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NATO To Maintain Afghan Mission Into 2017; 'United' On Russia

WARSAW -- NATO signaled unity in support for Afghanistan and a mix of "defense and deterrence" with dialogue to handle an assertive Russia at a crucial summit, seeking to address an array of challenges faced by the Western alliance and the wider world.

At a two-day summit that NATO leaders said was a defining moment for the alliance, its members also agreed to step up its role in the fight against Islamic State extremists and combat terrorism and human trafficking with a Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean.

"In an unpredictable world of challenges from the south and east, NATO remains an essential source of stability," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on July 9, wrapping up the main results of the gathering at a Warsaw stadium ahead of a final meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

NATO must "project stability" beyond its immediate region and become "even more of a training alliance" to help other countries fight terrorism and other threats instead of sending large NATO contingents in to do so, he said, announcing a plan to begin a new training effort in Iraq to aid in combatting Islamic State fighters.

"Prevention is better than intervention," Stoltenberg said.

New Battalions

Day One of the summit was dominated by the formal authorization of plans for multinational battalions of up to 1,000 troops each to be stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- a direct response to Russian belligerence and the biggest such move by the alliance since the end of the Cold War.

The battalions will be led by the United States, Canada, Britain, and Germany.

"The main message is that the alliance is united, that we stand together in our approach based on defense -- strong defense -- and collective dialogue," Stoltenberg said on July 9.

Asked by a Russian reporter whether he saw any imminent threat against a NATO ally, Stoltenberg said no, but added a "more assertive" Russia has built up its military capabilities, modernized its armed forces, and tripled its defense spending in recent years.

Moscow, he said, has been "willing to use military force against neighbors, against Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, and destabilizing eastern Ukraine."

Stoltenberg said NATO's enhanced response forces could be used not only on the alliance's eastern flank but also to tackle potential threats stemming from the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

He said that while NATO is not in a "strategic partnership" with Russia, despite what he said were efforts to build one after the Soviet breakup, it is also not engaged in a new "Cold War."

"We are in a new situation which is different to anything else we have experienced before," he said.

Russia stunned the West in March 2014 by seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backing separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 9,300 people in eastern Ukraine since that April.

The interference in Ukraine has increased concerns in eastern NATO nations such as Poland and the three Baltic states, which were under Moscow’s thumb until the Soviet breakup a quarter-century ago.

Poroshenko Hails 'Unique' NATO Support
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WATCH: Poroshenko Hails 'Unique' NATO Support

In addition to military force, Western governments say that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has used cyberattacks, propaganda, and other methods in an effort to destabilize European countries and undermine Western unity.

Addressing a news conference following Poroshenko’s meeting with NATO leaders, Stoltenberg reaffirmed the alliance’s support for Ukraine and called on Russia to halt its "political, military and financial support for separatists" battling Kyiv’s forces in the east of the country.

Poroshenko, meanwhile, hailed NATO solidarity with his country, saying he had secured from the alliance “a strong commitment to supporting Ukraine in increasing our defense capability” in the form of an assistance package.

The Kremlin said in a July 9 statement that Putin held a call with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the Ukraine crisis and that Putin urged his counterparts "to influence more actively the Ukrainian side" during their planned meetings with Poroshenko.

In downtown Warsaw, a few hundred anti-NATO activists protested against the planned deployments on July 9, carrying banners reading "Stop NATO" and chanting "NATO get out of here."

Russia, which has long accused NATO of jeopardizing security by expanding eastward, has criticized NATO’s deployment plans.

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the upper parliament house, likened them to “building a dam in the desert,” and Putin’s spokesman said on July 8 that it was “absurd to speak of a threat from Russia.”

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that "NATO has begun preparations for escalating from a Cold War into a hot one."

"They only talk about defense, but actually are preparing for offensive operations," Gorbachev was quoted as saying.

NATO leaders dismiss such accusations, saying that the alliance is not seeking confrontation but that Russia's actions have made it necessary for the alliance to bolster its defenses.

Stoltenberg said during the summit that NATO will “continue to seek meaningful and constructive dialogue" with Russia.

The NATO-Russia Council, which was set up in the 1990s to address Russia’s misgivings about the alliance expanding eastward, is to meet next week for the second time this year. The council was suspended following Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

'Long Haul'

The NATO summit also produced an agreement to continue training Afghan security forces into 2017, prolonging a support mission in a country that still faces serious instability a decade and a half after the Taliban was driven from power.

Taliban fighters and allied insurgents have regrouped since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and by some accounts now hold more territory than at any time since then. That has prompted the United States and NATO to slow their drawdown of troops.

Speaking after leaders of the 28-nation alliance met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Stoltenberg said that Afghan forces will continue to be funded through 2020 "at or near" the current level of $5 billion a year. Most of the money comes from the United States, but Stoltenberg said other allies have promised to put up about $1 billion a year.

"Our message is clear: Afghanistan does not stand alone, and we are committed for the long haul," the NATO chief said at a news conference.

