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Israeli, International Crews Still Struggling To Contain Massive Fire

Israeli firefighters work on the slope of a burning hill near the northern city of Haifa.
Israeli fire officials say they hope to stop the worst wildfire in the country's history by today, three days after the blaze began in a forest in Israel's north.

The fire, which so far has killed 41 people, prompted an international effort with aircraft sent in by Russia, Turkey, Greece, Britain, and France, and an offer of firefighting aid from Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for the offer in remarks to reporters on December 4.

"I had a very good conversation with [Abbas] -- very warm," Netanyahu said. "I expressed my appreciation for this step and for his empathy and for the condolences he sent, as did others, and I told him that we are in the same neighborhood.

"The fire burns once here, and then there. We are actually creating a regional system after we purchase [firefighting] planes -- those planes will join a regional system which I believe can be constructed for the benefit of all the peoples in the region."

Israeli police said two 16-year-old boys had been detained for investigation into whether their carelessness caused the fire, which has destroyed almost half of the country's Camel forest.

Only 7 percent of Israel's land is wooded.

compiled from agency reports

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Pussy Riot Member Tolokonnikova Added To Russia's Wanted List

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (file photo)

A member of the Pussy Riot protest group in Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.

Tolokonnikova's name appeared on the ministry’s registry of wanted suspects on March 29. The ministry did not specify on what charges Tolokonnikova is wanted.

Media reports cited sources earlier this month as saying that a probe was launched against Tolokonnikova on a charge of "insulting believers' religious feelings."

According to the sources, the charge against Tolokonnikova stems from unspecified online posts. Rights defender Pavel Chikov said then that Moscow police had conducted a series of searches as part of its investigations.

In late December 2021, the Russian Justice Ministry added Tolokonnikova to its registry of "foreign agents." Russian authorities have used the controversial law on foreign agents to stifle dissent.

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.

Tolokonnikova and bandmate Maria Alyokhina had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two 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.

While in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were recognized as political prisoners by domestic and international rights watchdogs. Amnesty International named the two activists prisoners of conscience due to "the severity of the response of the Russian authorities."

After the Pussy Riot stunt, Russian authorities adopted a law criminalizing what it called "insulting believers' religious feelings."

Russia's Wagner Chief Says Battle For Bakhmut Has Damaged His Forces

Yevgeny Prigozhin

The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group acknowledged on March 29 that fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut had inflicted severe damage on his own forces as well as the Ukrainian side. "The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian Army, and unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner Private Military Company," Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message. British military intelligence said on March 29 that Ukrainian forces had successfully pushed the Russians back from one of the city's main supply routes. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Architect Sentenced To More Than Five Years In Prison For Posting 'Fakes' About Ukraine War

Oleg Belousov appears in court in in St. Petersburg on March 29.

A Russian court has sentenced architect Oleg Belousov to 5 1/2 years in prison for discrediting Russia's armed forces with "fake" social-media posts about the war in Ukraine and calls for extremism. The district court in St. Petersburg on March 29 also barred Belousov from administering websites for four years. Belousov, who has a medical condition, was added to Russia's list of "foreign agents" in January. He is one of dozens of Russian citizens prosecuted for criticizing Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Montenegro Says U.S., South Korea Requesting Extradition Of Korean Cryptocurrency Fugitive

Do Kwon (right) is escorted to court in Podgorica on March 24.

Montenegrin Justice Minister Marko Kovac said on March 29 that both South Korea and United States are requesting the extradition of Do Kwon, the former CEO and co-founder of cryptocurrency company Terraform Labs, who is suspected in the loss of investments worth more than $40 billion.

Do Kwon and his business partner, Hon Chang-joon, were arrested in Montenegro on March 23 while trying to flee to Dubai with falsified documents, according to the Justice Ministry.

Kovac said South Korea had requested the extradition of both Do Kwon and Hon Chang-joon.

