Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

Other signatories to the nuclear deal -- Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union -- have been have been working to keep it alive and have resisted U.S. pressure to abandon the accord.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

Gazprom Executive Becomes New Chief Of Russian Football Federation

Aleksandr Dyukov

Aleksandr Dyukov, the head of a subsidiary of Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom, is the new president of the country's football federation.

Dyukov, who is chairman and CEO of Gazprom Neft, was elected unopposed on February 22 as Russian Football Union president.

Until last year, Dyukov was also president of Zenit St. Petersburg, the Russian club owned by Gazprom.

He oversaw a period of big spending at the club, which won a UEFA Cup title in 2008. Zenit was criticized by some Russians for its dependence on state funding at the time.

Gazprom is a UEFA sponsor and Zenit's home stadium will host European Championship games next year.

In June, UEFA will also decide whether to stage the 2021 Champions League final in St. Petersburg.

The federation's top position has been unoccupied since Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko quit in December. Mutko was banned from the Olympics for life in 2017 in connection with a huge doping scandal during his time as sports minister.

Based on reporting by AP and Interfax

Ex-Yanukovych Aide To Be Removed From EU Sanctions List: Sources

Andriy Klyuyev

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is set next week to remove Andriy Klyuyev, the head of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential administration, from its sanctions list, but the assets freeze on Yanukovych and 11 of his associates are likely to be prolonged by another year, according to several sources familiar with issue.

EU ambassadors are expected to make the decision when they meet in Brussels on February 27.

The move comes after a ruling by the EU’s general court in July which said that the bloc’s restrictive measures against Klyuyev for 2017-18 should be annulled.

He did, however, remain on the sanctions list as the asset freeze was prolonged by one year in March 2018, with a separate ruling for the new sanctions period necessary to be delisted.

In the July ruling, the court concluded that since Klyuyev informed the European Council that Ukrainian criminal proceedings against him had been suspended before the renewal of the bloc's restrictive measures, the council should have sought clarification on the issue from Ukrainian authorities.

Several sources told RFE/RL that the lack of compelling evidence from Ukraine has forced the EU to consider removing Klyuyev from the list.

Andriy’s brother, Serhiy Klyuyev, was removed from the same sanctions list last year. Serhiy, who was a businessman and lawmaker from Yanukovych's Party of Regions, was the nominal owner of Mezhyhirya, the lavish Yanukovych residence outside Kyiv that is now a museum.

The EU imposed asset freezes against Yanukovych and his inner circle shortly after the collapse of his government in February 2014.

The bloc accused Yanukovych and his collaborators of misappropriation of Ukraine's state funds.

Apart from the former president, the restrictive measures still include his son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, and the former Prime Ministers Mykola Azarov and Serhiy Arbuzov.

Russian Widow Protests By Bringing Coffin With Dead Husband's Body To Local Government Building

The open casket was exposed in front of the building for several hours, before the widow removed it.

A Russian woman on February 21 placed an open coffin containing the body of her deceased husband in front of the regional government building in Samara in the Volga region, in protest against what she said was "competition between funeral homes" that prevented her from interring him.

Media reports in Russia say that the man died two weeks ago and the woman was trying to obtain money to bury him in the city cemetery.

The cemetery funeral home asked her to pay at least 30,000 rubles ($460), an amount too high for her.

The woman then went to a second funeral home, which agreed to bury her husband for 8,000 rubles ($120).

But when the gravediggers arrived at the cemetery, some 30 men prevented them from completing their task.

The incident prompted the woman to bring her husband's body in the casket in front of the regional government building.

The open casket was exposed in front of the building for several hours, before the widow removed it.

Amid the reports and outcry on social networks, the Samara region's governor, Dmitry Azarov, stated that he will personally investigate the case and vowed to assist the woman in burying her husband.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed, now says she will bury her husband in a village.

Samara, with population of around 1.2 million people, is located on the Volga River.

Based on reporting by Mash, Govorit Moskva, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and RIA Novosti

Iran Starts Gulf War Games, To Test Submarine-Launched Missiles

The inauguration of the Iranian-made Fateh (Conqueror) submarine in the southern port of Bandar Abbas on February 17.

Iran on February 22 opened large-scale naval drills at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, state media reported, adding that the maneuvers will feature submarine cruise-missile launches for the first time.

