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U.S. Says Syrian Government Attacks On Rebel-Held Area Must End

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert (file photo)

The United States says it is "deeply concerned" about a surge in attacks by the Syrian government and its allies on a rebel-held enclave near the capital, Damascus.

The cessation of violence in the Eastern Ghouta region "must begin now," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on February 20, denouncing what she called the "siege and starve tactics" of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed at least 250 people in the besieged region in two days.

Meanwhile, factions in Eastern Ghouta fired mortars at eastern districts of Damascus, killing at least six people there, according to Syrian state media.

The UN's humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said that six hospitals had been hit in Eastern Ghouta in the past two days, adding that at least three were out of service and two were partially functioning.

The UN has warned that the humanitarian situation of civilians in the region was "spiraling out of control" and called for a cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered and hundreds of critically sick and wounded patients to be evacuated.

Nearly 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta, a pocket of satellite towns and farms under government siege since 2013, the world body says.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

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Russia Launches Iranian Satellite Into Orbit

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket carrying the Khayyam satellite blasts off from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kyrgyzstan on August 9.

A Russian rocket successfully launched an Iranian satellite into space on August 9 amid accusations that Moscow might use it to improve its surveillance of military targets in Ukraine.

The remote sensing satellite, called Khayyam, was launched by a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, at 08:52 a.m. Moscow time on August 9, according to a video broadcast by Russia's space agency on YouTube.

The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. officials are worried by the incipient space cooperation between Russia and Iran and fear the satellite will not only help Russia in Ukraine but also provide Iran "unprecedented capabilities" to monitor potential military targets in Israel and the Middle East.

Iran says the satellite is designed for scientific research including radiation and environmental monitoring for agricultural purposes and no other country will have access to information it gathers.

Russia has sought to deepen its ties with Iran since it invaded Ukraine in February.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran in his first international trip outside the former Soviet Union since the war.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Rights Group Says 'Bogus' New Charge Targets Russian Dissident Kara-Murza

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russia's "spurious" new charge against opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza is "a thinly veiled threat to the Russian public not to engage in dissent," as authorities there accelerate their long-running clampdown amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Kara-Murza's lawyer announced last week that his client had been charged with carrying out activities of an "undesirable" organization.

HRW demanded in an August 8 statement that Russian officials drop all charges against Kara-Murza and repeal the "abusive" law that underpins the latest accusation.

"It is now a pattern for the Kremlin to throw its critics behind bars on spurious charges and then continue to add new bogus charges against them to keep them there," HRW quoted its Europe and Central Asia director, Hugh Williamson, as saying. "The new charge against Kara-Murza is a blatant attempt to instill more fear among Russia’s civil society and deter it from mobilizing against the Kremlin and its war against Ukraine."

A longtime Kremlin-critic who has survived at least two apparent poisonings, Kara-Murza was already in jail after he was arrested in April for allegedly spreading false information about the Russian army's activities in Ukraine.

According to his lawyer Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza is now charged with holding a Moscow conference in October to support Russian political prisoners that was sponsored by the foreign-based Free Russia Foundation. That group has been recognized as "undesirable" in the country.

The new charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison, according to HRW.

"The fake charges against Kara-Murza are purely politically motivated, and he should be immediately and unconditionally released, as should the many other Russians prosecuted on outrageous 'fake news,' 'undesirable,' and similar charges," Williamson said. "The Russian authorities need to stop misusing and manipulating the justice system in their desperate efforts to stomp out dissent and opposition."

The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources -- mainly from Europe and the United States.

Russian lawmakers have since dramatically widened the scope of the law, including to bar Russian nationals and organizations anywhere in the world from taking part in activities of such "undesirable" groups.

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.

Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."


U.K. Says Russian Advances 'Less Than Planned' As Kyiv Cites Invaders' Ongoing Offensive

Ukrainian soldiers from the Fireflies reconnaissance team ride in a pickup truck to their position at the front line in the Mykolayiv region on August 8.

Russia has been "reinforcing defenses" in southern Ukraine while keeping up attacks on Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donetsk region but has only managed to advance about 10 kilometers in the past month on its "most successful axis" there, according to U.K. military intelligence.

In its latest regular assessment, on August 9, British Defense Intelligence said Russian forces had not advanced more than three kilometers elsewhere in Donetsk, one of the two eastern regions where Russia-backed separatists have held large swaths of territory for the past eight years.

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Such a pace is "almost certainly significantly less than planned," the intelligence added.

"Despite its continued heavy use of artillery in these areas, Russia has not been able to generate capable combat infantry in sufficient numbers to secure more substantial advances," it said.

British intelligence previously warned on August 8 that Russia was using anti-personnel mines in an effort to defend and hold its defense lines, with resulting risks to both the military and local civilian populations.

The Ukrainian Army's General Staff said early on August 9 that a Russian offensive is continuing toward the hub cities of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in the eastern Donetsk region as the enemy tries to inflict "maximum losses" on Ukrainian forces.

It said the Russian Air Force was bombarding military facilities in the direction of Donetsk in support of artillery and other ground operations aimed at dislodging Ukrainian units from the front lines.

Battlefield reports from either side in the rapidly developing conflict are difficult to confirm.

But Kyiv's military planners said their forces had repelled reconnaissance and offensive operations in a handful of settlements around Ivano-Daryivka, Bakhmut, and Zaitseve.

They said Russian forces had withdrawn after unsuccessful pushes around Avdiyivka and Krasnohorivka.

WATCH: German-Built Howitzers Pound Russian Targets In Ukraine

German-Built Howitzers Pound Russian Targets In Ukraine
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Kyiv said two Russian warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles are poised for battle off Ukraine's Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, international concern persisted over the weekend shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant over potential for disaster at Europe's largest atomic facility.

