COVID-19: Russian Cases Pass Half-Million Mark, Death Toll Exceeds 6,500
The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 416,000 with more than 7.3 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the respiratory illness.
Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.
Russia has surged past the half-million mark in coronavirus cases amid warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the pandemic is still evolving.
Russia, the country with the world's third-largest coronavirus outbreak, passed 500,000 confirmed cases on June 11, shortly after Moscow lifted tight lockdown restrictions.
The latest figures took the country's total to 502,436, after 8,779 new cases were recorded in the last day, health officials said.
The most cases were reported in the two largest cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and their surrounding areas.
Despite the stubbornly high figures, many regions are lifting lockdown restrictions as Russia prepares to hold a July 1 national vote on constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin a path to stay in power until 2036.
Russia has confirmed a total of 6,532 COVID-19 deaths, a far lower mortality rate than in other countries with large outbreaks -- a discrepancy that the Kremlin was forced to defend after the World Health Organization this week called the toll "difficult to understand."
Russia attributes its lower virus death figures to mass testing, which has identified many cases with mild or no coronavirus symptoms.
Asked if the Kremlin thought the data was strange, spokesman Dmitry Peskov on June 11 said "no," but added that Russia's consumer health regulator would be ready to explain the data to the WHO.
In Ukraine, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov voiced concern on June 11 about a spike in new cases following an easing of restrictions and added that he did not rule out "urgent decisions" as 689 new cases were reported on June 11, a fourth day in a row with more than 450 infections.
Ukraine has reported more than 29,000 infections and 854 deaths so far.
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U.S. OKs $1 Billion Arms Sale To Qatar During Key World Cup Match With Iran
The Biden administration approved a $1 billion arms sale to Qatar in a transaction unveiled on November 29 during halftime of the World Cup 2022 match between Iran and the United States. The State Department announced it had signed off on Qatar’s purchase of 10 defensive drone systems, 200 interceptors, and related equipment just as the second half of the U.S.-Iran game began. Qatar, along with other Gulf Arab states, faces threats from Iranian-backed proxies in the region. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Russian Diplomat Says Prisoner Swap With U.S. Remains Possible
Russia and the United States have been on the verge of agreement on a prisoner exchange, a senior Russian diplomat said on November 29. The Biden administration has been trying for months to negotiate the release of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and another American. There have been a few occasions when it seemed that a decision in favor of a swap was about to be made, but it never happened, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, told reporters. Ryabkov said a deal is still possible before the year's end. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Belgian Aid Worker's Family Concerned Over Son's Hunger Strike In Iranian Prison
The family of a Belgian aid worker says their son, who is jailed in Iran, has gone on a hunger strike to protest the "inhumane" conditions of his incarceration, which they say "amount to the equivalent of torture."
Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, was detained by Iranian authorities in February, apparently without charge.
His family said in the statement on November 29 that their last contact with him was at the start of September and that they feared that his detention in solitary confinement, along with his hunger strike that started about two weeks ago, are causing his health to fail.
They added that he finally was in contact with representatives of the Belgian Consulate in Iran.
Vandecasteele has been at the center of a controversy in Belgium over a fiercely criticized treaty allowing prisoner exchanges with Iran.
Tehran is reportedly seeking a prisoner exchange with Brussels to take back Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, outside Paris in June 2018.
The Belgian opposition has alleged that the agreement with Tehran was tailor-made to permit Assadi's release, while Iranian exiles have also mounted a fierce campaign against the deal, leading a group of 11 human rights organizations to appeal to Brussels to cancel the agreement.
Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage and then using them in prisoner swaps.
During a current wave of unrest sparked by the death of a young woman while she was detained for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, Iranian security forces have taken some 40 foreign nationals into custody.
Iranian cities continue to be the scene of anti-government protests, with videos published on social media showing protesters taking to the streets in different areas of Tehran and chanting slogans against the country's leaders amid an outcry that erupted in mid-September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood chanted the slogans for the release of rapper Toomaj Salehi from custody.
Salehi is one of 21 people who face the death penalty after being charged with what a UN official told Reuters on November 29 are "vague and broadly formulated criminal offenses."
Javaid Rehman, a UN-appointed independent expert on Iran, told Reuters in an interview that Salehi was indicted for "corruption on Earth for publication of lies on a large scale."
