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Gaza: Palestinians Throw Shoes At Convoy Carrying UN Chief

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Palestinian protesters have thrown shoes and other objects at the convoy of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The assault occurred as Ban entered the Gaza Strip for a visit with Palestinians.

Throwing shoes at a person is considered a major sign of disrespect in Islamic culture.

The protesters were angry at what they regard as a failure by world leaders to act on behalf of their relatives and other Palestinains jailed in Israel.

Some 4,000 of what Israel describes as Palestinian "security prisoners" are held in Israel.

Ban’s visit comes a day after the UN chief urged Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ease restrictions on Gaza, which is subject to an Israeli blockade.

Compiled from agency reports

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Ukraine Calls Russia’s UN Security Council Presidency ‘Slap In The Face’

Russia will hold the UN Security Council presidency for the month of April. It last held that position when in February 2022, the month it invaded Ukraine.

Ukraine expressed outrage as Russia assumed its month-long presidency of the UN Security Council on April 1.

Russia will have control of the Security Council’s agenda for the month for the first time since February 2022, when it invaded Ukraine.

The presidency of the UN Security Council rotates among its 15 members on a monthly basis. Russia is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violated the UN Charter, which requires states to refrain from using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution days after the invasion began demanding that Russia immediately end its war in Ukraine. Russia blocked a similar resolution from passing in the Security Council.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Russia’s assumption of the presidency “a slap in the face to the international community.”

He urged other members of the UN Security Council to prevent Moscow from abusing its presidency.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will travel to the UN headquarters in New York on April 24 to hold a discussion on a "new world order."

Lavrov will also hold a discussion on the Middle East on the following day.

Baltic nations joined Ukraine in expressing outrage over Russia’s assumption of the presidency.

Estonia's UN envoy Rein Tammsaar, speaking also on behalf of Latvia and Lithuania, called it “shameful, humiliating and dangerous to the credibility and effective functioning of this body."

In an interview with AFP on March 30, US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she expected Russia to behave "professionally" in the presidency but cautioned it would also seek to “advance their disinformation campaign against Ukraine, the United States and all of our allies."

With reporting by the AFP

Bulgarians Head To Polls For Fifth Vote In Two Years But End Of Political Gridlock Unlikely

Voters in Bulgaria head to the polls on April 2 in the country’s fifth parliamentary election in two years.

Voters in Bulgaria head to the polls on April 2 in the country’s fifth parliamentary election in two years with opinion polls suggesting this latest vote will again fail to deliver a result that will break the political gridlock gripping the EU’s poorest nation -- and one of its most corrupt -- as war rages nearby in Ukraine.

More than 5,600 candidates representing 14 political parties and 7 party coalitions are registered for the election to the 240-member National Assembly, Bulgaria’s single-chamber parliament. A party must secure at least 4 percent of ballots cast to secure seats in parliament.

Polls are due to open at 7:00 a.m. local time, and close at 8:00 p.m. local time, with the first exit polls expected shortly thereafter. Analysts say turnout may be hindered by a spate of bomb threats this week that forced the closure of hundreds of schools set to function as polling stations for Sunday’s vote.

Bulgaria has been governed mainly by caretaker governments appointed by President Rumen Radev since public anger over years of corruption boiled over into massive protests in 2020. The political crisis has prompted Bulgaria to postpone adopting the euro by one year to 2025.

The Balkan country of nearly 8 million, the second-most corrupt in the EU according to Transparency International, also is struggling with rampant inflation that is hampering an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulgaria had the highest mortality rates from the coronavirus in the EU amid low inoculation rates due, in part, to vaccine skepticism, much of it fanned on social media.

The center-right GERB party, which was leading the government when the protests erupted, and the pro-European coalition of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria are expected to lead in the voting, much like in the previous poll in October that was followed by numerous failed attempts by both and other parties to form a viable governing coalition.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will have monitors on the ground to observe voting.

Fears of possible voting fraud have been sparked by a decision by electoral officials to limit the use of electronic voting machines and return to paper ballots.

“We are going to have a very difficult electoral night,” predicted political scientist Daniel Smilov in comments earlier this week to RFE/RL. “I hope that the government will manage to prevent widespread manipulation.”

The election campaign was also marked by state-run television and radio giving airtime to extremist candidates from parties with little public support under changes to electoral laws introduced in 2021.

The head of Bulgarian National Television, Emil Koshlukov, admitted publicly that the debates were largely nothing more than "parody," and even apologized to viewers and TV presenters for being forced to listen to "outright nonsense."

Radev on February 2 dissolved parliament and announced the latest snap poll after six attempts to form a government failed since July 2022.

That came after the pro-Western government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov fell in June after a no-confidence vote in parliament after only six months in power.

Petkov and his fragile coalition took over in December 2021 following eight months of political impasse and two interim administrations after protests against high-level corruption ended the decade-long rule of the former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the leader of GERB.

As long as the caretaker government is in power, Radev, who appointed it, has said Sofia will not supply Kyiv with military hardware, including Soviet-era jets and tanks. On March 21, Radev, a former air force pilot who is known for his pro-Kremlin leanings, refused to join a dozen EU states to supply Ukraine with at least 1 million artillery shells over the next year.

Officially, Bulgaria, also a member of NATO, was one of the last EU countries to officially supply Ukraine with lethal military aid, although behind the scenes the country has likely done much more.

Petkov recently said that his country had secretly supplied Ukraine with ammunition and much-needed diesel fuel in the first months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. Last June, Aleksandar Mihaylov, then-director of Kintex, a state-owned arms and ammunition trading company, said Bulgaria had sent 4,200 tons of weapons to Ukraine via Poland.

