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COVID-19: Serbs Jailed For Breaking Quarantine; Member Of Putin's Staff Infected

A specialist wearing a protective mask sprays disinfectant as he sanitizes the Moscow Cathedral Mosque to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Moscow on March 27.

The global death toll from the coronavirus has neared 27,000 with more than 591,000 infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Ukraine

Ukraine says it has confirmed 92 new coronavirus cases as the country begins to impose new restrictions at its borders in the battle to contain the effects of the global pandemic.

The Health Ministry’s Center for Public Health said that with the new infections, there were 310 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 respiratory illness as of the end of March 27.

Since the crisis began, five deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, with patients’ ages ranging from 33 to 71 years.

The jump in new cases comes on the eve of new measures ordered by the government.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in an online video address to the nation explained the country’s decision to shut cross-border travel after March 27, including for Ukrainian nationals.

Previously, the cabinet had issued a nationwide directive limiting passengers in all public transportation. All above-ground transportation such as, minibuses, buses, trolleybuses, and trams should only ride up to half capacity.

Russia

The Kremlin says a member of President Vladimir Putin's administration has been infected with the coronavirus, but the person had not been in direct contact with Russia's leader.

The announcement came as the government widened restrictions aimed at fighting the disease, ordering all restaurants and cafes to close, beginning March 28.

As of March 27, the country's total number of confirmed cases was 1,036, up 196 from a day earlier. Another reported death on March 27 increased the total to four.

According to Moscow's coronavirus-response headquarters, the 56-year-old woman who died on March 27 was also suffering from cancer and had one lung removed during an earlier operation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that a man working in the presidential administration had been infected with the coronavirus.

“Indeed, a coronavirus case has been identified in the presidential administration," Peskov was quoted as saying.

"All necessary sanitary and epidemiological measures are being taken to prevent the virus from spreading further. The sick man did not come into contact with the president," he added, saying this was the only known case at the Kremlin.

He gave no further details.

Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus

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As Russia’s confirmed cases have climbed, the government has steadily increased the restrictions and other measures seeking to curtail the disease’s spread.

Putin has called for a weeklong work holiday, ordering all nonessential businesses to close down for a week, beginning March 28.

In the order released by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin's government on March 27, regional authorities across the country were instructed to "halt the activities of public food service organizations." The restrictions will take effect on March 28.

The government has also ordered all vacation and health resorts closed until June. Other restrictions included the cancellation of all international flights.

In Russia's capital and largest city, Moscow, city authorities have encouraged people to stay home and placed restrictions on public transit.

The majority of confirmed cases are in Moscow.

The Russian media regulator, meanwhile, said the social messaging network Twitter has deleted a post that it said contained false information about a pending curfew.

Roskomnadzor said it filed a request with the U.S. company on March 26, asking for the post to be taken down.

According to the regulator, the post made mention of a pending order by the Defense Ministry that a curfew was to be imposed in Moscow. That information is false, Roskomnadzor said in a statement on March 27.

Twitter had no immediate comment on the statement by Roskomnadzor.

The Prosecutor-General's Office, meanwhile, said officials had made similar requests about allegedly false information circulating on other social media outlets, including Facebook and VK.

Facebook "removed the incorrect, socially significant information concerning the number of coronavirus cases," Roskomnadzor said.

Iran

Iran reported 144 new coronavirus deaths as authorities continued to struggle to contain the outbreak, with the number of confirmed cases jumping by nearly 2,400.

The new tally, announced on March 27 by Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, pushed Iran’s total confirmed cases to at least 32,332.

Iran is one of the worst-hit countries in the world, along with China, Italy, Spain, and now the United States.

People in protective clothing walk past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients set up by the Iranian Army at an exhibition center in northern Tehran on March 26.
People in protective clothing walk past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients set up by the Iranian Army at an exhibition center in northern Tehran on March 26.

Earlier this week, authorities enacted a new travel ban after fears that many Iranians had ignored previous advice to stay at home and cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on March 20.

On March 25, government spokesman Ali Rabiei warned about the danger of ignoring the travel guidelines.

"This could cause a second wave of the coronavirus," Rabiei said.

State TV, meanwhile, reported that the military has set up a 2,000-bed hospital in an exhibition center in the capital, Tehran, to shore up the local health-care system.

