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Kremlin Aide: Putin-Zelenskiy Tete-A-Tete 'Likely' At Paris Summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (combo photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is "likely" for the first time to have a face-to-face dialogue with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy next month in Paris, where a summit is planned with the leaders of France and Germany aimed at resolving the armed Donbas conflict.

"I think a separate meeting is becoming increasingly more likely," top Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told journalists in Moscow on November 27. "After all, they will be in the same room, and it's natural that they will talk to each other."

French President Emmanuel Macron plans to host the four-way peace talks on December 9 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin, and Zelenskiy.

The previous meeting between the four countries was in October 2016, which didn't succeed in defusing the bloody five-year conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Ushakov told reporters that the summit's program was still being finalized.

While on an official visit to Lithuania the same day, Zelenskiy said he was ready for meetings with every state leader at the upcoming Paris summit known as the Normandy talks.

The United States said it was behind Ukraine and called on Russia to live up to its part of commitments in a 2015 road map for deescalating the conflict.

"Our support for Ukraine's sovereignty is unwavering, and we are committed to working with our Allies and partners to keep pressure on Russia to live up to its commitments," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus praised the "prudent but difficult steps towards peace and reform" taken by Zelenskiy.

Bringing peace to the two war-torn easternmost Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk was a main campaign promise by Zelenskiy, who was elected to the presidency in May.

Zelenskiy, 41, has yet to meet with the 67-year-old Putin, though they’ve spoken on the phone four times, most recently on November 25, during which natural-gas transit was discussed but not the upcoming meeting.

A breakthrough for the Normandy talks to happen came on October 1, when Kyiv and Moscow agreed that Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces would withdraw from three frontline flashpoints in eastern Ukraine.

However, Zelenskiy said in Vilnius he had no illusions that the war would immediately end the next day after the Paris talks. "But as president of Ukraine, I want a clear understanding [of] when and how we can stop this war," he said.

Ukraine and its Western backers accuse Moscow of leading, commanding, equipping, fighting beside, and training the separatist forces in the Donbas.

Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, denies direct military involvement and has insisted that the Donbas conflict is purely a civil war.

With reporting by AFP, Kommersant, and Interfax

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Britain Says Iranian Media Reports On Arrest Of British Diplomat 'Completely False'

The photo that Fars published of foreign nationals amid claims that they were spying

Britain's Foreign Office said on July 6 that reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran "are completely false."

Iranian media reported earlier that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) detained several foreign nationals, including Britain's second-ranking diplomat, over accusations of spying.

The IRGC identified and arrested the foreigners, saying they were observed by drones taking soil samples in a prohibited area in the central desert of Iran, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency said.

The country's state-run IRNA news agency reported that the foreigners had been arrested but did not say when or whether they were currently in custody.

Britain's deputy ambassador is among the people who went to Shahdad desert with his family as a tourist, Fars reported.

A photo accompanying the Fars report showed four people in a desert setting. Another photo showed two people who appear to be looking for soil samples after parking their bicycles.

"These spies were taking earth samples in Iran's central desert where the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace missile exercises were conducted," state TV said.

Fars claimed the British diplomat, Giles Whitaker, was expelled from the country after apologizing.

A spokesperson for Britain's Foreign Office said: "Reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran are completely false."

State TV also identified Maciej Walczak, a Polish scientist at Kopernik University in Poland, as one of the accused foreigners. The report said another of the detained individuals is the husband of Austria's cultural attache in Iran.

It said their sample collection coincided with a missile test in Iran's southern Kerman Province.

The United States earlier on July 6 designated 15 individuals and entities for alleged engagement in illegally selling and shipping Iranian oil and oil products.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the entities -- located in Iran, Vietnam, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong -- "have supported Iranian energy trade generating millions of dollars' worth of illicit revenue."

The U.S. Treasury Department said the entities and individuals used a web of Persian Gulf-based front companies to facilitate the delivery and sale of the Iranian oil and oil products from Iranian companies to East Asia.

"While the United States is committed to achieving an agreement with Iran that seeks a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we will continue to use all our authorities to enforce sanctions on the sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals," Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said.

Talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, have been stalled for months. Iran has said it is ready for new indirect talks to overcome the last hurdles to revive the 2015 nuclear deal amid a growing crisis over the country’s nuclear program.

With reporting by Reuters, Fars, and AP

Iranian Lawmaker Says Explosions At IRGC Base Were Sabotage

Esmail Kosari (file photo)

A member of Iran's parliament has confirmed that explosions that occurred last week at an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) base in Tehran were sabotage.

