Islamic State Abducts Dozens Of Syrian Christians
The Islamic State militant group has abducted 230 civilians, including at least 60 Christians, after seizing a strategically located town in the central Syrian province of Homs.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said the civilians were taken on August 6 in the town of Al-Qaryatain, which IS militants captured late August 5.
Many of the Christians had fled from Aleppo, in Syria's north, to seek refuge in Al-Qaryatain.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said those abducted were wanted by IS for "collaborating with the regime."
Al-Qaryatain had a pre-war population of 18,000, including Sunni Muslims and around 2,000 Syriac Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
But the town's Christian population has dropped to only several hundred.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
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Bulgaria Expels 70 Russian Embassy Staff Accused Of Working Against Sofia's Interests
Bulgaria has ordered 70 Russian diplomatic staff out of the country, claiming that they have been working against Sofia's interests.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Irena Dimitrova summoned Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova on June 28 to inform her of the expulsions, a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The statement said the first reason for the expulsions was "reciprocity” and the second was because Bulgarian authorities have determined that the Russian officials' "activity” is incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters on the sidelines of a National Assembly session that the diplomats “worked against our interests."
"I want to tell all foreign countries, not only Russia, that all those who work against the interests of Bulgaria will be sent back to the country they came from," Petkov was quoted as saying by state news agency BTA.
He declined to give more details about the Russians' activities, saying the information was confidential.
"I can say that most of them worked directly for foreign services and their diplomatic role was just a cover," Petkov said.
He added that the 70 people affected, who have been given until July 3 to leave, held various official roles in the Russian Embassy but performed uncharacteristic activities for their diplomatic positions.
The move is not meant as an aggression against the Russian people, Petkov said.
"It's just that when foreign governments try to work and interfere in Bulgaria's internal affairs, we have clear institutions that will counter this type of action. And on Sunday (July 3) we expect a full plane with 70 seats to go back to Moscow," Petkov added.
European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomatic staff since Moscow launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine on February 24. Russia has reciprocated by sending home diplomats from numerous EU countries.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Wives Of Russian Officers Urge Buryatia Leader To Return Their Husbands From Ukraine
More than a dozen women in Russia's Republic of Buryatia have recorded a video statement urging the head of the Siberian region to recall their husbands from Ukraine where they are serving with the Russian armed forces.
One of the women, Vera Partilkhayeva, told RFE/RL on June 28 that the women's husbands were deployed in what were officially called military drills in January. But since February, they have been taking part in what Russian officials call the "special military operation" in Ukraine.
"Since February 24, they have been taking part in the special operation. They have been exhausted both morally and physically. All of them have suffered light- and medium-level contusions," the women said in the video statement, adding that many of the men were sick due to their living conditions.
Partilkhayeva wrote on her social network accounts that region head Aleksei Tsydenov will be personally responsible for every death of local residents in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
According to her, the video statement was recorded by the wives of military personnel of the Fifth Tank Brigade of Tatsin. At least 30 officers and soldiers of that military unit have been confirmed killed in Ukraine.
The exact number of Russian troops killed in Ukraine in more than four months of the war remains unknown.
Ukrainian authorities claim that more than 35,000 Russian troops have been killed, while the Russian Defense Ministry last commented on the subject in March, saying that 1,351 of its personnel had died.
Putin Arrives In Tajikistan For First Stop On Trip To Central Asia
DUSHANBE -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has started a one-day visit to Tajikistan, where he is holding talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine continues to raise concerns in Central Asia.
Rahmon greeted Putin at the Dushanbe international airport on June 28 and the two leaders immediately left for talks.
Rahmon's spokesman Abdufattoh Sharifzoda told RFE/RL that no documents will be signed during Putin's visit, the Russian president's first public foreign trip since the start of the war in February. Sharifzoda added that Putin is on a working trip and all talks will be held face-to-face.
Sharifzoda also said that the two presidents will discuss "bilateral ties, the development of cultural and economic relations, and regional and global issues, especially the situation in Afghanistan."
Putin aide Yury Ushakov was quoted by Russian media as saying that Putin and Rahmon will also discuss "issues related to military cooperation and Tajik migrant workers in Russia."
Ushakov said they also would discuss measures to improve security along Tajikistan's porous 1,357-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
Moscow has stationed about 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division at three facilities that are considered part of a Russian base in Tajikistan.
On July 29, Putin will leave Tajikistan for the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, where he will attend a summit of countries bordering the Caspian Sea, which include Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan.
Putin's visit to the two Central Asian nations comes days after he told another ally, Belarus's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Moscow will supply Minsk with an Iskander-M mobile missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers as the standoff between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine escalates.
