In Afghanistan, More Fear Than Hope Over U.S. Troop Drawdown
Karzai described the drawdown as "a good step" that would benefit both the United States and the people of Afghanistan.
He added that he believed the security situation in the country would be safe in the Afghans' "own capable hands."
The plan -- announced by Obama in a late-night speech in Washington -- would leave about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to continue combat operations until the end of 2014.
Volatile areas like the east and south of the country are expected to retain heavy deployments until then.
Taliban Vows To Fight On
The Taliban said in a statement that Obama's announcement was "only a symbolic step." In the statement e-mailed to international media, the group accused the U.S. administration and military of "repeatedly giving false hopes" about ending the war.
There have been mixed reactions across Afghanistan about the announced departure of U.S. forces. Some expressed concerns about the ability of Afghan troops to provide security on their own while others said they fear renewed civil war without the presence of foreign troops.
In the southeastern town of Khost near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan's tribal regions, a man named Ehsanullah told RFE/RL he thought Afghan security must be strengthened before U.S. troops leave.
"This [withdrawal] is a good thing provided that our army and police are able to stand on their own feet," he said. "If that is the case, then the departure of foreign forces will not be a problem."
Old Rivalries Could Be Revived
But another resident of Khost, a young man who did not want to use his name, told RFE/RL that he was afraid old disputes between rival warlords in Afghanistan will resurface when U.S. troops leave -- leading to a civil war between factional militias similar to what was seen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan:
"If they leave, then God forbid, there will be internal fighting similar to what happened in the past...and that will be a serious blow to Afghanistan," he said.
In Kabul, some lawmakers are also worried that the departure of foreign troops could create a power vacuum that leads to civil war between the country's factional militias.
"Currently there is no real 'national army' in Afghanistan," said Ramazan Bashardost, a former independent presidential candidate and a member of parliament from central Afghanistan who represents ethnic Hazara.
U.S. 'Disrupts Rather Than Improves' Security
"The moment the political umbrella provided by the United States is removed from Afghanistan, people loyal to different leaders -- General Fahim, [Second Vice President Karim] Khalili, [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum, [Mohammad] Muhaqiq, [Gulbudin] Hekmatyar, and Mullah [Mohammad] Omar -- will start a civil war from within the units of Afghanistan's army."
Ibrahim Amir, a resident of the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, told RFE/RL he thought the presence of foreign troops in Afghan cities actually disrupts security more than it improves the situation.
"It's good if they are not here," he said. "Afghans are able to ensure our security on our own."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report
All Of The Latest News
Orban Imposes New State Of Emergency In Hungary, Saying Ukraine War Poses 'Constant Danger'
BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imposed a new state of emergency in the country, citing the war in Ukraine, which he said “poses a threat to our physical security.”
Speaking in a video message posted on Facebook on May 24, Orban said no one can see an end to the war, which began three months ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.
“This war means a constant danger to Hungary. It poses a threat to our physical security. It threatens our economy and our families in terms of energy supplies and material security," Orban said.
The war and the sanctions imposed by the European Union have led to huge economic turbulence and drastic price increases, he said.
“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," he added.
The state of emergency, which is to begin at midnight, enables the government “to react with all available instruments to protect Hungary and Hungarian families,” he said.
Hungary already is under a state of emergency that was declared because of COVID-19, but it is due to expire on May 31.
New rules that will be in effect under the change will be announced on May 25, Orban said.
Shortly before the announcement, the Hungarian parliament amended the constitution to allow for such a measure.
Orban's Fidesz party, which won reelection on April 3, commands a two-thirds majority in the chamber.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) denounced the declaration, saying the state of emergency "has become permanent."
The move gives Orban "more leeway than usual," allowing him to "restrict or simply suspend everybody's fundamental rights," TASZ said.
Orban, in power for 12 years, has been accused by his Western partners of abuses of power in his country, a member of both the European Union and NATO.
With reporting by AFP
Serbian Orthodox Church Recognizes Independence Of Orthodox Church In North Macedonia
The head of Serbia's Orthodox Church recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, signaling an end to a religious dispute dating back more than 50 years.