State agency IRNA said that more than 100 vessels were participating in the three-day drills held in an area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean.

Iran has in the past threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile U.S. action.

"The exercise will cover confronting a range of threats, testing weapons, and evaluating the readiness of equipment and personnel," Iranian navy chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said on state television.

"Submarine missile launches will be carried out...in addition to helicopter and drone launches from the deck of the Sahand destroyer," Khanzadi said.

State media said the military would be testing its new domestically built Fateh (Conqueror) submarine, which was launched last week and is said to be armed with cruise missiles.

U.S. President Donald Trump in May withdrew from a landmark 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

Trump said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles.

Based on reporting by Reuters and IRNA

Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Admits 'Many Mistakes' When In Office

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov (right) and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev (combo photo)

BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has admitted that he made mistakes while running the Central Asian nation from 2011 to 2017.

Atambaev's statement comes amid persistent tensions between him and incumbent President Sooronbai Jeenbekov -- two politicians who used to be close allies.

Speaking to journalists along with other leaders of his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) on February 22, Atambaev said that his party will soon start cleaning its ranks from "traitors," referring to a split faction within the party.

Anti-Atambaev members of the party initiated the "SDPK Without Atambaev" campaign last year as tension between the former president and his successor deepened.

"As party chairman and then as president, I have made many mistakes and it is very good that now I am able to see many things differently," Atambaev said, adding that he might also quit the SDPK chairmanship.

"I am not eternal. I am going to be 63 this year. As I handed over the presidency, the same way I will pass on the leadership in the party. Although Atambaev won't be the leader of the party officially, the party spirit will be safeguarded," Atambaev said.

The SDPK deputy chairwoman, lawmaker Irina Karamushkina, said at the press conference that Atambaev will lead the SDPK's list of candidates for next year's parliamentary elections.

The SDPK press conference takes place four days after preliminary hearings started into a corruption case against several former government officials known to be close to Atambaev.

Some politicians have said in recent months that Atambaev, who enjoys immunity as an ex-president, must also face justice for alleged corruption while in office.

In October, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by the country's former presidents is unconstitutional.

In December, the Kyrgyz parliament approved in the first reading a bill that would eliminate immunity for ex-presidents, potentially opening the path for Atambaev's prosecution.

Moscow Court Extends Pretrial Detention Of U.S. Citizen Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan appears in a Moscow court on January 22.

A Moscow court has extended the pretrial detention for former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russia on an espionage charge.

The Lefortovo district court on February 22 rejected a motion filed by Paul Whelan's lawyer to transfer him to house arrest and prolonged his pretrial arrest until May 28.

Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said the court ruling will be appealed.

A former U.S. Marine, Whelan, who holds U.S., Irish, Canadian, and British citizenship, was arrested on December 28 in Moscow and charged with spying.

If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in a Russian prison. His family says he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Russian officials have not released details of the allegations against him.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Andrea Kalan, wrote on Twitter on February 22 that the embassy was closely following Whelan’s case.

Kalan also wrote that the embassy had been unable to release any information regarding the case because Whelan had not been allowed to give a signed Privacy Act Waiver to the embassy.

"U.S. privacy laws require a consular official obtain permission from someone before we can release any information about their case, and this is done routinely," Kalan wrote.

Kalan also expressed concerns over the refusal of Russian authorities to allow Whelan to do so.

Whelan was working as a global security director for a U.S. auto-parts manufacturer at the time of his arrest.

Relations between Russia and the United States have been strained over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its seizure and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the 2018 poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain with a nerve agent.

Whelan's detainment came weeks after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

In the past, Russia has arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.

Whelan's lawyer has said that his client is innocent and suggested that Russian officials may be trying to use him in an exchange for Butina.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has rejected that scenario.

With reporting by The Washington Post, Interfax, and Reuters

Turkey Orders Almost 300 Military Personnel Arrested Over Alleged Links With Coup

Fethullah Gulen

Turkey's prosecutor's office has ordered the arrest of 295 serving military personnel accused of ties with an alleged network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says orchestrated a 2016 attempted coup.

The prosecutor's statement issued on February 22 says that those facing detention included three colonels, eight majors, and 10 lieutenants.

About half of the suspects are members of the army, with the remainder serving in other military forces, including the navy and air force, the statement said.

Police launched simultaneous arrest operations one hour after midnight under an investigation into payphone calls between suspected Gulen operatives, the statement said.

