Germany Rejects Trump Claim That It Owes NATO 'Vast Sums'
Germany has rejected U.S. President Donald Trump's assertion that it owes "vast sums of money" to NATO and the United States for defense.
The statement by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen came in response to Trump's claim on Twitter following his March 17 meeting in Washington with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"There is no debt account at NATO," von der Leyen said in a March 19 statement, adding that the alliance's target for defense spending by members is not linked exclusively to contributions to NATO.
In 2014, NATO agreed to a plan under which each member state would boost its defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024.
Merkel has stressed that Berlin is committed to this goal.
Von der Leyen said in her statement that Germany's increased defense spending would go not only toward NATO but also toward UN and EU peacekeeping efforts and toward combating Islamic State militants.
Trump's March 18 claim on Twitter followed his first meeting with Merkel since he took office in January.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
See all News Updates of the Day
Former Georgian President Saakashvili Present As Trial Resumes In Tbilisi
TBILISI -- The trial of Mikheil Saakashvili has resumed at the Tbilisi City Court, with the former Georgian president questioning the validity of the proceedings while his supporters skirmished with police outside.
A special penitentiary vehicle accompanied by four pickup trucks and a helicopter hovering above left the military hospital compound in Gori, where Saakashvili is being held, before arriving in Tbilisi on November 29, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the scene.
The only media outlet allowed into the hearing was the state broadcaster's First Channel. According to reports from the court, Saakashvili said before the hearing that he does not recognize the prosecutor's office, nor the Georgian judiciary, and that his trial on charges of abuse of power over the dispersal of a rally in November 2007 is part of a "pre-written comedy."
Saakashvili says all the charges against him are politically motivated.
RFE/RL correspondents at the courthouse reported minor clashes between security forces and Saakashvili's supporters, with police allegedly using pepper spray on the crowd.
The former president, who ended a hunger strike on November 20 after seven weeks, was visited on November 28 by Mariam Jishkariani, director of the Empathy rehabilitation center. She said that Saakashvili's mental health should not prevent him from attending the trial, though she said a preliminary assessment indicated that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is associated with torture while in prison, Jishkariani said.
The assessment also indicated encephalopathy, which is the result of starvation, and concluded that Saakashvili needs in-patient multidisciplinary treatment and rehabilitation.
Earlier this month, Saakashvili was moved from a prison in the city of Rustavi to the Gldani prison clinic, where he claimed he was verbally and physically abused by guards.
He had demanded to be taken to a civilian hospital. Instead, the government proposed that he be moved to the military hospital in Gori, located about 70 kilometers from the capital, Tbilisi.
Saakashvili, who founded the main opposition United National Movement (ENM), was arrested on October 1 when he returned after an eight-year absence to rally the opposition ahead of local elections.
Saakashvili served as Georgia's president from 2004 until 2013. In January 2018, he was convicted in absentia in Georgia of abuse of office and sentenced to three years in prison. In June 2018, he was again convicted in absentia of abuse of office and sentenced to six years in prison.
Saakashvili and his supporters say the prosecutions were politically motivated.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Russian Man Who Revealed Shocking Conditions In COVID-19 Hospital In Siberia Flees Country
A Russian man who disguised himself as a medical worker so he could treat his COVID-19-stricken grandmother and reveal the bleak picture of how coronavirus patients were being treated in a hospital in the Siberian city of Tomsk has fled the country fearing for his safety.
Sergei Samborsky told The Insider investigative group on November 28 that he is currently in Georgia after leaving Russia.
In October, after he was not allowed to see his hospitalized 84-year-old grandmother, Samborsky dressed up in protective gear to look like a hospital worker. This allowed him access to his grandmother, Yulia Yemelyashina.
Samborsky posted a shocking video of his grandmother in the hospital, showing her unconscious, covered in bruises and bedsores while lying on a urine-soaked mattress.
The video caused a public outcry. Yemelyashina died days later.
Samborsky filed a lawsuit against the hospital director, Aleksandr Kholopov, accusing him of failing to organize proper conditions for treating COVID-19 patients, which lead directly to the death of his grandmother.
Since then, Samborsky says he was forced to leave his job. He says he has also received threats from unknown persons by phone and that local prosecutors summoned him for questioning, hinting that the video he had taken in the hospital had been doctored to "discredit the Health Ministry."
More Than 200 Iranians Said Arrested, Dozens Wounded In Crackdown On Water Shortage Protests
A U.S.-based news outlet that covers news in Iran says at least 214 people, including 13 minors, were arrested last week in a police crackdown on demonstrators protesting crippling water shortages in the central city of Isfahan.