Latest polling data collated by Politico in its Poll of Polls showed GERB at 26 percent, neck and neck with Petkov's We Continue The Change and Democratic Bulgaria, which formed a coalition ahead of this vote.

In third, is the Movement For Rights and Freedoms, a center-right party representing ethnic Turks and other Muslims, with 14 percent. Just behind that party at 13 percent is Revival, a far-right, pro-Kremlin nationalist party that advocates for Bulgaria to exit both NATO and the EU.

With 8 percent is the leftwing Bulgarian Socialist Party that backs sanctions being lifted against Russia and opposes any military aid being sent to Ukraine.

Two parties are polling below the 4-percent threshold, including There Are Such People, a populist party founded by Slavi Trifonov, a TV host and singer, with 3 percent.

Smilov, an associate professor at the University of Sofia, predicts the vote is unlikely to end the country's political impasse.

"Unfortunately, I don't see a kind of easy and very fast resolution to the situation."

The instability will continue to negatively impact on Bulgaria, offered Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a lecturer at Oxford University.

"Yes, instability is bad - not so much because of Ukraine as Bulgaria will continue contributing (e.g. arms industries providing shells) but because of delayed eurozone entry," Bechev said in emailed remarks, adding Bulgaria could face even worse outcomes.

Russian Pianist, Rock Group Face More Pressure As Kremlin Seeks To Crush Dissent

Pianist Polina Osetinskaya

Russia continues to pressure musicians who have spoken out against the country’s invasion of Ukraine as the Kremlin seeks to squash any signs of opposition to its unprovoked war.

Police in Moscow unsuccessfully sought to stop the start of an April 1 concert by classical pianist Polina Osentinskaya, eyewitnesses told OVD-Info.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The police returned during the concert’s interval, claiming there was a bomb threat, forcing the evacuation of the hall, the eyewitnesses said. The concert resumed after police dogs found no evidence of a bomb.

It was the latest attempt by Russian authorities to interfere with Osetinskaya’s performances in her home country after she publicly spoke out against the war.

On February 24, 2022, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Osetinskaya wrote in a post on her Instagram account that it was a "dark day" in Russia’s history. She said she felt "horror, shame, and disgust" over the invasion.

She subsequently had two concerts canceled in September as the Kremlin turned on musicians and other groups of individuals who dared to voice opposition to the war.

Shortly after the invasion, Russia banned criticism of the war and “false news” about the country's armed forces, threatening violators with prison terms of up to 15 years.

Russian media in July reported the existence of an unofficial list of 37 banned Russian artists and groups who had either spoken out against the war or refused to publicly support it. Among those included in the list were Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine) and Akvarium (Aquarium).

A month after the list appeared, the rock group Spleen dedicated a song to Mashina Vremeni and Akvarium, drawing the ire of officials.

The same day as police were trying to break up Osetinskaya’s concert, Siberian media announced that Spleen had been removed from a summer music festival in Novosibirsk at the request of a little-known local group.

The Union of Fathers of the Novosibirsk Region demanded the exclusion of Spleen, claiming its lead singer had “shown whose side he is on and who he supports.”

Russian authorities often use such groups to harass opponents of the government in an attempt to hide their involvement.

Spleen did not immediately return a request for comment.

Updated

Pakistan Army Says 'Terrorists' From Iran Kill Four Soldiers In Second Such Attack In Three Months

Pakistan said four of its soldiers near the border with Iran in the nation’s southwestern Balochistan Province were killed by a “group of terrorists” coming from Iranian territory, the second such attack in under three months.

In an April 1 statement, the Pakistani military said it had informed Iran of the attack with the hope to “prevent such incidents in future.”

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah condemned the attack, saying in a tweet that “the nation is united in the war against terrorism” and that “this scourge will be eradicated.”

No group immediately announced responsibility for the April 1 attack.

In January, four Pakistani security soldiers were killed during a similar militant raid on a border post from across the Pakistan-Iran border in Balochistan, home to ethnic Baluchis.

The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces. Officials in Islamabad say the group has set up sanctuaries in border areas of Iran, charges Tehran rejects.

The BLA claims to be fighting for the independence of Balochistan, a sparsely populated province rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, and oil. The insurgent group claims ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities. Islamabad rejects the charges. Ethnic Baluchis account for just under 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 231 million.

The BLA was responsible for a significant portion of terror-related deaths in Pakistan last year. The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace called the BLA "the fastest-growing terrorist group in the world."

Pakistan, the United States, and Britain have designated the BLA as a terrorist organization.

Pakistan is working on fencing its 830-kilometer border with Iran in part to prevent cross-border movement of BLA members.

With reporting by VOA

Ukraine's SBU Security Service Searches Residence Of Metropolitan Pavlo, Issues Notice Of Suspicion

Metropolitan Pavlo (file photo)

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on April 1 officially confirmed that it has served a notice of suspicion to Metropolitan Pavlo of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), a former abbot at the famed Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery, and searched his residence.

The UOC is a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that previously was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May over Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.

The SBU said in a message on Telegram that it had collected "reasonable evidence regarding the involvement of Pavlo, a former abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, in inciting religious enmity, justifying, and denying the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine."

"In particular, it was established that in his public speeches, [Pavlo] repeatedly insulted the religious feelings of Ukrainians, humiliated the views of believers of other faiths, and tried to instigate hostile attitudes towards them, as well as made statements that justified or denied the actions of the aggressor country," the message reads.