It was not immediately known how many suspects have been arrested so far.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the July 15, 2016, failed coup, during which 250 people were killed.

Gulen, a former ally of President Tayyip Erdogan, has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

More than 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial since the attempted coup.

Authorities have suspended or dismissed 150,000 civil servants and military personnel.

Erdogan has been accused of using the failed coup as a pretext to stifle dissent.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Tens Of Thousands Rally In Slovakia On Anniversary Of Journalist’s Killing

The grave of a murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak at a cemetery in Stiavnik on February 20.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Bratislava and other parts of Slovakia to mark the one-year anniversary of the slayings of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Crowds gathered on February 21 in rallies organized by a group of students and organizations calling themselves For A Decent Slovakia.

The group released a statement saying they demanded a proper investigation of the murders and a trustworthy government.

"If we want to move forward, we have to know the names of those who ordered this monstrous murder," organizers said.

Kuciak was shot dead along with Martina Kusnirova at their home near Bratislava in February 2018. Both were 27 years old.

The authorities have said they believed it was a contract killing linked to Kuciak's work.

The journalist was investigating political corruption at the time of the slayings, which triggered the biggest street protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism in 1989 and a political crisis that led to the fall of former Prime Minister Robert Fico's government in March.

Kuciak was investigating possible government corruption and ties between politicians and Italian mobsters.

Four suspects have been charged, but the mastermind is believed to be still at large.

The U.S.-based Committee to Project Journalists and the International Press Institute on February 19 called on Slovak authorities to "expedite charges against all parties allegedly involved in the murder" of the investigative journalist.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa

IOC Assails India's Decision To Deny Entry Visas To Pakistani Sports Competitors

Activists from a right-wing Hindu group burn portraits of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as tensions rise between India and Pakistan.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has suspended all Indian applications to host future events and called for the country’s international sports isolation after two Pakistanis were denied visas for a competition in New Delhi.

The IOC on February 22 said it had been informed that Indian authorities did not grant entry visas to the Pakistani delegation for the 25-meter rapid-fire pistol event at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup.

At stake in the competition are two places at next year's Tokyo Olympics.

The visa refusal comes as tensions are rising to new highs between the rival nuclear powers.

India has blamed Pakistan for a February 14 attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers, and it has warned its neighbor of a "jaw-breaking response."

Islamabad has denied any involvement and vowed to retaliate if it comes under attack.

The attack on Indian troops was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM) militant group.

The ISSF said on February 20 that it faced "an urgent situation as Pakistani athletes cannot get entry visas to participate in the competition" because of the Kashmir attack.

The IOC said that "since becoming aware of the [visa denial] and in spite of intense last-minute...efforts...and discussions with the Indian government authorities, no solution has been found to allow the Pakistani delegation to enter India in time to compete.”

"As a result, the IOC Executive Board also decided to suspend all discussions with the Indian [National Olympic Committee] and government regarding the potential applications for hosting future sports and Olympic-related events in India," it said.

The IOC said India’s action went against the principles of the Olympic charter relating to discrimination and political interference from the host country.

The IOC said the Olympic spots would still be at stake in the competition, "in the interest of the other 500 athletes from 61 countries participating in the other events who are already in India for their competition."

The body also urged all international sports federations not to hold events in India, or grant it rights to host future competitions, until the government had provided "clear written guarantees" to ensure access for all athletes.

Rajeev Mehta, secretary-general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), told Reuters that the developments constituted "a big setback for sports in the country.”

"We've been in constant touch with the government, trying to explain to them and convince them to grant visas to the Pakistani shooters. This is really unfortunate," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, The Times of India, and Dawn

U.S. Says 200 ‘Peacekeeping’ Troops To Stay In Syria After Pullout

The United States is set to leave behind a "peacekeeping" force in Syria after the main force withdraws.

The United States says it will at least temporarily leave 200 “peacekeeping” troops in Syria after a planned pullout of the main U.S. force from the war-torn country.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a brief statement on February 21.

President Donald Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that Islamic State (IS) insurgents had been defeated.

Trump received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Moscow and Tehran back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year civil war and have provided key military support to keep his government in power. The United States and Turkey back differing antigovernment forces.

The White House announcement came after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The statement said the two presidents agreed to "continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone" in Syria.