Stoltenberg said the number of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2017 will remain at about 12,000, but that exact numbers will be decided in the fall. Obama announced this week that the United States would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan though the end of his term in January 2017 instead of cutting their numbers.

In an interview in Warsaw with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Abdullah said that around the time that NATO ended its combat mission, Taliban insurgents thought they could "win militarily" -- but that this "did not happen" thanks to the Afghan security forces and support from the international community.

Afghan CEO Says IS 'A Problem' For His Country
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WATCH: Afghan CEO Says IS 'A Problem' For His Country

"The people of Afghanistan do not want the country Talibanized again," he said.

The government is keeping "the door open for negotiations," Abdullah said. "But unfortunately the Taliban have given us a negative response and are prolonging the conflict in Afghanistan."

On Iraq, Stoltenberg said NATO leaders agreed on the use of AWACS surveillance aircraft to support the fight against Islamic State extremists, who seized large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and have killed and abused uncounted civilians.That’s in addition to a new "training and capacity-building" effort there.

Stoltenberg also announced plans for an intelligence center in Tunisia and support for Tunisian forces, and said NATO leaders agreed to launch a maritime security operation in the Mediterranean Sea, to help fight trafficking, terrorism, and grapple with the influx of migrants seeking entry in Europe.

A French- and German-brokered peace deal known as the Minsk agreement imposed a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, but it is violated frequently and the Russia-backed separatists continue to hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Progress on political aspects of the Minsk agreement, which was meant to resolve the conflict and restore Kyiv’s control over Ukraine’s entire border with Russia, has been slow.

Ahead of the summit, Obama said that “even as our nations remain open to a more constructive relationship with Russia, we should agree that sanctions on Russia must remain in place until Moscow fully implements its obligations” under the Minsk agreement.

With reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP, and Interfax

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Another Tajik Arrested In Connection With Moscow Terrorist Attack

Ashurov is accused of illegally registering two foreign nationals, Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov (from left, with father Isroil), at his residence.
Ashurov is accused of illegally registering two foreign nationals, Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov (from left, with father Isroil), at his residence.

Russian authorities have arrested a dual Tajik–Russian national in connection with the March 22 terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow that left 144 people dead.

The suspect, identified only by his surname, Ashurov, has been placed under arrest for illegally registering two foreign nationals at his residence, a court in the city of Tver said on April 16.

The two foreigners -- Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov, brothers from Tajikistan -- are currently in Russian custody along with their father, Isroil Islomov, for allegedly aiding the suspects who are accused of carrying out the deadly attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue.

Prior to Ashurov's arrest, Russian authorities had arrested 10 Tajik citizens and a Kyrgyz national in connection with the attack, Russia's worst terrorist attack in two decades. Responsibility was claimed by an offshoot of the Islamic State extremist group.

Russian investigators have said the assault was carried out by four men, all Tajik nationals. Other detainees are being held for aiding and abetting the attackers.

On April 17, a Moscow court upheld the arrest of the Kyrgyz suspect, Alisher Kasimov, who had appealed against his arrest.

"The ruling of Moscow's Basmanny district court of March 26, 2024, has been upheld, and the appeal has been dismissed," a Moscow court official was quoted as saying by Russian state media.

A similar ruling was passed by the same court for Aminjon Islomov, who had also appealed his detention. The Islomovs have been charged with providing an apartment and vehicle to the attackers, and transporting cash for them. They have denied the accusations.

The Basmanny court also said that another suspect, Lutfulloi Nazrimad, a 24-year-old Tajik national, filed an appeal on April 15 against his arrest.

Nazrimad was taken into custody on March 23 with investigators claiming he knew about the planned terrorist attack and helped the attackers. In a closed-door hearing on March 29, the court extended Nazrimad's detention until May 22.

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on April 12 condemned the treatment of the Tajik suspects amid allegations that they were tortured in custody.

Several Tajik suspects showed signs of abuse when they appeared in court in Moscow following the attack.

The four accused gunmen had bruised and swollen faces and showed other signs of having been severely beaten. There were unconfirmed reports that one of them had his ear cut off during his arrest.

"The use of torture in the form of bodily mutilation is unacceptable," Muhriddin said. "The price of confessions extracted in this way is well known to everyone."

Muhriddin said that Russian security authorities should respect the rights of the Tajik suspects and adhere to the principles and norms of international law in their investigations into the massacre, especially regarding the presumption of innocence and the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

Speaking in Minsk at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Muhriddin also criticized what he said was a media campaign to slander Tajiks.

Kremlin Confirms Russian Peacekeepers Leaving Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian peacekeepers park at a checkpoint on a road in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020.
Russian peacekeepers park at a checkpoint on a road in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020.

