IS Militants Abduct 400 Civilians In Eastern Syria, Monitor Says
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has abducted at least 400 people, including women and children, after capturing new territory in eastern Syria, a monitoring group said on January 17.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants had moved the captives from the government-controlled village of al-Baghaliyeh, on the northern edge of Deir al-Zour city, after a major attack on the area on January 16.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said family members of pro-government fighters were among those abducted.
"We fear that the 400 will be executed or enslaved by the organization on the pretext that they are loyal to the regime," Rahman told the dpa news agency.
Syria's state news agency SANA said earlier that at least 300 people had been killed by IS fighters in the attacks in Deir al-Zour.
SANA said most of those killed in the January 16 attacks were elderly people, women, and children.
Opposition activists said many of the victims were Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen and their families.
IS militants control most of Deir al-Zour province and its capital city of the same name.
Based on reporting by Reuters, dpa, AP, and AFP
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Orban Warns Of Recession, Other Problems For Hungary
BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned of an era of insecurity and war in Europe after the National Assembly elected him prime minister following the victory of his Fidesz party in elections last month.
Orban, who took the oath of office after the assembly voted 133-27 to elect him to his fourth consecutive term, said the country faces a decade of war and a recession, but he pledged to protect jobs, family benefits, and pensions.
"This decade will be an era of dangers, insecurity, and wars," he said in his acceptance speech.
The war in Ukraine and the European sanctions policy in response to it have led to an energy crisis and inflation that he predicted will cause "a period of recession and economic downturn."
While Orban repeated familiar complaints about Brussels "abusing its power" by pushing back member states' sovereignty, he said Hungary's place is in the European Union for the next decade.
He also said Hungary would not block EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine as long as they posed no risk to Hungary's energy security.
Hungary and other member states, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have rejected the EU's proposed sanctions designed to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Diplomats in Brussels currently are negotiating the package as they seek to achieve the required unanimity of all 27 EU members.
Orban has clashed with the EU, most recently over LGBT rights and rule-of-law issues, but he said the importance of Hungary being a member of NATO had never been more obvious.
With reporting by Reuters
Kazakh Businessman Abilov Returns To Politics, To Form New Party
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Bolat Abilov, a prominent businessman and once an opposition figure in Kazakhstan, has announced a return to politics after he quit the Central Asian country's political scene almost nine years ago, as he looks to establish a new political party.
Abilov and his associates told reporters in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, on May 16 that the new party will be called Bizding Tangdau (Our Choice).
Abilov said that once the party is registered, it will establish an independent commission to investigate political assassinations in Kazakhstan, including the killings of opposition politicians Zamanbek Nurqadilov in 2005 and Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly in 2006.
It will also look into the deadly dispersal of anti-government protests in January this year, the killing of at least 16 oil workers in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen in 2011, the deadly dispersal of Kazakh youth in Almaty by Soviet troops in 1986, and Soviet-era famine in Kazakhstan in the 1930s.
The 64-year-old politician added that the new party will work on leaving Russian-led groupings such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
According to Abilov, one of the main goals of his party will also be renaming cities, streets, and other geographic objects that are currently named after former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
In September 2013, Abilov, who was then the chairman of the Azat (Free) party, announced his decision to quit politics without giving any explanation.
Abilov is one of the most successful businessmen of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. He left pro-presidential political circles and joined the opposition in the early 2000s.
Before 2013, he faced numerous trials on charges tied to his financial and opposition activities. He was fined or sentenced to several days in jail on numerous occasions at the time.
More Than 90 Detained In Yerevan As Car Protest Snarls Traffic
YEREVAN -- Police in Yerevan have detained dozens of drivers who took part in a car rally in the Armenian capital as opposition-led demonstrations continue in an effort to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.
Anti-government demonstrations organized by the opposition since April 17 have called on the population to commit acts of civil disobedience, accusing Pashinian of making unacceptable concessions during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. `
Police in Yerevan said on May 16 that at least 91 people who attempted to take part in the car rally were detained, most of them near the Razdan sports stadium on the edge of the city center.
Police warned drivers "to avoid committing traffic violations and any attempts to restrict the rights of other citizens to move around the city."
Opposition politicians said earlier that they planned to resume protests in Yerevan on May 17.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month to start drafting a bilateral peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border at talks in Brussels.
Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other's territorial integrity.
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pussy Riot Member Shtein Placed On Russia's Wanted List
MOSCOW -- Moscow municipal lawmaker Lyusya Shtein, who is also a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.
Shtein’s name appeared in the ministry’s registry of wanted suspects on May 16. She is wanted for violating a parole-like sentence she was handed last August for violating coronavirus safety precautions by calling on people to protest against the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
The outspoken critic of Russia's invasion of Ukraine left the country last month after her apartment door was marked with a Z-shaped sticker inscribed with the slogan "Collaborator. Do Not Sell The Motherland" in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.
Many Russian military vehicles and tanks have been marked with the letter Z during the ongoing invasion, with the insignia becoming an increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war launched against in February, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin.