Meanwhile, Ali Karimi, a former player with Bayern Munich and once the captain of Iran’s national soccer team, said in an interview that due to frequent threats from Tehran authorities, he had to leave Dubai, the city where he lives.
In an interview published by Manoto TV, a London-based Persian-language television station, the Iranian soccer star said that after his support for the protests, he was sent a message through his close relatives that a death sentence had been issued against him and could be carried out at any moment.
Iran is known to have assassinated and abducted multiple exiled opposition figures in the past, including Iranian-German dual citizen Jamshid Sharmahd and journalist Ruhollah Zam.
Karimi is one of several high-profile Iranians to support the protests.
Several Iranian celebrities have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated after showing support for the anti-government protests that have occurred daily since Amini's death.
Voria Ghafouri, who has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment and was surprisingly left out of this year's World Cup squad, was reportedly arrested on November 24, just days after expressing sympathy for Amini's family and calling for an end to the violent crackdown on protesters in his and Amini's native western Kurdistan region.
Iranian media reported that Ghafouri was released on bail on November 29.
Pressure has also been placed on an Iranian soccer legend, Ali Daei, who said he chose not to travel to Qatar for the World Cup due to the government's crackdown and said on social media on November 28 that he had received "numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days."
Several thousand people have also been arrested, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, digital-rights defenders, and others.
The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23, at least 445 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Hospitalized In Intensive Care
Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September 2021, has been transferred to a hospital and is currently being treated for unspecified illness in an intensive care unit.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be Belarusian presidential candidate in 2020, wrote on Telegram on November 29 that Kalesnikava was rushed to a hospital in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of the capital, Minsk, a day earlier.
Kalesnikava's father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikav, said she underwent surgery and was in serious but stable condition. Her doctors didn’t share her diagnosis or any other details with him about the surgery, he said.
Babaryka's press service also said that Kalesnikava had undergone surgery. It said last week that she had been put in solitary confinement for "impolite behavior."
Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, told RFE/RL that the hospital confirmed to him that his client is being treated in the facility, adding that he was not allowed to see Kalesnikava due to "the absence of the convict's request."
Pylchanka is waiting for the official response to his letter to the Prosecutor-General's Office demanding to see his client.
Kalesnikava, together with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala, formed a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, is the only one of the three still in the country and has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests for more than two years.
Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after Lukashenka claimed victory in the presidential election that many people in Belarus believe she won, said the news that Kalesnikava had been hospitalized was worrying.
"We need information about her condition & must assure that she gets proper help," she said on Twitter.
It remains unclear why Kalesnikava was transferred to a hospital and what she is being treated for. Before being rushed to the hospital, Kalesnikava was in punitive solitary confinement on unspecified charges.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, on September 6, 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.
Kalesnikava was a coordinator of Babaryka’s campaign before he was excluded from running. Babaryka, the former head of Belgazprombank, was arrested weeks before the presidential election. Kalesnikava then joined Tsikhanouskaya's support group and became a prominent leader of protests demanding the resignation of Lukashenka, who was officially announced the winner of the election.
Kalesnikava has been in custody since masked men snatched her and two male colleagues from the streets of Minsk on September 7, 2020. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into pieces after they arrived in the no-man’s-land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine, but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently arrested.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called her prosecution a "politically motivated conviction" on "bogus" charges.
Kalesnikava last year won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights.
With reporting by AP and AFP
McDonald's Restaurants In Kazakhstan Temporarily Close As Supplies Halted Amid Russia Sanctions
ASTANA -- The licensee of McDonald's in Kazakhstan has been forced to temporarily suspend operations because of supply chain issues sparked by Russia's war against Ukraine and not, government officials said, because of the arrest of a relative of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev who controls the company that operates the restaurants in the Central Asian nation.
Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Serik Zhumangharin said on November 29 that McDonald's had suspended their operations earlier this month to help restructure operations after imports of many items needed to run the franchises were halted.
"A large chunk of needed items, about 1,000 used by McDonald's in Kazakhstan, used to be imported. The process of restructuring is under way. I have asked the Committee of Technical Regulation to provide assistance [to McDonald's franchises] with certification," Zhumangharin said when asked by reporters about the situation surrounding the closure of the restaurants.