Patriarch Porfirije, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, announced the decision to recognize the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia during a joint liturgy on May 24 in Skopje.
“Brothers and sisters, we are here to bring you joy," Porfirije said. “God is one, his church is one, and our faith is one. That is why we are rejoicing today. A miracle is happening before us. We are part of that miracle.”
Believers at the joint service and around St. Clement of Ohrid Cathedral greeted the announcement with joy and thunderous applause.
The rift dates back to 1967 when the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia unilaterally announced its independence, or autocephaly, from the Serbian Church. At the time, the two predominantly Orthodox republics were part of Yugoslavia.
Serbian religious leaders condemned the move, and the breakaway church was not recognized by other Orthodox churches.
As he announced the reversal, Porfirije said the synod of Serbia's senior bishops unanimously accepted the change, and an official proclamation of the church's independence is being prepared. The proclamation will be followed by an invitation of acceptance to be sent to other Orthodox churches.
Porfirije expects that all local churches will accept the autocephaly status of the church, whose formal name is the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric.
Formal recognition of the autocephaly of the church is expected to be officially announced by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.
Bartholomew earlier this month acknowledged the Macedonian Orthodox Church as the Church of Ohrid, and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate followed suit last week.
“We have been waiting to hear this news for a long time. This is the day,” said Archbishop Stefan, head of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, as he thanked Bartholomew and Porfirije for their support.
"Once again, we thank you, your holiness, and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church on behalf of the monasticism and the faithful people of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric," Archbishop Stefan said.
The news was widely seen in North Macedonia as a historic event, and after the end of the joint liturgy the bells in the cathedral in Skopje continued to ring.
"It is good news that we are finally together after so many years, and the patriarch himself says in Serbian that this is a miracle that happened to us, so we thank God," said Blagica Blazeska, according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
Donco Domazetovski, another worshiper, said it was “a miracle above the miracles” that the church’s autocephaly was recognized and its priests have the right to preach everywhere and build unity.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Poll Shows Near Even Split Among Ukrainians Over Joining NATO
A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows that 39 percent of Ukrainians believe that joining NATO would guarantee the nation's security, while 42 percent believe that in the current environment settling for security guarantees may be acceptable.
The KIIS poll asked 2,000 people whether it would be acceptable not to join the alliance if Ukraine instead received security guarantees from NATO countries.
The poll was conducted May 13-18 via computer-assisted telephone interviews based on a random sample of mobile telephone numbers throughout the country, except in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Nineteen percent of respondents had no opinion or did not agree with either of the options.
Russia has opposed Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and cited the potential of NATO expansion as one of its reasons for launching its invasion three months ago. Kyiv has been working on joining the alliance for years.
As Russia continues its unprovoked invasion, the possibility of Ukraine not joining NATO or postponing the process has been raised at talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
The poll also showed that the population's readiness to abandon the idea of joining NATO and instead obtaining security guarantees from NATO countries is supported by 35 percent of the population in the country's west, which has been less affected by the war, and 50 percent in Ukraine's eastern regions.
At the same time, people who strongly support Ukraine joining NATO is 46 percent in western regions of Ukraine and 25 percent in the country's east.
Exclusive: Murdered Artist's Work Returned To Family, 80 Years After The Holocaust
After a demolition crew made a startling art discovery in the walls of a Prague house, the work of Gertrud Kauders has been handed over to her descendants. Kauders was a Jewish artist from Prague who was murdered in a Nazi death camp in World War II.
In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Sanctions 154 Members Of Britain's House Of Lords
Russia says it is sanctioning 154 members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, in retaliation for similar steps taken against Moscow's foreign envoys and lawmakers over the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 24 that it had banned the British lawmakers -- including William Hague, a former foreign minister and leader of the Conservative Party in opposition -- from entering Russia.
In March, the British government imposed personal sanctions on "almost all the members" of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, the Foreign Ministry said in justifying its move.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow, including the exclusion of several banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior officials.
Russia last month banned entry to 287 British MPs in another tit-for-tat move, saying it had chosen those who played "the most active part" in drawing up anti-Russian sanctions and contributed to "Russophobic hysteria."