President Hassan Rohani has pledged that authorities will contain the spread of the coronavirus within two weeks. However, the continued rise in numbers, along with fears that the country’s health-care system is incapable of dealing with the surge of infections, have raised doubts about meeting that goal.

Earlier this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refused U.S. aid and seized on a conspiracy theory that the United States had created the virus, something for which there is no scientific evidence.

Om March 27, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urged the United States to release Iranians held in U.S. jails on sanctions-related issues due to fears about the coronavirus epidemic.

"Release our men," Zarif said on Twitter.

The minister referred to a report by the Guardian newspaper about an Iranian science professor who it said remained jailed by U.S. immigration authorities after being acquitted in November 2019 on charges of stealing trade secrets related to his academic work.

The professor, Sirous Asgari, complained that conditions in detention were "filthy and overcrowded" and that officials were "doing little" to prevent the coronavirus outbreak, according to The Guardian.

Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of foreigners and dual citizens over recent years, mostly on espionage charges.

Rights activists have accused Iranian authorities of arresting them to try to win concessions from other countries -- a charge dismissed by Tehran.

Serbia

Three people in Serbia have been sentenced to jail for violating a self-isolation order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The two- to three-year sentences were handed down during a video court session, a first in the Balkan country. The session was conducted remotely to protect employees and defendants from potential exposure to the coronavirus.

One of the defendants was sentenced to three years in prison -- the maximum -- in the eastern town Dimitrovgrad, a Serbian justice source confirmed to RFE/RL. The others were sentenced at a court in the city of Pozarevac to two and 2 1/2 years.

Dragana Jevremovic-Todorovic, a judge and spokeswoman for the court in Pozarevac, told RFE/RL that the two people convicted there had been charged with a criminal offense of noncompliance with health regulations.

"They violated the measure of self-isolation when they came from abroad. One arrived in Serbia on March 14, the other on March 17, both from the Hungarian border crossing," she said.

"They were informed that they had been given a measure of self-isolation and a restraining order, which they did not respect. The measure was to last 14 days, and they violated it before the deadline," Jevremovic-Todorovic said.

"By violating self-isolation, they have created a danger to human health, as this can spread the infectious disease," Jevremovic-Todorovic said.

The Ministry of Justice on March 26 sent a memo to courts that conduct proceedings against people who violate self-isolation measures, allowing them to hold trials remotely using Internet-enabled computers, cameras, and microphones.

The judiciary noted that the first-time video judgments were not final, but the defendants remain in custody while they await trial.

According to the Justice Ministry's Criminal Sanctions Directorate, 111 people are in custody at detention facilities in three Serbian cities - Pirot, Vrsac, and Pozarevac -- on suspicion of violating the emergency public-health order.

Serbia has recorded 528 coronavirus cases and eight deaths. Restrictive measures introduced by Belgrade include a ban on people over age 65 leaving their homes and a 12-hour overnight curfew enforced by police.

Serbian soldiers prepare beds for treatment of possible COVID-19 patients inside the Novi Sad Fair on March 27.
Serbian soldiers prepare beds for treatment of possible COVID-19 patients inside the Novi Sad Fair on March 27.

Meanwhile, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic pledged on March 27 to donate 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to buy ventilators and other medical equipment for health workers in Serbia.

"Unfortunately, more and more people are getting infected every day," Djokovic told Serbian media.

The world men's No. 1 player, who was in top form before the pandemic interrupted the current season, thanked medical staff around the world for their efforts.

Georgia

Georgia's government has canceled a $1.2 million contract to buy thousands of rapid-result coronavirus tests from a Chinese company.

The cancellation is the latest controversy for Bioeasy, whose test kits have been deemed faulty in Spain and returned.

Georgia's order for 215,000 rapid-result tests also will be returned to Bioeasy, based in the Shenzhen region, near Hong Kong.

Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze told reporters on March 27 that Bioeasy had agreed to take them back.

Rapid-result tests, which can be used for diseases like influenza as well as coronavirus, are known for providing quick results, though with less accuracy.

In Spain, which is one of the countries worst-hit by the coronavirus, health officials found the tests were far less accurate than needed, and ordered the tests returned.

Tikaradze said Georgians should not be afraid of being misdiagnosed.

She said new diagnostic tests were being examined at Tbilisi's Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a medical research facility funded mostly by the U.S. government.

