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Leaders Of Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Reject Azerbaijani Claims Of Deadly Attack

Azerbaijani soldiers march in formation on December 10 during a military parade marking the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh military conflict.

Azerbaijan says one of its servicemen has been killed and another wounded in an attack by ethnic Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh, a claim dismissed by the breakaway region's de facto authorities.

The country's Defense Ministry said on December 28 that six members of “an illegal Armenian armed group" attacked an Azerbaijani military unit in the village of Agdam in the Khojavend district the previous day, adding that all of the attackers were killed.

The ministry vowed to take "decisive measures" if similar attacks were carried out.

The ethnic Armenian military in Nagorno-Karabakh rejected the report as a “propaganda provocation,” saying it was “strictly observing” last month’s cease-fire that brought an end to six weeks of fighting over the region.

The Armenian Defense Ministry earlier denied media reports of fighting in the south of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Moscow-brokered truce took effect on November 10, placing a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it -- including Khojavend -- under Azerbaijani administration after almost 30 years of control by Armenians.

Most of the Khojavend district had been captured by the Azerbaijani Army during the war.

On December 12, new clashes were reported in the south of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of breaching the cease-fire.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the region's population reject Azerbaijani rule.

They had been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops and Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region and seven adjacent districts in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.

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Little Change Expected As Bosnians Head To Polls In General Election

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Mostar on October 2.

Voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina go to the polls with little change expected to the leadership of a country racked by clientelism, corruption, and poverty.

Balloting to choose the three members of the shared Bosnian presidency, parliament deputies at the state, entity, and regional levels, and the president of the country's Serb-run part will remain open until 7 p.m. as more than 60,000 accredited observers oversee the process.

Bosnia's 3.4 million registered voters can choose from a huge slate of more than 100 parties and coalitions in the country's eighth general election, but the beleaguered Balkan state's postelection landscape will almost certainly be dominated by many of the same personalities that have thrived on existential crisis and patronage for years, and even amplified their ethnic vitriol in campaigning.

It also takes place amid Russia's war in Ukraine, which has further divided Bosnia and raised fears of raising the temperature on long-simmering issues in the Balkan state.

Bosnia remains divided into a Bosniak and Croat federation and the mostly Serbian entity of Republika Srpska under the terms of the 1995 Dayton agreements that ended three years of war in the former Yugoslav republic marked by ethnic cleansing and brutality.

Toby Vogel, a Western Balkans analyst and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council who has been critical of Western failures in Bosnia, says he doubts the vote will be "transformative."

"At the end of today, the problems in Bosnia are not linked to who's in power and who's in opposition, but to how power is structured and the exercise of power structure. These are structural problems that go back to the Dayton peace accords and the constitutional setup that they contain," he said.

Still, tight races among the tripartite federal presidency's ethnically apportioned seats, including an unprecedented challenge for the majority Bosniaks' seat, will make for an interesting day of balloting.

Meanwhile, a handful of races in the upper house of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina -- whose seats are chosen indirectly, after the elections -- could dramatically affect obstruction efforts that have paralyzed government for years. And the results could go a long way toward answering whether Bosnia is fated, at least for the near future, to remain one of Europe's most vulnerable hotspots.

Much of the attention also will focus on the Republika Srpska and its leader, Milorad Dodik, who has pushed an acceleration of the entity's secessionist efforts.

Dodik has maintained close ties with neighboring Serbia and with Russia for diplomatic and other support to resist Bosnia's federal structure and international pressure.

The United States announced sanctions against Dodik in 2017 and again in January over his secessionist efforts.

Bulgarians Voting Yet Again Amid Backdrop of War In Ukraine

Election workers set up voting machines at the opening of the polling stations in Sofia on October 2.

Bulgarians head to the polls for a general election, the fourth in the past 18 months, amid expectations of another fractured parliament and difficult talks to forge a ruling coalition after the balloting.

The Southeast European country of nearly 7 million people has been plagued by political gridlock since 2020, when it was rocked by nationwide protests as public anger over years of corruption boiled over.

Much of the ire was directed at longtime leader Boyko Borisov and his center-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party.

The latest government, led by Kiril Petkov, collapsed in June after just six months when one of its coalition partners quit. Petkov, who heads the pro-reform We Continue the Change (PP) party, has struggled to deliver on his pledge to stamp out corruption.

He has also backed Ukraine in its fight against Russia in a country traditionally friendly toward Moscow and accuses the Kremlin of helping orchestrate the collapse of his government, which refused to pay for gas in rubles as demanded by Russia.

Public opinion polls ahead of voting day showed GERB at around 25-26 percent support, well ahead of PP, which was at about 16.5 percent.

As many as eight parties may break the 4 percent threshold needed to gain entrance to parliament and take seats in the 240-member legislature.

One of them, the far-right Revival party which has been polling at around 11 percent to 13 percent, has taken advantage of a wave of populism sweeping Europe -- as witnessed by recent gains by far-right parties in Italy and Sweden -- spurred by economic fears and uncertainty first stoked by the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Revival party has promised to take Bulgaria out of the EU and NATO, and advance policies friendly to the Kremlin.

While many experts dismiss the anti-Western rhetoric of the Revival party as little more than campaign bluster, they do caution that the party is doing the bidding of the Kremlin.

Polling stations will close at 8 p.m.

UN Nuclear Watchdog Calls For Release Of Detained Ukrainian Plant Director

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks with journalists after he and part of an IAEA mission come back from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant at a nearby Ukrainian checkpoint on September 1.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog has called for the release of the director of Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant, who was reportedly abducted by a Russian military patrol.