The head of the Ukrainian nuclear power company Enerhoatom has urged that Zaporizhzhya be declared a military-free zone to avoid nuclear catastrophe.

Zaporizhzhya was seized early in the five-month-old invasion but continues to be manned by Ukrainian staff.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that "any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing" in calling on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to Zaporizhzhya.

The Russian-installed head of the local administration was quoted by Interfax as saying on August 8 that the facility was operating "in normal mode."

Washington and the World Bank announced more support for Ukraine on the heels of U.S. President Joe Biden's committing this week to the single largest package of security assistance under his so-called drawdown authority with $1 billion in aid that includes long-range weapons and medical transport vehicles.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said on August 8 that Washington would provide $4.5 billion more in economic funding, nearly doubling the budgetary support so far since Russia's invasion began in February.

The World Bank said it will implement the U.S. grant, which it said is aimed at urgent needs including health-care, pensions, and social payments.

Also, Reuters cited a document in which Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations pledged to ensure a 10-nautical-mile buffer zone for ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

The long-awaited procedures are part of intense international efforts to unblock millions of tons of grain stuck at Ukrainian ports since the invasion began.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Freezes U.S. Inspections Of Its Nuclear Arsenal Under New START

A rocket launches from a missile system as part of a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile test launched from the Plesetsk facility in northwestern Russia in December 2020.

Russia has informed the United States of a freeze on U.S. inspections of its nuclear weapons under the New START arms control treaty, claiming Western sanctions have hampered similar inspections of U.S. facilities by Russian monitors.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the sanctions on Russian flights imposed by the United States and its allies over Russia's invasion of Ukraine along with visa restrictions and other obstacles have effectively made it impossible for Russian military experts to visit U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

It said the conditions "create unilateral advantages for the United States and effectively deprive the Russian Federation of the right to conduct inspections on American territory."

The United States had no immediate response to the move.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the freeze is temporary and allowed under the pact "in exceptional cases."

It noted that Russia "highly values" the New START treaty and said it remains "fully committed" to complying with all its provisions.

It also said that after the problems are resolved Russia will "immediately lift the exemptions from inspection activities that we have announced."

The ministry also urged a "thorough study of all existing problems in this area, the successful settlement of which would allow a return to full-scale application as soon as possible of all verification mechanisms of the treaty."

The New START treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Just days before the New START was due to expire in February 2021, Russia and the United States agreed to extend it for another five years.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Turkey Warns Armenia Against 'New Provocations' Over Nagorno-Karabakh

The village of Vanq in the Nagorno Karabakh region

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has called on Armenia to "refrain from new provocations" several days after Yerevan and Baku traded accusations over an escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh that left at least three people dead.

Speaking at a gathering of Turkish diplomats in Ankara on August 8, Cavusoglu reiterated his country’s vision of peace in the South Caucasus region.

"Since the end of the war, Turkey continues to make efforts to ensure peace in the region," Cavusoglu said, alluding to the deadly six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire in November 2020.

Backed by Turkey, an archfoe of Armenia, Azerbaijan gained control of swathes of territory that had been controlled by ethnic Armenians since the former Soviet republics fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s.

"Now we are talking not about Azerbaijan's occupied territories, displaced people, refugees, and a conflict that can start again at any moment, but about regional peace and cooperation," Cavusoglu said. "We again call on Armenia to refrain from participating in new provocations [against Azerbaijan in Karabakh]."

On August 3, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said that two Armenian soldiers were killed and nearly two dozen others wounded in what they described as an attack by Azerbaijani forces against their military positions along the Lachin corridor conducted with the use of drones, mortars, and grenade launchers.

The Lachin corridor connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and is currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.

Baku, for its part, said the operation was in retaliation for the killing of one Azerbaijani soldier by ethnic Armenian forces in the area on August 1.

Azerbaijan also claimed to have captured some strategic heights in the mountainous region overlooking the Lachin corridor.

Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leader Arayik Harutiunian ordered a "partial mobilization" of army reservists in the wake of the incidents. However, the situation did not further escalate amid reported agreements that ethnic Armenians would be leaving several villages along the Lachin corridor that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan as part of the cease-fire agreement.

Despite what appears to be a deescalation of conflict in keeping with calls by Russia, the United States, and the European Union, the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh remains relatively tense as Armenians and Azerbaijanis continue to accuse each other of regular cease-fire violations.

Armenia said one of its soldiers was wounded along the border with Azerbaijan on August 6, a claim denied by Azerbaijan but confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry in its latest news bulletin on the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping operation.

Turkey, which is Azerbaijan's top military and political ally and has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, has been engaged in a normalization process with Yerevan since late last year.

Ankara, however, has made it clear that establishing diplomatic relations and opening borders with Armenia depends on Yerevan's acceptance of Baku's key demands.

Commenting on the prospect of normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations in July, Cavusoglu said that Yerevan should specifically negotiate a peace accord sought by Baku and open a land corridor to Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group -- co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States -- failed to result in a resolution before war broke out again in September 2020.

In the aftermath of the war that killed more than 6,500 people, Armenia agreed to hand over three districts ringing Nagorno-Karabakh that had been under Armenian control since the 1990s, including the Lachin corridor, and Russia deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to oversee the truce.

With reporting by RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Armen Koloyan

U.S. Seeks To Seize $90 Million Jet Belonging To Russian Oligarch

State Duma member Andrei Skoch has been designated for sanctions since 2018 for alleged "long-standing ties to Russian organized criminal groups."

The United States has obtained a warrant to seize an Airbus jet owned by Russian oligarch Andrei Skoch, the Justice Department says.

The aircraft, valued at $90 million, is currently in Kazakhstan, according to an affidavit in support of the seizure warrant.

