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Three-Man Crew Blasts Off For International Space Station

A Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft is mounted on the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome on December 15.

A trio of U.S. and Japanese astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut have blasted off from Kazakhstan's steppe for a six-month mission at the International Space Station (ISS).

A Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft carrying Scott Tingle of the U.S. space agency NASA, Anton Shkaplerov of Russia, and Norishige Kanai of Japan lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1:21 p.m. local time (0721 GMT/UTC) on December 17.

On December 17, the spacecraft is due to dock at the space station, which is orbiting 400 kilometers above the Earth.

Tingle, Shkaplerov, and Kanai will join Russia's Aleksandr Misurkin and Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA, who have been aboard the ISS since September.

Shkaplerov is on his third mission to the ISS, while it is the first space flight for both Tingle and Kanai.

On December 14, a capsule brought back a three-man crew from Russia, the United States, and Italy from the ISS.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

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Iran Sets Up Special Courts For Protesters, Rejects EU Criticism As Crackdown Deaths, Arrests Rise

Iran has been rocked by protests since the death of a young woman in police custody earlier this month.

Iran has dismissed Western criticism of its deadly crackdown that has killed dozens and led to at least 1,200 arrests since protests broke out after a 22-year-old woman's death in custody for allegedly breaking the country's Islamic dress code.

Iranian judiciary officials also said they had set up special courts to try protesters, whom they claimed were "hired from abroad."

Meanwhile, defiant demonstrations erupted again after nightfall on September 26.

The unrest has spread to more than 80 cities and towns, including in northwestern Iran where Mahsa Amini lived before eyewitnesses and family said she was beaten after being seized by the country's morality police in Tehran on September 13.

The Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) said on September 26 that at least 76 protesters have been killed, nearly double the number acknowledged by Iranian officials.

Shared videos and eyewitness reports said the protests kicked off for an 11th night late on September 26 in Tehran, Narmak, Sanandaj, and other places and included chants of "Death to the dictator!" in reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Other chants in cities like Qorveh in Kurdistan Province included "Death to Khamenei!"

Video of young women in Sanandaj showed them removing their mandated head scarves and hugging in the street.

Earlier in the day, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged "very quick" debate within the European Union on new sanctions on Iran in light of the brutality of the crackdown and the alleged abuse before Amini's death.

"We will now have to talk very quickly in EU circles about further consequences, and for me this also includes sanctions against those responsible," Baerbock told the dpa news agency.

She said "the attempt to suppress peaceful protests with even more deadly violence must not go unanswered."

The outrage over Amini's death has reignited decades-old resentment at the treatment of women by Iran's religious leadership, including so-called hijab laws forcing women to wear Islamic head scarves to cover their heads in public.

Baerbock called women's rights "the yardstick for the state of a society" and said that "if women are not safe in a country, no one is safe."

She said Berlin had summoned Iran's ambassador to the German Foreign Ministry.

Officials in Tehran have accused Western enemies and Iranian elements abroad of fomenting the unrest, whose official death toll is 41. But rights groups and Iran's record suggest that could be underreported, and IHR insisted the number of dead is now at least 76.

Tears And Anger After Iranian TikToker Killed In Ongoing Protests
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Security forces have used water cannons and fired live rounds into crowds of protesters, according to rights groups and video shared online. Protesters have thrown rocks and burned police cars and public buildings.

State media have cited officials as saying that the number of arrestees is above 1,200, including about 450 in the northern Mazandaran Province.

The United States last week announced sanctions on Iran's so-called morality police, and Canada said on September 26 that it would follow suit.

Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign policy, has said that Iranian officials' "widespread and disproportionate use of force against nonviolent protesters is unjustifiable and unacceptable" and communications blackouts are "violating freedom of expression."

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi last week said that the country must "deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility," and the head of its powerful judiciary has pledged to act "without leniency" in the crackdown.

On September 26, Iran's Foreign Ministry rejected EU criticism.

"This is intervention in the internal affairs of Iran and support for the rioters," Foreign Ministry spokesman Naser Kanaani said.

The head of Iran's judiciary in the capital, Tehran, said that special courts would be set up to try demonstrators.

The Tasnim news agency quoted Ali Alghasi Mehr as pledging tough punishments against the "leaders of the troublemakers hired from abroad."

Mehr said such defendants would be treated like rapists and other serious criminals, who can face the death penalty under Iran's notoriously secretive justice system.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP

Tajiks Say Mortar Fire From Kyrgyz Military Wounded Villager One Week After Border Clashes

Residents of Somoniyon say that when the shelling occurred they were cleaning debris from clashes less than two weeks ago that lefts dozens of people dead on both the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides of the border.

Residents of a Tajik village near a disputed segment of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border say a mortar fired by Kyrgyzstan's military has wounded a civilian, as tensions between the two Central Asian nations remain high following deadly clashes along the border earlier this month.

Residents of the village of Somoniyon near the Tajik city of Isfara said a son of a local teacher was wounded on September 26 by one of three mortar shells shot from the Kyrgyz side.

They said residents were cleaning debris from the clashes less than two weeks ago that lefts dozens of people on both sides dead.

Neither the Tajik nor the Kyrgyz government issued public statements on the purported incident, but a source in the Tajik Sughd region's government confirmed the shelling to RFE/RL.

A day earlier, Tajik and Kyrgyz officials reached agreements on suspending operations at eight checkpoints along the border, replacing them with mobile joint patrols that will be moving along the border on agreed routes.

Kyrgyz officials say 59 of its citizens died in the September 14-17 clashes, and 183 more were injured.

Tajikistan has put its death toll at 41, but correspondents of RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported a higher number after talking to relatives and friends of victims of the violence.

They concluded that 70 people, including dozens of civilians, lost their lives and have compiled a list of those killed.

Many border areas in Central Asia have been disputed since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

The situation is particularly complicated near the numerous exclaves in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan meet.

Almost half of the 970-kilometer Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated, leading to repeated tensions since the two countries gained independence more than three decades ago.

Updated

Putin Grants Russian Citizenship To U.S. Surveillance Whistle-Blower Snowden

Former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden in 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin has granted Russian citizenship to former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks and international flight from U.S. justice nearly a decade ago highlighted top-secret U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.