He said that United States also requested Do Kwon's extradition.

"The existence of the international warrant regarding these two persons and the submitted request for extradition creates the ground for the extradition procedure to be initiated," Kovac told a news conference in Podgorica on March 29.

He did not clarify to which of the two countries they will be extradited, adding the ministry will inform the public if any other country sends an extradition request.

"In case we receive several extradition requests, I would like to say that determining which state they will be extradited to will be based on several factors, given the severity of the criminal offense committed, the location, and the time when the criminal offense was committed, the order in which we received the request for extradition, and several other factors," Kovac said.

He added that South Korea and the United States had also requested the laptops seized from the two suspects.

On March 24, Montenegro charged the two with forgery after their arrest.

The two men were taken into custody because they are considered a flight risk, authorities said. The suspects can be detained for a maximum of 30 days, a Podgorica court said.

Do Kwon is wanted by the United States, South Korea, and Singapore for what the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calls "orchestrating a multibillion-dollar crypto-asset securities fraud."

"We allege that Terraform and Do Kwon failed to provide the public with full, fair, and truthful disclosure as required for a host of crypto-asset securities, most notably for Luna and Terra USD," SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in a statement in February.

Terra USD was a crypto-asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Kwon's crypto-asset securities, the SEC said.

"We also allege that [Terraform and Kwon] committed fraud by repeating false and misleading statements to build trust before causing devastating losses for investors," he added.

Many investors lost their life savings when Luna and Terra USD collapsed, falling to a value of near zero. The fallout from the collapse of Terraform Labs also affected the wider cryptocurrency market.

With reporting by AFP

Russian Prosecutor Seeks Life In Prison For School Attacker Who Killed Nine

Ilnaz Galyaviyev attends a court hearing in Kazan in May 2021.

The prosecutor of Russia's Tatarstan region, Ildus Nafikov, asked the region's Supreme Court to convict and sentence to life in prison a man who killed nine people in an attack on a school in May 2021. The 19-year-old defendant, Ilnaz Galyaviyev, pleaded guilty. Galyaviyev attacked a school in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, with explosives and a firearm on May 11, 2021, killing four boys, three girls -- all eighth-graders -- and two teachers. A court-ordered psychiatric examination concluded earlier that Galyaviyev is mentally ill. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Gulagu.net Rights Group Stops Helping Military Personnel Opposed To War Escape Russia

Vladimir Osechkin (file photo)

The founder of the Gulagu.net human rights group, Vladimir Osechkin, announced that his organization is suspending efforts to help Russian military personnel opposed to Ukraine war leave Russia.

Osechkin, who is based in France, wrote on Telegram on March 29 that the decision was made after former Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev, whom Gulagu.net helped flee to France last year, confessed to knowledge of war crimes in Ukraine.

According to Osechkin, Filatyev told Swedish journalist Erik de la Reguera during an interview that he had been aware that some Ukrainians captured by his unit would later be executed.

Osechkin said that Filatyev had never told him and his group about knowing of extrajudicial killings of Ukrainians he and his fellow soldiers captured during the invasion of Ukraine.

Pavel Filatyev
Pavel Filatyev


Osechkin also said that Filatyev did not mention that element in the book he published after Gulagu.net helped him leave Russia and move to France.

"We also apologize to all who willingly or unwillingly got involved in this situation and assisted Pavel Filatyev at our request. We trusted that man and asked you to help him. We could not have imagined that this man is capable to do something like that," Osechkin wrote.

"This case and experience showed clearly that it is important to thoroughly check all testimonies and statements before deciding to assist or not assist such individuals," he said, adding that his group suspended its program on evacuating Russian military personnel to other countries.

Osechkin also wrote that he will offer his resignation as president of another rights organization, the New Dissidents Foundation, at the group's gathering next month.

"I am ready to bear responsibility for my mistakes and I want my negative experience to help others to avoid similar situations," Osechkin said on Telegram.