The call late on October 1 by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi came one day after Ihor Murashov was detained while travelling between the Zaporizhzhya plant and the town of Enerhodar.

Murashov "was taken out of the car, and with his eyes blindfolded, he was driven in an unknown direction," Enerhoatom, the Ukrainian state company that oversees the plant, said on Facebook.

Grossi "expressed the hope that Mr. Murashov will return to his family safely and promptly and will be able to resume his important functions at the plant," the IAEA said on Twitter.

Murashov's detention had had a "very significant impact" on him and nuclear safety and security standards, the agency said.

It's unclear exactly why Murashov was detained. Russian authorities have made no statement about the detention.

The plant and the surrounding area have been controlled by Russian forces since March, while Ukrainian staff have continued operating the plant.

Its last reactor was shut down in September because of shelling near the plant.

Kyiv and the IAEA have warned of the possibility of an environmental catastrophe because of nearby fighting.

Russia has rejected calls to create a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhya plant.

Last month, the IAEA's board of governors passed a resolution calling on Russia to end its occupation of the plant and to "immediately cease all actions" against it and "any other nuclear facility in Ukraine."

Russia and China voted against the resolution.

Iranian-American, 85, Allowed To Leave Iran, Son Released From Prison On Furlough

A photo shows Iranian-American consultant Siamak Namazi (right) and father Baquer Namazi, both of whom had been held in Iran.

An Iranian-American previously barred from leaving Iran is now allowed to depart and his imprisoned son was released on a furlough, the United Nations and the men's lawyer said.

The UN said in a statement on October 1 that following appeals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to the Iranian president, Tehran has agreed to allow Baquer Namazi to leave the country for medical treatment and that his son, Siamak Namazi, has been granted a furlough.

Siamak Namazi, a 50-year-old Iranian-American who has been imprisoned for nearly seven years, has been allowed out of Tehran's Evin prison on a one-week, renewable furlough, lawyer Jared Genser said in a statement.

Baquer Namazi, 85, a former UNICEF official who reportedly suffers from a heart condition, had earlier been released from prison on a medical furlough but was barred from leaving Iran.

“We are delighted to share the news as announced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that Baquer Namazi's travel ban has been lifted and that, for the first time in seven years, Siamak Namazi is at home with his parents in Tehran," said Genser, who is listed as a pro bono counsel to the two men.

"While these are critical first steps, we will not rest until the Namazis can all return to the United States and their long nightmare has finally come to an end," he added.

It was not immediately clear if the moves were related to a separate announcement in which Iran's Nournews said that a regional country had mediated between Iran and the United States for the "simultaneous release of prisoners."

"In recent weeks, intensive talks, with the mediation of a regional country were held for the release of Iranian and American prisoners," the semiofficial news agency said.

It also said that "billions of dollars of Iran's frozen assets because of the U.S. sanctions will be released soon."

The two Namazi men received 10-year prison sentences in 2015 for "collaborating with the hostile American government" -- charges they both denied.

Washington also rejected the allegations and called for their immediate release.

Siamak Namazi was based in Dubai with the Crescent Petroleum Company and was detained while visiting family in Tehran in 2015.

Baquer Namazi was arrested at the Tehran airport. He served two years of his sentence before being placed on a medical furlough but was forced to remain in Iran until the latest announcement.

He suffers from a heart condition and was hospitalized several times while in prison.

With reporting by Reuters

In Visit To Moldova, German Defense Chief Promises Further Military, Energy Aid

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht shakes hands with her Moldovan counterpart Anatolie Nosatîi during a visit to Chișinau on October 1.

CHISINAU -- German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has said Berlin is prepared to provide drones and other military equipment to Moldova as Chisinau looks warily at Russia’s intensions in the region following its invasion of Ukraine.

In a joint news conference with counterpart Anatolie Nosatii on October 1, Lambrecht said that “I would not be revealing any secrets if I say that it is about the purchase of drones and other equipment."

She also said the German military is ready to provide military training to Moldova, which has a long border with Ukraine and has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the start of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has some 1,500 troops in Moldova's Moscow-backed separatist region of Transdniester, a sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine.

In recent months, Transdniester separatists claimed that Kyiv had orchestrated what they claimed were shootings, explosions, and drone incursions, raising fears that Moldova could be drawn into the conflict in Ukraine.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu in August marked the 31st anniversary of the small nation’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union with a speech that included a condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a push for the country's eventual EU membership.

“Russia's unjust war against Ukraine clearly shows us the price of freedom," she told a crowd at the Great National Assembly Square in Chisinau.

Nosatii welcomed the aid his country has received from Berlin and said German assistance has been used to consolidate and repair weapons depots, inspect and secure ammunition storage, and to deactivate and make safe those that pose a danger.

Lambrecht said Berlin also realizes the importance of supporting Moldova in the wake of energy shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine.

Lambrecht on October 1 also made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, vowing to provide further military aid to Ukraine as it looks to defend against the Russian invasion.

German Defense Minister Visits Odesa, Promises Delivery Of Air-Defense System

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (file photo)

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has made an unannounced visit to the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, meeting with counterpart Oleksiy Reznikov and at one time being forced into a bomb shelter after air raid sirens blared.

Lambrecht on October 1 visited the city's grain port and inspected a Gepard antiaircraft tank that was provided by her country to help the Ukrainians defend against the Russian invasion.

Lambrecht said the antiaircraft tank would help protect "critical infrastructure" and defend against Russian air attacks.

She also said the first unit of the promised Iris-T SLM ground-based air-defense system would be delivered in the coming days.

