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Ceremonies Mark 25th Anniversary Of Chornobyl Disaster

Patriarch Kirill (left); Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine; and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ring bells at the St. Ilyinski church in Chornobyl.
Ceremonies have been held across Ukraine to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

Hundreds of mourners lit candles at an early morning memorial service conducted in Kyiv for the victims of the world's worst nuclear accident, and a bell in the capital tolled 25 times to mark the number of years that passed since the disaster.

Vigils were held in a number of Ukrainian cities including Slavutych, where many former Chornobyl employees now live.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid red roses during a memorial ceremony outside the Chornobyl plant.

WATCH: After the Chornobyl disaster, some residents were relocated to a newly built town in eastern Ukraine. But some did not escape the radiation zone soon enough, and many have died prematurely:

Far From Chornobyl, Evacuees Still Live With Its Impact
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Yanukovych paid tribute to those who lost their lives cleaning up the contaminated wreckage in the wake of the explosion.

"We all bow our heads today in memory of those who were saving us and all mankind," he said. "We are grateful to them."

Medvedev said the need for government transparency was one of the lessons of the Chornobyl disaster.

"It is the duty of the state to tell people the truth. We have to admit that the state did not always act as it should have," he said, alluding to how Soviet authorities responded to the events at Chornobyl in 1986. "To avoid such tragedies, we should all be truthful and provide absolutely accurate information about what goes on -- whatever happens and wherever it happens."

Medvedev said he had sent world leaders proposals for a new global nuclear safety convention to ensure the disasters that struck Chornobyl and most recently Fukushima, in Japan, are not repeated.

But he said the two accidents did not mean the world should abandon nuclear power.

"No one has yet offered any other sources of energy that could replace nuclear energy. And that is probably not needed," Medvedev said. "Most importantly, we need to understand what kind of power mankind deals with so that our technological decisions match the challenges posed by nuclear technology."

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus did not join the ceremony, instead visiting the Belarusian region most affected by Chornobyl.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant went wrong and caused Reactor No. 4 to explode and catch fire.

Radioactive material spread over large swaths of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and southern Russia, before being blown across Western Europe.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at the Chornobyl power station this month

"As soon as we crossed the Prypyat bridge, we saw the power plant and we could clearly see the outside destruction," says Andriy Gusin, who worked the morning shift at the plant hours after the accident.

"When we started our shift we didn't yet know what kind of destruction it was, but it was clear it was important," he recalls.

Official figures put the death toll in the immediate aftermath at about 30 people. But independent health experts say many more have since died of radiation-related diseases such as cancer.

Soviet authorities took two days to report the accident, prompting accusations that the Soviet leadership had initially sought to cover up the disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of people were eventually evacuated, from the nearby town of Pripyat, which housed the plant's workers, and from other towns and villages within a radius of 30 kilometers.

The so-called exclusion zone today remains deserted, save for a handful of people who have chosen to return to their former homes despite the lingering threat of radiation.

Stricken Reactor Leaking Radiation

The power plant itself continued producing electricity until 2000, when Ukraine's then-President Leonid Kuchma bowed to international pressure and ordered the last operating reactor to be shut down.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at the memorial events in Chornobyl.
Speaking at the ceremony in Chornobyl, Medvedev said the disaster had shown the need for transparency in dealing with nuclear accidents.

"It is the duty of the state to tell people the truth. We have to admit that the state did not always act as it should have," he said. "And to avoid such tragedies, we should all be truthful and provide absolutely accurate information about what goes on -- whatever happens and wherever it happens."

The international community, spurred by the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant, last week pledged the equivalent of $780 million to help build a new encasement over Chornobyl's stricken reactor.

The shell of metal and concrete known as the "sarcophagus" has long exceeded its initial lifespan and now leaks radiation.

Yanukovych today renewed calls on the international community to donate the remaining $300 million needed to complete the project.

"Chornobyl was a challenge of planetary dimensions," he said in a statement on his website. "The answer to this challenge can be provided only by the world community."

written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports

The abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant

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Russian Forces Keep Up Pressure On Bakhmut As Stoltenberg Warns Of Long War In Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy poses for a picture with an injured Ukrainian soldier as he visited a hospital in the Kharkiv region on March 22.

Ukrainian forces over the past day repelled scores of attacks along the front line in the east, where Russian troops have been keeping up the pressure on the city of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military said on March 23, as the NATO chief warned that Western countries must be prepared to support Kyiv in a protracted war.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

As fighting raged in the east, Russian air strikes on Ukrainian cities on March 22 killed at least nine people, at least eight of them when two dormitories were hit at a school in Rzhyshchiv, south of Kyiv.

