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German President Visits Afghanistan After Stop in Kazakhstan

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) welcomes German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Gulkhana-Palace in Kabul on July 13.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has made a visit to Afghanistan, meeting with President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul and visiting his country's troops at a base near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

The German presidency is a mainly ceremonial position.

During his visit to Mazar-e Sharif on July 13, Steinmeier thanked soldiers for their service, but he emphasized that his government expected the Afghans to take a greater responsibility for the country's security.

German has 940 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led coalition to advise and assist the Afghan military in its fight against the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups. That is down from a peak of 5,000 earlier in the conflict.

Steinmeier said the Afghan government must also "lead the different [political] factions in Afghanistan toward coming closer together and finding reconciliation."

Steinmeier's visit on July 13 came after a stop in Kazakhstan, where led a German business delegation. Steinmeier praised the Central Asian country as an "anchor of stability" in the region.

After being greeted with military honors by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in the capital of Astana, he highlighted the "pleasing development of bilateral relations" between Germany and the Kazakhstan.

But the German president also emphasized to his Kazakh counterpart the need for "reliable regulations, more rule of law, and building trust."

Germany is an important customer for energy-rich Kazakhstan's oil and natural-gas exports.

Based on reporting by dpa and Khaama Press

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Navalny Establishes One-Man Labor Union In Russian Penal Colony

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Jailed Russian opposition politician and outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has established a labor union in the penal colony where he is currently being held.

Navalny tweeted on August 11 that the name of the labor union he created is Promzona (Industrial Zone). Promzona is the official name of parts of penal colonies across many former Soviet countries in which factories and plants are located.

Navalny said the labor union, which currently has just one member -- himself -- was established due to the exploitation of around 600,000 people in Russia's penitentiaries, adding that he would also be happy to represent the interests of the guards if they wanted him to do so.

"Basically, if life has given me a lemon in the form of a prison sentence, then I need to turn it into the lemonade of at least some useful activity for society," Navalny said.

According to Navalny, other inmates were more worried than the prison's guards about the creation of the union.

"Each time I talk about it, my fellow murderers sadly say: 'Aleksei, stop it, please. Because of you they will never let us out at all, and all this will end badly,'" Navalny said, explaining that is why his is a one-man union.

Navalny added that his labor union had already won some victories, citing the penal colony's administration providing inmates seated at sewing machines with proper chairs. This was an improvement over stools, which had hurt their backs.

5 Things To Know About Russian Opposition Leader Aleksei Navalny
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Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.

He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole during his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

In March, Navalny was sentenced in a separate case to nine years in prison on embezzlement and contempt charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.

He was transferred in June to Correctional Colony No. 6 in the town of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region east of Moscow after the Moscow City Court rejected his appeal against the nine-year jail term.

Navalny is still able to use Twitter and other social media through his representatives.

With reporting by dpa

Russian TV Journalist Who Protested Ukraine War On Air Is Put Under House Arrest

Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova (file photo)

MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has placed TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova under house arrest on a charge of distributing false information about Russia’s armed forces.

The Basmanny district court in the Russian capital announced the decision on August 11, one day after Ovsyannikova’s home was searched and she was detained.

Ovsyannikova's lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said on August 10 that his client was charged with "public distributing false information about Russian armed forces" and may face 10 years in prison if convicted.

Ovsyannikova, known for delivering a live on-air anti-war protest in March, wrote on Telegram that the charge filed on August 10 stems from her one-person protest in front of the Kremlin in early July in which she held a poster saying "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a murderer, his soldiers are fascists" and displayed photos of children killed in Ukraine.

Last week, a court in Moscow fined Ovsyannikova 50,000 rubles ($820) for that protest.

Ovsyannikova gained international recognition on March 14 when she burst onto the set of Channel One's Vremya news program holding a poster reading: “Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you” in Russian. She also shouted: "Stop the war. No to war."

Russian TV News Hit By Anti-War Protest In Studio
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Ovsyannikova was a producer with Channel One at the time of her protest. She was later detained and fined 30,000 rubles ($490) by a court for calling for illegal protests.

Ovsyannikova resigned from Channel One and spent several months abroad, including in Ukraine, repeatedly expressing her condemnation of the war.

On August 8, a court in Moscow ordered Ovsyannikova to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles ($660) for her latest online posts protesting the war in Ukraine.

In March, Putin signed a law that provides for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

Western Nations Pledge $1.55 Billion In Military Aid To Ukraine

Danish Defense Minister Morten Bodskov speaks during a press conference about supporting Ukraine, in Copenhagen on August 10.

Western countries committed more than 1.5 billion euros ($1.55 billion) in cash, equipment, and training on August 11 during a donor conference to boost Ukraine's military capabilities in its war against Russia.

The money was pledged by 26 countries at the conference of defense ministers in Copenhagen, Danish Defense Minister Morten Bodskov told journalists.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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“All the countries that came to Copenhagen came with the intention of supporting Ukraine,” Bodskov said at the end of the one-day meeting.