Snowden described his revelations as an effort to pull back the curtain on a legally dubious U.S. electronic-surveillance program.

He was among dozens of individuals named in Putin's citizenship decree signed on September 26.

Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told the Interfax news agency that his client will not be eligible for being called up in a partial mobilization for the war in Ukraine announced last week by Putin, since he had never served in the Russian Army.

After exposing the U.S. surveillance program, Snowden, now 39, fled the United States first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he was granted permanent residency.

Snowden is wanted in the United States on espionage charges.

The U.S. State Department said after the Kremlin announcement that it was unaware of any change in Snowden's U.S. citizenship status.

State Department spokesman Ned Price added that the U.S. position on Snowden had not changed.

Snowden said in early November 2020 that he had applied for Russian citizenship while retaining his U.S. citizenship.

With reporting by Interfax and Reuters

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On 'Brazenly Corrupt' Bosnian State Prosecutor

Bosnian prosecutor Diana Kajmakovic (file photo)

The U.S. Treasury Department has announced sanctions against a Bosnian state prosecutor it said is "brazenly corrupt" with links to organized crime and whose actions have undermined the fledgling former Yugoslav republic's democracy and institutions.

U.S. Under Secretary for the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement on September 26 that the Bosnian official, Diana Kajmakovic, "has continued to undermine democracy and the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The designation freezes the 56-year-old Kajmakovic's assets or property interests in the United States and bars U.S. nationals from transactions involving her without special permission from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

"Today’s designation reinforces the United States’ commitment to a stable and prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina by targeting an individual who has played a central role in enabling corruption in the country.” Nelso said.

Kajmakovic was head of the Bosnian Prosecutor's Office's anti-corruption department until early August, when acting chief prosecutor Milanko Kajganic transferred her to the war-crimes department.

Kajganic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service on September 26 that the federal prosecutor's office had already launched a case based on accusations against Kajmakovic.

"Two prosecutors are working on the mentioned case and will continue to act in the case until they make a prosecutorial decision," Kajganic said.

The head of the Bosnian body that appoints judges and prosecutors, Halil Lagumdzija, told RFE/RL that he didn't know whether disciplinary proceedings would be initiated against Kajmakovic.

The U.S. Treasury Department cited criminals' references to Kajmakovic in decrypted conversations and said she "helped hide evidence, prevent prosecution, and otherwise assist criminal activity in exchange for personal gain" and "attempted to block an investigation into her apparent criminal affiliates."

It said her "destabilizing" activities took place "against the backdrop of [Bosnia's] most serious political crisis since 1995, as ethno-nationalist politicians and affiliated patronage networks continue to undermine the country."

Bosnia, composed of a Bosniak and Croat federation and a mostly Serb entity called Republika Srpska, has faced intensifying challenges from Bosnian Serbs led by Bosnian Presidency member Milorad Dodik, including the establishment of parallel institutions over the past six months.

Dodik has maintained close ties with neighboring Serbia and with Russia for diplomatic and other support to resist Bosnia's federal structure and international pressure.

The United States announced sanctions against Dodik in 2017 and again in January over his secessionist efforts.

Bosnian Croats have also long complained of being sidelined within the three-member presidency, citing grievances that have been acknowledged by European institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Bosnia's fractious leaders failed to agree on electoral reforms or a budget ahead of elections scheduled for October 2 for Bosnia's ethnically designated presidency, the parliaments within its entities, as well as leaders for 10 cantons.

The election dispute has largely centered around the ethnically based voting system and administration of the country stemming from the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended three years of brutal conflict in Bosnia.

The international community's high representative for civilian affairs and compliance with that peace deal, Germany's Christian Schmidt, said in June that he was allocating millions of euros to fund the voting so the balloting could go forward as planned.

Updated

Iranian Rights Activist Ronaghi Says Guards At Tehran's Evin Prison Broke His Leg During Beatings

Iranian rights activist Hossein Ronaghi

Iranian civil rights activist Hossein Ronaghi says he has been beaten by guards in Tehran’s Evin prison.

Journalist Masoud Kazemi said in a tweet on September 25 that Hossein Ronaghi said prison officers broke his leg during the beating, while Ronaghi's mother said her son told her he had been injured by guards.

Security agents stormed Ronaghi's house and arrested him on September 22 as he was giving an interview to the London-based Iran International TV.

Hours later, Ronaghi announced in a video message that he had managed to escape the security agents, but that he would turn himself in to the prosecutor's office of Evin prison in Tehran on September 24.

“If I am arrested after going to the prosecutor's office, I will go on a hunger strike from that moment” Ronaghi said in his video message.

On September 24, Ronaghi went to the Evin Prison Prosecutor's Office and was violently apprehended.

The arrest comes amid anti-government protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by morality police for the alleged improper wearing of a head scarf, or hijab.

Many high profile activists, rights advocates, and intellectuals have also been arrested in recent days, including Majid Tavakoli and Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour.

At least 20 journalists are among those arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They include photojournalist Yalda Moayeri, Fatemeh Rajabi, and Niloufar Hamedi, who reported from a Tehran hospital where Amini died on September 16.

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

EU, U.S. Expect Serbia To 'Clarify' Its New Consultation Deal With Russia

Alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left), Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic (right) announced his signing of a "Plan of Consultations" with Moscow on September 23. (file photo)

EU and U.S. envoys have expressed dismay at Serbia's decision to sign a two-year pledge to consult with Moscow as much of the West seeks to isolate Russia over its escalating war on Ukraine.

Moscow's closest ally in the Balkans even as it pursues EU membership, Belgrade has condemned Russia's unprovoked invasion but staunchly resisted joining unprecedented Western sanctions that would curb trade, energy shipments, direct flights, and other links.

Alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 23, Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic announced his signing of a "Plan of Consultations" through 2024 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill said at a conference at Belgrade's Metropol Hotel on September 26 that "the United States would like to hear some clarification of what this agreement or what this protocol really was."

He said the U.S. side had "some of the best discussions we've had" with the Serbian delegation on "big-picture and small-picture issues" during last week's General Assembly before learning of the protocol's signing. Hill said he hadn't seen the document's precise contents.