A missile strike on an apartment block in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya killed one person and injured 29.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Moscow's indiscriminate attacks on civilians shows Russia is not interested in peace. He accused Russia of "bestial savagery" for targeting civilians.

Ukrainian defenders repelled 83 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours, most of them directed at Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region that has become the epicenter of Moscow's offensive in the east, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its morning bulletin on March 23.

Russians kept their pressure on other settlements in Donetsk, such as Lyman, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the military said, adding that "the enemy is losing a significant amount of manpower, weapons, and military equipment."

The claims could not be independently verified.

However, British military intelligence has suggested that Moscow's relentless pressure on Bakhmut, which has been mostly turned to rubble, is beginning to lose momentum in the face of Ukraine's staunch defense amid serious losses sustained by both sides.

Zelenskiy, who visited the Bakhmut area on March 22, presented decorations to Ukrainian defenders and was briefed on the operational situation on the front line, his press service said.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not appear to be interested in immediate peace and was engaged "in a war of attrition."

In an interview with The Guardian, the NATO chief said Putin was “reaching out to authoritarian regimes like Iran or North Korea and others to try to get more weapons.”

He said Russia was boosting its military production capacity and cautioned that Ukraine's Western allies must be prepared to supply Kyiv with weapons, ammunition, and military equipment for a long period of time.

“President Putin doesn’t plan for peace. He’s planning for more war,” Stoltenberg said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

IOC's Bach Defends Stance On Russian, Belarusian Athletes Amid Pro-Ukraine Protest

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (file photo)

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach on March 22 defended the IOC's efforts to create a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to competition. Bach reiterated the IOC's position that it would be discriminatory to exclude Russians and Belarusians based on citizenship alone and argued that the Olympics can help promote dialogue. German Public broadcaster WDR reported that nearly 200 pro-Ukraine protesters gathered outside the venue where Bach spoke, calling for Russia to be excluded from the Olympics. The IOC has argued in favor of letting the two countries' athletes compete as neutrals. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Urges Brussels To Speed Up EU Enlargement Process

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in Sarajevo on March 22

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has spoken out in favor of EU enlargement, saying that, if the countries in the Western Balkans were already in the European Union, migration problems could be handled more efficiently.

During a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on March 22, Szijjarto said that, if the Western Balkans were already EU territory, “we could deal with the problems and difficulties of migration that we face today much more efficiently, and the EU would be stronger.”

More than 265,000 migrants were stopped on Hungary’s southern border last year, Szijjarto said, adding that migration is the main point of cooperation between the Hungarian Interior Ministry and the Bosnian Security Ministry.

“We know that the better and more efficient the cooperation in the Western Balkan countries, the more efficient the migration management is," he said.

Hungary also wants the EU enlargement process to speed up because the stability of Bosnia “is also of great importance for us.”

The EU has promised Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia closer relations, but the integration process has been stalled for years. The EU last admitted a new member, Croatia, in 2013.

“We expect Brussels to take concrete steps on the path of faster accession of [Bosnia] to the EU," Szijjarto said after meeting with Bosnian Foreign Minister Elmedin Konakovic in Sarajevo.

He also addressed sanctions imposed by the EU on Western Balkan countries, saying they had been unsuccessful. Szijjarto's comments echoed those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia imposed over its war in Ukraine.

Critics have said Hungary's position on sanctions has placed short-term economic issues ahead of long-term security, democracy, and human rights.

Szijjarto added that Bosnia and Hungary achieved trade worth 600 million euros ($652 million) last year, which is an increase of 20 percent compared to the previous year.

Konakovic said that cooperation with Hungary is good, the volume of trade is growing, and new opportunities are opening up. He also thanked Szijjarto for supporting Bosnia’s EU candidate status and said Hungarian experts are helping Bosnia in the process.

Szijjarto said later at an energy summit in Trebinje that Hungary does not intend to stop purchasing natural gas from Russia. In the current geopolitical situation, a safe supply of natural gas to Hungary is impossible without Russian sources, he said.

"We are trying to diversify the supply, but with the purchase also from Russia. This is in our interest," said Szijjarto.

After Russia launched its war on Ukraine in February 2022, Brussels imposed several rounds of sanctions limiting the sale of Russian oil and natural gas in Western markets but allowed some carve outs for pipeline deliveries.

Szijjarto said that Hungarians want peace in Ukraine, but Budapest is in a specific situation regarding energy. He added that Hungary needs more time for its diversification efforts to be successful.