"I want to reassure our population," she said. "Any new tests coming into the territory of Georgia are being tested at the Lugar Center and hence we are testing the reliability of the tests and then using them for widespread use."

Georgia has 81 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and no deaths, as of March 27.

Why A Thorough Handwashing Can Be A Lifesaver
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Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has tightened its quarantine rules from March 29 in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The movement of vehicles between regions and cities across the country will be banned, with some exceptions, including ambulances, social services, and agricultural vehicles, the government said on March 27.

Baku's subway system will operate only five hours a day.

Restaurants, cafes, tea houses, and shops -- except supermarkets, grocery stores, and pharmacies -- will remain closed.

Access to parks, boulevards, and other recreation areas will be restricted.

The South Caucasus country has reported 165 coronavirus cases, with three deaths. Officials say 15 patients have recovered.

In addition, more than 3,000 people remain in quarantine.

On March 26, Azerbaijani authorities extended holidays related to Persian New Year celebrations until April 4, from a previous end date of March 29.

Hungary

Hungary's prime minister has ordered new restrictions to try and curtail the spread of the coronavirus, calling for Hungarians to remain at home for two weeks.

In a March 27 announcement on state radio, Viktor Orban said people would only be allowed to travel to work and make essential trips to buy food or medicine or take children to daycare until April 11.

He also proposed special shopping hours at food stores for people 65 and over, and called on people to observe "social distancing" -- staying about 2 meters away from other people to prevent the spread of infection.

Hungary currently has 300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, though Orban has said the actual number of cases is likely much higher.

Ten infected people have died.

Orban has increasingly tightened his grip on power during his decade in office. Opposition leaders and critics have accused him of moving the country towards an autocracy.

'Lex COVID': Hungary's Orban Accused Of Power Grab
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Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's government has widened restrictions in the country's two largest cities, ordering most companies to suspend operations next week as part of efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

The restrictions, announced March 27, came as the number of confirmed cases announced by the government reached 120. Most of the cases are in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.

A day earlier, as the country reported its first death from COVID-19, the government barred residents of Nur-Sultan and Almaty from leaving their homes except for work or to buy food or medicines, starting from March 28.

The closure of most businesses in the two cities also takes effect March 28.

Authorities have also closed all intercity transport terminals and public spaces in Shymkent, Kazakhstan's third-largest city, in order to curb the spread of coronavirus, the government said.

No Physical Distancing At Crowded Kazakh Food Depot
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Uzbekistan

In neighboring Uzbekistan, officials announced the country's first death from coronavirus: a 72-year-old man in the city of Namangan who had suffered from other ailments.

As of early March 27, Uzbekistan -- Central Asia's most populous nation -- has confirmed 75 cases of infection.

Earlier, municipal authorities announced restrictions in Samarkand and the Ferghana valley cities Namangan and Andijon on March 26.

All vehicle traffic in and out of the cities has been restricted, with the exception of cargo transport, or security and government officials.

Tashkent has been closed to the entry and exit of all passenger transport since March 24.

Kyrgyzstan

Another Central Asian country, Kyrgyzstan, announced 14 new cases on March 27, bringing the country's total to 58.

Earlier this week, authorities declared a state of emergency in the capital, Bishkek, and several other cities and regions.

Two other Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, have not reported any confirmed infections yet.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kazakh, Uzbek services and Radio Farda, AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax

All Of The Latest News

Rebuilding Ukraine After Russian Invasion Will Cost $500-600 Billion, Says World Bank VP

A woman stands among the debris of a destroyed building after a Russian air strike in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, in late November.

The postwar reconstruction of Ukraine will cost about 500-600 billion euros ($525 billion-$630 billion), World Bank Vice President Anna Bjerde said in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. "Previously, we published the figure, which was calculated jointly with the European Commission and the Ukrainian government. How much money is needed to rebuild Ukraine and bring it up to European standards, for example in terms of energy efficiency? At of the beginning of June, it was about 350 billion euros," Bjerde said. But since then, she said the figure had risen significantly to the new estimate. To read the original report by Die Press, click here.

1,700 Dead Seals Found on Russia's Caspian Coast

The authorities in the Russian region of Daghestan said that it's still unclear what caused the animals' deaths, but they likely died of natural causes.

