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France's Hollande: EU 'Has No Need For Outside Advice'

"Europe will be ready to pursue transatlantic cooperation, but it will based on its interests and values," French President Francois Hollande said. (file photo)

French President Francois Hollande has responded to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's criticism of the European Union by saying that the EU "has no need for outside advice" on its affairs.

"Europe will be ready to pursue transatlantic cooperation, but it will based on its interests and values," Hollande said at a January 16 ceremony in Paris for outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley.

"It has no need for outside advice to tell it what it has to do," Hollande said.

In a wide-ranging interview with London's The Times newspaper and the German publication Bild published on January 15, Trump praised the impending British "Brexit" from the European Union and said he thinks that the bloc's liberal immigration policy toward refugees could lead to other countries leaving the EU.

Trump criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing many undocumented migrants to enter Germany since 2015.

Merkel reacted by saying the EU had to take responsibility for itself. "We Europeans have our fate in our own hands," she said in Berlin.

"I am personally waiting for the inauguration of the U.S. president," Merkel said regarding Trump’s statement.

"Then of course we will work with him on all levels."

Meanwhile, outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described Trump's criticism as "inappropriate."

"I thought, frankly, it was inappropriate for a president-elect of the United States to be stepping into the politics of other countries in a quite direct manner," Kerry said in an interview with CNN.

Kerry defended Merkel as "one of the strongest leaders in Europe" and "most important players with respect to where we are heading."

Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th U.S. president on January 20.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Moscow Court Sends Several Anti-War Activists To Pretrial Detention On Extremism Charges

Many members of the Vesna youth movement have fled Russia in recent months. (file photo)

A court in Moscow on June 8 sent four activists from the Vesna (Spring) youth movement to pretrial detention until at least August 5 on charges of creating an extremist group, public calls for actions aimed against Russia's national security, and distributing false information about Russian armed forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The charges against Yan Ksenzhepolsky, Vasily Neustroyev, Valentin Khoroshenin, and Yevgeny Zateyev stem from the activists’ online posts condemning the war in Ukraine and criticizing President Vladimir Putin. Many Vesna members have fled Russia in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Romania Tells Russia To Reduce Staff At Embassy In Bucharest

The Russian flag flies over the Moscow's embassy in Bucharest. (file photo)

The Romanian government has informed Russia that it must reduce the number of diplomats and administrative staff at its embassy in Bucharest by 51 positions. The Romanian Foreign Ministry said on June 8 that the reduction roughly halves the number of positions at the embassy, bringing it in line with the number of Romanians in the same roles in Russia. The ministry said the decision reflects the current low in bilateral relations, which have declined since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. Russia has 30 days to implement the decision. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service, click here.

Iran Hands Labor Activist Razavi 5-Year Sentence For Organizing Protests

Iranian labor activist Davood Razavi. (file photo)

Iran's judiciary has handed down a five-year discretionary imprisonment sentence to labor activist Davood Razavi for organizing protests demanding better wages and working conditions.

The Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Workers' Union announced the sentence -- which also came with a two-year ban on online activities and participation in political groups and parties -- on June 7, saying it was immediately calling for its suspension.

Razavi, a member of the union, was arrested last October.

The charges against him included "assembly and collusion against national security" for his membership of the union's board of directors, as well as organizing labor protests and having contact with union colleagues.

The union says Razavi's sentence shows the public should be concerned about the perspective held by the judiciary and ruling powers given they are punishing someone for pursuing legitimate demands such as housing, wages, and the creation of a workers' union.

The union called on authorities to respect such rights, which are fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization.

In addition to condemning the verdict, the union said it was also calling for the cancellation of what they say are "baseless accusations" against Razavi and other imprisoned union members, including Hassan Saeedi and Reza Shahabi.

Shahabi and Saeedi were arrested in May 2022 by Intelligence Ministry officers after they attended a rally marking May Day where there were protests against high living costs and rising inflation.