The SBU confirmed the notice of suspicion against Pavlo under two articles of the Ukrainian Criminal Code -- inciting interreligious hatred, as well as justifying Russian aggression against Ukraine.

A notice -- or notification -- of suspicion is a legal tool in the criminal procedure law of Ukraine that serves to notify an individual that he or she is suspected of committing criminal offenses.

"Currently, investigations are being conducted at the places of residence and temporary stay of the person involved. Measures to expose the offense were carried out under the procedural guidance of the Prosecutor-General's Office," the SBU reported.

The SBU did not provide information about the alleged summoning of Pavlo for questioning or about allegedly placing him under house arrest, as reported by some media.

The developments came as UOC members refused to leave the Pechersk Lavra monastery by March 29, as ordered by Ukrainian authorities.

Pavlo told worshippers on March 29 that the UOC would not leave the site pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed last week to stop the eviction.

The 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site, which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.

However, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on March 29 that force will not be used to evict representatives of the UOC, despite the monks' refusal to leave the historic site.

However, Danilov, speaking on Ukrainian television, said while there will be no eviction, the monastery must be turned over to the Ukrainian government.

“If someone thinks that he has the right not to follow the laws of our country, then he is deeply mistaken.... The laws of Ukraine must be followed by everyone,” Danilov said. He added that the monks are expected to leave quietly.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country’s main Orthodox church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.

With reporting by AP

Kvitova Says Russians, Belarusians Should Not Be Allowed Back At Wimbledon

Petra Kvitova

Tennis star Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic said she opposes the decision by Wimbledon to lift its ban on Russian and Belarusian players ahead of this year's tournament, saying she felt for Ukrainians amid Moscow's ongoing invasion of their country. Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam to bar players from Russia and its ally Belarus, said on March 31 that it would allow them to compete as "neutral" athletes, reversing the ban it imposed after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Kvitova -- a two-time Wimbledon champion -- said players from Russia and Belarus should also be banned from the Paris Olympics next year. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

At Least Nine Women, Three Children Killed In Stampede At Charity Distribution Center In Pakistan

A view of footwear left behind after the deadly stampede in Karachi on March 31.

At least nine women and three children were killed and several others injured in a stampede during the distribution of Ramadan charity at a private center in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, police and rescue officials said.

The stampede occurred late on March 31 when hundreds of women and children panicked and started pushing each other as they were jostling to collect food and money outside of a private company in the industrial area of Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city.

Senior police officer Fida Hussain Janwari told the media that the private company, FK Dyeing, located in an industrial area known as SITE or Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate, had invited the families of its employees to distribute charity on the occasion of Ramadan, Islam's holy month.

Under the Islamic tradition, businesspeople give away food and money, especially to the poor, during Ramadan.

Janwari said that some 400 women had arrived on the premises when the company, fearing a large crowd, closed the gates, causing panic.

He said that inside the premises there were no arrangements in place to form an orderly line and that local police were not informed about the activity.

Hussain said police detained seven people from the company and took them for interrogation.

Pakistan, a South Asian country of some 220 million, has grappled a serious economic crisis over the past several months, facing record high inflation rates and skyrocketing food prices.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has urged the Pakistani government to enact tough tax reforms and increase utility prices in order to qualify for another tranche of a $6.5 billion bailout.

On April 1, Pakistan's statistics bureau announced that consumer price inflation in Pakistan accelerated to a record 35.37 percent in March from a year earlier -- the highest-ever year-on-year increase recorded by the bureau since monthly records began in the 1970s.

Higher prices of food, cooking oil, and electricity contributed to the record growth, the bureau said.

Pakistan Posts Highest-Ever Inflation In March

A man sells lentils at a wholesale grocery market in Karachi.

Consumer price inflation in Pakistan accelerated to a record 35.37 percent in March from a year earlier, eclipsing February's 31.5 percent, the statistics bureau said on April 1. A spokesman said the number was the highest-ever year-on-year increase recorded by the bureau since monthly records began in the 1970s. "This is the highest-ever inflation recorded in the data we have," the spokesman said. The consumer price index was up 3.72 percent in March from the previous month. Higher prices for food, cooking oil, and electricity pushed up the index, the bureau said.

IMF Approves $15.6 Billion Ukraine Loan, Part Of $115 Billion In Global Support

The Extended Fund Facility loan is the first major conventional financing program approved by the IMF for a country involved in a large-scale war.

The International Monetary Fund said on March 31 that its executive board had approved a four-year $15.6 billion loan program for Ukraine, part of a global $115 billion package to support the country's economy as it battles Russia's 13-month-old invasion. The decision clears the way for an immediate disbursement of $2.7 billion to Kyiv and requires Ukraine to carry out ambitious reforms, especially in the energy sector, the IMF said in a statement. The Extended Fund Facility loan is the first major conventional financing program approved by the IMF for a country involved in a large-scale war. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Russia Announces Ban On Dairy Imports From Armenia Amid Souring Of Relations

Dairy products at a supermarket in Yerevan.

Russia has banned imports of dairy products from Armenia allegedly on health issues as relations between the two allied nations sour.

In a March 31 statement justifying its decision, Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia's agricultural oversight agency, saying Armenian dairy companies use Iranian milk and other raw materials that are banned in Russia.

A spokeswoman for Armenia’s Food Safety Inspectorate told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the Iranian raw materials are safe for consumption. She said Rosselkhoznadzor inspected some Armenian dairy firms last week and did not detect “any problem threatening people’s lives and health.”

The agency’s decision comes amid fraying relations between the two countries and just days after Armenia took steps toward ratifying the International Criminal Court's (ICC) founding treaty.