Thirty people were wounded in the eyes by pellets fired by police officers on November 26, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA).
Severe drought and water diversions have been blamed for drying up the Zayandehrud River that runs through Isfahan, some 400 kilometers south of Tehran.
This month, the desiccated bed of the river saw rallies drawing at times thousands of demonstrators, as farmers and other have gathered there from across Isfahan Province.
A rally on November 26 escalated into clashes, with security forces firing tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators. Authorities said 67 “rioters” were arrested.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price has said Washington was "deeply concerned about the violent crackdown against peaceful protestors."
"The people of Iran have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable," Price tweeted on November 27.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has said the water crisis is a top priority for the government.
NATO Chief Touts Alliance's Forces In Baltics Ahead Of Foreign Ministers Meeting In Riga
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is scheduled to visit a combat-ready battle group in Latvia on November 29 ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga later this week.
Stoltenberg, speaking on November 28 at a news conference in the Latvian capital, said the battle group is part of a significant increase by NATO in the Baltic region that has taken place in recent years.
“For the first time in our history, we have combat-ready battle groups in the Baltic region, including one in Latvia and one in Lithuania,” Stoltenberg said at the news conference. “I will visit the one in Latvia tomorrow.”
He added that NATO also conducts air policing and has an increased naval presence, so that on land, sea, and in the air, “there is more NATO now” in the Baltic region.
Stoltenberg was joined in Riga by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for meetings dominated by the Belarusian migrant crisis and Russia's military buildup near Ukraine.
Stoltenberg and von der Leyen have accused Belarus of orchestrating the migrant crisis on its borders with EU countries Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania as a "hybrid threat” against the European Union -- a charge that the regime of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has denied.
Stoltenberg and von der Leyen vowed to counter the "hybrid threat" -- defined as a security challenge combining traditional military means and nonmilitary tactics such as disinformation -- during their visits to Latvia, which followed an earlier stop in Lithuania.
Latvia has been responding “in a humane way [and] at the same time in a very firm way” to the hybrid attack, von der Leyen said.
The EU continues to stand by Latvia, she added, announcing that the bloc will triple EU border-management funding for Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania to 200 million euros ($226.4 million) in 2021 and 2022.
She said the money would go toward patrol vehicles and electronic surveillance, including drones.
Some migrants have been flown back to their home countries in recent days. Another emergency flight left Minsk on November 28 carrying more than 400 people to Iraq. At least three more flights by Iraqi Airways are planned, including two scheduled to depart Minsk on November 29.
But Stoltenberg warned that the crisis is not yet over as people keep trying to enter the bloc illegally from Belarus.
Stoltenberg said he and von der Leyen also discussed Russia's "unusual" buildup of tanks, artillery, drones, and thousands of combat-ready troops near its border with Ukraine. He called it "very concerning for many reasons," also "because it is unprovoked and unexplained."
"The message to Russia is that they should de-escalate, reduce tensions, and be transparent" he said, adding that "if they decide to use force, then of course, there will be consequences."
NATO remains vigilant, he said and stands ready to defend all NATO member states and will continue to provide Ukraine with political and practical support.
The two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers begins November 30.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
World Powers Set To Resume Talks To Revive Iran Nuclear Deal
Talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are due to resume in Vienna on November 29, and Iran’s chief negotiator said they likely will set the framework and time period for the negotiations.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri spoke with Iranian news media on November 28 after meeting with the heads of the Chinese and Russian delegations and EU mediator Enrique Mora.
"The timing of this round of talks cannot be predicted," Bagheri said. “It is likely that the framework and time period of this dialogue period will be determined.”
The talks will involve the partners still in the deal: Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain. The U.S. delegation, headed by Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, will participate indirectly.
The talks are to resume after a five-month hiatus amid growing Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear advances.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's ambassador to the UN in Vienna, said on Twitter on November 28 that the "informal consultations" between China, Russia, and Iran ahead of the formal talks were useful for a “better understanding of the updated negotiating position of #Tehran.”
He noted the "very protracted pause" in an earlier tweet, saying the talks can't last forever. “There is the obvious need to speed up the process," he said.
The deal constrained many aspects of Iran's research program, which Iran has always maintained was for peaceful purposes, while opening it to greater scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog. In return, many nuclear-related economic sanctions were lifted.
But then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2018 and reimposed the sanctions, despite Iran's compliance with the deal.