He added that the arrest in March of Qairat Boranbaev, the owner of Food Solutions, the company that operates the franchises in Kazakhstan, "had not significantly affected" the situation.
Boranbaev is the former father-in-law of the late Aisultan Nazarbaev, a grandson of Nazarbaev.
Zhumangharin did not give any additional details.
The company uses many supplies imported from foreign countries, mainly from Russia, which was hit with Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. McDonald's subsequently exited the Russian market in May, selling all its restaurants to a local licensee, leaving Kazakh restaurants scrambling for new suppliers.
Joe LaPaille, a spokesperson for McDonald's Corporation in the United States, told Reuters on November 29 that the "McDonald's licensee in Kazakhstan has temporarily closed all of its restaurants due to local supply issues. We are working together to resume operations as quickly as possible."
Since McDonald's started its operations in Kazakhstan in February 2016, it has become extremely popular across the country, with 24 outlets operating in Astana, Almaty, Atyrau, Aqtobe, Qaraghandy, and Qostanai. McDonald's has a staff of about 2,000 people in Kazakhstan.
A source close to Food Solutions told Reuters that the company started looking for new suppliers after it started running out of packaging materials imported from Russia. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk publicly about the situation.
With reporting by Tengrinews and Reuters
Kazakh Protester Sentenced To 17 Years After Convicted In Death Of Soldier
QYZYLORDA, Kazakhstan -- A court in the southern Kazakh city of Qyzylorda has sentenced a participant in the nationwide anti-government protests in January to 17 years in prison after finding him guilty of killing a soldier by running him over with a car during the dispersal of the protests.
Judge Duman Aliev sentenced 34-year-old Qazybek Qudaibergenov on November 29. Qudaibergenov had pleaded not guilty.
His wife, Inkarim Sultanova, said there were two autopsy reports on the soldier, who was among 26 people killed during the protests in Qyzylorda, adding that the two documents contradicted each other, which makes the case against her husband dubious.
Qudaibergenov was among thousands of people arrested during and after the protests, which left 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead across the country. The protests were violently dispersed by police and in some parts of the country turned into deadly mass disorders.
Many in Kazakhstan, including relatives of those killed during the unrest, have demanded an explanation from President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev on his decision to invite troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to disperse the protests, as well as his public "shoot to kill without warning" order.
The unrest occurred after a peaceful demonstration in the western region of Manghystau on January 2 over a fuel-price hike tapped into deep-seated resentment of the country's leadership.
Toqaev said at the time that the protests were caused by "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which the authorities have provided no evidence.
Human rights groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by police and the military.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev admitted in June that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the protests. He said a number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.
In early November, Toqaev signed a decree granting amnesty to hundreds of people jailed in connection with the violence.
Rights activists say the mass amnesty was initiated to allow law enforcement officers who opened fire at unarmed demonstrators to escape responsibility for their actions.
Russia Declares Lithuanian Think Tank 'Undesirable'
Russia has declared Lithuanian think tank Riddle Russia an "undesirable" organization amid an ongoing crackdown on international and domestic NGOs, independent media, and civil society. The Prosecutor-General's Office explained the move on November 29 by saying that the think tank's activities "pose a danger to the Russian Federation's constitutional order and security." The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.
Trial Starts In Norway For Son Of Putin Ally Accused Of Flying Drone
The son of a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin denied any wrongdoing as his trial started in northern Norway, where he is accused of violating a law that bars Russians from flying drones. Andrei Yakunin, who holds both Russian and British passports, was arrested on October 17 after he had sailed around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and along the coast of Norway. The 47-year-old had been filming with the drone while mountaineering, glacier walking, and sailing, according to his lawyer, John Christian Elden, who has said that Yakunin should be considered a British citizen, rather than Russian. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iranian Teachers' Union Official Says He Was Chained To A Hospital Bed For 12 Days
The jailed spokesman of the Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council has published a letter saying that, after he was transferred from Tehran's infamous Evin prison to hospital due to illness, authorities chained him to the hospital bed for 12 days and denied him access to his lawyer and family.
The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council published the letter written by Jafar Ebrahimi on November 28, saying it shows the "disastrous behavior of prison officials toward a sick prisoner."