The Kremlin has confirmed that Russian peacekeepers are leaving Azerbaijan's once-breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. On April 17, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Azerbaijani media reports saying that Russian troops had started leaving the region were true. Armenia has criticized Russian peacekeepers deployed to the once mostly ethnic Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh for failing to stop Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in September 2023 that ended with Baku regaining control over the region that for three decades had been under ethnic Armenians’ control. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Georgian Parliament Approves First Reading Of Controversial 'Foreign Agents' Bill

Georgian Riot Police Use Pepper Spray, Detain Protesters
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The Georgian parliament on April 17 approved the first reading of the controversial "foreign agents," bill with 83 lawmakers supporting the legislation and no votes against. As the session took place, demonstrators continued to protest the bill in front of the parliament building. Leaders of several opposition parties left parliament in protest against the bill. The final reading of the bill is scheduled to be debated on May 17. Thousands of political activists have protested against the bill for days, calling it a replica of Russia's law on foreign agents that Moscow has used for years to muzzle dissent. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, click here.

Putin's Classmate Named Russian Supreme Court Chair

Irina Podnosova (file photo)
Irina Podnosova (file photo)

The Russian parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, on April 17 voted to appoint Irina Podnosova, who in 1975 graduated from the Leningrad State University's law school along with Vladimir Putin, to the post of chairwoman of the Supreme Court. The 70-year-old Podnosova replaces Vyacheslav Lebedev, who died in February at the age of 80. Lebedev had occupied the post since 1989. The Kommersant daily said that Podnosova was considered an influential person among Russian judges, as "everyone understood who stands behind her." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Kazakh Judge Excludes Russian Forensics Experts' Conclusion From Ex-Minister's Murder Trial

Quandyq Bishimbaev is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November.
Quandyq Bishimbaev is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November.

Judge Aizhan Qulbaeva on April 17 ruled to exclude Russian forensics experts' conclusion from the high-profile trial of former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev, who is accused of beating his wife to death. The judge rejected the defense team's move, saying that the Russian experts were not present at the victim's autopsy. The Russian experts suggested that Bishimbaev's wife, Saltanat Nukenova, might have died of a subdural hematoma not caused by beating. Bishimbaev, who is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Jailed Kazakh Journalist Mukhammedkarim Launches New Hunger Strike

Duman Muhammedkarim (file photo)
Duman Muhammedkarim (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Independent Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim, who is on trial for what he says are politically motivated charges of financing an extremist group and participating in a banned group's activities, has launched another hunger strike to protest against the delay of an investigation into a complaint he filed against jail guards, whom he accused of torture.

Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeisov, said on April 16 that his client launched the hunger strike three days earlier.

Mukhammedkarim, whose Ne Deidi? (What Do They Say?) YouTube channel is extremely popular in Kazakhstan, was sent to pretrial detention in June 2023 over an online interview he did with the fugitive banker and outspoken critic of the government, Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Ablyazov's Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement was declared extremist and banned in March 2018.

As Mukhammedkarim's trial started on February 12, he complained of being beaten by jail guards, prompting prosecutors to launch a probe into the matter. The trial was postponed indefinitely to allow for the investigation.

Mukhammedkarim and his defense team insist that it's illegal to keep him behind bars for such a long period with his trial on hold.

If convicted, Mukhammedkarim could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

Domestic and international right organizations have urged the Kazakh authorities to drop all charges against Mukhammedkarim and release him immediately. Kazakh rights defenders have recognized Mukhammedkarim as a political prisoner.

Rights watchdogs have criticized the authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic for persecuting dissent, but Astana has shrugged the criticism off and denied there are political prisoners in the country.

Kazakhstan was ruled by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev from its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev succeeded him in 2019.

Over the past three decades, several opposition figures have been killed and many jailed or forced to flee the country.

Toqaev, who broadened his powers after Nazarbaev and his family left the oil-rich country's political scene following the deadly, unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022, has promised political reforms and more freedoms for citizens.

However, many in Kazakhstan consider the reforms announced by Toqaev cosmetic, as a crackdown on dissent has continued even after the president announced his "New Kazakhstan" program.

Russia Adds Journalist Marshenkulova To Wanted List

Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)
Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)

Russia's Interior Ministry on April 17 added Zalina Marshenkulova, an activist journalist in exile, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Last week, media reports said Marshenkulova was charged in absentia with justifying terrorism, adding that the charge stemmed from her online post last year in which she called the death of pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a blast in a restaurant in St. Petersburg after an explosive device in a gift handed to him detonated, "appropriate." Marshenkulova, a native of Russia's mostly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region, has a Telegram channel, Women’s Power, with around 30,000 subscribers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Crew Of Ship Seized By Iran Safe, Operator MSC Says

MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.
MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

The 25 crew members of the MSC Aries, which was seized by Iran on April 13, are safe, shipping firm MSC said, adding that discussions with Iranian authorities were in progress to secure their earliest release. "We are also working with the Iranian authorities to have the cargo discharged," the company said. Portugal's Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador to condemn a weekend attack on Israel by Tehran and to demand the immediate release of the Portuguese-flagged container ship. MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

Council Of Europe Assembly Recommends Extending Invitation To Kosovo

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recommended late on April 16 that Kosovo be invited to become a member of the Council of Europe and will monitor its fulfilment of an "extensive list of commitments and obligations as from its accession." A final decision on the move will be made by the Committee of Ministers, the organization's executive body made up of foreign ministers from member states. "Membership should catalyze momentum for Kosovo to continue to make progress in strengthening human rights, democracy and the rule of law," PACE said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, click here.