Since the start of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine, Gulagu.net also helped Russian military servicemen Konstantin Yefremov and a former member of the Wagner mercenary group, Andrei Medvedev, leave Russia after they described what they witnessed during the invasion and openly condemned the war in Ukraine.

The Russian military has been accused of committing multiple war crimes in Ukrainian towns and cities. Russia denies the accusations despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

IAEA Chief Grossi Visits Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and IAEA chief Rafael Grossi (left) meet in Zaporizhzhya on March 27.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, visited the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant on March 29, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Enerhoatom reported. The visit was Grossi's second to Europe's largest nuclear power plant since the start of its occupation by Russian troops, Enerhoatom's press service said. The visit was part of efforts to avert the risk of an accident at the nuclear plant. On March 27, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a working trip to the Zaporizhzhya region. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Rights Defender Not Allowed To Reenter Georgia

Daryana Gryaznova (file photo)

Daryana Gryaznova, a Russian rights defender who has lived in Tbilisi since May 2021, has not been allowed to reenter Georgia after she took a trip to Istanbul. Gryaznova's boyfriend said on March 28 that she was sent back to Istanbul after border guards informed her at the Tbilisi airport that she was not allowed to enter the country for unspecified reasons. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern over the situation, demanding an explanation from the Georgian authorities. Several Russian activists and journalists have been banned from reentering Georgia in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, click here.

Two Men Killed In Chechnya After Allegedly Attacking Police

Gudermes

Two men were killed in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region of Chechnya after they attacked a police station in the city of Gudermes, late on March 28, opposition Chechen Telegram channels reported. The region's authoritarian Kremlin-backed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, wrote on Telegram on March 29 that "two criminals" were killed after they were located in Gudermes, refused to give up, and threw a grenade at security forces. One day earlier, the Interior Ministry in the neighboring region of Ingushetia said unidentified men had opened fire at a police station late in the night on March 27, wounding two police officers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Sweden Summons Russia's Ambassador Over 'Legitimate Target' Statement

Sweden and Finland in 2022 both sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are hoping to complete the process this year.

Sweden's Foreign Ministry said on March 29 it will summon Russia's Stockholm ambassador to complain about an "attempt at interference" with the Swedish NATO application process. Sweden and Finland in 2022 both sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are hoping to complete the process this year. The Russian ambassador in a statement on the embassy's website said joining NATO made the Nordic countries "a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures, including those of a military nature." A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Reuters the ambassador would be summoned. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Siberian Journalist Goes On Trial For Article Related To Ukraine War

Mikhail Afanasyev attends a court session in Abakan in April 2022.

The editor in chief of the Novy fokus (New Focus) online newspaper in the Siberian region of Khakasia, Mikhail Afanasyev, went on trial on March 29 charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces. Afanasyev was arrested in April 2022 after his newspaper reported about the refusal of local riot police officers to participate in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Afanasyev was the first foreign recipient of the Swedish Magazine Publishers Association Award and was twice awarded with the Andrei Sakharov prize. If convicted, he may face up to 10 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Hungary Says 'Grievances' Hold Up Ratification Of Sweden's NATO Accession

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs (file photo)

Hungary is holding up Sweden's admission to NATO because of grievances over its criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies, the Hungarian government spokesman said March 29. Bridging the gap will require effort on both sides, Zoltan Kovacs said. Sweden and Finland asked to join NATO last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the process has been held up by Hungary and Turkey. Swedish representatives "have been repeatedly keen to bash Hungary through diplomatic means, using their political influence to harm Hungarian interests", Kovacs said, referring to Swedish criticism over the erosion of the rule of law by Orban's government. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Azerbaijani PM Known For Criticism Of Iran Wounded In 'Terrorist Attack'

Fazil Mustafa (file photo)

Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on March 29 that lawmaker Fazil Mustafa was hospitalized with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and leg the previous evening after an unknown assailant opened fire at him near his home. DTX called the attack "a terrorist act," adding that Mustafa's life was not in danger. Mustafa is the only representative in parliament of the Boyuk Qurulus (Great Creativeness) party loyal to the government. Investigations into the attack are under way, DTX said. Mustafa is a sharp critic of neighboring Iran's policies toward Azerbaijan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Hungary's Foreign Minister Holds Energy Talks With Russian Deputy PM

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak (left) meets with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in Moscow in January 2021.