"They made the hospital a worse place for me than the prison," Ebrahimi said in the letter as he described being held incommunicado from his relatives and legal team.
The Evin prison has a long history of brutal behavior toward it inmates.
In March, the hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali, which claims to work inside Iran to expose the "true face of the regime," released video footage highlighting the inhumane conditions in the country's most-notorious prison.
Ebrahimi, along with Rasul Bodaghi, Ali Akbar Baghani, and Mohammad Habibi, all teachers' union activists, were arrested by security agents on April 30, just ahead of demonstrations held in several cities on May Day, which coincided with Teachers' Day in Iran.
They were also accused of coordinating the protests with French teachers' union official Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris.
Iran has attempted to link the French nationals to the protesting Iranian teachers. The arrests were largely seen as an attempt to discredit the rallies and increase pressure on the Iranian teachers' union to stop the protests.
Iranian officials have accused the French couple of "entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society."
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Putin Proposes Creation Of 'Natural Gas Union' With Kazakhstan And Uzbekistan
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed creating a "gas union" with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to establish a mechanism to ship natural gas between the three countries and to other nations, including China.
A day after Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said he had talks with Putin in Moscow on the issue, Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on November 29 that the proposal was being discussed between the three countries because there was a "need for synchronization" since they all sell natural gas.
The first stage of Putin's proposal envisages "the creation of a coordination mechanism" for the plan, Peskov said.
"The issue likely will have to be discussed with a legal entity to establish cooperation between the three nations and to secure the development of infrastructure for outer markets," Peskov said.
Toqaev's spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai wrote on Facebook on November 29 that the Kazakh and Russian presidents had discussed how "to coordinate joint actions for the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan."
"Presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Vladimir Putin said they think it is necessary to hold detailed talks with the participation of experts to find a rational solution to the issue that considers the interests of all involved sides," Zheldibai wrote.
Peskov noted that, since Kazakhstan's northern regions depend on natural gas transported from Siberia in Russia, it would be economically advantageous to increase Russian gas supplies instead of following through on a Kazakh government plan to build a new pipeline to secure Kazakh gas deliveries to the region. This, the Kremlin spokesman said, would save Astana "tens of billions of dollars."
Russia is known as a major natural gas exporter, while the amount of natural gas produced by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is barely enough for their own consumption.
The two major economies of the Central Asian region share a gas pipeline to Russia and a pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China.
Moscow has increased its natural gas deliveries to China since European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian gas amid the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which started in late February.
With reporting by Interfax and TASS
Man Who Ran Onto Field During World Cup Game Defends 'Breaking The Rules'
An Italian who ran on to the field during a World Cup game wearing a T-shirt in support of Ukraine and Iranian women is a football player with a history of similar stunts. Mario Ferri, 35, who calls himself "The Falcon," interrupted the Portugal-Uruguay game on November 29 when he sprinted on to the field wearing a blue Superman T-shirt with "Save Ukraine" on the front and "Respect for Iranian Woman" on the back. He also carried a rainbow-colored flag adorned with the words PACE, meaning peace in Italian. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Russia Extradites Another Native Of Tajikistan's Restive Gorno-Badakhshan
DUSHANBE -- Relatives of a Tajik man from the country's restive Gorno-Badakhshan region say Russia extradited him to Tajikistan, where he may face illegal incarceration and arbitrary prosecution.
The relatives, who spoke with RFE/RL on November 28, said 34-year-old Amid Alifshoev, who has been living in Moscow for five years, was detained by Russian police last week and extradited days later. They said that they do not know why he was detained and extradited and what charges he may face in Tajikistan.
On November 17, another Gorno-Badakhshan native, Firuz Mamadyorbekov, was arrested in Moscow and has been held incommunicado since then.
The Pamir Daily News website, which monitors developments in the region, said earlier that at least 20 of the region's natives had been detained in Moscow and forcibly taken to Tajikistan in the past six months.
Relatives and rights defenders have said that the arrests in Moscow were most likely linked to mass protests in Badakhshan that were violently dispersed by the authorities in May.
Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of the volatile region have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled Central Asian country, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
The latest crackdown on activists in Gorno-Badakhshan followed protests initially sparked by anger over the lack of an 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 Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Kyrgyz President Replaces Mayor Of Osh, The Country's Second-Largest City
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on November 29 appointed Bakytbek Jetigenov as the mayor of Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, after sacking Almaz Mambetov amid media reports saying a criminal case had been launched against him. Mambetov was appointed to the post in August 2021. Jetigenov, 56, is a former lawmaker who spent one month in pretrial detention in late 2021 on a charge of plotting to seize power. He was released after the case against him was closed. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Lukashenka Pays Last Respects To Belarusian Foreign Minister
Belarus's authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has bid farewell to his longtime confidant, Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey, who unexpectedly died at the age of 64 last weekend. Lukashenka arrived with flowers on November 29 at the House of Officers in Minsk, where Makey’s casket was placed. Other officials started arriving at the building after Lukashenka had left. The cause of Makey's death is yet to be officially announced. He will be buried later in the day at Minsk's Eastern cemetery. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Kazakh Activist Gets 15 days In Jail For Organizing Rally On Presidential Inauguration Day
Kazakh activist Marat Abiev has been handed a 15-day jail term for organizing an unsanctioned protest rally on November 26, the day of President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's inauguration. A court in Astana sentenced Abiev on November 28 after finding him guilty of "violating the law on holding public events." Toqaev was reelected in the early election held on November 20. A monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said after the election that the election lacked "competitiveness." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Jailed Russian Politician Kara-Murza Receives Axel Springer Courage Award
Jailed Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who faces a prison sentence of up to 24 years on high treason and other charges, has been honored with an award for courage by the Berlin-based Axel Springer Foundation.
Kara-Murza's wife, Yevgenia, received the award on her husband's behalf on November 28, while the jailed politician passed on his written thanks to the foundation.
The foundation was named after German journalist and publisher Axel Springer (1912-1985). Its main activities support independent journalists, writers, and public figures around the world.
Kara-Murza, 41, was detained in April and sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobeying police. He was later charged with spreading false information about the Russian Army for talks he held with lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona.
Last month, a high treason charge was added to the list of offenses he faces over his alleged cooperation with organizations in a NATO member for many years. Kara-Murza has rejected the charges, calling them politically motivated.
President Vladimir Putin has moved to silence his opponents over the years through legislation that has restricted free speech and civil society in Russia. That campaign has intensified since he launched an invasion of Ukraine in late February.
In October, Kara-Murza won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights.
The son of a prominent journalist, also named Vladimir, who died in 2019, the younger Kara-Murza was a television correspondent in Washington for several years and later worked on political projects launched by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent Putin foe who now lives in Western Europe after spending more than a decade in prison.
A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.
Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."
U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incidents.
Russian Ambassador To Vatican Lodges Protest Over Pope's Comments
Russian Ambassador to the Vatican Aleksandr Avdeyev says he visited the leadership of the diplomatic service of the Vatican on November 28 to lodge a protest in connection with statements made by Pope Francis that condemned the "cruelty" of Russia's actions in Ukraine. "I expressed indignation at such insinuations," Avdeyev told RIA Novosti. Francis said in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America that generally, "the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state. This is very clear." To read the original story by RIA Novosti, click here.
Stoltenberg Says NATO Will Back Ukraine 'For As Long As It Takes'
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has pledged the alliance's support for Ukraine "for as long as it takes" and has reiterated that the door to membership in the world's largest security organization remains open to all, including Kyiv.
Speaking in Bucharest on November 29 as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the other NATO foreign ministers gathered in Romania, Stoltenberg called on partners to step up aid for Ukraine, whose energy infrastructure has been devastated by a barrage of Russian attacks at the onset of the winter season.
"Our message from Bucharest is that NATO will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will not back down," Stoltenberg told a conference in the Romanian capital ahead of the ministerial meeting.
He added that the only way to get the right terms for negotiations with Moscow to begin would be for Ukraine to advance on the battlefield.
"To create the conditions for a lasting peace, which ensures that Ukraine prevails as an independent sovereign state, we must continue to provide military support to Ukraine," he said.
Stoltenberg separately told journalists that NATO allies will ramp up aid for Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin uses "winter as a weapon of war" because his forces are failing on the battlefield.