The United States and Turkey are NATO allies, but tensions have been raised in recent years over a number of issues, including Washington’s support of Kurdish forces in the region. Ankara considers Kurdish fighters to be terrorists with links to Kurdish separatists operating in Turkey.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish troops have been fighting to expel IS insurgents from their remaining small enclaves in Syria. Some military officials have expressed concerns that the militants could regroup if U.S. forces fully pull out.

The timeline for the U.S. pullout remains uncertain.

Trump on February 6 said he was close to declaring the total defeat of the IS "caliphate" in Syria, but he has not yet made the statement.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Moldova’s Dodon: EU Uncertainty Highlights Need To Keep Close Russia Ties

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says uncertainty within the EU means his country must maintain ties to Russia.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says his country needs to maintain good relations with Russia amid uncertainty about the future of the European Union.

In an interview with the Associated Press published on February 21, Dodon said his country relies on Moscow for energy, exports, and for help to settle the long-standing conflict in its pro-Russia breakaway republic of Transdniester.

The interview comes ahead of the country’s February 24 parliamentary elections, which have the potential to tilt the country either to the West or East.

The country’s leadership is split, with the ruling Democratic Party pursuing a pro-EU stance while the president has pressed for a policy more focused toward Russia.

Until assuming the presidency, Dodon was the leader of Moldova's Socialist Party, a splinter group from former President Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party. He also is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pro-Russia Socialist Party, the country’s leading opposition group, is expected to win the most votes in the February 24 vote.

However, it is not expected to receive a clear majority. Along with the Democratic Party and the Socialists, the ACUM (Now) bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption and is also considered pro-West, will be among competitors in the vote.

An Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU came into force in 2016, but the Socialists favor the country joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Chisinau’s unsteady record in fighting rampant corruption has angered many Moldovans, increased support for the Socialists, and brought complaints from the EU.

Dodon asserted in the AP interview that he sees the need to maintain ties with the EU, which accounts for 70 percent of Moldova’s exports -- much of it to neighboring Romania, with which Moldova shares a common language and history.

But he also said the EU’s development over the next 10 to 15 years is uncertain, making it important for Chisinau to keep friendly relations with Moscow.

Moldova's mainly Russian-speaking Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania. Most of Moldova was part of Romania in the interwar period.

Moldovan forces and Moscow-backed Transdniester fighters fought a short but bloody war in 1992.

The conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement after Russian troops in the region intervened on the side of the separatists. Some 1,400 Russian troops remain in Transdniester, despite UN calls to remove them.

Dodon won the presidency in 2016 after an election campaign that capitalized on a wave of nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Dodon has been suspended at least five times by Moldova's Constitutional Court, accused of failing to fulfill his constitutional obligations by refusing to sign into law bills passed by parliament and other matters.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Ahead Of General Election, Moldovan Opposition Leaders Say They've Been Poisoned

Moldovan opposition leaders Andrei Nastase (left) and Maia Sandu (file photo)

CHISINAU -- Two Moldovan opposition leaders have accused the authorities of poisoning them, three days before parliamentary elections.

Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase of the pro-European ACUM (Now) bloc said on February 21 that doctors had discovered heavy metals in their blood.

"Suspicions arise, and against the background of the attitude of the current government to those who they think are dangerous, this case should be taken seriously," Sandu told a press conference in Chisinau.

Nastase added that the authorities "want our deaths."

Vitalie Gamurari, a spokesman for the pro-Western, ruling Democratic Party, rejected the allegation, saying: "Strange accusations have been heard in the last few days and are becoming more and more fantastic."

Besides the Democratic Party, groups competing in the February 24 vote include the Socialists, who favor closer ties to Russia, and the ACUM bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption.

Opinion polls suggest none of them will win an outright majority.

With reporting by Reuters

IAAF Allows More Russian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals. (file photo)

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) says it had cleared 21 Russian athletes to compete in coming international competitions -- albeit not under their national flag.

The world governing body for track and field’s doping review board ruled that the 21 Russians have met "exceptional eligibility criteria" to compete as neutral athletes in 2019, a statement said on February 21.

In January, the IAAF had already approved 42 Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag this year.

Athletics' governing body banned Russia in November 2015 after a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency outlined evidence of systematic, state-backed doping in Russian athletics.

Another report a year later documented more than 1,000 doping cases across dozens of sports, most notably at the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014.