"To be very frank, nobody should be signing anything with Russia right now, and frankly no one is signing very much with Russia, except perhaps some very poor recruits who are being forced into this mobilization to support this failing military operation that Russia has launched against its neighbor," Hill said.

"It is hard for us to understand, but we do look forward to hearing some kind of clarification of what it is," he said of the document and Belgrade's relations with Moscow. "We want to know what the bedrock is of the relationship with a country that does things like that."

Hill said the United States supported Serbia's effort to achieve greater integration into the West and its EU membership goal, and encouraged Serbian energy diversification away from Russia.

At the same conference, EU Ambassador to Serbia Emmanuel Joffre said the bloc "expects Serbia to stand by it in defense of European values and international law."

"By signing the agreement on cooperation with Russia, Serbia sent a completely opposite message, regardless of the fact that it said it would not recognize the results of the referendum that Russia is conducting on the occupied territory of Ukraine," Zoffre said.

He noted that Serbia is on the path to EU membership and is expected to harmonize its foreign policy with the EU's, including the introduction of sanctions against Russia.

The Serbian Foreign Ministry described the consultation protocol as a "technical document," and Selakovic suggested it contained no commitments on security issues but rather bilateral and multilateral activities.

Serbian opposition parties quickly condemned the move by the government of Selakovic and President Aleksandar Vucic's ruling Progressive Party (SNS) and its nationalist allies.

Serbia has kept close relations with Russia in particular to bolster its refusal to recognize the 2008 declaration of sovereignty by its former province Kosovo, which is now recognized by more than 100 countries.

But it has frequently balanced those diplomatic ties, along with Moscow's provisions of energy and weapons, with deeper trade and economic ties to EU member states in addition to talks on joining the bloc.

Back in Belgrade on September 25, Selakovic announced that Serbia would not recognize the voting that Russia and its separatist allies have staged in occupied parts of Ukraine on September 23-27, citing Serbia's commitment to the UN Charter and respect for international law, among other things.

Recognizing what Kyiv and Western governments have called "sham" referendums "would completely violate our national and state interests, the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders," Selakovic said.

Ukrainian Man Who Took 13 People Hostage In 2020 Gets 13 Years In Prison

Maksym Kryvosh held more than a dozen people hostage inside a bus in the northwestern Ukrainian town of Lutsk in July 2020.

A Ukrainian man who held 13 people hostage inside a bus with a firearm and explosives in the northwestern town of Lutsk for 12 hours in 2020 has been handed a 13-year prison term.

A court in Lutsk sentenced 46-year-old Maksym Kryvosh on September 26 after finding him guilty of hostage-taking, illegal weapon use, conducting an act of terrorism, and the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

Kryvosh threw a piece of soap at the judge and shouted that he was innocent while the judge was reading out the sentence. Kryvosh said he does not plan to appeal the sentence.

Kryvosh, a native of the city of Dubno and a resident of Lutsk who has a criminal record and was once treated at a psychiatric center, has said that the hostage-taking on July 21, 2020, was "a performance."

Physiatrists concluded that Kryvosh was mentally fit to stand trial.

Police said earlier that, while holding hostages, Kryvosh ranted against "the system" in his negotiations, called the nation's oligarchs and officials "terrorists," and demanded that people watch the 2005 documentary film Earthlings about the suffering endured by animals at farms, research labs, and other locations.

Nobody was hurt in the 12-hour ordeal.

With reporting by Ukrayinska Pravda, Suspilne, and Volynski Novyny

Russian Ally Kazakhstan Says It Won't Recognize Referendum Results From Ukraine

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov

ASTANA -- Kazakhstan, a close ally of Russia, will not recognize the results of so-called referendums organized by Moscow on Ukraine’s territories occupied by Russian troops.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said on September 26 that Astana's attitude to the ongoing referendums in parts of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, which are under at least the partial control of Russian troops, is based on "the principle of countries' territorial integrity."

Smadiyarov stressed that Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev had explicitly expressed the Central Asian nation's position on the parts of Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions that have been under Russia-backed separatists' control since 2014, as well as in the districts of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions, parts of which have been under the control of occupying Russian troops since March this year.

At a June economic forum in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, Toqaev, sitting on the podium next to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, called parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk, which Moscow has recognized as the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), as "quasi-states" that Kazakhstan will not recognize.

The referendums, which began on September 23 and run until September 27, have been condemned by Kyiv, Western leaders and the United Nations as an illegitimate, choreographed precursor to the illegal annexation of the territory by Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called them a "sham" and said that Washington "will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine."

The move to hold the referendums came as Putin announced a partial military mobilization on September 21 amid reports of heavy personnel losses in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that Moscow launched in late February.

U.K. Sanctions Russians It Says Are Linked to 'Sham' Referendums In Ukraine

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

The United Kingdom has announced 92 new sanctions in response to Russia-backed authorities imposing "sham referendums" in four regions of Ukraine, saying the move "is a clear violation of international law, including the UN charter."

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The British Foreign Office said in a statement on September 26 that the referendums, which began last week and run until September 27, are a "desperate attempt to grab land and justify their illegal war."

The statement said that among those hit by the new sanctions are top Russian officials involved in enforcing the votes.

"Sham referendums held at the barrel of a gun cannot be free or fair and we will never recognize their results. They follow a clear pattern of violence, intimidation, torture, and forced deportations in the areas of Ukraine Russia has seized," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in the statement.

"Today’s sanctions will target those behind these sham votes, as well as the individuals that continue to prop up the Russian regime’s war of aggression. We stand with the Ukrainian people and our support will continue as long as it takes to restore their sovereignty," he added.

The sanctions also hit 55 board members from state-linked organizations that the United Kingdom said continue to "bankroll the Russian war machine, serving as a stark reminder of the cost of supporting Putin’s operation."

Among those sanctioned are 23 individuals from Gazprombank's board of directors and management board, 16 members of the Sberbank supervisory board and executive board as well as other directors, and 10 individuals from Sovcodmbank, including the deputy chairman and members of the supervisory board and management board.

"The U.K. will never recognize the results of any sham referendums or attempts to annex Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and their continued brave resistance against Russian aggression clearly demonstrates their wish to remain an independent sovereign state," the statement said.