The news comes as security forces across the country suppressed anti-government protests in cities triggered by the death last September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

The protests over Amini's death came after a summer of unrest across Iran over poor living conditions, water shortages, and economic difficulties resulting from crippling sanctions, which the United States has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people were killed during the unrest, including 71 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

U.K. PM Sunak In Washington To Talk About Ukraine Aid, NATO Leadership

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (file photo)

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is meeting on June 8 with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss the war in Ukraine and NATO's future leadership. The leaders are expected to discuss the use of advanced fighter jets as well as the humanitarian response to the flooding caused by the rupture of the Nova Kakhovka dam. Sunak will also promote his candidate, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, for the next leader of NATO against contenders from Denmark and Estonia. Current NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's term is due to end in October.

U.K. Unveils New Sanctions Targeting Russia's Ally Belarus

The sanctions take aim at Belarusian exports that have been funding the administration of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. (file photo)

Britain announced new sanctions against Belarus on June 8 in its latest punishment for the country's support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and suppression of anti-government activists. The sanctions take aim at Belarusian exports that have been funding the administration of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and "crack down on Russia's efforts to circumvent sanctions.” The sanctions ban imports of gold, cement, wood, and rubber from Belarus. They also block exports of banknotes and machinery, along with goods, technologies, and materials that could be used to produce chemical and biological weapons.

Bosnian Court Sentences Five Ethnic Serbs To Prison For Crimes Committed During Bosnian War

Bosnia-Herzegovina's state court found all five men guilty of torturing Bosniaks from April 1992 to September 1995. (file photo)

Bosnia-Herzegovina's state court has sentenced five ethnic Serb ex-policemen to prison terms for committing war crimes against Muslim Bosniak civilians during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

Milan Djokic and Branislav Trisic were sentenced on June 8 in the first instance to three years in prison each, while Zoran Tanasic, Zarko Milanovic, and Mladen Krajisnik got two years in prison each.

They were all found guilty of torturing Bosniaks in the Bijeljina area in the northeastern part of Bosnia from April 1992 until the end of September 1994 on political, national, ethnic, cultural, and religious grounds.

They were acquitted of the accusation of crimes against humanity, while three other defendants, Savo Mrsic, Milivoje Cobic, and Milan Markovic, were acquitted on all counts.

Djokic was the police commander of Janja from the end of 1992 to June 1993, and later became the deputy commander. Tanasic, Milanovic, and Krajisnik were police officers in Janja, while Trisic was an operative of the State Security Service.

Janja is located 10 kilometers south of Bijeljina.

The trial that began in 2016 initially included three more defendants, but two of them died in the meantime, while a third one was deemed incapable of standing trial because of illness.

Bijeljina was the site of a massacre committed in early April 1992 by local ethnic Serb paramilitaries and by the Serb Volunteer Guard, a Serbia-based paramilitary group led by Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, a former soccer hooligan. Up to 80 people, mostly Bosniaks, but also ethnic Serbs suspected of "collaboration" were killed during the massacre.

More than 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian conflict, which ended with a U.S.-brokered agreement that divided the country and its administration largely along ethnic lines among Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.

With reporting by Balkan Insight

Russian Officer Accuses Wagner Group Of Abductions, Torture Of Russian Military Personnel

A soldier with the private mercenary company Wagner patrols the streets of Bakhmut.

Russian Colonel Roman Vinivitin, who was captured by Wagner fighters in eastern Ukraine issued a video on June 8 accusing the private mercenary company of abducting Russian armed forces personnel and torturing them.

On June 4, Wagner issued a video with Vinivitin, who appears to have an injured nose, saying that he had ordered his troops to open fire at Wagner troops aboard the truck while being under influence of alcohol and apologizing to Wagner for his actions.

In a new video issued by the Ostorozhno Telegram channel on June 8, Vinivitin claimed that Wagner forcibly took military equipment and vehicles from Russian troops and kidnapped Russian soldiers, forcing them to sign contracts with the mercenary fighters.

According to Vinivitin, Wagner tortured some of the abducted Russian soldiers and one serviceman committed suicide after Wagner troops raped him.