Last week, Shtein's partner and a founding member of the Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, told the New York Times that she also had left Russia after a Moscow court changed the remainder of her one-year parole-like sentence to real prison time last month, saying she violated the terms of her punishment.
Alyokhina's whereabouts were unknown for weeks after the Russian Interior Ministry added her to its registry of wanted persons on April 26, five days after a Moscow court approved the change in a parole-like sentence she was handed last September on the same charge as Shtein faced.
Alyokhina, Shtein, and other members of the protest group have been sentenced to up 15 days in jail several times in recent months over taking part in protest actions and unsanctioned rallies.
Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.
Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.
Endangered Caspian Seals, Sturgeon Found Dead On Kazakhstan's Caspian Coast
AQTAU, Kazakhstan -- Officials in Kazakhstan’s western Manghystau region say 64 endangered seals and five huge sturgeon washed up dead on the shores of the Caspian Sea over the weekend.
The Manghystau regional fishery inspection agency said on May 16 that all of the animals found near the port of Fort Shevchenko had been taken for tests to determine the cause of their deaths.
Less than three weeks ago, authorities said the bodies of 94 dead seals were found in the same area. They said at the time that the animals were too decomposed to perform any forensic investigations on them.
On May 4, Ecology Minister Serikqali Birekeshev rejected allegations that the mass deaths of the endangered seals might have been caused by operations of the North Caspian Operating Company, which drills oil wells in the Caspian Sea bed.
The Caspian seal is the only mammal living in the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water.
The endemic species has for decades suffered from overhunting and industrial pollution in its habitat, with their numbers now estimated at less than 70,000, compared with more than 1 million in the early 20th century.
Listed as a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2008, the seal was included in Russia's Red Data Book of endangered and rare species last year.
The Caspian Sea, shared by five riparian states -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan -- boasts vast oil and gas reserves.
Pollution from hydrocarbon extraction and declining water levels are posing a threat to many local species and putting the future of the sea itself at risk.
With reporting by Lada.kz
McDonald's, Renault Latest To Exit Russia Over Ukraine
Global fast-food giant McDonald's and French carmaker Renault have become the latest major corporations to announce their exit from Russia, joining dozens of others in an exodus over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
U.S.-based McDonald's said in a statement from its corporate headquarters in Chicago on May 16 that after more than 30 years of operations in Russia, it will exit the Russian market and has initiated a process to sell its Russian business.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
"The humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, and the precipitating unpredictable operating environment, have led McDonald's to conclude that continued ownership of the business in Russia is no longer tenable, nor is it consistent with McDonald's values," the statement says.
"As part of McDonald's decision to exit, the Company is pursuing the sale of its entire portfolio of McDonald's restaurants in Russia to a local buyer. The Company intends to initiate the process of “de-Arching” those restaurants, which entails no longer using the McDonald’s name, logo, branding, and menu, though the Company will continue to retain its trademarks in Russia," it added.
The announcement came the same day Renault said it had reached an agreement to sell its Russian holdings, including its controlling interest in AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada vehicles.
Renault said that it was selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute (NAMI), with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next six years."
"Today, we have taken a difficult but necessary decision; and we are making a responsible choice towards our 45,000 employees in Russia, while preserving the Group's performance and our ability to return to the country in the future, in a different context," Luca de Meo, the chief executive officer of Renault Group, said in the statement.
Financial details of the transactions were not revealed, but Renault has said it would record a non-cash adjustment charge of $2.3 billion related to Russia in its 2022 first-half results.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said after the announcement that production of passenger cars under the Moskvich brand will resume at the Moscow Renault plant as "we cannot allow thousands of workers to be left without work."
Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ will become a technical partner at the plant. he said.
McDonald's directly manages more than 80 percent of the restaurants in Russia that bear the company's name, and accounts for about 9 percent of its revenue and 3 percent of its operating profit.
Worldwide, McDonald's have more than 39,000 locations in over 100 countries.
Kazakh Opposition Activist Gets Seven Years In Prison, Family Says Will Appeal
SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan -- An opposition activist in Kazakhstan's southern city of Shymkent has been sentenced to seven years in prison on terrorism charges that he rejects.
The Al-Farabi district court sentenced Erulan Amirov on May 16 after finding him guilty of inciting social hatred, propagating terrorism, and involvement in the activities of a banned organization.
After his sentence was pronounced, Amirov said, "I do not know why I am in custody."
An RFE/RL correspondent said a bruise could be seen on Amirov's head, but when asked about it, the activist answered that he was "scared" to talk about it.
Amirov's mother, Sharipa Niyazova, said the court ruling will be appealed.
Amirov, who went on trial in January, was arrested in April last year. But his family only learned that he was being held in a detention center in Shymkent in December after what a Kazakh human rights group said was attempt to commit suicide.
Niyazova says her son suffers psychiatric disorders.
Kazakh human rights organizations have designated Amirov as a political prisoner and have demanded his release.
The charges against Amirov stemmed from his posts on social networks criticizing Kazakh authorities and for his participation in unsanctioned protest rallies organized by the banned Koshe (Street) political party.