In response, Tehran has gradually breached limits imposed by the pact, including on uranium enrichment, refining it to higher purity, and installing advanced centrifuges.
Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, has pledged to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to full compliance.
Six rounds of indirect negotiations in Vienna that began in April failed to reach agreement and the talks were put on hold in June after Iran elected anti-Western hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi president.
The main sticking points center around Tehran's demand for a broad lifting of U.S. sanctions and technical nuclear details about how Tehran will return to compliance.
The EU has said that participants in the talks “will continue the discussions on the prospect of a possible return of the United States to the JCPOA and how to ensure the full and effective implementation of the agreement by all sides."
The U.S. State Department said on November 3 that Washington hopes Tehran returns to the talks ready to negotiate and in good faith. Washington still believes it is possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on a mutual return to compliance with the pact, State Department spokesman Ned Price said then.
The head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council has said the United States must offer guarantees that it will not again abandon the nuclear accord in order to ensure the success of the talks to revive it.
With reporting by Radio Farda, AFP, BBC, and dpa
Voting Machine Malfunctions, Record Low Turnout In Kyrgyz Parliamentary Elections
Protests End In Volatile Tajik Region After Talks Between Officials And Demonstrators
Protests have ended in Tajikistan’s volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region after several hours of negotiations between government officials and representatives of the demonstrators on November 28, local residents told RFE/RL.
During the talks, the authorities pledged not to launch criminal probes against the protesters who had been staging demonstrations in front of the government building in the provincial capital, Khorugh, since November 25, said a local activist who attended the negotiations.
The activist spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to media.
According to the source, the officials also promised to open an investigation into the death of a local man who was shot dead by police in an incident that sparked the four-day protests.
The protesters dispersed in the afternoon and the situation in the city have returned to normal, several Khorugh residents said. There was no immediate comment from government officials.
Earlier, police sources said that Gorno-Badakhshan's acting governor, Alisher Mirzonabot, and several other officials and lawmakers were negotiating with some 40 representatives of protesters in the governor’s office to end the tensions.
Protests in Khorugh broke out after security forces fatally wounded a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. On November 25, protesters brought the dead body of the man, Gulbidin Ziyobekov, to the town’s main square, demanding an investigation into the incident.
Some in the crowd then attempted to seize the building of the regional administration using "firearms, stones, and sharp objects," wounding four members of the security forces and a staff member of the prosecutor's office, the state security service said in a statement.
In response, security forces fired on protesters, killing at least one person and wounding several others, sources told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.
Violence continued in the following days. According to provincial prosecutors, protesters threw stones and wounded Aziz Ghiyoszoda, a member of parliament. That incident happened on November 27 when Ghiyoszoda along with the acting governor, Mirzonabot, came to the central square, unsuccessfully attempting to hold talks with the protesters.
Local residents say that up to 5,000 people were taking part in the rallies every day. However, the size of the demonstration on November 28 was considerably smaller with several dozen protesters gathered in front of the government headquarters.
Police also removed several checkpoints they had set up in the city after the tensions began.
Dismantling the checkpoints was among the protesters’ requests.
Protests are rare in the tightly-controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Tensions between the government and residents of the nominally autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A linguistically and ethnically distinct region, Gorno-Badakhshan has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict.
U.S. Navy Says It Rescued Two Iranians Adrift In Gulf Of Oman
The United States Navy said on November 28 that it had rescued two Iranian mariners who had been adrift aboard a fishing vessel for eight days in the Gulf of Oman.
The navy cargo ship Charles Drew was sent to the scene on November 27 with food, water, and medical personnel after a distress call was received, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement.
The two men recovered "in good health and spirits" and were transferred to an Omani Coast Guard vessel to be taken to the Omani capital, Muscat.
Turkey, Turkmenistan Vow To Boost Trade Ahead Of ECO Summit
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Turkmenistan for talks on November 27 with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and to attend a summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) on November 28.
During his meetings with Berdymukhammedov, Erdogan signed a joint agreement on trade, focusing on energy, culture, and education.
Erdogan told journalists that both countries were committed to increasing bilateral trade, which currently has a volume of some $5 billion.
On November 28, Erdogan will attend the 15th ECO leaders' summit. The ECO comprises all five Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan), as well as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Erdogan was scheduled to hold unspecified bilateral talks with the heads of other ECO member countries.
Based on reporting by TRTWorld and Hurriyet
Rescue Workers Continue Recovering Bodies From Russian Coal-Mine Disaster
The bodies of five coal miners who were killed when an explosion ripped through a mine in the Siberian region of Kemerovo on November 25 have been recovered and brought to the surface, local officials reported.