The money will be used to supply weapons, missiles, and ammunition, increase weapon production for Ukraine, train Ukrainian soldiers, and demine war-torn areas in Ukraine.

The defense ministers of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic signaled a willingness to expand the production of artillery systems, ammunition, and other military equipment for Ukraine, Bodskov said.

In a joint statement, the countries pledged to ensure continued and sustained military support for Ukraine and agreed to hold a virtual meeting in September.

Britain pledged an additional 300 million euros, including multiple-launch rocket systems and precision guided M31A1 missiles that can strike targets up to 80 kilometers away.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the donations were “proof of the opposite” of what Russian President Vladimir Putin would have bet would be true by now -- that Western governments “would have all got bored of the conflict and the international community would have gone off in different directions.”

Wallace also said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was "starting to fail in many areas."

Ukraine has made repeated appeals to the West to send more weapons, including long-range artillery, while Moscow has accused Western countries of dragging out the conflict by giving Ukraine more arms.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa

Tallinn To Bar Russian Citizens With Estonia-Issued Schengen Visas From Entering Country

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (file photo)

Estonia plans to bar Russian citizens with Schengen visas that were issued by the Baltic state from entering the country because of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said after a government session on August 11 that, although the Schengen visas issued by his country will remain valid, they will not be accepted for entry into Estonia.

Estonia stopped issuing new tourist visas to Russians shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in February, except for the relatives of Estonian citizens.

Reinsalu emphasized that the decision affects only the estimated 50,000 visas issued by Estonia, adding that the government plans to discuss in the coming days ways of barring all Russian citizens from entering Estonia.

The minister also said that holders of Schengen visas issued by Estonia will be able to enter other countries of the Schengen area.

The move does not affect diplomats and members of their families, individuals involved in international transportation businesses, people who need to visit Estonia for humanitarian reasons, or the close relatives of Estonian citizens and permanent residents.

In addition, people who have a right to move freely across the European Union under EU laws will also be able to enter Estonia.

Estonia and Finland have called on other EU countries to ban tourist visas for all Russian citizens over the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. The issue will be discussed on the EU level because current EU legislation does not allow for such a move.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev on August 11 condemned the calls for a visa ban as "overt manifestations of chauvinism and a reckless attempt to cancel all things Russian, which is impossible."

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on August 11 that he is against a ban on tourist visas for Russian citizens.

"This is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's war, so I have a very hard time with this idea," Scholz told reporters in Berlin.

Scholz stressed that he is confident that Western sanctions imposed on Russia because of the war in Ukraine would become less effective if they target "everyone, including innocent people."

With reporting by dpa and TASS

One Of Three Iranian Filmmakers Arrested In Crackdown Has Been Released On Bail

Iranian filmmaker Mustafa Al-Ahmad (file photo)

Mostafa al-Ahmad, one of the three prominent filmmakers jailed last month in Iran as part of a broad crackdown, was released on bail on August 10. He had contracted COVID-19 in prison.

Ahmad, 52, was arrested in July as Iranian authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests across the Islamic republic. Fellow filmmakers Mohammad Rasulof and Jafar Panahi were arrested around the same time.

It had been reported recently that Ahmad and Panahi had developed COVID-19 in Tehran's Evin prison, but judicial authorities prevented them from being hospitalized outside that detention facility.

Days prior to his arrest, Ahmad had joined a group of Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down their arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people in May.

More than 100 Iranian filmmakers backed the statement, which said that soldiers "have turned into the people's oppressors.”

The arrests of the three prominent directors has prompted international criticism. Three European film and arts festivals have strongly condemned the government over the detention of the filmmakers.

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

Journalists In Western Iranian Province Face Prosecution

Journalist and editor Mohammad Basati has been sentenced to six months in prison. (file photo)

At least six journalists have faced prosecution for their professional work in the last month in Iran’s western province of Lorestan, local sources reported.

The Roydad24 news agency wrote on August 10 that Mohammad Basati, the editor in chief of the Balutestan newspaper, was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 80 million rials ($260) following a complaint by the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF).

The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation is an Iranian charitable organization founded in 1979 to provide support for poor families. The foundation is supported by the Iranian government and receives budgetary funds.

The verdict stated that Basati "published fake news that he was not able to prove" in a WhatsApp news group, without giving further details.

Sina Ghalandari, a local journalist in Lorestan Province, reported on August 1 that he had been sentenced to 27 months in prison and banned from media work for two years.

Last September, Ghalandari published the story of Mobina Suri, a 16-year-old teenager who was murdered by her husband in a so-called “honor” killing. Her husband was a clergyman.

According to Roydad24, the same judge presided over the trials of both Ghalandari and Basati.

Local sources have reported that four other journalists have faced prosecution in Lorestan in the last month.

Recently, the governor of Lorestan ordered that charges against all journalists be dropped to mark the Journalists’ Day holiday in Iran.

Iran has a long history of arresting and imprisoning journalists and media activists for reporting corruption and other stories that are embarrassing to the authorities. In provincial cities, even the smallest criticism of officials can bring harsh retribution.