Hungary's foreign minister held telephone talks with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak about gas and oil shipments and nuclear cooperation, the Hungarian minister said late on March 28. In a statement, Peter Szijjarto said Novak reassured him that despite international sanctions, the Russian party would be able to do maintenance work on the Turkstream pipeline. "Hungary's gas supply will continue without any disruptions," the statement added. Under a 15-year deal signed in 2021, Hungary receives 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia mostly via Bulgaria and Serbia on the Turkstream pipeline. To read the full story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan Says It Will Skip U.S. Democracy Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden (file photo)

Pakistan announced on March 28 that it will not participate in this week's U.S.-led Summit for Democracy. The Biden administration has invited 120 global leaders to the summit being held in Washington on March 29-30. It will be co-hosted by the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry in a statement thanked the United States and its co-hosts for the invitation and said Pakistan would engage with the United States and co-hosts of the summit "to promote and strengthen democratic principles."

French Parliament Recognizes Ukrainian Famine As Genocide

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, visit a monument to Holodomor victims in Kyiv in November 2022.

The French parliament has voted to recognize as genocide the starvation of millions in Ukraine in the 1930s under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

French deputies adopted the resolution on March 28 as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine revives memories of the famine known in Ukraine as the Holodomor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the decision on Twitter, thanking French legislators.

"The totalitarian regime of the Kremlin, past or present, could not destroy and will never destroy truth and justice!" he said.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also thanked the French lawmakers.

"I am grateful to France for recognizing the 1932-33 Holodomor as a genocide of Ukrainians and for honoring the memory of the victims of Stalin and his regime," he said on Twitter.

"With this historic vote, [the French parliament] made it clear that such crimes will never be forgotten and must never be repeated."

Kyiv has urged the international community to declare the mass starvation a genocide.

The European Parliament did so in December and called on Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, to do the same and apologize. It also called on "all countries and international organizations" that have not yet recognized the Holodomor as genocide to do so.

The Ukrainian government and many scholars regard the Holodomor -- Ukrainian for "death by hunger" -- as an act of genocide by Stalin's regime.

The famine took place in 1932-33 as Stalin's police forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.

Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the campaign.

Moscow has long denied any systematic effort to target Ukrainians, arguing a poor harvest at the time wiped out many in other parts of the Soviet Union.

The text adopted in Paris recognizes "the genocidal nature of the forced and planned famine by the Soviet authorities against the Ukrainian population in 1932 and 1933."

The French parliament condemned those acts and "affirms its support for the Ukrainian people in their aspiration to have the mass crimes committed against them by the Soviet regime recognized."

With reporting by AFP
Updated

UN Nuclear Chief Visits Zaporizhzhya As Zelenskiy Says 'World Must Act' To Protect Bakhmut

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi speaks with journalists after he and members of an IAEA mission came back from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on September 1, 2022. His visit on March 29 marks the second time he has visited the site.

Ukrainian defenders repelled more waves of Russian assaults on Bakhmut, the military said on March 29, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that Kyiv cannot afford not to win the battle for the city in Donetsk region that has become the focal point of Russia's protracted offensive in the east.

"The enemy continued its assault on the city of Bakhmut," the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its daily report.

"However, our defenders have been courageously holding on to the city, repelling numerous enemy attacks," it said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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


Bakhmut, along with Avdiyivka, Mariynka, and Lyman, remain the main targets of Russia's relentless shelling, the Ukrainian military said, adding that a total of 57 enemy attacks were repelled over the past 24 hours in the area.

