EU Plans Sanctions On Organizers Of 'Illegal' Referendums In Ukraine
The European Union plans to follow suit with the United Kingdom and others and impose sanctions on the organizers of "illegal, illegitimate referendums" that are being conducted in four regions of Ukraine that are at least partially controlled by Moscow.
"There would be consequences for all people who participate in the illegal, illegitimate referendums," Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told journalists on September 27, the fifth and final day of voting in the referendums, which many Western governments have called "sham" votes.
The vote in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions is being held in the midst of the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II and amid claims by some local officials that voters have been threatened and intimidated.
On September 26, the United Kingdom announced new sanctions in response to the referendums, calling them "a clear violation of international law, including the UN Charter."
The new sanctions hit many top Russian officials involved in enforcing the votes, as well as dozens of individuals from state-linked organizations that the U.K. said continued to "bankroll the Russian war machine, serving as a stark reminder of the cost of supporting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's operation."
Romania Issues Another Airspace Alert Amid Russian Attacks On Ukraine's Danube Region
Romania's National Defense Ministry said on September 30 that an army surveillance system had detected a "possible unauthorized entry into national airspace" overnight around Galati, although authorities said they were still looking for fragments of any possible intrusion. Romania has implemented local take-cover alerts in response to a surge in Russian drone attacks on ports across the border in Ukraine's southern Danube region since Moscow walked away in July from a UN-backed deal to allow Ukrainian Black Sea grain exports despite the war. Fragments have landed three times this month in NATO member Romania, Ukraine's primary alternative export route. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.
U.S. Senators Demand Russia Free 'Wrongfully Detained' Americans Gershkovich And Whelan
The bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee has led the introduction of a call by 27 senators for the immediate release by Russian authorities of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who they say has been "wrongfully detained in Russia for merely doing his job."
In the draft resolution introduced this week, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) and Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), who are the chairman and ranking member of the influential committee, also demand the release of another American, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
"Evan and Paul cannot be left behind, and as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I will continue to sound the alarm about this grave injustice and do everything in my power to safely bring them home to their families," Cardin said in the text.
Gershkovich, 32, was detained six months ago and accused of espionage.
Whelan is serving a 16-year espionage sentence in a notorious Russian penal colony in Mordovia.
U.S. officials have called the charges against both men baseless and their detentions "wrongful."
Gershkovich was detained in late March in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, and few details are available as materials for the case have been classified. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said at the time of the arrest that it had opened an espionage case against Gershkovich for collecting what it said were state secrets about the military industrial complex.
Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow, had been in Yekaterinburg reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin's war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.
If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Gershkovich is the first American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War.
Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Whelan was convicted of spying charges in 2020. Both he and the U.S. government have denied the 53-year-old is a spy.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy has said the plight of U.S. citizens “wrongfully” held in Russia “remains a top priority for me.”
As Ethnic Armenian Exodus Tops 100,000, UN Readies For Nagorno-Karabakh Visit
Armenia says more than 100,000 people have fled Nagorno-Karabakh since Azerbaijan's seizure of that breakaway territory a little over a week ago, while Yerevan has appealed to a UN court to stop Baku from allegedly targeting ethnic Armenians there.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's office told journalists early on September 30 that authorities had registered 81,139 of the 100,417 people who had left Nagorno-Karabakh so far -- the latter representing more than three-quarters of the higher estimates of the territory's entire population.
The update came hours after Armenia said it had filed a suit with the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) to prevent the targeting of ethnic Armenians amid signs of a roundup by Baku amid the massive exodus a week after Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning offensive.
Armenian officials and outsiders have expressed fears of ethnic cleansing and international calls have escalated for help to avoid a humanitarian disaster.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has urged ethnic Armenians to stay and has invited UN agencies to send a mission "to become acquainted with the current humanitarian activities being carried out by Azerbaijan in the region."
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late on September 29 that the United Nations will send a mission this weekend to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but was controlled by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support for decades since the waning years of the Soviet Union.
Dujarric said the UN mission will mainly assess humanitarian needs in a region to which it had not had access "in about 30 years."
"The government of Azerbaijan and the UN have agreed on a mission to the region. The mission will take place over the weekend," Dujarric told reporters.
Both sides have expressed hope that a more durable peace agreement between the longtime Caucasus archfoes might be reached ahead of a possible meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in connection with European-wide meetings in Granada, Spain next week.
But Azerbaijani authorities have detained several key figures from the ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians refer to as Artsakh.
The Artsakh leadership has already announced that it would cease to exercise authority over the territory by the end of this year, a bitter pill for Armenians who have made control of Nagorno-Karabakh a national priority.
Pashinian's office said late on September 29 that buses were still trying to ferry people from Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, and other parts of the territory to Armenia.
Pashinian has accused Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warned that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region in the following days.
The UN World Food Program has already set up tents in the Armenian town of Goris to help provide meals to the refugees. Representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijani officials also met for the third time since September 19 in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax. The sides again discussed humanitarian issues and the reintegration of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijani society.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh despite reports of detentions of former leaders of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces.
Sources close to ethnic Armenian de facto authorities in the region confirmed to RFE/RL on September 29 that Azerbaijani officials detained Levon Mnatsakanian, a former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist armed forces, at a border checkpoint with Armenia.
Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on September 29 that it had detained Davit Manukian, former deputy commander of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces, on "terrorism" charges. Two days earlier, Azerbaijan arrested the former de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, billionaire Ruben Vardanian.
In its lawsuit filed with the ICJ, Armenia calls on the UN court to confirm Azerbaijan's commitment to refrain from "any action directly or indirectly aimed at deporting the remaining ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh."