Many activists across the Central Asian nation have been handed prison terms or parole-like restricted freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of the Koshe party and its affiliate Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.
DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and outspoken critic of the Kazakh government.
Human Rights Watch earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
The Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.
Iranian Convicted Of 1992 Murder Of Dissidents Calls For Pressure On Sweden To Release Nouri
Kazem Darabi, an Iranian sentenced to life in prison over the 1992 murder of four Iranian dissidents, has called on President Ebrahim Raisi to pressure the Swedish government for the release of former Iranian official Hamid Nouri, who is on trial in Stockholm over the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners.
In an interview with the hard-line Fars news agency, Darabi, who was released in 2007 after serving 15 years in prison in Germany, claimed Nouri, an alleged former deputy prosecutor and member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was put on trial with “no logic nor evidence.”
Nouri is charged with international war crimes and human rights abuses in connection with the murders of more than 100 people at a prison in Karaj.
Swedish prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Nouri, who has been held in custody in Sweden since his arrest in Stockholm in November 2019. The Stockholm District Court has said that a verdict in the case is expected on July 14.
Tehran has threatened to execute Swedish-Iranian national Ahmadreza Djalali, who is currently being held in Iran and is accused of spying for Israel.
Iranian officials have claimed that the two cases, which have strained relations between Sweden and Iran, are not related.
Darabi whose case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Berlin and Tehran, said the trial with Nouri and other similar court proceedings, are to put “the Islamic republic on trial.”
Iran’s clerical establishment has been accused of having threatened and assassinated dozens of political opponents outside the country.
Iranian officials have denied the accusations.
After the trial of Darabi and four others that lasted more than 3 years, a German court in 1997 concluded that Iranian government was "directly involved" in the 1992 killings of three top members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and one of their supporters at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.
Darabi who had worked as a grocer in Berlin and has steadfastly claimed his innocence, was identified as an agent of the Iranian government who organized the killings.
Sweden Joins Finland In NATO Bid As Putin Warns Of 'Response'
Sweden has joined Finland in deciding to apply to join the NATO military alliance in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine as President Vladimir Putin said Moscow will "certainly" react to the alliance's expected enlargement into the two Nordic countries.
"The government has decided to inform NATO that Sweden wants to become a member of the alliance. Sweden's NATO ambassador will shortly inform NATO," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told reporters on May 16, effectively ending two centuries of the country's nonaligned status.
"Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO," she said. "We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us."
The move comes a day after Nordic neighbor Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, made a similar announcement. Finland has remained neutral in the postwar era after losing some 10 percent of its territory to the Soviet Union.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin have said that after consulting parliament, their country intends to rapidly apply for NATO membership.
Both countries have moved quickly toward the military alliance since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Their bids to join must be unanimously approved by NATO's 30 members.
In Moscow, Putin said on May 16 that while Russia did not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, deployment of military infrastructure there may trigger a response from Moscow.
The expansion of NATO to Sweden and Finland poses "no direct threat for us...but the expansion of military infrastructure to these territories will certainly provoke our response," Putin told a televised summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military alliance.
Earlier in the day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO would be a "grave mistake with far-reaching consequences."
Finland and Sweden "should have no illusions that we will simply resign ourselves to this," Ryabkov said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Russia "will have to take steps in response to Sweden’s accession to NATO" but this would depend on the terms of Sweden's integration, including possible deployment of offensive weapons on Swedish territory.
Sweden's accession to NATO "will do serious harm to the security of Northern Europe and the European continent in general," a Defense Ministry statement quoted by TASS said, adding that "Russia will have to take response steps of the military-technical and other nature to avert threats to its national security stemming from it."
While no formal date is expected to be announced immediately for when accession could take place, NATO will hold a summit in Madrid on June 28-29.
NATO officials have indicated that the accession protocols for Finland and Sweden could be signed at that time if the formal applications landed on Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s desk by the end of May.
In response to the news, Stoltenberg said their entry would be "smooth and swift."
But the alliance first will have to find a way around Turkey's threat to block the expansion.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Turkey's opposition to NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing them of failing to take a clear stance against terrorism, a reference to the harboring of Kurdish militants.
According to Justice Ministry sources quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, Sweden and Finland have failed to respond positively to Turkey's 33 extradition requests over the past five years.
Sweden and Finland have said they plan to send delegations to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials, but Erdogan said they shouldn't bother.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on May 16 that the U.S. Congress will seek to ratify Finland's application to join NATO before going on holiday in August.
"Certainly we hope to achieve it before the August recess when Congress typically goes out of session," McConnell told reporters in Helsinki after meeting with Niinisto.
McConnell said there was broad bipartisan support among U.S. lawmakers for the Finnish membership.
Russian exports of power to Finland were down to zero early on May 16, flow data showed, after Russian utility firm Inter RAO said last week it would halt them because it had not been paid.
Finnish grid operator Fingrid said on May 14 that the suspension of Russian transmission was due to restrictions on payments imposed by Western states. But is added that it can replace Russian supplies with Swedish power and by boosting domestic production.