The warrant was signed by a U.S. district judge in New York after a federal agent submitted the affidavit, which also said Skoch was the owner of the Airbus "through a series of shell companies and trusts tied to his romantic partner."

Skoch, who is a member of the Russian State Duma, has been designated for sanctions since 2018 for alleged "long-standing ties to Russian organized criminal groups."

Further sanctions were imposed on him and his assets following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Justice Department said after the Treasury Department designated Skoch in 2018 and continuing through 2021, U.S. dollar transactions were made to pay for the registration of the Airbus in Aruba and for aviation insurance premiums -- each necessary to maintain and operate the Airbus.

The United States and European Union have stepped up a crackdown on Russian oligarchs following Russian leader Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

They have moved to seize luxury estates, superyachts, and aircraft of Russian billionaires known to have ties to Putin in an effort to pressure people close to him and in turn influence his decisions on the war.

The United States had already revealed it was seeking to seize a $156 million superyacht belonging to Skoch. The 98-meter yacht is registered in the Cayman Islands but has most recently been docked at Port Rashid in Dubai.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Ally Of Armenian PM Downplays Armenian-Russian 'Differences' Over Peacekeepers

Vigen Khachatrian, a member of the ruling Civil Contract faction, denied speculation about a growing rift between Yerevan and Moscow.

An Armenian pro-government lawmaker has denied any major differences between Yerevan and Moscow over the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh following deadly clashes in the disputed region last week.

Vigen Khachatrian, a member of the ruling Civil Contract faction led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, said on August 8 that there was no "tension" or "differences" with the Russian peacekeeping operation that has overseen a Moscow-brokered cease-fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces since November 2020.

The deadly clashes broke out between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in early August along the Lachin corridor, an area that links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and which is under the control of Russian peacekeepers as part the trilateral cease-fire deal that ended a six-month war in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions.

Following the renewed fighting last week that reportedly left two Armenian and one Azerbaijani soldier dead, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating the cease-fire, and Pashinian on August 4 called for "adjusting" the Russian peacekeeping operation.

Azerbaijan has denied any cease-fire violations in or around Karabakh and accused Armenia of violating the agreement. The situation in the Lachin corridor and the "line of contact" monitored by Russian peacekeepers had been relatively calm since March.

Pashinian in particular suggested that the Russian contingent could be given a "broader international mandate."

"If we see that solutions are not possible in a trilateral [Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani] format, we will have to think about activating additional international mechanisms," Pashinian said on August 4.

The following day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow had not received any concrete proposals for any changes to the peacekeeping mandate from Pashinian and said that Russian peacekeepers were "making every effort to stabilize the situation on the ground."

However, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vahan Hunanian said later on August 5 that in February 2021 the Armenian side submitted written concerns about the activities of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to Russia's top leadership, with the aim of improving efficiency and avoiding conflict in the future.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry has not yet disclosed details of the 2021 document it says was submitted to Russia.

The exchange between the Armenian and Russian officials gave rise to speculation about a growing rift between Yerevan and Moscow.

Civil Contract lawmaker Khachatrian, however, said on August 8 it was more a lack of understanding.

"I don't think that the Foreign Ministry should publish the contents of every document. What was said is as much as could be said," he said.

Later on August 8, the Kremlin said in a statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian had discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh by telephone.

Gegham Manukian, a member of the opposition Hayastan parliamentary faction who last year joined calls for Pashinian to step down following Armenia's defeat in the 2020 war, said it was unclear how the Armenian side envisions ways of raising the effectiveness of the Russian peacekeeping operation.

However, he did outline how his faction sees the situation.

"We should first discuss the issue of raising the number of Russian peacekeepers [deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh]," he said. "Secondly, we should reconsider the way the Russian force is deployed."

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict between the two former Soviet republics brought little progress.

A multinational peacekeeping operation was discussed as part of the peace process before the renewed outbreak of war in 2020. But after Russia brokered the cease-fire, fellow OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs the United States and France welcomed Moscow's peacekeeping operation.

With reporting by Naira Nalbandian of RFE/RL's Armenian Service

U.S. Announces Billions In Military, Budgetary Aid To Ukraine

'It Was Hell Here': Ukrainian Troops Say U.S.-Supplied HIMARS Make A Difference
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The United States has announced another $1 billion in new military aid for Ukraine, pledging what will be the largest delivery yet of rockets, ammunition, and other arms from Defense Department stockpiles to Ukrainian forces.

The Pentagon announcement on August 8 came as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged an additional $4.5 billion to Ukraine's government for basic services such as electricity flow to hospitals and the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Ukrainians.

The military aid includes additional rockets for high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which Ukraine says have been effective in helping its forces on the battlefield.

In addition to rockets for the HIMARS, the aid includes thousands of artillery rounds, mortar systems, Javelins, and other ammunition and equipment, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The aid is the 18th drawdown of equipment from Department of Defense inventories for Ukraine since August 2021.

"In total, the United States has now committed approximately $9.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration," acting Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said in the statement.

Until now, the largest single security-assistance package announcement was for $1 billion on June 15. That aid included $650 million under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in addition to a drawdown of $350 million.

USAID said the aid it announced on August 8 brings its total budgetary support since Russia's February invasion to $8.5 billion.

The funding, coordinated with the U.S. Treasury Department through the World Bank, will go to Ukraine's government in tranches, beginning with a $3 billion disbursement in August, USAID said in a news release.

The new funds are to help it maintain essential functions, including social and financial assistance for poor people, children with disabilities, and millions of internally displaced persons.

The World Bank estimates that 55 percent of Ukrainians will be living in poverty by the end of 2023 as a result of the war and the large numbers of displaced persons.

That compares with 2.5 percent living in poverty before the start of the war.