Konakovic said Bosnia is very eager to cooperate in the field of energy with all stakeholders.

Christian Schmidt, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, also met with Szijjarto during his visit to Sarajevo. They discussed political developments in Bosnia with emphasis on the country’s progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

With reporting by Ermin Zatega from RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Sarajevo.

Russian Orthodox Church Shares Blame For 'Crimes' In Ukraine, Says Ecumenical Patriarch

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (file photo)

The spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians said on March 22 that Russia's Orthodox Church shared responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine. "The church and the state leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children," Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said at a conference in Vilnius. The comments are a rebuke of Russian Patriarch Kirill, whose blessing for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has splintered the Orthodox Church. Russian authorities are using the church as an "instrument for their strategic objectives," Bartholomew said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Maria Pevchikh Named Chief Of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation After Volkov Stepped Down

Maria Pevchikh (file photo)

Maria Pevchikh has been named chairwoman of Aleksei Navalny's International Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF International) after Leonid Volkov announced his decision to suspend his political and public activities over a letter he signed arguing for lifting EU sanctions on some Russian oligarchs.

Navalny's social networks said on March 22 that Pevchikh is now the new leader of ACF International.

Pevchikh, who lives outside Russia, first became known as an associate of Navalny in 2020 when Navalny was poisoned with what European laboratries later determined was a Novichok-type nerve agent. She was leading the Navalny group’s investigative department at the time and was involved in the team’s most high-profile investigative reports revealing corruption among Russia’s top officials, including President Vladimir Putin.

"Her public work over the past two years has made her a bright political leader," Navalny said on Twitter. "You know her well, and I have no doubt that she will do a fine job in her new capacity as well."

Pevchikh was one of the producers of a film about Navalny that won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards earlier this month.

Volkov, who currently resides in an unspecified EU country, announced the suspension of his activities on March 9 after making "a big political mistake" by signing the letter regarding several London-based oligarchs.

The letter addressed to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell asked for sanctions imposed over Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine on Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, German Khan, and Aleksei Kuzmichyov to be lifted.

The four businessmen are considered antiwar and have contributed to helping Ukraine and humanitarian causes. But they have not openly and clearly condemned the Kremlin's invasion in what some say is out of fear for their businesses in Russia.

Navalny, who is currently in prison serving sentences widely considered to be politically motivated, commented on Volkov's situation on March 22, saying that "Volkov made a mistake" and "took responsibility for it."

"I am grateful to Leonid for his quick and responsible reaction within the spirit of our principles. This is very important.... I also want to apologize to supporters, ACF donors, and the advisory board. We have corrected this mistake, but there has been a mistake, which makes me also responsible for it," Navalny's statement said.

The opposition politician also emphasized his group’s "full commitment to the idea of imposing sanctions against" Putin and his associates.

Volkov's announcement came after Aleksei Venediktov, who headed Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's leading media outlets until it was taken off the air in March 2022 amid a Russian crackdown on independent media covering the invasion of Ukraine, published Volkov’s letter to Borrell. It was also signed by several self-exiled Russian journalists, public figures, and politicians.

Venediktov also published another letter also signed by Volkov and others that urged the European Commission to lift sanctions imposed on the Russian businessmen.

Volkov initially denied he signed the letter, claiming that his signature was forged. However, he later admitted to signing both of the letters.

Venediktov's decision to publish the letters appeared to be retaliation for an investigative report issued earlier by Navalny's group that listed Venediktov among pro-Kremlin journalists who received significant sums of money from Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

Venediktov accepted that his company, Education-21st Century, had received money from the Moscow mayor's office for a project that was stopped right after the Justice Ministry labeled Venediktov a "foreign agent."

Ban On Russian, Belarusian Ice Hockey Teams Extended Through 2023-24 Season

The International Ice Hockey Federation suspended all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from international events following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year. (file photo)

The ice hockey teams of Russia and Belarus will be barred from taking part in international competitions in the 2023-24 season, the sport's governing body said on March 22 citing safety concerns. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) council determined that it is not yet safe to reincorporate the Russian and Belarusian teams back into IIHF competitions, the council said in a statement. The IIHF suspended all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from international events following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year. It later moved the 2023 world championships out of St. Petersburg. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Ukraine's Recovery And Reconstruction Needs Will Cost $411 Billion, Says World Bank