The House of Lords has around 800 members.
Russian Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Food Blogger Over Posts On Ukraine War
A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for a food blogger and magazine founder for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.
The Basmanny district court announced its decision on May 24 to arrest Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka. Belotserkovskaya currently lives in France.
On March 16, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian Army on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.
She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."
Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.
On May 14, Russian authorities added Belotserkovskaya to the wanted list.
Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.
PEN America Honors Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who is serving a lengthy prison term in Russia on espionage charges that he and his supporters reject, has been awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is given to political prisoners.
Yesypenko, currently serving a six-year sentence in a Russian prison for his reporting in Russian-occupied Crimea, was presented with the award in absentia at the PEN America gala in New York on May 23.
Hollywood actor Michael Douglas presented the award to Yesypenko's wife, Kateryna, and daughter, Stefania.
Kateryna Yesypenko began her acceptance speech on behalf of her husband in English, but then switched to Ukrainian "because of the power of this language," which has gained global recognition because of its usage by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in speeches to world leaders over Russia's unprovoked war.
"My husband has been behind bars for 15 months now. And that is only and entirely because he is a journalist. Vladyslav knew that reporting from the Russian-occupied Crimea is dangerous, but he was confident that people deserve to know what is happening, know the truth.... And I fully support him in that," Kateryna Yesypenko said.
A court in Crimea sentenced Yesypenko in February, after a closed-door trial.
Yesypenko, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who contributes to Crimea.Realities, was detained in Crimea in March 2021 on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence.
Before his arrest, he had worked in Crimea for five years reporting on the social and environmental situation in the region.
Yesypenko testified during a court hearing that the Russian authorities "want to discredit the work of freelance journalists who really want to show the things that really happen in Crimea."
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the judgment a "travesty" in a statement released after the sentence was announced.
"As a journalist doing nothing more than reporting the facts, he should never have been detained in the first place, much less put through the physical and mental torture that he has endured over the past 11 months," Fly said.
'Vladyslav needs to be returned home to his wife and daughter immediately."
Press-freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the U.S. State Department, are among those who have called for Yesypenko's immediate release in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing.
Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and weeks later threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine's east.
On February 24, Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In recent weeks it has intensified its bombardment of areas in the east to tighten and expand its grip on the areas where the separatists have a stronghold.
Finnish, Swedish Envoys To Turkey To Discuss NATO Bids
Envoys from Finland and Sweden are due to meet in Ankara on May 25 for talks with Turkish officials regarding the two countries' applications for membership in NATO, which Turkey opposes, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been vocal in his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance, held phone calls with the leaders of the two countries on May 21 and discussed his concerns.
"We are sending our delegations to visit Ankara, actually both Sweden and Finland. This will happen tomorrow, so the dialogue is continuing," Haavisto said during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.
"We understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis a vis terrorism.... We think that these issues can be settled. There might be also some issues that are not linked directly to Finland and Sweden but more to other NATO members," Haavisto said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on May 24 that he was confident the alliance will be able to welcome Sweden and Finland as members.
Stoltenberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine had backfired, leading to a result opposite to what he had wanted.
"He wanted less NATO on his borders and launched a war. And now he is getting more NATO on his borders and more members," Stoltenberg said.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen
Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen has been released from prison in Russia after serving a term he was handed on extremism charges that he and his supporters have denied.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' website said on May 24 that Christensen was released from a prison in the Oryol region after serving out his punishment.
Christensen was detained in May 2017 in the city of Oryol, some 320 kilometers south of Moscow, weeks after the Russian Supreme Court ruled to ban the religious group in the country, declaring it "an extremist organization."
In February 2019, Christensen was found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group and sentenced to six years in prison. His two years in pretrial detention counted as three years toward his sentence, putting his release date at May 24, 2022.
Several requests Christensen made for early release were denied, including one in 2020 that a court actually approved, only to then reverse itself and refuse to free him, saying it had decided he was a "malicious violator."
The news of Christensen's release comes a day after a court in the city of Prokopevsk sentenced 53-year-old Andrei Vlasov to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of the same charges Christensen was found guilty of.