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Iran To Hold Navy Drills In Strait of Hormuz

Iran regularly holds navy maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Iran will hold a three-day navy drill in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz this weekend, according to state media.

Officials were quoted as saying that the annual exercise, which will start on February 22, will extend as far as the Sea of Oman and the fringes of the Indian Ocean.

Iran regularly holds maneuvers in the strait, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi told state television that submarines, warships, helicopters, and surveillance planes will participate in the drills.

The exercise, dubbed as Velayat-97, will include missile launches from the vessels, he added.

The exercise aims to evaluate the navy's equipment, practice launching weapons and "enable the troops to gain readiness for a real battle," the semiofficial Tasnim news agency cited the rear admiral as saying.

"The maneuver should prepare us for an emergency," Khazandi added.

The military exercises come at a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which last May withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed tough sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States decides to block oil exports as part of its sanctions.

Iran is a major exporter of oil and a member of the OPEC oil cartel.

The United States has dismissed the threat, saying Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz.

Based on reporting by Tasnim, dpa, AFP, and AP

Afghan Taliban Says New Political Chief Won’t Attend Talks With U.S. Envoys

Afghan Taliban leaders said on February 21 that their new political chief will not attend peace talks with U.S. envoys that are due to place in Qatar next week.

U.S. officials want to meet with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, hoping the Taliban's co-founder and military veteran will add momentum and have the clout to discuss issues that have made it difficult to broker a peace deal with Afghanistan’s government.

But senior Taliban leaders said Baradar would not be travelling to Qatar because he has had difficulties obtaining travel documents.

They said there are also differences among the Taliban leadership over the precise role that Baradar should have in the talks.

Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail in October. His appointment was widely seen as marking a new push by the Taliban to achieve political and diplomatic legitimacy.

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

Poisoned Arms Dealer Suggests Attackers Had Help Inside Bulgaria

"Without any internal cooperation there is no way [the attack] can happen," Emilian Gebrev told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service on February 20.

SOFIA -- Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian businessman who fell into a coma in April 2015 with symptoms of severe poisoning, says he believes whoever was involved in the attack against him had help from inside Bulgaria.

Gebrev, a veteran of the Bulgarian arms industry, survived the poisoning, as did his son and a company executive who were treated for similar symptoms.

The case bears hallmarks of the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2018.

The British-based open-source investigation group Bellingcat said on February 14 that Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeyev, a high-ranking military intelligence officer and a graduate of Russia's Military Diplomatic Academy, arrived in Bulgaria just days before Gebrev fell ill. The investigative group says Sergeyev used an alias while in Bulgaria.

Bellingcat said Sergeyev is also suspected of being involved in the attack against the Skripals in Salisbury, having arrived in Britain two days before they were poisoned.

"External support is extremely important and powerful, but without any internal cooperation there is no way [the attack] can happen," Gebrev told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service on February 20.

"The more I personally analyze what has happened so far, however cruel and ugly it sounds, it is the result of an extremely thoughtful, purposeful and consistent war on me, the company I lead and, analyzing the whole situation, on the companies in defense sector," Gebrev said.

An initial investigation into Gebrev’s poisoning found traces of the highly toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in his coffee and food at his home -- but no substance banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention such as Novichok.

Little else, however, was discovered and no one was punished for the attack.

The Kremlin has disputed the findings of the new Bellingcat investigation implicating it in Gebrev’s poisoning.

'Close Partnership'

British and Bulgarian officials, however, said earlier in February that the case has been reopened and that the two countries have been "closely" coordinating their efforts for "several months."

"We are working in a joint team and a close partnership, and we are going to find out the facts in this case," U.K. Ambassador to Bulgaria Emma Hopkins told reporters in Sofia on February 11.

While Gebrev did not name Russia specifically as a co-conspirator in the attack against him, he told RFE/RL that reports of a Russian agent's involvement don't surprise him.

“It's not even a coincidence. It's overlapping interests, which are even stronger," Gebrev said, noting that it appears to indicate Moscow was involved in some way.

The Bulgarian arms dealer also criticized local investigators in Bulgaria, noting that the case was reopened only after pressure exerted by Britain because of the possible link between the attacks in Sofia and Salisbury.

“When the state wants to investigate, then it can. And when it doesn't want to, well, here it is 2019, four years later, and only now are they trying to understand what happened," Gebrev said.