A video published on social media showed at least two explosions inside the Malik Ashtar base compound in the southeast of Tehran.

At the same time, the official website of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) published the news of the explosions at 9:15 p.m. on July 1.

Esmail Kosari, a member of parliament and former IRGC commander, confirmed on July 5 that the explosions occurred in the IRGC base.

Kosari did not mention any casualties from the two explosions and played down the incident.

"First of all, it was not an explosion, but two very weak, improvised explosive devices detonated," the Khabar Online website quoted him as saying.

The MKO "use internal agents with promises. It was Friday and a day off. They came at 9 p.m., using the darkness, they did such a move and took a video," Kosari added.

There have been several assassinations and deaths in recent months in Iran under unclear circumstances. Officials have blamed some of them on Israel.

The MKO has also increased its activities inside Iran in recent months and carried out cyberattacks on the country's infrastructure.

In the latest incident, the MKO-affiliated group Rise to Overthrow on July 3 claimed that it hacked and disabled the website of the Islamic Culture and Communication Organization.

Ukrainian Airline Sues Iran Over Shooting Down Of Passenger Jet

UIA flight PS752 crashed on January 8, 2020, while en route to Kyiv, killing all 176 people on board.

Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) has filed a lawsuit against the Islamic republic over the 2020 shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The lawsuit, seen by Radio Farda, filed in a court in Ontario, is dated January 2022. It lists the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IRGC as the two defendants and demands compensation from Iran.

UIA flight PS752 crashed on January 8, 2020, while en route to Kyiv, killing all 176 people on board.

After days of official denials, Iran admitted that an IRGC unit had inadvertently shot down the plane amid heightened tensions with the United States over the U.S. drone assassination of a top IRGC commander, Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad.

Most of the victims were Iranians and Canadians but 11 were citizens of Ukraine. The families have demanded transparency and accountability.

The Iranian government has allocated $150,000 to compensate the family of each passenger, but some families have refused the money.

Canada said last year that it found no evidence of premeditation in the downing of the airliner. A Canadian court awarded $84 million and interest to the families of six of the victims.

On June 28, the Group of Seven industrialized economies, at the end of their three-day summit in southern Germany, said in a joint statement that Iran should be held accountable for the shooting down of flight PS752.

"We continue to support international efforts to hold Iran accountable for the illegal downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752", the statement said.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

EU's Von Der Leyen Warns Of Danger Of Complete Cut-Off Of Russian Gas

Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said that the European Union needs to make emergency plans to prepare for a complete cutoff of Russian gas in the wake of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

Von der Leyen said the commission plans to announce EU-wide emergency plans in mid-July to ensure "gas flows towards where it is most needed" in the event of a complete end to Russian gas deliveries.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on Russia, and is moving away from Russian-controlled deliveries. But the head of the EU's executive branch said the bloc needed to be ready for shock disruptions coming from Moscow.

"We also need to prepare now for further disruption of gas supply and even a complete cutoff of Russian gas supply," von der Leyen told the EU legislature on July 6 in Strasbourg, France.

"It is obvious Putin continues to use energy as a weapon," she said, adding that Russia had already cut gas deliveries to 12 EU member states.

"We need to make sure that in case of full disruption, the gas flows towards where it is most needed. We have to provide for European solidarity."

Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine has prompted the 27-member bloc to rethink its energy policies and reduce purchases of Russian energy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also accused Russia of using energy as a weapon and said Germany had relied too long on energy supplies from Russia.

"Today we have to realize: Russia is using energy as a weapon. No one believes that Russia is reducing its gas supplies for technical reasons alone," Scholz said on July 6 at a gathering of the German Renewable Energy Association.

Russia cited technical matters last month when it severely curtailed gas deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline.

The problems could get worse after annual maintenance work on Nord Stream 1 begins on July 11. The main worry is that Russia will not turn on the gas tap after the maintenance is completed.

The German government has already started planning for the "worst case" by ensuring that gas storage facilities are being filled and that investments are being made in terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Scholz went on to say that the German government will go into "turbo gear" in expanding renewable energies.

"Every wind turbine, every photovoltaic plant, every biomass plant is a step on the way to making our energy supply more independent and sustainable to ensuring that it is secure and remains affordable," he said.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and AFP

Belgium Provisionally Clears Iran Prisoner-Swap Treaty

Iranian opposition activists, members of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, protest with a poster depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi, in Brussels in October 2018.