Russian-Armenian relations have been on a downward trajectory ever since fighting reignited between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration has criticized ally Russian for a lack of support. Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance consisting of several post-Soviet states.

Tension increased this week after the Constitutional Court of Armenia gave the green light for the country to join the ICC. Moscow immediately warned that recognition of The Hague tribunal’s jurisdiction would have “extremely negative” consequences for Russian-Armenian relations.

The ICC last month issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrest. Were Armenia to become a signatory to the ICC, it would be expected to detain Putin should he travel to the country.

Russia has for years used Rosselkhoznadzor as a blunt foreign policy instrument against former Soviet states whose actions Moscow dislikes. Russia has banned food and drinks from Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus during periods of increasing bilateral tension. Those countries have described Moscow’s actions as economic sanctions.

The milk ban won’t hurt Armenia’s economy as it accounts for a small portion of exports to Russia, but it could be a warning of what could come next should the country choose to become a signatory to the ICC.

Armenia exports a lot of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and alcohol to Russia and a ban on those items would have a greater impact.

Updated

Zelenskiy Vows To Bring Russian 'Executioners And Murderers' To Justice Over Bucha Killings

Ukrainian soldiers and relatives of fallen defenders react as they attend a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of the town of Bucha on March 31.

Ukrainian forces repelled dozens of Russian attacks in the eastern region of Donetsk over the past day, the military said on April 1, as British intelligence suggested that Russia's monthslong winter offensive in the east is beginning to show signs of failure amid a high rate of attrition.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Besides the city of Bakhmut, the focal point of Moscow's offensive in the east for the past several months, the General staff of Ukraine's military said in its regular daily update that Russian forces have now widened their assault on the towns of Avdiyivka and Maryinka in the Donetsk region and on Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region.

A total of 70 attacks were recorded over the past 24 hours on the four locations, where heavy fighting has been under way, the military said.

Six Iranian-made Shahed drones were downed by Ukraine's air defenses, the military said.

Amid the protracted battle for Bakhmut, Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update on April 1 that 80 days into a renewed offensive in the east under the direct command of the Russia's chief of General Staff, Vasily Gerasimov, Moscow's effort to extend its control over the whole Donbas region has failed.

"On several axes across the Donbas front, Russian forces have made only marginal gains at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties, largely squandering its temporary advantage in personnel gained from the autumn’s ‘partial mobilization,’" British intelligence said.

As Ukraine marked on March 31 one year since Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used the anniversary to warn those Russian soldiers suspected of perpetrating the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the commuter town near Kyiv, where hundreds of bodies of murdered civilians were left on the streets, that they are going to be brought to justice eventually.

Ukrainian officials estimate that about 400 bodies of civilians were found in Bucha and a total of more than 1,000 throughout the region around Kyiv in what Ukraine has said amounted to a Russian war crime.

"The key word today is justice. Justice...for all our people who lost relatives, loved ones, health, home, [and] normal life due to Russian aggression, due to the terror of the occupier," Zelenskiy said in his evening video message.

"Russian executioners and murderers will receive fair sentences. One hundred percent," Zelenskiy said.

He added that talks with international officials were aimed at speeding up the process of creating a tribunal on Russian aggression.

Ukrainian and international investigators have opened a probe into war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, and other locations in Ukraine where apparent massacres occurred.

Russia has denied committing the massacres and claimed that the deaths were "staged" by Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, Zelenskiy presided over an official outdoor ceremony in Bucha that was also attended by Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the prime ministers of EU and NATO members Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- Eduard Geger, Robert Golob, and Andrej Plenkovich.

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States "will continue pushing for accountability and for justice for as long as it takes."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc is assisting Ukraine to investigate crimes.

Meanwhile, three U.S. officials familiar with the issue told Reuters on March 31 that the United States could announce a new $2.6 billion military aid package for Ukraine next week that could include aerial surveillance radars, anti-tank missiles and fuel tankers.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Sarajevo Demonstrators Demand Dismissal Of International Envoy In Bosnia

The protesters accuse Christian Schmidt, who leads the Office of the High Representative (OHR), and U.S. Ambassador Michael Murphy of bias.

SARAJEVO -- Several hundred people demonstrated in Sarajevo on March 31 against Christian Schmidt, the international community’s high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, over decisions he made last year affecting Bosnia’s elections law.

The protesters demanded that Schmidt be dismissed, that embassies, namely the U.S. Embassy, stop interfering in the internal affairs of Bosnia, and that "neighboring countries Croatia and Serbia do not shape the fate of [Bosnia]."

The protesters also accused Schmidt, who leads the Office of the High Representative (OHR), and U.S. Ambassador Michael Murphy of bias.

The protest, which took place in front of Schmidt's office, was organized by the informal citizen group Restart and the nongovernmental organization Krug 99. Participants arrived by bus from several cities to take part in the protest, which blocked traffic.

Some demonstrators held up signs that read in English: "Schmidt go away, OHR stay!"

The rally was peaceful, according to Bosnian media.

Before the protest, Schmidt said on Twitter, "Peaceful demonstrations are a fundamental right in a democracy and of crucial importance for a pluralistic society."

The protesters expressed dissatisfaction with Schmidt’s decision on election night in October when he invoked his UN backed so-called “Bonn powers” minutes after the polls closed. Schmidt said he was taking the steps to avoid gridlock in key institutions after the vote, but critics said the moves strengthened the position of Croat nationalists.

Schmidt said his "functionality package" would shape indirect elections to the Bosniak-Croat federation's legislature while dramatically restricting officials' ability to block legislative appointments and other processes.