A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia
A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia

Skripal and his daughter also survived after weeks in critical condition. But Dawn Sturgess, a British national who authorities said came in contact with the poison after her boyfriend found a fake perfume bottle containing it, died in July 2018.

British authorities have charged that two Russian men, identified by Bellingcat as agents of Russia's GRU intelligence services, carried out the Salisbury attack.

However, they have not identified a third suspect. Bellingcat has acknowledged that it’s "unclear what [Sergeyev's] role may have been, if any, in the preparation and execution of the poisoning operation."

Moscow has denied involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals using the highly toxic nerve-agent Novichok, which led to a series of sanctions against Russia by the West and tit-for-tat diplomatic actions.

Two men who British police say traveled under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov and have ties to Russian military intelligence, have denied involvement. They say they are traveling vitamin salesmen who visited Salisbury to view its cathedral spire.

Nazarbaev Fires Kazakh Government Over Low Living Standards, Economic Failures

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has dismissed the government, citing its failure to raise living standards and diversify the economy away from the energy sector.

"In many areas of the economy, despite the adoption of many laws and government decisions, positive changes have not been achieved," Nazarbaev said in a statement on the presidential website on February 21.

The long-ruling president cited the government's failure to raise real incomes for Kazakhs, to boost employment opportunities, or to improve living standards in a country that enjoys vast energy resources.

He also said small and medium-sized businesses had not become a driving force for the Central Asian country's economic growth, as had been hoped.

The move comes amid growing protests across the country about living conditions for Kazakhs that were sparked by the deaths of five children of a single family when their home in Astana burned down.

The tragedy occurred while both parents were working overnight shifts to make ends meet.

The decision to dismiss the government marks the end of 55-year-old Bakytzhan Sagintaev's premiership, which started in 2016.

An order on the presidential website said Deputy Prime Minister Askar Mamin, 53, had been appointed as acting prime minister until a new government can be formed.

Ahead of Nazarbaev's address, Mamin called in a statement for a "more aggressive and proactive" policy to help the country boost its exports.

Nazarbaev said he would propose "a number of measures to strengthen social welfare and people's quality of life" at a conference of his Nur Otan party on February 27, adding that "considerable funds" would be allocated to pay for the measures.

The 78-year-old president has been in power in energy-rich Kazakhstan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rights activists and critics say he has suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential political opponents.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Russia's Memorial Says Leader Of Anti-Landfill Protests Is Political Prisoner

Environmental activist Vyacheslav Yegorov

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center says the leader of anti-landfill protests in the city of Kolomna near the Russian capital is a political prisoner.

The group made the announcement in a statement posted on its website on February 21, saying that Vyacheslav Yegorov was being persecuted because of his sociopolitical positions.

Yegorov, 41, is an activist with the No Dump In Kolomna public group, which opposes the dumping of garbage from Moscow in landfills in the area of Kolomna, a historic city of some 140,000 people located about 120 kilometers southeast of the Russian capital.

Since February 2, Yegorov has been held under house arrest while facing a charge of repeatedly violating regulations on holding public gatherings and protests.

Russia's Criminal Code envisions criminal prosecution for at least three violations of the law on public gatherings in six months, a provision which Memorial said is illegal because it contradicts the constitution.

If convicted, Yegorov could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Vyacheslav Yegorov last year led several rallies protesting the environmental consequences of poorly managed landfills and household-waste disposal in Kolomna.

Similar rallies have been held in recent months in other Russian cities and towns.

The latest such rallies took place in 30 Russian regions on February 3.

Tajik Opposition Figure Arrested After Return From Self-Imposed Exile, Netherlands Confirms

Sharofiddin Gadoev, exiled businessman and co- leader of opposition Group-24, had said he would "never" return to Tajikistan.

The Netherlands' Foreign Ministry says Tajik authorities have confirmed that an opposition activist who resurfaced in Dushanbe last week from self-imposed exile was arrested, and that he is accused of "criminal activities."

"At this time the Dutch [Foreign Ministry] investigates whether and how it can assist [Sharofiddin] Gadoev. We are following the case closely," ministry spokeswoman Willemien Veldman said in a statement sent to RFE/RL on February 21.

A legal representative for Gadoev said earlier that authorities in the Netherlands, where the activist is said to have a residency permit, had launched an investigation into the situation after concerns were raised by Tajik opposition and rights activists about his fate.