Belgian lawmakers have given initial clearance to a prisoner-exchange treaty with Iran that could pave the way for the release of an Iranian diplomat convicted of planning to bomb the rally of an exiled opposition group outside Paris.

The Foreign Relations Committee of Belgium's lower house of parliament debated the treaty over two days before finally approving it on July 6.

The measure still needs to be put before the full 150-member lower house, most likely in the next two weeks, but the chamber normally follows the votes of its committees, given that they have similar party compositions.

The prisoner exchange might secure the release of a Belgian aid worker who was detained in Iran in February. It could also help Swedish-Iranian academic Ahmadreza Djalali, who has taught in Belgium and been sentenced to death in Iran.

Iran has called for the release of Assadollah Assadi, sentenced to 20 years in prison in Belgium in 2021 for a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group, near Paris in June 2018.

Several lawmakers voiced concern that the treaty, as proposed, might lead to "hostage diplomacy" and put other Belgians at risk of detention.

Amnesty International called on Belgium to ensure that the bill is fully consistent with the country's obligations under international human rights law.

"In particular, the bill should include adequate judicial safeguards to prevent the treaty being used to grant impunity for state officials and agents responsible for serious human rights violations and crimes under international law," the London-based rights group said on July 5.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Iran Accuses Detained French Couple Of 'Undermining' Security

Teachers have in recent months taken to the streets on several occasions to protest their conditions and demand higher wages. They have also called for the release of their jailed colleagues.

Iran has accused a French couple detained in May of "undermining the security" of the country.

The pair stand "accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country", judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told reporters in Tehran on July 6.

French teachers' union official Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris, were arrested in early May in Tehran while on vacation sightseeing in the Islamic republic. They are accused by the authorities of seeking to stir up labor protests.

Iran said they were accused of "entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society."

The French government has condemned their arrest as "baseless" and demanded their immediate release.

"These two people are currently in police custody," Setayeshi said, adding that "the prosecution is dealing with this case."

In June, Iranian authorities announced they had arrested a left-wing activist on suspicion of working to "incite sedition and turmoil among the working class," and who they said was suspected of meeting the French couple.

Teachers have in recent months taken to the streets on several occasions to protest their conditions and demand higher wages. They have also called for the release of their jailed colleagues.

In April, a court sentenced Rasoul Bodaghi, a member of the teachers' union and a civil activist, to five years in prison after convicting him of illegal assembly and propaganda.

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Bodaghi had been sentenced solely for "peaceful activism."

Kohler and Paris are among the latest Western citizens to be detained in Iran.

Western countries and rights groups have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage.

With reporting by AFP and ISNA

Russian Court Orders Caspian Pipeline Consortium To Suspend Operations

Some 80 percent of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow through the terminal in Russia's southern port city of Novorossiisk.

A Russian court has ordered the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which brings oil from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea, to suspend activity for 30 days.

The CPC, which handles about 1 percent of global oil and includes U.S. majors Chevron and Exxon, said on July 6 the ruling to suspend its operations concerned issues related to the handling of oil spills and that the consortium had to abide by the ruling.

In a statement posted on its website, the CPC added that it planned to appeal against the decision.

"The Caspian Pipeline Consortium acts within the legal framework of the Russian Federation and is forced to execute the court ruling. The ruling will be appealed in accordance with the procedure established by law," the CPC said in the statement.

Some 80 percent of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow through the terminal in Russia's southern port city of Novorossiisk. The terminal can transport 67 million tons of oil annually.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Russian oil over the Kremlin's unprovoked war on Ukraine but has said flows from Kazakhstan through Russia should run uninterrupted.

The CPC said on July 6 that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko ordered regulators, including industrial safety regulator Rostekhnadzor, to inspect the facilities of the Russian part of the consortium.

It said that the inspection had found some "documentary" irregularities on plans how to tackle oil spills. An oil spill occurred at the terminal last year.

An inspection by Russian authorities found that documentation for emergency plans to deal with oil spills was incomplete, the CPC said.

The authorities originally gave the CPC until November 30 to correct the violations, but the regional transport regulator unexpectedly demanded the terminal's closure on July 6, which the court approved.

The court said the stoppage was necessary to prevent possible environmental damage, Interfax reported late on July 5.

The pipeline's operations have already been interrupted by damage to the Black Sea's terminal equipment this year.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Western Artillery Has 'Worked Very Powerfully,' Zelenskiy Says Amid Stepped Up Calls For Evacuations

A market in Slovyansk was hit by a Russian attack on July 5, leaving at least two dead.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video message late on July 6 that artillery that Ukraine has received from Western partners has had an effect on the battlefield.

