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COVID-19: Russia Overtakes China With More Than 87,100 Cases

Emergency paramedics wait near ambulances at the Pokrovskaya hospital in St. Petersburg.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 207,000 with nearly 3 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Russia

Russia has overtaken mainland China in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases.

The Russian authorities reported 6,198 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total to 87,147. That’s about 3,200 more than those reported by the Chinese authorities -- 83,912.

The virus, which first emerged in China, has caused a total of 794 deaths in neighboring Russia.

Meanwhile, pressure rose on the Russian government to consider easing lockdown restrictions for businesses to help shore up the rattled economy.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishushin on April 27 asked his government to submit proposals this week to ease some of the restrictions on businesses.

"As soon as the situation will be changing for good, we would need to consider a step-by-step cancellation of restrictions on certain companies...operations," he told an online government meeting.

The head of the state consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, Anna Popova, told state television that, in her opinion, restrictions should be in place until May 12.

The Moscow region’s governor, Andrei Vorobyov, wrote on his Instagram account that self-isolation, the system of digital passes, and other restrictive measures “are still necessary, including on the May Day holidays."

The Moscow Patriarchate again extended a ban on worshippers visiting churches in the Moscow region from April 29 “until further notice," according to Interfax.

Russia has been on lockdown since President Vladimir Putin announced the closure of most public spaces in late March. These measures are due to expire on April 30 and Putin has not announced plans to extend them.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan will start easing some restrictions imposed on March 16 to slow down the spread of the coronavirus even as it extends a countrywide state of emergency.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said on April 27 that flights between Nur-Sultan, the capital, and the Central Asian nation's largest city, Almaty, will resume operations on May 1, while the state of emergency that was due to be lifted on April 30 will be prolonged until May 11.

Kazakh health authorities said that the number of registered coronavirus cases in the country was 2,780, including 25 deaths, the highest official COVID-19 death toll in the region.

Georgia

Georgia has started easing restrictions imposed to slow down coronavirus spread, though a ban on travel between major cities remains.

Georgian government spokesman Irakli Chikovani told reporters in Tbilisi that as of April 27, food markets and taxi services could resume operations in Georgian towns and cities.

Chikovani added that restrictions to online trade and delivery had been also lifted, except in areas where stricter limitations had been introduced due to extreme situations over the pandemic.

According to Chikovani, restrictions were lifted only for companies, facilities, and organizations that fully complied with the instructions and recommendations of the Health Ministry regarding the coronavirus.

The movement ban between Georgia’s major cities, the capital Tbilisi, Rustavi, Batumi, and Kutaisi, remains and as does a curfew regime across the country between 9.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m.

Chikovani added that restrictions may be reimposed in the future if the situation with the virus worsens.

As of April 27, the number of coronavirus cases in the South Caucasus nation was officially reported as 496, including six deaths.

Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, Inspector General Nurmat Otabekov said on April 27 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country had reached 1,887, including eight deaths.

Over the weekend the Uzbek government allowed some retailers and other businesses to reopen after being closed for weeks due to the pandemic.

Among those allowed to resume operations were retailers of construction materials, car parts, seeds and seedlings, as well as services such as dry cleaners, insurers, notaries, and those servicing construction and agricultural machinery.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan

In Kyrgyzstan, Deputy Health Minister Nurbolot Usonov said on April 27 that 695 coronavirus cases had been recorded in the country, including eight deaths.

In Tajikistan, where not a single coronavirus case had been officially reported as of April 27, all public events were suspended and kindergartens, schools, and colleges were closed until May 10 to prevent the "spread of infectious diseases."

Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus

Updated constantly with the latest figures

While the Tajik government refuses to admit to any cases, the country reportedly has seen a suspicious increase recently in the number of deaths being attributed by government health officials to pneumonia.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are two Central Asian countries where no coronavirus cases have been reported, but experts are skeptical given the lack of transparency within their governments and a lack of independent media.

Turkmenistan marked national Horse Day on April 26, an annual holiday particularly loved by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

The country continues to host crowded festivities, sports competitions, and horse races despite the coronavirus pandemic.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services​

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Russia Extradites Nephew Of Jailed Informal Leader Of Restive Tajik Region

Qurbonjon Ayombekov, who has resided in Russia since autumn 2021, decided to flee Russia for Ukraine after his uncle was handed a life sentence in November along with several other regional figures.

DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have extradited a nephew of Tolib Ayombekov, the jailed informal leader of Tajikistan's volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Law enforcement sources in the Central Asian country told RFE/RL that Russian police arrested 33-year-old Qurbonjon Ayombekov on December 1 as he was trying to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, and extradited him to Dushanbe days later.

Relatives told RFE/RL that Qurbonjon Ayombekov, who has resided in Russia since autumn 2021, decided to flee Russia for Ukraine after his uncle Tolib was handed a life sentence in November along with several other prominent Gorno-Badakhshan figures on charges of murder, hooliganism, robbery, drug and weapon smuggling, inciting hatred, organizing mass disorder, and creating a criminal group.

Also last month, Tolib Ayombekov's brother, Inoyatsho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while 16 years were added to the prison term of another brother, Okil, who in 2013 was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Also in November, another of Tolib Ayombekov’s nephews, Mamadamon Ayombekov, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Earlier in August, Tolib Ayombekov's three sons were handed lengthy prison terms.

Details of the charges and sentences are not clear as all the trials were held behind closed doors.

The crackdown on informal leaders and activists in Gorno-Badakhshan has been under way since May, when police violently dispersed protesters in the restive region.

Demonstrators in Gorno-Badakhshan had demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional governor and mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."

Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them during and after the rallies.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

Darya Losik, Wife Of Jailed RFE/RL's Journalist, May Face Up To Seven Years In Prison

Darya Losik (file photo)

MINSK -- Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, may face up to seven years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity in Belarus.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said on December 6 that an investigation of the case against Darya Losik had been completed and sent to court, meaning that her trial is expected to start soon.

According to the statement, the charge against Darya Losik stems from an interview she gave to the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. During the interview, she "positioned herself as the wife of a 'political prisoner,'" the statement said.

"She expressed her personal negative assessment of state organs involved in criminal prosecution and justice. She also said her husband had not committed any crimes and had been illegally convicted. She called on relatives of other convicts to follow her example," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in the statement.

Darya Losik was detained in October after police searched her home.

The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded her immediate release and condemned her detainment.

Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on charges that remain unclear.

The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.

Losik and other defendants have insisted that the case against them is politically motivated.

Separatist Leader In Ukraine's Donetsk Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 60 Prisoners Each

Denis Pushilin gives a news conference in Donetsk in February.

The leader of the Kremlin-backed separatists in the occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 60 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 6 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.

Iran Sentences Five To Death Over Killing Of Basij Paramilitary

Basij militia members (file photo)

Iran has sentenced to death five people over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests, the judiciary said on December 6. Another 11 people, including three children, were handed lengthy jail terms over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences could be appealed. Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking 40 days since her death.

EU, Western Balkans States Gather For Summit In Tirana

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left) welcomes European Council President Charles Michel before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana on December 6.

EU leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts have gathered in the Albanian capital, Tirana, for talks aimed at boosting their partnership amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Brussels wants to use the one-day gathering -- the first EU-Western Balkans summit to be held outside the European Union -- to tell leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to give them concrete signals, rather than just vague promises, that they will join that the 27-country bloc one day.

"I am convinced that the future of our children will be safer with the Western Balkans within the European Union, and we hope that we will progress in that direction," European Council President Charles Michel said at the start of the summit on December 6.

The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has reiterated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six countries is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security given Russia's war in Ukraine.

Tensions have also mounted in the Balkans since the start of the conflict and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders. Brussels is also wary of the battle to increase influence in the region by Moscow and Beijing.

"In the Western Balkans, several crises are looming, and partners feel the immediate damaging impact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said last month.

"The shock waves of this war are hitting the Western Balkans. To counter that, we are stepping up our engagement as the Western Balkans remain our geostrategic priority -- the closest and most important geostrategic priority."

According to a draft of the declaration to be adopted at the summit, the EU will repeat "its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans" and call for an acceleration of accession talks with the incumbents.

In return, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies.

The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia, was uncertain until the day before the summit.