"These actions by Wagner weakened our positions on flanks on the line in Bakhmut, while Wagner was accusing Russian armed forces of being unable to hold the positions on the flanks," Vinivitin said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The accusations could not immediately be verified.

Talking about his own ordeal after he was "captured" by Wagner for refusing to follow their command, Vinivitin said he was kept in a basement and tortured.

"They deprived me of sleep, and three times during one night took me out to imitate my execution by shooting," Vinivitin said.

Vinivitin also accused Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin of "discrediting Russia's armed forces” and said his previous video statement issued by Wagner four days earlier "was the result of the pressure" he was put under.

The two videos are a sign of ongoing deep problems between Wagner and Russia’s Defense Ministry. Prigozhin has several times openly criticized the ministry's efforts during the war against Ukraine that has followed Russia's full-scale invasion of its neighbor in February 2022.

Wagner troops were seen as being instrumental in Russia's assault to take Ukraine's eastern city of Bakhmut, which was the epicenter of heavy fighting in the past several months, and Prigozhin's stature as a major player in the war appeared to grow as his fighters took territory -- albeit with heavy losses -- regular forces seemed unable to grab.

The city now appears to be controlled by Russia, though Kyiv says the battle continues.

International military experts have also stressed that military units involved in the invasion have regularly lacked a joint command and very often conflicted with each other.

Prigozhin, considered to be a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the Russian armed forces' General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, of corruption, unprofessionalism, and high treason for months.

Siberian Rights Defender Handed 18-Year Prison Term On Illegal-Drugs Charge He Rejects

A court in the Siberian city of Kemerovo on June 7 sentenced noted human rights defender Dmitry Kamynin to 18 years in prison for allegedly distributing illegal drugs, a charge he and his supporters call retaliation by local authorities for his rights activities. Kamynin, a coordinator of Sibir Pravovaya (A Legal Siberia), a group that monitors inmates' rights and helps people released from penitentiaries reintegrate into the society, was arrested in February 2020. Kamynin was on a hunger strike for two months while in custody, protesting the probe against him. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Updated

Explosion Rips Through Mosque In Northern Afghanistan During Funeral, At Least 19 Dead

The Taliban has implemented strict security measures in Badakhshan.

An explosion has torn through a mosque in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan during a funeral service for a Taliban official, killing at least 19 people, including the former Taliban security commander in the city of Baghlan, and wounding 38 others.

Moazuddin Ahmadi, the head of information and culture of Badakhshan Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the explosion took place on June 8 in the city of Faizabad during the ceremony for a Taliban deputy governor, Nissar Ahmad Ahmadi, who himself was killed along with his driver in a suicide car bomb attack three days earlier.

"In this incident...the former police commander in Baghlan, was martyred," he said.

He later issued an appeal for local citizens to donate blood to help treat the victims.

No individuals or groups have taken responsibility for the attack, though the Khorasan Province branch of Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack on Ahmadi on June 6.

The United Nations mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the attack was "deeply disturbing."

"UNAMA unequivocally condemns this and a recent spate of appalling and indiscriminate attacks that have shown a total disregard for civilian lives," it said in a tweet.

Islamic State-Khorasan has been the key rival of the Taliban-led government since the group seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. It recently increased its attacks, targeting both Taliban patrols and members of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority.

Taliban forces have responded by carrying out military operations this month against the IS group in several provinces of Afghanistan.

The UN Security Council warned in March about an increase in the number of militants and the threat of IS in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Central Command has estimated that 2,250 IS militants are in Afghanistan. It has also said that it is possible they would target American assets and those of their allies.