Yerevan Assures Iran That South Caucasus Won't Turn Into Field Of 'Geopolitical Competition,' Envoy Says

Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani (file photo)
Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani (file photo)

Iran says it has received assurances from Armenia regarding its concerns about the potential escalation of geopolitical competition in the South Caucasus stemming from the Armenian leader's recent high-level discussions with U.S. and EU officials in Brussels.

Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani said on April 16 that Tehran had a discussion with Armenian authorities about the trilateral meeting on April 5 between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Western powers said the meeting was focused on helping Armenia increase its resilience and diversify its economy, which is still heavily dependent on Russia.

Sobhani said Armenian authorities told him that the meeting was "not directed against any third country" and was meant to "strengthen the economy of Armenia and to receive humanitarian aid and support for those displaced from Karabakh."

Iran does not oppose Armenia’s efforts to develop its economy and solve the problems of the people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, Sobhani said at a news conference in Yerevan. This is Armenia's right, he said.

"Our concern is that Armenia and the [South] Caucasus should not turn into an arena for geopolitical competition and that the development of Armenia's foreign relations should not be at the expense of other countries," Sobhani said.

"And the Armenian authorities have informed us that the diversification of their country's foreign policy is not directed against Armenia-Iran relations."

The Iranian ambassador also defined the "extra-regional forces" whose intervention in the South Caucasus would be considered dangerous by Tehran. These would be forces unrelated to any security or geopolitical issues of the region, he said.

“That is, they come here from across the ocean and try to make decisions for the people of this region,” Sobhani said.

Asked whether members of the EU mission who have been monitoring the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since last year are considered "extra-regional forces," the Iranian ambassador said, "Yes, some European countries and the United States are."

Meanwhile, the Iranian diplomat said that Tehran's "red lines" regarding borders in the South Caucasus have not changed.

"Iran has expressed its opposition to the change of internationally recognized borders at the highest level, at the level of the head of the country, and it cannot be ignored," he said.

"We are categorically against the change of any geopolitical and internationally recognized borders. If there are problems on the border, they should be solved on the basis of dialogue, mutual understanding, with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries respected," Sobhani said.

Baku and Yerevan have been conducting negotiations over their respective borders for decades, but the process took on new urgency after Azerbaijan recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh amid a swift military offensive in September 2023.

Unlike in the past, the talks are now being conducted one-on-one without Russian, U.S., or EU mediators.

Countries In Czech-Led Initiative Pledge Enough To Buy 500,000 Shells For Ukraine

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala waves as he arrives for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 15.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala waves as he arrives for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 15.

WASHINGTON -- Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said on April 16 that 20 countries had pledged enough money to buy 500,000 artillery shells under the Czech Republic's international fundraising drive to buy badly needed ammunition for the Ukrainian Army.

"I am glad that at this moment about 20 countries already joined our initiative -- from Canada, Germany and [from] the Netherlands to Poland," Fiala said in a speech in Washington.

"Thanks to them we can provide around 500,000 rounds of artillery ammunition. We believe that more deliveries will follow."

Ukraine has been pleading for its Western allies to supply more ammunition as troops on the battlefield run short with Russian forces outfiring them at a rate of about five-to-one.

The supply is dwindling, the top U.S. military commander in Europe told Congress last week, and the rate will go to 10-to-one in a matter of weeks.

European Union members promised 1 million artillery shells by the end of March, but their production capacities are limited and the countries fell short of delivering.

The Czech government then announced it would collect a substantial amount of shells -- some 800,000 in total -- for Ukraine from third countries outside the European Union.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, Fiala said there was no reason why the 20 donor countries in the next 12 months could not help deliver 1 million more beyond the 500,000 already covered.

"I want to highlight that this initiative is not a onetime project. Our goal is to create a long-term system of ammunition supplies for heavy weapons. This will directly help to change the situation on the front line," he added.

The initiative can help cover Ukraine's ammunition needs at least until Europe's own defense industries can produce enough ammunition, he said.

Fiala didn’t include details on the amount of money pledged to acquire artillery shells, but Tomas Kopecny, Czech commissioner for the reconstruction of Ukraine, told Czech Radio on April 16 that the sum was roughly $3 billion.

The Czech prime minister also said that for too long many European countries took their security for granted, which led to very low spending on defense. The situation is completely different now, he said, because of the "wakeup call" Europe received when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

"Most countries in the West want to pay. Europe now knows that it cannot use only soft power," he said. "It learned that hard power must be used, not only for global balance but also for out security."

With reporting by AFP

At Least 10 Dead In Ukraine As Zelenskiy Laments Lack Of Air Defenses

Rescuers work at the site of a Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.
Rescuers work at the site of a Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.