Ukraine is scheduled to receive four of the Iris-T SLM systems. A system consists of four vehicles -- a fire-control unit and three rocket launchers -- designed to protect against attacks from the air.

Berlin has so far delivered weapons worth $719 million to Ukraine.

Still, the German government has been criticized -- sometimes even from within -- for its reluctance to provide heavy weaponry to Ukraine while other NATO members have done so.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba last month slammed Berlin for refusing to provide it with Leopard tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles it has asked for as Ukraine continues to try and push Russian forces out of territory they are occupying in the east and south of the country.

"Disappointing signals from Germany while Ukraine needs Leopards and Marders now — to liberate people and save them from genocide. Not a single rational argument on why these weapons cannot be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses," he said in an unusually blunt comment on Twitter on September 13.

"What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?" he added.

Berlin rejected Kyiv's call for battle tanks at a time when some analysts say Ukraine is gaining an upper hand in its battle against occupying Russian forces and high-tech battle vehicles would give them even more momentum.

Lambrecht at the time said that no other countries were currently supplying such vehicles and Germany would not do so unilaterally. During her visit to Odesa, Lambrecht again said Germany will continue to coordinate with its partners on such major decisions.

Earlier on October 1, Lambrecht stopped in Moldova and vowed to increase military aid to Moldova as Chisinau looks warily at Russia's intensions following its invasion of Ukraine.

Lambrecht said during her stop in the capital that negotiations on the details of the support will take place next week.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and dpa

EU Leaders To Discuss Infrastructure Following Incidents On Russian Pipelines

The Nord Stream gas leak seen from a Danish defense aircraft at sea in Denmark on September 30.

European Union leaders will discuss the security of crucial infrastructure when they meet in Prague next week following damage to the Nord Stream pipelines that many in the West have said was caused by sabotage.

"Sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines is a threat to the EU," Charles Michel, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, said in a tweet on October 1 after talks with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in Brussels.

“We are determined to secure our critical infrastructure. Leaders will address this at the upcoming summit in Prague," he wrote.

The leaders of EU member states leaders are scheduled to meet in the Czech capital on October 7.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also met with Frederiksen in Brussels "to address the sabotage” on the pipelines, he said on Twitter.

"NATO allies will continue our close cooperation on resilience [and the] protection of critical infrastructure," Stoltenberg wrote.

NATO earlier voiced "deep concern" over the damage sustained by the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, calling the incidents "deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage."

Three leaks -- two in the Danish zone and one in the Swedish zone -- were discovered last week in the two major Russian underwater pipelines designed to ship natural gas to Germany, while Sweden on September 29 said its coast guard had found a fourth leak.

The incidents come amid rising tensions between Europe and Russia over the war in Ukraine.

While both NATO and the European Union say the leaks were caused by sabotage, they have so far refrained from directly pinning the blame on Russia.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

Turkey's Erdogan Renews Threat To Block NATO Bids By Sweden, Finland

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed his threat to block the NATO bids of Sweden and Finland, saying he would not give his approval until the two Nordic countries kept promises he said were made to Ankara.

"Until the promises made to our country are upheld, we will maintain our principled position," Erdogan said in a speech to parliament in Ankara on October 1.

"We are closely following whether the promises made by Sweden and Finland are kept or not, and of course, the final decision will be up to our great parliament," he added without elaboration.

Ankara initially said it would veto the two countries' membership in the Western alliance, with Erdogan accusing them of providing havens for Kurdish militants operating in Turkey and for promoting what he called "terrorism."

Following negotiations, Erdogan said he would drop his objections but indicated he could still block their membership bids if they failed to follow through on promises, some of which were undisclosed.

Membership bids must be approved by all 30 NATO members. So far, only Hungary and Turkey have yet to send the membership bids to their parliaments for ratification.

The historic shifts by Sweden and Finland came in the face of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine in February and other aggressive moves by the Kremlin in the region.

Public opinion in the Nordic countries quickly turned in favor of NATO membership following the invasion.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Russia Loses Place On UN Aviation Agency's Governing Council

CANADA - Montreal, ICAO Council discussions about the plane Ryanair FR4978

Russia has not received enough votes to remain on the United Nation aviation agency’s governing council, another diplomatic blow to Moscow in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

The results were announced on October 1 at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)'s 36-country governing council’s assembly, which runs through October 7 in Montreal.

Moscow has closed its airspace to airlines from 36 countries -- including all 27 members of the European Union -- in response to Western-imposed sanctions targeting Russia's aviation sector following the Kremlin's decision to invade Ukraine in late February.

Western countries say Moscow has illegally confiscated hundreds of foreign jets, a charge the Kremlin denies.

"It's important that Russia is held accountable for its actions, and we will not be supporting Russia's nomination to the council," Omar Alghabra, Canada's transport minister, told Reuters prior to the vote.

Adina Valean, the European Union's transport commissioner, had also suggested that Russia should not continue to serve on ICAO's governing council.

"We cannot accept that a member, breaching so clearly the Chicago Convention, sits in the very council that should act as its guardian," Valean said, referring to the 1944 treaty that created the ICAO and set rules for international aviation.

"This is not about politics. It is about the fundamentals of this organization," she told the assembly.

Based on reporting by Reuters

At Least 20 Killed In Southeastern Iran In Separatist Attack

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops march during a military parade outside Tehran.

At least 20 people have been killed in clashes between Iranian security forces and armed separatists in the southeast of the country, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has said.

Four members of the IRGC, including a top officer, were among those reported killed in the attack on September 30 in the city of Zahedan, the group said in a statement.