The regional government's office posted on November 28 that one team of rescue workers was still in the mine, pumping out water and stabilizing carbon monoxide levels.
The bodies were reportedly found at a depth of 365 meters and rescuers had to travel 4.6 kilometers to reach them. Thirty-two bodies are yet to be recovered.
In all, 51 people, including five rescue workers, were killed in the disaster. Sixty people were injured and hospitalized, while a total of 239 miners were successfully evacuated.
On November 27, a group of miners from the mine told journalists that they were regularly given meters for measuring methane levels in the mine that had been tampered with to give lower readings. Nonetheless, the miners said, the equipment recorded excessive methane levels both in August and earlier this month. The miners provided photographs and videos showing the purported violations.
The miners also alleged that, for the first 90 minutes following the explosion, no ambulances or rescue workers arrived at the scene and only other miners began helping those still below ground.
Two criminal cases into allegations of safety violations and criminal neglect have been opened and five people -- the mine director, his deputy, the immediate site supervisor, and two state safety inspectors -- have been arrested and charged.
The Listvyazhnaya coal mine, opened in 2003, is part of SDS-Ugol, one of Russia's largest mining companies. It is Russia's third-largest coal extractor and exporter.
According to Andrei Vil, a representative of the state Rostekhnadzor monitoring agency, the mine was inspected 127 times in 2021, as a result of which 914 violations were documented and work was stopped nine times. The most recent inspection, according to Rostekhnadzor reports, took place the day before the explosion.
Prosecutors have alleged that two Rostekhnadzor inspectors filled out reports without actually carrying out the checks.
Roads Blocked In Protest Against New Serbian Laws Decried By Environmentalists
Demonstrators In Serbia Block Bridges And Roads To Protest Legislation They Say Favors Business
Demonstrators blocked roads and bridges across Serbia on November 27 to protest against new laws they contend favor business.
Police were out in force, especially in the capital Belgrade, where protesters, blowing whistles and chanting “We won’t give up Serbia,” managed to block traffic at several locations.
Huge columns of cars and other vehicles formed at several locations as the demonstrators allowed only emergency services to pass.
Similar actions were organized in several other cities across Serbia, including Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Sabac, and Kragujevac.
Several demonstrators were arrested during the protests in Novi Sad and Zrenjanin in northern Serbia.
Environmental groups and civil society organizations object to the authorities' recent moves to lower the referendum threshold and allow for the swift expropriation of private property if it's deemed to be in the public interest.
Activists argue this will pave the way for foreign companies to circumvent popular discontent over projects such as the bid by the Rio Tinto company to launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.
Serbia’s authorities have rejected the accusations, saying the new laws are needed because of infrastructure projects. President Aleksandar Vucic said a referendum will be organized on the Rio Tinto mine.
Experts have warned that the planned lithium mine in western Serbia would destroy farmland and pollute the waters.
Rio Tinto has said that it will respect all Serbian laws and denied its project could endanger the environment.
Following decades of neglect, Serbia has faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other issues.
With reporting by AP
North Macedonia's PM Resigns As Head Of Social Democrats
North Macedonia's prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has stepped down as head of the Social Democratic Party (SDSM) in the wake of the party’s defeat in local elections in October.
The party’s ruling committee on November 27 accepted Zaev’s resignation and scheduled a vote on a successor for December 12. The new party leader would also be submitted to parliament to replace Zaev as prime minister.
Local media reported that Finance Minister Dimitar Kovacevski is currently the favorite to win.
Zaev announced his intention to step down after the party suffered a sound defeat in local elections on October 31.
He served as prime minister from May 2017 to January 2020 and again since August 2020.
He oversaw the resolution of his country’s long-standing dispute with Greece over the name “Macedonia.” Zaev oversaw a 2018 referendum that changed the country’s name to North Macedonia, paving the way to advance its European Union accession bid.
With reporting by dpa
U.S. 'Deeply Concerned' After Iranian Crackdown On Protests Over Water Shortages
The United States has expressed deep concern after security forces in Iran cracked down on demonstrators protesting crippling water shortages.
Security forces on November 26 fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators as some 500 people gathered on the desiccated bed of the Zayandehrud River, which runs through the city of Isfahan.
Hassan Karami, an Iranian police general, said on November 27 that police had arrested 67 of “the main actors and agitators” from the protest. Karami added that between 2,000 and 3,000 "rioters" had taken part in the November 26 demonstration in Isfahan, some 400 kilometers south of the Iranian capital, Tehran.