In some cases, journalists have faced direct threats of violence from the authorities.

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

Man Jailed In Kazakhstan For Painting Pro-War 'Z' Symbol On WWII Memorial

A Ukrainian soldier sits atop a Russian artillery vehicle marked with the 'Z' symbol that Ukraine captured during fighting outside Kharkiv in March.

SARAN, Kazakhstan -- A court in central Kazakhstan has sentenced a local resident to seven days in jail for painting the Latin letter "Z" -- a sign of support for Russia's ongoing unprovoked war against Ukraine -- on a tank that is a part of a memorial honoring World War II veterans.

The Saran municipal court in the Qaraghandy region announced on August 11 that it had sentenced the man, whose identity was not disclosed, after convicting him of hooliganism.

According to the court's press service, the 54-year-old, who was detained on July 29, pleaded guilty and expressed regret.

Russian military vehicles in Ukraine are marked with the Latin letters "Z" and "V," and the symbols have been promoted by Russian state media and other Kremlin supporters as patriotic emblems expressing support for the military and the invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine and several European Union member-states have banned the symbols. Although Kazakhstan has not officially banned them, several drivers in the Central Asian nation have been fined in recent months for displaying them on their vehicles.

Another Navalny Team Member Flees Russia Amid Crackdown

Murad Manapov (left) said he decided to leave Russia after the coordinator of Navalny's team in Daghestan, Eduard Atayev (right), was arrested earlier this year on an illegal weapons charge that Atayev and his supporters say was fabricated in retaliation for his political activity.

An aide to the former coordinator of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in the North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Murad Manapov, has fled Russia amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Manapov told RFE/RL on August 11 that he is currently in Poland, adding that he has not yet applied for political asylum there.

Manapov also said he decided to leave Russia after the coordinator of Navalny's team in Daghestan, Eduard Atayev, was arrested earlier this year on an illegal weapons charge that Atayev and his supporters say was fabricated in retaliation for his political activity.

In recent months, many of Navalny's associates and members of his teams across Russia fled the country fearing for their safety amid a broad crackdown on political and civil dissent in Russia.

Navalny, who suffered a near-fatal poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security operatives acting at the behest of President Vladimir Putin, has been in prison since February 2021. His Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices have been designated "extremist" organizations.

Trial Begins Of German Reserve Officer Charged With Spying For Russia

Goelert also purportedly provided Moscow with information about the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline, a project that was halted following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

A German military reserve officer has gone on trial on charges of spying for Russia in the western German city of Dusseldorf.

The trial of 65-year-old Ralf Goelert, who allegedly passed sensitive information to the Russian foreign intelligence service from 2014 until 2020, opened on August 11.

Investigators say Goelert provided Russian agents with information about the Bundeswehr's reserve system, civilian-military cooperation in crisis situations, and data about the effects of sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 following the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. Goelert also purportedly provided Moscow with information about the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline, a project that was halted following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

According to the Federal Prosecutor's Office, the suspect did not receive any financial compensation for the documents he provided but was regularly invited to events organized in Germany by the Russian Embassy.

A court spokeswoman said the suspect made a partial confession during the preliminary proceedings.

With reporting by Kommersant, Der Spiegel, and dpa

Russian Official Says Child Suicide Has Risen Nearly 40 Percent Since 2020

A mother and daughter walk through a hallway at the Russian Children's Clinical Hospital in Moscow. (file photo)

An adviser to the office of Russia's children ombudswoman says the number of suicide cases among minors in the country has increased almost 40 percent.

Roman Chuprikov said on August 11 that the number of registered suicides among children across Russia last year was 753 while in 2020 that number was 548.

An expert from the Moscow Psychiatric Research Center, Karine Keshchyan, said the number of attempted suicides among children is much higher.

According to Keshchyan, psychiatric experts are unable to keep up with "the huge number of children" who attempt to kill themselves because their parents often refuse to seek professional assistance.

With reporting by Interfax

Russia Nixes Plan For Switzerland To Represent Ukraine's Interests

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk attend the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, Switzerland, on July 4.

Moscow has rejected a plan by Kyiv to have Switzerland represent Ukraine's interests in Russia, saying it no longer considers Switzerland a neutral country.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said on August 11 that Switzerland had applied to Moscow for permission to represent Ukraine’s interests and that Moscow had denied the request.

"We very clearly answered that Switzerland had unfortunately lost its status of a neutral state and could not act as an intermediary or a representative," Nechayev said. "Bern has joined illegal Western sanctions against Russia."

Nechayev added that Switzerland also could not represent Russia's interests in Ukraine.

Ukraine broke off diplomatic relations with Russia shortly after Moscow’s unprovoked massive military invasion of the country on February 24.

Kyiv on August 10 asked Switzerland to represent its interests in Russia, a move that Bern insisted requires Moscow’s assent.

Switzerland has a long history of such arrangements, representing U.S. interests in Iran, Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, Russian interests in Georgia, and Georgian interests in Russia, among others.

Switzerland has joined nearly all the sanctions the European Union has imposed on Russia since its military intervention in Ukraine.

Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and dpa

Latvian Parliament Designates Russia A State Sponsor Of Terrorism

The Latvian parliament The Latvian parliament adopted the resolution on August 11 after 67 lawmakers voted for it. (file photo)

Lawmakers in Latvia have designated Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, citing Moscow’s ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, its military activities in Syria, and several high-profile cases of poisoning of Kremlin-critics.

The Latvian parliament adopted the resolution on August 11 after 67 lawmakers voted for it. Sixteen lawmakers abstained.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova posted on Telegram that the Latvian resolution was "xenophobic."

Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, posted on Twitter that he was grateful for the resolution.

"Ukraine encourages other states and organizations to follow suit," Kuleba wrote.

The resolution denounced Russia's "violence against civilians in pursuit of political aims" and condemned Moscow's use of cluster munitions "to sow fear and indiscriminately kill civilians."

The parliament called on other "like-minded countries" to join the move and urged the European Union to stop issuing visas to citizens of Russia and Belarus, noting that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was carried out "with the support and involvement of the Belarusian regime."

With reporting by Delfi, Reuters, and AFP

Explosions Rock Military Airport In Belarus Days After Crimea Air Base Attack

A satellite image from March shows a military presence at the Zyabrauka air base, which is located some 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

Several explosions have been reported in an area of Belarus near a military airport that Ukrainian authorities say has been used by the Russian Air Force to attack Ukrainian territory.

The Belaruski Hayun and Flagshtok Telegram channels quoted witnesses on August 11 as saying at least eight blasts were heard and flashes were seen near the Zyabrauka military airport in the southeastern Homel region of Belarus overnight. The base is some 30 kilometers from the border with Ukraine.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said in a statement that at 11 p.m. on August 10, the engine of a military vehicle caught fire and "measures to extinguish the fire were undertaken," adding there were no casualties.

The incident came in the wake of a series of explosions at a Russian airbase in the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea that destroyed at least nine Russian military aircraft. Kyiv has not publicly claimed responsibility for the attack. Russia's Defense Ministry has denied the Saky base in Crimea was attacked, blaming the explosions on a "violation of fire-safety requirements."

Ukrainian officials maintain that the Zyabrauka base in Belarus has been used by the Russian Air Force during Moscow's ongoing unprovoked war against Ukraine, which was launched in February. Last month, the military said Russia has based Iskander-M and S-400 mobile missile systems at the Belarusian airport, using them to strike Ukraine.

August 11 marks the last day of military drills by Belarus's air force that started on August 9. Belarusian authorities said this week the exercises' second phase will be held on August 22-25 in the Ashuluk military training base in southwestern Russia near the border with Kazakhstan.

Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has openly supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Although Belarusian troops have not taken part in the invasion, Minsk allowed Russia's military to use the country's territory to enter Ukraine and shell Ukrainian towns and cities.


UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief Says Situation At Ukrainian Nuclear Plant Enters 'Grave Hour'

The Zaporizhzhya plant, which was captured by Russian forces in the opening stages of the war, was also hit by shelling last weekend.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says agency officials must be allowed to inspect the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant in Ukraine after fighting near the site.

"This is a serious hour, a grave hour and the IAEA must be allowed to conduct its mission to Zaporizhzhya as soon as possible," IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on August 11.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also warned about the situation at the nuclear power plant, saying it is of global interest.

No other country has used a nuclear plant "so obviously to threaten the whole world," he said in his nightly video address on August 11. "Absolutely everyone in the world should react immediately to expel the occupiers from the Zaporizhzhya [nuclear power plant]."

He said only the Russians' full withdrawal would guarantee nuclear safety for all of Europe.

A U.S. State Department official told the Security Council that Washington supports the idea of an IAEA mission to Ukraine.

"This visit cannot wait any longer," Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said, calling for Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine's territory.

"This would allow for Ukraine to restore the impeccable safety, security, and safeguards performance it upheld for decades at the facility," Jenkins said.

Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya put the blame for fighting at and near Zaporizhzhya on Ukrainian forces.

"We call on states that support the Kyiv regime to bring their proxies into check to compel them to immediately and once and for all stop attacks on Zaporizhzhya nuclear power [plant] to ensure the safe conditions for the conduct of the IAEA mission," Nebenzya told the Council.

"This is the only way to prevent a major radioactive catastrophe on the European continent, the risk of which is now more real than ever," Nebenzya added. "If Ukrainian Armed Forces attacks continue, this could take place at any time."

The two sides traded blame earlier on August 11 over a recent escalation in fighting on the nuclear facility's premises.

Ukraine's state energy company said the plant was shelled again by Russian forces, while the Russia-backed local administration said Ukrainian forces were to blame.

There were no injuries and the situation at the plant was under control. Enerhoatom added in its statement posted on Telegram that reports that workers fled the plant in panic were "fake and manipulative."

The Russia-backed local administration said it was Ukrainian rocket fire that struck the plant.