At Least 57 Protesters Have Been Killed In Iran During Amini Protests, Rights Group Says

Iran has been rocked by protests since the death of a young woman in police custody earlier this month.

At least 57 people have been killed in anti-government protests across Iran that were triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman who died after being taken into police custody for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab, a rights group says.

The Iran Human Rights Organization said on September 25 that due to the government's blocking of the Internet in Iran, it is difficult to confirm a significant number of reports received over the deaths of protesters. The official death toll stands at 41.

Anti-government protests have rocked the country for 10 nights night since the death of Mahsa Amini. Officials have said she died of a heart attack, but her relatives and some rights groups have rejected that assertion saying she was in perfect health and that they believe she was beaten while being detained.

Some social media reports have quoted members of the families of those killed in the protest as saying officials have listed false causes of death on death certificates, including various diseases. Some say they have been pressured to bury their loved ones at night to hide what happened.

Tears And Anger After Iranian TikToker Killed In Ongoing Protests
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The WhatsApp, Instagram, and Skype messaging applications have been blocked and Internet access in Iran restricted beyond normal levels, according to web monitor NetBlocks. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram were banned well before the most-recent wave of protests.

Nonetheless, videos of protests in Iran continue to be published, and in some of them, security and anti-riot forces are seen shooting directly at crowds.

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

Kazakh Court Hands Nazarbaev's Nephew Six-Year Prison Term On Fraud, Embezzlement Charges

Qairat Satybaldy (file photo)

ASTANA -- A nephew of Kazakhstan's former strongman President Nursultan Nazarbaev has been handed a six-year prison term for fraud and embezzlement charges.

The Baiqonyr district court in Astana pronounced its ruling on September 26, also depriving Qairat Satybaldy of the rank of major general on the Committee of National Security. He was also barred from occupying state posts for 10 years.

Satybaldy, whose trial started a week ago, pleaded guilty to all charges and said he regrets his misdeeds.

Satybaldy was arrested in early March while trying to board a plane heading to Turkey. The probe launched against him is one of a series of investigations targeting relatives and allies of Nazarbaev.

Kazakhstan’s Anti-Corruption Agency has said Satybaldy and four other unnamed individuals were suspected of embezzling an unspecified amount of money from the state companies Kazakhtelecom and Transport Service Center.

The agency said at the time that $500 million had been returned to the State Treasury and that 29 percent of Kazakhtelecom's shares that had been controlled by Satybaldy were placed back under state control.

Satybaldy's former wife, Gulmira, was also arrested in March on charges of embezzlement and the illegal takeover of a private business.

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

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, whom Nazarbaev handpicked as his successor after stepping down in 2019, started distancing himself from the former leader after the January unrest, which was fueled by the Kazakhs’ pent up frustration with cronyism and corruption.

Toqaev stripped Nazarbaev of the sweeping powers he had retained as the head of the Security Council after resigning.

Just days after the protests, two of Nazarbaev’s sons-in-law were pushed out of top jobs at two major oil and gas companies.

Another son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, resigned as chairman of the country’s main business lobby group, while in late February, Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, was apparently forced to give up her parliamentary seat.

Authorities also launched probes against the leaders of a company linked to Nazarbaev's youngest daughter Aliya.

In June, Toqaev said he had created a commission to "return cash illegally taken out of Kazakhstan" by "a narrow circle of people who had illegally taken over" a large portion of the country’s wealth.

Kremlin Says No Decision To Close Borders As Many Flee Russia To Avoid Military Mobilization

Cars line up to leave Russia at the border with Finland on September 23.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says the government does not plan to seal off borders as tens of thousands of cars with fleeing Russians, mostly men, cross into Georgia, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to support the ongoing war in Ukraine.

While answering a question about rumors of a possible closure of the borders at a press conference in Moscow on September 26, Peskov said, "I am not aware of anything like that."

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"At this moment, no decisions regarding that were made," Peskov said.

Meanwhile, Russians continue to leave the country in droves, with some local media outlets saying that more than 260,000 have fled since the Kremlin announced the partial mobilization last week.

The acting chief of Kazakhstan's migration committee, Colonel Aslan Atalyqov, said on September 26 that the number of Russian citizens entering the Central Asian nation since September 22 had dramatically increased.

He said that around 40,000 Russian citizens had already left for other countries -- mainly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- after entering Kazakhstan in recent days.

The influx has put so much pressure on accommodations in Kazakhstan that the administration of a cinema in the city of Oral said it would allow Russian nationals arriving without a place to stay to use the theater's premises for temporary living.

Over the weekend, Mongolia's former president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, issued a video statement on YouTube, calling on Russian citizens of Tyvan, Buryat, and Kalmyk origin to flee Russia instead of "killing Ukrainians."

"I know that since the start of this bloody war, ethnic minorities who live in Russia have suffered the most. The Buryat Mongols, the Tyva Mongols, the Kalmyk Mongols have suffered a lot. They have been used as nothing more than cannon fodder. Hundreds of them are wounded, thousands of them have been killed. We the Mongols, will meet you with open arms and hearts," the former president said.

Elbegdorj also called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to immediately end the war, saying that Ukraine has a right to exist as a free nation.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Idel.Realities, and Siberia.Realities

Lukashenka Reportedly In Russia To Meet Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Moscow in 2018.

Local media are reporting that Belarus's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has flown to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

No details of the September 26 meeting were given.

Belarus has been a close ally of Russia during its war in Ukraine.

Lukashenka has allowed Putin to use Belarusian territory to stage attacks on Ukraine since the Kremlin launched its invasion on February 24.

Based on reporting by Belta and Belsat
Updated

Gunman Kills 15, Including Children, In Shooting Spree At Russian School

The scene in Izhevsk near where the shooting took place.

A gunman in Izhevsk, the capital of Russia's Republic of Udmurtia, has killed 15 people, including 11 children, the fourth school shooting in the region in the past 15 months.

Russia's Investigative Committee said on September 26 that the gunman has been identified as Artyom Kazantsev, 34, who was a graduate of school No. 88, which is attended by students from kindergarten up to the end of high school.