"Deeply concerned about the violent crackdown against peaceful protestors," State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted. "The people of Iran have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable."
The riverbed has seen protests against the water shortages since November 9, as farmers and others have gathered there from across the region.
Although the region is experiencing a severe drought, many people blame the authorities for diverting water to neighboring Yazd Province, which has also been affected.
The largest protest, involving thousands of demonstrators, was on November 19.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni has said the water crisis is a top priority for the government.
Based on reporting by AFP and Fars
Protests Continue In Tajikistan For Third Straight Day
Rare protests in Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan region continued for a third day on November 27, after one protester was killed and five members of law enforcement were injured when a crowd stormed a local government building.
Several thousand people protested in the provincial capital, Khorugh, on November 27. According to unconfirmed reports, police opened fire on demonstrators, several of whom were reportedly injured.
Protests in Khorugh broke out on November 25 after security forces lethally wounded a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping.
Protesters brought the dead body of the man, Gulbidin Ziyobekov, to the town square on November 25, demanding an investigation into the incident, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported.
In response, security forces fired on protesters, killing one of them and wounding several others, sources told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.
According to the regional prosecutors’ office, Ziyobekov, 29, was "injured" when security forces raided his home in a nearby village on November 25. He and accomplices are wanted for allegedly beating and kidnapping a prosecutor last year. Another man was reportedly injured during the operation and later died in a hospital.
Authorities said Ziyobekov had resisted arrest and opened fire on officers, but they made no mention of his death.
Protest were also held on November 26, when crowds brought the coffins of two people killed the previous day to the central square in Khorugh.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Explosions, Fire Rock Major Russian Munitions Plant
A large munitions factory in the Russian city of Dzerzhinsk was rocked by several explosions on November 27.
The Emergency Situations Ministry reported that two workers were injured in the explosions.
A fire ignited by the blasts was later extinguished.
Officials said there was no danger to local residents.
Acting Emergency Situations Minister Aleksandr Chupriyan was at the site, having traveled to Dzerzhinsk from Kemerovo Oblast where he was overseeing rescue efforts from a November 25 coal-mine explosion there.
Officials said 88 workers were successfully evacuated from the area of the explosions.
A criminal investigation into the incident was opened.
The plant was struck by a series of massive explosions on June 1, 2019, injuring dozens of workers. That incident followed an earlier explosion in April 2019.
According to the factory’s website, it is the largest defense-industry plant in Russia. Munitions account for about 30 percent of its output, the rest comprising mostly industrial explosives and chemical products.
In August 2018, six workers were killed in an explosion and fire at the plant, while in July 2020, three workers were hospitalized following a chemical leak.
With reporting by Interfax
Court Orders Five Held In Pretrial Detention After Deadly Blast In Siberian Mine
A court in Russia on November 27 ordered five people to remain in pretrial detention for two months pending a probe into an explosion at a coal mine in Siberia that left dozens dead.
Russian authorities reported 51 deaths after a suspect methane explosion rocked the Listvyazhnaya mine in the Kemerovo region in southwestern Siberia on November 25, killing 46 miners and five rescuers.
The Central District Court in the city of Kemerovo ruled to jail the director of the Listvyazhnaya mine, Sergei Makhrakov, his deputy Andrei Molostvov, and section supervisor Sergei Gerasimyonok.
They are facing charges of violating industrial safety requirements for hazardous production facilities that resulted in multiple deaths. If convicted, they could face up to seven years in prison.
Two officials of the local branch of Rostekhnadzor, Russia’s state technology and ecology watchdog -- Sergei Vinokurov and Vyacheslav Semykin -- have also been jailed for two months on a charge of negligence that led to two or more deaths, punishable by up to seven years in prison as well.
The two inspectors had issued a certificate for the mine this month but had not actually checked the facility.
Law enforcement officials said on November 26 that miners had complained about the high level of methane in the mine.
In all, 60 people remain hospitalized, four in serious condition, the Russian Health Ministry reported on November 27.
The head of the Kemerovo Oblast settlement of Prokopyevska, Vyacheslav Starchenko, was dismissed on November 26 for organizing a party in honor of his own appointment the previous day at a time when the entire Siberian region was officially in mourning. Regional Governor Sergei Tsivilev announced the dismissal, saying that those who attended the gathering “apparently have no heart.”
Kemerovo Oblast has declared a period of mourning from November 26 to November 28.