Tajik Authorities Detain Dozens of 'Armed' Afghan Citizens, Sources Say

A guard post along the Tajik-Afghan border

Sources in Tajikistan's government entities told RFE/RL on June 8 that dozens of armed Afghan citizens, including former Afghan military personnel, have been apprehended by Tajik law enforcement and security troops in the Central Asian nation's southern Khatlon region. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the Tajik officials said the detained Afghan nationals had been transferred to Dushanbe. The authorities of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic have yet to confirm the situation. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, hundreds of Afghan citizens fled to other countries via neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Ilhom Theater In Tashkent Stages 'Reading' Of Play Of Jailed Russian Director Berkovich

The Ilhom Theater in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent

The Ilhom Theater in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, has staged what it called "a reading" of a play by jailed Russian theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk, who were arrested in May in Moscow on a charge of justification of terrorism through the play. Ilhom theater's Maksim Fadeyev said on June 8 the "reading" of the play Finist -- The Brave Falcon was conducted to express support for Berkovich and Petriichuk. The play is about Russian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria. Berkovich was the director of the production that sparked the charges. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Federal Judge Dies After Apparent Fall From High-Rise Apartment In Russia's Tatarstan

A federal judge has died after apparently falling from his 12th floor apartment in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan. The body of 42-year-old Artyom Bartenev was found early in the morning on June 8. Investigators say the man most likely had fallen from his apartment. Suicide has not been ruled out by investigators. Bartenev heard administrative and civil cases at the Kirov district court in Kazan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Council Of Europe Envoy Calls Russian Rights Defender Oleg Orlov's Trial 'Travesty Of Justice'

Oleg Orlov

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic has called the trial of Oleg Orlov, a leader of the liquidated Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, over the alleged discrediting of Russian forces involved in Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine "a travesty of justice."

Orlov, whose trial began on June 8, was detained for questioning and charged with the repetitive discrediting of Russian armed forces after his home was searched in March. The charge stems from Orlov's online article condemning Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. He faces several years in prison in convicted.

"Oleg Orlov's courage and dedication to human rights are crucial to speaking truth to power," Mijatovic said in a statement on June 7.

"Like many other activists serving time in prison or otherwise sanctioned on similar grounds, he should never have been charged in the first place. I stand in solidarity with Oleg Orlov and many other human rights defenders, independent journalists, and civil society activists in Russia who carry the torch of human rights in these challenging times," she added.

A member of the directorate of the German Sakharov Society, Peter Frank, also criticized Russian authorities for what he called "brutally acting" against Russians who have spoken out against the "aggression and war crimes related to it."

He added that the increased pressure and persecution of the country’s leading rights defenders indicate that Russia is sliding into a "new totalitarianism."

The Memorial Human Rights Center was shut down by a Moscow court decision in December 2021 at the request of Moscow prosecutors who accused one of the country's most-respected human rights organizations of violating the law on "foreign agents."

In a parallel case at the time, the Supreme Court ruled that Memorial International, a standalone group and the umbrella organization for many regional branches and the Memorial Human Rights Center, should be liquidated on the same charge.

Memorial and its supporters have called the move by the Russian authorities politically motivated.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year together with jailed Belarusian dissident Ales Byalyatski and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties.

Russian Human Rights Group's Websites Blocked For Unspecified Reasons

Police officers detain a man in St. Petersburg on September 24, 2022, following calls to protest against mobilization. OVD-Info focuses on the right to freedom of assembly and expression and combating political persecution in Russia.

Russian human rights group OVD-Info said on June 8 that its two websites had been blocked by the country's media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, without explanation. The group's main website was blocked by the authorities in 2021 but has been available outside Russia. The group said its websites can be accessed in Russia via VPN, adding that its accounts on social media are still functioning. OVD-Info monitors the detention of activists at rallies and provides politically persecuted citizens with legal assistance. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Agency Calls For Longer-Term Prospects For Ukrainian Refugees

EU governments should make preparations to integrate refugees from Ukraine permanently, according to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The current aid measures should be better aimed at the women and children who make up the majority of refugees, the agency said in its annual report in Vienna on June 8. The call comes as the Kremlin's full-scale war on Ukraine, launched in February 2022, rages on. Since then some 8.3 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Of those, some 5.1 million have temporary protection under special arrangements without them having to apply for asylum in the EU, Switzerland, and Norway.

