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Germany's Merkel To Step Down As Chancellor At End Of Current Term

Germany's Merkel Announces Plan To Quit
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Angela Merkel has told her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that she will step down as Germany's chancellor at the end of her current term in 2021 and will not seek reelection as a CDU lawmaker.

Speaking to journalists after a closed-door meeting of the CDU leadership in Berlin on October 29, Merkel also said she plans to give up leadership of her party in December, when the CDU is scheduled to elect a new party head.

Asked whether her announcement also applied for a snap election before 2021, Merkel said that she just made this clear and that she did not want to participate in any further speculation.

Merkel's statement came after backing for her conservative bloc plunged in two state parliamentary elections in two weeks.

Media reports, citing party sources, said that three people including Merkel's favored successor, CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had announced their candidacies for the party-head post.

The other two are Friedrich Merz, a former parliamentary leader of Merkel's conservative alliance, and Health Minister Jens Spahn.

Merkel acknowledged that Kramp-Karrenbauer and Spahn had launched bids for her post, but added she did not want to influence the election of her successor.

The CDU saw its support drop over 10 percent in the state of Hesse on October 28. On October 14, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), suffered a similar loss in its home state.

Merkel has chaired the party since 2000 and has been Germany's leader since 2005.

Merkel's predecessor, social democrat Gerhard Schroeder, stepped down as leader of his SPD party in 2004 but remained chancellor.

Based on reports by dpa, AP, AFP, and Reuters

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Pakistani Journalist Imran Riaz Khan Released From Captivity, Reunited With Family

Pakistani journalist Imran Riaz Khan alongside his lawyer Ali Ashfaq

Pakistani journalist Imran Riaz Khan has been freed after four months of captivity and was reunited with his family, friend and fellow journalist Hamid Mir said on September 25, confirming earlier police reports. It remains unclear who had abducted Khan. Critics say security agencies had held Khan, who had publicly supported jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan (no relation). Riaz Khan was arrested at an airport in Punjab Province in May as he tried to leave Pakistan. Police say he was later released, but relatives said they were unable to find him and feared he had been abducted. Journalists are often targeted by Pakistan's security services, according to the international Committee to Protect Journalists. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, click here.

Pakistani Ex-PM Imran Khan Moved To Prison With Better Facilities, Lawyer Says

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been imprisoned since August after being convicted on corruption charges. (file photo)

Pakistan's former prime minister, Imran Khan, was moved to a prison with better facilities near the national capital, Islamabad, after a court order, his lawyer said on September 25. His legal team and party had been pleading with several courts to issue orders for Khan to be shifted to Adyala Jail in garrison city of Rawalpindi, which they argued was more appropriate for a former premier. Khan has been detained in a low-key, colonial era prison in northwestern Attock district, that lacked facilities. The former premier has been in jail since August after being convicted on corruption charges. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Adds President Of ICC To Wanted List

Piotr Hofmanski (file photo)

The Russian Interior Ministry added the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Piotr Hofmanski, to its wanted list for unspecified reasons on September 25. Earlier this year, the ministry added ICC judges Tomoko Akane and Rosario Salvatore Aitala, as well as ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, after they issued arrest warrants in March for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's children's commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for being responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia since Moscow launched its invasion -- a war crime under international legislation. Russia retaliated by opening criminal cases against the ICC officials. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Belarusian Freelance Journalist, Wife Handed Prison Terms On Extremism Charges

Tatsyana Pytsko and her husband, Vyachaslau Lazarau (file photos)

A court in the city of Vitsebsk in Belarus's northeast has sentenced freelance video-journalist Vyachaslau Lazarau and his wife, Tatsyana Pytsko, to five years and three years in prison, respectively, on extremism charges as authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to clamp down on independent media and free speech.

Judge Yauhen Burunou of the Vitsebsk regional court pronounced the sentences on September 25 after finding Lazarau and Pytsko guilty of cooperating with an extremist group. The charges against the couple stemmed from their cooperation with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that was labeled as extremist and banned in the country in November 2021.

Lazarau and his wife were arrested in February. Belarusian human rights organizations have recognized the couple as political prisoners.

Also on September 25, the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights group said a court in the western city of Brest handed 20-year-old activist Vadzim Smaleuski a two-year parole-like sentence after finding him guilty of insulting Lukashenka in an online post.

In a separate statement, Vyasna said it learned that a court in the western city of Baranavichy has sentenced activist Svyatlana Bakanava, 36, to one year in prison after finding her guilty of insulting Lukashenka on the Internet.

Many journalists, rights activists, and representatives of democratic institutions have been jailed in Belarus since the August 2020 presidential election that opposition politicians, ordinary Belarusians, and Western governments said was rigged.