With reporting by AP

Russian Activist Jailed For Repeatedly Violating Protest Law

Vadim Khairullin was charged last year after he staged three one-person pickets to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

KALININGRAD, Russia -- A court in Russia's far western Kaliningrad exclave has sentenced an activist to one year in prison under a controversial law that criminalizes participation in more than one unsanctioned protest within a 180-day period.

Vadim Khairullin's lawyer, Maria Bontsler, told RFE/RL that her client was sentenced on August 8, emphasizing that the ruling will be appealed.

The case against Khairullin was launched in July 2021 after he staged three one-person pickets to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The law under which Khairullin was sentenced was adopted in 2014 and heavily criticized by rights defenders, who called it an attempt to suppress dissent. The legislation is known as Dadin's law after Ildar Dadin, the first person convicted under the statute.

Dadin served more than a year in prison after he was convicted of the same offense in December 2015.

Ukraine Jails Russian Soldier For 10 Years For Shelling Residential Building

The shelling caused no casualties but destroyed two private apartments and technical premises in the building. (illustrative photo)

A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier from Siberia to 10 years in prison for shelling a residential building in Ukraine's northern city of Chernihiv in late February.

A court in Chernihiv sentenced Sergeant Mikhail Kulikov on August 8 after he pleaded guilty to shooting a tank cannon at a high-rise building on February 26, two days after Russia started its ongoing, unprovoked invasion.

Kulikov said at the trial that he followed the command of his superior, who shouted that there was a person with a grenade launcher in the building, which later turned out to be false.

The shelling caused no casualties but destroyed two private apartments and technical premises in the building.

"I want to say to all who were affected by what I did both morally and physically that I am sorry. I have regretted what I did from the very beginning to this day. I am really sorry. Forgive me. I just want to go home to my family. Thank you for everything," Kulikov said at the trial.

Sources in Kulikov's native town of Zarinsk in the Altai region told RFE/RL that the 31-year-old Kulikov served as a gunner in a tank unit in the town of Aleisk.

Earlier in May, another Russian soldier from Siberia, Vadim Shishimarin of Irkutsk, was sentenced to life in prison for shooting to death a civilian in Ukraine's northeastern region of Sumy. That sentence was later changed to 15 years in prison.

Also in May, a court in the northeastern town of Kotelva sentenced two Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Ivanov and Aleksandr Bobykin, to 11 1/2 years in prison each after finding them guilty of shelling and destroying several residential buildings in the town of Kozacha Lopan and a school in the town of Veterinarne in the eastern Kharkiv region on February 24, the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion.

Iranian Labor Activist Still In Prison Despite Family Paying Bail

Narges Mansouri is a well-known labor rights activist who has been arrested, interrogated, and tried many times in recent years.

Iranian labor rights activist Narges Mansouri has not been released from prison despite her family having paid bail she was granted for temporary release, the watchdog Iran Human Rights says.

Iran Human Rights said a court six weeks ago granted Mansouri bail of 400 million tomans for her temporary release, and her family provided the amount and completed the registration process.

The rights group said the court continued to block her temporary release even while she is suffering from uterine fibroids and has been denied access to her chosen lawyer.

There has been no comment from the court to explain why she hadn't been released and no indication why she had been arrested, but Mansouri is one of 14 women activists in Iran who have publicly called for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resign.

She and the other women also demanded a new political system to be installed that is framed by a new constitution that would secure dignity and equal rights for women.

Criticism of Khamenei, the octogenarian who has the last say on almost every decision in the Islamic republic, is considered a red line in Iran, and those accused often land in prison, where political prisoners are routinely held in solitary confinement and subjected to various forms of torture.

Mansouri has worked for the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company for more than 20 years and is a well-known labor rights activist. She has been arrested, interrogated, and tried many times in recent years.

On May 19, amid a wave of arrests of labor and political activists in Iran, the official IRNA news agency claimed that Mansouri was arrested by security agents while trying to leave the country.

Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Authorities have cracked down on the protests, arresting many of those taking part.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Relatives Of Jailed Iranian Filmmaker Say COVID-19 Not Fully Treated In Prison

Jafar Panahi's son says that his father's transfer to the hospital was just for show.

The wife of a jailed Iranian filmmaker and activist says her husband was taken to the hospital for treatment of COVID-19 but was returned to prison without going through treatment.

Tahereh Saeedi, Jafar Panahi's wife, told RFE/RL that her husband was transferred to a hospital in Tehran and was expected to spend the quarantine period there. But the security agents suddenly removed an IV and took him back to prison.

"He has not had any contact with us since then and it is very unlike Jafar. It is not a good sign and I am very worried," Saeedi told RFE/RL on August 8.

The news of the well-known Iranian filmmaker's infection with COVID-19 was published on August 6, more than three weeks after his arrest.

In an audio file received by RFE/RL, Panahi said that after he tested positive for coronavirus he was transferred to the "patient room" to spend his illness and found it "ruined."

Then, with severe fever and chills, Panahi requested that prison authorities send him to a health center outside the prison for treatment, but his request was initially opposed.

Panah Panahi, Panahi's son, said on Instagram on August 7 that his father's transfer to the hospital was just for show.

"They brought him to say that we brought him to the hospital," he said. "They removed the serum from his hand in the middle of the treatment and put him in a car and returned him to prison."

Panahi, 62, was arrested earlier in July as part of a renewed crackdown by the Iranian authorities on dissent as anti-establishment sentiment and near-daily protests across the Islamic republic rattle the government.

Days prior to his arrest, Panahi was among more than 300 Iranian filmmakers and cultural activists who issued a statement condemning the arrests of activist cinematographers Mohammad Rasulof and Mostafa al-Ahmad.

Panahi originally served two months in prison after his 2010 conviction before being granted a conditional release that was revocable. As part of his release, he was banned from directing or writing screenplays and from traveling abroad.