Updated

Pakistan's Imran Khan Gets Bail On Murder Charges

Police officers escort former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (center) as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad on May 12.

Ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan secured bail on June 8 from the Islamabad High Court over murder charges, blocking his arrest for 14 days, his lawyer Gohar Khan said. The ousted prime minister is now free on bail in several other cases. He had been arrested on May 9 and held for three days, triggering violent protests by his followers. He had traveled to the capital from his Lahore home to extend his bail in the other cases and seek bail over new murder charges, to avoid a new arrest. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Russian Forces Shell Kherson Shortly After Zelenskiy Visit To Areas Hit By Flooding

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) thanked rescuers on June 8 as he visited a crossing point for those evacuated from flooded areas in the southern region of Kherson.

KHERSON, Ukraine -- Russian forces shelled the Kherson area shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on June 8 visited the southern region where rescue teams are working to save thousands of people trapped by catastrophic flooding caused by the rupture of a major dam on the Dnieper River.

An RFE/RL correspondent on the ground reported that several loud explosions were heard in Kherson’s Korabel district around 2 p.m. local time as rescuers in rubber dinghies continued to evacuate people who had yet to leave the disaster area.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Evacuees and rescuers alike sought shelter from the shelling behind buildings on one of the few dry spots as explosions rang nearby.

The head of the Kherson regional military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin, said Russians were shelling Kherson coastal region and the center of the city of Kherson.

Although the flooding forced Russian forces to withdraw farther east from the Dnieper River, they continued to shell the Ukrainian bank, albeit with less intensity, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said on June 8.

"Because of the continued rise in the water level, the enemy was forced to pull back 5-15 kilometers from their previous positions, so the shelling isn't so intense now, but Beryslavskiy district (just east of Kherson city) continues to be targeted," Humenyuk told Ukrainian television.

Further hindering the work of rescuers, officials said, are land mines displaced by the floods.

A Ukrainian soldier who did not reveal his identity told RFE/RL that the Russian artillery's main target had been a flooded rail bridge.

"They are aware that now with the mines on the road to Crimea flushed away, our advance is imminent,” the soldier said.

Separately, a 53-year-old man from the village of Vasylivka in Mykolayiv region, became the first fatality of the floods on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the Dnieper, said Serhiy Shaikhet, head of the regional police department.

Earlier, Zelenskiy thanked the rescuers and volunteers on June 8 as he visited a crossing point for the evacuees and discussed with authorities measures to alleviate the situation of the people affected.

Our task is to protect lives and help people as much as possible. I thank the rescuers and volunteers! I thank everyone involved in this work!"

'We Want It All To End': A Kherson Resident's Plea As Shelling Is Heard Amid The Flooding
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Prokudin said on June 8 that the water level downstream had risen almost 6 meters with 600 square kilometers of the region under water, most of it on the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnieper.

"This morning, the average level of the water is 5.61 meters. Some 600 square kilometers are under water, of which 32 percent is on the [Ukrainian-controlled] right bank and 68 percent on the [Russian-controlled] left bank," Prokudin said in a video message.

He said that, as of 6 a.m. local time, almost 2,000 people had been rescued form the dangerous areas, most of them -- 1,495 -- from Kherson city's Korabel district.

The Kherson region comprises 28,461 square kilometers.

Ukrainian Village Underwater After Dam Breach
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As high water wreaked havoc downstream, state-owned hydroelectric power plant operator Ukrhydroenerho said the level of the huge reservoir upstream dropped by a meter over the past day as water continued to gush out through the breach in the dam.

Ukrhydroenerho chief Ihor Syrota said in a televised interview on June 8 that a drop below the current water level at the Kakhovka Water Reservoir could be dangerous for the nearby Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station.

According to Syrota, the water level is approaching 12.7 meters, after which there won't be enough water for the cooling ponds at the station. Syrota added that the drop in water levels will also lead to water deficiencies in other regions.

It is still unclear what caused the breach, but Zelenskiy has pointed the finger at Russia as the perpetrator of an "absolutely deliberate" act.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of destroying the dam in an act of "deliberate sabotage" at the suggestion of the West. The dam had been under Russian control for more than a year when it was breached.