Thousands have been detained during countrywide protests over the results and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

Former Russian Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin Dies At 89

Yevgeny Yasin in 2017

A leading ideologue of economic reforms during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the late 1980s, former Russian Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin died at the age of 89 in Moscow on September 25. Ukraine-born Yasin was an economy professor at Moscow State University before he was asked to lead a unit at the state commission on economic reforms at the Soviet government in 1989. In 1991, he joined the Scientific Industrial Union, which after the collapse of the Soviet Union turned into the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Yasin served as Russia's economy minister in 1994-97. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Satellite Imagery Points To Uptick In Activity At Russian Arctic Nuclear Testing Site

Novaya Zemlya

Russia has significantly increased construction at a remote Arctic island location where it conducts nuclear tests, new satellite imagery shows, suggesting Moscow may be intending to resume tests.

Annotated images obtained by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and shared with RFE/RL showed a number of new facilities and construction equipment on Novaya Zemlya, an island archipelago located in the northern Barents Sea.

The images were released as part of a report examining the uptick in construction at nuclear test sites not only in Russia, but also in the United States and China. Details of the report were published earlier by CNN.

A comparison of imagery taken in July 2021 and in June 2023, showed large trucks, shipping containers, construction cranes, and building supplies at a settlement in Novaya Zemlya called Severny, according to the analysis by the Middlebury Institute, located in Monterey, California.

The activity appears to be aimed at least two new buildings, including what will be the location's largest.

Such a pace of construction at the site has not been seen "since the end of nuclear testing in the 1990s," the institute said, and may indicate Russia plans to expand personnel there or operate it year-round.

The archipelago was used by the Soviets for years of Cold War nuclear testing, including the detonation of the most powerful device ever constructed, the Tsar Bomba, in 1961. A 2004 research paper estimated 224 nuclear detonations on the islands until 1990, when Moscow conducted its last.

Testing The 'Tsar Bomba': The World's Most Powerful Nuclear Bomb
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Russia and the United States later announced a moratorium on all nuclear tests, and both signed the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban. However, the treaty has not come into effect, since the minimum number of countries required to ratify it has not been reached. Russia ratified the treaty in 2000; the United States has yet to do so.

Novaya Zemlya has been the focus of new, heightened attention from analysts and open-source researchers in recent years, in particular after a 2019 incident in the White Sea, where, according to U.S. officials, a nuclear-powered missile called the Burevestnik exploded accidentally, spewing radiation over long distances, including a nearby Russian city.

In the months after the blast, satellite imagery and other data -- including warnings issued to airlines about airspace closure in the Barents Sea -- suggested that Russia might be seeking to move testing of the Burevestnik missile to Novaya Zemlya, at another location on the island.

Hints that Russia might be preparing to resume nuclear testing come as other nuclear powers, including the United States and China, have also signaled intentions, overtly or covertly, to do the same.

In 2019, under the administration of then-President Donald Trump, some U.S. officials reportedly pushed to resume full testing. The official U.S. policy statement on the subject -- the Nuclear Posture Review -- ultimately stated that the United States would not seek to ratify the test-ban treaty, and it would "remain ready to resume nuclear testing if necessary to meet severe technological or geopolitical challenges."

Middlebury researchers contrasted the imagery at Novaya Zemlya with imagery from a U.S. test site in Nevada, where, they said, U.S. officials have conducted mining operations to add more than 1,000 square feet of underground laboratory space. That could be an indication the United States intends to conduct new subcritical nuclear experiments -- tests that are allowed under the test-ban treaty.

China has also expanded construction in recent years at Lop Nor, a known nuclear testing site in the western Xinjiang Province, Middlebury researchers found.

"A resumption of nuclear explosive testing by the three big nuclear powers would allow all three to resume development of new nuclear weapons and accelerate the arms race among the three," they said.


Bulgaria's GERB Nominates Journalist Anton Hekimyan As Sofia Mayor Candidate

Anton Hekimyan (file photo)

Bulgaria's center-right GERB party on September 25 nominated journalist and political novice Anton Hekimyan as its candidate for a mayoral election in the capital, Sofia, next month that pits two factions in the country's governing coalition against each other.

Speculation has been mounting in recent months over who would be tabbed as GERB’s candidate for Sofia mayor, after the current mayor -- GERB’s Yordanka Fandakova -- said she would not run for another term in the October 29 elections.

GERB leader and former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had refused to announce the name of the candidate, saying only that the decision would be “nonstandard.”

GERB has dominated the political scene in Sofia since 2005, when Borisov was elected mayor. But the party now faces a stiff challenge from entrepreneur Vassil Terziev, nominated by the parties We Continue The Change, Democratic Bulgaria, and Save Sofia.