"Finally, it is felt that the Western artillery -- the weapons we received from our partners -- has worked very powerfully,” he said, praising its accuracy.

The Ukrainian military has inflicted “very noticeable blows on warehouses and other points that are important for the logistics of the occupiers,” he said. “And this significantly reduces the offensive potential of the Russian army.”

Ukrainian forces are currently advancing in several directions, including in the south in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, he said.

"We are fighting for our entire south, for the entire Ukrainian Donbas," he said, noting a "most brutal confrontation" near Slovyansk and Bakhmut and adding that Ukrainian forces also are fighting for the Kharkiv region.

"Let the occupiers not think that their time on this land is long, and the superiority of their artillery is eternal," Zelenskiy said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 6, and they "coordinated steps to accelerate the delivery of heavy weapons from the U.S. and other partners."

Kuleba said he had a similar conversation with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in which he emphasized the urgent need to increase supplies of German self-propelled howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials earlier called on civilians to urgently evacuate the city of Slovyansk and other parts of the Donetsk region as Russia escalates its offensive in the east.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said in a Telegram post that two people died in the city of Avdyivka, which is north of the regional capital.

The Donetsk cities of Slovyansk, Krasnohorivka, and Kurakhove each reported one civilian killed on July 6.

Slovyansk has been subjected to "massive" Russian bombardment in recent days, with at least two people killed and seven others wounded in an attack on a marketplace on July 5, officials said.

"Russia has turned the entire Donetsk region into a hot spot where it is dangerous to remain a civilian," Kyrylenko said on Telegram. "I call on everyone to evacuate. Evacuation saves lives."

Moscow-backed separatists in the region said attacks by Ukrainian forces killed four civilians. The claims could not be independently verified.

Deadly Russian Strike Hits Market In Eastern Ukraine's Slovyansk
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An intelligence report from the British Defense Ministry on July 6 said that "there is a realistic possibility that the battle for [Slovyansk] will be the next key contest in the struggle for the Donbas."

"Russian forces from the Eastern and Western Groups of Forces are likely now around 16 km north from the town of [Slovyansk]," the intelligence report said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Speaking on July 6, officials said Ukraine had so far thwarted an attempted Russian advance into the north of the Donetsk region.

"We are holding back the enemy on the border of Luhansk region and Donetsk region," Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Hayday told Ukrainian television.

He said Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there in an apparent effort to cross the Siverskiy Donets River and that two small settlements just inside Luhansk's borders were the scene of fierce fighting.

"Luhansk region even now is fighting. Almost all the territory has been captured, but in two settlements fighting is ongoing" he told a video briefing.

Vadym Lyakh, the mayor of Slovyansk, told a video briefing on July 6 that the city had been shelled for the last two weeks.

"The situation is tense," he said.

The southern port city of Mykolayiv was also being heavily shelled, Oleksandr Senkevych, its mayor, told a briefing. Russian forces were using multiple-launch rocket systems to shell the city, which has shed about half of its prewar population of half a million people, he said.

"There are no safe areas in Mykolayiv," he said. "I am telling the people of the city that they need to leave."

To the north of Donetsk, Russian forces also hit Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, with missile strikes overnight, the regional governor said on July 6 on Telegram.

Three districts of the city were targeted, Oleh Synyehubov said. Three people, including a toddler, sustained injuries, he added.

Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces killed up to 100 Ukrainian troops and destroyed four armored vehicles in Kharkiv, and in the Mykolayiv region struck a Ukrainian air-defense radar and a camp housing foreign fighters.

Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said air-launched high-precision missiles also destroyed two HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems sent by the United States along with ammunition for the systems. The Ukrainian military denied Moscow's claims.

Zelenskiy, speaking at a briefing in Kyiv with visiting Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, said the terms of how the war will end depend on international sanctions pressure on Russia and the supply of weapons to Ukraine.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold a press conference in Kyiv on July 6.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hold a press conference in Kyiv on July 6.

He said the answer to how long the war will last depends on "how quickly we can make Russia think about peace because we believe that they have not even begun to think about it."

Russia has yet to feel the effects of powerful sanctions in part because "unfortunately, there are still some allies who help the Russian Federation or their business," he added.

Martin used the visit to restate Ireland's full backing for continued sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime and for Ukraine's path to membership in the European Union.

"I am grateful that Ireland stands by our side in this crucial time for our country," Zelenskiy told Martin.