Russia, Belarus, and Tajikistan, along with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Earlier this month, while attending an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pushed back against Moscow's narrative of the invasion of Ukraine, rejecting recognition for "quasi-states" such as the regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
He also vowed that Kazakhstan wouldn't break international sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
With reporting by AFP and AP
Moscow Court Fines Airbnb, Twitch, UPS, Pinterest For Refusing To Localize User Data
A court in Moscow has fined the holiday rental company Airbnb, video streaming service Twitch, United Parcel Shipping (UPS), and the Pinterest image sharing and social media service for failing to localize the storage of the personal data of their users amid a government campaign to gain more control over the Internet in Russia.
The Magistrates Court in Moscow’s Taganka district ordered Twitch, Airbnb, and Pinterest on June 28 to pay 2 million rubles ($37,500) each for failing to abide by a law that requires the local storage of user data. The court ordered UPS to pay a fine of 1 million rubles on the same charge.
President Vladimir Putin has accused international tech giants of flouting the country's Internet laws, including Moscow's efforts to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia.
In recent months, Moscow courts have fined Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and TikTok over the personal data issue, as well as for refusing to delete content deemed to have been banned under Russian law.
Many critics say Russia's efforts to police online content have nothing to do with "Internet integrity" and instead they have accused the authorities of trying to impose more control over the media in the wake of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax
New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Defense Industry, Gold Imports
The United States on June 28 imposed sanctions on 70 entities, including Russian defense firm Rostec, and 29 individuals in a move that it said aimed to "strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons."
The new sanctions, which also ban imports of Russian gold, were announced by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and they implement agreements reached during the Group of Seven (G7) summit this week.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the United States reaffirmed its commitment to work with partners and allies “to impose additional severe sanctions in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.”
“Broad multilateral commitments and actions by G7 members this week further cut off the Russian Federation’s access to technology that is critical to their military,” Yellen said. “Targeting Russia’s defense industry will degrade [President Vladimir] Putin’s capabilities and further impede his war against Ukraine, which has already been plagued by poor morale, broken supply chains, and logistical failures.”
The sanctions on Rostec announced on June 28 build on previously announced sanctions against the state aerospace and defense conglomerate. The Treasury Department said that Rostec's "management umbrella includes more than 800 entities across a wide range of sectors" and that all entities owned 50 percent or more by Rostec are blocked.
This includes United Aircraft Corporation, the maker of Russia's MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets. The Treasury Department said this aims to "weaken Russia's ability to continue its aerial assault on Ukraine."
The ban on gold imports, which the Treasury Department said is Russia's biggest nonenergy export, was also agreed by Britain, Canada, and Japan during the G7 summit.
In addition to targeting Rostec and other industries critical to the defense sector, the sanctions take aim at military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the OFAC said.
The Treasury Department's enforcement arm also issued a joint alert with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security advising vigilance against Russian and Belarusian export control evasion, the statement said.
Separately, the U.S. State Department announced visa restrictions on more than 500 military officers "for threatening or violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence."
The department has also taken steps to impose visa restrictions on 18 Russian nationals in relation to the suppression of dissent, including politically motivated detentions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Washington is also increasing tariffs on more than 570 groups of Russian products worth approximately $2.3 billion.
The U.S. Commerce Department took complementary actions, adding several entities to its so-called Entity List for continuing to do business with Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine.
The additions to the Entity List "demonstrate the United States will impose stringent export controls on companies, including those in third countries, in order to deny them access to items they can use to support Russia’s military and/or defense industrial base," Blinken said.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters
Jailed Kyrgyz Ex-President Atambaev Acquitted In 2020 Mass Disorder Case
BISHKEK -- A court in Bishkek has acquitted former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev in a case related to mass protests that swept the Central Asian nation in 2020.
The Birinchi Mai district court found Atambaev and his six co-defendants not guilty on June 28 of organizing and taking part in mass disorder, the illegal possession of firearms, and threatening law enforcement.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors asked the court to convict Atambaev and sentence him to 12 years in prison. They sought terms of between 7 and 9 years for his co-defendants.
Atambaev is currently serving an 11-year prison term he was handed in 2020 for his role in the illegal release of notorious crime boss Aziz Batukaev in 2013.
The anti-government protests in October 2020 were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election seen by many as rigged.
Atambaev was released during the protests and joined in them along with several other politicians. He was later rearrested and returned to prison.
The 65-year-old is currently involved in another trial that is linked to two days of violence at his compound near Bishkek sparked by his refusal to obey three summonses to appear at the Interior Ministry for questioning about Batukaev’s release.