The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize in Berlin for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for Three Faces in 2018.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

More Russian Sailors Missing After Missile Cruiser Sank In April Confirmed Dead

The missile cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet is seen anchored in Sevastopol Bay on April 10.

Two more Russian sailors who were initially reported among 27 missing personnel after the Moskva missile cruiser sank off the Ukrainian coast in April have been confirmed dead.

Relatives of Vladimir Savin said on August 8 that they had received a death certificate for him.

Relatives of another sailor, Ivan Frantin, said the same day that the Defense Ministry informed them of Frantin's death and they were awaiting a death certificate.

Last week, Dmitry Shkrebets -- who had been demanding that Russian authorities find his son, who was serving aboard the Moskva -- said on social media that he had received a death certificate for his 20-year-old son, Yegor Shkrebets.

The Moskva missile cruiser sank on April 13. Since the ship went down, multiple reports have surfaced of relatives of those on board seeking information about their loved ones.

The ship's sinking was a significant blow to the Russian military in the weeks after it launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities and the Pentagon have said the ship was hit by a Ukrainian missile attack, while Russian officials said the cruiser sank after by a fire on board detonated ammunition.

Russia's Defense Ministry said at the time that one crew member, identified as Ivan Vakhrushev, had died, and 27 were missing. Nearly 400 other crew members were evacuated to other ships in Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Russian TV Journalist Who Protested War On Air Fined Again For 'Discrediting' Army

Former Russian state TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova attends a court hearing in Moscow on July 28.

Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, known for delivering a live on-air anti-war protest in March, has been again convicted of "discrediting" the country's armed forces in social-media posts condemning Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

The Cheryomushki district court in Moscow on August 8 ordered the former editor of Channel One TV to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles ($660) for her latest online posts protesting Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, which was launched unprovoked in February.

Ovsyannikova's lawyers insisted that the latest charges be returned to prosecutors, saying that their client was wrongfully informed about the case against her because investigators had sent the papers to the wrong address.

Ovsyannikova said at the hearing that she learned about the case from other journalists while she was abroad.

Last week, Moscow's Meshchansky district court fined Ovsyannikova 50,000 rubles ($825) on the same charge of discrediting the military in connection with her one-person protest in front of the Kremlin in early July in which she held a poster saying that Russian President Vladimir "Putin is a murderer, his soldiers are fascists" and displaying photos of children killed in Ukraine.

She was not detained at the time but was arrested days later on July 17 at her home in Moscow.

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

Ovsyannikova was a producer with Channel One at the time of her protest. She was later detained and fined 30,000 rubles by a court for calling for illegal protests.

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

For three months she trained at the German publication Die Welt. In early July, she announced her return to Russia.

Russia has stepped up detentions and prosecution of journalists, activists, and others who challenge the Kremlin line on its invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a "special operation" and not a war.

EU Aims To Cut Gas Use By 15 Percent Under New Plan

Germany alone accounts for about 40 percent of the Russian gas imported by the European Union.

The European Union has called on member states to cut natural-gas use by 15 percent under a new plan intended to prepare the bloc for a possible halt in Russian supplies.

The plan, approved two weeks ago and published as a European Council regulation on August 8, will apply for one year and is reportedly expected to go into force on August 9.

"Considering the imminent danger to the security of gas supply brought about by the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, this regulation should enter into force as a matter of urgency," according to the text of the regulation.

Under the plan, EU countries are expected to do their best to voluntarily reduce their gas consumption by 15 percent between August 1 and March 31 compared to the average consumption over the same period the past five years.

According to European Commission, a total of 45 billion cubic meters of gas must be saved to reach the target over the next seven months, and Germany alone would have to consume around 10 billion cubic meters less. Germany accounts for about 40 percent of the Russian gas imported by the European Union.

Some countries that depend heavily on Russian gas imports, such as Hungary, have demanded exemptions from the new gas-saving measures.

In the event that the European Commission determines there is a "severe gas supply shortage" or exceptionally high demand for natural gas, it can ask the 27 EU members to declare an alert that would allow the bloc to make the cuts binding and limit exceptions.

The aim of the gas savings is to prepare for a possible total cut of Russian gas supplies to the European Union.

While the bloc has not introduced sanctions against Russian natural gas over the war in Ukraine, Moscow has significantly reduced gas supplies to the bloc in recent months in what Brussels sees as a retaliatory measure following the imposition of other EU measures intended to punish the Kremlin for launching the war.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned last week that Europe must prepare for the "worst situation" with regard to Russian gas supplies.

With reporting by dpa and AFP

Russia-Imposed Leader Of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Region Orders Referendum On Joining Russia

An armored convoy of Russian troops drives through the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya region on July 23.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-appointed head of Ukraine's southeastern Zaporizhzhya region, has officially ordered a local referendum on the possibility of the province joining the Russian Federation.

Balitsky signed the order at an event held by the We Are Together With Russia movement in the city of Melitopol on August 8.

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The move comes hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that if referendums on joining Russia proceed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, there can be no peace talks on ending the war launched by Russia against Ukraine nearly six months ago.

"Our country's position remains what it always has been. We will give up nothing of what is ours," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on August 7. "If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referendums they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point."

On August 8, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Zelenskiy's statement was misdirected if he was addressing Russian citizens or leadership, suggesting that the referendums were the will of the residents of Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, said on August 8 that Ukrainian armed forces had hit Russian occupying forces overnight, using U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers.

According to the Ukrainian side, a "significant" amount of Russian military equipment was destroyed and more than 100 Russian troops were killed in the attack.

A representative of the Russia-imposed authorities in Zaporizhzhya, Vladimir Rogov, rejected the Ukrainian statement, saying that Russian troops were able to fend off the Ukrainian attack in Melitopol.