About 1,700 seals have been found dead on the Caspian Sea coast in southern Russia, officials said on December 4. The authorities in the Russian region of Daghestan said that it's still unclear what caused the animals' deaths, but they likely died of natural causes. Regional officials initially said on December 3 that 700 dead seals were found on the coast, but a day later Zaur Gapizov, head of the Caspian Environmental Protection Center, said according to the state RIA Novosti news agency that after a broader inspection of the coast the number of dead animals was 1,700. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

U.S. Focus On Iran Is Thwarting Weapons Aid To Russia, Not Nuclear Talks

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran (file photo)

Washington will focus on preventing the supply of Iranian weapons to Russia and supporting Iranian protests instead of continuing deadlocked negotiations with Iran on restoring the nuclear deal, said Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, in an interview with Bloomberg. "Iran is not interested in a deal and we're focused on other things," Malley said on December 3. To read the original story by Bloomberg, click here.

Kyiv Claims Russia Used Banned Chemical Weapon

Ukrainian troops used chemical defenses "to protect themselves from the strong irritant effect" of the prohibited substance, the navy said. (illustrative photo)

The Ukrainian Navy has accused Russia of using a banned chemical weapon against Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine. In a post on Facebook on December 4, the navy asserted Russia had dropped chloropicrin grenades from drones, but that Ukrainian troops had used chemical defenses "to protect themselves from the strong irritant effect" of the prohibited substance. The chemical -- which was developed as a poison gas during World War I -- was reportedly dispersed using K-51 aerosol grenades. The reports could not be verified, and there was no immediate reaction from Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Fined For Displaying Slogan 'I Love My Father'

A man and woman kiss at a farewell ceremony at a mobilization center in Kazan in October.

A court in Kazan, the capital of the Russian region of Tatarstan, has fined local resident Svetlana Poteryakhina 30,000 rubles ($480) for purportedly “discrediting” the Russian armed forces by publicly carrying a sign with the slogan, “I love my father.” Earlier, she had been fined 10,000 rubles ($160) for violating the law on demonstrations for the same incident. Poteryakhina said the demonstration occurred on September 24, shortly after President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization to raise troops for the war in Ukraine. She said that after she was detained, police threatened her with beating, rape, and criminal charges of terrorism. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

Iran Reportedly Shuts Down 'Morality Police' Amid Protests

A female officer of Iran's morality police looks out of the back of a police vehicle during a crackdown to enforce the Islamic dress code in Tehran in 2007.

Iran has cancelled its dreaded "morality police" in the wake of continuing protests following the September death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, the country's chief prosecutor has said.

Iran’s state IRNA news agency on December 4 quoted Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as saying, "the morality police have nothing to do with the judiciary."

Montazeri was responding to the question of "why the morality police were being shut down."

The controversial morality police patrols were established in 2006 under hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to enforce the country's Islamic dress codes, particularly the requirement to wear the hijab, or female head covering.

The squads of men in green uniforms and women in black chadors initially issued warnings, but soon began arresting women for alleged violations.

Montazeri was quoted the previous day as saying parliament and the judiciary were "working" on whether the law requiring women to wear the hijab in public should be changed. He added that "the results will be seen in a week or two."

On December 3, the Iranian government said more than 200 people had been killed in the protests sparked by Amini's death in September.

The United Nations and Iranian rights groups put the figure at more than 300, as the national protests have evolved into one of the most serious challenges to the theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In a December 4 interview with Iran's state broadcaster, Deputy Security Minister Majid Mirahmadi said the "main cause" of the protests was not economic.

"This is an issue, but not the main cause," Mirahmadi said. "It is a protest against injustice."

President Ebrahim Raisi said on December 3 that Iran's Islamic foundations were enshrined in the constitution.

"But there are methods of implementing the constitution that can be flexible," he said.

Ukraine Briefs U.S. On Russian Missile Strikes, Presses For Air-Defense Systems

Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine (file photo)

Ukrainian Army commander Valeriy Zaluzhniy has spoken with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, by phone and pressed Kyiv's requests for additional weaponry and equipment. In a post on Facebook late on December 3, Zaluzhniy said he briefed Milley on the latest Russian missile strikes against civilian infrastructure and asked for additional anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. On November 30, the United States announced a $1.2 billion contract with defense contractor Raytheon to produce sophisticated NASAMS air-defense systems for Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

U.S. Intelligence Chief Says Ukraine Fighting Tempo To Decline In Coming Months

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies before a Senate committee hearing in Washington in May.