The 2019 standoff between security forces and his supporters resulted in the death of a senior security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.
In that case, the former president and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.
Earlier this month Atambaev was additionally charged with abuse of office over deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 that claimed almost 450 lives. At that time, Atambaev led an interim government following violent anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Russian Officials Detain Mayor Of Ukrainian City After He Refuses To Collaborate
Russian officials occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson have detained Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev after he refused to work with them.
Kolykhayev's adviser, Halyna Lyashevska, wrote on Facebook that officers of Russia's National Guard searched the mayor's office and detained him on June 28.
According to Lyashevska, Kolykhayev likely was arrested because of his open refusal to collaborate with the occupying Russian authorities.
The governor of the Kherson region, Hennadiy Lahuta, confirmed Kolykhayev’s detention.
No further details were immediately available.
After Russian troops took over the city of Kherson in early March, Kolykhayev remained there and continued to work as the mayor while refusing to cooperate with the occupying forces.
In late April, Russia appointed its own so-called heads of military-civilian administrations in the city and the areas around the Kherson region that Russian troops had taken over during their ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Media reports in Ukraine said on June 28 that occupying Russian forces also detained an official in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhya region last week.
Relatives Fear Tajik Activist Faces Torture, Prison At Home As Russia Considers Extradition
DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have detained a Tajik activist residing in the Kursk region and plan to extradite him to Tajikistan, where he may face torture and imprisonment, his relatives and colleagues say.
Emomali Kholov's relatives and colleagues told RFE/RL that the 30-year-old father of 11 was detained on June 26 in the Kursk region.
Kholov's close associate, Suhrob Jahon, quoted his friend's lawyer as saying that Tajik authorities had requested Russian officials extradite the activist after a criminal case was launched against him in March 2021 on extremism charges.
Kholov used to work as a volunteer at the Center of Tajiks in Russia.
The center was led by Izzat Amon, before he was deprived of Russian citizenship and forced to return to Dushanbe in March 2021 at the request of Tajik authorities, who accused him of financial fraud.
Amon was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison in October. Earlier this month, a court in Dushanbe handed Amon an additional six years in prison on a separate fraud charge that his relatives have called politically motivated.
Activists and rights groups say President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has used various levers of power to suppress rights groups and dissent.
Amon's nonprofit organization in Moscow helped Tajik migrant workers find jobs, obtain work and residency permits, and get legal advice.
It was shut down after his arrest and several of its employees and volunteers have complained of being put under pressure by Russian authorities since.
Russian Lawyer Detained After Criticizing Ukraine Shopping-Mall Strike
The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Udmurtia region, Dmitry Talantov, has been detained after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.
Talantov wrote on Facebook that he was detained on June 28 and taken handcuffed to the Investigative Committee for questioning.
The Society of Russian Lawyers wrote on Telegram that Talantov was detained as he was trying to fly to Moscow.
No official reason has been given for Talantov's detention.
On June 27, when news of the deadly missile attack broke, Talantov condemned the strike, calling the Russian authorities "scumbags."
Talantov also is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high-treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.
At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) called "a war crime."
Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.
G7 Leaders Wrap Up Summit Condemning Russian Invasion, Pledge Support For Ukraine
Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "illegal and unjustifiable," and pledged to hold an international conference to raise funds for the country's postwar reconstruction.
A final statement from the G7 meeting in Germany that ended on June 28 also addresses the issue of global food security, which has been shaken by Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports, keeping grain stocks from one of the world's largest producers from being exported.
"We, the leaders of the Group of Seven...were joined by the leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa, as well as Ukraine," the statement says.
"We reemphasize our condemnation of Russia's illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine."
The three-day summit of leaders from the world's leading democracies has already pledged to keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and to intensify international economic and political pressure on President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in ally Belarus.
By the end of the meeting, they had strengthened that pledge and condemned Russia for an "abominable" attack on a shopping center in central Ukraine, calling it a "war crime," while vowing Putin will "be held to account" for Moscow's actions.
"We are strongly committed to supporting Ukrainian reconstruction through an international reconstruction conference," the G7 said, adding that members had agreed to spend $4.5 billion on addressing food-security issues around the globe exacerbated by rising grain and food costs following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The White House added that the United States would pitch in $2.76 billion toward that effort, which will assist 47 countries and regional organizations dealing with food insecurity and malnutrition.
Officials have said during the summit that leaders of the major economies are working on plans to pursue a price cap on Russian oil, raise tariffs on Russian goods and impose other new sanctions, though no final deal was reached in Germany and further discussions beyond the summit are expected.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
Belarus Adds Jailed Opposition Activist Tsikhanouski, RFE/RL Consultant Losik To Terrorist List
The Belarusian KGB has added 23 people to its terrorists list, including the jailed husband of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik.