The IRGC said Colonel Hamid Reza Hashemi, an intelligence officer in the Iranian Army's ideological arm, "succumbed to injuries he sustained during clashes with the terrorists."

At least 32 IRGC members were injured in the fighting, the local governor was quoted by state media as saying.

State media claimed the assailants hid among worshippers near a mosque in Zahedan and attacked a nearby police station.

State media did not identify the separatist group allegedly involved in the attack. The region borders Afghanistan and Pakistan and has seen attacks on security forces by ethnic Baluchi separatists.

It was not immediately clear if the attack was related to anti-government protests erupting throughout the country sparked by the death in custody a 22-year-old woman who was detained in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely.

Officials have said she died of a heart attack, but her relatives and some rights groups have rejected that assertion saying she was in perfect health and that they believe she was beaten while being detained.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

New Pipeline Seen In Bulgaria As 'Freedom' From Russian Gas Imports

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (in red) was joined by leaders from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Greece, Serbia, Romania, and North Macedonia at the opening in Sofia on October 1.

SOFIA -- A new natural-gas pipeline from Greece to Bulgaria has come into service, marking a significant step toward weening the country and others from a dependence on Russian energy imports.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was in Sofia for the occasion, said the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria pipeline would help limit Moscow's ability to pressure European Union members and other countries.

"This pipeline changes the energy-security situation for Europe," von der Leyen said. "This project means freedom."

The commissioning event was hosted by Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and was attended Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as well as the presidents of Serbia and North Macedonia. Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Chuka also attended.

The project was first conceived in 2009, when Russia unilaterally stopped transiting gas through Ukraine, leaving Bulgaria and other countries in the region without gas for about a week.

The project became even more important in late April, when Moscow cut off gas supplies to Bulgaria after Sofia rejected a demand to pay for deliveries in Russian rubles.

"People in Bulgaria and across Europe are feeling the consequences of Russia's war [against Ukraine]," von der Leyen said. "But thanks to projects like this, Europe will have enough gas for the winter."

"Europe has everything it needs to break free from our dependency on Russia," she added. "It is a matter of political will."

The 182-kilometer pipeline connects to the Trans-Adriatic pipeline, which supplies natural gas from Azerbaijan. It is initially projected to provide up to 3 billion cubic meters of gas annually, but could be expanded to up to 5 billion cubic meters in the future.

"Natural gas supplies from Azerbaijan to Bulgaria will break the strong grip of Russian gas on the region," Mitsotakis said. He urged the EU to stand up against "Russian gas blackmail."

Bulgarian project director Teodor Georgieva said the new pipeline would enable Bulgaria to help supply gas "to the Western Balkans" and "to ensure supplies to Moldova and Ukraine."

Global Solidarity Rallies Held As Amini Protests Continue In Iran

A woman cuts her hair during a protest against the Islamic regime of Iran and the death of Mahsa Amini in New York on September 27.

Iranians and their supporters around the globe are holding rallies on October 1 to show solidarity with protests inside Iran sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely.

Rallies were being held in 159 cities around the world, including Auckland, New York, Seoul, and Zurich, the Iranians for Justice and Human Rights nongovernmental organization said in a statement.

In Brisbane, Australia, thousands from the Iranian diaspora protested under the slogan "Be our voice." In Tokyo, demonstrators carried photographs of Iranian women burning their headscarves and cutting their hair.

Inside Iran, protests continued for the 15th straight day on September 30, despite a brutal crackdown by authorities that Iranians for Justice and Human Rights claims has taken more than 80 lives.

Security forces reportedly fired live ammunition toward demonstrators in several towns and cities on September 30.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said two of its colonels had been killed in the violence, claiming that 20 IRGC troops in all had been killed.

Riot police were massing in Tehran on October 1 amid reports that university students were planning protests to call for the release of students detained at earlier rallies.

Iran has blamed outside forces for the unrest. On September 28, Iranian drone and missile strikes killed 14 people in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region after Tehran accused rebel groups there of fueling the protests.

Amini died on September 16. Activists and relatives say she was killed by blows to the head suffered while in police custody and rejected the authorities’ claim that the 22-year-old had suffered a heart attack.

News of her death struck a nerve in a country already wracked by social unrest over poor living conditions and economic hardships exacerbated by crippling U.S. economic sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program.

Protests have erupted in more than 80 cities to denounce state violence against women and demand greater rights, freedom, and justice for women. Many of the protesters have also called for an end to the Islamic republic.

With reporting by AFP

Russia Withdraws Forces From Lyman In Major Victory For Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers pose in front of the Lyman administration office on October 1.

The Russian Defense Ministry says it has withdrawn its troops from the strategic eastern Ukrainian town of Lyman, hours after Kyiv said it had surrounded Russian forces there and a day after Moscow said it was annexing the surrounding Donetsk region.

"In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, allied troops were withdrawn from the settlement of [Lyman] to more advantageous lines," the ministry said on October 1.

It said, without providing evidence, that it had inflicted heavy casualties on Ukrainian troops in the fight for the town.

But it added that it was forced to withdraw when "the enemy, having a significant superiority in forces and means, introduced reserves and continued the offensive in this direction."

Moments before the Russian withdrawal announcement, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said its forces had entered Lyman, a crucial rail hub that had been the target of Kyiv's counteroffensive in recent days.

"Ukrainian Air Assault Forces are entering Lyman, Donetsk region," the ministry said on Twitter on October 1.

The Twitter post included a video of two soldiers taping a Ukrainian flag up near a sign bearing the name of the town.

"We're unfurling our state flag and establishing it on our land. Lyman will be Ukraine," one of the soldiers says in the video.