A significant part of the Zaporizhzhya region, including Melitopol, was occupied by Russian troops in the first days of Russia's unprovoked and full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Russia-appointed officials in Zaporizhzhya and another Ukrainian region, Kherson, have said they plan to hold referendums on joining Russia.

Moscow officials have said that such referendums may be held in September.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, TASS, and RIA Novosti

Ukraine Says Positions In East Shelled To Prevent Troop Transfers, Plot To Kill Top Officials Foiled

The Antonivsky Bridge across the Dnieper River, which connects occupied Kherson with the left bank, shows damage after Ukraine's first strikes targeted it on July 20.

Russian troops shelled positions held by Ukrainian troops and several populated areas in various directions, Ukraine's General Staff said as Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) said it had foiled a plot to kill two top government officials.

In the Donetsk region, Russian troops are trying to inflict "maximum losses" on Ukrainian units and prevent their transfer to other fronts, the General Staff said in its evening assessment of the day's fighting.

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"Our soldiers repelled enemy assaults in the direction of the settlements of Bakhmut, Zaytseve, Vershina, and Kodem," the General Staff announced.

It said Russian attempts to attack in the direction of Avdiyivka and Piskiv were stopped and the enemy troops withdrew.

Attempts to break through the defense of the Ukrainian forces in the directions of Maryinka and Shevchenko were also unsuccessful, the report said.

In the north, the shelling of border settlements in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions, as well as Russian aerial reconnaissance, continued.

"In the Kharkiv direction, enemy units using tanks, barrel, and rocket artillery are trying to restrain the Defense Forces from advancing deep into the territory temporarily captured by the enemy," the report said.

Russian ships on the Black Sea launched four Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles early on August 8. All were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses, the Ukrainian military said.

The claims, which could not be independently verified, came as the SBU said it had arrested Russian agents who were planning to assassinate the defense minister and the military intelligence chief.

The SBU said it arrested "killers from the Russian special services" who were plotting the assassinations of Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and military intelligence boss Kyrylo Budanov.

It published a video on Telegram showing an armed group subduing and handcuffing two men in civilian clothing who were approaching a car.

The arrests took place in Kovel in northwestern Ukraine. The SBU said one of the alleged plotters arrived in the country from Russia via Belarus.

It claimed the men were preparing "the physical liquidation" of the two top officials and an unnamed "Ukrainian activist." It said each killing was to be rewarded with a sum of $100,000 to $150,000.

Earlier on August 8, Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-appointed deputy head of the military-civilian administration of the Kherson region, told reporters that Ukrainian rockets again damaged the Antonivskiy Bridge overnight, destroying equipment being used to repair the bridge.

Stremousov added that the reopening of the bridge, which has been closed to all traffic since it was attacked by Ukrainian-operated HIMARS on July 26-27, will be postponed for an unspecified period. The bridge was first targeted by Ukrainian forces on July 19-20, seriously damaging the bridge and temporarily halting heavy truck traffic.

The Antonivskiy Bridge is the only bridge in Kherson that links the banks of the Dnieper River. About 1 1/2 kilometers long and 25 meters wide, the bridge is the only route to supply Russian occupying forces in Kherson.

The United States announced later on August 8 that it will supply Ukraine with an additional $1 billion in military aid, including rockets for the HIMARS and other ammunition. It is the largest delivery yet to Ukraine of arms from Department of Defense stockpiles.

The U.S. Defense Department also said up to 80,000 people have been killed or injured on the Russian side in the war.

Pentagon official Colin Kahl told reporters in Washington that Russia had suffered a "tremendous number of casualties" in its war on Ukraine.

He said the estimate was "pretty remarkable considering that in Ukraine, the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin's objectives at the beginning of the war."

With reporting by AFP

Iran Police Arrest Afghan Suspected Of Stabbing 10 To Death

Afghan refugees gather in Iran's southeastern Kerman Province. (file photo)

Police in Iran have arrested an Afghan national suspected of stabbing 10 people to death following a dispute over land, domestic media reported on August 8.

Rahman Jalali, deputy governor of Iran's southeastern Kerman Province, told state media that the unidentified man was arrested on suspicion of killing six Afghans and four Iranians in Rafsanjan on August 7 over “personal differences.”

Jalali said eight people were wounded in the attack.

The state broadcaster said the suspect was reportedly "mentally unstable."

Some reports suggested that the man had attempted to commit suicide before his arrest.

Iran has hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades.

With reporting by AP and IRNA

Russian Reelected As Head Of International Chess Body, Defeating Ukrainian Challenger

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said he took "a strong position [on the] tragic events in Ukraine" and that he had backed the scaling down of Russian involvement in FIDE.

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich has been reelected as the head of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), defeating a Ukrainian challenger who said the incumbent was part of Moscow's "war machine."

A total of 157 out of 179 national chess associations voted for Dvorkovich on August 7 at FIDE's general assembly in India, the international governing body said in a statement.

Ukrainian grandmaster Andriy Baryshpolets, who challenged Dvorkovich, won just 16 votes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov welcomed Dvorkovich's victory.

"The election of the head of FIDE is very important, it's a global event, and of course we were rooting for Dvorkovich, a Russian citizen," Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian media.

A number of Russian officials have been hit with sanctions since the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, and Russian competitors have been banned by numerous international sports governing bodies.

But Dvorkovich, 50, who served under President Vladimir Putin as deputy prime minister from 2012-2018 when he was elected FIDE president, retained his position.

Baryshpolets had said before the vote at the FIDE general assembly in Chennai that Dvorkovich has "tremendous ties to the Russian government."

"You, Arkady, are responsible for what is happening in Ukraine now. You are responsible for building up the Russian government and Russia's war machine. And we as a chess world, how can we afford this?" Baryshpolets said.