The KGB's June 28 move brings the total number of persons on its official registry of terrorists to 870.
Tsikhanouski and Losik were sentenced in December to 18 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, on charges of organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupted social order.
Both denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.
Rights groups consider them, and four other persons who were sentenced behind closed doors in the southeastern city of Homel, to be political prisoners.
“This escalation is an egregious abuse of the state’s authority and underlines the Lukashenka regime’s contempt for journalists who expose the truth," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement, referring to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
"We continue to demand Ihar’s immediate release from prison so he can be reunited with his wife and daughter,” Fly added.
The crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has intensified since mass protests erupted in the wake of Lukashenka’s August 2020 reelection, which has not been recognized by the opposition and the West.
A popular video blogger, Tsikhanouski intended to run against Lukashenka but was disqualified and arrested before the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya subsequently mobilized voters and won the election, according to the opposition and Western countries who say Lukashenka rigged the results.
Tsikhanouskaya has been living in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus due to concerns about her safety and that of the couple's two children.
Russia Places Sanctions On Biden's Wife, Daughter, Several Senators In Latest List
Russia has added U.S. President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, and daughter, Ashley, to its list of Americans under sanctions in retaliation for Washington's moves against Russia over its war in Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement on June 28 that 23 other academics and U.S. officials, including Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Senators Charles Grassley, Kirsten Gillebrand, Susan Collins, Ben Sass, and Martin Heinrich, were also added to the list.
"As a response to the ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian political and public figures, 25 American citizens are included in the 'stop list' from among the senators responsible for the formation of a Russophobic narrative, participants in the so-called McFaul-Yermak group, which develops recommendations on anti-Russian restrictions, as well as members of the family of President Joe Biden," the statement said.
Those people on the list are banned from entering Russian territory.
The United States has led international efforts to impose far-reaching sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.
Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions against individuals, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, his daughters, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and members of his family, and several oligarchs linked to Putin.
They have also implemented crippling economic sanctions on Russia, such as cutting off much of its financial network from international transactions, freezing assets, and implementing a partial embargo on Russian oil imports.
Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Handed 15-Day Jail Term On Disobedience Charge
MOSCOW -- Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin has been sentenced to 15 days in jail after being convicted of being disobedient to police, a charge that he and his supporters denied.
Yashin said on Telegram that the Khamovniki district court in Moscow sentenced him on June 28, a day after he was detained while on a walk in a Moscow park with a friend.
"I am an opposition politician, an independent municipal lawmaker, a critic of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and an opponent of the war in Ukraine. This detention of mine is a tool to impose pressure on me," Yashin wrote, adding that he does not exclude that a criminal case may be launched against him after he serves his jail term, which has become a routine practice in the country after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Journalist Irina Babloyan, who was with Yashin when he was detained, tweeted on June 28 that the accusation by police that he fought with them was untrue and that Yashin did not resist.
Yashin, 38, is an outspoken Kremlin critic. He was fined four times in recent weeks on charges of discrediting the Russian military over his open opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Another Jehovah's Witness Gets Prison Term In Siberia Amid Crackdown
A Russian court in Siberia has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to six years in prison amid an ongoing crackdown on the religious group, which has been banned in the country since 2017.
A court in the city of Krasnoyarsk sentenced Yevgeny Zinich on June 27 after finding him guilty of organizing the activities of an "extremist organization."
The court also ruled that Zinich will be on parole for one year after serving his term and banned him from leading public and religious organizations for two years.
The probe against Zinich was launched in early 2021.
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 peaceful religious minorities.
For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, rejection of military service, and refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.
Zelenskiy Calls On UN To Visit Shopping Center Hit By Missile As G7 Vows Continued Support For Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for the United Nations to send a special representative or the secretary-general to the site of a missile strike on a shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk.
Zelenskiy said this would allow the UN to independently gather information and “see that this indeed was a Russian missile strike."
Zelenskiy made the comment on June 28 in a virtual address to an emergency session of the UN Security Council that Kyiv requested after the missile strike on June 27 in which at least 18 people died.
Russia's Defense Ministry denied it targeted the shopping mall, saying its missiles were fired at a weapons depot and that exploding ammunition stocks sparked the deadly fire.
"As a result of a high-precision strike, Western-made weapons and ammunition concentrated in the storage area for further shipment to the Ukrainian grouping of troops in the Donbas were hit," the ministry said in a statement.
Moscow also falsely claimed that the mall was "not operational" at the time of the strike.