Yerevan says it expects that Baku will "refrain from taking punitive measures against current or former political representatives or military personnel of Nagorno Karabakh."
Armenia's ICJ filing also demands that Azerbaijan's military and police officials stay out of civilian facilities and that Baku prevent the destruction of memorials in the seized areas commemorating victims of the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians.
Public Administration Employees In Republika Srpska Demand Pay Rise
Six unions representing public administration employees, including in health care, internal affairs, and justice, protested on September 29 in Bosnia-Herzegovina demanding a salary increase from the government of the Republika Srpska entity.
The unions said the government violated an agreement reached in June last year under which they say nearly 55,000 public administration employees were supposed to receive an average monthly salary increase of about 130 marks ($69) this year.
The protesters now say that is not enough and they are demanding a raise of 160 marks ($84) by the end of the year, as well as the payment of outstanding contributions, overtime, and the signing of special collective agreements with the government of Republika Srpska.
"I think it is at least inappropriate public administration employees employed by the government of Republika Srpska were forced to take these requests out on the streets, especially doctors, nurses, policemen,” Bozo Maric, one of the trade union leaders, told RFE/RL ahead of the protest. “The agreement was reached in an earlier period and the funds have been planned in the budget. We are asking why it is not being fulfilled and where the money went."
Several hundred trade union activists took part in the protest in Mladen Stojanovic Park in Banja Luka, and then headed to the Republika Srpska government building, where they blew whistles and shouted "thieves."
They carried banners calling for an end to discrimination in the judiciary and claiming that salaries in health care drove numerous workers in that sector out of the country to seek work in Western countries. “They will not return from the West," one banner said.
The protest continued across Krajina Square past the National Assembly building and the Palace of the President of Republika Srpska.
The government told RFE/RL before the demonstration that the agreement with unions has been fully respected and that there is no money for additional salary increases. However, government officials invited the union leaders to hold talks and negotiate.
The average net salary in August in Republika Srpska was 1,286 marks ($694) per month, according to the entity’s Institute of Statistics. There is no available data on the average salary for public administration employees.
The unions announced plans to stage a more massive protest should the government fail to fulfill their demands by the time the budget for the next year is adopted.
With reporting by Ermin Zatega of RFE/RL's Balkan Service
Slovaks Choose Between Pro-Russian Ex-PM Fico And Pro-Western Liberals
Slovaks have begun voting in parliamentary elections that are being closely fought between former leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has pledged to end military aid for neighboring Ukraine, and pro-Western liberals. Final polls showed the two parties in a dead heat, with the winner expected to get the first chance to form a new government to replace a caretaker administration running the country of 5.5 million since May. A government led by Fico would mean Slovakia joining Hungary as EU countries challenging the bloc's consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to keep unity in opposing Russia's invasion. To see the original story by Reuters, click here.
Ukraine Says Russian Flurries Targeting Ports, Russia Says It Downed Missiles Over Belgorod
Moscow and Kyiv said on September 30 they had shot down dozens of airborne attacks over their respective territories overnight as the furious pace of nighttime air assaults continued, with Russia appearing to focus on Ukrainian ports and Ukraine's war planners pushing their southern and eastern counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian General Staff said early on September 30 that defensive operations continued in eastern and southern regions while its forces were engaged in offensives near Bakhmut in the east and in Melitopol in the southern region of Zaporizhzhya.
Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces had intercepted all nine missiles that it claimed Ukraine fired into its western Belgorod region.
It said the attack was with Uragan (Hurricane) multiple-launch rocket systems.
In Ukraine, air alert sirens blared in cities and towns across the southern and eastern parts of the country around 1:30 a.m. local time on September 30, followed by explosions far from the front lines including in the central region of Vinnytsya.
At least one explosion was also reported in Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainian military's rear base is located for the frontline eastern region of Donetsk.
A spokeswoman for Ukraine's Southern Defense Forces said on Ukrainian television that Russia had launched more than 20 kamikaze drones apparently bound for southern and central Ukraine overnight but that around 20 of them were destroyed.
Spokeswoman Natalya Humenyuk said many of the attacks appeared to target areas south of the Black Sea port of Odesa and that "the enemy's priority is still the Danube, in particular, the port infrastructure."
Authorities in Vinnytsya, a central Ukrainian city used extensively for humanitarian shipments since the start of the 19-month-old invasion, ordered an evacuation from the area around an infrastructure site that they said had been struck in the Russian attack.
Regional Governor Serhiy Borzov and the head of the local administration in the Vinnytsya-area town of Kalynivka confirmed the incident but did not provide details.
Humenyuk, the Southern Defense Forces spokeswoman, said the fire in Vinnytsya had been put out and the situation was no longer critical there.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm accounts by either side of fighting in areas of heavy combat as Russia's 19-month-old full-scale invasion continues.
With reporting by Reuters
Bulgarian Government Adopts Green Transition Plans Amid Protests By Energy Sector Workers
The Bulgarian government adopted plans on September 29 for the green transition of three coal regions in the country, but the decision met with protests by Bulgarian miners and other energy sector workers who blocked key roads.
The approval of the plans for the transition of the three regions is a condition for the European Commission to allocate 1.2 billion euros ($1.27 billion). The money would be used for the green transformation of the regions, which is intended to create new jobs for coal industry workers.
The plans must include a timetable for reducing the capacities of coal power plants in order to be approved by the European Commission.
But miners and energy workers do not want the coal power plants and mines to close, saying that they would lose their jobs. The protesters want the government to guarantee that coal power plants and mines would continue to operate without setting any dates for their shutdown.