Ireland has taken in more than 36,000 Ukrainian refugees and has given 20 million euros ($20.4 million) in humanitarian support and assistance to the country in addition to health equipment and medical donations worth more than 4.5 million euros.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and TASS

UN, U.S. Demand Independent Probe Into Deadly Unrest In Uzbekistan

Uzbek soldiers patrol the streets of Nukus on July 3.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the United States have called for an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 18 people in protests in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan region.

"The reports we have received about serious violence, including killings, during the protests are very concerning. I call on the authorities to exercise utmost restraint," Bachelet said in a statement on July 5.

"I urge the authorities to immediately open a transparent and independent investigation into any allegations of criminal acts committed in that context, including violations by agents of the state."

The United States separately voiced concern and urged all sides to seek a "peaceful resolution" to the tensions and refrain from violence.

"We urge authorities to pursue a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the violence, consistent with international norms and best practices," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on July 5.

Authorities in Uzbekistan said on July 4 that 18 people died in clashes in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region when demonstrations erupted over planned constitutional changes affecting the territory's status.

The unrest, pitting protesters against security forces, represented the most significant challenge yet to the rule of President Shavkat Mirziyoev since he rose to power from the post of prime minister in 2016 following the death of his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Large protests broke out in the regional capital, Nukus, and other cities after changes initiated by Mirziyoev were proposed on June 27 to the Uzbek Constitution, including removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose so in a referendum.

On July 2, Mirziyoev backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.

He said on July 6 that the commission appointed to investigate the unrest will include members of the public and independent activists. He also said that possible use of excessive force against protesters will also be investigated.

Bachelet said more than 500 people were detained and voiced concern that one person had already been charged, and could face up to 20 years in prison.

"People should not be criminalized for exercising their rights," the former Chilean president said.

"Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uzbekistan is a state party, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs."

All detainees should have prompt access to a lawyer, and their due process and fair trial guarantees must be ensured, said the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Bachelet urged the Uzbek government to lift the Internet shutdown immediately, saying the measure had an indiscriminate reach and broadly impacted upon the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to access information.

She also reminded the authorities that the restrictions under emergency law must abide by international law, and be necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory. They also need to be limited in duration and key safeguards against excesses must be put in place.

With reporting by AFP and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

U.S. To Seek G20 Pressure On Russia To Open Sea Lanes

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have not met since before Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will call on Group of 20 members this week to put pressure on Russia to support UN efforts to reopen sea lanes blocked by the Ukraine conflict and repeat warnings to China not to support Moscow's war effort.

Blinken heads to Asia on July 6 for a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali on July 8. He is due to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, but no meeting is expected with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Ramin Toloui, the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, told reporters Blinken would raise energy security and a UN initiative to try to get Ukrainian and Russian foodstuffs and fertilizer back to global markets.

"G20 countries should hold Russia accountable and insist that it support ongoing UN efforts to reopen the sea lanes for grain delivery," he said. "Whether that happens at the level of the G20, or the level of individual G20 countries, that's an important point that Secretary Blinken will make," Toloui said.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has helped contribute to a global food shortage.

Ukraine, said this week it is holding talks with Turkey and the United Nations to secure guarantees for grain exports.

Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Why Resuming Ukrainian Grain Shipments Won’t Be Easy
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The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, said he expected a "candid" exchange on Ukraine in Blinken's talks with China's Wang.

"This will be another convey our expectations about what we would expect China to do and not to do in the context of Ukraine," he said.

China has refused to condemn Russia's actions and has criticized the sweeping sanctions. U.S. officials have warned of consequences should China start offering material support for Russia's war effort.

"It's absolutely critical that we have open lines of communication with our Chinese counterparts, particularly at the senior ensure that we prevent any miscalculation that could lead inadvertently to conflict and confrontation," Kritenbrink said.

Lavrov and Blinken have not met since before Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said now was not the right time for another meeting. "We would like to see the Russians be serious about diplomacy. We have not seen that yet," he said.

Price did not rule out the possibility of a chance Blinken-Lavrov encounter in Bali, which would be their first since they last met in Geneva in January. Price declined to discuss what he called the "choreography" of the G20.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Biden Says Working To Free U.S. Basketball Star, Other Americans 'Wrongfully Detained' In Russia

Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow on June 27.

U.S. President Joe Biden has told the wife of women's basketball star Brittney Griner that he is working to free her and another American who the United States says are being "wrongfully detained" by Russia.

Biden called Cherelle Griner to reassure her that he was "working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible," the White House said in a statement.