Prosecutors had sought an 8 1/2-year prison term for Vlasov, who is also a Jehovah's Witness. His defense team said it will appeal the court ruling.
The probe against Vlasov was launched in July 2020 and he was placed under house arrest despite being legally disabled.
Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.
According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.
The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities it says are peaceful.
For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, the rejection of military service, and its refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.
With reporting by Siberia.Realities
EU's Von Der Leyen Accuses Russia Of Weaponizing Food Supplies
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says Russia is weaponizing food supplies as prices of grain, cooking oil, and other food commodities soar following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's largest wheat producers.
"In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery.... And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen said in an address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.
"Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail -- holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.... This is using hunger and grain to wield power."
She said that for some, this had brought back memories from "a dark past -- the times of the Soviets' crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s," a reference to a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.
Russia has blamed rising food prices and shortages on the West for imposing sanctions in response to the war.
The German government has accused Russia of blocking the possible shipment of some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine, while Polish President Andrzej Duda told a panel at the WEF that the food shortages could trigger a wave of migrants from North Africa to Europe.
Von der Leyen said the way to combat Russia's moves to disrupt the food-supply chain was through global cooperation.
With reporting by Reuters and dpa
Navalny's Appeal Denied In Moscow, New Nine-Year Sentence Confirmed
MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has upheld a nine-year prison term for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is already behind bars for a previous conviction he and his supporters have called politically motivated.
Navalny took part in the May 24 hearing via a video link from a prison in the Vladimir region.
The Kremlin critic used his final statement in court to condemn the Russian authorities for launching the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and reiterated his previous statements that all of the charges against him are politically motivated.
"It's you, your system, and Putin who are traitors against the Russian people.... I am ready to sit in jail to prove that not everyone in Russia is like this," Navalny told the court.
"What Putin is doing is pointless.... One crazy thief has seized hold of Ukraine, and no one understands what he wants to do with it.... Your time will pass and you will burn in hell," he added.
Navalny was handed the sentence on March 22 after the court found him guilty of embezzlement and contempt charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted by saying that the denial of Navalny's appeal "is another example of the Kremlin's quest to suppress dissent and civil society."
The United States respects "the brave citizens of Russia who protest their government's brutal war and endemic corruption, despite threats, criminal charges, detentions and poisonings," he said on Twitter.
Separately on May 24, a different court in Moscow rejected another appeal filed by Navalny, this one against a January decision by the federal financial monitoring service, Rosfinmonitoring, to add him and 11 of his associates to its list of "terrorists and extremists," Navalny’s lawyer told the Interfax news agency.
The entries for Navalny and his associates in Rosfinmonitoring's registry on January 25 put them in the same ranks as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Islamic State.
Several of Navalny's associates were subsequently charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.
Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his arrival to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.
He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.
Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.
International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner.
The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded Russia release the 45-year-old Kremlin-critic.
Navalny is currently serving his term in a prison in the town of Pokrov, some 200 kilometers east of Moscow. He is expected to be transferred to a stricter regime prison for the new conviction.
With reporting by Mediazona and Interfax
Ex-Moldovan President Dodon Detained After Home Searched By Anti-Corruption Police
CHISINAU -- The former president of Moldova, Igor Dodon, has been detained by Moldovan authorities on corruption charges, the Prosecutor-General's Office said on May 24.
Senior anti-corruption prosecutor Elena Kazakov announced that Dodon was detained after searches of his home, office, and cars during which several luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.
Kazakov, speaking at a briefing, identified Dodon as the main subject of the investigation but said that "intermediaries" also were subjects of the probe.
The goods and money that prosecutors say were used to commit crimes exceed tens of millions of lei -- hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars -- and include real estate and vehicles, she said.
The documents found at Dodon’s home confirm real estate transactions that exceed 700,000 euros, Kazakov said, adding that two people have been detained for trying to hide evidence. One of them tried to destroy evidence by swallowing it, she said, without specifying what it was.
Moldovan media reported that the person was identified as the brother-in-law of the former head of state and that he allegedly swallowed a receipt.