Serhiy Cherevatiy, spokesman for the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces, said earlier on October 1 that Ukrainian forces had encircled Russian troops near the crucial rail hub northeast of Slovyansk.

"The Russian group in the Lyman area is surrounded," Cherevatiy said. "The settlements of Yampil, Novoselivka, Shandryholove, Drobysheve, and Stavky have been liberated and stabilization measures are being taken there."

Moscow has used Lyman as a logistical hub for operations in the northern part of the Donetsk region. Its fall would mark the most serious setback for Russian forces since a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive sent Russian troops reeling in the Kharkiv region last month.

Cherevatiy estimated the number of surrounded Russian troops at about 5,000, adding that Russian forces continue to try to break out of the encirclement.

One road, to the Russian-occupied city of Kreminna, appeared to remain open early on October 1, perhaps giving Russian forces one last escape route.

It was not immediately clear how many Russian troops may have escaped the encirclement nor were there any initial reports on casualties from either side in the latest fighting.

Cherevatiy added that the liberation of Lyman would enable Ukrainian forces to push into the Luhansk region "toward Kreminna and Syevyerodonetsk."

Such a move would further embarrass the Kremlin, which declared the Luhansk region fully occupied in early July.

"It is psychologically very important," Cherevatiy said, emphasizing that "the operation is not yet over."

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 illegally proclaimed the partially occupied Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya as Russian territory, a significant political escalation that was broadly condemned by the West.

The four regions together with Crimea, which Moscow grabbed in 2014, make up around 20 percent of Ukraine, including some of its most industrialized territory.

Kyiv has said it will not negotiate with Moscow as long as Putin remains in power.

With reporting by Reuters

Munich Soccer Fans Unfurl Banners Supporting Iranian Player For Backing Protests In Iran

The banners were unfurled when Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, came off the bench in the 60th minute of the match on September 30, which Bayern Munich ultimately won 4-0.

Bayern Munich fans have shown their support for Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun, who has backed anti-government protests taking place in Iran, during a match in their home stadium.

The Munich fans revealed two banners expressing solidarity with women in the Islamic republic who have been demonstrating to demand more freedoms.

The banners were unfurled when Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, came off the bench in the 60th minute of the match on September 30, which Bayern Munich ultimately won 4-0.

One banner read "Women, life, freedom" in Persian -- a common chant heard in the Iranian protests. Another read "Solidarity with the feminist revolution in Iran" in English.

Earlier this week, Iranian soccer bloggers took screenshots of an Instagram post from Azmoun saying that because of "restrictive rules on the Team Melli (Iran), I could not say anything."

But he added that he also could not stay silent about the crackdown against the protests.

"This will never be erased from our consciousness. Shame on you!" he wrote on his Instagram account, which is followed by some 5 million people.

The post was deleted, and the entire content of his account disappeared for days.

The protests in Iran began after the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody. Amini was arrested for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules requiring women to wear an Islamic headscarf, or hijab.

Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based rights organization, has said 83 people, including children, have been killed during the two weeks of protest.

Iranian media reported on September 29 that Hossein Mahini, the retired captain of Iranian soccer giant Persepolis FC, has been arrested on charges of "encouraging riots and sympathizing with the enemy" after he posted content on social media in support of the protesters.

Based on reporting by AFP

Iran Threatens Response If U.S. Targets Drones Used In Campaign Against Kurds In Iraq

A man and woman hold up a banner depicting the image of Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of Iranian authorities, during a demonstration denouncing her death by Iraqi and Iranian Kurds outside the UN offices in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on September 24.

Iran has threatened retaliation against the United States if it targets drones that Tehran has been using to attack Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

Since September 23, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been using drones in deadly attacks targeting the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Irbil, and the eastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah.

Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff for the Iranian armed forces, was quoted as saying that Iran would consider any U.S. response to Iranian drones as a "hostile action" and reserved the right to respond.

U.S. Central Command said on September 28 that it downed an Iranian drone on its way to Irbil, adding that the drone appeared to pose a threat to U.S. personnel in the region.

Washington confirmed on September 30 that an American was killed in the attacks the day before.

"We can confirm that a U.S. citizen was killed as a result of a rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan region" on September 29, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said, declining to provide further details but reiterating U.S. denunciations of the strikes.

"We continue to condemn Iran's violations of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Patel told reporters.

Iraq's state news agency said the attacks had killed least 13 people and wounded 58 others.

The attacks have been carried out against Kurdish political parties, as well as an Iranian Kurdish refugee camp, while a senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of its offices had been struck as well.

The attacks come amid massive protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody after being arrested by the so-called morality police for allegedly wearing an Islamic headscarf, or hijab, improperly.

The protests started in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan Province and quickly spread to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.

The IRGC attacks started after security forces in the city of Oshnavieh in West Azarbaijan Province temporarily lost control of the city and the soldiers stationed there were on the defensive.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it would summon the Iranian ambassador to voice Iraq's opposition to the attacks, which Baghdad considers to be a violation of its sovereignty.

The IRGC said in a statement that it would continue to target "terrorists" in the region.

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

Turkey Joins Condemnation Of Russian Bid To Claim Ukrainian Territories

The Moscow-appointed heads (left to right) of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, and Zaporizhzhya region, Yevgeny Balitsky, jRussian President Vladimir Putin, Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin, and Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik react after signing treaties formally annexing the regions in Moscow on September 30.