GERB, We Continue The Change, and Democratic Bulgaria all support the current government in Bulgaria, without having signed a formal coalition agreement.

The surprise nomination of Hekimyan, who was head of the news division of the leading Bulgarian broadcaster bTV before quitting just two days ago, also has sparked questions about the party’s possible interference in editorial decisions during the time he was head of the outlet’s News, Current Affairs, and Sports division.

But the 39-year-old media personality said the question of whether he subordinated bTV’s editorial policy to GERB was “insulting.”

“Even as a question, it's insulting. Throughout my journey, I have stood firmly behind the principles of journalism,” Hekimyan said.

bTV said in a statement that it was taking the situation "very seriously,” and would ensure measures are implemented to “protect its name and reputation” during the upcoming election campaign.

bTV is a leading broadcaster in Bulgaria, owned by PPF Group, the company of Czech businessman Petr Kellner, who died in 2021.

Hekimyan was appointed head of bTV’s news division in December 2020, months after PPF Group acquired the outlet. Earlier, he had worked as TV host and reporter for bTV.

When he left his post two days before announcing he would be running for mayor of Sofia, Hekyiman said he would continue in a “different professional direction” but gave no further details.

On September 25, he said he met with Borisov last week when he received the invitation to run for mayor on the GERB ticket.

“I have received assurances that I will be able to make my own decisions. We have discussed a team, strategy, people with whom we will work together to make Sofia look even better,” he said.

Russian Theater Director Found Dead In Leningrad Region

Aleksandr Nikanorov

The director of the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, has been found dead in a suburb, local media reports said on September 25. Aleksandr Nikanorov went missing on September 21. Police and volunteers have searched for him since then. The 40-year-old Nikanorov's colleagues said earlier that he left home without his phone and ID documents. Several reports said earlier that a suicide note had been found in his apartment, but that has yet to be officially confirmed. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Russian Animal Shelter Where Dozens Of Dead Dogs Found Investigated

(illustrative photo)

Police in Russia's southwestern Astrakhan region have started a new investigation accusing a shelter of animal cruelty after dozens of mutilated dead dogs were found near and in the facility last year. In February, police launched a probe into alleged financial fraud by the shelter's owners after some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated in December but registered as alive in the shelter's documents. The shelter, owned by the wife of former Astrakhan municipal lawmaker Andrei Nevlyudov, has received significant amounts of money from the city to catch stray dogs and provide them with medical assistance. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities click here.

Kazakh Police Hold RFE/RL Correspondent For Two Hours Without Explanation

Sania Toiken leaves the police station on September 25.

Police in the Kazakh capital, Astana, detained RFE/RL correspondent Sania Toiken and held her at a police station for two hours without any explanation on September 25. Toiken was detained while preparing a video report from the INNOPROM.QAZAQSTAN economic exhibition attended by Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov and his counterparts -- Raman Halouchanka of Belarus, Akylbek Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, and Mikhail Mishustin of Russia. Police detained Toiken after two officers told her not to record the exhibition with her camera. However, no charges were filed against Toiken and no explanation for her detention was given. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.


Zelenskiy Says The First U.S. Abrams Tanks Arrived In Ukraine

A U.S. M1A1 Abrams tank fires during NATO military exercises in Latvia in 2021. Washington said 31 of the battle tanks would be sent to Ukraine.

Ukraine received its first shipment of U.S.-made Abrams tanks that it says will strengthen its counteroffensive against Russian troops in the east after Moscow continued to attack port facilities in the southern city of Odesa destroying key grain storage facilities.

“Good news from [Defense] Minister [Rustem] Umerov. Abrams are already in Ukraine and are getting ready to strengthen our brigades. I am grateful to the allies for implementing agreements on this,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a post on Telegram a week after U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed the deliveries were imminent.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The United States agreed in January to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine as the country was preparing its counteroffensive against Russian forces that launched a full-scale invasion in February 2022. In total, Washington said 31 of the battle tanks would be sent to Ukraine.

Earlier in September, the United States said it would provide Ukraine with the controversial depleted uranium ammunitions the M1 Abrams tanks use.

Ukraine has said it needs tanks to strengthen its brigades amid its counteroffensive that started in July.

Ukraine’s General Staff said on September 25 it was conducting offensive actions in the direction of the embattled city of Bakhmut and the regions of Donetsk, Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya. Ukraine's military also said it had repulsed Russian attacks in the Donetsk region.

Earlier on September 25 the Ukrainian military said Russia had launched a major aerial attack on southern Ukraine overnight, hitting the port area of the southern city of Odesa, destroying grain storage facilities.

The Defense Forces of the South of Ukraine said Russia directed 19 Shahed drones and two Onyx supersonic missiles at Odesa and fired 12 Kalibr cruise missiles. The Ukrainian Air Force said the Kalibrs were launched from a ship and a submarine in the Black Sea. Only one of the Kalibr missiles was not shot down.