"Zelenskiy's militants once again struck the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and territory near the nuclear facility," said Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Moscow-installed regional administration, referring to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Neither side's claims could be independently verified.

The Zaporizhzhya plant, which was captured by Russian forces in the opening stages of the war, was hit by shelling last weekend, which also prompted the two sides to trade blame.

Heavy fighting was reported earlier on August 11 around the eastern Ukrainian town of Pisky, some 10 kilometers northwest of the city of Donetsk.

“It is hot in Pisky,” wrote Danil Bezsonov, a member of a Russia-backed separatist group that calls itself the Donetsk People's Republic, on Telegram early on August 11. “The town is ours, but there remain scattered pockets of resistance in its north and west.”

Ukrainian officials said their troops were still control the town. Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in an interview that Russian forces had tried to move into Pisky “without success.”

Neither report could be independently verified.

After forcibly annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Moscow fomented separatist movements in parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas.

The Kyiv-backed governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said in an interview on August 10 that Russia had boosted its forces in the area, including by sending in a large number of mercenaries from the Vagner group, a private security company with close ties to the Kremlin.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk predicted on August 11 that more mandatory evacuations would be ordered for a number of areas affected by fighting.

Vereshchuk reported that, as of August 11, 3,908 people were evacuated from the Donetsk region, including 777 children.

She said mandatory evacuations had been carried out for the first time and it is likely they will take place in other regions.

"We see now the deterioration of the situation. And with the beginning of the autumn-winter heating period, it will definitely worsen" as it becomes more difficult to provide heating, she said during a briefing.

Zelenskiy said last month that hundreds of thousands of people were still living in areas of Donbas where fighting has been intense.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Bulgarians Press Caretaker Government For Independence From Russian Gas

The protesters oppose the restart of negotiations with Gazprom for a new long-term contract.

Hundreds of people took part on August 10 in a second protest to demand Bulgaria continue a path toward gas independence from Russia.

The protesters gathered in front of the presidential building in Sofia and said they want the country's current caretaker government to reject Russian gas and maintain the policies of the pro-Western former government.

“We refuse to be dependent on Gazprom and finance Putin’s outrageous war!” read one of the banners at the protest, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Atanas Sharkov, one of the protest organizers, insisted that Gazprom must cease to be Bulgaria’s only gas supplier.

“It is high time to follow European policies and be part of Europe,” Sharkov said.

Sharkov also called on President Rumen Radev, who appointed the caretaker government, to guarantee that previous decisions will not be revised.

The caretaker government was sworn in on August 2 to run the EU member country until snap elections set for October 2. The previous coalition government of pro-western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's collapsed in late June after just over half a year in power.

It was toppled in part because of its hard stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and after Petkov refused to pay Gazprom in rubles, prompting Russia to halt direct gas exports to Bulgaria.

The first demonstration for gas independence took place on August 5, touched off by statements indicating a potential delay in finalizing a gas deal with Greece at a time when Bulgaria is officially looking for alternatives to Gazprom.

The protesters oppose the restart of negotiations with Gazprom for a new long-term contract.

The organizers said they also sent a letter with seven questions to the caretaker government on August 8. In addition to a question about finding alternative oil and gas suppliers, the letter also asked the government about strengthening the defense of the country, support measures for Ukrainian refugees, and its position on the Crimean Peninsula.

They said only Bulgaria's centrist Continue the Change party (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria had answered.

It said a “pseudo-answer” from the Council of Ministers showed that the government has no desire to solve the problems and is concealing its general geopolitical orientation in the context of the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia and Putin’s regime.

With reporting by AP

Satellite Images Show Massive Destruction At Russian Air Base On Crimea

This satellite image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows destroyed Russian aircraft at the Saky Air Base after explosions on August 9.

A Russian air base on Ukraine’s annexed Crimean Peninsula suffered massive destruction from several explosions on August 9, satellite imagery made available on August 10 shows.

The Russian Navy's Saky Air Base near the village of Novofedorivka lost at least nine military aircraft, including Su-30SM fighters and Su-24M bombers, an analysis of before-and-after images by Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, indicates.

Several buildings on the base that may have housed ammunition were destroyed, as well.

WATCH: Massive explosions hit a military airfield in Russian-occupied Crimea. Ukraine has stopped short of officially claiming responsibility, and speculation over what triggered the conflagration continues. Many locals doubt Russia's claim that the blasts were an accident.

Speculation Swirls Around Explosions At Russian Military Base In Occupied Crimea
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Russia has been using the Saky Air Base, located on the western side of Crimea, to regularly strike Ukrainian territory since it launched an invasion of the country on February 24.

The exact cause of the August 9 explosions is unknown.

Unidentified Ukrainian officials have told U.S. media that their armed forces were responsible for the explosions but did not give further details.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied the base was attacked, blaming the explosions on a “violation of fire safety requirements.”

However, the August 10 satellite images show several large craters of similar size, indicating it was hit by multiple strikes.

Military analysts called the destruction a huge blow for Russia and a psychological win for Ukraine.

Videos posted to social media on August 9 show several explosions at the base and billows of thick, gray smoke rising into the sky.