Turkey has joined a growing international chorus in condemning Russia's attempt to illegally annex an additional four Ukrainian regions, as the three Baltic states urged NATO to open a fast track for Ukraine to join the transatlantic alliance.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on October 1 called the Russian gambit a "grave violation" of international law, noting that Ankara had also refused to recognize Russia's illegal 2014 seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

"We reiterate our support for the resolution of this war, the severity of which keeps growing, based on a just peace that will be reached through negotiations," the Turkish statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 signed documents formalizing Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, parts of which are occupied by Russian forces. Earlier, Moscow held sham wartime referendums in the four regions that were broadly rejected by the international community.

U.S. President Joe Biden said that "these actions have no legitimacy," while countries including Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Poland also swiftly condemned Moscow's action. Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Moscow's "full-scale, unlawful invasion of Ukraine."

Late on September 30, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia issued a joint statement endorsing Kyiv's request that Ukraine be granted expedited membership in NATO.

"Ukraine's Baltic friends fully support welcoming Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible," the statement said. "Ukraine's inspirational bravery can only strengthen our alliance."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that Kyiv would seek to join the alliance immediately after Moscow's attempt to seize the four Ukrainian regions. However, the statement met a cautious response from Washington and NATO headquarters.

"Right now, our view is that the best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical, on-the-ground support in Ukraine, and that the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time," U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Analysts said it was unlikely NATO would admit a country that was at war.

Russia launched its mass military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, setting off the largest war in Europe since World War II. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced.

With reporting by dpa, AP, and Reuters

Ukraine Says Head Of Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant Detained By Russian Forces

Ukrainian staff continue operating the power plant. Its last reactor was shut down in September because of shelling near the plant.

KYIV -- The director of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant has been detained by a Russian military patrol, Enerhoatom, the state firm that runs the plant, has said.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has monitors at the plant, told Reuters it had contacted the Russian side and was "requesting clarification."

Plant Director Ihor Murashov was detained in the afternoon on September 30 while travelling between the plant and the town of Enerhodar.Enerhoatom said.

Murashov "was taken out of the car, and with his eyes blindfolded, he was driven in an unknown direction," the Enerhoatom statement said.

The nuclear power plant and the surrounding area have been controlled by Russian occupation forces since March. Kyiv and the IAEA have been warning of the possibility of an environmental catastrophe at the plant because of ongoing fighting in the vicinity.

Russia has rejected calls to create a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhya plant.

Last month the IAEA's board of governors passed a resolution calling on Russia to end its occupation of the plant and to "immediately cease all actions" against it and "any other nuclear facility in Ukraine." Russia and China voted against the resolution.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of shelling the plant.

Ukrainian staff continue operating the plant. Its last reactor was shut down in September because of shelling near the plant.

Murashov's "detention...jeopardizes the safety of Ukraine and Europe's largest nuclear power plant," Enerhoatom President Petro Kotin was quoted as saying.

Writing on Telegram, Kotin called on Russia to "stop immediately its acts of nuclear terrorism toward the management and personnel" of the plant and to release Murashov.

Russia did not immediately respond to the statement. The IAEA, which has monitors working at the plant, also did not respond.

Protests In Iran Continue Despite Violent Government Crackdown

Protesters in Sanandaj, the capital of Mahsa Amini's native Kurdistan Province, take to the streets for the 10th night in a row on September 26.

Iranians are continuing to protest the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody two weeks ago despite government warnings that a harsh crackdown will continue.

Videos posted on social media showed demonstrations taking place in several cities across the country on the evening of September 29 and the morning of September 30.

The latest wave of protests in Iran was sparked by the death Mahsa Amini on September 16 after she was detained by the morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab, or headscarf.

Activists and relatives say Amini was killed as a result of blows to the head by police, while the authorities claim she died of a heart attack, a rare event for someone her age.

News of her death struck a nerve in a country already wracked by social unrest over poor living conditions and economic hardships exacerbated by crippling U.S. economic sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program.

Protests have erupted in more than 80 cities to denounce state violence against women and demand greater rights, freedom, and justice for women. Many of the protesters have also called for an end to the Islamic republic.

Police have responded harshly. Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based rights organization, said 83 people, including children, have been killed during the two-weeks of protest.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said on September 30 that nine foreigners had been arrested in connection with the protests.

Those arrested include citizens of Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, state news agency IRNA reported. It was not immediately clear if they held dual citizenship.

The violent response, however, has not stopped Iranians, including popular figures, from taking to the streets in protest or voicing their anger on social media.

On the evening of September 29, protesters gathered in the northeastern city of Mashhad, according to posts on social media. An officer can be seen firing at least twice at the demonstrators, thought it did not appear that anyone was hurt.

The same evening, young people in the northern city of Rasht gathered to chant anti-government slogans, according to another video.

Meanwhile, protesters can be seen running in the central city of Kerman on the evening of September 29 as gunshots ring out.

Security forces reportedly tried to prevent protesters from gathering in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 30. In videos published online, women in Ahvaz can be seen chanting slogans against the government without headscarves.

Iranian media reported on September 29 that Hossein Mahini, the retired captain of Iranian soccer giant Persepolis FC, has been arrested on charges of "encouraging riots and sympathizing with the enemy" after he posted content on social media in support of the protesters.

Actress Katayon Riahi, one of the first Iranian celebrities to have removed her hijab in protest of Amini's death, reportedly fled before police showed up at her home to arrest her.

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

World Bank Approves $530 Million In New Recovery Aid For Ukraine

The World Bank estimates Ukraine's total need over the next three years at well over $100 billion.

The World Bank has approved an additional $530 million in reconstruction and recovery assistance to Ukraine as the country fends off a massive military invasion by neighboring Russia.