With reporting by dpa, AFP, Reuters, and TASS
Noted Georgian Journalist Gvaramia Sentenced To Lengthy Prison Term
TBILISI -- Noted Georgian opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term on corruption charges that he and his supporters reject as politically motivated.
A Tbilisi court sentenced the 45-year-old journalist and lawyer to 3 1/2 years in prison on May 16, after finding him guilty of abuse of power related to his activities as director-general of the Rustavi-2 television channel in 2019.
Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze also found Gvaramia guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000-lari ($16,300) fine on that charge.
Gvaramia, however, was acquitted on charges of money laundering, bribery, and forgery.
"Good job!" Gvaramia shouted out in the courtroom in reaction to the judge's ruling.
The court found Gvaramia's co-defendant, Kakhaber Damenia, former financial director of Rustavi-2, guilty of embezzlement and ordered him to pay a 50,000-lari fine as well. Another co-defendant, the director of the Inter Media Plus news agency, Zurab Lashvili, was acquitted of all charges.
Gvaramia left Rustavi-2 in 2019 after the European Court of Human Rights upheld a verdict by Georgia's Supreme Court on restoring the ownership of the country's then main opposition channel to its previous owner, Kibar Khalvashi, who was seen as close to the government.
Transparency International-Georgia condemned Gvaramia's conviction, calling it a case of retaliation by the authorities for his journalistic activities.
"Based on the case study and observation of the process, we can conclude that the case is politically motivated with the aim of punishing Nika Gvaramia and disrupting the activities of his TV channel as it was critical of the authorities." Transparency International-Georgia said.
"The use of the justice system for media censorship and intimidation is a dangerous message for other critical media outlets as well."
"At the same time, this verdict is a continuation of the political persecution that has been carried out against the state opponents for years," Transparency International-Georgia concluded.
Georgia ranked 89th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index. In 2019 it ranked 60th.
Renault Divests Russian Auto Holdings, But Keeps Option To Buy Back AvtoVAZ
French car maker Renault says it has reached an agreement to sell its Russian holdings, including its controlling interest in AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada vehicles, due to Moscow's unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Renault said in a statement on May 16 that it is selling its 100 percent stake in Renault Russia to the city of Moscow, while its 67.69 percent interest in AvtoVAZ will be sold to the state-owned NAMI research institute (the Central Research and Development Automobile and Engine Institute), with a provision to buy back that stake "at certain times during the next 6 years."
"Today, we have taken a difficult but necessary decision; and we are making a responsible choice towards our 45,000 employees in Russia, while preserving the Group's performance and our ability to return to the country in the future, in a different context," Luca de Meo, the chief executive officer of Renault Group said in the statement.
Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ will become a technical partner at the plant. he said.
Lithuania Says One Country Holding EU 'Hostage' On Russian Oil Embargo
The European Union's plans to impose an oil embargo on Russia were being blocked by just one of the bloc's 27 members, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on May 16.
"The whole union is being held hostage by one member state ... we have to agree, we cannot be held hostage," Landsbergis said as he arrived for a meeting with his counterparts.
EU diplomats quoted by Reuters said the country Landsbergis was referring to is Hungary.
A sixth round of EU sanctions including a ban on Russia oil has been drawn up by experts in the European Commission, but Hungary and other member states, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have voiced reservations.
With reporting by Reuters
Lukashenka Performs Balancing Act On Ukraine, Britain's Defense Ministry Says
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears careful to avoid direct involvement in Russia's war in Ukraine out of concern about potential further economic reprisals, retaliation from Kyiv, and possibly discontent among his own armed forces, British intelligence said on May 16.
The West has imposed biting sanctions on Belarus following a 2020 election which the opposition says was heavily rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who subsequently unleashed a harsh crackdown on protesters, activists, and the media.
Isolated and economically weakened, Lukashenka has again turned to long-time ally Vladimir Putin for support, and once Moscow invaded Ukraine, he allowed Russia to launch attacks and supply forces from Belarusian territory.
However, despite early speculation, Belarus has not been directly involved in the conflict, the Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on Twitter on May 16.
Belarus announced the deployment of special forces along the Ukraine border following military maneuvers earlier this month, a move that Britain's Ministry of Defense said was likely to force Ukraine to keep a number of troops in the border area and prevent their deployment in the east.
But Lukashenka is "likely balancing support for Russia’s invasion with a desire to avoid direct military participation with the risk of Western sanctions, Ukrainian retaliation and possible dissatisfaction in the Belarusian military," the bulletin concluded.
10 Civilians Killed By Russian Shelling Of Eastern City As U.S., Ukrainian Defense Ministers Talk
At least 10 civilians have been killed by Russian shelling of a city in eastern Ukraine, the governor of the Luhansk region said, as Ukraine's defense minister spoke with his U.S. counterpart.
Serhiy Hayday said the civilians were killed in Severodonetsk after saying earlier that heavy shelling had caused fires in residential areas.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said he and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had discussed the situation on the battlefield and Austin's call last week with the Russian defense minister.
Reznikov told Austin how Ukrainian forces were successfully using 155-millimeter howitzers sent by the United States.