Ukrhydroenerho's Syrota said that such a large breach could only have been caused by powerful explosions in three different spots inside the dam.

"To blow up the dam you need to drop at least three bombs weighing half a ton in one place. This cannot be done with a single missile. It was a very powerful explosion in three places inside the station," Syrota said.

"To blow up the dam you need to drop at least three bombs weighing half a ton in one place. This cannot be done with a single missile. It was a very powerful explosion in three places inside the station," Syrota said.

On the Russia-occupied side of Kherson, the Moscow-appointed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said early on June 8 the death toll was already five people, and 41 people were injured.

State-owned news agency TASS cited the country's security services as saying on June 8 that some 14,000 houses have been flooded and 4,300 people evacuated.

Flooding '10 Times' Worse In Russian-Occupied Areas After Dam Breach
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Meanwhile, the Red Cross warned that the flooding would have a disastrous effect on efforts to locate land mines that had been planted in the region.

"We knew where the danger was," said Erik Tollefsen, chief of the Weapon Contamination Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"Now we don't know. All we know is that they are somewhere downstream."

Dislodged mines transported by the water could pose serious dangers both to the local people and the rescuers, Tollefsen said.

The destruction of the dam came as Ukraine was preparing a long-anticipated counteroffensive to retake regions occupied by Russia since the invasion that started in February last year.

Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on June 7 that Ukrainian forces had gone on the offensive in Bakhmut, the theater of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine, advancing up to 1.1 kilometers -- the first advance by Kyiv's troops in the area after their stark, monthslong defense in the city.

On June 8, Ukraine's General Staff reported that Kyiv's forces fought off several Russian attempts to regain lost ground around Bakhmut.

Russian troops also unsuccessfully tried to advance in the direction of the Donetsk cities of Mariynka and Avdiyivka, some 150 kilometers south of Bakhmut, the General Staff said.

With reporting by Aleksander Palikot in Kherson, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters

NATO Officials 'Committed' To Ukraine Victory Ahead Of Alliance Summit Set To Discuss Enlargement

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reaffirmed the NATO’s ultimate commitment to make Ukraine a member after the war. (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said on June 7 that NATO funding will be a major topic at the military alliance's summit next month in Vilnius along with enlargement and security guarantees.

Smith and Stoltenberg, who took part virtually in a conference sponsored by the Center for New American Security, said members will discuss the 2 percent of GDP defense spending threshold and the need to recognize that it is a minimum for member states.

Smith vowed to continue U.S. pressure to ensure members are committing at least 2 percent of their GDP toward defense spending as agreed in the Defense Investment Pledge (DIP) created in 2014, which calls for countries to meet the 2 percent threshold by 2024.

Additionally, Smith said 2 percent “is a floor, not a ceiling,” and that future NATO plans may require further increases.

The United States is “planning roll out DIP 2.0” at the summit, Smith said, with continued pressure on NATO allies to meet and surpass the 2 percent threshold within the next few years.

The leaders of the 31 NATO countries, who are scheduled to gather July 11-12 in the Lithuanian capital, are expected also to hold critical conversations about the future of NATO, membership, and enlargement.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has pressed NATO to allow Ukraine to join, is expected to attend the summit. He said earlier this week that Ukraine is "ready to join" and the alliance needs to make a decision about Ukrainian membership at the summit.

On NATO enlargement, Smith and Stoltenberg made it clear that there is a wide range of potential models for continued NATO contributions to Ukraine, but that the solution will likely be a compromise between the varied opinions among the allies.

“We are looking at an array of options to signal that Ukraine is advancing in its relationship with NATO,” Smith said.

Stoltenberg agreed that until Ukraine joins the alliance some discussion of security arrangements would be necessary, though he did not provide specifics on what the arrangements would be.

The NATO chief clarified that it is up to the allies and Ukraine to make the ultimate decision on when Ukraine should be allowed to join. However, he reaffirmed the NATO’s ultimate commitment to make Ukraine a member after the war.