Despite the demonstrations, which drew hundreds of people onto the streets to block roads in the coal-mining regions of Stara Zagora, Pernik, and Kustendil, the government approved the plans and said it would send them to the European Commission on September 30.
Bulgaria is already late in submitting the territorial plans for the transition of the three coal regions and lost almost 100 million euros ($106 million) for 2022 from the EU and risks losing another 800 million euro ($850 million) for 2023.
Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said the end of September was the deadline for the government to approve and submit the plans so that the country does not lose the funding for 2023.
Denkov said that the government would not close coal power plants in Bulgaria before 2038 and that this would be clearly stated in the plans that would be sent to the European Commission.
He said that the plans would not specify dates for closing coal power plants but added that “gradually some of them will drop out of the energy system because it will not be economically possible for them to function anymore.”
“That is why it is extremely important to create mechanisms by which people who have the necessary qualifications can find employment in the same region,” Denkov added.
The government also agreed to pay compensations of 36 months' salary for energy sector workers who decide to quit.
Denkov called on the protesters to stop the demonstrations, saying that their demands have been fulfilled.
The Bulgarian government said last month that it had finished the draft territorial plans for the transition and vowed to send them to the European Commission by the end of September.
But it faced protests by miners and energy workers who were not satisfied with the plans.
The government held negotiations earlier in September with the trade unions that represent the protesting miners and energy workers and agreed on the creation of a state enterprise in which all those currently working for the state-owned mines and coal power plants would be reassigned.
Bulgaria is the only EU country that has not submitted its plans for what the European Commission formally calls the Just Transition Mechanism.
The country previously was among the last to submit its Recovery and Resilience Plan -- another European mechanism that provides funding for a transition to renewable energy. But this funding is now blocked following a parliament decision in December 2022 demanding that the government renegotiate Bulgaria’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants by 40 percent by 2026.
The European Union aims to be climate-neutral by 2050 -- an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The bloc has allocated billions of euros in funding for its member states to fulfill this objective.
Russians Allowed To Take Part In Paris 2024 Paralympics As Individual, Neutral Athletes
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) voted on September 29 to allow Russian para-athletes to compete as individual and neutral athletes at the Paris 2024 Paralympics. The decision came hours after the IPC voted against a full ban on the Russian athletes. They will be allowed to take part in the Paralympics scheduled for August 28- September 8, 2024, without national flags, colors or emblems. After Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the IPC banned Russian athletes from taking part in the Paralympics.
NATO Says It Will Send More Troops To Kosovo Amid Deteriorating Security Situation
NATO on September 29 said it would beef up its KFOR peacekeeping Kosovo force amid rising tensions in the predominantly ethnic-Serb north. "Yesterday the North Atlantic Council authorized additional forces to address the current situation," the alliance said in a statement on September 29. It did not say how many more troops it would send to Kosovo. Four people were killed on September 24 in an attack at a 14th-century Orthodox monastery in north Kosovo when some 30 gunmen stormed the monastery, sparking a gunbattle with Kosovar police. In May, violence erupted when Kosovar authorities tried to install mayors in some Serb-majority towns. Dozens of KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters were injured.
Swiss Accuse Late Uzbek President's Daughter Of Running Criminal Organization
Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the imprisoned daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office."
Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecoms companies.
Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland.
According to the statement, Karimova's network began its operations in Switzerland in 2005 “in order to conceal the capital originating from its criminal dealings in Swiss bank accounts and safes and by purchasing real estate.”
"‘The Office conducted its criminal activities as a professional business, complying with mandatory regulations and observing a strict allocation of tasks, while also resorting to violence and intimidation," the prosecutors' statement said.
In 2012, Switzerland said it froze around 800 million Swiss francs ($871.3 million) in connection with criminal proceedings against Karimova, a pop diva and businesswoman who had a public falling out with her late father and is currently in an Uzbek prison on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.
The Uzbek Justice Ministry said earlier that it was working with authorities in Switzerland, the United States, France, Russia, and several other nations on the return of Karimova assets that it said were "earned through criminal activities."
In 2020, the Swiss government said a nonbinding framework agreement signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan meant any returned assets "shall be used for the benefit of the people of Uzbekistan."
Once seen as a possible successor to her father, Karimova was placed under house arrest in Tashkent in 2014 while her father was still alive and running the country. Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded him soon afterward.
Criminal investigators in Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands have linked Karimova to a massive, yearslong bribery scheme that revolved mainly around foreign telecommunications companies gaining access to the Uzbek market.
In December 2017, a Tashkent court sentenced Karimova to a 10-year prison term, but the sentence was later commuted to house arrest for five years. She was detained in March 2019 for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.
In February 2020, Karimova sent a letter to Mirziyoev offering to return $686 million to the country's treasury in exchange for the dismissal of the court case against her at home.
But a month later, she received an additional 13-year sentence after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and other crimes.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
German Chancellor Scholz, Five Central Asian Leaders Meet As Berlin Looks To Blunt Moscow's Influence
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and five Central Asian nations' leaders have discussed cooperation and ties as Berlin looks to gain influence in the region that has been traditionally a sphere of dominance for Russia.
Scholz greeted presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Shavkat Mirziyoev of Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan's former president and current chairman of the People's Council, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, in the German capital, on September 29.
The gathering comes amid efforts to counter Russian influence on the Central Asian states during the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year.
Scholz and Toqaev held talks a day earlier, at which the German chancellor praised Kazakhstan's efforts to stop the circumvention of sanctions against Russia imposed by the West over its aggression against Ukraine.