Ukraine has deployed many of the newly received U.S. howitzers at the front lines, and Washington has delivered all but one of the 90 artillery pieces they were due to send, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said.
The renewed Russian assault in the east came as NATO said that Moscow's invasion was not going to plan and its push to capture the Donbas region had ground to a halt.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address late on May 15 that Ukrainian forces were "preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine."
"The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a dead end and their so-called 'special operation' has already gone bankrupt," he added.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's military said its counterattack around Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, gained momentum and its forces pushed Russian troops back to the border in the region around Kharkiv.
"The 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Kharkiv armed forces drove out the Russians and went to the state border," the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on Facebook on May 16.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russian troops were being transferred in the direction of Donbas after withdrawing from Kharkiv following the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Ukraine's claims could not be immediately verified.
In Estonia, NATO is due to kick off some of the largest-ever exercises later on May 16. The scheduled exercise, code-named Hedgehog, will last two weeks and involve 15,000 troops from 10 countries, including Britain, the United States, and nonmembers Finland and Sweden.
Sweden on May 16 officially announced it will apply for NATO membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression. The announcement came a day after Finland announced that it was seeking to join the alliance.
Russia on May 16 again warned that the admission of the two Nordic neighbors into the alliance would be a "grave mistake" that would have "far-reaching consequences."
In Brussels, foreign ministers from the 27-member European Union meet on May 16 to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Russian sanctions.
Arriving for the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the EU continues "to finance the Russian war machine, its aggression and atrocities" with its energy imports.
Referring to an ongoing stalemate over a potential EU ban on Russian oil imports, Kuleba said, "We are all curious to see how this saga ends."
The developments came as bitter fighting continued throughout Ukraine.
In the south, the mayor of the southern city of Mykolayiv said blasts had been heard early on May 16.
In the southeastern city of Mariupol, about 600 Ukrainian troops remained holed up in underground tunnels and bunkers under a steelworks there, fighting a rear-guard battle.
In his address, Zelenskiy said that "very complicated and delicate negotiations to save our people" in the vast Azovstal plant continued daily.
The defenders' wives have said there is very little water at Azovstal and their husbands have to drink service water previously used for the plant's operation.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 16 announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by Moscow-backed separatists.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine and no word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war. It is also unclear how many fighters might be evacuated.
The Defense Ministry said a cease-fire had been declared in the area of the plant and a humanitarian corridor had been opened, TASS reported. It said Ukrainian soldiers were being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, and TASS
UN Working Group Concludes Turkmenistan Violated Human Rights Laws In Arresting Lawyer
A UN working group has concluded that Turkmenistan violated international human rights laws when it detained a lawyer who was organizing a pro-democracy rally.
Police in the tightly controlled Central Asian state arrested Pygamberdy Allaberdyev, a lawyer at a state oil company, in September 2020 for "hooliganism" after a man attacked him near a grocery store in the western city of Balkanabat.
Officers from the National Security Ministry immediately took over the case and charged Allaberdyev with having ties with the activists abroad.
He was sentenced later that month to six years in prison after a closed-door, two-hour trial during which he had no legal representation.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention last week determined that Allaberdyev was arrested for exercising his freedom of expression and association, according to the human rights group Freedom Now, which is helping Allaberdyev.
"We welcome the Working Group's recognition that Pygamberdy Allaberdyev is wrongfully detained," Freedom Now legal officer Adam Lhedmat said in a May 13 statement.
"Allaberdyev's imprisonment is indicative of Turkmenistan’s intolerance of dissent and its strategy of using fabricated charges to silence its citizens. We call on the Turkmen government to comply with the United Nations' decision and immediately and unconditionally release Allaberdyev."
Prison officials have denied family and legal representatives access to Allaberdyev since his sentencing.
Allaberdyev was accused of having links to Turkmen activists residing abroad who had staged a number of rallies in the United States, Turkey, and Northern Cyprus to protest against constitutional amendments.
Allaberdyev had denied any links to the activists.
The protesters in the United States at the time suspected autocratic leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of using the constitutional amendments to secure his lifetime presidency and its eventual succession to his son and grandchildren.
Berdymukhammedov's son, Serdar, in March won a presidential election in a unfair contest widely viewed as a formality to the transfer of political power within the family.
It is unclear what, if any, effect the UN working group's decision will have on Allaberdyev’s fate.
Ukraine's FM Meets U.S. Counterpart, McConnell Sees Senate Approval On New Aid On May 18
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin on May 15 and that "more weapons and other aid is on the way to Ukraine.”
Kuleba was due to brief NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin on the situation on the ground in Ukraine and on how the alliance can further help the country as it battles invading Russian forces for a 12th week.
"We agreed to work closely together to ensure that Ukrainian food exports reach consumers in Africa and Asia. Grateful to Secretary Blinken and the U.S. for their leadership and unwavering support,” Kuleba tweeted.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken and Kuleba discussed the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including on global food security.
"The secretary conveyed details regarding the latest tranche of U.S. security assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses," Price said.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in Stockholm after visiting the Ukrainian capital on May 14, told reporters on a conference call that he expects the Senate to approve just under $40 billion in further aid for Ukraine in a vote on May 18.