The estimate quantifies the direct physical damage to infrastructure and buildings as well as other costs caused by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Rebuilding Ukraine's economy after Russia's invasion more than a year ago is now expected to cost $411 billion, a new study by the World Bank, United Nations, European Commission, and Ukraine found. The estimate released on March 22 covers the period spanning one year from Russia's invasion and quantifies the direct physical damage to infrastructure and buildings, the impact on people's lives, and the cost to "build back better," the World Bank said. The amount is 2.6 times Ukraine's expected 2022 gross domestic product and is up sharply from an estimate of $349 billion released last September. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

International Criminal Court Regrets 'Threats' After Putin Arrest Warrant

The legislative body of the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on March 22 that it regretted "threats" against the tribunal over its war crimes arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly talked about targeting The Hague with a hypersonic missile as a reprisal for the warrant, according to Dutch media. Moscow says it has opened a criminal investigation into ICC prosecutor Karim Khan and several judges over the "unlawful" decision to seek Putin's arrest over the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children.

Father, Brother Of Russian Activist Barred From Entering Russia For 50 Years

Besides his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Arshak Makichyan has also actively campaigned for action on climate change. (file photo)

A Russian rights watchdog, Pervy Otdel (the First Unit), on March 22 cited the Federal Security Service as saying that the father and brother of self-exiled activist Arshak Makichyan have been barred from entering Russia for 50 years. A Russian court in October stripped Makichyan and his father, Artur, and brother, Gagik, of their citizenship. Arshak Makichyan, who is currently in Germany, said the court’s decision to strip him and his relatives of citizenship was linked to his position against the war in Ukraine. Arshak Makichyan is originally from Armenia but lived almost all his life in Russia. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Andrew Tate To Remain In Romanian Detention For 30 More Days

Controversial online personality Andrew Tate (file photo)

A Romanian court has ruled for the fourth time to extend by 30 days the preventative arrest of Andrew Tate, the divisive social media influencer who is held on suspicion of organized crime and human trafficking. Tate, 36, a British-U.S. citizen who has 5.4 million Twitter followers, was initially detained in late December in Bucharest, along with his brother Tristan and two Romanian women. None of the four has yet been formally indicted. A spokesperson for Romania’s anti-organized crime agency, DIICOT, said that a judge at the Bucharest Tribunal agreed to keep all four detained while investigations continue. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Concerts By Russian Rock Groups Canceled In Rostov-On-Don Over Anti-War Statements

The lead singer of the Mashina Vremeni rock band, Andrei Makarevich, who has been labeled as a "foreign agent." (file photo)

Authorities in Russia's southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukrainian border, have canceled scheduled summer concerts of several popular rock groups -- including Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), DDT, and Mumii Troll -- over their public statements condemning Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Mashina Vremeni's leader, Andrei Makarevich, was labeled as a "foreign agent" in November. DDT's leader, Yury Shevchuk, was fined last year for criticizing the war in Ukraine at a concert by his group. Mumii Troll's members have also called for an end to the war. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian University Student Expelled For Commemorating Writer Killed By Soviet Regime

Viktor Novogorsky (file photo)

A university in Russia's Mari El region has expelled Viktor Novogorsky, an activist of the Mari Ushem (Union Of Mari People) organization, after he took part in a commemoration of the founder of the Mari people's literature, Sergei Chavain, who was executed by Josef Stalin's regime in 1937.

Novogorsky wrote on the VK social network on March 22 that the Mari State University in the republic's capital, Yoshkar-Ola, justified its decision to expel him as due to his "underperformance."

However, Novogorsky insists that his performance at the university was very high, as borne out in the school registry that shows his academic progress.

Novogorsky also posted an official letter from the Mari Ushem organization addressed to Russia's Higher Education Ministry and Mari El education officials, asking them to intervene in the situation and make the university reconsider the decision to expel him.

"We are confident that Viktor Novogorsky was expelled over his social activities and statements he placed on his social network accounts. Neither his articles, nor his statements contain anything that would contradict Russian laws and norms laid out in the Criminal or Administrative codes," the letter says, and demands the immediate cancellation of the university's decision to expel Novogorsky.

In November 2022, Novogorsky and another Mari activist, Kyrlya Lyzhin, held an action to commemorate Chavain by laying flowers under his bust in Yoshkar-Ola, visiting the memorial of victims of political repressions, and standing next to Chavain's monument for one hour.

In recent years, Mari Ushem activist have complained that the authorities were trying to restrict the practice of the Mari people's ancient religion, and attempts to preserve their culture and Finnish-Uralic language.