The gunman, who some media outlets said was wearing a T-shirt with a swastika on it, shot himself dead at the scene, the committee said, adding that 24 people, including 22 children, were wounded in the incident.

The Investigative Committee also said that its Main Investigative Directorate in Moscow is investigating the shooting.

Shootings at schools and other educational institutions in Russia and other former Soviet republics were very rare until recent years, when the numbers of incidents has risen.

In April 2022, in Veshkaima, an armed man entered a kindergarten and killed two children and a teacher before shooting himself, while in September 2021, a mass shooting took place at the Perm State National Research University, which resulted in the deaths of six people.

Five months before that, 19-year-old Ilnaz Galyaviev opened fire at Kazan school No. 175. Nine people died in that shooting, including seven children.

Reservist Shoots Enlistment Officer Amid Russia's Unpopular Mobilization For War In Ukraine

A gunman opens fire at a military draft office in Ust-Ilimsk in this screen grab obtained from social media.

A man has shot a military commissioner at an enlistment center in Siberia who was recruiting soldiers amid rising tensions over the Kremlin's unpopular partial military mobilization to support Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The governor of the Irkutsk region, Igor Kobzev, said on September 26 that the military commissioner, who was shot in the city of Ust-Ilimsk, is in grave condition at a local hospital.

Media reports identified the shooter as 25-year-old Ruslan Zinin, who had been called to report for mobilization that day.

The Babr Mash Telegram channel posted a video reportedly taken at the moment of the shooting that showed paramedics taking a wounded man away and the moment the shooter was detained.

Russia's Investigative Committee said it has launched a probe into "attempted murder and the illegal possession, transportation, and use of a weapon."

The mobilization for the war in Ukraine announced by President Vladimir Putin last week has been met with countrywide protests and the mass flight of men potentially eligible for military duty from Russia.

Almost 2,500 people have been detained in Russian towns and cities for protesting against mobilization, while several military enlistment centers and other administrative buildings in the country have been targeted in arson attacks in recent days.

The largest protest against the mobilization took place over the weekend in Makhachkala, the capital of the North Caucasus region of Daghestan.

With reporting by Babr Mash, Interfax, Baza, Mash, and TASS

After Years Of Denial, Putin Ally Admits He Founded Russian Paramilitary Group Vagner

Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" due to his Kremlin catering contracts, has already been sanctioned by the United States and European Union for his role in Vagner. 

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, has admitted he founded the private paramilitary Vagner group after years of denying any links to the mercenaries who have been involved in the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as conflicts in Syria and Africa.

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In response to a question asked by a journalist from the Bloknot online newspaper, Prigozhin said in a statement posted on September 26 to a VKontakte account belonging to his Konkord company that he himself created the paramilitary private group in 2014 on "a military test field" after he realized that military formations that planned to take part in the war in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were poorly prepared and unprofessional.

Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" due to his Kremlin catering contracts, has already been sanctioned by the United States and European Union for his role in Vagner.

The Kremlin has denied any ties with the Vagner group as Russian laws do not allow creation of such kind of paramilitary groups.

Prigozhin said he avoided admitting to his links to Vagner so as "not to put these guys who are the foundation of Russian patriotism under fire."

According to Prigozhin, Vagner troops took over an airport and many other territories in Ukraine's Luhansk region in 2014. He called the paramilitary group "heroes who defended the people of Syria and other Arabic nations, poor people in Africa and Latin America."

Prigozhin has launched lawsuits against several journalists who reported that he was behind the Vagner group.

In August, Moscow's Presnensky district court recognized as false a statement by Aleksei Venediktov, the former chief editor of the now defunct Ekho Moskvy independent radio station, after he said that Prigozhin was the owner of Vagner.

In July, Prigozhin sued investigative journalist Lilia Yapparova and the editorial director of Latvia-based media outlet Meduza, Tatyana Yershova, after the journalists had sent a query to Prigozhin asking him to comment on allegations that he is the owner of the Vagner group.

Recent media reports have said that Prigozhin and his group were involved in recruiting inmates across the country to assist in Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this month, a video circulated on the Internet showing a person looking like Prigozhin talking to a large group of inmates in a penal colony in Russia's Mari El Republic during a recruiting trip for the paramilitary group.

Commenting on the video at the time, Prigozhin did not confirm or deny that he was the man in the video, saying only that "either inmates, or your children," will fight in Ukraine.

Prigozhin's admission comes less than a week after Putin announced a partial mobilization in the country, a move that prompted protests across Russia and a mass exodus of men who feared they may be called up for duty.

Russian Patriarch Kirill Says Dying In Ukraine 'Washes Away All Sins'

Patriarch Kirill (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. (file photo)

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has told his followers that "sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins."

The patriarch's comments during his Sunday sermon on September 25 came amid nationwide protests and rising criticism over the Kremlin's recent announcement of a partial mobilization to replenish Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

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Western officials estimate that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties since it invaded Ukraine in February.

Russian officials have said the draft would focus on reservists and would bring 300,000 fresh troops to the war effort. But Russian media has said the real target is 1 million new troops, and reports that men with no combat experience and beyond draft age are being enlisted has attracted criticism even from pro-Kremlin voices.

Kirill, a prominent supporter of President Vladimir Putin who has "blessed" the war effort and warned by Pope Francis against becoming "Putin's altar boy," has previously claimed that Russians were doing a "heroic deed" by killing Ukrainians, even as he has urged them not to see the Ukrainian people as enemies.

"We know that many today are dying in the fields of internecine battle," Kirill said at a church near Moscow on September 25. "The church is praying that this battle will end as soon as possible, that as few brothers as possible will kill each other in this fratricidal war."

However, he added, "The church realizes that if someone, driven by a sense of duty and the need to honor his oath, stays loyal to his vocation and dies while carrying out his military duty, then he is, without any doubt, doing a deed that is equal to sacrifice."

After Putin announced the military mobilization on September 21, Kirill was quoted by Russian state media as saying that "danger looms over the Ukrainian people," claiming that unidentified forces were trying to turn them from being "part of the holy united Rus into a state hostile to this Rus, hostile to Russia."

Kirill sees Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February as a bulwark against a decadent West and has insisted that "Russia has never attacked anyone."