At least 10 people have died and several were injured in a Russian air strike on the city of Chernihiv, an attack President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said couldn't be thwarted because Ukraine lacked "sufficient" air defenses due to dwindling supplies from allies, especially the United States.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Vyacheslav Chaus, governor of the Chernihiv region, said the air attack by Russian forces came after the alert was declared at 8:50 a.m. local time on April 17.

Chernihiv Mayor Oleksandr Lomako said the strikes hit local civil and social infrastructure in the city, which lies about 145 kilometers north of Kyiv.

It has been hit several times since Russian tanks swept into Ukraine from nearby Belarusian territory in February 2022.

"Unfortunately, the death toll may rise. This would not have happened if Ukraine had received enough air-defense equipment and if the world's determination to counter Russian terror was also sufficient," Zelenskiy said in a post on Telegram.

"Determination matters. Support matters. Ukrainian determination is enough. There needs to be sufficient commitment from partners and sufficient support to reflect it," he added.

Russia has drastically stepped up its air attacks on Ukraine as Kyiv's forces run low on air defenses and ammunition while desperately needed U.S. help remains stuck in the House of Representatives due to Republican opposition.

Ukrainian officials have desperately pleaded with Washington and its allies to step up military supplies and aid, saying Ukraine's air defenses were critical for the protection of its neighbors as well.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson has been seeking the votes needed to pass some $62 billion in aid for Ukraine, but many hard-right Republicans, especially those closely allied with former President Donald Trump, the party's presumptive nominee to run against President Joe Biden in a November election, have been skeptical about assisting Kyiv in its fight against Russia.

Confronted with a worsening lack of enough air defense systems, weapons, and ammunition as Western aid dries up, Kyiv has increasingly resorted to air and naval drone strikes deep inside Russian territory, targeting both military installations and critical oil-refining capabilities.

In Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea region, a series of explosions rang out early on April 17 in the area of the military airfield in the northern city of Dzhankoy.

The Telegram channel Astra showed several videos from local residents that showed flames shooting skyward amid large plumes of smoke at what reportedly was the airfield.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Russian authorities in Crimea did not immediately comment on the reports.


Facing Republican Revolt, House Speaker Pushes Ahead On U.S. Aid For Ukraine, Other Allies

House Speaker Mike Johnson (file photo)
House Speaker Mike Johnson (file photo)

House Speaker Mike Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) pushed back on April 16 against mounting anger within his own party over proposed U.S. security aid for Ukraine, Israel, and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

After meeting with fellow Republicans, Johnson said he was "not resigning" and called the motion to oust him "absurd" as he seeks the votes needed to pass the aid for U.S. allies.

At least two far-right Republicans have threatened to remove Johnson as speaker if he allows a vote on assistance for Ukraine.

Many other hard-right Republicans, especially those closely allied with former President Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee to run against President Joe Biden in the November election, have been skeptical about assisting Kyiv in its fight against Russia and fiercely oppose sending billions more dollars to Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Democrats say they will not rush to judgment on a new proposal from Johnson to consider national security assistance for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately, rather than as one bill.

They previously stressed that the best and quickest strategy would be for the House to pass the $95 billion package of security assistance approved by the Senate in February.

"I am reserving judgment on what will come out of the House until we see more about the substance of the proposal and the process by which the proposal will proceed," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) said on April 16.

Schumer said he hoped to get details of the speaker's proposal later on April 16, adding that "time is of the essence."

The leaders of several House committees endorsed Johnson's plan.

"There is nothing our adversaries would love more than if Congress were to fail to pass critical national security aid. Speaker Johnson has produced a plan that will boost U.S. national security interests in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific," said a joint statement from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (Republican-Alabama), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Republican-Oklahoma), House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (Republican-California), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (Republican-Texas), and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio).

"We don’t have time to spare when it comes to our national security. We need to pass this aid package this week," the statement said.

Johnson said on April 15 that the House would consider the aid bills separately this week, but it could take many more weeks for the bills to become law.

If the House were to pass aid to Ukraine, the bill would go back for a vote in the Senate, which is due to leave Washington next week for a two-week recess.

The texts of the separate bills have not been release, and it also was not clear which country's assistance the House would consider first.

Republicans have already tried to push through aid for Israel without any aid for Ukraine. Democrats in the House have blocked those efforts.

Johnson told Fox News that in addition to the three separate bills for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, there would be a fourth bill including additional sanctions on Russia and Iran as well as the REPO Act, a provision regarding the seizure of Russian assets to help Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

EU To Begin Work On Expanding Sanctions Against Iran As Israeli War Cabinet Meets Again

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran. (file photo)
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran. (file photo)

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says he will request that the EU’s diplomatic service start work on an expansion of sanctions in response to Tehran's weekend attack on Israel.

Borrell made the comment on April 16 after an emergency video conference of EU foreign ministers called to discuss the repercussions of the attack and as Israel's war cabinet was set to meet again to decide its response to Iran's weekend attack.

Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran, which he said "certainly represents a major escalation of an already very tense situation in the region."

The ministers "took a strong stance asking all actors in the region to move away from the abyss" during their video conference, he said.

Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi said on April 15 that the launch of more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran at Israeli territory "will be met with a response" but gave no details.

The attack caused no deaths and little damage, but it has increased fears that violence will spread beyond the current war in the Gaza Strip and throughout the Middle East.

Iran launched the attack in retaliation for an air strike on its embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 attributed to Israel. At the same time Tehran signaled that it did not seek further escalation.

President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekend that the United States would not participate in an Israeli counterstrike.

Washington instead said it would strive to toughen economic and political sanctions against Iran.

 'Everyone Is Against Us': Iranian RFE/RL Listeners' War Worries
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Meanwhile, Israel has begun writing to 32 countries to ask them to place sanctions on Iran's missile program and join Washington in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

Earlier on April 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi by phone about what the Kremlin called "retaliatory measures taken by Iran." Putin urged all sides to refrain from action that would trigger a new confrontation, which would be fraught with catastrophic consequences for the region, the Kremlin said.

In his first publicly aired comments on Iran's attack, Putin said the root cause of the current instability in the Middle East was the unresolved conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

Raisi's office gave a slightly different interpretation of the call, saying Putin said Iran's response was "the best way to punish the aggressor and show the wisdom and rationality of Iran's leaders."

The statement also said Raisi declared that Iran would respond more severely, extensively, and painfully than ever to any action against Iran's interests.

Also on April 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "the main one responsible" for Iran's first direct attack on Israel.

"Those who have been silent for months about Israel's aggressive attitude immediately condemned the Iranian response," said Erdogan, who regularly criticizes Israel and its leadership. "But it's Netanyahu himself who is the first who should be condemned."

He said Israel's attack in Damascus violated international law and "was the straw that broke the camel's back."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Poland Deports Tajik Citizen With Links To Islamic State

(Illustrative photo)
(Illustrative photo)

A Tajik citizen has been deported from Poland on suspicion of "terrorist activities" and links to the Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for a deadly attack at a concert hall outside Moscow last month. The man, whose identity was not disclosed, was "a member of the terrorist organization Islamic State," the Polish security agency said on April 16. The man has been involved in terrorist activities for several years" and had links to members of Islamic State-Khorasan, the group that claimed the March 22 attack at the concert hall. The suspect was deported last week.

U.S. To Hit Iran With New Sanctions, Yellen Says; U.S. Looking To Use Russian Assets For Ukraine

The new sanctions, which come in response to Iran's April 13 attack on Israel, could seek to reduce Iran's capacity to export oil.
The new sanctions, which come in response to Iran's April 13 attack on Israel, could seek to reduce Iran's capacity to export oil.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on April 16 warned that the United States intends to hit Iran with new sanctions over its unprecedented attack on Israel, and these actions could seek to reduce Iran's capacity to export oil.

"I fully expect that we will take additional sanctions action against Iran in the coming days," Yellen told a news conference in Washington.

The United States has taken previous action to contain Iran's "destabilizing" behavior by diminishing its ability to export oil, she said.

"Clearly, Iran is continuing to export some oil. There may be more that we could do."

The United States and its Group of Seven (G7) allies are continuing to explore a range of possibilities to unlock the value of nearly $300 billion in frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on April 16.

She said Ukraine needed ongoing streams of support, and that is driving the quest to monetize the frozen Russian assets.

She also said the United States and the G7 were absolutely committed to Ukraine's support and urged Congress to approve military aid, calling it "a humanitarian and moral imperative."

With reporting by Reuters

Fire At Zoo In Russian-Occupied Crimea Leaves More Than 200 Animals Dead

The Russian-installed Investigative Committee for Crimea reported that a five-story building housing lemurs, chameleons, parrots, turtles, large snakes, and other animals burned to the ground. (illustrative photo)
The Russian-installed Investigative Committee for Crimea reported that a five-story building housing lemurs, chameleons, parrots, turtles, large snakes, and other animals burned to the ground. (illustrative photo)

More than 200 animals died on April 16 in a fire at a zoo in Yevpatoria in Russian-occupied Crimea. A zoo representative was quoted by TASS as saying that all 200 animals in the Tropicpark Zoo died, but RIA Novosti reported that Emergencies Ministry employees managed to save two bears. A zoo employee was also rescued, according to RIA Novosti. The Russian-installed Investigative Committee for Crimea reported that a five-story building housing lemurs, chameleons, parrots, turtles, large snakes, and other animals burned to the ground. The preliminary cause of the fire is an electrical short circuit in refrigerator wiring. To read the original story on RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

Ukrainian Official Estimates 37,000 People Missing Since February 2022

Relatives join a rally in support of soldiers and civilians who have gone missing missing or been captured, in Kyiv on March 16.
Relatives join a rally in support of soldiers and civilians who have gone missing missing or been captured, in Kyiv on March 16.