His changes include an increase in the size of the federation's House of Peoples to "correct overrepresentation" of some ethnic groups and the inclusion of "others" to be represented there -- code in Bosnia for minorities outside the main Bosniak, Serb, and Croat peoples.

The people who protested in Sarajevo on March 31 believe Schmidt imposed the changes so the role of the Croatian Democratic Union in forming the government becomes inevitable.

With reporting by Predrag Zvijerac and dpa

Croatia Returns Migrants To Bosnia Amid Spike In Illegal Border Crossings

Migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, wrapped in jackets and blankets because of the cold, wait on a platform at the railway station in Rijeka, on the Adriatic coast in western Croatia in February.

Croatia on March 31 returned a second group of migrants to Bosnia-Herzegovina amid questions about where the migrants should be allowed to apply for asylum.

A group of about 93 people who were deported by Croatia are being housed in a temporary reception center near the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. The first group of about 80 migrants arrived at the center from Croatia on March 30.

They were brought to the center accompanied by the Bosnian Border Police in coordination with the State Service for Foreigners' Affairs.

Mustafa Ruznic, the leader of Una-Sana Canton in northwestern Bosnia, told RFE/RL that he asked the Bosnian authorities to provide information about the origin of the migrants and the reason they were relocated from Croatia. He has not yet received an answer.

Croatian police did not respond when asked by RFE/RL to comment on the readmission of the migrants.

A spokesman for the Bosnian Security Ministry told RFE/RL that the migrants were brought to the border crossing under the readmission agreement between Bosnia and Croatia.

"This is a regular procedure, and this is what we are doing toward Serbia and toward Montenegro under agreements with these countries," Admir Malagic said.

The agreement envisages that people who enter Croatia from Bosnia will be returned to Bosnia.

The number of migrants arriving in Slovenia since Croatia entered Europe's Schengen passport-free zone on January 1 has shot up by 300 percent.

Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob in a statement on March 27 after a meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic warned of increased pressure on Croatia and Slovenia as transit countries for migrants who aim to make Italy their target destination.

"We are looking for ways to control the entire corridor from the Bosnian border to the Italian border through trilateral participation in order to establish better control of irregular migration," Golob said.

Plenkovic said after the meeting that the Croatian police were guarding the border according to the law.

"We cooperate with the authorities and police of other countries and prevent irregular migration, and the 6,500 Croatian police officers guarding the border behave in accordance with Croatian laws and European and international norms and standards," Plenkovic said.

He once again stressed that Croatia will not install fences or barbed wire on the border with its neighbors in Southeastern Europe.

According to Slovenian police, in the first two months of 2023 Slovenia recorded 5,162 attempts to enter the country illegally, while in the same period last year there were only 1,295 attempts.

The migrants are mostly from Afghanistan, Morocco, Russia, and Cuba.

Croatian media cited data from the Interior Ministry showing that since Croatia's entry into the Schengen zone the number of asylum seekers has increased by 800 percent compared to the same period last year, but more than 90 percent of them immediately move on to Western Europe.

With reporting by Meliha Kesmer and Sejla Ibrahimovic
Updated

Romanian Court Releases Tate To House Arrest

Andrew Tate talks to the media in Bucharest in January.

Andrew Tate, an Internet personality who has spent months in a Romanian jail on suspicion of organized crime and human trafficking, has won an appeal to replace his detention with house arrest. The Bucharest Court of Appeal issued the ruling on March 31 after Tate challenged a judge’s decision last week to extend his detention for 30 days, a Romanian government official said. "We see the court decision as legal, thorough, and correct," Tate's lawyer Eugen Vidineac said. Tate, 36, a British-U.S. citizen, was detained in December in Bucharest along with his brother and two Romanian women. They will remain under house arrest until April 29. To read the original story by AP, click here.

U.S. Seeks To Keep Yemen-Bound Ammunition Seized From Iran

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (file photo)

The United States is seeking to keep more than 1 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. Navy seized in December as it was in transit from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to militant groups in Yemen, the Justice Department said on March 31. "The United States disrupted a major operation by [the IRGC] to smuggle weapons of war into the hands of a militant group in Yemen," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The Justice Department is now seeking the forfeiture of those weapons," the statement said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Leader Of White Supremacist Group Wanted In U.S. Arrested In Romania

Robert Rundo (in blue) fights a cage match against a Ukrainian Azov member in Kyiv in 2018.

The leader of a U.S. neo-Nazi group wanted in the United States for allegedly fomenting violence at political rallies has been apprehended by Romanian authorities in Bucharest.

Robert Paul Rundo, 33, was taken into custody in the Romanian capital with the help of a police special-forces unit after he was spotted at a gym on March 29.

He had a document identifying himself as Robert Lazar Pavic, according to judicial sources. It is not clear when he entered Romania.

The U.S citizen is currently being held by the General Directorate of Police in Bucharest. U.S. authorities have sent a request for his extradition on charges that he conspired to attend political rallies and use combat tactics and physical violence against people and groups that did not support their ideology.

Rundo allegedly assaulted several people, including a police officer, at two rallies in the United States. The charges are in connection with activity that took place between December 2016 and October 2018.

The Bucharest Court of Appeals opened an extradition procedure on behalf of Rundo, and April 25 was set for the next hearing in the case.

Rundo is suspected of promoting white-supremacist ideology for the past three years in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

"The suspect is said to be one of the founders of an organization that supports the ideology of white supremacy, which has publicly presented itself as a group ready to fight, campaigning for a new nationalist movement of white supremacy and identity," a Romanian police statement said.