Speaking from Kyiv, Zelenskiy, who after the strike said Russia should be labeled a "state sponsor of terrorism," also asked the UN to legally define the term "terrorist state." He argued that Moscow's invasion of his country demonstrates "the urgent necessity to enshrine it" at the level of the United Nations and punish any terrorist state.
He also said Russia should be excluded from the Security Council and should be deprived of its powers in the General Assembly.
Before Zelenskiy spoke, a UN official told the Security Council that the UN has recorded more than 10,600 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 4,731 deaths. Rosemary DiCarlo, undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said the true toll was "considerably higher."
In addition to the 18 confirmed dead in the missile strike on the shopping center, dozens were injured and many are still missing, authorities said on June 28.
Regional Governor Dmytro Lunyn said the mall was "completely destroyed" by the missile strike, which Ukraine said was fired from Tu-22 long-range bombers.
Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations pledged on the last day of a summit in Germany to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes" as the war grinds on.
The G7 leaders agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin "must not win this war, and we will continue to keep up and drive higher the economic and political costs for President Putin and his regime,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a closing news conference.
“For that, it is important to stand together -- including in the long haul that we certainly still face.”
Speaking at the end of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the seven leading industrialized democracies would support Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia “as long as necessary, and with the necessary intensity.”
He called the attack on the shopping center "a new war crime" and said “Russia cannot and should not win” the war.
In another strike reported on June 28, Russian missiles hit in the city of Dnipro, the regional governor said. Fire broke out as a result of the strike, and rescuers were searching for people under the rubble, said a spokeswoman for emergency services in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The missile hit a transport company, destroying 21 cars and 13 trucks, the spokeswoman said. A second missile hit an industrial enterprise, damaging several buildings.
The head of the Luhansk regional military administration, Serhiy Hayday said that Ukrainian defenders will try to hold the line against Russian forces in the east as they look to buy time until the arrival of Western weapons.
Russian forces were trying to storm Lysychansk, which lies across the Siverskiy Donets River from Syevyerodonetsk, to complete their capture of Luhansk in the Donbas region.
To the west of Lysychansk, the mayor of Slovyansk said Russian forces fired cluster munitions, including one that hit a residential neighborhood. Authorities said the number of victims had yet to be confirmed.
Separately, Zelenskiy said he had told NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that his country needs missile defense systems to prevent Russian attacks.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 28 that Ukrainian forces continued to consolidate their positions on higher ground in Lysychansk, after abandoning its twin city, Syevyerodonetsk, to the Russians.
The bulletin said Ukrainian forces continued to disrupt the Russians' command and control with successful strikes deep behind Russian lines.
British intelligence assessed that Russian forces in the Donbas are increasingly "hollowed out" and their combat effectiveness has been degraded -- a situation that is "probably unsustainable" in the long term.
NATO's Door Open, Stoltenberg Says After Turkey Lifts Objection To Sweden, Finland Joining Alliance
Turkey has agreed to lift its opposition to NATO membership bids filed by Finland and Sweden in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said the breakthrough came after he and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on June 28 ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid and signed a joint memorandum "to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security."
The memorandum “confirms that [Turkey] will at the Madrid Summit this week support the invitation of Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO,” Niinisto said on Twitter.
"The concrete steps of our accession to NATO will be agreed by the NATO allies during the next two days, but that decision is now imminent," Niinisto said in a press release.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Turkey's presidency confirmed the accord in separate statements.
The agreement "sends a clear message to President Putin: NATO's door is open," Stoltenberg said at a press conference, referring to the Russian president, whose ardent opposition to Ukraine's desire to join NATO was a pretext for his decision to invade Ukraine in February.
The invasion raised fears in Finland and Sweden about Russian aggression, prompting them to seek to join the Western alliance, and once they are formally accepted as members, Finland's long border with Russia means the Russian-NATO border will expand dramatically.
Stoltenberg said NATO's 30 members would now invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO and that they would become official "invitees." The parliaments of the NATO countries must ratify the decision, a process that could take up to a year.
Finland and Sweden last month moved to abandon their nonaligned status and applied to join the military alliance, but their bids were held back by Turkey, which has accused both nations, particularly Sweden, of offering a safe haven to Kurdish militants who have been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state.
The issue threatened to cloud the summit and its attempt to proclaim unity among NATO members in the face of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Under the terms of the deal, Sweden will intensify work on Turkey's requests for the extradition of suspected Kurdish militants, Stoltenberg said. Sweden and Finland also will amend their laws to toughen their approach to Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and will lift their restrictions on selling weapons to Turkey.
The Turkish presidency statement said the agreement meant "full cooperation with Turkey in the fight against the PKK and its affiliates."