Since the unprecedented sanctions were implemented, exports from the five Central Asian states to Russia have significantly increased, sparking concerns that some Western companies are using these former Soviet republics to evade the measures taken against Moscow.
As the summit started on September 29, a group of about a dozen Central Asian rights activists rallied in front of the German chancellor's office, demanding the immediate release of political prisoners in region amid signs of backsliding on free speech.
Rahmon's car was pelted with eggs, at least one of which splattered on the window and car seat where the president was sitting as the vehicle stopped near the Chancellery.
On September 28, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Scholz to focus on human rights in the five tightly controlled Central Asian nations during the summit.
"Germany plays a strong role on Central Asia, as a leading trade and investment partner and a key political motor behind the European Union’s Central Asia strategy. It should use this position to make clear that upholding fundamental human rights standards and respecting rule of law are essential to any long-term partnership between Europe and these authoritarian states," the HRW statement said.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden held talks with presidents of the five Central Asian nations in New York amid the United Nations General Assembly.
With reporting by dpa and regionalHeute.de
Prosecutors Seek Up To Five Years In Prison For Russian-Swede Accused In Spying Case
Swedish prosecutors have asked a court to sentence a Russian-Swedish citizen, Sergei Skvortsov, to up to five years in prison on a charge of passing Western technology to Russia. Skvortsov, who was arrested in November last year in a dramatic dawn raid on his suburban home, went on trial in Stockholm on September 4. The 60-year-old dual national has lived in Sweden since the 1990s, where he has run import-export companies. He pleaded not guilty to the charge of "unlawful intelligence activities" against the United States and Sweden. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
U.S. Urges Serbia To Pull Back Large Military Deployment Along Border With Kosovo
The White House has urged Serbia to pull back what it said is a large military deployment from its border with Kosovo amid rising tensions after deadly clashes this week in a Kosovar village.
"We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on September 29, adding that the build-up was a "very destabilizing development."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Serbian officials, and national-security adviser Jake Sullivan has spoken with Kosovar officials, Kirby said.
"We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border that includes unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilizing development," Kirby said in a conference call.
He also said there would be an increase in the peacekeeping force known as KFOR in northern Kosovo. There currently are about 600 U.S. forces participating in the force, he said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had spoken on the phone with Blinken, and they “agreed that de-escalation is needed" along with a greater role for KFOR.
Milan Radoicic, the top official of the main ethnic-Serb political party in Kosovo, admitted earlier to organizing and participating in the events that sparked the most recent clash with police, which occurred at an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo and left four people dead.
In a statement read by his lawyer on September 29 in Belgrade, Radoicic said that he “personally made all the logistical preparations,” adding that the Serbian government had no knowledge of what was happening.
Radoicic described his actions as a way to “encourage Serbs” from the region to resist what he called “the terror of [Kosovo Prime Minister Albin] Kurti's regime.”
The admission comes days after Kosovo accused the ethnic-Serb politician of organizing and participating in the attack in Banjska on September 24, in which three attackers were killed, along with a Kosovar police officer.
Pristina has said that at least six of the suspected attackers who escaped were in Serbia and demanded Belgrade hand them over to Kosovar authorities.
Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla told RFE/RL in an interview that Radoicic didn't act alone and said he had been "continuously supported by Vucic" and the government of Serbia. He claimed it was Vucic and his "extremist ideas related to the whole region" that were the real culprit behind the attack on the monastery.
He also said Kosovo will continue to investigate in an effort to identify all those involved in the attack and will ask Serbia to surrender all participants who managed to escape to surrender to Kosovo's justice system.
He added that the investigation thus far has shown that "over 80 terrorists" were involved in the attack and confirmed that the probe is looking into possible Russian involvement.
More than 20 cars filled with ammunition and other materials were found, and in one of them there were Russian materials, as well as two engines for use in difficult terrain manufactured by Russia that had been donated to the Serbian Army, he told RFE/RL. There is also intelligence information about the involvement of elements that are directly linked to Russia, he said.
Svecla said in an interview on September 28 with the Associated Press that Russian weapons, other equipment, and documents suggesting Russian involvement had been found.
Vucic, who has denied claims that Serbia was involved in the clashes saying the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to withstand the terror” of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian authorities, told Serbian state television that Radoicic would be questioned by the Serbian authorities about the matter.
“He will certainly respond to the invitation of the competent authorities of Serbia, I am convinced that he will be heard,” Vucic said.
“He considers himself a fighter for freedom, he has never given up on his comrades and he will never give up, but there are things and questions that he will have to answer,” he added.
Radoicic is a construction tycoon as well as a top official of the main ethnic Serb political party in Kosovo, Serbian List, funded mainly by Belgrade. He was hit with sanctions by the United States and Britain in 2021 for allegedly being part of an organized crime group.
Kosovo has accused Serbia of direct involvement in the clashes, which Belgrade denies.
Xhelal Svecla told the Associated Press in a September 28 interview that investigators were looking at evidence linking Russia, an ally of Serbia, to the armed assault.
Russian weapons, other equipment and documents suggesting Russian involvement were discovered after the daylong gunbattle, he said.
Svecla also alleged that the insurgents had come from Serbia and that they were trained in camps in Serbia.
“We found some documents which lead us to a suspicion that there were individuals coming from Russia too,” he added.
“For the equipment, we have evidence, but for the people we still have only suspicion.”
The monastery attack further raised tensions in the region at a time when European Union and U.S. officials have been pushing for a deal that would normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters
More Than 50 Killed In Blasts At Two Pakistan Mosques
An explosion at a religious gathering in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan on September 29 killed at least 52 people and dozens more wounded, police and hospital officials told RFE/RL.