The Rise Above Movement (RAM) is based in southern California and members believe they are fighting a modern world corrupted by the "destructive cultural influences" of liberals, Jews, Muslims, and nonwhite immigrants.

They describe themselves as a "premier alt-right MMA (mixed martial arts) club." RAM members participated in the so-called Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that led to the death of a counterprotester.

Rundo was detained the following year in connection with events that took place in California but was released after the charges were dismissed, and he left the United States for Europe.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Rundo tried to create a group dedicated to white supremacy in Eastern Europe. The open-source investigative group Bellingcat revealed in 2020 that Rundo was in Serbia and had posted videos of himself and others on Telegram in which they are seen writing white-supremacist messages on walls in Belgrade.

In February 2020, Rundo published an article on a nationalist website in which he wrote that he participated in a march organized by Serbian extremists in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

Bellingcat reported that Rundo also participated in a neo-Nazi commemoration that took place in Budapest in February 2020 and was attended by 600 neo-Nazis from Europe. They gathered in the Hungarian capital for what they call Honor Day, commemorating an escape attempt by besieged Nazi forces in 1945.

Two weeks later, Rundo was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a neo-Nazi march that was banned by local authorities.

In an interview on a neo-Nazi podcast in September 2020, Rundo used anti-Semitic language, referenced to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, and claimed he left the United States because of nonstop harassment by U.S. authorities.

Updated

Lukashenka Defends Placement Of Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus

Alyaksandr Lukashenka addresses the nation on March 31.

The authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has defended a Russian plan to place tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory and said that Russia could also position intercontinental nuclear missiles there if he and Russian President Vladimir Putin deem it necessary, claiming that the country is coming under increased threats from the West.

Commenting on the issue for the first time since Putin announced the move on March 25, Lukashenka said in his annual address to the nation on March 31 that he had initiated the plan by asking Moscow to move tactical nuclear weapons to his country to ensure it is capable "of defending the sovereignty and independence of Belarus."

In his announcement, Putin said nothing about long-range missiles.

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Lukashenka, a pariah in Europe and most of the Western world after launching a brutal crackdown against opponents following an August 2020 presidential he claimed to win but they say was rigged, offered no evidence of any specific threats from the West, which has called the possible deployment "irresponsible."

"I would like to add that all of the infrastructure [for tactical nuclear weapons] is ready.... Those are weapons that will contribute to our sovereignty and independence," Lukashenka said, adding that Minsk could exercise control over all nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.

That appears to contradict Putin, who said during the announcement last week that the tactical missiles would remain under Moscow's control. Military experts have said the deployment will lead to the creation of a permanent Russian military base in Belarus.

He also said that, if necessary, "Putin and I will decide and bring strategic weapons here, which those scoundrels abroad must comprehend, those who are trying to blow us up from inside and outside today. Nothing will prevent us from protecting our countries."

Russia and the United States clashed over the issue at the United Nations on March 31. Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya claimed Moscow is not transferring nuclear weapons but “operational tactical missile complexes,” which will be under Russian control. Nebenzya also accused the United States of destroying arms control agreements and repeated Russia's objection to tactical nuclear weapons deployed in NATO countries.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood accused Russia of “attempting to manipulate the specter of nuclear conflict” to help win the war in Ukraine.

“No other country is inflicting such damage on arms control nor seeking to undermine strategic stability in Europe,” Wood said.

Belarus is the closest thing Putin's Russia has to an ally, and their ties have tightened further since Lukashenka -- in power since 1994 -- claimed victory in a 2020 election widely seen as rigged and then cracked down violently against massive peaceful protests over the vote.

Minsk has not sent troops to fight alongside Moscow's forces in Ukraine, but Lukashenka allowed Russia to use the country -- which borders Ukraine on the north --- as a staging area for the invasion.

It has also granted Russia full access to its air bases, carried out joint drills, and treated wounded Russian soldiers on its territory.

Speaking about the possible deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons, Lukashenka said that he ordered his military to immediately put the former base for Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in order.

"It's a highly technologically sophisticated structure," he said. "All the infrastructure has been created and is standing ready."

The deployment announcement comes amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022. Waves of economic and diplomatic sanctions have been aimed at Russia, as well as Belarus, for its logistical support for the attack on Ukraine.

Those came on top of sanctions already slapped on Minsk for its crackdown on civil society and dissent following the disputed election.

Addressing Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenka called for immediate truce talks "without preconditions"

"It is crucial to stop [the war] now, before an escalation of the situation. Declare a truce with a ban on supplies of forces, weapons and equipment," Lukashenka said, stressing a truce cannot be used to bring more weapons to the conflict, as Russia could be forced to use "the most terrible weapon" if it felt threatened.

Given Belarus's role in the conflict and its close ties with Russia, Ukraine has previously rejected offers from Minsk to broker peace.

Belarus has said it has no plans to enter the war.

With reporting by AP

Kazakh Tycoon Related To Former President's Family Handed Eight-Year Prison Term

Qairat Boranbaevappears in court to hear the verdict in his case in Astana on March 31.

ASTANA -- Kazakh tycoon Qairat Boranbaev, whose daughter is the widow of the grandson of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has been sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.

A court in Astana's Saryarqa district sentenced Boranbaev and his two co-defendants on March 31 after finding them guilty of illegally obtaining property and embezzlement. The court also stripped Boranbaev of all state awards and ordered the confiscation of all his property and financial assets.

Boranbaev's co-defendants, businessmen Roman Nakhanov and Taiyr Zhanuzaq, were also each sentenced to eight years in prison. The trio had pleaded not guilty.