About 34 percent of Orthodox believers in Ukraine identify with the main Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which in 2019 was officially recognized as separate from the Moscow Patriarchate by Orthodox Christianity's spiritual head, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

About 14 percent of Ukraine's Orthodox community are members of Ukraine's Moscow Patriarchate Church, according to a 2020 study.

Following Russia's invasion in February, about 400 parishes of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine that had remained loyal to Kirill cut ties with the Russian Orthodox Church over the patriarch's position on the war.

"Not only did he fail to condemn Russia's military aggression, but he also failed to find words for the suffering of the Ukrainian people," church spokesman Archbishop Kliment said of Kirill's stance in May.

Days later, Kirill said he understood the decision to cut ties amid Moscow's invasion but claimed that the "spirits of malice" were trying to divide the Orthodox people of Russia and Ukraine.

More than 150 Russian Orthodox clerics called for a stop to the war in an open letter on March 1. Kirill was not among those who signed it.

Britain imposed sanctions against Kirill in June as part of a package aimed at punishing Moscow over the war in Ukraine. The measure came shortly after the EU dropped a similar proposal to sanction Kirill following opposition from Russia-friendly bloc member Hungary.

Jen Psaki, who was spokeswoman for the White House at the time, said in May when asked about the possibility of sanctioning Kirill that "no one is safe from our sanctions."

With reporting by TASS, Ukrainska Pravda, and Meduza

OECD Says War In Ukraine To Have Greater Impact On Global Economy Than Expected

A ship carrying a cargo of 26,000 tons of corn leaves Ukraine’s port of Odessa en route to Lebanon on August 1.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says Russia's war in Ukraine, now in its eighth month, will have a greater impact on the global economy than previously expected.

The OECD said on September 26 that it had slashed its growth forecast for the global economy to 2.2 percent in 2023 from a previous estimate of 2.8 percent.

"The world economy is paying a high price for Russia’s unprovoked, unjustifiable, and illegal war of aggression against Ukraine," the OECD said in a regular report updating its economic outlook.

"With the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, the war is dragging down growth and putting additional upward pressure on prices, above all for food and energy. Global GDP stagnated in the second quarter of 2022 and output declined in the G20 economies," it added.

The report said that high inflation is persisting for longer than expected and that in many economies, inflation in the first half of 2022 was at its highest since the 1980s.

"With recent indicators taking a turn for the worse, the global economic outlook has darkened," the OECD said.

Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Far-Right Euroskeptic Meloni Set To Become Italy's First Female Prime Minister

As returns showed her heading to victory, Giorgia Meloni appeared to try to tone down her nationalist messaging in an effort to reassure wary EU and international partners.

Far-right politician Giorgia Meloni appears set to become Italy's first female prime minister, after near final results showed her Euroskeptic party with neo-fascist roots winning the country's parliamentary elections.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone. We will do it for all Italians, and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people [of this country],” Meloni said in her victory speech following the September 25 polls that saw record low turnout.

Meloni has downplayed the neo-fascist origins of her Brothers of Italy party, which took more than 26 percent of the vote and which she casts as mainstream and center-right.

The 45-year-old now faces the task of forming a ruling coalition with the help of right-wing and center-right allies, who as a bloc took about 44 percent of the vote.

The coalition poised to take control of both chambers of parliament includes parties whose leaders have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and who have questioned the backlash against Moscow following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the center-right Forza party, said just days before the vote that "Putin was pushed" by his cabinet, party, and the Russian people into invading Ukraine in February.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, has expressed concerns that EU sanctions against Russia could end up hurting Italy's economic interests.

Meloni has been a staunch supporter of supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself and has pledged to back Western policy opposing Russia's war against Ukraine.

She has been critical of “Brussels bureaucrats,” however, and recently defended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban against EU concerns about a democratic backslide and corruption in his country, which the European Parliament recently classified as an "electoral autocracy."

As returns showed her heading to victory, Meloni appeared to try to tone down her nationalist messaging in an effort to reassure wary EU and international partners.

“This is the time for being responsible,” Meloni said on live television, describing the situation for Italy and the European Union as “particularly complex.”

Right-wing politicians from Germany, France, and Poland were quick to congratulate Meloni on her apparent victory.

Meloni's coalition government is not expected to be installed before the end of October, leaving caretaker prime minister Mario Draghi as head of the government for now.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Zelenskiy Says Intense Fighting Showing 'Positive Results,' As West Responds To Putin's Nuclear Threat

A Ukrainian soldier reacts as he receives an injection during an evacuation of injured soldiers in a region near the retaken village of Shchurove on September 25.

Ukraine's president said late on September 25 that there was fierce fighting taking place on the front lines of its 7-month-old defense against Russia's invasion but that Kyiv was seeing "positive results."

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President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's battlefield assessment came after he warned in a broadcast interview earlier in the day against dismissing Russian President Vladimir Putin's nuclear threats as Moscow's forces lose ground.

Meanwhile, new British Prime Prime Minister Liz Truss downplayed Putin's recent statements as "saber-rattling" and "bogus threats," and U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington had outlined to Moscow the "catastrophic consequences" it would face if it used nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy claimed gains against Russian forces in the eastern Donetsk, northeastern Kharkiv, and the southern Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya regions.

"We have positive results in several directions." he said.

Russia and its separatist allies in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions of Ukraine have been holding votes on possible independence and union with Russia that they call referendums but Kyiv and many in the international community have said are a sham.

The votes are scheduled to conclude on September 27.

They were announced amid Ukrainian counteroffensives in northeastern and eastern Ukraine that Kyiv has said have wrested back thousands of square kilometers this month.

Putin and other Russian officials have suggested the votes will result in an irreversible transformation of those areas to make them part of Russia. And Putin suggested this week that Moscow could use all means at its disposal to defend them.

After his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked if Moscow would have grounds for using nuclear weapons to defend the annexed regions.

He said territory "further enshrined" in Russia's constitution "is under the full protection of the state."

Zelenskiy, who has vowed Ukraine will reclaim all of its lost territory, said in an interview with a U.S. broadcaster on September 25 that "maybe yesterday it was a bluff. Now, it could be a reality."

He added of Putin: "He wants to scare the whole world. These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail. I don't think he's bluffing."