"We have delivered generators and spare parts, and the allies are helping to rebuild destroyed infrastructure," he said, adding that the Bucharest gathering would serve as a platform to drum up Western aid to rebuild Ukraine's energy infrastructure.
Stoltenberg reaffirmed the military alliance's commitment to admitting new members, including Ukraine, without offering a precise date.
“NATO’s door is open,” Stoltenberg said.
“Russia does not have a veto” on countries joining, he said, adding that Putin “will get Finland and Sweden as NATO members” soon. The Nordic neighbors applied for membership in April, concerned that Russia might target them next.
“We stand by that, too, on membership for Ukraine," Stoltenberg said. "At the same time, the main focus now is on supporting Ukraine, ensuring that President Putin doesn’t win, but that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign nation in Europe.”
He also warned that Europe should brace for the arrival of more Ukrainians fleeing worsening conditions at home.
"We have to be prepared for more refugees crossing into the rest of Europe," as a result of Russia's "deliberate attack on critical services, heating, light, water, gas" in Ukraine, Stoltenberg said.
The NATO chief also said that Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has not let the alliance forget other partners that face "Russian pressure, intimidation, and aggression" but actually made partnerships with such countries more important.
"That is why NATO foreign ministers will meet with their Ukrainian counterpart, as well as with Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. To address the challenges we face. And to enhance our support. For their resilience, political independence, and the modernization of their armed forces. So that they can better defend themselves. If they are safer, we will be more secure," Stoltenberg said.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
NATO Pledges More Support For Ukraine As Stoltenberg Accuses Russia Of Using Cold Weather As A Weapon
NATO allies pledged to help Ukraine repair energy infrastructure that has been heavily damaged by Russian attacks after Ukraine urged its Western partners to supply it with specific electrical transmission equipment to rebuild its power grid.
NATO vowed to "further step up" support to Ukraine, including by providing equipment to help repair the country's energy infrastructure, as NATO foreign ministers met on November 29 in Bucharest. A declaration from the ministers also condemned Russia's "persistent and unconscionable attacks" that are "depriving millions of Ukrainians of basic human services."
Russia has been attacking Ukraine's electricity transmission and heating infrastructure since October in what Kyiv and its allies say is a deliberate campaign to harm civilians.
The shelling of electrical infrastructure amounted to Russia using the cold weather as "a weapon of war," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine needed equipment to restore the electricity to citizens who have been left in the cold and dark by outages caused by the damage.
"If we have transformers and generators, we can restore our energy needs," Kuleba said, speaking to reporters in Bucharest on the sidelines of the NATO meeting. "If we have air-defense systems, we can protect from the next Russian missile strikes. In a nutshell: Patriots and transformers is what Ukraine needs the most."
The United States said it would give $53 million to support the purchase of power-grid equipment that will be delivered "on an emergency basis to help Ukrainians persevere through the winter." A State Department statement said the package would include distribution transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, and other equipment.
The German government said it would provide 350 generators to Ukraine. Berlin so far has provided short-term financial assistance for energy infrastructure repairs amounting to 56 million euros ($57.8 million), the German government said after a phone call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Lithuania's foreign minister said NATO powers must take the political decision to send modern battle tanks to Ukraine to give them a military edge during the winter months.
"I've talked to a number of military experts and the answer I'm hearing is that if we provided tanks by this winter -- let's say January -- it could make a difference," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters during the NATO gathering.
Russian shelling of civilian and infrastructure targets across Ukraine continues along with fighting in the east, Ukrainian military and regional officials said earlier on November 29.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that the situation at the front line remains difficult, with Russian forces attempting to advance in the Donbas region and Kharkiv.
"Despite extremely large losses, the occupiers are still trying to advance on the Donetsk region, gain a foothold in Luhansk region, move into Kharkiv region, they are planning something in the south," Zelenskiy said.
The central city of Dnipro was the target of an overnight Russian rocket attack, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk regional military administration.
"The Russian occupying forces shelled the Nikopol district with Uragan rockets and heavy artillery," Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
"Manufacturing facilities were destroyed. A fire broke out," Reznichenko said, adding that there were no immediate reports of injuries. He did not disclose the identity of the enterprise.