Boranbaev's daughter, Alima Boranbaeva, and Nazarbaev's grandson, Aisultan Nazarbaev, married in 2013. In September 2020, Aisultan Nazarbaev, who reportedly suffered from drug addiction and had run-ins with the law in the United Kingdom, died in London at the age of 29.

Boranbaev, 56, was arrested after unprecedented anti-government protests in early January 2022 after which the Kazakh regime began to quietly target Nazarbaev, his family, and other allies -- many of whom held powerful or influential posts in government, security agencies, and profitable energy companies.

In September, another court in Astana sentenced Nazarbaev's nephew Qairat Satybaldy to six years in prison on corruption charges.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has taken a series of moves since the unrests to push Nazarbaev, who ruled the tightly controlled former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades, further into the background following his resignation in 2019.

Though he officially stepped down as president, Nazarbaev retained sweeping powers as the head of the country's powerful Security Council. He also enjoyed substantial powers by holding the title of "elbasy" -- the leader of the nation.

Even after Nazarbaev's resignation, many Kazakhs remained bitter over the oppression of his reign.

Those feelings came to a head in January 2022 when unprecedented, nationwide anti-government protests were sparked by a fuel-price hike.

The demonstrations unexpectedly exploded into deadly countrywide unrest over perceived corruption under the Nazarbaev regime and the cronyism that allowed his family and close friends to enrich themselves while ordinary citizens failed to share in the oil-rich country's wealth.

Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of his Security Council role, taking it over himself. Since then, several of Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies have been pushed out of their positions or resigned.

Last month, Toqaev sign a law that canceled Nazarbaev's elbasy title.

Kazakh critics say Toqaev's initiatives were cosmetic and did not change the nature of the autocratic system in a country that has been plagued for years by rampant corruption and nepotism.

EU May Need To Reintroduce Tariffs On Ukrainian Grain, PMs Say

Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had its Black Sea ports blocked following Russia's February 2022 invasion and found alternative shipping routes through EU states Poland and Romania.

Tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural imports may need to be reintroduced if an influx of products that is pushing down prices in EU markets cannot be stopped by other means, several prime ministers of eastern states said. In a letter to the European Commission, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia said the scale of the increase of products including grains, oilseeds, eggs, poultry, and sugar had been "unprecedented." Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had its Black Sea ports blocked following Russia's February 2022 invasion and found alternative shipping routes through EU states Poland and Romania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran's IRGC Says Israeli Air Strike In Syria Kills One Of Its Officers

Milad Haydari was killed in Syria, the IRGC said.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) says an Israeli attack in Syria on March 31 killed one of its officers in a sign of Israel's increasing efforts to counter Tehran's foothold in the country. The IRGC "has announced the martyrdom of guardsman Milad Haydari, one of the IRGC's military advisers and officers," in the attack, a statement said. This was the second attack attributed to Israel in Syria in less than two days. There was no immediate comment from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Spanish PM Says He Encouraged China's Xi To Speak With Zelenskiy

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks to Chinese President Xi Jinping as they attend an official welcome ceremony in Moscow on March 21.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 31 to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn firsthand about Kyiv's peace formula to help bring an end to Russia's invasion. Sanchez told a news conference in Beijing he had informed Xi, who visited Moscow on March 20-21, that Spain supported the proposals made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. They include a demand to restore Ukraine's territory to the status quo before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Ukraine Condemns Wimbledon Decision To Lift Ban On Russian Players

Wimbledon said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under the guidance provided by the British government.

Ukraine has condemned the decision to allow Russian and Belarusian tennis players to compete at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Tournament organizers announced on March 31 they were lifting a ban imposed in 2022, clearing the way for competitors from the two countries to enter the Grand Slam, which starts on July 3, if they are "neutral" athletes and comply with certain conditions.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba blasted the decision, urging Britain to bar entry to participants from the two countries.

"Wimbledon's decision to permit the participation of Russian and Belarusian players is immoral," Kuleba said on Twitter.

Wimbledon said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under the guidance provided by the British government.

However, this year's conditions include prohibiting "expressions of support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine" and prohibiting entry by players "receiving funding from the Russian and/or Belarusian states."

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Police In North Kazakhstan Investigate Group Calling For 'Sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic'

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev poses with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana on October 14, 2022.

Police in the North Kazakhstan region say they are investigating a group in the regional capital, Petropavl, called the People's Council. The group announced its creation days earlier saying it promotes "our independence and sovereignty" and "the unbreakable territorial integrity of the sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic" -- Kazakhstan's former name when it was part of the Soviet Union. After Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Kazakh officials launched several probes linked to online expressions of support for Russia and the idea of reviving the Soviet Union by Kazakh citizens. To read the original story of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Former Putin Speechwriter Gallyamov Accused Of Discrediting Russian Armed Forces

Abbas Gallyamov worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008 to 2010. He was a deputy chief of the administration of then-President of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov from 2010 to 2014.

A self-exiled former speechwriter of Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, whose name appeared in the Russian Interior Ministry's online registry of wanted persons last week, is suspected of discrediting Russia's armed forces, a charge Russian authorities have been using to stifle any criticism of Moscow's war in Ukraine.

The Setevyye Svobody (Network Freedoms) group, which monitors the rights of online journalists, said on March 30 that it had obtained official documents of the probe against Gallyamov stating that the charge against him stems from his interview with Ukraine's 1+1 television's YouTube project.

Gallyamov gave the interview with the outlet on April 9, 2022, discussing alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Kramatorsk.