Homes, cars, and other objects in the vicinity of the base were damaged, with windows blown out. The Russia-appointed head of Crimea said on August 9 that the blasts killed one person and injured 14. Sergei Aksyonov also said at least 80 buildings were damaged.

Analysts said aircraft at the base that survived the explosion are probably damaged.

There were as many as 30 military aircraft at the base on August 9, according to the satellite images.

Robert Lee, a military analyst, said Russia lacked hangars for their aircraft at Saky.

Many of the planes would have survived the explosion had Russia built hardened aircraft shelters, he said in a tweet.

If Ukraine were behind the explosions, it would be Kyiv’s first major attack on Russian forces in Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014.

It would also show that Ukraine has the technical capability for a long-distance strike and the ability to catch Russia off guard, said Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa.

Ukraine Grateful For Two-Year Freeze In Payments On Foreign Debt

Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko speaks in an interview in Kyiv on May 12.

Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko says a deal to freeze payments on billions of dollars of overseas debt owed by Ukraine is a testament to investors' willingness to support Kyiv.

"Thanks to the solidarity with Ukraine shown by the private investor community along with the official public sector, we will be able to meet the needs of the state budget of the country in war(time)," Marchenko said in a statement.

Ukraine's overseas creditors earlier on August 10 backed its request for a two-year freeze on payments on almost $20 billion in international bonds.

According to a regulatory filing, bondholders have agreed to postpone sovereign interest and capital payments for 13 Ukrainian sovereign bonds maturing between 2022 and 2033.

Ukraine said it would save around $5 billion over the next 24 months as it manages its dwindling financial resources. The move also allows the war-torn country to avoid a debt default.

Ukraine is experiencing a monthly fiscal shortfall of $5 billion and is therefore heavily reliant on foreign financing from Western allies and multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to keep government services going.

The United States said this week it would provide an additional $4.5 billion to Ukraine's government, bringing to $8.5 billion its total budgetary support since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion on February 24.

Based on reporting by Reuters

U.S. Charges Iranian Operative With Plotting To Kill Ex-National-Security Adviser Bolton

Former U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton speaks during a lecture in 2020.

The U.S. Justice Department has charged a member of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in connection with an alleged plot to kill former White House national-security adviser John Bolton.

The Justice Department announced the charges against Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, 45, of Tehran in a news release on August 10. The charging documents identify Poursafi as a member of the IRGC.

Iran rejected the charges as "ridiculous and baseless." Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Iran strongly warned against any action committed against Iranian citizens on the pretext of the accusations.

The department said Poursafi "attempted to pay individuals in the United States $300,000 to carry out the murder" in either Washington or the neighboring U.S. state of Maryland.

Prosecutors said the plot was likely in retaliation for the January 2020 drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, who was the head of the IRGC's elite Quds Force.

The allegation came as Iran weighs a proposed agreement to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement under which Tehran had curbed its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.

Tehran held up negotiations on reviving the deal for months, demanding that the United States remove its official designation of the IRGC as a sponsor of terrorism. Washington rejected that demand.

A U.S. official quoted by Reuters said the United States did not believe the charges against Poursafi should affect the diplomatic efforts.

According to the Justice Department, Poursafi began communicating with a confidential source in October 2021 over an encrypted messaging application and directed the individual to hire someone to "eliminate" Bolton for $300,000 and set up a cryptocurrency account to facilitate payment.

Poursafi allegedly told the confidential source, who is not identified by the Justice Department, that it did not matter how the killing was carried out.

The Justice Department said that in December 2021, Poursafi sent a photograph of two plastic bags that appeared to contain stacks of dollars and a handwritten note with the confidential source's name.

On January 3, the anniversary of the killing of Soleimani, Poursafi expressed regret that the killing would not be conducted by the anniversary. He also told the source that he was under pressure to complete the killing.

Poursafi also allegedly told the source he had another assassination job for which he would pay $1 million. The target of that alleged plot was not revealed by the Justice Department.

The source months later declined to continue to work without being paid. Poursafi agreed on April 28 to send the source $100 in cryptocurrency to prove payment could be made. Later that day, the cryptocurrency wallet received two payments totaling $100, according to the Justice Department.

If convicted, Poursafi faces up to 10 years in prison for the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, and up to 15 years in prison for providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot. The potential sentences also carry fines of up to $250,000 each.

Poursafi remains at large abroad, the Justice Department said.

Bolton, who served as national-security adviser to then-President Donald Trump from 2018-19 and also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005-06 under then-president George W. Bush, thanked the FBI and Justice Department for their work in developing the case.

"While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran's rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States," he said in a statement.

Current national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that the charging document outlines allegations of Iran's continued attempts to carry out an assassination on U.S. soil and warned Iran against carrying out any such plots.

"Should Iran attack any of our citizens, to include those who continue to serve the United States or those who formerly served, Iran will face severe consequences," he said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

U.S.-Sponsored Regional Military Drills Kick Off In Tajikistan

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan John Pommersheim (center) welcomed participants of the Regional Cooperation 22 military maneuvers.