Dnipro has been frequently targeted by Russian missiles and other longer-range weapons. Reznichenko said on November 27 that at least 13 people were wounded in a Russian rocket attack.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops were continuing their assault on Ukrainian forces dug in along the front in the Donetsk region. The town of Andriyivka was among those mentioned by the ministry as having been attacked from the air.
The report matched similar statements from the Ukrainian General Staff, which referred to massive Russian troop concentrations along the front in this area. It said the Ukrainian military repelled Russian attacks near 10 settlements, including the key targets of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka.
In Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region around Kupyansk and Lyman, Russian troops were resisting Ukrainian attacks, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
WATCH: Ukrainian artillery crews make regular use of the Western-supplied M777 howitzer and say it has had a major impact against Russian forces. Crews operating one in a muddy field in the Donetsk region say the key to its success is its targeting precision.
The Ukrainian military said Russia bombarded areas around the towns, which were recently recaptured by Kyiv.
In the southern Kherson region, the Russian military attacked a hospital in the city of Kherson, the president's office said on November 29. There were no casualties, but windows were broken in the building, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine's presidential administration.
The United Nations said the situation in Kherson and Mykolayiv remains "dire" and "critical." Nearly a quarter of a million people in Mykolayiv face a lack of heat, water, and power.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Humanitarian Coordinator Denise Brown visited the two southern cities over the weekend.
In Kyiv, snow fell and temperatures were hovering around freezing as millions in and around the capital struggled to heat their homes.
Officials said Christmas trees would be erected in Kyiv without lights in a defiant display of holiday spirit.
"We cannot allow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to steal our Christmas," Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the RBC-Ukraine news agency in an interview.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and CNN
U.S. To Grant $53 Million To Ukraine For Power Transmission
The United States has announced $53 million to support the purchase of power grid equipment to Ukraine to help Kyiv fight Russian attacks targeting its energy infrastructure that have left millions in the dark with no heating. "This equipment will be rapidly delivered to Ukraine on an emergency basis to help Ukrainians persevere through the winter," the State Department said in a statement on November 29. The announcement came as NATO foreign ministers meet in Bucharest to focus on ramping up military assistance for Ukraine. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Canada To Summon Russian Envoy Over 'Hateful' LGBT Tweets
Canada's foreign minister, Melanie Joly, has ordered her officials to summon Russia's ambassador in Ottawa, Oleg Stepanov, over a series of "hateful" anti-LGBT tweets, including one aimed at an openly lesbian federal minister. The Russian Embassy posted the messages on Twitter in recent days after Russian lawmakers approved a bill banning all forms of LGBT "propaganda" that critics say ramps up a crackdown on "nontraditional" sexual relationships, affecting everything from books and films to social media posts. To read the original story from AFP, click here.
Russian Commander In Syria Meets Kurds Over Turkey Tensions
The chief of Russian forces in Syria has met with a Kurdish commander over threats by Turkey to launch a new incursion into northern Syria, a Kurdish spokesman said on November 28. Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, confirmed to AP that Lieutenant General Aleksandr Chaiko met on November 27 with Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi in northeastern Syria. Chaiko's trip came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to order an incursion targeting Kurdish groups following an explosion earlier this month in Istanbul that killed six people. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Georgian Ex-President's Trial Postponed After Doctors Deny Transfer
Doctors for former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have recommended against transporting him to the Tbilisi City Court building from a clinic where he has been treated since May despite his desire to take part in a hearing in a case against him.
Saakashvili had expressed his desire to be transferred to the court to attend the hearing on a charge of illegal border crossing filed last year, and it had been expected that he would speak at the trial.
But his attending physician said it would be inappropriate, based on the fact that he could not take responsibility for the possible deterioration of Saakashvili's health during the transfer.
Judge Nino Chakhnashvili decided on another postponement of the trial after receiving the doctors' recommendation.
Court hearings have been repeatedly canceled or postponed because the 54-year-old Saakashvili, who held two separate hunger strikes earlier this year, has been unable to appear in court for health reasons.
Saakashvili, who served as Georgia's president from 2004 until 2013, is the founder of the main opposition United National Movement (ENM) party.
The ENM believes that the authorities are trying to conceal the state of Saakashvili's health. Representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream party disagree, saying that Saakashvili's public appearance would only be a publicity stunt.