Setevyye Svobody said the investigation against Gallyamov was launched on January 18 and that his name was added to the wanted list on February 17, more than one month before it appeared on the ministry's website.

If convicted, Gallyamov faces up to 10 years in prison. According to Setevyye Svobody, lawyer Alan Gamazov is representing Gallyamov. It is not clear whether he was appointed by Russian authorities or was chosen by Gallyamov to be his legal representative.

On March 24, the Mediazona website said it found the official notice identifying Gallyamov as wanted on unspecified charges on the Interior Ministry's website. The notice was posted a day after RFE/RL published an extensive interview with Gallyamov.

In the interview, Gallyamov suggested that the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may lead to a revolution in Russia.

He also reflected on his time as a member of Putin's speechwriting team after Putin became prime minister in 2008. He said that at that time, nobody could have predicted "that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now."

Discrediting Russia's armed forces became a crime under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Last month, the Russian Justice Ministry added Gallyamov to its registry of foreign agents, saying he has distributed "materials compiled by foreign agents, expressed ideas against the special military operation in Ukraine, participated as an expert, and respondent on information platforms presented by foreign entities."

Gallyamov, 50, is currently residing in Israel. He worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008 to 2010. He was a deputy chief of the administration of then-President of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov from 2010 to 2014.

Updated

Ukraine Marks Bucha Massacre Anniversary As Russia Shells Cities In East

(Left to right) Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger, Moldova's President Maia Sandu, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Slovenia's Prime Minister Robert Golob, and Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic attend an event to mark the liberation of Bucha on March 31.

Ukraine on March 31 marked one year since Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, leaving behind hundreds of bodies of murdered civilians on the streets of the commuter town near the capital in what Kyiv said was a massacre and a Russian war crime.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy presided over an official outdoor ceremony in Bucha that was also attended by Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the prime ministers of EU and NATO members Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- Eduard Geger, Robert Golob, and Andrej Plenkovich.

In a video posted on social media, Zelenskiy called the Bucha massacre "a symbol of the atrocities" committed by the Russian military.

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"We will never forgive. We will punish all those guilty," Zelenskiy said in a statement accompanying the video.

As the Russian military was forced to hastily leave Bucha and Irpin, another town on the outskirts of Kyiv, after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital, images of the dead bodies scattered on the streets of Bucha sparked a wave of shock and condemnation around the world.

Russia has denied committing the massacres and claimed the deaths were "staged" by Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials estimate about 400 bodies of civilians were found in Bucha, as well as more than 1,000 throughout the region around Kyiv.

Many of the bodies were buried in mass graves.

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States "will continue pushing for accountability and for justice for as long as it takes."

Ukrainian and international investigators have opened a probe into war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, and other locations in Ukraine where apparent massacres occurred.

"The key word today is justice. Justice...for all our people who lost relatives, loved ones, health, home, [and] normal life due to Russian aggression, due to the terror of the occupier," Zelenskiy said in his evening video message.

He added that the events that took place in Bucha on the anniversary and other talks with international officials were aimed at speeding up the process of creating a tribunal on Russian aggression.

Sandu tweeted about the event in Bucha, saying the people of Moldova "stand with the global community in remembering the terror inflicted on the civilians in Bucha one year ago."

"We honor and grieve the innocent. Democracies must work together to ensure that these atrocities are investigated and punished," she added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc "assists Ukraine to investigate such crimes and collect evidence," while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said Bucha showed the world "the true face of Russian occupation."

"A year ago, Ukraine liberated Bucha and the world woke up to the true face of Russian occupation. Bucha is a crime scene and a symbol for all Russian crimes -- mass killings, deportations, erasing whole cities," Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote on Twitter on March 31. "There's no going back -- Russia will be held accountable."

Meanwhile, fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for control of Bakhmut and other key towns in the eastern region of Donetsk continued unabated as the northeastern city of Kharkiv was targeted with missile and drone strikes overnight, the military said on March 31.

Russia targeted civilian infrastructure in the city of Kharkiv with nine missile strikes launched from S-300 air-to-surface systems and 10 Iranian-made Shahed drones, Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report, adding that nine drones were destroyed.

At least five civilians were wounded, authorities said.

"The enemy continues to ignore the laws and customs of war, using terror tactics against the peaceful citizens of our country," the military said.

WATCH: Ukrainian artillery targets Russian armored guns at a range of up to 28 kilometers in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut. Using a captured self-propelled cannon, a Ukrainian artillery crew is also trying to destroy Russian command posts.

Ukrainian Artillery Hunts Russian Howitzers As Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On
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In the southern Kherson region, Russian troops shelled settlements 64 times over the past day, killing one person and wounding two, the regional military administration reported on March 31.

The city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk was also struck by two Russian missiles that damaged eight residential buildings, the military said.

Heavy fighting continued in and around Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian defenders repelled 22 attacks over the past 24 hours, and in Avdiyivka, Lyman, and Maryinka.

A civilian was killed and six others were wounded by Russian shelling the area around Bakhmut, the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kirylenko, wrote on Telegram on March 31.

Bakhmut, a mining city with a prewar population of 70,000 people, has become the epicenter of Russia's offensive for the control of eastern Ukraine. About 2,000 civilians are thought to be left in the city, which has been all but razed to the ground.

In southern Ukraine, the city of Zaporizhzhya was targeted by overnight shelling by Russia that damaged civilian infrastructure, the secretary of the Zaporizhzhya city council, Anatoliy Kurtev, reported on Telegram.

Kurtev said no one was injured.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

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