The accident at the mine, located some 3,500 kilometers east of Moscow, was Russia's worst since 2010 when explosions killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same region.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Iraq Plans More Repatriation Flights As Belarus Tells Migrants They Can Go To The EU
Iraq is sending more planes to repatriate about 800 migrants stranded on the Belarus-Poland border, adding to nearly a thousand already brought home, the Foreign Ministry said.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said on November 26 that two Iraqi Airways flights would bring back 861 migrants over the next 24 hours.
The flights will bring to 1,894 the number of Iraqis, most of them Kurds, brought home from Belarus on special flights since the operation began on November 18.
One flight on the evening of November 26 will bring 431 people to Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, followed by a flight on November 27 to collect 430 more, Sahaf said.
Poland and other EU nations accuse Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka of waging a “hybrid war” by allowing migrants to fly in, then funneling them to the bloc’s borders in retaliation for sanctions imposed over a sweeping crackdown that has been under way in Belarus since the authoritarian leader kept his grip on power following last year’s disputed presidential election.
Meanwhile, the EU is readying a fifth package of sanctions against Belarus for orchestrating the migrant crisis.
Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have put up fences and deployed thousands of border guards, soldiers, and police to seal the border, where thousands of migrants have camped in freezing temperatures during the standoff between Belarus and the European Union. At least 11 migrants have died in recent months, according to aid groups.
In some cases, the frontline states in the crisis have pushed back migrants to Belarus, in a policy criticized by human rights groups.
Returning Iraqis say they have spent thousands of dollars to escape economic hardship or life in displacement camps to start a new life in the EU, only to be mistreated by Polish and Belarusian authorities. Most of the migrants, including minority Yazidis displaced by a genocidal campaign launched by the Islamic State in 2014, are seeking to reach Germany.
Poland says groups of migrants are still continuing to illegally cross the border from Belarus, and has warned against interpreting recent moves by Minsk to repatriate some of the migrants as a de-escalation of the crisis.
Last week, Belarusian authorities cleared makeshift migrant camps at the border and transferred about 2,000 people to a warehouse turned into shelter, while allowing the first repatriation flight to Iraq.
Earlier on November 26, Lukashenka made his first public appearance at the border since the start of the crisis, telling migrants at a warehouse that they were free to choose whether to head to the EU or go home.
"If you want to go westwards, we won't detain you, choke you, beat you," he said in a campaign-style speech to hundreds of migrants. "It's up to you. Go through. Go."
"We won't in any circumstances detain you, tie your hands and load you on planes to send you home if you don't want that," he added.
While Belarus has begun allowing some migrants to fly home, it is pushing for Germany to accept 2,000 people, something the EU has rejected and Germany has denied agreeing to it.
Lukashenka accuses the EU of failing to meet international asylum laws by refusing the migrants entry.
The crisis has added to tensions between Russia and the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backed Lukashenka as he crushed opposition protests following last year's election, has also backed Belarus in its migrant standoff with the EU.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, Iraqi News Agency, and Kurdistan 24
U.S. Envoy For Bosnian Election Reform Seeks 'Limited, Targeted' Constitutional Change
A special U.S. envoy for election reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina has told RFE/RL's Balkan Service ahead of a trip to the region that Washington sees "limited, targeted constitutional change" as a key aspect of a reform push ahead of elections next year.
Bosnia has been in a protracted political crisis as its Serb entity threatens secession and Bosnian Croats complain they are underrepresented in the country's ethnically-apportioned structures.
U.S. officials have been pressing for electoral reforms in time to ensure broad participation in an election scheduled for next October.
"The message that we will be bringing to the leaders of the various political parties and to others is -- now is the time for action," Mathew Palmer, special envoy for election reform in Bosnia, told RFE/RL on November 26.
"Everybody understands the nature of the problems that we are looking at, everybody understands the nature of the compromises that are necessary, and now is the time for leadership, now is the time for difficult choices… in order to help Bosnia-Herzegovina move forward towards a European future,” Palmer said ahead of his arrival in the Balkan country on November 27.
Bosnia's governing structures remain ethnically divided under a U.S.-brokered peace accord that ended a 1992-95 war.
The Dayton accords created two entities in Bosnia: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. The country is governed and administered along ethnic lines established by the agreement, with a weak and often dysfunctional central government.