Truss told CNN in a September 25 interview: "We should not be listening to [Putin's] saber-rattling and his bogus threats."

"Instead, what we need to do is continue to put sanctions on Russia and continue to support the Ukrainians because if Putin is allowed to succeed, this wouldn't just send a terrible message in Europe and, of course, huge threats to the Ukrainian population themselves, but it also would send a message to other authoritarian regimes around the world that it's somehow acceptable to...invade a sovereign nation."

U.S. officials were less dismissive of the Kremlin threat.

"If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia; the United States will respond decisively," Sullivan said on U.S. television.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and CNN

U.S. Welcomes Release Of RFE/RL Journalist, Calls On Belarus To Free More Political Prisoners

Aleh Hruzdzilovich (file photo)

The United States has welcomed the release of RFE/RL correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison by Belarusian authorities for allegedly participating in anti-government demonstrations that he was covering as an accredited journalist.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, commenting on September 25 on the release of Hruzdzilovich and other political prisoners who had been rounded up in a crackdown on dissent, said that the move by the Belarusian authorities was a "step in the right direction" but that more moves need to follow.

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"Too many political prisoners remain behind bars in Belarus," Price said in a statement. "We call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."

Hruzdzilovich arrived in Lithuania on September 21 accompanied by his wife, Maryana, after he was released from a prison in the region of Mahilyou where he had been held since May.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, who previously condemned his prison sentence as “illegitimate,” hailed the release of Hruzdzilovich, who had served as an RFE/RL correspondent focusing on human rights since the 1990s.

“Aleh was robbed of time he will never get back with his family while wrongly imprisoned, and I am overjoyed that he will now be reunited with his wife and other loved ones,” Fly said immediately after Hruzdzilovich's release. “I am grateful to members of the international and advocacy communities for their unwavering support of Aleh’s case, but our work is not done.”

Fly noted that two other Belarusians who have been imprisoned since the crackdown -- RFE/RL consultant and blogger Ihar Losik and RFE/RL freelance correspondent Andrey Kuznechyk -- remain behind bars and “should also be released immediately.”

A court in Minsk sentenced Hruzdzilovich in early March for his presence at mass protests challenging the official results of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus that handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office. Hruzdzilovich was also ordered to pay 56,000 rubles ($16,600) in compensation to the Mensktrans city transportation agency, which was a plaintiff in the case.

Mensktrans claimed Hruzdzilovich’s participation in three unsanctioned rallies cost it revenue. At one demonstration, Hruzdzilovich said he was working as a correspondent with accreditation issued by the Foreign Ministry, while at the other two protests he was working as a correspondent for the Narodnaya volya (People's Will) newspaper.

Hruzdzilovich was arrested in December amid a harsh crackdown by Belarusian authorities on independent media, rights activists, and democratic institutions in the wake of the protests. The opposition and West say the vote was rigged and that opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya won the election.

Updated

Russia Continues Crackdown On Spreading Anti-Mobilization Protests As Draft Criticism Grows

Russian police detain a protester during a rally against the mobilization of reservists ordered by President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on September 24.

The number of people detained in Russia for protesting against the country's partial military mobilization has risen to nearly 2,500 people across the country, as prominent pro-Kremlin voices have begun questioning the way the draft is being conducted.

OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests in Russia, said that 2,353 people had been detained as of September 25, and at least 141 new detentions had been recorded on September 26.

The highest one-day number of detentions came on September 21, when protests were held in 43 cities immediately after the draft was announced.

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The rights group has said that there might be more detainees than those published by police and that it was only reporting names it could verify.

It was unclear if the latest figures included the detentions of anti-mobilization protesters in the capital of the southern Russian republic of Daghestan on September 25.

Caucasus.Realities reported that police dispersed an unknown number of people who had gathered in Makhachkala to express their anger over the draft.

In one of multiple videos shared on Telegram capturing the confrontation, a police officer is shown beating a protester as two other officers hold the man down.

OVD-Info said on September 26 that protesters who were detained in Makhachkala were beaten after being taken to a police department in the city's Lenin district, and that officers had refused to provide detainees with water.

The rights group also quoted a correspondent for the Caucasian Knot website as saying that he was held along with 60 other detainees at an Interior Ministry branch in Makhachkala's Soviet district.

The correspondent, Murad Muradov, said that "some of the detainees were forced by the police to sign a protocol, threatening that otherwise they would be given a summons to the military registration and enlistment office." In at least one case, Muradov added, "they carried out their threat."

WATCH: Hundreds came out in the North Caucasus region of Daghestan on September 25 to protest against the partial mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21 in an effort to step up the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Protesters In Russia's Daghestan Rally Against Military Call-Up
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The nationwide demonstrations erupted within hours of President Vladimir Putin announcing the partial military mobilization on September 21, which is intended to buttress Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine.

Russian police have been mobilized in cities where protests were called for by the opposition group Vesna and supporters of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

Images on Russian media have shown scenes of police using force against demonstrators, and many young men detained during the protests have reportedly been summoned to register for military service.

In Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia occupied and annexed in 2014, the Russian-installed leadership said on September 25 that their mobilization would be completed by the end of the day.

The call-up came as Russian forces suffered significant losses of occupied territories in Ukraine's east owing to a counteroffensive launched by the Ukrainian military. Putin followed up on his mobilization order on September 24 by imposing harsher penalties against Russians who willingly surrendered to Ukrainian forces or refused orders to mobilize.

Russian officials have said that up to 300,000 reserve forces will be called up and that only those with relevant combat and service experience will be drafted to fight. However, Russian media reports have surfaced saying that men who have never been in the military or who are past draft age are being called up, and foreign media have reported that the real goal is to mobilize more than 1 million soldiers, which the Kremlin denies.

Western officials say that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, accounting for both deaths and injuries, since it launched its unprovoked war in Ukraine in February.

The mobilization to replenish those losses has seen men across Russia sent to register and to reports of Russian citizens attempting to flee the country.

Several military enlistment centers and other administrative buildings in the country have been targeted in arson attacks in recent days, and on September 26 a military commissioner was shot by an apparent recruit at an enlistment center in Siberia.