Separately, at least four people were killed in explosions that targeted a mosque and a police station in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, according to police and media reports.
The first blast, in Balochistan's Mastung district, some 60 kilometers from the provincial capital, Quetta, targeted a procession celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad, Jan Muhammad Achakzai, Information Minister in Balochistan's caretaker government, told RFE/RL on the phone.
Rashid Mohammad Shahi, head of the Mastung Health Department, told RFE/RL that 55 people were injured in the incident.
Some 500 people had gathered in Mastung for the celebration, known as Mawlid an-Nabi, during which Muslims usually hold gatherings and distribute free meals to the poor.
No group has claimed responsibility so far for the blast, which prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency in the hospitals in Quetta.
Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran, is regularly targeted by Islamist militants, sectarian groups, and nationalist separatists.
Balochistan is sparsely populated but rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, and gas and has been marred by instability and violence.
The most prominent militant group in the region, the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces.
The BLC claims that ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities.
Islamabad rejects the charges. Ethnic Baluchis account for just under 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 231 million.
In the second incident, at least four people were killed, including a police officer, and 12 others were wounded in blasts that targeted a police station and a mosque in the Doaba area of Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa.
The roof of the mosque, located on the premises of the police station, caved in under the force of the second explosion, which happened as the mosque was full of people attending Friday Prayers.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Dawn
Kremlin Tasks Senior Ex-Wagner Commander With Forming Volunteer Corps
The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with Andrei Troshev, the former chief of staff of the Wagner mercenary group, and handed him the responsibility for establishing new volunteer fighting units.
“At our last meeting, we talked about the fact that you will be engaged in the formation of volunteer units that can perform various combat tasks," Putin said at a meeting with Troshev and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov on September 28, according to a transcript of the conversation published a day later.
Putin stressed that Troshev "is aware of issues that need to be solved beforehand to secure better and successful combat activities."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 29 that Wagner's former chief of staff is now working at the Defense Ministry.
In August, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Wagner's commanders had accused Troshev and other top officials of the mercenary group of "betraying Wagner for the Russian Defense Ministry-affiliated Redut private military company."
Redut, a combination of several minor veteran groupings of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Russian Air Force, and units of the Russian Defense Ministry, has been active in the war in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The ISW report came three days before a plane linked to Wagner founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed between Moscow and St. Petersburg on August 23, killing all 10 people on board.
On August 27, Russian authorities said Prigozhin’s body had been identified by medical examiners, along with those of nine other people on board the Embraer 600 jet that crashed in the Tver region in suspicious circumstances.
Two months before his death, on June 23-24, Prigozhin sent thousands of his fighters in a short-lived rebellion against the military command fighting in Ukraine, imposing one of the biggest challenges to Putin in his more than two decades in power.
The insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies, as Wagner's fighters played the major role in heavy fighting for the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's east.
In mid-September, the British government added Wagner group to its list of terrorist organizations, saying it remains a threat to global security even after Prigozhin's death.
Earlier in January, Washington designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization.
Britain Slaps More Sanctions On Russian Officials One Year After 'Sham' Votes In Ukraine
The United Kingdom announced a fresh set of sanctions against Russian officials and Moscow's electoral authority on the one-year anniversary of "sham" elections held in occupied Ukrainian regions.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement that the new measures targeted 11 Russian officials and the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Russia for the "sham elections" that amounted to "a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize Russia's illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory."
Those who orchestrated the referendums in late September 2022 and general elections earlier this month in occupied Ukrainian territories in the east and southeast "all directly acted to undermine Ukraine and threaten its territorial integrity," the statement said.
"You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country," Cleverly said in the statement.
Natalya Budarina, one of the most senior CEC officials, Andrei Aleksyenko, the chief of the Russia-controlled part of the southern region of Kherson, and Marina Zakharova, the Moscow-installed head of the Kherson electoral authority, were among those sanctioned with asset freezes and travel restrictions.
The latest set of punitive measures brings the total number of individuals and entities sanctioned by Britain since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine to more than 1,600.
The measures were announced a day after British Admiral Tony Radakin, chief of the Defense Staff, and the United Kingdom's new Defense Secretary Grant Shapps visited Kyiv.
Earlier on September 29, Russian troops launched a missile attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv, damaging infrastructure, a regional official said, as the governor of Russia's Kursk region bordering Ukraine said a drone attack has cut off the energy supply of several settlements in the area.
"On the morning of September 29, around 4:13, the city of Mykolayiv was targeted by a missile attack," the head of Mykolayiv regional military administration, Vitaly Kim, said on Telegram. "An infrastructure objective was damaged on the outskirts of the city. The resulting fire was extinguished at 6:45. Detailed information is being clarified," Kim wrote.
Meanwhile, Roman Starovoit, the governor of Russia's Kursk region that borders Ukraine, said on September 29 that a Ukrainian drone attack on a power substation in the region's Belovsky district left five settlements without electricity.
“One of the transformers caught fire. Five settlements and a hospital were left without power. Fire crews have left for the scene. They will begin restoring power supply as soon as it is safe,” Starovoit said on Telegram. Russia's Defense Ministry later said in a statement that it had shot down 11 drones overnight -- 10 over the Kursk region and one over the Kaluga region.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces continued to conduct both defensive and offensive operations in the east and south, where they fought 26 close-quarters battles against Russian troops over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily update on September 29
On September 28, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Kyiv that Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders.
"[Ukrainian troops] face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground," Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.