Gadoev's mother told RFE/RL that her son had been "taken away at 8 p.m. on February 20" after spending one night at his family home, adding that she didn't know where he was.

Oishamoh Abdulloeva said Tajik authorities told her that Gadoev would be released soon. But she said she was "very concerned about" her son.

According to her, Gadoev arrived at his family home in the southern district of Farkhor on February 19, "along with several people" that Abdulloeva said she didn't know.

She said the men accompanying Gadoev stayed in her house and spent the night there, before taking him away the following evening.

Oishamoh Abdulloeva says she doesn't know where her son is. (file photo)
Oishamoh Abdulloeva says she doesn't know where her son is. (file photo)

Gadoev's sudden return to Dushanbe sparked conflicting information about whether Gadoev had willingly traveled to Tajikistan or was forcibly returned.

Viktoria Nadezhdina, a legal representative for Gadoev, said that the activist was detained by the authorities in Russia before he reappeared in Tajikistan's capital.

"According to an official response from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sharofiddin Gadoev was arrested in the Russian Federation based on two Interpol red notices," Nadezhdina told RFE/RL on February 20.

A "red notice" is a request through Interpol for the authorities in other countries to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.

Asked whether Gadoev was extradited to Tajikistan by Russia, Nadezhdina said the ministry's response did not include further "details."

Nadezhdina said authorities in the Netherlands, where Gadoev has a residency permit, have also launched an investigation into the situation after concerns were raised by Tajik opposition and rights activists about his sudden reappearance in Dushanbe.

Abdusattor Boboev, a member of the National Alliance of Tajikistan, says the Europe-based opposition association is concerned about Gadoev's fate.

"We are worried that the government could create all kinds of problems for Sharofiddin, including eliminating him physically," Boboev said on February 21.

Tajik authorities claim Gadoev, co-founder of the opposition Group-24, returned to Tajikistan voluntarily and surrendered to police at Dushanbe International Airport on February 15.

The same day, the Interior Ministry shared a video in which Gadoev said that he had returned "willingly." In that video, Gadoev also criticized the opposition and urged other activists to do the same.

However, on February 19 the National Alliance posted a contradictory video message from Gadoev that the group says was recorded ahead of his trip to Russia.

"I am recording this video [to warn] that if I suddenly appear on Tajik television or some YouTube channel, saying that I have returned of my own accord -- you must not believe it," he said in the undated footage.

"I am not planning to go to Tajikistan willingly. Never. I'm not going to Tajikistan and surrender to [President] Emomali Rahmon's government," he said.

But Gadoev said he might be kidnapped and forced "under torture and pressure" to publicly speak against "certain movements, groups, and persons."

He noted that some other Tajik opposition figures had been killed, kidnapped, or disappeared during visits to Russia and that he might face a similar fate.

"I'm travelling to Russia on the 14th to meet with officials from the Security Council of Russia...to discuss some problems that have occurred in Tajikistan, also to discuss the situation of Tajik labor migrants," Gadoev said in the video.

Gadoev's return to Tajikistan raised suspicions among opposition activists and others, while his mother said she was unaware of her son's plans to return to his home in the southern district of Farkhor.

Pro-government media and some Facebook accounts posted photos of Gadoev meeting his mother and relatives at his home.

Others shared a video that shows Gadoev calling his mother from a mobile phone while a man in a Tajik police uniform and the Dushanbe correspondent of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency look on.

The government of President Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has long been criticized for its crackdowns on dissent.

Tajikistan banned its longtime political rival, the Islamic Renaissance Party, in 2015 and has imprisoned dozens of opposition party officials and supporters.

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 12-Year Prison Term For Woman In 'Krasnodar Cannibals' Case

Natalya Baksheyeva (left) is accused of urging her husband, Dmitry Baksheyev, to kill a woman.

KRASNODAR, Russia -- A prosecutor has asked a court in southern Russia to sentence a woman to 12 years in prison in a case which came to be known as the "Krasnodar cannibals."

Natalya Baksheyeva, 43, was found guilty on February 5 of incitement to murder and dismemberment of a person.

She was accused of urging her husband, 36-year-old Dmitry Baksheyev, to kill a woman after an argument at the couple's home in September 2017.