Ukraine said on April 16 it had identified almost 37,000 people who have not been accounted for since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Ukraine's human rights commissioner Dmytro Lubinets said the figure includes children, civilians, and military personnel, and the true number “may be much higher.” The number includes about 1,700 people that he said Ukraine and the Red Cross had identified as "illegally detained" by Russia. Calculating the exact number of missing is difficult because Russian forces still occupy around one-fifth of the country and neither side regularly releases data on military casualties.

Scholz Urges China To Use 'Influence' On Russia To End Ukraine War

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on November 4, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on November 4, 2022.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says he urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to press Russia to end its "senseless" war in Ukraine during a visit to Beijing on April 16. Following his meeting with Xi, Scholz said on X that China's word “carries weight in Russia." He therefore asked Xi “to influence Russia so that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin finally calls off his senseless campaign, withdraws his troops, and ends this terrible war," he said. While China says it is a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, it has been criticized for refusing to condemn Moscow for its offensive.

Zelenskiy Signs New Law On Military Mobilization In Ukraine

Newly recruited soldiers celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv on September 25, 2023.
Newly recruited soldiers celebrate the end of their training at a military base close to Kyiv on September 25, 2023.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 16 signed into law legislation on mobilization is expected to address a shortfall in troops that by requiring men to update their draft data with the authorities. The legislation also increases payments to volunteers and has provisions to allow some convicts to serve. Though lawmakers watered down some amendments to draft dodging, the law does allow for punishment of those convicted of avoiding service. Since a major Ukrainian counteroffensive last year failed to make significant gains, Russia has used its significant advantage in manpower and equipment to erode those gains in the east. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Top Montenegro Law Enforcement Officials In Pretrial Detention For Alleged Ties To Organized Crime

Police escort former chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic in detention on April 14.
Police escort former chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic in detention on April 14.

A Montenegro court has ordered the pretrial detention for up to 30 days of former chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic and former deputy police director Zoran Lazovic, who were arrested on April 14 in a corruption scandal with links to the organized crime that has shaken the tiny Adriatic republic.

"Their detention was ordered due to the risk of their escape and possible influence on the witnesses," Marija Rakovic, a spokeswoman for the High Court in Podgorica, told RFE/RL on April 16.

The Special State Prosecutor's Office said the two are charged with forming and participating in a criminal organization and abuse of office.

Lazovic is accused of creating the criminal organization whose members are alleged to have been Katnic, who was Montenegro's chief special prosecutor from 2015 until February 2022, ex-special prosecutor Sasa Cadjenovic, and Lazovic's son, ex-National Security Agency (ANB) agent Petar Lazovic.

Zoran Piperovic, Lazovic's lawyer, said his client was accused of lifting a ban on entry into Montenegro in 2021 of two Serbian members of Montenegro's notorious Kavac crime clan, Veljko Belivuk and Marko Miljkovic. Katnic allegedly aided Lazovic.

After a 10-day stay in Montenegro, Belivuk and Miljkovic were arrested in February 2021 upon their return to Serbia, where they are currently on trial for several murders they apparently boasted about to members of their criminal group.

In Montenegro, the two clan members are suspected of kidnapping a member of a rival clan in October 2020, who they then handed over to other members of the Kavac group.

The kidnapped man, Mileta Radulovic, a member of the Skaljari clan, was found dead after two months of torture.

Caidenovic was arrested in December 2022 for alleged links to the Kavac clan.

Petar Lazovic was an ANB agent until July 2022, when he was arrested on charges of drug smuggling.

Cadjenovic and the younger Lazovic have been in custody since their arrest.

The Special State Prosecutor’s Office on April 14 said the investigation against Lazovic and Katnic had gone on for several months in cooperation with the Europol, The EU agency for law enforcement.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milojko Spajic hailed the arrests, saying he backed the fight against corruption and organized crime -- two issues that have long plagued Montenegro.

President Jakov Milatovic said the arrests marked a step on the road of improving the rule of law in Montenegro.

Former Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic who, while in office had accused Katnic and Lazovic of being “at the top of the criminal pyramid in Montenegro,” also welcomed the arrests.

With reporting by Balkan Insight

Israeli War Cabinet To Meet For Third Time On Response To Iran's Attack

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) attends a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya in Tel Aviv on April 14.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) attends a war cabinet meeting at the Kirya in Tel Aviv on April 14.

Israel's war cabinet was set to meet for the third time in three days on April 16, an official said, to decide on a response to Iran's first-ever direct attack, amid international pressure to avoid further escalating conflict in the Middle East. Military chief of staff Herzi Halevi had promised that Saturday night's launch of more than 300 missiles, cruise missiles and drones from Iran into Israeli territory "will be met with a response," but gave no details. While the attack caused no deaths and little damage, it has increased concerns that violence rooted in the Gaza war is spreading.

Wave Of Complaints Follows Police Hijab Crackdown In Tehran

Iranian women walk on a Tehran street without wearing the mandatory head scarves.
Iranian women walk on a Tehran street without wearing the mandatory head scarves.