Media reports say the 25-year-old shooter had been called to report to the office in the city of Ust-Ilimsk for mobilization that day.

The draft has also led to rare complaints by pro-Kremlin voices.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-backed media outlet RT, wrote on her Telegram channel on September 24 that while it had been announced that only people up to the age of 35 would be recruited, "summonses are going to 40-year-olds."

"They're infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite," Simonyan said of the authorities behind the draft.

The same day, the head of the Russian president's Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, called on Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put a halt to the manner with which many draft boards in the country were proceeding.

On September 25, two of Russia's most senior lawmakers weighed in on the growing controversy.

In a Telegram post, Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia's Federation Council, said that she was aware of reports that men who should be ineligible for the draft are being called up.

"Such excesses are absolutely unacceptable. And I consider it absolutely right that they are triggering a sharp reaction in society," she wrote.

Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, wrote in a separate post that "complaints are being received."

"If a mistake is made, it is necessary to correct it," he said. "Authorities at every level should understand their responsibilities."

Balkan Ally Serbia Says It Won't Recognize Russia's Staged Votes In Occupied Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and his Serbian counterpart, Nikola Selakovic, in Belgrade in December 2020.

Russian ally Serbia has said it won't recognize the current votes in Russian-held parts of Ukraine that Kyiv has called "sham" referendums, dealing another international blow to the Kremlin's hastily organized effort at consolidating early gains in its 7-month-old invasion.

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Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic said on September 25 in Belgrade that "Serbia cannot accept these results" due to its commitment to the UN Charter and respect for international law, among other things.

Doing so "would completely violate our national and state interests, the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the inviolability of borders," he said.

Serbia has kept close relations with Russia in particular to bolster its refusal to recognize the 2008 declaration of sovereignty by its former province Kosovo, which is now recognized by more than 100 countries.

Moscow has repeatedly cited the Kosovo case as an example of Western overreach.

Selakovic and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed a so-called consultation plan for their countries for the next two years on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week.

It was the first high-level diplomatic document that Serbia and Russia have signed since February 24, when the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

The European Union's rapporteur for EU hopeful Serbia, Vladimir Bilicik, greeted news of the signing as "a major blow to [the] accession process in the Western Balkans."

"Let’s be clear: [Russia] is mobilizing to attack [EU] candidate state [Ukraine], Russia is attacking EU enlargement!" Bilicik said.

Belgrade backed several UN resolutions condemning Russia's invasion but has avoided joining EU-wide sanctions joined by the bloc's other aspiring members.

The so-called referendums in the Russia-held areas in Ukraine of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions have been dismissed as frauds by Ukraine, the West, and the United Nations because they are illegal under international law.

Moscow has suggested it will defend them as part of Russia after the votes.

Updated

Russia Pressing Men In Occupied Areas Of Ukraine Into Fight Against Ukrainian Forces

Sergei Aksyonov (file photo)

Reports say Russia has already begun rounding up men in occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine to compel them to fight their countrymen seven months into the Russian invasion in a widely anticipated move that Kyiv has warned is a breach of international law.

The Geneva Conventions forbid occupation forces from compelling the local population to enlist in the occupier's armed forces.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service quoted the Moscow-installed leader of annexed Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, as saying on September 25 that his authorities had already delivered 1,200 troops to mainland Ukraine in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's partial-mobilization order on September 21.

Aksyonov said on September 25 that "Crimea will finish the mobilization measures today by the end of the day, carrying them out in full," according to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

He had previously said mobilized Crimeans would be sent to Sevastopol "for retraining."

But on September 25, Aksyonov said 1,200 "volunteers" had been sent to mainland Ukraine and two more "battalions" were being prepared.

There are concerns that, as in parts of Russia, Moscow-backed authorities are pressing minorities and other vulnerable groups into military service.

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Human rights activists said about 5,000 Crimean residents had already received summonses since Putin's call-up announcement on September 21.

Russian authorities reportedly this week forbid Crimeans from leaving the peninsula without the permission of the military authorities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has vowed to fight until his country wins back "every centimeter" Russia has occupied, has said Kyiv has evidence that occupation authorities are targeting Crimeans to fight for Russia.

He has stressed that forced conscription by occupying armies of local populations contravenes international law.

Moscow incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation in 2014, but a UN vote overwhelmingly rejected that annexation and supported Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Russia controls around one-fifth of Ukraine seven months into its full-scale invasion, including the Crimean Peninsula that it forcibly annexed in 2014. But a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month has retaken thousands of square kilometers, according to Kyiv.

This week, Russia and its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine organized what Kyiv dubbed "sham" referendums on September 23-27 in four areas where they control large swaths of territory: Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the southeast.

The New York Times on September 25 quoted witnesses and Ukrainian officials as saying all men between the ages of 18 and 35 have been forbidden to leave Russia-controlled territory around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya and ordered to report for military duty.

It quoted sources as saying many young men are in hiding or trying to escape.

The Geneva Conventions also prohibit the transfer of civilians from occupied regions into its own territory, a safeguard that Russia quickly abandoned in this conflict as it vetted and forcibly moved Ukrainians from the war zone into Russian territory by the tens of thousands with the use of "filtration" centers.

Ukraine Says U.S. Decision To Provide NASAMS Air-Defense Systems 'Already Made'

NASAMS anti-aircraft missile systems are deployed during preparations ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in 2014.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that U.S. President Joe Biden's administration had already decided to provide Ukraine with sophisticated air-defense systems known as NASAMS as Kyiv fights off a seven-month-old Russian military invasion.

It is thought to be the first public acknowledgement by either side that Ukraine was being given the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System.

There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials of the decision, which reportedly came in late August.

"We absolutely need the United States to show leadership and give Ukraine the air-defense systems. I want to thank President Biden for a positive decision that has been already made," Zelenskiy said in the interview broadcast on September 25, as quoted by Reuters.

Ukrainian officials have reportedly been lobbying for the NASAMS.

"But believe me, it's not even nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians" that have been destroyed or threatened, Zelenskiy said of the purported air-defense boost.

Zelenskiy also thanked U.S. officials for so-called high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) that have already been supplied and other systems helping Ukraine battle the largest army invasion in Europe since World War II.

Based on reporting by Reuters

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