Saakashvili, who cannot move independently, had decided that he would arrive at the trial in a special wheelchair, according to one of his lawyers, Shavla Khachapuridze, who added that his condition was "serious" and that his defense team had been told by phone from abroad that arsenic was found in his blood.
Nika Melia, chairman of the ENM, said that had Saakashvili appeared in court it would have confirmed the conclusions of several foreign experts who have spoken about the deterioration of his health and would have confirmed the comments of people who have visited him that his condition has deteriorated sharply since his transfer from prison to the Vivamed clinic.
The authorities do not want this to be disclosed to the public because it would conflict with "propaganda" circulating in the media that Saakashvili and his defenders have exaggerated his condition, Melia said.
Saakashvili was convicted in January 2018 in absentia of abuse of office and sentenced to three years in prison. Later that year he was again convicted in absentia of abuse of office and sentenced to six years in prison.
He was arrested on October 1, 2021, after he returned to the country to rally the opposition ahead of local elections.
Saakashvili and his supporters say all his prosecutions were politically motivated.
Georgia has been plagued by political paralysis and escalating tensions between Georgian Dream and the opposition since parliamentary elections in 2020.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the arrest of Saakashvili, who doctors say suffers from severe post-traumatic stress and anorexia that most likely developed after his hunger strikes. They said in May that he needed urgent and complex neuro-psychological and physical treatment.
Even before Saakashvili was transferred to the Vivamed clinic his relatives, friends, and colleagues demanded the authorities allow him to travel abroad to receive medical treatment.
EU's Varhelyi Optimistic Bosnia Can Achieve Candidate Status In December
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi says he is optimistic Bosnia-Herzegovina will be granted candidate status to join the bloc next month if it meets several conditions laid out recently by Brussels.
Speaking during a meeting in Sarajevo on November 28 with Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Varhelyi noted the conditions, which include fighting corruption and organized crime, judicial and immigration reforms, and guarantees of freedom of expression and the protection of journalists -- areas that have proven elusive in the highly divided nation.
"The European path is open, but results are expected of Bosnia. It is up to the political leaders for that to become a reality," Varhelyi said after meeting with presidency members Denis Becirovic, Zeljko Komsic, and Zeljka Cvijanovic.
The European Commission in October recommended candidacy status for Bosnia, but attached a long list of conditions designed to bolster democracy in the Balkan country.
But the commission only advises which countries should become EU candidates. The final decision lies with the 27 member states, and they must agree unanimously.
Some countries -- notably Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia -- have pushed for speeding up Bosnia's entry after Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status in June.
Others, including the Netherlands, are said to be less receptive to expansion, though Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February has eroded resistance amid security fears for the whole of Europe.
Varhelyi said the European Commission "wants to see clear results it can report to the Council of the EU that is meeting in December," which is supposed to decide on the candidacy status of Bosnia, as "we are in a new geopolitical moment of the war in Ukraine."
"It is in our interest to strengthen our partnerships," he said.
Bosnia comprises a Bosniak-Croatian entity known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose budget is about four times that of the national government, as well as the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a tiny self-governing district that acts much like a municipality, Brcko. The federation is further divided into 10 cantons.
Cvijanovic, who holds the Serbs' seat on the Bosnian presidency, said she was committed to work "on matters that we can," while Becirovic, the Bosniak member, said the meeting with Varhelyi was "encouraging and substantial."
"Our candidacy status would be an encouragement to all the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina," he added.
Zeljko Komsic, a Bosnian Croat, is the third member of the presidency.
Bosnia's division into a Bosniak-Croatian federation, and Republika Srpska, came under the terms of the 1995 Dayton agreements that ended three years of war in the former Yugoslav republic that was marked by ethnic cleansing and brutality.
NATO Chief Expects Allies To Step Up Air-Defense Support To Ukraine
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says he expects the alliance to step up supplies of air-defense systems to Ukraine in the face of the Russian missile onslaught heading into the winter. Stoltenberg said on November 28 that "one of the messages" from the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest, which begins on November 29, will be the need "to further step" up the provision of more air-defense systems, ammunition, spare parts, and training. With missiles and drones targeting energy infrastructure, Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to "use the winter as a weapon of war against Ukraine," Stoltenberg said.
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