U.S. President Joe Biden had requested $33 billion in aid for Ukraine on April 28, including over $20 billion in military assistance. But House lawmakers boosted that amount to roughly $40 billion, adding more military and humanitarian aid.
With reporting by Reuters
More Russian Military Enlistment Buildings Targeted In Possible Sign Of War Protest
Unidentified individuals have attempted to set fire to military enlistment offices in two locations in Russia in a possible sign of protest against the war in Ukraine.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 at least 10 enlistment offices have been attacked, according to Russian news portal Baza.
In the early morning hours of May 15, individuals tried but failed to set fire to an office in the village of Pronsk in Ryazan region, located about 270 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the news agency reported.
Around the same time, a fire broke out at an office in the city of Volgograd in Russia's south.
Police believe a Molotov cocktail was tossed through the window. The fire damaged about 20 square meters.
On May 13, a military enlistment office in the town of Gukovo in the southern Rostov region was partially burned. A Molotov cocktail is also believed to be the cause of that fire, which was quickly put out.
Military enlistment offices in the northern Khanty-Mansi region in and Volgodonsk region in the south have also been attacked.
Finland, Sweden Move Closer To Joining NATO Amid Russian Aggression
Finland and Sweden have moved closer to joining NATO, ending decades of neutrality, amid growing concern at home over Russia’s military aggression.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced at a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on May 15 that the country intended to apply for NATO membership.
"Today, the president of the republic and the government's Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament. This is a historic day. A new era is opening," they said.
Last week, the president and prime minister said they both favored NATO membership, in a major policy shift prompted by the war in Ukraine.
Sweden's ruling Social Democratic Party said later the same day it is in favor of joining NATO. The party will seek parliament's backing on May 16, with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's cabinet expected to make an announcement afterward.
"The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO," Andersson told a news conference following the party's decision.
Sweden has repeatedly accused Russia of violating its airspace over the years.
Finland shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia and has remained militarily nonaligned for 75 years.
But political and public opinion within Finland swung dramatically in favor of membership after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Putin's actions have raised fears among his neighbors that he may seek to further redraw Europe's borders. Moscow invaded Finland in 1939, seizing part of its territory.
Russia has said it would be a mistake for Helsinki to join the transatlantic alliance and that it would harm bilateral ties.
Earlier this week, Niinisto told reporters that "joining NATO would not be against anyone." He said his response to Russia would be: "You caused this. Look in the mirror."
The Finnish parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days, but it is considered a formality.
In Sweden -- which has been militarily nonaligned for more than two centuries -- support for NATO membership has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent, with about 20 percent against.
NATO diplomats met in Berlin on May 15 to discuss membership expansion as well as additional aid to Ukraine.
Following the talks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was "very confident" Finland and Sweden would be accepted into the alliance, despite some initial objections by Turkey.
NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all members of the alliance.
"I don't want to characterize the specific conversation that we had either with the [Turkish] foreign minister or within the NATO sessions themselves, but I can say this much: I heard almost across the board, very strong support [for Sweden, Finland] joining the alliance," he said.
Turkey's objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries' leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Ankara as well as the United States and the European Union.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he was ready to discuss the matter with both Finland and Sweden, as well as with other NATO members.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country and others made clear that they would be willing to fast-track the national ratification process for Finland and Sweden.
Also, former Soviet country Georgia's bid was expected to be discussed in Berlin despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbor joins NATO.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod dismissed suggestions that objections from Russian President Vladimir Putin could hinder the alliance from letting in new members.
Kofod said that each country has a fundamental right to choose their own security arrangement.
"We see now a world where the enemy of democracy No. 1 is Putin and the thinking that he represents," he said.
Kofod pointed out that NATO would also stand with other countries, such as Georgia, which he said were being "instrumentalized" by Russia.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Italy Blocks Cyberattacks By Pro-Russian Groups During Eurovision Contest
The Italian police have thwarted hacking attacks by pro-Russian groups during the May 10 semifinal and the May 14 final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, authorities say.
Police said on May 15 that during voting operations and contestants' performances, police had mitigated several cyberattacks on network infrastructure by the hacker group Killnet and its affiliate, Legion.
Ukraine's Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of May 15, with their entry Stefania.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, many Western governments have raised alert levels in anticipation of possible cyberattacks on IT systems and infrastructure.
Last week, pro-Russian hackers targeted the websites of several Italian institutions, including the Defense Ministry and the Senate.
The attacks had reportedly not compromised infrastructure but hindered access to several websites, including the National Institute of Health.
Italian media said the pro-Kremlin group Killnet claimed the cyberattack.
In April, Killnet targeted Romanian government websites, citing Romania's support for Ukraine in the war, according to the country's national cybersecurity agency.
Earlier, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined a chorus of tributes for Ukraine victory, calling it a "reflection" not just of talent, but "unwavering support" for Ukraine's "fight for freedom.”
"Congratulations to Ukraine for winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2022," Johnson tweeted on May 15. "It is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom."