Vucic said that he decided to come to Tirana "after consultations with the state institutions."

"It's always better to be at the table because when you're not at the table, you're on the menu," Vucic said.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani emphasized that she expects clear messages from the European Union regarding her country's membership prospects.

"Sometimes confusing messages are being sent. On the one hand, we have countries that are fully aligned with the EU, and on the other hand, you have countries that are fully aligned with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. The EU needs to be clear in its messages. Standing on the right side of history today is the least that is expected of us," Osmani said.

Osmani has confirmed Kosovo's intention to submit an application for full EU membership this month.

Kosovo has only started the first step, with the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement.

Among the concrete measures to be adopted in Tirana, a deal involving telecommunications operators that will bring down data roaming charges will be announced.

With reporting by AP

Iran Arrests 12 With Alleged European Links: Report

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps logo

Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested 12 alleged members of a European-linked group accused of planning acts of sabotage in the country, Tasnim news agency said. Iran has been rocked by more than two months of what it calls deadly "riots" that it says have been fomented by the United States, its allies, and foreign-based opposition groups. In a statement quoted by Tasnim, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Markazi Province, southwest of Tehran, said it had arrested "a network with 12 members with links abroad."

Prosecutors Seek Life Sentence For Former Russian Lawmaker Arashukov, Father

Rauf Arashukov attends a court hearing in Moscow in 2019.

Prosecutors in Moscow are seeking a life sentence for a former member of the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, Rauf Arashukov and his father, Raul, both of whom a jury found guilty in September of organizing two murders.

The request was made on December 5 at the post-verdict sentencing stage of the trial at the Moscow City Court.

In late September, a jury found Rauf Arashukov guilty of organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.

The jury also found Arashukov's father, Raul Arashukov, guilty of ordering the two killings. Raul Arashukov was a lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.

Rauf Arashukov, 36, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house, after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.

The younger Arashukov was also charged with participating in a "criminal community" and witness tampering.

He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His membership in the regional branch of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party was suspended after his arrest.

His 62-year-old father was also arrested at the time along with several other people, including Rauf Arashukov's cousin.

Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the case against him and his father is politically motivated.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax

Father Of Jailed Belarusian Opposition Figure Kalesnikava Allowed Brief Visit

Alyaksandr Kalesnikau (file photo)

Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, the father of jailed Belarusian opposition activist Maryya Kalesnikava, has been allowed to see his daughter for 10 minutes after she spent several days in an intensive care unit following a surgery to save her life.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram that Kalesnikau met his daughter under supervision of guards in the penitentiary's infirmary on December 5, where Kalesnikava was transferred over the weekend. She will remain in the infirmary for at least 10 days.

Babaryka quoted medical personnel as saying that Kalesnikava, who lost a significant amount of weight, had a ruptured ulcer.

Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a prison in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.

Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.

Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that have lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.

Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 years and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021 after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.

Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.

Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.

Drone Strikes Airfield In Russia's Kursk Region, Governor Says

The regional governor did not say who was responsible for the incident.

A drone has struck an airfield in the Russian region of Kursk bordering Ukraine, setting fire to an oil storage tank, the regional governor said on December 6. "There were no casualties. The fire is localized. All emergency services are working at the site," Governor Roman Starovoyt said on the Telegram messaging app. Starovoyt did not say who was responsible for the incident. Russia previously accused Ukraine of carrying out drone strikes inside Russian territory, including on December 6. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Deploys Defense Missile System On Kurile Island Near Japan

Russian Bastion anti-ship missile systems (file photo)

Russia's Defense Ministry says it has deployed mobile coastal-defense missile systems on a northern Kurile island, part of a strategically located chain of islands that stretch between Japan and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula. Japan lays claim to the Russian-held southern Kurile Islands, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, a territorial row that dates to the end of World War II, when Soviet troops seized them from Japan. The Russian Bastion systems, which have missiles with a flight range of up to 500 kilometers, were deployed on the island of Paramushir, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Latvia Cancels License Of Exiled Independent Russian TV Dozhd

Dozhd was granted a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Latvia's electronic media authority has revoked the broadcasting license of the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain), the authority's chief announced on December 6.