Russian troops also carried out 18 air strikes and three missile strikes, as well as 50 rocket salvoes along the whole front line over the previous day, the military said.

The information could not be independently verified.

Farther south, Russian forces kept shelling the Kherson region, the head of the regional military administration Oleksandr Prokudin said.

"Over the past day, the enemy has shelled the region 34 times -- three times the city of Kherson itself," Prokudin said on Telegram, adding that one person was wounded.

Residential buildings, a hospital, and a factory were among the Russian targets, Prokudin said.

In the eastern Kharkiv region, one man was killed and another was wounded by massive Russian shelling, local police reported.

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, visited the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on March 29, Ukraine's state-owned company Enerhoatom reported.

The visit was Grossi's second to Europe's largest nuclear power plant since the start of its occupation by Russian troops, Enerhoatom's press service said.

The visit was part of efforts to avert the risk of an accident at the nuclear plant. On March 27, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a working trip to the Zaporizhzhya region.

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy reaffirmed that Ukraine must hold on to Bakhmut at all costs, warning that a win by Russia there would be used by President Vladimir Putin as a stepping stone in garnering international support for a peace agreement that would force Ukraine to accept painful compromises.

Putin would "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," Zelenskiy told the Associated Press in an interview published on March 29.

"If he will feel some blood -- smell that we are weak -- he will push, push, push," Zelenskiy said.

Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive is not far off but in the meantime they seek to maintain control of Bakhmut.

The Ukrainian military announced on March 28 that it has recently received long-promised Western equipment, including German Leopard 2 tanks.

On March 28, Zelenskiy said in his evening video address that the world must act with more urgency to put a stop to Russia's aggression.

He said he believed the "Russian aggression can end much faster" than some have said. It will end faster "if the world is faster, if the world is more decisive," Zelenskiy said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

U.S. To Withhold Some Nuclear Data From Russia After Moscow's Treaty Suspension

While Russia has not formally withdrawn from the treaty, which limits the two sides' deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, Russia's suspension, announced on February 21, imperils the arms control treaty. (file photo)

The United States has told Russia it will withhold some data on its nuclear forces in response to Moscow's suspension of participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty. While Russia has not formally withdrawn from the treaty, which limits the two sides' deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, Russia's suspension, announced on February 21, imperils the arms control treaty. A White House spokesperson said that under international law the United States has the right to respond to Russia's breaches of the treaty "by taking proportionate and reversible countermeasures in order to induce Russia to return to compliance with its obligations." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Activist Alinejad Says International Support Vital For Both Iran And West

Masih Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Prominent activist Masih Alinejad says the West's continued support for Iranians is vital both for achieving regime change in Iran and reaching the goals Western nations have in their relationship with Tehran.

Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Alinejad said Iranians aren't looking for the West to replace the Islamic regime with democracy, but their support is key to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

"This strategy also holds significant benefits for Western populations in the future. For example, Western governments have dedicated decades to securing a nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic, yet the Islamic republic has covertly advanced its nuclear activities," she added.

"To achieve an Iran without nuclear weapons, the West should assist the Iranian people in achieving an Iran without the Islamic republic."

Amid the unrest, Iranian opposition leaders and activists have begun to discuss the shape of Iran in the future.

In one recent discussion, a group of exiled opposition activists and celebrities met at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of Iran's pro-democracy movement. The group pleaded for unity and an end to infighting to help replace Iran's theocratic system with a secular democracy.

Alinejad, who is a member of the newly formed Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran, announced that the alliance's representatives will soon meet with members of the Canadian Parliament as well.

The group also includes the exiled former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi.

Alinejad spoke to Radio Farda amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for allegedly improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Anti-government protests over poor living conditions, low wages, and a lack of freedoms have also been taking place.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Updated

IOC To Decide Russian, Belarusian Participation In Paris Olympics 'At Appropriate Time'

Protesters picketed the IOC board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 25.