But Dvorkovich said that he took "a strong position [on the] tragic events in Ukraine" and that he had backed the scaling down of Russian involvement in FIDE.

In March, Dvorkovich appeared to criticize the Russian invasion, saying in an interview that his "thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians."

"Wars do not just kill priceless lives. Wars kill hopes and aspirations, freeze or destroy relationships and connections," Dvorkovich told the U.S. news site Mother Jones.

The comments drew flak in Russia and Dvorkovich later seemed to walk back the comments, saying there was "no place for Nazism or the domination of some countries over others.”

The Kremlin has often described its war effort as a part of a campaign to defeat alleged Nazism in Ukraine and the West.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Belarusian Journalist Convicted Over Anti-Lukashenka Rally Flees Country

Aksana Kolb, editor in chief of the Novy Chas newspaper, was found guilty by a Minsk court of organizing activities that disrupted social order.

MINSK -- Well-known Belarusian journalist Aksana Kolb, who was sentenced in mid-June to serve 30 months in an "open prison" for taking part in an unsanctioned rally against authoritarian Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has fled Belarus.

The editor of the Minsk-based independent weekly Novy Chas (New Time) wrote on Facebook on August 8 that she is currently in an unspecified foreign country.

"I do not have a home now. But I have a big dream -- to sit in the first row in a big courtroom in which all those who deprived us of our homeland, and some people of their liberty, will be tried," Kolb wrote.

A court in Minsk handed down Kolb's sentence on June 15 after finding her guilty of organizing and preparing activities that disrupted social order.

"Open prison" is a work-release sentence commonly known across the former Soviet Union as "khimiya" (chemistry). The sentence dates back to the late-1940s, when convicts were sent to work at dangerous facilities such as chemical factories and uranium mines while living in special nearby dormitories instead of being incarcerated in penitentiaries.

These days a khimiya sentence is seen as less harsh, as convicts stay in a dormitory not far from their permanent address and work either at their workplace as usual or at a state entity defined by the penitentiary service.

Kolb's sentence is similar to others handed down under Lukashenka's harsh, and sometimes violent, crackdown against dissent after he claimed victory in Belarus's August 2020 presidential election. The country's opposition says the election was rigged to give Lukashenka a sixth term in office.

The 67-year-old, who has been in power since 1994, has directed the campaign to arrest tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, many opposition members have fled the country.

Two More Ships Carrying Agricultural Exports Leave Ukrainian Ports

The bulk carrier Star Helena is seen near the Ukrainian sea port of Odesa on August 7 after the resumption of grain exports.

Two more ships carrying agricultural goods have departed from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, bringing to 10 the number of ships that have set sail in the past week under an internationally brokered deal with Russia to unblock Ukrainian agricultural exports.

The Sacura, which departed from Pivdenniy, is carrying 11,000 tons of soybeans to Italy, Turkey's Defense Ministry said, while the Arizona, which left Chornomorsk, is carrying more than 48,000 tons of corn to Iskenderun in southern Turkey.

Ukraine's infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, confirmed that both ships had left and added that Pivdenniy, the third Ukrainian port included in the deal, was now up and running as part of the initiative.

Kubrakov had said previously the opening of Pivdenniy, located in the town of Yuzhne, would push Ukraine's total export capacity up to 3 million tons a month.

Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had been forced to halt almost all deliveries in the wake of Russia's invasion in February due a blockade by Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

The halt of grain shipments from Ukraine contributed to a spike in global food prices and caused concern about countries in the Middle East and Africa receiving enough grain and other commodities to feed their populations.

The resumption of grain exports is being overseen by the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul led by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN personnel.

In Rome on August 7 Pope Francis welcomed the resumption of grain exports as "a sign of hope" that showed dialogue was possible to end the war.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Amnesty Regrets 'Distress' Caused By Report Accusing Ukraine Of Endangering Civilians

Ukrainian soldiers ride through a street in Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on July 8.

Amnesty International said on August 7 it "deeply regrets the distress and anger" caused by a report accusing Ukraine of exposing civilians to Russian fire.

The August 4 report said the Ukrainian military is endangering civilians by basing themselves in residential buildings, schools, and hospitals and launching counterattacks from heavily populated areas.

The head of Amnesty's Ukraine office resigned in protest, accusing the rights organization of parroting Kremlin propaganda.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the rights group had tried to "amnesty the terrorist state and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim."

"We fully stand by our findings," the rights group said, but it stressed that "nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations."

"This does not mean that Amnesty International holds Ukrainian forces responsible for violations committed by Russian forces, nor that the Ukrainian military is not taking adequate precautions elsewhere in the country," it said.

Amnesty's report listed incidents in which Ukrainian forces appeared to have exposed civilians to danger in 19 towns and villages in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Mykolayiv regions.

In its statement on August 7, the rights group refused to back down on that assessment.

It "found instances where Ukrainian forces had located themselves right next to where civilians were living, thereby potentially putting them at risk from incoming Russian fire."

Nevertheless, Amnesty acknowledged the scale of reaction its report had triggered.

"Amnesty International deeply regrets the distress and anger that our press release on the Ukrainian military's fighting tactics has caused," it said.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

U.S. Ready To Conclude Iran Nuclear Deal Based On EU's 'Final Draft'

EU top negotiator Enrique Mora sits with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani during the latest round of talks in Vienna.

The United States is ready to "quickly conclude a deal" to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on the basis of proposals put forward on August 8 by the European Union, a State Department spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said Tehran had repeatedly said it was prepared for a return to mutual implementation of the agreement, and now Washington will wait to see if "their actions match their words."

The European Union earlier submitted a "final text" at talks in Vienna to revive the agreement.

"We worked for four days and today the text is on the table," the official told reporters. "The negotiation is finished, it's the final text...and it will not be renegotiated."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter that everything that could be negotiated had been negotiated, adding that behind every part of the proposal "lies a political decision that needs to be taken" in the capitals of the countries involved.