The decision, due to come into force on December 8, was made "in connection with the threat to national security and public order," National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) Chairman Ivars Abolins said.

The TV channel's management "does not understand and is not aware of the significance and seriousness of the violations, and therefore cannot operate on the territory of Latvia," Abolins said.

Dozhd said in a statement that the move was "unfair and absurd."

"The TV channel will stop broadcasting on cable but will remain on YouTube. We continue to work and believe all accusations against us to be unfair and absurd," Dozhd said on Twitter.

The NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On December 2, Dozhd was fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."

The same day, Latvia's state security service said it had launched an investigation in connection with statements "which raise suspicions about the assistance provided by this TV channel to the soldiers of the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine."

Dozhd anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the station's audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes.

In making the request, he said, "We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."

The security service said in a news release, "No provision of support to the aggressor Russia is justifiable," adding that anyone helping the Russian forces was subject to criminal liability.

Other news organizations have also relocated operations to Riga.

Following the forced suspension of its operations in Russia in March, RFE/RL opened a news bureau in the Latvian capital, which is also currently hosting Novaya Gazeta Europe and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle's Moscow bureau.

The city has also hosted independent news website Meduza since 2014.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Bulgaria Rejects Media Report About Refugee Shot At Border

Abdullah el-Rustum said he was shot by Bulgarian border guards after his group was caught illegally entering Bulgaria and pushed back to Turkey.

Bulgaria has rejected accusations that its border guards shot a Syrian refugee in October after a video released on December 5 showed a man being fired at on the country's border with Turkey. The footage of an asylum-seeker being hit with live ammunition was part of a joint investigation by several European media outlets including RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, led by Lighthouse Reports. In a separate video recorded days later, the man identifies himself as a 19-year-old Abdullah el-Rustum of Syria. He said he was shot by Bulgarian border guards after his group was caught illegally entering Bulgaria and pushed back to Turkey. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Heavy Fighting Continues In East As Ukraine Races To Restore Electricity After Russian Strikes

Planet Lab satellite imagery, obtained by RFE/RL, shows the runway at the Engels air base near Saratov, Russia, after a mysterious attack on the base on December 5.

Ukrainian forces have fought off a fresh round of Russian attacks in the east, Ukraine's General Staff said, as technicians race to restore electricity following Moscow's latest wave of missile strikes that caused power disruptions across the country amid dropping temperatures.

Russian troops continued their relentless offensive in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of Donetsk region, the General Staff said on December 6, adding that tank and artillery bombardment hit some 20 settlements in the area, including Soledar, Verkhnokamyanske, Andriyivka, and Yakovlyivka.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Ukrainian officials warned that critical energy infrastructure continues to be threatened by further Russian strikes and there would be emergency blackouts once again in several regions as engineers work frantically to repair damage from the huge wave of missile attacks the previous day that destroyed homes and knocked out power.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced in his nightly address that four people were killed in Russia's strikes. But "our people never give up," he said late on December 5.

About half the region surrounding the Ukrainian capital will remain without electricity for the coming days after Russian missile strikes on power facilities, the Kyiv regional governor said.

The attacks on December 5, which plunged parts of Ukraine back into freezing darkness, were the latest in weeks of attacks that hit critical energy infrastructure.

Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people, appeared to have escaped serious damage. But the Kyiv region, which does not include the capital and which had a population of about 1.8 million before the war, was badly hit.

"In the coming days, about half of the region will be without electricity," Governor Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram late on December 5.

Volodymyr Kudritskiy, the chief of power grid operator Ukrenerho, said Moscow had deliberately launched the attacks as the temperature fell below zero.

"A day or two is necessary to restore normal generation in the system," Kudritskiy told Ukrainian television.

Other regions sustained damage as well, with all water pumping stations and reserve lines in the Odesa region losing power and water supply being cut.

In the eastern city of Kramatorsk, which remains under Ukraine's control, 370 apartment blocks were without heat because of electricity outages, the city's mayor said.

In Russia's Kursk region across the border from Ukraine, an airfield was targeted by a "drone attack," according to Governor Roman Starovoyt, who did not specify where the drone originated.

"As a result of a drone attack in the area of the Kursk airfield, an oil storage tank caught fire," Starovoyt said on social media, adding that there were no casualties.