However, Russia “hit the port infrastructure” in Odesa, which “suffered significant damage,” the southern defense forces said, while the regional governor, Oleh Kiper, said close to 1,000 tons of grain was stored in the facilities that were hit.

WATCH: Russia launched a major aerial attack on southern Ukraine on September 25, destroying grain storage facilities in the Black Sea port city of Odesa.

Russian Attack On Odesa Destroys Grain Storage Facilities
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He said a woman in Odesa was injured in the attack, adding that she was being treated at a local hospital.

Russia has ramped up attacks on Ukraine's grain-exporting infrastructure in the southern Odesa and Mykolayiv regions after it pulled out of a UN-brokered deal allowing safe grain shipments via the Black Sea in July.

Elsewhere in the south of Ukraine, the Kherson military administration reported that shelling had intensified. Regional Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said Russia attacked the town of Beryslav on the right bank of the Dnieper River, killing at least one person.

“The information is being clarified,” he added in a Telegram post.

Serhiy Lysak, governor of the east-central Dnipropetrovsk region, said falling debris from a downed drone caused a fire at an industrial enterprise in Kriviy Rih, the hometown of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

There was no immediate comment from Russia, but its Defense Ministry said a Ukrainian drone attack targeted the northwestern Black Sea and Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

Moscow said its air defenses had “destroyed” four drones. There was not immediate information about any damage or injuries as a result of the reported attacks. Separately, Russia’s Defense Ministry said four other drones were intercepted overnight over Kursk and Bryansk, two regions bordering Ukraine.

There was no immediate comment from Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Kazakh Handed Six-Year Prison Term For Fighting With Extremist Group In Syria

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee headquarters in Astana

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) said on September 25 that a court in the central city of Satbaev had sentenced a local man to six years in prison earlier this month for joining the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. The man, whose identity was not disclosed, "was arrested in Syria with the assistance of foreign services in June" and transferred to Kazakhstan, the KNB statement said. Hundreds of Kazakh citizens have joined IS and other extremist groups in Syria in recent years. A total of 742 Kazakh citizens, mostly women and children, have returned to Kazakhstan via a state program since 2018. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Kosovo's President Declares Day Of Mourning After Deadly Attack

Kosovar police officers secure a road leading to the monastery in the village of Banjska on September 24.

Authorities in Kosovo say the situation around a Serbian Orthodox monastery complex in the mostly Serb-populated north of the country was calm on September 25, which President Vjosa Osmani has declared a day of mourning, after a tense standoff following an assault over the weekend by a "heavily armed" group that led to the death of one police officer and three suspected assailants.

The KosovaPress news agency quoted the deputy director of the Kosovo Police for the north, Veton Elshani, as saying police searches for some of the assailants who fled the area ended late on September 24. He did not say when they would resume.

The incident occurred early on September 24 when Kosovo Police were in a standoff with some 30 attackers dressed in security- or military-like uniforms who may have ties to the Orthodox monastery complex in the village of Banjska, where the deadly encounter began around 2:30 a.m. local time, sparking vague accusations of involvement by neighboring bitter rival Serbia.

During the standoff, Kosovar police said three attackers had been killed and six people arrested, including two of the attackers and four others found to be in possession of radio communications equipment and had discovered a "significant amount" of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment.

Details remained scarce and it wasn't immediately clear how the remaining suspected assailants may have escaped or where they were heading.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, in a speech late on September 24, said he was sorry that a police officer was killed, but he blamed the Kosovar leader, saying that ethnic Serbs there "did not want to suffer [Prime Minister Albin] Kurti's terror any longer."

"I do not want to justify the murder of an [ethnic] Albanian policeman in any way, nor can I justify it. It is an act of condemnation and it is something that no one needed," the Serbian president said.

He denied that Belgrade was involved in the overnight incident and said two of those killed were from North Mitrovica, without providing their identities. He also vehemently stated that Serbia would "never" recognize the independence of Kosovo, its former province, "neither formally nor informally." He did add, however, that Belgrade was willing to talk to Pristina.

Kosovo Police Close Road To Village After Shooting
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Kurti earlier told a news conference that "there are at least 30 heavily armed people, professionals, military and police, who are under the siege of our police forces and whom I invite to surrender to our security bodies."

He said Kosovar security authorities and prosecutors would scramble "to understand more about these uniforms."

"It seems that this is a well-organized action, which is why it is more dangerous, because it suggests that there are groups on the ground who are interested in causing violence and are ready to organize and find weapons that will enable them to do so," Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and former director of European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told RFE/RL.