Ukrainian folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra won in the early hours of May 15, followed by Britain's Sam Ryder in second place.
Receiving the trophy, Kalush Orchestra said: "Thank you for supporting Ukraine. This victory is for every Ukrainian. Slava Ukrayini!" (Glory to Ukraine!).
Russia was excluded this year from competing after its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of a contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
With reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, and AFP
Iranian Film Workers Arrested, Homes Raided
A renowned Iranian filmmaker has said that the offices and homes of several filmmakers and other industry professionals were raided and some of them arrested in recent days.
Mohammad Rasoulof made the comments on Instagram late on May 14, posting a statement signed by dozens of movie industry professionals.
The statement also claimed that security forces confiscated film production equipment during the raids. It condemned the actions and called them "illegal."
In a separate Instagram post, Rasoulof identified two of the detained filmmakers as Firouzeh Khosravani and Mina Keshavarz. Rasoulof himself was not targeted in the recent raids.
There were no immediate comments from the Iranian authorities on the raids, and no additional details were immediately available.
Rasoulof won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize in 2020 for his film There Is No Evil. The film tells four stories loosely connected to the themes of the death penalty in the Islamic republic and personal freedoms under oppression.
Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison shortly after receiving the award, but his lawyer appealed the sentence. He has been banned from making films and traveling abroad.
Iran occasionally arrest activists in cultural fields over alleged security violations.
Iran's conservative authorities have long viewed many cultural activities as part of a "soft war" by the West against Iran and an attempt to tarnish the country's Islamic beliefs.
Based on reporting by AP
Russia's Offensive In Ukraine Has Lost Momentum, Western Military Officials Say
Russia's military campaign in Ukraine appears to be faltering as its forces struggle to take more territory in the Donbas amid fierce resistance, Western military officials said.
After initially failing to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces have refocused their efforts on eastern and southern Ukraine.
However, their offensives have been met with substantial resistance, with some Western intelligence saying Russia may have lost up to one-third of its combat strength since it began its unprovoked invasion on February 24.
"The brutal invasion [by] Russia is losing momentum," NATO Deputy-Secretary General Mircea Geoana said on May 15. "We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help, Ukraine can win this war."
Geoana made the comments in Berlin, where top NATO diplomats gathered to discuss providing further support to Ukraine and moves by Finland, Sweden, and others to join the Western alliance in the face of threats from Russia.
Geoana, who chaired the meeting, said Ukraine's supporters were "united, we are strong, will continue to help Ukraine in winning this war."
Alliance members have already given the country billions of dollars in lethal and nonlethal military aid to help repel the largest invasion in Europe since the end of World War II.
According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, "more weapons and other aid" was "on the way to Ukraine."
The United States and other NATO members have given Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as well as heavy artillery.
Kuleba made the comment after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken conveyed details regarding the latest tranche of U.S. security assistance to bolster Ukraine's defenses.
Kuleba was due to brief NATO foreign ministers on the situation on the ground in Ukraine and on how the alliance can further help the country as it battles invading Russian forces for a 12th week.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in Stockholm after visiting the Ukrainian capital on May 14, told reporters on a conference call that he expected the Senate to approve just under $40 billion in further aid for Ukraine in a vote on May 18.
British military intelligence said in its regular update that the Russian forces' offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region "has lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule."
Russia has now likely suffered losses of one-third of the ground combat force it committed in February, Britain's Ministry of Defense tweeted on May 15.
Many of those losses occurred in the first few weeks of the war as Russia sought to capture Kyiv and impose a puppet regime loyal to Moscow. Russia has since shifted its focus to the Donbas, an area comprising the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Britain's Defense Ministry said that despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains in the Donbas over the past month while sustaining consistently high levels of attrition.
Russian forces are increasingly constrained by degraded enabling capabilities, continued low morale, and reduced combat effectiveness, the ministry said.
"Many of these capabilities cannot be quickly replaced or reconstituted, and are likely to continue to hinder Russian operations in Ukraine," the bulletin added.
The ministry predicts that under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days.
The assessments of Russia's war performance came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks.
The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Russia hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine's military says that Moscow is now focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery, and air strikes in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address early on May 15 that "the situation in Donbas remains very difficult" and Russian troops were "still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious."
Russian forces continued attacks on May 15, shelling military infrastructure in the Lviv region in western Ukraine. No deaths or casualties were reported following the rocket attack, Lviv Governor Maksym Kozytskiy said on Telegram.
The governor said the extent of the destruction was being investigated. One site near Yavoriv -- presumably around the military training area there -- was "completely destroyed," according to the governor.
Earlier, a regional air command of Ukraine said several missiles had been fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea in the early hours of May 15.
This was the first Russian air strike in about a week in the region near the Polish border.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa
Ukrainian Band Wins Eurovision Song Contest
Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest with its performance of Stefania in what appeared to be a show of popular support for the country battling against a full-scale invasion by Russia.
The victory early on May 15 entitles Ukraine -- which has won three previous times -- to host next year's event, which Ukrainian officials defiantly said will be held in the hotly contested and now mostly destroyed port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the victory, saying that "we will do our best" to host next year's contest in "Ukrainian Mariupol...free, peaceful, and rebuilt!"
"Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine hosts Eurovision! For the third time in our history," Zelenskiy said on Telegram.
Britain took second place in the competition, while Spain was third. Sweden was fourth, and Serbia placed fifth in the contest, which took place in Turin, Italy.
Italy hosted the event after rock band Maneskin won the 2021 contest in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organized the event, earlier said no acts from Russia would be part of this year’s contest because of the invasion of Ukraine.
As for next year's event, the EBU said no decision had been made about the logistics for the finals.
"Obviously, there are unique challenges involved in hosting next year's competition. However, as in any other year, we look forward to discussing all the requirements and responsibilities involved in hosting the competition with [Ukrainian broadcasters] and all other stakeholders to ensure we have the most suitable setup for the 67th Eurovision Song Contest."
Eurovision is one of the most popular cultural events in Europe and is watched by tens of millions of people on live television. The winner is decided on a vote of a professional jury and by public vote.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Zelenskiy Signs Law Banning Pro-Russian Political Parties In Ukraine
KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has signed a new law banning pro-Russian political parties.
"The president of Ukraine has signed a law banning pro-Russia political parties! The law will come into force on the day following the day of its publication," Olha Sovgirya, a deputy from Zelenskiy’s ruling Servant of the People bloc, wrote on telegram on May 14.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed the bill on May 3, banning pro-Russian political parties that engage in anti-Ukrainian activities.
On March 20, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council suspended 11 pro-Russian political parties while martial law was in place in the country.
The largest of the parties with links to Russia is the Opposition Platform for Life, which has 44 out of 450 seats in parliament.
The party is led by Viktor Medvedchuk, who has friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter.
The list of the Moscow-friendly parties also included the Nashi (Ours) party led by Yevhen Murayev. British authorities had warned that Russia wanted to install Murayev as the leader of Ukraine.
Moscow "is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine," and Murayev "is being considered as a potential candidate," the British Foreign Office said in January.
Portugal Blocks Sale Of $10 Million Mansion Suspected Of Belonging To Abramovich
Portugal has blocked the sale of a $10.4 million mansion because of a "strong conviction" it belongs to Kremlin-linked billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has been hit by Western sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Joao Cravinho said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Berlin on May 14 that the property registry of the luxury home in the Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve had been frozen.
He said the move was made at the request of the Foreign Ministry on March 25, about a month after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The action means the property cannot be sold or rented and that a mortgage cannot be taken out on it.
"We have a strong conviction, which hasn't been fully confirmed, the house belongs to Roman Abramovich," Cravinho said.
"The challenge here is that many of those sanctioned do not have their properties and assets in their names."
A representative for Abramovich told Reuters he did not own "any property in Portugal."
The billionaire was granted Portuguese citizenship in April 2021 based on a 2013 Portuguese law offering naturalization to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were persecuted and expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century.
Abramovich has been sanctioned by the British government and the European Union over his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has denied having such ties.
On May 7, the British soccer club Chelsea announced it would be sold to a group of investors led by an American billionaire, formally ending nearly two decades of ownership by Abramovich.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Reuters
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Brings Delegation To Kyiv, Meets With Zelenskiy
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and a delegation of Republican senators arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a show of support for the besieged country.
McConnell (Kentucky) traveled with Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyoming), and John Cornyn (Texas) to the Ukrainian capital, with Zelenskiy calling the visit “a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people.”
The trip came as a new round of funding for Ukraine’s battle against the unprovoked Russian invasion is facing a delay in the U.S. Senate because of a Republican member’s objection.
The Senate is working to approve a nearly $40 billion package for Ukraine, but its passage has been held up by Senator Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, who demanded the inclusion of a proposal to have an inspector general scrutinize the new spending.
Nevertheless, final approval is not in doubt and could come in the upcoming week as Ukraine has widespread bipartisan support in Congress.
The McConnell-led visit is the second by a high-profile congressional delegation over the past two weeks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) visited on May 1 with a group of House Democrats, bringing a promise of continued U.S. aid to Ukraine.
Based on reporting by AP, The Washington Post, and CNN
Why Is Russia Losing So Much Military Equipment In Ukraine?2
Interview: Can Ukrainian Forces Successfully Counterattack In The Donbas?3
Russia's Offensive In Ukraine Has Lost Momentum, Western Military Officials Say4
Ukraine Says It's Launched A New Counteroffensive As Russia Moves Forces Away From Kharkiv5
Zelenskiy Signs Law Banning Pro-Russian Political Parties In Ukraine6
Strip Searches, Evacuations, and Russian Bombardments: One Couple's Escape From Mariupol To Finland7
UN Could Organize 'Humanitarian Corridor' For Ukrainian Black Sea Shipping, Port Owner Says8
Inside Tito's Secret Bunker9
Chinese Dissident Artist Defies Warnings To Take On Xi, Putin, And The Ukraine War10
More Russian Military Enlistment Buildings Targeted In Possible Sign Of War Protest