The December 6 incident comes a day after Moscow accused Ukraine of carrying out deadly drone strikes on two other airfields.

At least one large explosion occurred at a Russian military air base in the Saratov region, about 600 kilometers east of Ukraine, while another blast was reported by Russian state media at an airfield outside Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.

Planet Lab satellite imagery, obtained by RFE/RL, shows the runway at the Engels air force base near Saratov before the attack on December 5.
Planet Lab satellite imagery, obtained by RFE/RL, shows the runway at the Engels air force base near Saratov before the attack on December 5.

The information could not be independently confirmed.

Separately, Reuters reported that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is convening a virtual meeting on December 8 with oil and gas executives to discuss how the Washington can support Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Romania Starts Sending Natural Gas To Moldova Through Pipeline

The Iasi-Ungheni pipeline was unveiled in 2014 to reduce Moldova's dependence on gas supplies from Russia. (file photo)

Romania has started transporting natural gas to Moldova, which is struggling to meet energy demand amid Russia's war against Ukraine. Gas began arriving on December 3 through a pipeline connecting Iasi in eastern Romania with the Moldovan border town of Ungheni, state news agency Agerpres reported, citing Romanian gas distributor Transgaz. The 43-kilometer pipeline, unveiled in 2014 to reduce dependence on supplies from Russia, has not been used until now. Moldova connected it in 2019 to supply Chisinau, and the compressor stations were commissioned in 2021. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Montenegro Reaffirms Its Support For Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic Path

A screen grab of video showing Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signing a joint declaration on Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic perspective on December 5.

The prime minister of Montenegro and president of Ukraine have signed a joint declaration on Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic perspective. Dritan Abazovic and Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed the declaration on December 5 in an online meeting. Montenegro is the third country in Europe after Belgium and the Czech Republic to sign the declaration. It reaffirms Montenegro's support for Ukraine's efforts to become a full-fledged part of the Euro-Atlantic society, the government of Montenegro said. Zelenskiy thanked all Montenegrins for their support and for accepting Ukrainian refugees. Abazovic said that Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereignty and a chance to live in democracy. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

FIFA Announces Probe Into Conduct Of Serbian Team, Fans At World Cup

Swiss captain Granit Xhaka (left) scuffles with Serbian players during their World Cup group game in Doha on December 2.

World soccer's governing body, FIFA, has announced a probe into alleged misconduct by Serbian players, team officials, and fans during Serbia’s World Cup loss to Switzerland last week.

The disciplinary action, which was announced on December 5, comes after complaints from the Football Association of Kosovo about offensive chants against two Swiss players who have ethnic Albanian roots and family ties to Kosovo. Serbia was eliminated from the tournament in the 3-2 defeat on December 2.

A statement from FIFA said its disciplinary committee has opened proceedings against the Football Association of Serbia "due to potential breaches of articles 12 (misconduct of players and officials), 13 (discrimination) and 16 (order and security at matches) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code" related to incidents during the match.

It is the second time that FIFA has launched disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian team during the 2022 World Cup. The first occurred after a flag showing Kosovo as part of Serbia allegedly was displayed in the Serbian locker room after the match on November 26 with Brazil.

Serbian team manager Dragan Stojkovic, speaking at a press conference on December 5 after the national team returned from Qatar, said he had no comment on the latest actions by FIFA.

The Football Association of Kosovo had complained to FIFA about the alleged incidents, judging them to be nationalistic.

"It's good that FIFA dealt with this and that it took it seriously," Agim Ademi, the president of the Football Association of Kosovo, told RFE/RL.

The Football Association of Serbia and the Serbian Sports Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment about the disciplinary charges.

The Football Association of Kosovo had demanded a reaction from FIFA, due to "severe insults by the coach of Serbia and racist actions of Serbian fans" during the match against Switzerland, which was captained by Granit Xhaka, and in which Xherdan Shaqiri scored the opening goal. Both players have roots in Kosovo.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovar sovereignty more than a decade after the mostly ethnic Albanian province declared independence. Kosovo has been a member of FIFA and UEFA, soccer’s European governing body, since 2016.