Serbia does not recognize the 2008 declaration of independence of its mostly ethnic Albanian former province, with many ethnic Serbs in Kosovo following suit while remaining dependent on so-called parallel structures that Pristina regards as illegal.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he "condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo Police officers in Banjska/Banjske" and said more innocent lives were in danger "in ongoing hostilities" around the monastery.

He said the EU's peacekeeping force, EULEX, was "on the ground" as a second security responder and was in touch with authorities and with NATO KFOR peacekeepers.

Western officials mediating talks with Serbia and Kosovo have signaled frustration since negotiations this month that also involved Serbia's Vucic failed to achieve a breakthrough on normalization.

Those talks are part of a decade-long U.S. and EU diplomatic push toward formalized relations and to repair some of the wounds from bloody internecine wars in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In May and June, Kurti ignored outside warnings and tried to forcibly install four mayors in Serb-majority northern municipalities following boycotted by-elections to fill posts vacated by protesting Serbs.

The resulting tensions erupted into violence that injured dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serbian protesters.

Roads Clogged As Ethnic Armenians Leave Nagorno-Karabakh; U.S. Team Arrives In Yerevan

Armenians take part in an anti-government protest in central Yerevan on September 24.

Thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh are clogging roads leading to Armenia, where unrest over a bruising defeat to Azerbaijan in the breakaway region last week is growing, with dozens of protesters detained in the capital, Yerevan, after they blocked streets to protest the policies of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

Armenia's government said that as of 5 p.m. local time on September 25, at least 6,650 refugees had entered the country, while de facto officials inside Nagorno-Karabakh said gas stations would provide free fuel for those making the move.

Meanwhile, top officials from the U.S. administration arrived in Yerevan on September 24 to meet with Armenian leaders. Among the group were U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and State Department official for the region Yuri Kim.

Armenian Protesters Block Traffic In Yerevan
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"The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations and commercial traffic," USAID said in a statement.

The first of several hundred refugees from the region began arriving in Armenia on September 24, with Nagorno-Karabakh leaders saying nearly all of the estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians are likely to leave as soon as possible, saying they did not want to live under Azerbaijani control even though Baku has vowed to protect the rights of civilians there.

WATCH: Opposition supporters protested at several locations in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on September 25.

Armenian Protesters Block Traffic In Yerevan
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"The authorities [of Nagorno-Karabakh] will continue to stay in place and implement state administration until they fully ensure the process of transporting citizens who wish to go to Armenia," a statement by the de facto government said.

"Due to traffic jams, it is currently not possible to organize the transport of seriously and extremely seriously injured people."

As Armenia began accepting refugees, anger over the quick loss of the region last week continued to spill out in the streets of Yerevan.

Media reports quoted police as saying more than 200 protesters had been detained so far on September 25, with reports from RFE/RL correspondents in Yerevan saying the protests continue, with groups of people roaming the streets urging others to join them.

The unrest comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his ally, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in Azerbaijan's autonomous Naxcivan exclave -- a strip of Azerbaijani territory nestled among Armenia, Iran, and Turkey -- to discuss the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan insisted Baku’s victory in last week's offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh opened a window of opportunity for normalization of relations in the wider region. He called Azerbaijan’s actions “a source of pride” for Tukey.

Aliyev vowed to protect the rights of Karabakh’s Armenians, even as the flood of refugees toward Armenia mounted.

Pashinian has been on rocky political footing since overwhelming Azerbaijani forces retook much of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh held for decades by ethnic Armenians in a six-week war in late 2020 that led to a Russian-brokered cease-fire.

Discontent over his leadership grew after the breakaway leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh was thrashed last week by a lightning Azerbaijani offensive that led Baku to declare victory in returning its sovereignty to the territory.

Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which has traditionally served as Armenia's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.

Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Russia has tried to position as a counterweight to NATO, although as recently as this month its armed forces were conducting exercises with U.S. forces.

The peacekeepers have been in place since a cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory and seven surrounding districts controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.

Crowd Gathers To Demand Reopening Of Russian Orthodox Church In Bulgaria

A crowd gathers ton protest outside a Russian Orthodox church in Sofia on September 24.

A crowd of supporters gathered on September 24 to demand the reopening of a Russian Orthodox church in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, after the government expelled the head of the church and other officials for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests. Influential Bulgaria tycoon Delyan Peevski, who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain, appealed for the church to be reopened “immediately” and services to be restored. The action comes amid tense diplomatic relations between Russia and NATO and EU member Bulgaria since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, click here.