The stricter enforcement of the mandatory hijab law by Tehran police has prompted a wave of complaints from Iranians who say police are using aggressive and sometimes violent tactics in their treatment of alleged violators.

Tehran Police Chief Abbasali Mohammadian announced a ratcheting up of enforcement of the new "hijab and chastity" bill from April 13 even though the legislation had yet to be approved by the country's Guardian Council.

According to reports, some citizens said their car windows were smashed by baton-wielding officers as they sought violators, while others recounted aggressive confrontations with state motorcycle patrols.

It was also reported that Nafiseh Latifian and Negar Abedzadeh, the wife and daughter of legendary soccer goalkeeper Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, were among those detained on Tehran's Fereshteh Street for allegedly violating hijab regulations.

"The two were detained for causing tensions and clashing with officers," the Fars News Agency, which is aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), reported.

Even though the Guardian Council has yet to approve the law, a necessary step in it becoming official, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon for enforcement of measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this and other legal decrees.

The "hijab and chastity" bill, which passed in parliament last year without public discussion, came in reaction to a wave of protests and defiance by women against being forced to wear the head covering. However, the approval process is still ongoing after some objections by the Guardian Council, including questions over how the law will be enforced.

Ahmadreza Radan, a senior police official, discussed the stepped-up measures, telling the Mehr news agency that in cases involving vehicles, a warning is issued on the first offense.

"On the second, the vehicle is detained on site and then impounded," he added.

Radan also spoke about the Noor Plan, which targets businesses and individuals accused of failing to adhere to hijab norms. He described it as a response to demands from "devout citizens," with businesses facing closure for repeated violations.

The renewed focus on the mandatory hijab enforcement arrives as numerous reports suggest a decline in adherence to the headscarf among Iranian women in Tehran and other cities following widespread protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police in 2022 for an alleged hijab violation.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

The death of Amini released a wave of anger that has presented the Islamic regime with its biggest challenge since the revolution.

The Women, Life, Freedom protests and civil disobedience against the compulsory hijab have swept the country, involving tens of thousands of Iranians, many of whom were already upset over the country's deteriorating living standards.

Campaigns were also launched against the discriminatory law, although many have been pressured by the state and forced to leave the country.

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

Organizer Of 'Nearly Naked' Party Charged With Discrediting Russia's Armed Forces

Russian blogger Anastasia Ivleyeva (file photo)
Russian blogger Anastasia Ivleyeva (file photo)

The organizer of the so-called "Nearly Naked" party, Russian blogger Anastasia Ivleyeva, has been charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces and will face a hearing on April 25 at Moscow's Tver district court. It was not immediately clear how Ivleyeva broke the law. Ivleyeva was an organizer of the party at the Mutabor night club in December, which sparked outrage among lawmakers and pro-Kremlin groups. The Lefortovo district court in Moscow did not charge Ivleyeva but ruled in January that the party had "propagated nontraditional sexual relations." Propagating gay relations is a crime in Russia. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Ukrainian Nuclear Plant 'Dangerously Close' To Accident, Atomic Watchdog Chief Warns

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi. (file photo)
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi. (file photo)

Recent drone attacks on the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine have raised the risk of a nuclear accident to a new level, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency warned on April 15, calling on the UN Security Council to do everything in its power to minimize the risk.

"We are getting dangerously close to a nuclear accident. We must not allow complacency to let a roll of the dice decide what happens tomorrow," Rafael Grossi, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the council.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The plant has come under a series of drone attacks since April 7 for which Ukraine and Russia have blamed each other. A team of international specialists at the plant confirmed that attacks took place on April 7, and said one of the attacks hit the containment dome of the Unit 6 reactor building.

Damage to the structure was superficial, but the attack “sets a very dangerous precedent of the successful targeting of the reactor containment,” Grossi said.

The other two attacks on April 7 were in close proximity to the main reactor buildings and resulted in at least one casualty, Grossi added.

In addition, experts at the site have been informed by the plant’s operators of a drone strike on the site’s oxygen and nitrogen production facility, two attacks on a training center located just outside the site's perimeter, and reports of a drone shot down above the turbine hall of Unit 6, he said without specifying when those attacks occurred.

The attacks have not led to a radiological incident, but “they significantly increase the risk at Zaporizhzhya [nuclear power plant], where nuclear safety is already compromised,” Grossi said, according to a transcript of his comments posted at the IAEA’s website.

"These reckless attacks must cease immediately," Grossi said.

The power plant has been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after their invasion started in February 2022, and the IAEA has deployed technicians at the facility. It has been shut down but still requires electricity to power its safety and cooling systems.

The plant is currently relying on just two lines of external power, and in the past year there have been at least four occasions when the plant has had only one line of external power supply, Grossi said.

Grossi is also concerned about an increase in isolated drone incursions in the vicinity of the facility and in the nearby town of Enerhodar and other areas of nuclear safety degradation.

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