Tensions over languages in Russian regions with large populations of indigenous ethnic groups have increased since 2017, when President Vladimir Putin said children in those regions must not be forced to learn languages that are not their mother tongues, and ordered prosecutors to determine whether that was taking place.

That led officials to abolish mandatory indigenous-language classes in the regions.

The move caused an outcry in ethnic republics and regions where local languages have official status alongside Russian.

Around 52 percent of the 700,000 residents of the Mari El region in the Volga Federal Territory are ethnic Mari. Their traditional religion is based on worshipping forces of nature.

U.K. Inquiry Vows To Get To Bottom Of Afghan Extrajudicial Killings Allegations

The chair of a public inquiry examining "extremely serious" allegations that British armed forces carried out dozens of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan said on March 22 that any soldiers who had broken the law should face investigation. The independent inquiry was ordered by Britain's Defense Ministry in December 2022 after a BBC TV documentary reported that soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) had killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances. It also came after two families, who accuse the SAS of killing their relatives in 2011 and 2012, began legal action to demand judicial reviews of their cases. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Kazakh Journalist Jailed After Expressing Plans To Hold Rally Against Election Results

Duman Mukhammedkarim speaks to a reporter in Almaty in October 2022.

Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim was handed a 25-day jail term on March 21 after he announced his plan to hold a rally to protest the official results of parliamentary and local elections held over the weekend. Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeiisov, said his client was jailed on a charge of violating the laws on mass gatherings. The ruling Amanat party won a majority in the general elections on March 19. International observers said the polls showed some progress over previous votes, while several opposition politicians claimed that the balloting was unfair. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Citizen Journalist Jailed In Russian-Occupied Crimea Starts Hunger Strike

Iryna Danylovych chaired the Crimean branch of the Russian Alliance of Doctors union. (file photo)

A citizen journalist and nurse, Iryna Danylovych, who was sentenced last year to seven years in prison by the Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine's Crimea, launched a hunger strike on March 22 to back her demands for medical assistance. Danylovych insists that she suffered a minor stroke while in custody and her requests for medical attention have been ignored by the detention center's warden and guards. Danylovych was sentenced on a charge of illegally fabricating an explosive device, which she denies. She has reported on issues faced by medical personnel in Russian-occupied Crimea. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Man In Germany Fined For T-Shirt Supporting Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

A gift shop in central Moscow sells T-shirts including ones bearing the letter "Z," a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine.

A German court has fined a man for wearing a T-shirt with the letter "Z" -- a sign of support for Russia's war against Ukraine -- stenciled on it. The 49-year-old naturalized German citizen, who moved from Russia to Germany in 1992, was ordered to pay 1,500 euros ($1,612). The man pleaded guilty and apologized for wearing the T-shirt in question. Russian military vehicles in Ukraine are marked with "Z" and "V" letters, and the symbols have been promoted by Russian state media and other Kremlin supporters as patriotic emblems expressing support for the invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Academics Commemorate Jailed Tatar Scientist Miftakhov On 30th Birthday

Azat Miftakhov attends a court hearing in Moscow in January 2021.

A group of mathematicians from universities in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia has commemorated the 30th birthday of jailed Tatar scientist Azat Miftakhov, his fifth while incarcerated on charges he rejects, with a raft of messages and renewed calls for his freedom.

The group on March 21 posted dozens of photos and messages on a website set up to bring attention to Miftakhov's case, which has widely been rejected as politically motivated.

Moscow's Golovinsky district court sentenced Miftakhov, who was then a postgraduate mathematics student at Moscow State University, to six years in prison in January 2021 after finding him guilty of involvement in an arson attack on the ruling United Russia party's office in Moscow in 2018.

Miftakhov has vehemently denied the charges while his lawyers say he is being persecuted for his anarchist beliefs and support for political prisoners.

The group of academics wishing Miftakhov well includes professors, teachers, and postgraduate and graduate students from Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the French Academy of Science at Sorbonne University, the Max-Planck-Institut in Germany, the University of Tokyo, and Moscow State University.

RFE/RL correspondents reported that leaflets congratulating Miftakhov on his birthday and reminding people about his case were distributed in several Russian cities including Saratov, Perm, Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk.

Miftakhov was arrested in early 2019 and accused of helping make an improvised bomb found in the city of Balashikha near Moscow.

He was released several days after the initial charge failed to hold, but was rearrested immediately and charged with being involved in the attack on an office of the United Russia political party in January 2018.

The Public Monitoring Commission, a human rights group, has said that Miftakhov's body bore the signs of torture, which the mathematician claimed were the result of investigators unsuccessfully attempting to force him to confess to the bomb-making charge.