FIFA’s announcement said that "racist calls against Albanians were heard during the entire match" and "slogans with political messages” were also heard.

Several Serbian players also encroached onto the field when the referee didn't use a video review to study a claim for a penalty kick in the second half.

FIFA gave no timetable for the disciplinary case. Any punishments could apply when Serbia next plays competitive games in March in a European Championship qualifying group.

The Football Association of Kosovo demanded investigation and sanctions against the Football Association of Serbia “so that once and for all fascist chants disappear from football stadiums and events such as the World Cup."

The association said in a statement that teams and fans “with behavior and a philosophy of hatred should not have a place at such important sports events as the World Cup in Qatar."

With reporting by AP

International Criminal Court's Prosecutor Opposes EU Plan For Special Ukraine Tribunal

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan (file photo)

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has denounced a European Union proposal to create a UN-backed special tribunal to prosecute crimes in Ukraine, saying his court was capable of effectively dealing with war crimes committed there. On December 5, Karim Khan pushed back against the plan that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced last week to establish a special court to prosecute Russia’s invasion. The Hague-based ICC has launched an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine but cannot prosecute the crime of aggression because Russia is not a signatory to the treaty that created the court. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Automobile Traffic Reopens On Part Of Bridge Linking Russia To Crimea

An explosion in October caused heavy damage to sections of the Crimean Bridge, which links Russia to the Ukrainian peninsula.

Two-way traffic has been restored on a Russian-built bridge that connects Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. An explosion believed to be from a truck bomb caused heavy damage to road and railway sections of the bridge in October. The attack infuriated the Kremlin. Ukrainian officials have not said who carried it out. Russian state television channel Rossia-24 showed video of President Vladimir Putin driving a vehicle across the bridge. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 9-Year Prison Term For Politician Ilya Yashin Over YouTube Posts

Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin in court earlier this year.

Russian prosecutors have asked a Moscow court to sentence opposition politician and Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin to nine years in prison for purportedly spreading false information about the Russian military amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Yashin, who was arrested in July, is one of the few prominent opposition politicians still in Russia. The charge against him stems from his YouTube posts about alleged crimes committed by the Russian military in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Yashin's trial started on November 23. The maximum sentence for such an offense is 10 years. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Iranian Official Appears To Admit To Killing Of Women, Children On Recording

The recording seems to have caught Iranian official Reza Davari admitting on tape that women and children have been killed during Tehran's crackdown on ongoing protests in the country. (file photo)

A leaked audio recording from the Iranian pro-regime Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, appears to show the secretary of the council admitting to the accidental killing of women and children during a bloody crackdown in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30.

The document was published on December 4 after the hacktivist group Black Reward announced that it had succeeded in hacking the hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group released dozens of documents and videos it said were prepared by the news agency.

In the meeting involving the alleged admission of random killings, Reza Davari, the secretary of the Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, said that an agent who was on top of the police station "mistakenly" targeted an area where a number of people, including women and children, were killed.

"They were not even part of the protests," Davari added.

Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces in the incident, which came during protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

Last month, Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called "Bloody Friday" massacre in Zahedan.

He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

Earlier, another leaked document from the Fars agency published by Black Reward shows Khamenei telling security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Molavi Abdolhamid is based, but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

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

Putin Signs Controversial Law Banning 'LGBT Propaganda'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that expands an existing ban on promoting "LGBT propaganda" to children by prohibiting it among people of all ages. Under the new law, which Putin signed on November 5, any event or act regarded as an attempt to promote homosexuality -- including online, in film, books, advertising or in public -- could incur a heavy fine. Human rights defenders and activists working with LGBT+ groups believe that the new law will make it impossible for public organizations that help LGBT+ organizations to function. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Enlargement On The Agenda As EU Prepares Western Balkans Summit

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) and European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (center) arrive for a roundtable meeting during an EU summit in Kranj, Slovenia in October 2021.

As European Union leaders and officials from the Western Balkans prepare for a regional summit in Tirana, Albania, on December 6, enlargement tops the agenda, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told AP on December 5. The EU has promised Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 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. EU enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said during a recent visit last week enlargement “is among the top three priorities for EU leaders.” To read the original story from AP, click here.