During the investigation, police found pickled body parts in the home Baksheyeva shared with her husband. Forensic tests later revealed that pieces of flesh found in jars of brine in the couple's home were parts of the victim's body.

The couple was arrested in 2017, after authorities said they received a call from people who found a phone that Baksheyev had lost and which contained selfies showing him posing with human body parts.

Baksheyeva went on trial in October.

Baksheyev was also arrested but is being treated for tuberculosis and is to be tried separately.

U.S. Embassy Demands Access To Detained American Investor In Russia

Michael Calvey appears in court in Moscow on February 15.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is demanding that Russia give U.S. diplomats immediate access to American investment-fund manager Michael Calvey, who was formally charged with financial fraud and is being held in a Russian pretrial detention center.

Calvey's lawyer, Dmitry Kletochkin, confirmed on February 21 that Calvey was formally charged by the Russian authorities, adding that his client maintained his innocence and had refused to answer interrogator's questions.

"My client chose not to answer questions. The charge is pretty vague and not concrete. That is why he will start answering questions [by interrogators] only after outlining defense position with his lawyers," Kletochkin said.

Calvey, a U.S. citizen who founded the Baring Vostok Capital Partners (BVCP) private equity fund in 1994, is one of the most prominent foreign investors in Russia.

BVCP said that the charges against Calvey and three other employees were connected to "a commercial conflict related to Bank Vostochny.”

The investment fund "once again states that it has full confidence in the legality of its employees’ actions, it does not agree with the charges and that BVCP has always acted in full compliance with the law," it said in a statement.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said on February 21 that it "has not received permission from Russian authorities to visit" Calvey since his arrest on September 14.

"Russia's obligations under the Bilateral Consular Convention require them to provide consular access within four days," the U.S. Embassy statement said.

"We have requested this access multiple times. The Russian Federation's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet complied with the terms of our Bilateral Consular Convention and has not allowed us to provide consular assistance. We have expressed our strong concern about this delay through diplomatic channels."

Calvey's February 14 arrest on accusations of large-scale fraud in Russia sent shock waves through Western business circles.

The 51-year-old Calvey was detained in Moscow along with three other Baring Vostok employees, including French citizen Philippe Delpal, and two other suspects. All six have since been ordered held in pretrial detention.

According to Kletochkin, all other persons arrested in the case were also formally charged with large financial fraud on February 21. All of them maintain their innocence, he said.

Russia's Association of Professional Investors issued a statement on February 21, calling on the authorities to choose a pretrial restriction other than arrest for Calvey and other suspects in the case.

And Russia's sovereign wealth fund on February 21 said that its head, Kirill Dmitriev, had appealed to a Moscow court and the Investigative Committee to move Calvey, Delpal, and two Russian suspects in the case to house arrest.

Media reports in Russia said on February 21 that business ombudsman Boris Titov had sent a request to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika urging him to assess the legality of Calvey's arrest.

If convicted Calvey could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address on February 20 that "honest businesses" should not live in fear of prosecution. It was not immediately clear whether he was referring to Calvey's case.

Baring Vostok is one of the largest private-equity firms in the former Soviet Union, according to its website. It manages more than $3.7 billion in assets, is particularly active in the technology sector, and owns a stake in the Yandex search engine.

Before founding Baring Vostok, Calvey worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the investment bank Salomon Brothers. He is a member of the board of directors of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

Amid severely strained ties between Moscow and Washington, Calvey is the second U.S. citizen to be arrested in a high-profile case in Russia in as many months.

Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine who says he is innocent and was in Moscow for a friend's wedding, was detained in late December on an espionage charge and is in pretrial detention.

Russian officials have denied that the country’s troubled relations with the United States influenced the arrests.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Turkmen, Afghan Presidents Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) shakes hands with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a previous meeting in June 2016.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have signed an agreement on a strategic partnership between their countries.

Turkmenistan's State Information Agency said the two leaders signed the document in Ashgabat on February 21 after discussing bilateral trade, energy, and cultural ties.

Berdymukhammedov reportedly said Turkmenistan was ready to try to help bring Taliban negotiators together with Afghan officials for peace talks.

Among other issues they discussed was the ongoing construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline.

Agreements also were signed in a bid to boost cooperation in the energy and transports sectors -- including an accord on customs cooperation and construction of a railroad connecting Turkmenistan with Tajikistan via Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by TDH, Pajhwok, and Khaama Press

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