WATCH: Ukraine's homegrown UAV producers are modifying their drone fleets with the latest, cutting-edge technology. The domestic company Warbirds of Ukraine says that the development of so-called smart drones will play a key role in the outcome of the war.
The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
UN To Send Humanitarian Mission To Nagorno-Karabakh As Exodus Of Ethnic Armenians Continues
The United Nations will send a mission to Nagorno-Karabakh this weekend, a UN spokesman said after Azerbaijan invited UN agencies to visit the region to monitor the situation there as an exodus of ethnic Armenians continued on September 29.
The mission will mainly assess humanitarian needs, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that the body had not had access to the region "in about 30 years."
"The government of Azerbaijan and the UN have agreed on a mission to the region. The mission will take place over the weekend," he told reporters.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said earlier in a statement that the UN agencies had been invited to send a mission "to become acquainted with the current humanitarian activities being carried out by Azerbaijan in the region."
The ministry said the group members would also be shown "the process of rebuilding certain infrastructure, disarmament, and confiscation of ammunition from illegal Armenian armed forces, as well as the dangers posed by mines."
The announcements come 10 days after a lightning military offensive that gave Azerbaijan complete control over its breakaway region.
The United States and others have called on Baku to allow international monitors into Nagorno-Karabakh amid concerns about possible human rights abuses and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The UN World Food Program has already set up tents in Goris to help provide meals to the refugees, and representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijani officials also met for the third time since September 19 in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax. The sides again discussed humanitarian issues and the reintegration of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijani society.
Armenia's government estimated that nearly 93,000 Armenians -- more than three-quarters of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh -- had crossed onto its territory as of 4 p.m. local time on September 29.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has accused Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warned that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region in the following days.
"This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing that we warned the international community about," Pashinian told a government meeting on September 28, calling for concrete action by the international community.
WATCH: Armenian volunteers are doing what they can to provide relief to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have flooded into the country since Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19.
Baku has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and said that it wanted to "reintegrate" the enclave's ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on September 29 that it's time for teams from Azerbaijan and Armenia to sit down and work on a draft peace agreement.
"I think that after September 20, when Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty, it will be easier to find a solution and sign a peace treaty as soon as possible,” Aliyev said.
He also said Azerbaijan recognizes the territorial integrity of Armenia and has no intention of continuing what he called the “anti-terrorism measures” against Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yerevan considered it alarming that Baku did not publicly recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia after the cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 21.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh despite reports of detentions of former leaders of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces.
Sources close to ethnic Armenian de facto authorities in the region confirmed to RFE/RL on September 29 reports that Azerbaijani officials detained Levon Mnatsakanian, a former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist armed forces, at a border checkpoint with Armenia.
In addition, Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on September 29 it had detained Davit Manukian, former deputy commander of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces, on "terrorism" charges. Two days earlier, Azerbaijan arrested the former de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, billionaire Ruben Vardanian.
WATCH: RFE/RL spoke with refugees in Armenia who said they left everything behind and hadn't eaten in days.
The de facto Internal Affairs Ministry in the breakaway region said on September 29 that the remains of 170 people have been found at the site of an explosion at a fuel depot, which occurred on September 25 as people sought to fuel their vehicles in order to leave the region. The remains are being transferred to laboratories for medical examination, the ministry said.
The official confirmed that the death toll stands at 68, with more than 290 injured. The cause of the blast has not been determined.
Russia, which used to be Armenia's main military backer but has been criticized by Yerevan for its peacekeepers' failure to prevent the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, said fleeing Armenians had nothing to fear.
"It's difficult to say who is to blame [for the exodus]. There is no direct reason for such actions," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an apparent rejection of Armenia's claims of ethnic cleansing.
"People are nevertheless expressing a desire to leave.... Those who made such a decision should be provided with normal living conditions," Peskov added.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Swiss Court Acquits Former Belarusian Security Force Member In Disappearance Case
A former member of Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s special security forces was acquitted in Switzerland on September 28 of involvement in the disappearances of prominent opposition figures more than two decades ago.
A district court in Rorshach acquitted Yury Harauski, 45, after a two-day hearing last week.
A court statement said that due to the defendant's contradictory statements his actual involvement in the disappearances of former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar, and businessman Anatol Krasouski, who had gone missing in 1999, “cannot be considered legally proven."
The court also said the involvement of the Belarusian government in the disappearances could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt because it was not represented in the proceedings.
Harauski sought asylum in Switzerland in 2018 arguing that his life was at risk in Belarus due to his willingness to speak out about his involvement with a special unit that made opponents of Lukashenka disappear.
In explaining his decision, the judge said during the interrogation, “the accused got confused in contradictions” and evaded the questions. The ruling concluded that Harauski may have served in Lukashenka’s special security forces but his role in the abductions remains unclear.
Harauski was arrested in 2021 and formally charged last year. He confessed to taking part in the abduction of the three men but said he was not aware why they were kidnapped and said he did not take part in their killings.
In an interview published earlier this month, the accused said he was involved in arresting the men, but he "neither ordered nor carried out the murders” and was “merely a witness to them."
During his testimony, Harauski said Zakharanka was kidnapped in Minsk on May 7, 1999, driven to a military base outside the Belarusian capital, and then shot by his superior, Dzmitry Paulichenka, a lieutenant colonel who had headed the special unit.
He added that Hanchar and Krasouski were abducted in September 1999 while they were leaving a sauna in Minsk and later shot execution style by Paulichenka.
The case followed criminal claims by the daughters of two of the disappeared men, supported by Geneva-based group Trial International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Vyasna Human Rights Center.
The groups said they were disappointed with the outcome, while one of the daughters said she would appeal the court's decision, according to Reuters.