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on March 28 recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes, but said it will make a decision "at the appropriate time" on whether to allow them to compete at next year's Paris Olympics.

The executive board issued six recommendations in a statement after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, saying that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.

"The IOC will take this decision at the appropriate time, at its full discretion," the IOC statement said.

Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, the board said during nearly four months of consultations, it was clear that the "vast majority" of Olympic Movement stakeholders “want a pathway to be opened for the competitions under their sole authority," but they also requested recommendations should they decide to admit athletes from Russia or Belarus.

The executive board on March 28 said following this request, it issued six recommendations, saying that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.

The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes and bars teams from the two countries. The board also recommended barring athletes who actively support the war and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."

The monitoring of the implementation of the recommendations "will be an important factor in the decision by the IOC concerning the participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport in the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026,” the executive board said.

IOC President Thomas Bach said after the meeting that the executive board wants to monitor the implementation of the recommendations "as long as possible...to be enabled to take an informed decision."

The board, he said, did not consider it appropriate to give a timeline, adding, "no one knows what's happening tomorrow or in nine months."

Poland slammed the IOC action, while Russia's Olympic Committee said the recommendations were unacceptable.

"What positive things has Russia done for their athletes to now take part in competitions!! After Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel!! After the daily bombings of civilian sites!! It's a day of shame for the IOC!!" Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk said on Twitter.

Stanislav Pozdnyakov, the head of Russia's Olympic Committee, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the IOC action is "discrimination on the basis of nationality."

Bach defended plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes back into competitions as neutrals, telling the board in his address at the start of the meeting that the method is employed "in a number of sports, most prominently in tennis but also in cycling," but also in ice hockey, handball, and soccer.

He said the method "works," adding, there been no "security incidents."

The IOC sanctioned Russia and Belarus after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the executive board on March 28 reiterated its condemnation of the invasion.

Bach's support for allowing athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutrals and thereby have a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics has faced opposition, particularly from Ukraine, which has threatened to boycott the Paris Olympics should Russian and Belarusians be allowed to compete, even as neutrals.

More than 300 fencers on March 28 wrote to Bach to ask the IOC to reconsider allowing them back, calling it a "catastrophic error" should Russia and Belarus return.

"You have chosen Russian and Belarusian interests over the rights of athletes, notably Ukrainian athletes, and by doing so, you are failing to support the very people your organizations are meant to support," the letter said.

Bach said politics could not be a part of sports competitions, and the board said "the Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world. This is the realm of politics."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Montenegro's President: EU's Neglect Gave Russia A Platform

President Milo Djukanovic casts his vote in Montenegro's presidential election on March 19.

Montenegro's pro-Western president criticized the European Union for allegedly allowing Russia to spread its influence in the Western Balkans, saying the volatile region has become a "platform" for anti-EU policies due to the bloc's "negligence." President Milo Djukanovic spoke to the Associated Press as he prepares for an April 2 runoff election with a political newcomer who has the support of the Montenegrin government, which includes parties seeking closer relations with Serbia and Russia. "Russia has simply walked into an open space left by the European Union," Djukanovic said of the EU's position toward the Balkans. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iranian IRGC Commander Warns Restive Province Of Red Lines

A "Protest Friday" in Zahedan after that followed Friday Prayers on February 17 called for the release of political prisoners.

A high-ranking commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) appeared to warn protesters in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan against crossing the regime's red lines in anti-government rallies that have been taking place weekly after Friday Prayers.

According to the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, Mohammad Pakpor, the commander of the IRGC's ground forces, blamed the unrest in the province on "malicious individuals and enemies" and warned that "if someone attempts to undermine the security of the people, they will face severe consequences." He gave no more details on what exactly would constitute a red line for the government.