Iranian President Says Israeli Normalization Deals Will Fail

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a CNN interview on September 24 that U.S.-sponsored efforts to normalize Israeli relations with Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, "will see no success." Raisi also said Iran had not said it doesn’t want inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog in the country. Israel has moved closer to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco following a U.S.-driven diplomatic initiative in 2020 that pushed for normalization. Establishing ties with Saudi Arabia would be the grand prize for Israel and change the geopolitics of the Middle East. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Polish President Promises Ukraine Help With Grain Transit Amid Dispute

Polish President Andrzej Duda (file photo)

Poland remains ready to help export grain from Ukraine to global markets outside of Europe despite an ongoing dispute over access to the Polish market, President Andrzej Duda said. Duda defended his government's decision to maintain a ban on the sale of Ukrainian grain in Poland. Speaking in a September 24 interview with the Polish public channel TVP1, he said radical measures were necessary to support Poland's farmers and agricultural market. But Duda said the country would do everything possible to ensure as much Ukrainian grain could be transported through Poland to reach the poorest countries in the world, where Duda said it is most needed.

Iran Demands Sweden Act Against Koran Burnings, Urges Release Of Prisoner

Sweden has seen a series of public burnings of the Islamic holy book. Stockholm has voiced condemnation but said it cannot stop acts protected under laws on free expression.  (file photo)

Iran has demanded that Sweden take action over Koran burnings before the two countries can exchange ambassadors again, and urged it to release a jailed Iranian citizen, the Foreign Ministry said on September 24. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discussed the Koran issue with his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the ministry said. Sweden has seen a series of public burnings of the Islamic holy book. Stockholm has voiced condemnation but said it cannot stop acts protected under laws on free expression.

Erdogan To Meet Azerbaijani President On September 25

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan on September 25, the Turkish presidency said. The "latest developments" in Nagorno-Karabakh will be at the heart of the meeting, the presidency said in a statement. The meeting follows a lightning Azerbaijani offensive which recaptured the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Turkish president has repeatedly expressed his support for Azerbaijan's army this week.

Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Arrives At Siberian Prison And Quickly Sent To Punishment Cell, Says Lawyer

Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)

Longtime Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza has arrived at a maximum-security prison in Siberia to serve a 25-year- sentence for treason and criticism of the invasion of Ukraine and was immediately placed in a punishment cell, a lawyer said. Lawyer Vadim Prokhorov quoted from a letter from Kara-Murza to lawyer Maria Eismont. He said it was unclear why the Russian-British citizen was put into a punishment cell at the IK-6 prison in Omsk. The secretive transfer from a Moscow facility to Omsk took about three weeks. U.S. lawmakers recently urged President Joe Biden's administration to designate longtime U.S. resident Kara-Murza as "wrongfully detained." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.


Iran Says 28 IS Extremists Arrested After Foiling Major Bombing Plot In Tehran

Authorities in the Iranian capital, Tehran, said on September 24 that they had prevented a major “terrorist network” plot to explode 30 bombs in the city and that they had arrested 28 people associated with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group. The Interior Ministry said those arrested had a history of activities in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraqi Kurdistan. It said the arrests had taken place in “recent days” and that the plan was to conduct "30 simultaneous terrorist explosions in Tehran's populated centers." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, click here.

Zelenskiy Pivots To Talk Of Postwar Rebuild, As Kherson Hit, Russians Impose Donetsk Curfew

Ukrainian troops on the move in the Zaporizhzhya region.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pivoted to postwar reconstruction after his return to Europe from North America, as Ukrainian intelligence claimed a major blow against Russia's navy in annexed Crimea. Russian officials also said a Ukrainian drone struck near Russian intelligence offices in the northern city of Kursk as Moscow's full-scale invasion reached the 19-month mark.

In Ukraine's Kherson region, Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said Russian strikes on September 24 killed two people, wounded eight, and destroyed several private homes in the town of Beryslav.

Meanwhile, in the frontline Donetsk region of Ukraine, Moscow-installed authorities imposed restrictions on occupied areas, including a weekday 11 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew, a ban on protests and rallies, and military censorship of correspondence, online communications, and telephone calls as fighting intensified in the east and south.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Following a stop in Poland, Zelenskiy said via social media on September 24 that he had met with in the United States with leading individuals from the business and finance sectors, including media mogul Michael Bloomberg.

The gatherings were part of a visit that took him to the floor of the UN General Assembly and before the UN Security Council in New York, as well as to crucial meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders in Washington and to Canada.

"The American entrepreneurs and financiers confirmed their readiness to make large-scale investments in our country immediately after the end of the war and the receipt of security guarantees," Zelenskiy said via social media. "We are working for the victory and reconstruction of Ukraine."

As the unprovoked Russian invasion entered its 20th month, the Ukrainian military and an outside assessment suggested that Ukrainian forces were penetrating deeper into Russian defenses in their ongoing counteroffensive, especially in a crucial southern region.