With reporting by Reuters
Kazakh President Assures Germany His Country Follows Sanctions Regime Against Russia
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says his country will not help Russia circumvent Western sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine amid suspicions that Moscow is still receiving goods via Central Asian nations.
"Kazakhstan has unambiguously stated that it will follow the sanctions regime," Toqaev said on September 28 following talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Toqaev was on the defensive because his country has been repeatedly accused of helping its larger neighbor obtain goods in violation of sanctions.
Kazakhstan is a close economic and military ally of Moscow that shares a 7,500-kilometer border with Russia, but it has not recognized Ukrainian regions occupied by Moscow as part of Russia.
The European Union has sought to crack down on re-exports of sensitive goods by third countries to Russia with a measure allowing it to restrict certain exports to states that fail to cooperate.
Toqaev maintained that Kazakhstan has “contacts with the relevant organizations to comply with the sanctions regime.” He added that there should be no concerns on the German side about possible actions aimed at circumventing the sanctions regime.
Toqaev also said he did not fear any territorial claims from Moscow.
"The border between Kazakhstan and Russia has been set out, largely demarcated, confirmed, and ratified by the parliaments of both countries. We therefore have no concerns about Russia's territorial claims," he said, according to his press office.
In recent months, Kazakh citizens have faced trial for pro-Russian separatism in Kazakhstan, mainly in the north of the country.
Scholz is scheduled to host Toqaev along with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan for joint talks on September 29.
The meeting with the five Central Asian leaders will be the first joint gathering of its kind with an EU country.
With reporting by AFP
Warsaw Denies Belarus Claim That Polish Helicopter Violated Its Airspace
Belarus said on September 28 that a Polish helicopter violated its airspace, but Warsaw said none of its helicopters had crossed the border between the two countries.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the aircraft crossed the border between Poland and Belarus at around 3:20 p.m. local time, traveling as far as 1.5 kilometers into Belarusian airspace, and then again at 4:22 p.m., “going 300 meters deep."
Belarus, a close ally of Russia, said the information was "confirmed by objective control data” and said it had scrambled military aircraft in response.
The ministry said it was gathering information about the incident and planned to prepare a joint note of protest with the Foreign Ministry to deliver to Poland.
Warsaw denied that any Polish helicopter crossed the border.
"We inform you that today's statement by the Belarusian side about the alleged crossing of the border by a Polish helicopter is false. This is confirmed by the records of flight control and the radar station -- no such event took place,” the operative headquarters of the Armed Forces of Poland said in a statement posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
The statement emphasized that the Polish Army "invariably respects and complies with all provisions and rules regarding the inviolability of borders" and also notes that “information provided by the Belarusian regime’s media must always be approached with caution and prudence, as it is often an element of provocation and misinforms the public."
Tense relations between Poland and Belarus have been further strained by Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Last month the Polish Defense Ministry said two Belarusian military helicopters that were conducting training exercises near the border violated Poland’s airspace.
The ministry said in a statement on August 1 that the charge d'affaires of Belarus would be summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry to explain the circumstances of the incident.
The statement clarified that the helicopters crossed into Polish airspace at a very low altitude, making them difficult to detect. It said that is why the Polish military initially said that the helicopters had not violated the NATO country's airspace.
After the incident Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak ordered an increase in the number of soldiers on the border. He also allocated additional resources, including combat helicopters.
NATO was also notified about the incident.
With reporting by Reuters
Draft Law On Foreign Agents Passes Republika Srpska's Legislature
The National Assembly of Republika Srpska has adopted a controversial draft law that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb entity to register and report on their work.
The so-called foreign agents law, formally known as the Special Register and Publicity of the Work of Nonprofit Organizations law, passed on September 28.
Whether the draft law will receive final approval and be implemented remains uncertain. It must still go through additional procedural steps before taking effect.
The law would require mandatory additional registration requirements and the submission of detailed financial reports. It also would prohibit NGOs receiving foreign funding to take part in political activities and would give the justice minister the authority to propose a ban on noncompliant organizations.
The draft law has been sharply criticized by U.S. and EU officials, who have called it repressive and anti-democratic.
In presenting the law to the National Assembly, Justice Minister Milos Bukejlovic said he would monitor the activities of organizations receiving foreign funding "across the territory of the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
The draft law was approved by Republika Srpska's executive in March, and Bukejlovic said then the goal was "to prevent the misuse of nonprofit organizations."
The law was proposed last year by Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian president of the Republic of Srpska and leader of the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party. At that time Dodik claimed that the law's framework “would be inspired by the American model,” a reference to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
A similar foreign agents law in Russia has proved controversial and has been used to disrupt the work of media organizations, including RFE/RL. Russia also claimed its law was in response to the FARA.
U.S. officials have argued that Russia uses its foreign agents law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas and have said there is there "no equivalence" between FARA and Russia’s foreign agents law.
Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska say the law has more in common with the Russian law than with FARA.
In addition to U.S. and EU criticism, the proposed legislation has drawn negative assessments from various organizations, including NGOs and domestic and international entities.
Transparency International of Bosnia said it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms, the constitutions of both the state and Bosnia's entities, as well as existing laws within Republika Srpska.