The director of U.S. national intelligence says fighting in Ukraine will continue at a reduced tempo for the coming months. Avril Haines also said on December 3 that she saw no evidence of a reduced will to resist on the part of Ukrainian forces. And she said U.S. intelligence saw no indication that the level of Russian dissent or opposition to the war in Ukraine might lead to a change in the government of President Vladimir Putin. Haines made the remarks at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California.

Iran Executes Four Accused Of Working For Israel

Nooses prepared for a public hanging. (illustrative photo)

Iran executed four people accused of working for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency on December 4, Iran's state IRNA news agency reported. The executed prisoners were identified as Hossein Ordukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmudabadi, Milad Ashrafi, and Manuchehr Shahbandi. They were accused of receiving weapons and funds in the form of cryptocurrency from Mossad. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps claimed to have arrested several people supposedly linked to Mossad, accusing them of destroying property and kidnapping Iranian citizens. To read the original story by AP, click here.

NASA Says Russia Took $1 Billion In Wheat From Occupied Ukraine

A wheat field burns after Russian shelling a few kilometers from the Russian border in Ukraine's Kharkiv region in July.

Russia has harvested some $1 billion worth of wheat in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, the U.S. space agency NASA has said. NASA Harvest, the agency's food-security program, said on December 4 that satellite imagery showed some 5.8 million tons of wheat were harvested from occupied land in Ukraine. It is not known what became of the Ukrainian wheat taken by Russia, but Russian ships have been exporting grain that may have been taken from occupied Ukraine to Libya, Iran, and other countries. To read the original story by Bloomberg, click here.

U.S. Defense Secretary Accuses Russia Of 'Deliberate Cruelty' In Ukraine

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (file photo)

The U.S. defense secretary has accused Russia of "deliberate cruelty" in its war in Ukraine, saying Moscow was intentionally targeting civilians. Lloyd Austin made the accusation on December 3 during a speech at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in California. "With deliberate cruelty, Russia is putting civilians and civilian targets in its gunsights," Austin said. "Russian attacks have left children dead, schools shattered, and hospitals smashed." Still, Austin said, the Pentagon is also concerned about escalating the Ukraine conflict into a U.S. war with Moscow: "We will not be dragged into Putin's war." To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Popular Iranian Actress Mitra Hajjar Arrested

Mitra Hajjar (file photo)

Popular Iranian film and television actress Mitra Hajjar has been arrested, the IRNA news agency reported on December 3. Mehdi Kohian, a member of a group that monitors artists' arrests, has confirmed Hajjar's detention. The reason for the arrest of Hajjar, who is also an environmental activist, was not immediately clear. Last month, Hajjar was one of the artists summoned by prosecutors and questioned about "provocative" content posted online amid a wave of popular protests caused by the death in September of a young woman in the custody of Iran's notorious morality police. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Updated

Russian Businessman Mikhail Fridman Reportedly Detained In London On Money-Laundering Suspicions

Mikhail Fridman attends a conference in Moscow in 2019.

British police say a "wealthy Russian businessman" has been arrested at his multimillion-dollar London home on potential money-laundering suspicions, and later released on bail.

The National Crime Agency did not identify the man in its December 3 statement.

But Russian state news agency TASS identified the man as Mikhail Fridman, a Russian-Ukrainian billionaire and one of the principals behind the Alfa Group conglomerate.

In its statement, the crime agency said a 58-year-old man was among three men who was arrested by officers from the Combating Kleptocracy Cell on December 1 at a "multimillion-pound residence" in London.

It was unclear why the agency released its statement two days after the arrest.

The man was detained on suspicion of money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the Home Office, and conspiracy to commit perjury, the agency said.

The agency also said a 35-year-old man was arrested at the premises after he was seen leaving with a bag containing a large amount of cash.

A former boyfriend, 39, of the businessman's partner was also arrested at the property, police said.

All three were released on bail.

The press service for Alfa Group issued a statement on December 3 stating Fridman was not under arrest. But the statement did not address whether Fridman had been released on bail.

TASS, citing what it described as a source close to Fridman, said Fridman had been detained, but then released on bail.

The Russian Embassy in London, meanwhile, issued a statement on December 3 demanding more information about the detentions.

Fridman, 58, was the founder of Alfa Bank, and grew to be one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen. He's been put under sanctions by the European Union as part of broader punishment against Russia for its war against Ukraine.