Prosecutors said they found 600,000 lei in one of the locations subject to the search and that an envelope with the insignia of an unspecified party contained foreign currency of more than 17,000 euros and $1,000.
The Prosecutor-General's Office announced the search earlier on May 24, saying it was being conducted by anti-corruption authorities.
The Moldovan-Russian Business Union, headed by Dodon since its foundation in February, was among the offices searched.
The Kremlin said it is "naturally alarmed that such a practice and persecution once again affects those who advocate the development of friendly relations with Russia for mutual benefit."
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on the Moldovan authorities to ensure Dodon's rights are respected.
At a news conference on the issue, members of Dodon's Party of Socialists said the actions were part of a "two-penny show" meant to distract the public's attention from poverty and social issues.
Vlad Batrincea, deputy chairman of the party, said he believed the actions of the investigators were a politically motivated move by authorities loyal to pro-Western President Maia Sandu, who replaced Dodon as president in 2020.
"This is a dangerous game. Those who go against the opposition want to provoke destabilization," Batrincea said at a briefing.
A representative of Sandu, who is currently in the United States to celebrate her 50th birthday, did not respond to a request for comment, according to Reuters.
Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016-20 and was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Despite its lack of wealth and size, Moldova, which has a population of about 2.6 million people, has taken in more than 472,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters, unimedia.md, and deschide.md
Russia Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Journalist Naki
A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for well-known journalist Maikl Naki, who is currently outside of Russia, accusing him of distributing false information about the Russian military as Moscow's war against Ukraine continues.
Naki reacted to the Basmanny district court's May 24 decision by saying on Twitter that the judge who announced the ruling, along with state investigators, "will face trials before me, I have no doubt about that."
Naki is a former journalist at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which halted operations in March after the Prosecutor-General's Office said the broadcaster, known to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was distributing what authorities called information "calling for extremist activities, violence, and premeditated false information" about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Media across the country have been instructed by the government that Russia's actions in Ukraine cannot be called a "war" or an "invasion," and should instead be referred to as a "special military operation."
Naki has his own YouTube channel with 726,000 subscribers. He uses it to regularly report about the war in Ukraine.
The founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, Ruslan Leviyev, is a suspect in the same case. The Basmanny district court issued an arrest warrant for Leviyev on May 18.
Leviyev's team investigates armed conflicts in Ukraine and other parts of the world. Leviyev is a frequent guest on Naki's YouTube channel.
Two Pilots Dead As Iranian Fighter Jet Crashes During Training Mission
Two Iranian Air Force pilots were killed when their F-7 fighter jet crashed during a training mission near the city of Naeen in central Iran.
The state news agency IRNA said the crash occurred in the morning on May 24. The state ISNA news agency quoted a military official as saying that it appeared a "technical issue" caused the accident, though an investigation has been opened to pinpoint the cause.
Iran's air force has seen a number of crashes in recent years.
In February, an F-5 fighter jet -- purchased from the United States before the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- crashed into a school stadium in a residential area of the northwestern city of Tabriz, killing two pilots and one civilian.
Decades of Western sanctions against Tehran have made it difficult to get spare parts for the jets and to maintain the fleet.
The air force also flies Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi planes.
Protesters Block Entrance To Armenian Foreign Ministry As Pressure On PM Builds
YEREVAN -- Demonstrators demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian have broken through police barriers and blocked the entrances of several government buildings, including the Foreign Ministry.
Ishkhan Saghatelyan, vice president of the National Assembly and a deputy for the "Armenia" parliamentary faction, said on May 24 that the intent of the action was to prevent employees from entering the buildings, especially the Foreign Ministry, "which no longer serves the interests of Armenia nor the Armenian people."
Thousands of opposition supporters have been demonstrating on a daily basis in Yerevan to protest what they said were unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Police have detained hundreds during the demonstrations, which have been aimed at committing acts of civil disobedience to ratchet up pressure on the government.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.
European Council President Charles Michel said on May 22 in Brussels that the first meeting of the joint commission will be held "soon."
Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Amnesty Highlights Rise In 'State-Sanctioned' Executions; Iran Among Worst Offenders
Last year saw a "worrying rise" in global executions in 2021 amid an easing in pandemic restrictions, Amnesty International has said, with Iran recording its highest number of state-sanctioned killings since 2017.
The global number of executions saw a 20 percent increase over 2020, with Iran accounting for most of the rise.
The global totals do not include executions in China, which Amnesty believes to be in the thousands, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Out of the total of 579 executions carried out across 18 countries last year, Iran executed at least 314 people, up from 246 in 2020 and the highest total in four years, Amnesty said in its Death Sentences And Executions 2021 Report.
The rights watchdog said the higher number was due to the increase in drug-related executions in Iran.
"Iran maintains a mandatory death penalty for possession of certain types and quantities of drugs -- with the number of executions recorded for drug-related offenses rising more than five-fold to 132 in 2021 from 23 the previous year," the report said.
It also highlighted the rise in the number of women executed, which went up from nine to 14 year-to-year.
"The Iranian authorities continued their abhorrent assault on children's rights by executing three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, contrary to their obligations under international law," the report said.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, more than doubled the number of executed people last year. Amnesty also mentions that Saudi Arabia this year stepped up the practice, with the execution of 81 people in just one day in March.
"After the drop in their execution totals in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia once again ramped up their use of the death penalty last year, including by shamelessly violating prohibitions put in place under international human rights law," Amnesty's Agnes Callamard said.
"Their appetite for putting the executioner to work has also shown no sign of abating in the early months of 2022," Callamard added.
Myanmar, which has been under martial law, sentenced to death some 90 people, according to available figures.
At least 2,052 death sentences were handed down last year in 56 countries. Large increases in the number of death sentences were recorded in Bangladesh, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Pakistan.
On a positive note, Amnesty highlighted Kazakhstan's abolishing of capital punishment.
"In December, Kazakhstan adopted legislation to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, which came into effect in January 2022," the report noted.
"The minority of countries that still retain the death penalty are on notice: a world without state-sanctioned killing is not only imaginable, it is within reach and we will continue to fight for it," Callamard said.
"It is high time the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment is consigned to the history books," she added.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Russia Boosts Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As War Enters Fourth Month
Russian forces have stepped up their assault on the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk as Moscow now appears focused on securing and expanding its gains in Donbas and the southern coast.
As the conflict entered its fourth month, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned Ukrainians that the coming period of time will be harsh, especially in the eastern Donbas region.
Zelenskiy told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that Russia had carried out nearly 1,500 missile strikes and over 3,000 air strikes against Ukraine in the first three months of the war.
British intelligence said in its daily report on May 24 that Russians are seeking to encircle Severodonetsk, a city of some 100,000 people on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets river, but are also focusing their attacks on Lysychansk and Rubyzhne in the same area.
The report said that Russian forces had achieved some localized successes in the area with the aid of intense artillery fire, but Ukrainian resistance is strong and Kyiv's Joint Force Operation command structure has remained in control of this segment of the front.
Russia's capture of Severodonetsk would see the whole of the Luhansk region falling under Russian occupation, the report said.
"The coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that," Zelensky said on May 23 in his nightly address after regional leaders and residents reported heavy bombardments in the east.
"The most difficult fighting situation today is in Donbas," Zelenskiy said, singling out the worst-hit towns of Bakhmut -- a crucial junction that serves as a command center for much of the Ukrainian war effort -- Popasna, and Severodonetsk.
The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Hayday, said that the Russians had beefed up their forces with some 12,500 soldiers who were attempting to seize Luhansk.
Hayday said early on May 24 that Severodonetsk has suffered a lot of damage from the Russian bombardment, and at least four people were killed in the shelling of a high-rise building in the city.
If the Russians are successful and the Donbas front line moves further west, British intelligence estimated that Russian lines of communication would be overstretched and likely lead to further logistic resupply difficulties.
Zelenskiy earlier warned the WEF in Davos that slow-walking military aid was causing unnecessary deaths as Ukrainians are "paying dearly for freedom and independence."
He said that 87 people had been killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in Desna in the north, in what would be one of the largest single recorded strikes of the war.