"This is not a negotiation that has two parties. This is about all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the future direction of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the integrity of the electoral process across the country. So there are going to be multiple stakeholders," Palmer said.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in the ethnically-apportioned tripartite presidency, has been threatening to withdraw from state-level institutions, including Bosnia's joint judiciary, military, and tax administration. He has brushed aside international concerns that such an agenda could spark renewed conflict in the ethnically divided Balkan country.
U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has renewed a push for diplomacy to resolve the political crisis, working with European and regional partners to ensure the country's territorial integrity and compliance with the peace deal.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a letter to members of the presidency, calling for a commitment to the Dayton accords and reforms to the country’s election law and limited constitutional reforms.
"One of the key aspects of the [electoral] reform process -- as we look at it -- is limited, targeted constitutional change to help Bosnia-Herzegovina meet its obligations to the European Union and come into compliance with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights," Palmer said.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and EU officials have said Bosnia's current, ethnically defined representation is problematic.
Gunman Fires On Bus Carrying Schoolchildren In Kosovo, Killing Three People
An unidentified gunman opened fire on a bus carrying schoolchildren in western Kosovo, killing three people and injuring another, authorities said.
Veton Elshani, deputy police chief in the nearby city of Peja, said the shots were fired at the bus on the evening of November 26 as it was traveling in the village of Gllogjan, 90 kilometers west of the capital, Pristina.
The driver died on the scene and three teenagers were taken to a local hospital where two of them died.
Elshani said police believe the gunman used a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and acted alone when he fired at the bus transporting eight teenagers. It’s unclear if the bus was the intended target of the shooting.
“There is no reason to believe it was a terrorist act," Elshani said.
Chief Prosecutor Blerim Isufaj said an investigation had been launched but no suspect had been identified.
President Vjosa Osmani called the attack “shocking” and urged law enforcement officials to find the culprit.
Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said that he had shortened his visit to Albania due to the event and ordered police to fully mobilize to find the perpetrator of this "macabre act.”
With reporting by AP
Biden Hints At Talks With Russian, Ukrainian Leaders As West Warns Moscow Over Ukraine
U.S. and NATO officials have issued fresh warnings of the possible consequences of any new Russian aggression against neighboring Ukraine, with Washington suggesting that "all options are on the table" if the alliance is forced to respond to an escalation by Moscow.
Later, U.S. President Joe Biden said in response to a reporter's question that "in all probability" he would speak directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in an effort to defuse tensions in the region.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on November 26 that Russia had assembled combat-ready troops, tanks, and heavy military equipment near its border with Ukraine and cautioned Moscow that any force against its neighbor would incur "costs."
Reports of a Russian buildup of more than 90,000 troops recently prompted the United States and Germany to reiterate their support for Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity.
"If Russia uses force against Ukraine that will have costs, that would have consequences," Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Moscow has denied direct involvement in Kyiv's seven-year war with separatists in eastern Ukraine despite overwhelming evidence of Russian troop and other assistance. It has downplayed the recent reports of its troop movements as an internal matter.
"This is the second time this year that Russia has amassed a large and unusual concentration of forces in the region," Stoltenberg said in an allusion to a purported buildup in the spring that eased soon after a summit between Putin and Biden in June.
Russia this week launched military drills in the Black Sea region near Ukraine.
Earlier on November 26, Zelenskiy said his country was prepared for any Russian escalation and alleged that unidentified Russians and Ukrainians were plotting to overthrow his government next week.
Russia has recently stepped up its involvement in an ongoing feud between Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the West since a highly criticized Belarusian presidential election in 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO's 29 other foreign ministers are scheduled to gather in Latvia on November 30, with Russia's activities high on the agenda.
Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are both expected to attend an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting on December 2-3.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said on November 26 that a key focus of Blinken's European trip next week would be how to respond to challenges including Russia and Belarus.
"As you can appreciate, all options are on the table and there's a toolkit that includes a whole range of options," Donfried told reporters.
"It's now for the alliance to decide what are the next moves that NATO wants to take," she said of the NATO and OSCE gatherings.
"Next week, we will talk about our assessment of what's happening on Russia's border with Ukraine and we will begin that conversations of what are the options that are on the table and what it is that NATO as an alliance would like to do together."
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Kyrgyz Officials Announce Detention Of Alleged Coup Plotters Ahead Of Elections
Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) has announced the arrest of 15 suspects in an alleged coup plot, just two days before elections in the country's fourth major vote in a little over a year.
The UKMK said the alleged plotters included lawmakers in the Jogorku Kenesh, the unicameral legislature, and former high-ranking officials but did not identify any suspects.
It said pretrial proceedings had already been instituted under articles of the Criminal Code relating to violent efforts to overturn the government.