The EU described him as as "a top Russian financier and enabler of [President Vladimir] Putin's inner circle."

In 2013, Fridman and one of his main Alfa partners, Pyotr Aven, reorganized their holdings following the $14 billion sale of their stake in the Russian oil company TNK-BP, and created a new London-based investment group called LetterOne.

Both Fridman and Aven stepped down from LetterOne after the EU imposed sanctions in March.

In a statement to RFE/RL, LetterOne said it had no comment on the reports of Fridman's arrest.

Iranian Reportedly Begins Construction On Nuclear Plant

An Iranian flag flies at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, its first, during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility in 2019.

Iran has begun construction on a new nuclear power plant in the country's southwest, Iranian state TV announced, amid tensions with the United States over sweeping sanctions imposed after Washington pulled out of the Islamic republic's nuclear deal with world powers. The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion, the country’s state television and radio agency reported on December 3. The plant will be located in the oil-rich Khuzestan Province, near its western border with Iraq, it said. To read the original story from AP, click here.

Iran's Security Council Says 200 People Died In Recent Protests

Iranian demonstrate in the western city of Sanandaj.

Two hundred people have lost their lives in Iran during nationwide protests that started in mid-September, an Iranian state security body said on December 3, a considerably smaller toll than that advanced by rights groups. "Two hundred people lost their lives in the recent riots," the Interior Ministry's Security Council said. An Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander recently put the number of dead at 300. The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Sofia Angry At Dutch Refusal To Let Bulgaria Into Schengen

Radev and Demerdzhiev have said that Bulgarian border authorities are making "extraordinary efforts to ensure the security" of European Union borders.

The Bulgarian government has criticized the Netherlands' decision to block the southeastern EU member's accession into Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, calling it an act of "cynicism."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government on December 2 announced that it will agree with Romania and Croatia's joining the Schengen zone, but will block Bulgaria's admission.

It said its veto was prompted by Bulgaria's failure to achieve satisfactory results in the fight against corruption and organized crime.

The EU justice ministers will decide on accepting Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania in Schengen at a meeting on December 8 and 9.

The acceptance of new members in Schengen requires unanimity.

"Instead of European solidarity, Bulgaria receives cynicism," Bulgarian President Rumen Radev wrote on Facebook.

"Our efforts do not deserve neglect! Our efforts do not deserve insults," Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev said.

"The Netherlands has no right not to want us in Schengen. The way they did it is absolutely unacceptable, unfounded politically and legally," Justice Minister Krum Zarkov told Bulgarian TV .

Radev and Demerdzhiev have said that Bulgarian border authorities are making "extraordinary efforts to ensure the security" of European Union borders.

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said on December 2 that it was "too early" to change the Netherlands' position regarding Bulgaria.

Hoekstra said the Netherlands can reconsider the issue only when it becomes clear that Bulgaria has an effective rule-of-law mechanism capable of dealing with corruption and organized crime.

Austria also expressed reservations about Bulgaria's Schengen membership. Chancellor Karl Nehammer said that his country supported the membership of Croatia, but was against the accession of Bulgaria and Romania.

The European Commission has said several times that Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia fulfill the criteria and are ready for membership in the Schengen area. The European Parliament called for the countries to be accepted into the zone without further delay.

The Schengen area allows people to move freely, without identity checks, across the internal borders of 26 member states, four of which are not part of the EU.

Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Ireland, and Cyprus are the only EU countries that are not part of the Schengen area, while non-EU countries Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are members.

Updated

Price Cap On Russian Oil Should Be Lowered To $30 Per Barrel, Ukraine Says

Storage tanks at Chernomortransneft's oil terminal Sheskharis near the southern city of Novorossiisk, Russia

Ukraine has welcomed a $60 price cap on Russian oil agreed by the European Union, the Group of Seven (G7) group of advanced economies, and Australia, but said it should be lowered to $30 per barrel to hit Russia's economy harder.

"We always achieve our goal and Russia's economy will be destroyed, and it will pay and be responsible for all its crimes," the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram.

"But it would be necessary to lower [the cap] to $30 to destroy the enemy's economy quicker," Yermak added.

In reaction to the move, the Kremlin said on December 3 that it would "not accept" a price limit.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media that the Kremlin was "analyzing" the move, adding, "We will not accept this price cap."

EU ambassadors reached the deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with Poland saying it was not low enough.