The comments come at a time when religious leaders in Sistan-Baluchistan, particularly Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, have complained that the government's actions, including the violent dispersal of worshippers demonstrating in the region by security agents of the Islamic republic, as being a major factor adding to the feeling of insecurity among the general population.

Meanwhile, civil activists in Sistan-Baluchistan report that over the past six months of protests, particularly during the ongoing protests on Fridays in the city of Zahedan, "a significant number of citizens, including children under 18, have been arrested without justification and contrary to legal procedures."

Due to Internet disruptions in many areas of Sistan-Baluchistan and threats by security agencies to the families of protesters, there is limited accurate information available about the status of many detainees.

During the Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces amid unrest triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

In December, a leaked audio recording from the Iranian pro-regime Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces appeared to show the secretary of the council admitting to the accidental killing of women and children during Bloody Friday.

Earlier, another leaked document from the Fars agency, published by the Black Reward hacking group, shows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei telling security and military officials to try and disgrace Abdolhamid, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Anger over Amini's death while in police custody on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Abdolhamid is based but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

IAEA Chief Grossi Says Deal To Protect Ukrainian Nuclear Plant 'Close'

IAEA head Rafael Grossi meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on March 27.

A deal to protect Europe's largest nuclear power plant from a catastrophic accident due to fighting in Ukraine could be "close," said the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, but he warned that intensified combat in the area has increased risks to the Zaporizhzhya plant. In an interview with the Associated Press a day before he was to cross the front lines for a second time to visit the plant, Grossi said he felt it was his duty to ramp up talks aimed at safeguarding the facility. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Bulgaria Suspects Russian Role In Bomb Threats Closing Schools For Second Day

Children and teachers gather outside a Sofia school on March 27 that received an e-mailed bomb threat.

Dozens of Bulgarian schools were closed for a second day on March 28 following bomb threats with investigators saying they were looking into potential Russia-linked terror actions meant to disrupt the upcoming snap parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2.

Most of the schools targeted in the threats -- first made by e-mail and phone on March 27 -- were located in the capital, Sofia, and the Black Sea port cities of Varna and Burgas. The threats prompted the disruption of classes and the evacuation of students.

More threats were made on March 28, with Sofia's Economic University among the institutions targeted by the calls that appeared to be hoaxes after police teams searching for explosives failed to find any devices.

The Interior Ministry said it suspected Russia may be behind plans to disrupt the April vote, since most polling across Bulgaria will take place at schools, with Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev saying similarly worded threats had been sent to other European schools before.

"What is happening to us has been happening in many European countries recently," Demerdzhiev told the media on March 28 in the city of Malko Tarnovo in the Burgas region, adding that the ministry's investigation is taking into account a possible hybrid attack originating in Russia.

Demerdzhiev said EU and U.S. partner agencies were aiding Bulgaria in its effort to pinpoint the source of the threats.

EU and NATO member Bulgaria is among the countries that imposed sanctions on Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and has since been regarded as a hostile country by the Kremlin.

Asked about how authorities will respond if bomb threats continue through election day on April 2, Demerdzhiev said, "The election process will only be interrupted if there is a credible threat."

Demerdzhiev said authorities plan to review the procedures that assess the seriousness of a threat before evacuating public institutions.

"Within days, a change in the protocol for action in such situations will be prepared. At this stage, we have no confirmed information about the original source of the bomb threats to Bulgarian schools," said Demerdzhiev.

The Sofia City Prosecutor's Office, meanwhile, said that it had opened an investigation into a potential act of terrorism.

Father Of Russian Sixth-Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Escapes House Arrest, Given Prison Term In Absentia

Aleksei Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine.

A man in Russia's western region of Tula whose daughter last year drew an anti-war picture at school has been sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces. The Yefremov district court said after pronouncing the sentence on March 28 that Aleksei Moskalyov had escaped house arrest. Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth-grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine. The charges against him stemmed from a subsequent investigation into his own online posts that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

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