Ukraine's General Staff said on September 24 that Russian drone and missile strikes had continued in the last 24 hours, and said its forces were engaged in offensive operations "in particular in the Verbove area of the Zaporizhzhya region" in the south.

A day earlier, analysts from the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said they had used geolocation and other information to conclude that "Ukrainian forces are deepening their penetration" in the Zaporizhzhya region.

Much of the latest focus of the three-month-old Ukrainian counteroffensive has been on Zaporizhzhya and its surroundings, which host Europe's largest nuclear plant at a facility captured by Russia in the early weeks of the invasion.

In Russia, officials said a drone attack blamed on Ukraine had damaged an "administrative" building in downtown Kursk in the vicinity of offices of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

But reports that a blast had struck the FSB offices, located on Dobrolyubova Street, could not be confirmed.

Kursk regional Governor Roman Starovoit said on Telegram that what he described as a Ukrainian drone had struck an administrative building downtown and "the roof was slightly damaged."

Reports on social media showed images of smoke rising over the city center and referred to multiple explosions, although RFE/RL could not immediately verify their authenticity.

Kursk is about 90 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. A drone strike there last month damaged a railway station and injured five people.

On September 23, Ukrainian military intelligence claimed a missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula on September 22 had targeted "a meeting of the Russian navy's leadership" and resulted in high casualties, including a group commander.

With reporting by Reuters

Pope Says Countries Should Not 'Play Games' With Ukraine On Arms Aid

Pope Francis (file photo)

Pope Francis suggested on September 23 that some countries were "playing games" with Ukraine by first providing weapons and then considering backing out of their commitments. Francis was responding to a reporter's question about whether he was frustrated that his efforts to bring about peace had not succeeded. He has sent an envoy to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing to meet with leaders. "We should not play games with the martyrdom of this people," he said. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said later the pope was not taking a stand on whether countries should continue to send weapons to Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Tracking Sites Show Second Ukraine Wheat Shipment Reaches Turkey

The Palau-flagged bulk carrier Aroyat left the port city of Chornomorsk on September 22 bound for Egypt. (file photo)

A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on September 24, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbor and enemy. The Palau-flagged bulk carrier Aroyat -- laden with 17,600 tons of wheat -- left the port city of Chornomorsk on September 22 bound for Egypt. Ukraine is testing a new sea route that avoids using international waters and follows those controlled by NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, following Russia's withdrawal from a UN-backed grain export deal.

Pashinian Laments Armenia's Security Arrangements; Expected Mass Refugee Influx From Nagorno-Karabakh Begins

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh accompanied by medical workers board a bus at a temporary accommodation center in the village of Kornidzor on September 24.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has told his Caucasus nation on the heels of a bruising defeat for allies in a breakaway region of Azerbaijan that while Baku and Russian peacekeepers bear responsibility for protecting ethnic Armenians there, if necessary his government "will welcome our brothers and sisters of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia with all care."

Yerevan reported on September 24 that the first several hundred refugees from the region had begun arriving in Armenia, with Nagorno-Karabakh leaders indicating that nearly all of the estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians are likely to leave for the Caucasus nation’s territory as soon as possible, saying they did not want to live under Azerbaijani control.

Meanwhile, Armenia’s Security Council said Pashinian would conduct previously arranged talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Grenada, Spain, on October 5, with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and EU chief Charles Michel also participating.

In a televised address to his nation of around 3 million, Pashinian also seemingly delivered a barb to Russia and Moscow-led efforts at regional security.

"The attacks carried out by Azerbaijan against the Republic of Armenia in recent years lead to an obvious conclusion that the external security systems in which we are involved are not effective from the point of view of the state interests and security of the Republic of Armenia," Pashinian said.

Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which traditionally has served as Armenia's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.

Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Russia has tried to position as a counterweight to NATO, although as recently as this month its armed forces were conducting exercises with U.S. forces.

Pashinian has been on rocky political footing since overwhelming Azerbaijani forces retook much of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh held for decades by ethnic Armenians in a six-week war in late 2020 that led to a Russian-brokered cease-fire.

Then this week the breakaway leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh was thrashed by a lightning Azerbaijani offensive that led Baku to declare victory in returning its sovereignty to the territory.

Around the time Pashinian was addressing the nation on September 24, an adviser to the defeated leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh said virtually all of the territory's ethnic Armenians will leave for Armenia in a bitter exodus from "our historic lands."

Davit Babayan, an adviser for foreign policy to the separatist government’s de facto leader Samvel Shahramanian, told Reuters on September 24 that "Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands."

He said nothing of a time frame and there was otherwise no official position on a possible mass exodus.

Calls have increased in urgency for humanitarian help from the United Nations and the international community since the ethnic Armenian separatists agreed to a Russian-brokered cease-fire after a 24-hour blitz by Azerbaijani military forces on September 19-20.