He said the most recent talks were used to "fine tune and address" a handful of issues remaining in the text that he put on the table on July 21.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry official told state news agency IRNA that Iran had given its preliminary response to the EU's text but was "not at a stage to talk about finalizing the deal."

Tehran will "convey its additional views and considerations after more comprehensive discussions in Tehran," the official said, according to IRNA.

Top negotiators involved in the talks have said they are optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement.

Enrique Mora, the European Union's top negotiator, said over the weekend he was "absolutely" optimistic about the talks' progress so far.

"We are advancing, and I expect we will close the negotiations soon," Mora told Iranian media told Iranian media on August 7.

Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov said on August 7 there were "three or four issues" left to be resolved.

"We stand five minutes or five seconds from the finish line," Ulyanov told reporters outside the Palais Coburg hotel where the talks are being held.

A successful conclusion can be reached "very soon, but no guarantees -- as always, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," he said.

"They are sensitive, especially for Iranians and Americans," Ulyanov said. "I cannot guarantee, but the impression is that we are moving in the right direction."

Negotiators from Iran, Russia, and the EU -- as well as the United States, indirectly -- resumed talks over Tehran's nuclear deal on August 4 after a months-long standstill in negotiations.

Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran reacted by gradually backtracking on its obligations under the deal, such as uranium enrichment.

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China. The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of U.N. inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on August 7 in a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that his country is "serious about reaching a strong and lasting agreement." But he added that the outcome will depend on whether the United States wants to make an agreement.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley said last week that U.S. expectations for the Vienna talks are "in check" but the United States is prepared for a good faith effort to reach an agreement.

For their part, Britain, France, and Germany have called on Iran "not to make unrealistic demands" in the talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, Mehr, and AFP

UN Chief Calls For International Access To Ukrainian Nuclear Plant After New Attack

A soldier with a Russian flag on his uniform stands guard near the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on August 4.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the recent shelling of the facility.

Any attack on a nuclear plant "is a suicidal thing," Guterres told a news conference in Japan.

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His comments followed a visit to Hiroshima over the weekend, where Guterres gave a speech to mark the 77th anniversary of the world's first nuclear bombing.

Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine's state nuclear power company Enerhoatom, said peacekeepers should be deployed at the Zaporizhzhya site.

"The decision that we demand from the world community and all our to withdraw the invaders from the territory of the station and create a demilitarized zone on the territory of the station," Kotin said on Ukrainian television.

"The presence of peacekeepers in this zone and the transfer of control of it to them, and then also control of the station to the Ukrainian side, would resolve this problem."

The Russia Foreign Ministry said later in a statement that it wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the plant, but said Kyiv was blocking a potential visit.

Ukraine said renewed Russian shelling on August 6 had damaged three radiation sensors and hurt a worker at the Zaporizhzhya facility, Europe's largest nuclear power plant. It was the second strike to hit the plant in consecutive days. Russia has claimed that Ukraine is responsible for the strikes.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Dmytro Shmyhal said that he discussed the situation at the power plant with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink, including accusations that Russian forces have planted explosives at the plant to head off an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive in the region.

"The whole world must unite in order to prevent a catastrophe. We count on the support of our partners to stop the aggressor as soon as possible," said Shmyhal.

Ukraine's ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, likewise urged that the United Nations, the IAEA, and the international community send a delegation to “completely demilitarize the territory” and provide security guarantees to plant employees and the city where the plant is based, Enerhodar.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for new Western sanctions on Russia's nuclear industry "for creating the threat of a nuclear disaster."

The plant, about 200 kilometers northwest of the Russian-held port of Mariupol, has been under Russian supervision since Moscow's troops seized it early in the war, but the Ukrainian staff continues to operate the facility.

The Russian-installed authority of the region said Ukrainian forces hit the site with a multiple-rocket launcher, damaging administrative buildings and an area near a storage facility. The Russian Embassy in Washington also released a statement blaming "Ukrainian nationalists" for the damage.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 8 that the shelling was "extremely dangerous" while calling on Ukraine's allies "to use their influence to prevent" its continuation.

The fighting at the Zaporizhzhya site has alarmed the world.

Guterres said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needed access to the plant.

"We fully support the IAEA in all their efforts in relation to [creating] the conditions of stabilization of the plant," Guterres said.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi warned on August 6 that the latest attack "underlines the very real risk of a nuclear disaster."

Grossi urged all sides in the conflict to exercise the "utmost restraint" near the nuclear site.

The IAEA chief added that it was "of paramount importance" that the agency be allowed access to the plant "to provide technical support for nuclear safety and security."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Zelenskiy Rules Out Talks If Russia Holds Referendums In Occupied Areas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that if Moscow holds referendums on joining Russia in occupied areas of his country, there could be no talks with Ukraine or its international allies.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that Ukraine was holding fast to its position of yielding no territory to Russia.

"If the occupiers proceed along the path of pseudo-referendums, they will close for themselves any chance of talks with Ukraine and the free world, which the Russian side will clearly need at some point,” he said on August 7.

Russian troops and Moscow-backed separatists now hold large swaths of territory in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region and in southern areas. Russian-installed officials in both areas have raised the possibility of holding referendums on joining Russia. Some of them were offering residents benefits for taking part.

In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula following a disputed referendum that was widely believed to have been falsified, with results showing that nearly 97 percent of voters supported joining Russia.

In eastern Ukraine, the separatists seized chunks of territory in 2014, held independence referendums, and proclaimed "people's republics" in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Moscow recognized the "republics" on the eve of its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian officials held several sessions of talks in March, but little progress was made, with each side blaming the other for the halt in contact.

Based on reporting by Reuters

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