The bank on September 30 said the new assistance brought the total aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 to $13 billion, of which $11 billion has already been disbursed.

World Bank Regional Country Director for Eastern Europe Arup Banerji said the bank estimates Ukraine's total need over the next three years at well over $100 billion.

The assistance comes one day after Russia moved to formally seize four additional Ukrainian regions that are partially occupied by Russian troops, drawing widespread condemnation from the United States and European countries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed never to accept Moscow's illegal annexations and urged the West to accept Ukraine's bid to join the NATO defense alliance.

Russia Vetoes Resolution In UN Security Council On Moscow's Latest Actions In Ukraine

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya attends a UN Security Council meeting in New York. (file photo)

Russia has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backed by the United States condemning referendums in four Ukrainian regions as illegal and demanding an immediate halt to Russia's "full-scale, unlawful invasion of Ukraine."

The vote on September 30 in the 15-member Security Council was 10-1.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya cast the only vote against the resolution. China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstained. The single vote from Russia, one of five permanent members of the council, was enough to block the resolution's passage.

The vote came after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees at a Kremlin ceremony to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield argued that the attempted annexation of a sovereign nation's territory went against the founding principles of the United Nations.

"All of us understand the implications for our own borders, our own economies, and our own countries if these principles are tossed aside," Thomas-Greenfield said.

The resolution also would have called on member states not to recognize any change in the status of Ukraine's borders and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine.

Nebenzya argued the regions where Moscow has seized territory chose to be part of Russia, a reference to the hastily held referendums on whether the regions wanted to join Russia that Kyiv and Western countries have denounced as a sham.

"The results of the referendums speak for themselves," Nebenzya said. "The residents of these regions do not want to return to Ukraine. They have made a an informed and free choice in favor of our country."

"There will be no turning back, as today's draft resolution would try to impose," Nebenzya added.

Thomas-Greenfield said the results of the referendums were "predetermined in Moscow, and everybody knows it," adding that they "were held behind the barrel of Russian guns."

Putin miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainians, she added.

"The Ukrainian people have demonstrated loud and clear: They will never accept being subjugated to Russian rule," Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council.

China walked a fine line in justifying its decision to abstain.

Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun said that while "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be safeguarded," countries' "legitimate security concerns" should also be taken seriously.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if the resolution failed, Washington would turn to the UN General Assembly "where every country has a vote."

The General Assembly has already voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

NATO Chief Says Putin's Recent Actions Are 'Serious Escalation' Of War

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the Russian "land grab" of four Ukrainian provinces in decrees signed by Putin earlier at a Kremlin ceremony.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Russia's recent actions on the war in Ukraine represent "the most serious escalation" since Moscow launched its invasion in February.

Stoltenberg cited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial military mobilization, his "irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling," and decrees signed on September 30 illegally annexing more Ukrainian territory.

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, Stoltenberg condemned the Russian "land grab" of four Ukrainian provinces in decrees signed by Putin earlier at a Kremlin ceremony. He said the move was "illegal and illegitimate," calling it the "largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since World War II."

NATO allies "do not, and will not, recognize any of this territory as part of Russia," he said.

Putin's move is a sign of weakness, Stoltenberg said, adding that the Russian leader has "utterly failed" in his strategic objectives.

He also said that Russia faces "severe consequences" if it uses nuclear arms in Ukraine, and reaffirmed NATO's "unwavering support" for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

He said Ukraine has the right to retake Ukrainian territory, and NATO allies support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path.

If Russia were to win in Ukraine, he said it would be catastrophic for the country and dangerous for NATO.

But he remained noncommittal on Ukrainian membership in NATO, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine will immediately seek on an expedited basis. Stoltenberg said it is a decision that requires a consensus of all 30 allies, and the focus should remain on helping Kyiv's war effort.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

U.S. Responds To Putin's Seizure Of Ukrainian Regions By Piling On Sanctions

"We will not stand by as Putin fraudulently attempts to annex parts of Ukraine," said Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a news release on September 30. (file photo)

The United States slapped more sanctions on individual Russians on September 30 after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed what Russia called "accession treaties" to formally seize occupied regions of Ukraine.

The Treasury Department said it designated hundreds of members of Russia's legislature, leaders of the country's financial and military infrastructure, and suppliers supporting Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The department described the sanctions as "swift and severe" in response to Putin's "purported annexation" of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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"We will not stand by as Putin fraudulently attempts to annex parts of Ukraine," Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a news release. "The Treasury Department and U.S. government are taking sweeping action today to further weaken Russia's already degraded military industrial complex and undermine its ability to wage its illegal war."

Yellen said the Treasury Department was also targeting leaders of Russia's financial architecture "as part of our aggressive and coordinated effort to hold Putin and his enablers accountable for his unprovoked invasion, and limit their ability to prop up their economy."

The Treasury Department's announcement was coordinated with the Commerce Department, which added 57 companies to its list of export control violators.

In addition, the U.S. State Department imposed visa restrictions on 910 people, including members of the Russian military, Belarusian military officials, and Russian proxies acting in Russia-held portions of Ukraine, the department said.

The State Department is imposing sanctions on family members of the mayor of Moscow, who is also a member of Russia's Security Council, and visa restrictions on Russian national Ochur-Suge Mongush, who is accused by the United States of torturing a Ukrainian prisoner of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States "unequivocally rejects Russia's fraudulent attempt to change Ukraine's internationally recognized borders."

The United States is issuing a clear warning supported by leaders of the Group of Seven that the countries will "hold to account any individual, entity, or country that provides political or economic support for Russia's illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory," Blinken said.