“When this war ends, we have the framework in place to…prevent further attacks on Ukraine,” he said.

An additional area of focus at the summit will be the resource commitment for NATO allies.

The new DIP and new U.S. regional defense and deterrence plans expected to be on the summit's agenda would result in “a whole new world” for NATO allies’ clarity and level of responsibility, he said.

Both officials also emphasized the NATO commitment to Ukraine’s victory.

Asked about an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, Stoltenberg said a Ukrainian victory as an independent, sovereign nation is a top priority of NATO, but he would not say more about Ukraine’s plans for the much-discussed counteroffensive beyond saying that the Ukrainians “have the capability to liberate Russian held lands.”

With reporting by Shelby Rayer in Washington, Reuters, and The Guardian

Belarusian Leader Pardons Russian Jailed After Forced Landing Of Commercial Flight

Sofia Sapega attends a court hearing in Hrodna in May 2022.

MINSK -- Authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka has pardoned Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who was serving a six-year prison term in Belarus on charges related to civil disturbances that followed a disputed 2020 presidential election.

Sapega was handed to a delegation from Russia's Far Eastern region of Primorye on June 7 after she was released from prison following Lukashenka's decree pardoning her, the BelTA state news agency said.

She thanked Lukashenka for pardoning her, allowing her to return home, and giving her a second chance, according to BelTA.

Earlier reports said the Russian and Belarusian authorities had agreed to allow Sapega to serve her prison term in Russia.

The Crisis In Belarus

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

Sapega and her then-boyfriend, dissident blogger Raman Pratasevich, were detained after their commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk in May 2021.

Sapega was accused of administering a channel on Telegram that published the personal data of Belarusian security forces. She was sentenced in May 2022.

Belarus said it had ordered the plane to land after an anonymous bomb threat. Evidence later revealed Belarusian officials conspired to fake the bomb threat as a pretense for diverting the plane so they could detain the two.

Pratasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel on Telegram that extensively covered the violent crackdown on unprecedented protests in Belarus following an August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and Western governments say was stolen by Lukashenka, who has run the country with an iron fist since 1994.

Last month, Pratasevich told journalists he had received a pardon from Lukashenka.

In early May, a Minsk court sentenced Pratasevich to eight years in prison, and his co-defendants, Stsyapan Putsila and Yan Rudzik, who were tried in absentia, to 20 years and 19 years in prison respectively, on charges stemming from their online coverage of the 2020 anti-Lukashenka protests.

Lukashenka has denied stealing the election and has since cracked down hard on the opposition, whose leading members were either jailed or forced to flee the country in fear of their safety.

With reporting by BelTA

Six Arrested In Romania, Germany, Bulgaria In Probe Of People-Smuggling Ring

Four of the arrests were made in searches of accommodation in Romania used to house migrants. (file photo)

Six people have been arrested in Romania, Germany, and Bulgaria in raids targeting a network alleged to have smuggled hundreds of migrants into Romania and Germany, officials said on June 7. Fifteen properties were searched, 11 of them in Romania, German federal police said in a statement. Four of the arrests were made in searches of accommodation in Romania used to house migrants. There was one arrest in Germany and one in Bulgaria. The suspects are accused of smuggling more than 560 people into Germany and more than 300 into Romania, according to German police.

Ukraine's Prosecutor To Provide ICC With Data On Kakhovka Dam Destruction

Local residents wait for an evacuation train at a railway station in Kherson on June 6.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin on June 7 signed a decree on providing the prosecutor's office at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague with data related to the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. According to a statement by his office, Kostin also informed ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan about the situation caused by the dam breach. Ukrainian and Russian officials traded blame over the breach on June 6 of the Russian-controlled dam, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of local residents.

Former Kazakh President Nazarbaev's Office Being Canceled

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) and former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2019

The office of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, known as the office of the First President of Kazakhstan, will cease to exist within the next 45 days, the Central Asian nation's Finance Minister Erulan Zhamaubaev said on June 7.