Kyiv was ready for an exchange of prisoners with Russia "even tomorrow," Zelenskiy said, calling on his allies to put pressure on Moscow.
Zelenskiy also reiterated his demand that Moscow be cut off from the global economy, calling for an international oil embargo on Russia, as well as punitive measures against all of its banks.
Many of the EU's 27 member states are heavily dependent of Russian oil and gas, prompting criticism from Kyiv that the bloc has not moved quickly enough to halt supplies.
But Germany said on May 22 that the European Union will likely agree on an embargo on Russian oil imports "within days," despite opposition from Hungary, which is sticking to its demands for energy investment before it agrees to such an embargo.
"We will reach a breakthrough within days," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told broadcaster ZDF.
However, Habeck warned that a ban would not hurt Moscow immediately, since the surge in global oil prices means it is earning more for less crude.
Habeck said the EU and the United States were considering a proposal to cap global oil prices -- an "unusual measure" for "unusual times."
Russia supplies 40 percent of the EU's natural gas and 27 percent of its oil imports, and receives an estimated 400 billion euros ($426 billion) annually for this supply.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, CNN, and BBC
20 Countries Pledge Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine, Says U.S. Defense Secretary
Twenty countries have pledged new military aid for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian military forces, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on May 23 following the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting.
Denmark has agreed to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon launcher and missiles to “help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said at a press conference following the virtual gathering.
The Czech Republic also agreed to send “substantial support” to Ukraine including “a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks, and rocket systems,” Austin added.
Overall, 20 countries “announced new security assistance packages,” Austin said, including “donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, and tanks and other armored vehicles.”
“Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin added.
A total of 47 countries participated in the contact group’s second meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.
The group was briefed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on the current situation in the three-month-old war.
"Today, together with Minister Reznikov and his team, we've gained a sharper and shared sense of Ukraine's priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield," Austin said.
Since the first meeting of the group at a U.S. military base in Germany four weeks ago, Austin said, "the momentum of donations and deliveries has been outstanding."
He said Ukraine's needs had not changed much since the previous meeting, that the war continues to be driven by artillery, supported by tanks, drones, and other equipment.
"The fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase, and we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks," Austin said.
He added that the Ukraine Contact Group would meet next in person on June 15 during a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
Milley provided an update on the increased U.S. presence in Europe since Russia invaded in late February.
Last fall, there were roughly 78,000 U.S. troops in the region, and that has gone up to 102,000 -- including 24 surface ships, four submarines, 12 fighter jet squadrons, two combat aviation units, and six Army brigade combat teams, along with their division and corps leaderships.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and CNN
Ukraine's First Lady Says Russian Invasion Will Leave Lasting Negative Health Impact
Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told an assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the impact of Russia’s invasion on health care and mental well-being could last for decades.
In a video address to the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 23, Zelenska said that "Russia's war has shown horrors we could not have imagined," stressing the consequences for mental health.
"WHO is committed to protecting the most crucial human rights to life and health. Now they are both being violated in Ukraine," she said.
"The consequences of this war unfortunately will remain for years and decades," said Zelenska.
Zelenska's comments came as countries at the World Health Assembly prepare to discuss a resolution to be presented by Ukraine and its allies on May 24, harshly condemning Russia's invasion, especially its more than 200 attacks on health care, including hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine.
Currently, Zelenska said, "no Ukrainian, neither adult nor small children, can be sure that they will wake up tomorrow and a missile will not fly into their house."
"Doctors can't be sure that their ambulances will not be bombed on the way to reach the patient."
The resolution also voices alarm at the "health emergency in Ukraine," and highlights the dire impacts beyond its borders, including how disrupted grain exports are deepening a global food security crisis.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on May 23 that the "resolution uses strong language," and voiced confidence it had enough support to pass.
Top health officials addressing the Geneva gathering on May 23 voiced support for the resolution while condemning Russia's invasion.
"We gather here today in a peaceful European city with no need to fear the sound of incoming missiles or artillery... or to fear rape and execution at the hands of invading troops," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the assembly.