Swiss Accuse Daughter Of Ex-Uzbek President Of Running Criminal Organization
Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office." Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 to 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecom companies. Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Britain's Shapps Meets Zelenskiy On First Visit To Kyiv As Defense Minister
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps discussed how to bolster Ukraine's air defenses during talks in Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president's office said on September 28. The visit to the Ukrainian capital was Shapps's first to wartime Kyiv since he became defense secretary last month. Britain has been a staunch ally of Ukraine throughout the full-scale invasion launched by Russia in February 2022. "On behalf of the whole nation, I thank you for everything you are doing for us. We are grateful for your help -- military, financial, humanitarian," a statement released by Zelenskiy's office quoted the president as saying. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
One Killed, More Than 160 Injured In Blast At Warehouse Close To Tashkent Airport
TASHKENT -- A powerful explosion struck a warehouse near the main airport in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, overnight, killing a 16-year-old youth, injuring at least 160, and causing extensive damage.
At least 24 people are in critical condition in intensive-care units at local hospitals.
The powerful blast, which occurred around 3 a.m. in the Sergeli district of the Uzbek capital, sent shock waves throughout the city and was followed by a massive fire.
The Emergency Situations Ministry of Uzbekistan said the explosion was followed by a fire.
“Sixteen fire crews and three ladder trucks were sent to the scene of the explosion. They arrived at 2:48 a.m. and began extinguishing the fire and eliminating the consequences,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry said that some 1,000 troops were involved in dealing with the consequences of the incident.
Authorities have opened an investigation into the cause of the blast that hit the warehouse belonging to the Inter Logistics company.
A government commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Achilbay Ramatov was created to deal with the situation, authorities announced.
With a population of nearly 35 million, Uzbekistan is the most populous of the Central Asian former Soviet republics.
The explosion reportedly broke windows of nearby apartment blocks, shops, and other buildings.
Local media reports said a person born in 2006 died after being crushed by a window frame during the blast.
Video footage posted on social media showed a column of flames and smoke rising into the sky.
Uzbek national news agency UzA said that despite the blast, the Islam Karimov International Airport, Uzbekistan's largest, is functioning normally.
Fires triggered by outdated equipment and noncompliance with safety standards are a regular occurrence in Uzbekistan.
The acting mayor of Tashkent, Shavkat Umurzakov, promised that the city would compensate those whose houses incurred damage as a result of the explosion within two to three days.
With reporting by AFP
NATO Chief Says Ukraine 'Gradually Gaining Ground' As Kyiv Repels Massive Russian Drone Barrage
Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a previously unannounced visit to Kyiv on September 28, hours after the Ukrainian military said it had repelled a massive wave of Russian drone attacks on southern Ukraine.
"(Ukrainian troops) face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground, Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.
The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine's ties with the 30-member alliance had never been so close. "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before," he said.
"We are doing everything to bring this time closer," Zelensky said.
At a crucial summit in July, NATO leaders said in a statement that Ukraine's future is inside the alliance, but the bloc will extend an invitation to Kyiv only when "members agree and conditions are met."
The Ukrainian president also called on the alliance to beef up Kyiv's air-defense systems ahead of expected Russian strikes on Ukraine's energy facilities as the cold season approaches.
"The Secretary-General agreed to undertake efforts to help and to support us in this matter, to mobilize the member states of the alliance," Zelensky said, adding, "We need to get through this winter together, to protect our energy infrastructure and people's lives."
Zelenskiy's appeal came just hours after Ukraine's air defense said it had destroyed 34 out of the 44 Iranian-made Shahed drones launched by Russia early on September 28.
"Fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missile units and mobile fire groups were involved in repelling the attack," the air defense said in a message, adding that six Russian reconnaissance drones had also been downed overnight.
Earlier on September 28, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said Russia launched a wave of drone attacks along the entire southern Ukraine.
"Several groups of strike UAVs were launched.... Air defense worked along almost the entire southern direction in the Odesa, Mykolayiv regions. Also, much higher north -- the enemy aimed its attacks at central Ukraine," Humenyuk said.
WATCH: Amid their grinding counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops are training on donated German mobile-bridge equipment that could help them cross rivers and defensive Russian anti-tank ditches.
Russia "does not stop the pressure and searching for new tactics, namely with the use of mass attacks," Humenyuk said on Telegram.
The latest attack came after the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson came under Russian shelling late on September 27.
Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the regional military administration, announced around 10 p.m. local time that Kherson was under massive shelling. Russia has regularly shelled the Ukrainian-controlled part of Kherson since Moscow withdrew from the regional capital last year.
Russian drone attacks and shelling on September 26 briefly disrupted the rail link between Kherson and the city of Mykolayiv, which was also under air alert on September 27.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces fought 26 close-quarters battles over the past 24 hours, repelling several waves of Russian attacks against their positions in the eastern region of Donetsk, mainly in the Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Mariynka areas, while consolidating their hold on the village of Robotyne in the south in the face of Russian attempts to retake it, the General Staff of Ukraine's military said in it daily report on September 28.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
After Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Bulgaria Is Rapidly Trying To Modernize Its Armed Forces2
'Messianic' Putin Fell Victim To His Own Propaganda, Says Veteran Journalist3
As Armenia And Azerbaijan Seek Peace, Proposed Zangezur Corridor Could Be Major Sticking Point4
Crimea: The Last 'Gentleman's War'5
Ukraine Hails Arrival Of First U.S. Abrams Tanks As Occupation Officials Claim Missile Attack On Sevastopol Repelled6
Who Was Behind The Deadly Attack At The Orthodox Monastery In Kosovo?7
Kherson Under 'Massive Shelling' As Cities In Southern Ukraine On Alert8
Chechen Strongman Releases Video Of Teenage Son Beating Alleged Koran Burner9
'Too Bad, Vladimir:' Hillary Clinton Taunts Putin On NATO Expansion Since Invasion10
Polish Experts Confirm Missile That Hit Grain Facility Was Ukrainian