Baku has repeatedly vowed to ensure the rights of what ethnic Armenians say is around 120,000 locals but the Azerbaijani side says is around half that figure.

"The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world," Babayan said. "Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins."

Azerbaijan again signaled victory in Nagorno-Karabakh while Armenia urged international help to ensure the safety of the local ethnic Armenian population in competing speeches before the United Nations General Assembly, as evacuation and disarmament efforts continue.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile used his UN appearance to say the two post-Soviet foes have "put things in order" and now it's time to build "mutual trust."

The trio of September 23 speeches came as the Yerevan-backed separatists said they were implementing the terms of the days-old cease-fire but concerns continued over the safety of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the territory and with evacuations of the wounded under way.

Ethnic Armenians Converge On Airport As 'Reintegration' Talks Held In Nagorno-Karabakh
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Azerbaijan and Armenia's foreign ministers struck opposing tones in their speeches to the UN forum.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov hailed the success of his country's September 19-20 military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, as achieving the "goals of anti-terrorist measures."

"Armenia and its subordinate illegal regime were forced to agree to disarmament, liquidation of all so-called structures and withdrawal of forces from Azerbaijan," Bayramov said.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly several hours later, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan lamented Yerevan's repeated calls for greater UN activity to break a nine-month-long de facto Azerbaijani blockade of the region before the latest offensive.

Armenia's government has distanced itself from the latest cease-fire mediated by Russia's peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 20, with daily protests targeting Pashinian and his government.

Mirzoyan accused much larger neighbor Azerbaijan of pursuing a "path of war" and disregarding accepted international principles.

He said the message from Azerbaijan has been that "you can talk about peace, but we can go on the path of war, and you will not be able to change anything."

Mirzoyan said the latest casualty toll of this week's Azerbaijani actions were "more than 200 confirmed dead and 400 wounded, including civilians, women, and children." He said the fates of hundreds more remained "uncertain."

He also repeated Yerevan's "imperative" call for a UN mission in Nagorno-Karabakh "to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation on the ground, "with "unhindered access."

Armenia's Health Ministry announced on September 24 that ambulances were transporting 23 seriously injured individuals from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian territory.

RFE/RL reporters said the first refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh had arrived at a humanitarian aid facility in the border village of Kornidzor on September 24. Photos showed men, women, and children gathered around Red Cross tents and other receiving areas.

Separatist authorities said Russian peacekeepers would accompany those wishing to leave the region and go to Armenia.

The Armenian government said more than 1,000 people have had arrived in the country from Nagorno-Karabakh by late September 24.

In his speech to the General Assembly on September 23, Russia's Lavrov said "the time has come for confidence-building measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh."

He said Russia's peacekeepers would assist, and he accused Western governments of inserting themselves unnecessarily in the Caucasus.

Lavrov said that "Yerevan and Baku actually put the situation in order."

Nagorno-Karabakh‘s ethnic Armenian separatist leaders said on September 23 said they were implementing the cease-fire, including evacuations of injured civilians to Armenia with the help of Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The separatists said that, as part of the September 20 agreement, aid was to be delivered from Armenia to Stepanakert -- the de facto capital of the breakaway region under ethnic Armenian control -- through the Lachin Corridor, for decades the main link between Karabakh and Armenia.

Also as part of the agreement, separatists said, talks would take place on “the political future” of the region, which is suffering from shortages of food, fuel, and electricity.

Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that Karabakh separatists had already handed over more than 800 firearms, grenades, mortars, anti-tank guided missiles, and anti-tank missile systems, and the disarmament process would continue over the weekend.

U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called for international observers needed to monitor the situation and said people in Karabakh were "very fearful."

"I am certainly very concerned about what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh right now. I think there needs to be some visibility," Peters told reporters.

Azerbaijan has vowed to protect the rights of civilians there.

The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.

Baku has said it envisages an amnesty for Karabakh Armenian fighters who give up their arms and seeks to reintegrate the territory's ethnic Armenian population. Some separatist fighters have vowed to continue to resist Azerbaijani control.

France’s Macron on September 24 said Paris is now concerned about the territorial integrity of Armenia after Azerbaijan’s military took control of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"France is very vigilant at this time concerning the territorial integrity of Armenia. Because that is what's at stake," Macron told a TV interview, adding that Russia was now "complicit" with Baku and that Azerbaijan is "threatening the border of Armenia."

Although Armenia traditionally has close ties to Russia, many Western nations -- including France and the United States -- have large ethnic Armenian populations and watch developments there closely.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Pashinian in a phone call on September 23 that Washington continues to support Armenia's "sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity" and that it has "deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh."

During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.

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