"As a group of nations we cannot be pro-health, pro-humanity, without being against such brutal violence," as is happening in Ukraine, he said.
"So, it is absolutely right that we vote on a motion condemning [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin's unjustifiable aggression."
Echoing those sentiments was U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Loyce Pace.
"Russia's attacks have destroyed numerous health facilities. Civilians and health workers have been maimed and killed," she said.
"The international community must and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine."
Without mentioning the resolution specifically, Russia claimed the WHO and its decision-making body were being politicized.
"With deep concern, we have recently been taking note of politicization attempts of the prganization's work, as well as deviations from the principle of "impartiality" in its work," Russia's Deputy Minister of Health Aleksandra Dronova told the assembly.
She called on WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "to prevent the WHO from becoming a political platform."
With reporting by AFP and TASS
Another Imprisoned Kazakh Activist's Term Replaced With A Parole-Like Sentence
QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.
Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.
Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.
The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.
The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."
Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.
In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.
“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.
Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.
DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.
Former U.S. Marine Describes Harsh Conditions Of Russian Imprisonment
Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.
In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.
"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.
"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."
Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."
He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.
Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.
Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.
“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.
"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”
He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."
“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”
Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.
“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.
Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.
Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.
"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.
"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."
Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine
Starbucks Corp says it will be closing its 130 stores in Russia and exiting the market after nearly 15 years because of the war against Ukraine.
The Seattle-based coffee giant informed its employees on May 23 that it will shut its operations in Russia, though the company will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 Russian employees for six months to help them as they search for new jobs.
"Starbucks has made the decision to exit and no longer have a brand presence in the market," the company said in a statement. In March it announced a suspension of operations because of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.
McDonald's announced on May 19 that it had signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee that will give him the global fast food giant's entire portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.
Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.
At Least Five Dead, 80 Trapped Under Rubble After Building Collapses In Iran
At least five people were killed and 27 injured when parts of an unfinished 10-storey building in Iran's southern city of Abadan collapsed, trapping at least 80 more people under the rubble.
A rescue operation was being carried out, Iranian state TV reported on May 23, with emergency teams being sent in from other cities to help.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency said the building was a residential-commercial property on Amir Kabir Street in the city, which is close to the border with Iraq.
Most of those trapped under the rubble were people who were shopping on the ground floor in one of the finished parts of the building, reports said. The collapse caused nearby buildings to "shake violently," they added.
State TV showed footage of angry Abadan residents shouting slogans against the city authorities.
The ILNA news agency reported that the mayor of Abadan, Hossein Hamidpour, was beaten by the angry mob. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident while the owner and the contractor who built the building have been arrested, state TV said.
'Ashamed' Russian Diplomat In Geneva Resigns In Protest Against War In Ukraine
A diplomat at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva says he has resigned in protest at the "needless" war Russia has launched against Ukraine.
Boris Bondarev said in a statement placed on his LinkedIn page on May 23 that he has "never been so ashamed of my country as on February 24," when Russia launched an invasion of its neighbor.
"The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia," Bondarev, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a counsellor at the mission who worked on arms control, wrote.
"Those who conceived this war want only one thing -- to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this," Bondarev's statement added.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN.
Bondarev confirmed the statement to both Reuters and the Associated Press, telling Reuters that he started to imagine making such a move a few years ago "but the scale of this disaster drove me to do it."
He added that he had raised concerns about the invasion with senior embassy staff, only to be told to "keep my mouth shut."
"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless, and absolutely needless ignominy," Bondarev concluded in his statement.
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine, which has involved tens of thousands of troops, as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in the war despite claims by Russia that it has not targeted them.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Ukraine Warns Of Increased Military Moves By Belarus Near Border
Ukraine's Armed Forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.
"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.
"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.
After the Ukrainian statement, Belarus's Defense Ministry said that it had started what it called "another phase of checks" of military equipment to observe their mobility and capacity.
Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.
But in a sign of how Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have closed ranks in the face of international isolation, the two met for the third time in the last month on May 23.
The meeting, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, centered on the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Lukashenka thanking the West for "giving an impetus to our own development."
With reporting by BelTA and Interfax
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Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen7
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