A U.S. Central Command-sponsored military exercise has kicked off in Tajikistan, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe says.

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan John Pommersheim welcomed participants of the Regional Cooperation 22 military maneuvers, which will be conducted from August 10 to August 20.

"As the largest U.S. military-to-military exercise involving Central and South Asian nations, Regional Cooperation 22 is an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen relationships with our partners in that region. The exercise serves as a forum for addressing relevant regional issues including peaceful responses to global challenges, information exchange, and security cooperation,” Pommersheim said.

The annual exercise "focuses on enhancing multinational stability operations, counterterrorism, and promoting cooperation, and joint combined capabilities among U.S. Central and South Asia states, and other participating nations."

According to the statement, the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan will take part in a six-day command-post exercise, while Tajikistan and the United States will conduct a five-day bilateral field-training component of the exercise at the Fakhrabad Training Center.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Regional Cooperation exercise series had been conducted annually since 2004 in one of the participant countries, including in the United States.

Lithuanian Figure Skaters Lose State Award After Taking Part In Event In Russia

Ice dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas perform during the Swan Lake ice show premiered by Tatyana Navka at in Moscow in December 2021.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has signed a decree stripping well-known figure skaters Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas over their participation in an event in Russia that was organized by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's wife, Tatyana Navka.

Nauseda wrote on Facebook after he signed the decree on August 10 that the figure skaters' achievements on Lithuania's behalf had been annulled by their "cynical" participation in the ice-dancing event in Sochi.

Nauseda also wrote that the Lithuanian government's decision to grant Moscow native Drobiazko Lithuanian citizenship in 1993 "looks like a miserable farce under the current circumstances," as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The day before, Lithuanian lawmakers proposed stripping Drobiazko of her Lithuanian citizenship.

Navka, an Olympic gold medalist and multiple world and European champion in ice dancing, called the Lithuanian parliament's plan to strip Drobiazko of her citizenship and state awards 'disgusting."

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Drobiazko began representing Lithuania in international figure-skating tournaments along with Vanagas. In 1993, she obtained Lithuanian citizenship, and seven years later the couple married. They have been living in Moscow for many years.

The couple earned bronze medals in the 2000 World Championship and in the European Championships in 2000 and 2006.

Last month, Ukraine's Olympic Committee fired Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko as vice president of the Figure Skating Federation and expelled him from the organization for taking part in Navka's event.

Iranian Activists Demand Immediate Release Of Hijab Protester

Sepideh Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist, was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.

Hundreds of civil activists in the western Lorestan Province have issued a statement calling on the Iranian authorities to release a woman who was arrested for protesting the mandatory head scarf and was apparently beaten to force a televised confession from her.

The signatories of this letter described Sepideh Rashno's "forced confessions" on state television as a "ridiculous display" and condemned the "producers" of the television program and their "insulting behavior" toward Rashno.

The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) said on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.

According to eyewitnesses the agency spoke to, Rashno had low blood pressure and had difficulty moving when she was transferred to the hospital. She returned to prison immediately after the examination.

Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist, was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.

The other woman threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without a hijab -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Rashno was subsequently detained and has been held since without access to a lawyer, nor have the charges against her been made public.

Amid growing concern over her whereabouts, a Twitter campaign started with the hashtag "Where is Sepideh?"

Iran's state television subsequently showed Rashno in a video report on July 30 where her eyes appeared darkened. Witnesses said she was listless and moved slowly.

During a one-sided narrative over the confrontation, Rashno was shown for a few seconds in what looked like a studio setting saying lines that appeared to have been written for her.

The signatories of the statement, who introduced themselves as "Lorestan men and women from different social classes," also demanded the immediate release of Sepideh Rashno and an official apology from state television.

They asked the head of Iran's judiciary to "take legal action against those who tortured and broadcast the forced confessions of Sepideh Rashno on TV."

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

Iran's Morality Police Warn Clothesmakers To Avoid 'Loud' Colors Or Face Closure

The news comes amid recent reports that Iranian authorities are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of the country's dress code.

Iranian authorities have warned manufacturers and sellers of women's clothing that they will shut down their businesses if they keep using "loud" colors in their products.

In a statement to the Roydad24 website, Majid Emami, who heads Iran's fashion and clothing organization, quoted the Ministry of Industry and Trade as saying that women's clothing manufacturers could lose the right to manufacture knee-length open cloaks -- the Iranian women's most common piece of clothing that is usually worn over a shirt and with long pants or jeans -- unless they stick with colors not deemed to be "loud."

"Regarding the color: the ministry emphasized that manufacturers should not use loud colors," Emami said.

However, he said that "there is no order or regulation to clarify which colors are deemed illegal."

Emami added that "society does not have a problem with this kind of clothing [knee-length open cloaks in bright colors]."

"If the relevant institutions want to create restrictions on the type of production, they should first change the taste of society," Emami added.

The news comes amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.

In recent weeks, women judged not to be in compliance have been barred from government offices, banks, and public transportation.