A prominent Russian human rights organization, Memorial, recognized Miftakhov a political prisoner at the time, while 2,500 mathematicians from fifteen countries then signed a letter urging the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) to assist in Miftakhov's release.

Former Local Russian Chief Investigator Jailed For 20 Years In Murder Plot

Mikhail Muzrayev in 2014

A Russian court on March 22 sentenced the former chief of the Investigative Committee directorate in Volgograd, Mikhail Muzrayev, to 20 years in prison on a charge of organizing the attempted assassination of the regional governor, Andrei Bocharov, in 2016. The court also deprived the 64-year-old Muzrayev, who pleaded not guilty, of the rank of lieutenant general and state honors he was awarded. Muzrayev led the Investigative Committee directorate in Volgograd from 2007 to 2018. In 2019 he was appointed an adviser to Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin. Bocharov survived an arson attack in November 2016. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


As Xi Ends Russia Visit, Blinken Says China's Diplomatic Support For Moscow Is Counter To U.S. Interests

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a reception in Moscow on March 21.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told U.S. lawmakers that China's diplomatic and political support for Russia goes against Washington's interests.

Blinken testified on March 22 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just as Chinese President Xi Jinping left Russia, wrapping up a three-day visit during which he and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a series of documents on "strategic cooperation."

"I think their diplomatic support, their political support, and to some extent material support for Russia certainly goes against our interest in bringing this war to an end," Blinken said.

Xi's visit was his first to Russia in four years and came amid Moscow's deepening international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine.

Putin described as "successful and constructive" talks at the Kremlin, while Xi said one of the agreements signed by the two authoritarian leaders brings ties into a "new era" of cooperation.

"We signed a statement on deepening the strategic partnership and bilateral ties which are entering a new era," Xi said following talks with Putin on March 21 intended to cement the "no limits" partnership the two leaders announced just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

On the war in Ukraine, Xi said Beijing backed a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

"We are guided by the principles of the United Nations...and promote a peaceful settlement" of fighting in Ukraine, Xi said. "We are always for peace and dialogue," he added, reiterating China's "neutral position" on Ukraine.

Western countries have dismissed a Chinese peace proposal -- a 12-point paper calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine -- because it echoes Russian talking points.

Blinken has said that China would cross a red line if it provided substantial military support to Russia. He told lawmakers on March 22 that China thus far has not provided military assistance to Moscow despite ramping up diplomatic support.

"As we speak today, we have not seen them cross that line," Blinken said in response to a question at a Senate committee on whether China was providing "lethal aid" to Russia.

Blinken said China has been warned that it would face serious problems not just from the United States but also other allies of Ukraine if it provided substantial military aid.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on March 21 dismissed Xi's mediation efforts, saying China does not have an impartial position on the war.

Kirby also told reporters at the White House that nothing that came out of the Xi-Putin meeting indicated the war would end soon.

Kirby said it was clear to see during the meeting that Putin hopes to obtain lethal weapons from China.

"You can see in what Mr. Putin is doing...that he's having resource difficulties" and is trying to overcome them, Kirby said.

Kirby added that one reason the United States opposes a cease-fire at this time is because it would give Putin time to make up for the resource shortfall.

During the visit, Xi paid tribute to the "constructive talks" he held with Putin, referring to an expansion of trade and economic cooperation with Russia, including the export of more Chinese electronic goods.

Putin said that additional gas deliveries to China had been agreed, and that the two countries planned to expand their transport links by building roads and bridges.

A joint statement said the burgeoning partnership between the two countries had reached its highest level ever, but the statement said it was not directed against any other country and did not constitute a "military-political alliance."

Relations between Russia and China "do not constitute a bloc, do not have a confrontational nature and are not directed against third countries," the joint statement said.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Wave Of Air Strikes On Ukrainian Cities Kills At Least Nine People

Rescuers work at the scene after an apartment building was damaged by a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhya on March 22.

Russian air strikes on Ukrainian cities on March 22 killed at least nine people as heavy fighting continued in the eastern Donetsk region for the control of the city of Bakhmut.

At least eight people were killed and seven were injured when two dormitories were hit at a college in Rzhyshchiv, 64 kilometers south of Kyiv, emergency services said on Facebook.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

One person was rescued from the site and four people were believed to be trapped under rubble. Rescue operations continued past nightfall, according to Reuters.

Hours later, two residential buildings were damaged in a missile strike on the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya. One person was killed and 29 were taken to hospital in that strike, said Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko.