The G7 industrialized nations on September 23 issued guidance that designated several international suppliers and associated individuals that have supported Russia's defense sector. The Treasury Department said it was immediately implementing the guidance.

"Through its historically unprecedented campaign of sanctions and export controls, the United States and an international coalition of allies and partners have devastated Russia's ability to access foreign components and technology," the department said.

As a result of the sanctions, Russia's defense-industrial base "is desperate to provision its war efforts and has resorted to third-country intermediaries and suppliers," the Treasury Department said.

The additional sanctions announced on September 30 follow significant financial penalties imposed on Russia, its leadership, and oligarchs tied to Putin by the United States and European nations since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As the war grinds on, its devastating impact on the global economy has become more pronounced in disruptions to supplies of energy and food throughout the world.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week said the global economy is set to lose $2.8 trillion in output in 2023 because of the war.

With reporting by AP

Putin Signs Decree To Fast-Track Naturalization For Foreigners Joining Armed Forces

A Russian soldier addresses reservists during the partial mobilization of troops in the town of Volzhsky in Russia's Volgograd region on September 28.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree creating a simplified naturalization process for foreigners who join the Russian armed forces on a contractual basis.

The decree that came into force immediately after it was signed on September 30 appeared on the website for Russian legislative documents.

Putin signed the decree on the same day he signed other decrees to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow as he escalates his failing seven-month invasion.

According to the decree to simplify the naturalization process, foreigners who sign contracts on military service in the Russian armed forces for at least one year and then spend at least six months in military operations in armed conflict zones during which they are seriously wounded will be eligible to obtain Russian citizenship in a simplified and expedited way.

Spouses, children, and parents of such foreigners are also eligible to be fast-tracked for Russian citizenship. In addition, close relatives of foreigners who die while serving in the ranks of the Russian armed forces can also apply for Russian citizenship and receive it through a simplified procedure.

The decree says the naturalization process requires the registration of fingerprints, and the applications for obtaining citizenship must be processed in three months.

The decree came as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and less than two weeks after Putin announced partial military mobilization to the war in Ukraine amid serious setbacks on the ground.

Many reports in Ukraine have said there were citizens of Central Asian countries among Russian troops captured by Ukrainian armed forces since Russia started it full-scale aggression against Ukraine in late February.

Ukraine Applies For Accelerated Accession To NATO

Commenting on Putin's statements about occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine "joining Russia," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia is "trying to steal what does not belong to it."

Ukraine has submitted an application for accession to NATO under an accelerated procedure, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an address on September 30.

The announcement came after meetings of Ukraine's top military and security councils and after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow.

Commenting on Putin's statements about occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine "joining Russia," Zelenskiy said Russia is "trying to steal what does not belong to it."

"We have a solution. First, only the path of strengthening Ukraine and expelling the occupiers from our entire territory will restore peace. We will go this way," he said.


Biden Says Explosions On Nord Stream Pipelines Were Sabotage

A gas leak from Nord Stream 1 is seen in the Swedish economic zone of the Baltic Sea on September 28.

U.S. President Joe Biden said for the first time on September 30 that the explosions that rocked the Nord Stream pipelines under the Baltic Sea were the result of sabotage.

Biden also said the Russians have been "pumping out disinformation and lies" and the United States will work with its allies to investigate the explosions. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he added that "when things calm down, we're going to be sending divers down to find out exactly what happened."

The United States is already working with allies to "enhance the protection of this critical infrastructure," he added.

The German Interior Ministry said police were patrolling the North and Baltic Seas with "all available forces."

The explosions that occurred ahead of huge gas leaks from the pipelines "probably corresponded to an explosive load of several hundred kilos," Denmark and Sweden wrote earlier on September 30 in a letter to the United Nations.

The blasts resulted in four leaks and the venting of methane gas into the sea. Two of the leaks are in Danish territory; the other two are in Swedish territory.

In the letter to the UN Security Council, the two countries noted that the gas plumes are disrupting air and sea vessels and could be dangerous to marine life. Additionally, a greenhouse gas is being released into the environment. The leaks could continue through at least October 2.

Norwegian researchers on September 30 published a map projecting a huge plume of methane released by the damaged Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines that will travel over large swaths of the Nordic region.

Moscow has requested an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council to discuss the pipelines and called for a thorough international probe to assess the damage to the pipelines.

Russia cut natural gas supplies to Europe after Western sanctions were imposed over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February. The pipelines were not operating at the time of the blasts, but they contained methane gas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 accused the West of orchestrating the blasts.

"By organizing explosions on the Nord Stream international gas pipelines that run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea they actually started destroying European energy infrastructure," Putin said during a televised speech at a Kremlin ceremony at which he signed decrees that the Kremlin calls "accession treaties" to formally seize four Ukrainian territories.

Putin claimed that the "Anglo-Saxons" in the West have turned from sanctions on Russia to "terror attacks," sabotaging the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in what he described as an attempt to "destroy the European energy infrastructure."

He added that "those who profit from it have done it" without naming a specific country.

European nations, which are already reeling from soaring energy prices caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have noted that it is Russia that benefits from chaos on energy markets and spiking prices.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price strongly rejected any claims that the United States might have sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

"The idea that the United States was in any way involved in the apparent sabotage of these pipelines is preposterous. It is nothing more than a function of Russian disinformation and should be treated as such," Price said on September 28.

The European Union and NATO have said the leaks are the result of sabotage but have stopped short of pointing fingers.

However, Ukraine and Poland have accused Russia of being behind the ruptures.

With reporting by AP and dpa

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