It also said Sweden and Finland were "demonstrating solidarity with Turkey in the fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter: "Fantastic news as we kick off the NATO summit. Sweden and Finland's membership will make our brilliant alliance stronger and safer."
The NATO summit is expected to be one of the most important summits of the Western alliance in recent years amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said earlier that the three-day summit will agree a new assistance package for Ukraine in areas "like secure communications, anti-drone systems, and fuel."
Stoltenberg said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense, and member states will have to boost their military spending.
The meeting will chart a blueprint for the alliance “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world,” he said.
Strengthening defenses against Russia and supporting Ukraine top the agenda of the meeting, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is due to address virtually.
The United States and Spain issued a joint declaration ahead of the summit, condemning Russia for invading Ukraine. The declaration, which came after U.S. President Joe Biden met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, said the invasion “fundamentally altered the global strategic environment.”
The declaration emphasized the two countries' defense partnership through NATO and said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine "constitutes the most direct threat to transatlantic security and global stability since the end of the Cold War.”
The summit will also change language dating back to 2010 describing Russia as a strategic partner.
"That will not be the case in the strategic concept that we will agree in Madrid," Stoltenberg said.
"I expect that allies will state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security, to our values, to the rules-based international order."
Stoltenberg announced on June 27 that NATO will boost its high-readiness forces to "well over 300,000" in response to Russia's war in Ukraine. The NATO Response Force currently has about 40,000 troops.
The summit will also be attended by leaders of countries not currently members of NATO -- including South Korea and Japan -- as observers.
Stoltenberg said on June 28 that NATO does not see China as an adversary but it is concerned about Beijing's ever-closer ties with Moscow.
He noted that China will soon be the biggest economy in the world and that NATO needs to engage with Beijing on issues like climate change.
"But we are disappointed by the fact that China has not been able to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that China is spreading many of the false narratives about NATO, the West, and also that China and Russia are more close now than they have ever been before," he added.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Time
Iran, U.S. To Hold Indirect Talks In Doha After EU Push to Restart Talks On Nuclear Deal
Indirect talks between Iran and the United States are set to take place on June 28 in Doha, Qatar, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said amid a push by the European Union to break an impasse in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran said the discussions would be mediated by EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora and no direct talks between Iran and the United States were planned.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, will travel to Doha for the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Naser Kanani told state news agency IRNA.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.l
The talks will be separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.
The U.S. State Department confirmed the meeting and reiterated Iran needed to drop additional demands that go beyond the scope of the pact.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the deal.
Trump subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.
Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.
Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.
One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently warned that Iran will be able to produce the raw material for a nuclear bomb within a few weeks. Tehran has repeatedly stressed that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposed.
News of the talks in Qatar came shortly after Iran said it tested a booster rocket designed to send a research satellite into space.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Iranian-Norwegian Lawmakers Condemn Oslo Attack By Man Of Iranian Descent
Iranian-born Norwegian lawmakers Masud Gharahkhani and Mahmoud Farahmand have condemned an attack by a man of Iranian descent in Oslo that killed two people and wounded eight others.
Gharahkhani, the speaker of Norway's parliament, said the weekend shooting near the London Pub, which describes itself on its website as "the largest gay and lesbian venue in Oslo," reminded him of "how hatred grows on social media when we celebrate gender diversity, and that is sad and unacceptable."
In an interview with Radio Farda on June 27, Farahmand, a Conservative deputy, said the attack showed that freedoms need to be defended more vigorously than ever and that "the use of violence" should be resisted.
The 43-year-old Iranian-born politician, who represents the Conservative Party (Hoyre), added that without individual freedoms, "a democratic society cannot survive."
The suspect, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent who has been charged with terrorism, was known to police and had previously been detained for "minor convictions," according to prosecutor Christian Hatlo.
Oslo's annual LGBT Pride parade was scheduled to take place on June 25, but was canceled following the shooting, which took place early that day.
A senior Norwegian police official said only one assailant had been identified in the attack and no other suspects had been identified.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Iranian Pensioners Return To Streets, Say Government Failing To Meet Promises
Iranian pensioners and retired public employees showed no signs of letting up in their protests against what they say is the government's failure to address deteriorating living conditions.
Videos posted on social media on June 27 showed retirees gathering in at least four cities, Ahvaz, Kermanshah, Arak, and Rasht, chanting slogans against the government of President Ebrahim Raisi.
The recent wave of protests by pensioners and retirees comes after the government announced on June 6 that it would increase the monthly salaries of non-minimum-wage retirees by 10 percent, far below a previous pledge for a hike of 38 percent plus 5.15 million Iranian rials ($16).