The notorious Guidance Patrols, or morality police, have become increasingly active and violent. Videos have emerged on social media appearing to show officers detaining women, forcing them into vans, and whisking them away.

The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

Rights Group Urges Kyrgyz Authorities To Drop 'Bogus' Charge Against Noted Activist

Kyrgyz rights activist Kamiljan Ruziev (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A human rights group in Kyrgyzstan has urged the Central Asian nation's authorities to drop a "bogus" forgery charge against human rights defender Kamiljan (Kamil) Ruziev and instead probe allegations that security services have threatened him.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) arrested Ruziev in May 2020 outside the Karakol City Courthouse in northeastern Kyrgyzstan while the court was considering a lawsuit Ruziev had filed against the UKMK and the prosecutor’s office for failing to investigate his complaint that law enforcement officers had threatened him.

Ruziev was charged with fraud and forgery at the time, but later the fraud charge was dropped.

In its August 10 statement, the Bishkek-based Equal Rights Coalition, which comprises several leading Kyrgyz human rights groups, said that, instead of trying Ruziev, who said earlier that his verdict was expected on August 12, the authorities "should thoroughly investigate Ruziev’s complaint" to find out if his claims about abuse of power by the security officials who arrested him really took place.

Ruziev, who heads the Karakol-based human rights organization Ventus, has said that he was arrested in retribution for his human rights activities.

For the past 20 years, Ruziev has been defending the rights of prisoners and others who have complained of torture and harassment at the hands of the police and government officials.

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, have demanded that Kyrgyz authorities drop the charge against Ruziev and investigate his claims that he was threatened by law enforcement.


Druzhba Oil Flows To Resume After Weeklong Suspension Blamed On Russia Sanctions

The suspension of oil flows thought the Druzhba pipeline has affected countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. (file photo)

Russia's pipeline monopoly Transneft and Hungarian energy group MOL say oil flows are poised to resume through the Druzhba pipeline on August 10 after nearly a weeklong stoppage due to complications from sanctions.

The suspension has affected a number of countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Transneft said Ukraine suspended Russian oil flows to three European nations as of August 4 because its transit payment couldn't be processed due to sanctions stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On August 10, MOL said the transit fee for the use of the Ukrainian section of the pipeline had been paid and the flow could resume within days.

Russian media then quoted Transneft as saying that the flow would begin by 4 p.m. Moscow time on August 10.

Slovak Economy Minister Richard Sulik said onFacebook the oil flow had resumed but gave no further details.

However, no oil had reached the Czech Republic by the evening of August 10, the country's Mero pipeline operator said, and Hungary also was still to receive deliveries.

Czech Industry Minister Jozef Sikela said on Twitter the failure of supplies via the Druzhba pipeline "does not limit the performance of Czech refineries in any way."

The refineries are working full time and the state company Mero CR had oil reserves for several days, he said.

He also said the government is working with Poland to restore oil supplies through the pipeline to Polish-owned Czech refineries.

Transneft had said it made payments for August transits to Ukraine's pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta in July but the payment didn't go through.

Gazprombank, which handled the payment, said the money was returned because of EU restrictions, adding that oil deliveries to Poland and Germany via Belarus were under way "as usual."

Russia has already reduced gas pipeline flows to many EU member-states, citing problems with turbine maintenance on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline as well as sanctions against some buyers whom Moscow officially deemed to be "unfriendly."

Since the Kremlin launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, cutting the country off from international financial institutions.

The European Union has been looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Russian energy resources and has agreed to ban more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports.

An EU ban on the purchase of Russian coal kicks into effect after midnight on August 10.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

U.S. Defense Secretary Pledges Military Training, Support For Baltics

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks in Riga on August 10,

The United States will conduct more military exercises with Baltic nations such as Latvia, and look to provide increased training, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on August 10.

Speaking at a press conference with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks in Riga, Austin said Washington may also bring in more U.S. troops if needed to bolster the region against any possible threat from Russia.

Austin, who is on a two-day visit to Latvia, said plans to do continuous rotations of forces into the Baltics will likely use troops from U.S. brigades in Romania and other parts of Europe, but “we can also bring in forces from the United States.”

During his visit, Austin repeatedly reemphasized the United States' commitment to helping the region defend itself.

Austin is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Latvia in nearly three decades, highlighting the increased importance of the Baltic nations, which sit at Russia’s western edge.

The Pentagon said the last defense chief to go to Latvia was William Perry in 1995.

Pabriks told reporters that his top priorities are to get more U.S. military enablers, adding that, in order to defend his country, his troops need “nitty gritty training” on a daily basis.

He added that Latvia also needs additional financial assistance from Washington in order to buy new military equipment and to beef up its air and coastal defenses.

Austin met with top Latvian leaders, including President Egils Levits at Riga Castle, pledging Washington’s steadfast commitment to standing with the Baltic region against any Russian aggression.

The three Baltic countries - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- are all former Soviet republics that were annexed during World War II . They gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004, putting themselves under the military protection of the Western allies.

With reporting by AP

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