The G7 and Australia later on December 2 joined the EU in adopting the $60 price cap.

The move is meant to help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.

The cap will keep global markets well supplied while "institutionalizing" discounts created by the threat of such a limit, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on December 2.

Poland had refused to back the price-cap measure over concerns the ceiling was too high, before its ambassador to the EU confirmed Warsaw's agreement on December 2 in the evening.

Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.

The embargo will prevent shipments of Russian crude by tanker vessel to the EU, which account for two-thirds of imports, potentially depriving Russia's war chest of billions of dollars.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."

The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.

The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Ukraine Grain Exports Down 30 Percent So Far In 2022/23

A cargo vessel carrying Ukrainian grain transits the Bosphorus, in Istanbul, Turkey, last month.

Ukraine has exported almost 18.1 million tons of grain so far in the 2022/23 season, down 29.6 percent from the 25.8 million tons exported by the same stage of the previous season, Agriculture Ministry data showed on December 2. After an almost six-month blockade caused by the Russian invasion, three Ukrainian Black Sea ports were unblocked at the end of July under a deal between Moscow and Kyiv brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Putin Could Use Peace Talks To Restock His Army, U.K. Warns

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

Peace talks could be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to restock his army in Ukraine before launching another attack, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in an interview with The Telegraph. Cleverly said Putin could pretend to engage in negotiations while training more troops and sending more ammunition, the newspaper said on December 2. There is a risk that a cease-fire would be used by Putin to "refit his damaged armed forces and to rearm his armed forces," The Telegraph quoted Cleverly as saying. To read the original story from The Telegraph, click here.

Russian Shelling Again Cuts Power In Kherson As Ukrainian Officials Warn Of Tough Months Ahead

A man stands near burning garbage in front of an apartment building during a scheduled power cut in Kyiv.

Russian troops have resumed the shelling of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, cutting the electricity supply to the recently liberated city, as fierce fighting continues in the east and officials cautioned that Ukraine faces a tough winter because of the Russian missile attacks on its infrastructure.

"Russian invaders shelled Kherson -- damaged power grids. The city was left without electricity again," Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Telegram, adding that technicians were already at work trying to repair the damage and restore power to the recently liberated city located on the right bank of the Dnieper River.

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Kherson was returned to Ukrainian control on November 11, as the Russian military retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper. Russian artillery took new positions across the river and has been regularly pounding the city with artillery and rockets.

Three people were killed the previous day in the city by Russian shelling, Yanushevych said.

Millions of Ukrainians are struggling without electricity and heating at the onset of winter following waves of Russian strikes across the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said on December 2 that further attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure were "inevitable."

Ukrainian officials have responded with defiance, vowing to do everything to contain the damage.

Maksym Tymchenko, chief executive officer of DTEK, a major power company, said on December 2 that all six of DTEK's power stations had been attacked, some of them several times. The company has managed to bring them all back to the grid, he said.

Tymchenko voiced confidence that there was no chance "for the Russians to plunge Ukraine into darkness."

Yet, there was a power-generation deficit and issues with electricity transmission, Tymchenko told the Kyiv Security Forum.

He said that in Kyiv, the company was trying to introduce "rolling controlled blackouts: three-four hours of electricity supply, followed by four hours break. This situation will continue, we hope, until next week only, if there are no further attacks. But we are prepared for further attacks."

Additionally, he said, "We managed to accumulate enough coal stock for the country, not just for our company. We have enough gas storage to use gas for power generation. So we have enough capacity for the whole country."

"Transformers, substations, high-voltage transformers: these are what we've been in deficit of, and what we appeal to our international partners for. Some of the equipment is already on the way to Ukraine," he said.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the forum that last week Kyiv had faced an almost total blackout. "There was no heat and water supply. And about 4,000 employees of utility companies worked day and night to restore them."

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told the forum that the months ahead would be difficult.

"The enemy still has significant resources, but there are more and more signs that he needs a pause at any cost," he said.

As fierce fighting continues in the east, where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported on December 3 that over the previous day it shot down an enemy helicopter and six drones.

The General Staff said in its regular update that Russian forces launched five missile strikes, 27 air strikes, and 44 rocket attacks at civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian Army positions along the contact line.

Meanwhile, Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update that Russia is likely planning to encircle Bakhmut in the Donetsk region with tactical advances to the north and south.