The regional military administration said the strike had "no military purpose."

Klymenko said authorities at the site recorded evidence of "another war crime of the Russian Federation against the civilian population."

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the attacks showed Moscow is not interested in peace.

"More than 20 Iranian killer drones, as well as missiles, multiple shelling. And this is just for one past night of Russian terror against Ukraine," Zelenskiy said on Twitter. "Every time someone tries to hear the word "peace" in Moscow, another order is given for such criminal strikes," he added in an apparent reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to Russia, which ended on March 22.

Zelenskiy posted a video on Telegram purporting to show the moment of the strike on the apartment building in Zaporizhzhya captured by a CCTV camera.

"Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery. Residential areas where ordinary people and children live are being fired at. The terrorist state seeks to destroy our cities, our state, our people," Zelenskiy wrote in the message accompanying the video depicting a powerful blast hitting a high-rise building.

The General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said in its daily report that Russia launched another massive air strike with Iranian-made drones.

"According to preliminary information, 16 out of 21 drones launched by the enemy were destroyed by our defenders," it said, adding that the threat of air strikes remained high across the country.

In the northern Zhytomyr region, a drone attack damaged an infrastructure facility, the head of the regional military administration Vitaliy Bunechko said on Telegram.

In the Bakhmut direction, the enemy continues to conduct offensive actions, but its offensive potential is decreasing, the General Staff said.

"The enemy does not stop its attempt to seize the city, losing a considerable amount of manpower, weapons, and military equipment."

Zelenskiy on March 22 visited the area near Bakhmut, the city that has been the epicenter of months of intense fighting that has caused heavy losses to both sides.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut on March 22.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut on March 22.

Zelenskiy presented decorations to the defenders of Bakhmut and was briefed on the operational situation on the front line, his press service said.

In Sevastopol, in the Russian-occupied Crimea, the Moscow-installed authorities announced the suspension of ferry transportation in the area of the Black Sea port where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is headquartered.

Earlier, Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said the city air defenses had repelled an attack by Ukrainian drones.

The information could not be independently verified and Ukraine has not commented on the alleged incident.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

IMF Staff Reaches Agreement With Ukraine For $15.6 Billion Program

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on March 21 it reached a staff-level agreement with Ukraine for a four-year financing package worth about $15.6 billion, offering the country needed funds as it continues its battle against Russia's invasion. The agreement, which must still be ratified by the IMF's board, follows months of negotiations between IMF staff and Ukrainian authorities. The board is expected to discuss approval in the coming weeks. The IMF said the agreement is expected to help unleash large-scale financing for Ukraine from international donors and partners. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

EU Envoy Says Agreement Reached By Leaders Of Kosovo, Serbia Is Turning Point On Road To Normalization

EU envoys Josep Borrell (left) and Miroslav Lajcak arrive for meetings as part of the talks in Ohrid on March 18.

Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union's special representative for the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, believes that an agreement reached over the weekend between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti represents a turning point in the process of normalization of relations.

Both sides now must implement all articles of the agreement on the road to normalization of relations, Lajcak said on March 21 in a joint interview with RFE/RL and Euronews Serbia.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced on March 18 that the two sides had reached agreement on ways to implement the EU-backed deal.

Borrell made the announcement after talks with Vucic and Kurti in Ohrid, North Macedonia, noting that the implementing commitments from both sides are preconditions for their integration into the EU.

The agreement envisages that Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo under international law but will take note of its statehood and recognize Kosovo's passports and custom documents.

Kosovo is a former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority. Even though Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its territory.

One of the sticking points has been the formation of the Community of Municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo.

Kosovo has an obligation to immediately start implementing the agreement related to the community, Lajcak said, while Article 4 of the agreement states that Serbia will not oppose Kosovo's membership in any international organization.

Lajcak called the agreement "an important milestone," but admitted in the interview that the EU had a more ambitious plan that included the signing of an agreement and a draft annex with clear timeframes and tasks.

"It is no secret here that we, as mediators, initially prepared a more detailed implementation annex with a sequence of steps and clear deadlines," Lajcak said.

But it was not possible for the leaders to agree on every point, and Vucic refused to sign the document, citing constitutional restrictions, he said.

"After several hours of negotiations, the parties managed to agree on 12 of the 18 points, but it was impossible to bridge the differences on the remaining six," he said. "We tried in many, many ways to bridge these differences, but it was clear that we were not going to succeed. And that's why we presented a new annex that was more general."