Legislation to enact the increase was rejected by parliament, leading to the lower increase, which pensioners say is too little given that the inflation rate currently stands at more than 45 percent.
In recent weeks, Iran has witnessed protests from a broad cross-section of society, most of which have been met with security crackdowns, most notably after a round of nationwide teachers' protests in May.
The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council announced on June 26 that since then, a total of 230 teachers and union activists had been detained or imprisoned in various cities.
The council also said that over the past two weeks it had not received any information on the situation of three imprisoned teachers: Rasoul Badaqi, Mohammad Habibi, and Jafar Ebrahimi.
Devastated by years of harsh economic sanctions imposed by Washington since the United States pulled out of an accord with global superpowers aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program, many Iranians have launched protests in recent months to decry the government's inability to help their lives.
In addition, Iran’s economy has struggled to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left at least 2 million Iranians jobless and resulted in soaring consumer prices.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Uzbek Constitutional Amendments To Change Status Of Karakalpakstan
Constitutional amendments initiated by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev will annul the current right of the Karakalpakstan region to seek independence.
According to the draft amendments, Karakalpakstan will retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants will be taken out.
Local media quoted officials as saying that the amendments were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well, due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."
Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Of the 170 amendments planned to be introduced to the constitution, the most controversial will change presidential eligibility from two five-year terms to two seven-year terms, while nullifying the previous presidential terms of a president.
This means Mirziyoev, who is in his second term, would be able to seek a new term in office.
Mirziyoev opened up Central Asia's most populous country of some 35 million people to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, eased restrictions on religious freedoms, and released dozens of political prisoners after he came to power following the death of his authoritarian predecessor, Islam Karimov, in 2016.
But like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.
The 64-year-old was reelected to his second presidential term in October 2021. He faced four little-known candidates who were largely pro-government. Three opposition parties were not allowed to register or have candidates in the race.
With reporting by Mediazona and Gazeta.uz
Exiled Tajik Journalist's Relatives Questioned Over Her Articles About Deadly Protests In Remote Region
Exiled Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova says two of her relatives have been detained for questioning in Tajikistan over her online articles about deadly protests last month in her native Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Sarkorova told RFE/RL that police detained her 68-year-old mother and a brother and released them hours later after they questioned them about her current address and journalistic activities.
Sarkorova, who lives in an unspecified country in the European Union, emphasized that she considers the questioning a pressure tactic to force her to stop writing about the human rights situation in the Central Asian country.
The authorities in Tajikistan acknowledged in recent weeks that several informal leaders of Gorno-Badakhshan, whom they called criminals, have been killed and dozens arrested in the restive region.
They have yet to say anything about the questioning of the mother and brother of Sarkorova, who worked for the BBC for many years until 2018 and is currently working as a freelance journalist and blogger using her Facebook account.
Deep tensions between the government and residents of the volatile region have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled state of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
U.S. Basketball Star Griner To Stand Trial, Faces 10 Years On Drug Charge
A Russian court has set July 1 for the trial of U.S. basketball star Britney Griner, who was detained more than four months ago on charges of illegal drug possession and smuggling.
The court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on June 27 told Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, that she faced up to 10 years in prison for the offense, which stemmed from being found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage when she was at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February.
Griner was also told at the closed-door hearing that her detention had been extended for another six months.
The arrest came as Moscow was building up troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which has severely strained relations with Washington.
Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap similar to one in April that saw jailed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.
Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.
Some have suggested Moscow is seeking to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
At Least 18 Dead In Russian Rocket Attack On Shopping Center In Ukraine
The death toll from a Russian missile strike that hit a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk has risen to at least 18 people, with at least 60 wounded, a regional official said.
Regional Governor Dmytro Lunyn announced the updated toll of the strike on June 28 on Telegram as rescue and clean-up operations in Kremenchuk continued overnight.
Lunyn said the mall was "completely destroyed" by the missile strike. He posted a video showing firefighters searching through the debris.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said more than 40 people were missing and of the 59 people who sought medical assistance almost half were in serious condition.
Zelenskiy accused Russia of being the "largest terrorist organization in the world" in a video on Telegram.
"Everyone in the world should know that buying or transporting Russian oil, maintaining ties with Russian banks, paying taxes and duties to the Russian state is giving money to terrorists," he said.
Ukraine called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the strike, which came on the second day of a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Germany and ahead of a NATO summit scheduled to begin later this week in Madrid.
The missile strike will be the main focus of the meeting on June 28, said a spokesman for the Albanian mission, which currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency.