Although the capture of Bakhmut would have limited operational value, it could allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the ministry said on December 3. "There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut's capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia," it said on Twitter.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

With reporting by Reuters and CNN

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Urges Decision On Patriot Missile System

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukraine’s foreign minister says the “time has come” for a decision on whether to provide his country with the Patriot missile defense system. “We began our conversation about Patriots in the very beginning of the war -- even actually before the war,” Dmytro Kuleba told CNN in an interview published on December 2. “But now, the time has come to make decisions.” Kuleba said that he had spoken with his American and German counterparts about the system, which he said “would be a huge help.” A decision has not yet been made at the Pentagon or at the NATO level.

Updated

G7 Joins EU In $60-Per-Barrel Price Cap For Russian Oil Delivered By Sea

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian seaborne crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap. (file photo)

The Group of Seven (G7) and Australia have joined the European Union in adopting a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil, a move that the countries say will help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.

EU ambassadors reached a deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil earlier on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with some countries saying it was not low enough.

The decision must still be approved by EU members but is expected to go through. Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap, which was led by the G7, "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."

The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.

The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."

The agreement comes after a last-minute flurry of negotiations that saw Poland holding up the agreement as it sought to set the cap as low as possible. Following more than 24 hours of deliberations, Warsaw finally relented late on December 2.

A joint G7 coalition statement said the group was "prepared to review and adjust the maximum price as appropriate," taking into account market developments and potential impacts on coalition members and low and middle-income countries.

The price cap will work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.

The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.

With reporting by AP

Snowden Receives Russian Passport, Takes Citizenship Oath

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden (file photo)

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after revealing highly classified surveillance programs, has received a Russian passport and taken the citizenship oath, Russian news agencies quoted his lawyer as saying on December 2. Snowden’s lawyer said he got the passport and took the oath on December 1, about three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted him citizenship. Snowden leaked documents in 2013 on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through U.S. public communications networks and released details about the classified U.S. intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance of foreign officials. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Bosnian Court Abolishes Republika Srpska's Law On Medicines

The Constitutional Court had temporarily abolished the law prior to its final decision. (file photo)

The Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina has abolished Republika Srpska’s law on medicines and medical devices, declaring it unconstitutional.

The law envisioned the formation of Republika Srpska’s own agency for medicines, which would usurp the state’s authority, the court ruled on December 2. According to the constitution, state level jurisdictions cannot be moved to the entities’ level, and the state law on medicines can be altered only by Bosnia’s parliament.

"There are no provisions in the constitution of [Bosnia] upon which it could be concluded that the disputed laws, passed by the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, are constitutional. According to the constitution…entities are obliged to respect the decisions made by the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” the court’s decision said.

The Constitutional Court had temporarily abolished the law prior to its final decision. It also abolished several provisions in May regarding “the return of transferred jurisdictions” from Bosnia to Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity that makes up half of Bosnia alongside the Bosniak and Croat federation.

The Republika Srpska government had been expected to send more laws to the entity’s assembly aimed at taking over jurisdictions on taxation, criminal law and defense and security. However, the assembly decided to postpone these actions for six months.

The Constitutional Court on December 2 also declined the appeal of Zeljko Komsic, a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, to adopt a temporary measure regarding the amendments to Bosnia’s election law imposed by the high representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, on October 2 shortly after the polls closed on Bosnia’s general election.

Komsic’s appeal said Schmidt’s step to impose the decision after the voting concluded was a “direct assault on the integrity of the election process" because voters possibly would have voted differently had they known how the elections law was going to be changed.

“By the opinion of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the applicants have not clearly stated, outside the realm of the abstract, what sort of irretrievable damage could be done if the disputed decision were to remain in place, nor have they produced evidence on the validity of their claims,” the court stated.

UN Nuclear Chief Says Iran Ties Need To Get Back On Track

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (file photo)

Iran appears to be at odds with the UN nuclear watchdog over information it should be providing regarding its atomic program, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on December 2. "We don't seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with Iran over their obligations to the IAEA," Rafael Grossi told a conference in Rome, adding that he was concerned over a recent announcement by Tehran that it was boosting its enrichment capacity. "We need to put our relationship back on track," he said. Grossi said he was "still hopeful" Tehran would give an explanation for the unexpected discovery a few years back of traces of uranium at three undeclared sites. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

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