Angry Iranians Launch Three-Day Protest As More Death Sentences Issued

Shops at a Tehran bazaar were shuttered on December 5 as a sign of support for the protests that have swept the country.

Iranian protesters have begun three consecutive days of protests and nationwide strikes as the judiciary continues to follow through on a government crackdown by issuing three more death sentences in its response to unrest sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

Reports from across the country on December 5 said shopkeepers and businesses had stopped working in dozens of Iranian cities in a concerted effort to bolster the daily demonstrations that have erupted after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran.

The opposition activist collective 1500tasvir reported that several protest rallies have taken place in the center of Iranian capital on December 5, with protesters chanting slogans against the ayatollah and the government forces that have carried out a brutal crackdown that has left hundreds dead.

Security forces reportedly raided a market in the south of Tehran early on December 5 in an apparent attempt to try to prevent businesses there from joining the nationwide strikes.

Iran's state media, meanwhile, has reported that the restaurant and jewelry store owned by former Iranian soccer star Ali Daei has been sealed for joining the three-day strikes in Iran.

Since the start of the protests, Daei, a former forward with German soccer giant Bayern Munich and a former Iranian national team captain, has been a vocal supporter of the protesters and has repeatedly criticized government officials for suppressing the protests.

At the same time, the head of Iran’s judiciary announced at his weekly news conference the imminent execution of some protesters.

This is the second time in recent weeks that Iranian authorities have threatened to carry out death sentences for protesters arrested during the unrest. Several death sentences have been handed out already for some of those arrested in protests, but it has not been announced if the penalty has been carried out.

In October, 227 lawmakers from the 290-seat, hard-line parliament urged the judiciary to approve death sentences for some of the protesters arrested.

Human rights organizations strongly object to the issuance of death sentences, which they say were issued without valid proceedings and in a short time.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors.

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

EU Commission To Try To Limit Illegal Migration In Western Balkans

A Macedonian soldier patrols the border with Greece, near Gevgelija.

The European Commission launched an action plan on December 5 detailing how it plans to clamp down on illegal migration into the European Union via the Western Balkans. The commission wants to increase border management in the region, continue work to align visa policies, and support asylum seekers' registrations, said Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas. The EU executive arm is acting in the wake of more than 22,000 illegal border crossings attempted in the Western Balkans in October -- 159 percent more than in 2021 -- according to data from Frontex, the EU border protection agency.

Russia Defiant As Oil Price Cap, Embargo Come Into Effect

An oil tanker is moored at the Sheskharis complex, part of Chernomortransneft JSC, a subsidiary of Transneft PJSC, in Novorossiysk -- one of the largest facilities for oil and petroleum products in southern Russia.

A price cap of $60 per barrel imposed on seaborne Russian oil by the Group of Seven (G7) leading economies, the European Union, and several importing countries came into effect on December 5, as Russia remained defiant and said it would not recognize the restrictions.

The EU also introduced an embargo of seaborne Russian oil that took effect on December 5.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The price cap, which has been joined by the United States, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom, was intended to punish Moscow for its unprovoked aggression against neighboring Ukraine.

It stipulates that Russian oil can only be shipped to third countries using G7 or EU tankers, insurance companies, or credit institutions if the cargo is purchased at or below the price cap.

A similar price cap on Russian petroleum products is scheduled to take effect on February 5.

Russia said on December 4 that it rejects the price cap and will not sell oil below market prices, even if that means reducing production targets.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 5 that a response to the price cap "is being prepared."

"One thing is obvious: We will not recognize any price caps," Peskov said, adding that the price cap will not have any impact on Russia's war against Ukraine.

Moscow reportedly was considering issuing a decree that would ban the sale of any petroleum products to any country applying the price cap.

The price cap will be reviewed every two months with the first review set for January.

G7 and EU countries set the cap fairly close to market prices in the expectation that Russia would accept lower profits and continue selling oil.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for the international community to set the price cap at $30 per barrel in order to ramp up pressure on the Russian economy. He said that if Russia agrees to sell oil at $60 per barrel, it would still bring in about $1 billion in annual oil revenues.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on December 5 said Beijing will continue its "mutually beneficial" energy cooperation with Russia, which is the world's second-largest oil exporter.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

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