Mayor Vitaliy Maletskiy wrote on his Facebook page that the strike "came in a very crowded place, which is 100 percent irrelevant to hostilities," while Zelenskiy said "more than 1,000 people were gathered" at the mall and that "it is impossible to even imagine the number of victims."
Video recorded at the shopping center and posted on Telegram by Zelenskiy showed it engulfed in flames as huge plumes of black and gray smoke billowed out.
"No danger to the Russian Army. No strategic value. Only an attempt on the people who try to live a normal life, which so angers the [Russians]," he wrote.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed repeatedly that it is not targeting civilians in the unprovoked war it launched on Ukraine just over four months ago.
It has not commented on the strike.
Leaders of the G7 called the missile strike a war crime and vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking from the G7 summit, said the Kremenchuk attacked demonstrated the "depths of cruelty and barbarism" of Putin.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the world was "horrified" by the strike, saying on Twitter it was the latest in a string of atrocities.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned it as "deplorable," and French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the deadly strike as a "complete horror" and said France shares the pain of the families of the victims and the anger in the face of such "meanness."
He included a video of the inferno in his tweet and said, "The Russian people must see the truth."
Kremenchuk, an industrial city of just over 200,000, lies on the Dnipro River in the Poltava region and is the site of Ukraine's biggest oil refinery.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Ukrainian Billionaire Akhmetov Sues Russia Over Losses Caused By War
Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), demanding compensation for losses caused by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
Akhmetov's System Capital Management (SCM) holding company said in a statement on June 27 that the tycoon had lost billions of dollars in business since Russia launched the war more than four months ago.
"As the owner of Azovstal and many other industrial facilities that have been targeted by the invading Russian armed forces, Mr. Akhmetov seeks to ensure that Russia is held accountable for the destruction it is wreaking across Ukraine," the statement said.
Russian troops took over the Azovstal steelworks in the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in May after a siege that lasted weeks as Ukrainian fighters held out inside the massive plant.
Akhmetov is also seeking an order from the court "preventing Russia from engaging in further blockading, looting, diversion, and destruction of grain and steel" produced by his companies, the statement said.
"Evil cannot go unpunished. Russia's crimes against Ukraine and our people are egregious, and those guilty of them must be held liable," SCM quoted Akhmetov as saying.
The statement said Akhmetov was seeking compensation from Russia for the "trampling of his property rights." It also said that while the precise amount of damages cannot yet be assessed, "it is anticipated that Mr. Akhmetov is due billions of dollars from the Russian Federation for its violation of his human rights."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to a question regarding Akhmetov's lawsuit, told reporters in Moscow that Russia was no longer under the jurisdiction of the ECHR, which is in Strasbourg, France.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 11 signed a law under which Russia will not follow ECHR rulings made after March 15.
With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, RIA Novosti, and TASS
Moldovan President Visits Kyiv, Will Meet Zelenskiy
President Maia Sandu traveled to Ukraine on June 27 in her first trip to Moldova's neighbor since start of the war and visited the towns of Bucha and Irpin -- sites of alleged Russian atrocities against civilians.
“No matter the economic costs, no matter the political costs we have to stop war and we have to make sure that these kinds of atrocities will never repeat,” Maia Sandu said. She said it was “heartbreaking” to hear accounts from witnesses and victims of the war.
"Was left speechless by the level of violence & destruction we saw," Sandu wrote separately in English on Twitter. "It’s an unimaginable tragedy & we wholeheartedly wish the brave selfless Ukrainian people peace, freedom & prosperity, & life of their own choosing."
Sandu was expected to meet with her Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during her visit, her office said on social media.
Her visit to Ukraine comes just days after both Ukraine and Moldova obtained the status of EU candidate countries -- a historic move for both former Soviet republics.
Moldova absorbed one of the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees after the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24.
With reporting by AP
Russia's 'Shadow Mobilization' Accelerates With New Ethnic Units From The North Caucasus2
Interview: How Much Is China Helping Russia Finance Its War In Ukraine?3
Before And After: The Great Cleanup Of Kyiv4
Ukraine's Black Sea Missile Attacks May Be An Attempt To Clear Sea Lanes For Grain Exports5
Wives Of Russian Officers Urge Buryatia Leader To Return Their Husbands From Ukraine6
Lithuania's President Vows To Stick To Kaliningrad Restrictions7
First Russia, Then Hungary, Now Romania Is Considering A 'Gay Propaganda' Law8
Investigation: Unfettered By Western Sanctions, A Russian Bank Delivers Wages To Soldiers Invading Ukraine9
Deadly Strikes On Kyiv, Cherkasy Residents Prompt Fresh Ukrainian Pleas For G7 Help10
'We Won't Surrender': Slovyansk Prepares For Russian Offensive