The Prosecutor-General's Office has set up an interagency group to investigate the case.
Street protests have sparked government ousters three times in the past two decades, including after a vote last year that swept the current president, Sadyr Japarov, to power.
National parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 28 to repeat the October 2020 vote.
Japarov has since organized a presidential election and a concurrent referendum on changing the constitution to grant more power to the presidency.
A spokesman for the intelligence service, Kumushbek Shabdanov, said the suspects had recruited about 1,000 people and were preparing for a postelection riot.
Officials said mass riots were part of the plan and that a search turned up weapons, ammunition, and drugs.
RFE/RL has learned that Green Party candidate Beknazar Kupeshov is among those detained early on November 26.
One of the purported detainees named by local media, Nurbek Kalekeev, had recently become a vocal critic of the government on social media over an ongoing coal shortage.
In August, the Interior Ministry said it had tapped the phones of dozens of politicians and their relatives, civil society activists, and human rights activists earlier this year as part of an investigation into violence in October 2020.
The list of politicians and civil-society activists arrested and charged under the current administration with attempting to seize power through force includes former Interior Minister Kursan Asanov, whose trial began last month.
Armenia, Azerbaijan Pledge Progress After Putin Hosts Talks On Borders, Transit, Trade
The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have expressed a willingness toward progress on border delimitation and improving economic and transport links after Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted trilateral talks in Sochi.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, and Putin began their three-hour meeting on November 26 by saying that "a lot has been done" since last year's Moscow-brokered cease-fire ended 44 days of intense fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby districts.
A deadly flareup last week has rekindled fears of a return to large-scale violence.
In a statement after their talks, all three pledged "to take steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and to work towards the creation of a bilateral commission on the delimitation of the state border between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia with its subsequent demarcation with the consultative assistance of the Russian Federation at the request of the parties."
They also vowed "to intensify joint efforts aimed at the earliest possible resolution" of commitments from the past year on resuming economic and transport links in their Caucasus region.
Moscow said it would lend "all necessary assistance" toward "normalizing relations" between the longtime foes and "creating an atmosphere of trust" between their peoples and "building good-neighborly relations in the region."
Putin said that Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani deputy prime ministers would meet in Moscow next week "to summarize some results and announce the decisions that we have coordinated today."
Aliyev expressed hope that the Sochi talks could lead a "more secure and predictable" situation in the Caucasus.
“Today we had a very detailed and I would say frank conversation on issues of border delimitation and demarcation and unblocking of transport arteries," Aliyev said.
"We openly discussed our plans, we openly discussed issues that cause concern with both sides. The most important thing is that the decisions that we’ve made in the issue of settling disputes, differences will contribute to a more secure and predictable situation in the South Caucasus."
Aliyev said that "in Azerbaijan we feel like turning over the page of many years of confrontation with Armenia and begin a stage of normal interaction," adding, "I think our meeting will lead to good results that won’t make us wait for too long."
Pashinian described the meeting as "very positive."
"This wasn't a meeting to hide problems," the Armenian prime minister said. "I think that we can expect concrete results if we manage to build on the dynamics of our talks."
The intense conflict last year ended with Azerbaijan in control of major swaths of territory in and around the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that had been under ethnic Armenian control since a bloody war in the 1990s.
Security Forces Use Tear Gas In Central Iranian City Against Protesters Demanding Drought Aid
Police have used tear gas to disperse hundreds of people demonstrating in the Iranian city of Isfahan to demand government action over a drought.
Video footage on social media appeared to show police and protesters clashing in the dry bed of the Zayandehrud River on November 26. Other videos showed similar unrest in nearby streets of Isfahan.
The gathering of some 500 people in Isfahan was ended by what the Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency said was a large security force.
Farmers reportedly ended a nearly weeks-long protest in the area on November 25, after authorities promised to compensate them for losses suffered in drought-stricken areas of central Iran.
Drought has been a problem in Iran for some 30 years, but it has worsened over the past decade, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. The Iran Meteorological Organization says that an estimated 97 percent of the country now faces some level of drought.
The farming area around Isfahan was once well supplied by the Zayandehrud River, but nearby factories have increasingly drawn on it over the years. The river once flowed under historic bridges in Isfahan's city center, but it's now a barren strip of dirt.
In 2012, farmers clashed with police in a town in Isfahan Province, breaking a water pipe that diverted some 50 million cubic meters of water a year to a neighboring province. Similar protests have continued sporadically since then.
Based on reporting by AP