According to Zhamaubaev, the closure of the office will free up to 3 billion tenges ($6,675,000) of state money, which will be used for other needs.

Zhamaubaev's statement came less than a week after the Justice Ministry said that parliament is poised to scrap an article in the Criminal Code that envisions punishment by up to five years in prison for insulting Nazarbaev.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has taken a series of moves since January 2022 to push Nazarbaev, who ruled the tightly controlled former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades, further into the background following his resignation in 2019.

Though he officially stepped down as president, Nazarbaev retained sweeping powers as the head of the country's powerful Security Council. He also enjoyed substantial powers by holding the title of "elbasy."

Earlier this year, Kazakh lawmakers annulled the Law on the First President -- the Leader of the Nation (Elbasy).

Although the law was canceled, Nazarbaev himself continues to have immunity from prosecution in accordance with the law on presidents.

Even after Nazarbaev's resignation, many Kazakhs remained bitter over the oppression felt during his reign.

Those feelings came to a head in January last year when unprecedented anti-government nationwide protests were sparked by a fuel price hike.

The demonstrations unexpectedly exploded into deadly countrywide unrest over perceived corruption under the Nazarbaev regime and the cronyism that allowed his family and close friends to enrich themselves while ordinary citizens failed to share in the oil-rich nation's wealth.

Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of his Security Council role, taking it over himself. Since then, several of Nazarbaev's relatives and allies have been pushed out of their positions or resigned. Some have been arrested on corruption charges, of whom some were handed prison terms.

On June 7, Kazakhstan's Anti-Corruption Agency said Nazarbaev's once powerful nephew, Qairat Satybaldy, who was sentenced to six years in prison in September after being found guilty of fraud and embezzlement, will hand over his property, including the Double Tree by Hilton Almaty hotel, as well as jewelry, automobiles, and cash to the state treasury to compensate damages caused by his crimes.

The agency added that investigations into Satybaldy's alleged tax evasion and money laundering activities are under way.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, KazTAG, and Tengrinews

Kazakh Opposition Politician Detained On Bribe-Taking Charge

Kazakh politician Nurzhan Altaev (file photo)

Nurzhan Altaev, the leader of Kazakhstan's unregistered El Tiregi (People's Pillar) party has been detained on a charge of taking a bribe, the Central Asian nation's Anti-Corruption Agency said on July 7. Altaev quit the ruling Nur-Otan (now called Amanat) party in 2021 and has been trying to register his party since then, accusing the Justice Ministry of refusing to do so. In April, a court in Astana sentenced Altaev to 15 days in jail on a charge of violating regulations on holding public gatherings after he openly supported protesting oil workers who demanded jobs. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russia Claims Ukrainian 'Saboteur' Group Blew Up Ammonia Pipeline, Kyiv Yet To Comment

The Tolyatti-Odesa pipeline is the world's largest conduit of ammonia. (file photo)

Russia's Defense Ministry claims a Ukrainian "saboteur group" blew up a segment of the Tolyatti-Odesa pipeline, the world's largest ammonia conduit, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region. Kyiv has not commented on the statement but previously it has said that the pipeline has come under repeated Russian shelling. Ammonia is a main ingredient in production of nitrate fertilizer, of which Russia is one of the world's leading producers.

Banks In Kazakhstan, Armenia, Hong Kong Block Payments For Electronics Deliveries To Russia

EU's special sanctions envoy, David O'Sullivan, had publicly questioned the final destination of many goods imported to Kazakhstan, Armenia, and several other nations. (file photo)

Banks in Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Hong Kong have started blocking payments for deliveries of electronics to Russia to avoid U.S. sanctions for helping Moscow evade Western penalties imposed over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kommersant newspaper cited sources as saying on June 7. In March, the United States said Russian companies evaded sanctions using intermediaries in other countries. The same month, the EU's special sanctions envoy, David O'Sullivan, publicly questioned the final destination of many goods imported to Kazakhstan, Armenia, and several other nations. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

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