In the end, they agreed that the document would be formalized through Borrell's statement. This means that it is binding, official, and formal, "and all speculations about whether or not it is valid and binding are meaningless," Lajcak said.

Lajcak said there will soon be a meeting of the chief negotiators of Serbia and Kosovo in order to start work on the implementation of provisions of the agreement.

Lajcak also explained that the Joint Oversight Committee is the platform where matters related to implementation will be monitored and evaluated, and it will be established as agreed within 30 days. It's too early to discuss the composition of the committee, he said, but representatives of Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU will be part of it.

Mediators will report to EU member states once a month on progress and will continue to cooperate very closely with the United States, he said.

Lajcak expressed optimism about the future, saying the negotiations had been focused on a positive agenda for the last several months.

"I really believe that with this agreement, with the new platform and the things that need to be done in coordination with partners, we have to move forward, not backward," he said.

But he also stressed that neither side should take any unilateral action that could destabilize the atmosphere and the normalization process.


Earthquake Kills At Least 13 In Pakistan, Afghanistan

Rescue workers attend to an earthquake victim at a hospital in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on March 22.

A 6.5-magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in the northeastern Afghan region of Hindukush has killed at least 13 people and injured dozens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, authorities and local officials say.

Taimur Ali Mashal, spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Agency (PDMA) in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that nine people had died and at least 47 injured in the province bordering Afghanistan.

Rescuer Bilal Faizi told RFE/RL that the temblor caused material damage in 10 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa.

The quake was felt in several large Pakistani cities, including the capital, Islamabad, as well as Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Quetta.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said he ordered disaster-management agencies to remain on alert.

In Kabul, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesman for the Taliban-led Ministry of Public Health, said the quake struck several Afghan provinces, killing four people, including one child, and injuring 70.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the Ministry of Public Health had ordered all health facilities to be on high alert.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was located 40 kilometers south-southeast of Jurm in Afghanistan's mountainous Hindukush region, close to the border with Pakistan and Tajikistan.

The temblor was felt as far as New Delhi in India as well as Tajikistan, local media reported.

The mountainous Hindukush region, where the Arabian, Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, is prone to violent earthquakes. In 2005, a 7.6-magnitude tremor killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Kashmir.

In June 2022, more than 1,000 people were killed by 5.9-magnitude earthquake in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With reporting by AP and dpa

'I Have Never Felt That Much Hate,' Says Belarusian Tennis Player Sabalenka

Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka (file photo)

World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus says she has faced "hate" in the women's tennis tour locker room but hopes tensions with Ukrainian players will ease. Sabalenka lost to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the final at Indian Wells, California, on March 19. Asked on March 21 about her recent comments on "tensions" between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus, she said, "It was really, really tough for me because I've never faced that much hate in the locker room."

U.S. Announces Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Network Used To Purchase Drone Parts

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the new sanctions on March 21. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals accused of procuring equipment used to make drones.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) coordinated with the FBI to designate four entities and three people in Iran and Turkey for allegedly buying equipment to be used for Iran’s drone and weapons programs.

“Iran’s well-documented proliferation of [drones] and conventional weapons to its proxies continues to undermine both regional security and global stability,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a news release issued on March 21.

“The United States will continue to expose foreign procurement networks in any jurisdiction that supports Iran’s military industrial complex," he said.

Among those blacklisted in the new round of sanctions are the Iran-based Defense Technology and Science Research Center (DTSRC), its procurement firm Farazan Industrial Engineering, and two other firms along with the companies’ purchasing agents.

The Treasury Department said this procurement network operates on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which oversees several firms involved in drone and ballistic missile development.

U.S. defense officials say Iran is supplying Russia with drones, which have been used on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as the Kremlin presses its invasion.

The action follows OFAC’s designations on March 9 of a network based in China in connection with Iran’s drone procurement efforts, as well as several previous OFAC actions targeting Iran’s UAV manufacturers and their executives since September 2022.

The individuals named are Amanallah Paidar, who has served as a commercial manager and procurement agent for the DTSRC; Murat Bukey, a procurement agent who has supported Paidar and his DTSRC-related procurement; and Asghar Mahmoudi, who has facilitated the supply of items, including marine electronics, to Paidar and the DTSRC, according to the OFAC.

Bukey attempted to provide European-origin engines with drone and surface-to-air missile applications to Paidar and Farazan Industrial Engineering, OFAC said, adding that he separately sold more than 100 European-origin drone engines and related accessories worth more than $1 million to companies that likely shipped the items to Iran.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdiction by the three individuals and the entities. In addition, people in the United States who engage in transactions with those designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

With reporting by AP

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