The statement added that Biden read her a draft of a letter he plans to send later on July 6 to Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and a star of the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison on drug-possession and smuggling charges. Her trial began last week and is scheduled to resume on July 7.

Authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in Griner's luggage in February when she passed through Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport while returning to play for a Russian team in the WNBA's off-season.

Biden's call with Cherelle Griner followed Brittney Griner's personal appeal to the president in a handwritten letter passed to the White House on July 5.

The letter was passed to the White House by the player's representatives, who said she feared she might never return home and asked that Biden not "forget about me and the other American detainees."

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent, said on July 5 the letter was delivered on July 4. Griner's representatives shared a few lines from the handwritten note.

"As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I'm terrified I might be here forever," Griner wrote.

Griner said on the U.S. Independence Day holiday her family normally honors the service of people who fought for freedom as soldiers in the U.S. military, including her father, a veteran of the war in Vietnam.

"It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year," she said, appealing to Biden to use his presidential powers to bring her home.

The White House statement said Biden called Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world."

Cherelle Griner said for her wife to reach out directly to Biden is an indication of just how afraid she is.

The U.S. State Department in May classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week said U.S. Embassy officials attended Griner's hearing on July 1 and reiterated that her return is a top priority.

Blinken also mentioned Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is being held in Russia on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

"We won't stop working until they are reunited with their loved ones," he said on Twitter.

Some have suggested Moscow is seeking to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Uzbekistan Says Missiles Fired From Afghanistan Damaged Houses

UZBEKISTAN -- Uzbek soldiers guard a checkpoint, two kilometres from "Friendship Bridge" over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan near Termez. (file photo)

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has said that five missiles fired on July 5 from Afghanistan at a city in southeastern Uzbekistan caused no injuries but slightly damaged four homes.

The missiles landed in Termez, a city on the Amu Darya River in the Surxandaryo region.

The ministry said that Uzbek authorities were attempting to clarify the cause of the incident with the Afghan side.

There has been no official comment on reports that Uzbek fighter planes took off after the incident. Nor has there been official comment on a video purporting to show one of the damaged houses.

The shelling was unrelated to unrest in the Central Asian country that left 18 people dead in the restive autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. The Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 4 that the people were killed during unrest over the weekend.

Protests broke out last week after changes initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoev were proposed to the constitution, including the removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose to do so in a referendum.

Mirziyoev has since backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.


North Macedonia Has 'Historic Opportunity,' EU's Michel Says Amid Protests

European Council President Charles Michel (left) shakes hands with Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski at a joint press conference in Skopje on July 5.

SKOPJE -- European Council President Charles Michel has urged North Macedonia to back a French-proposed compromise on ending a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that has blocked the country's bid to join the European Union.

Michel told a news conference in Skopje on July 5 that long-delayed talks to admit North Macedonia into the EU could begin immediately if it accepted the proposal.

"Together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country's EU accession process," Michel said, speaking alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski.

Michel said the country had a "historic opportunity" to agree to the beginning of negotiations and again become a "champion of enlargement."

Kovachevski reiterated his support for the "balanced proposal," adding that "our aim is to start membership talks."

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal last week, saying he believed a compromise agreement was near.

But the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in the dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

VMRO-DPMNE has attacked the French proposal as a "legalization of the assimilation of the Macedonian people," accusing Kovachevski's government of accepting "humiliations and distortions of identity."

North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed.

Violent protests against the proposal erupted over the weekend in Skopje. Tensions escalated during a new protest against the proposal on July 5.

Around 100 demonstrators threw rocks, Molotov cocktails, and other objects at the fence surrounding the parliament building and at the policemen defending it. Several policemen were hurt, but the police forces eventually pushed back and arrested several demonstrators.

Thousands of people protested the proposal the night before in Skopje. Some of the protesters threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital.

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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Police prevented the crowd from forcing their way into government offices.

Bulgaria, which has already formally accepted the French proposal, insists that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, and quash "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Bulgaria has been able to block the start of accession talks because unanimity is required under EU rules.

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with Greece, another EU member, by adding the word "north" to its name. Greece had complained that the name Macedonia implied claims on its own territory, history, and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also stalled the progress of Albania toward EU membership because the bloc has tied its accession talks to those of North Macedonia.

With reporting by AP and dpa

International Ice Hockey Upholds Ban On Russia, Belarus Amid Calls For Sports Suspension

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and IIHF President Rene Fasel attend the opening ceremony of the Night Hockey League in Sochi in May 2021.

The disciplinary board of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has dismissed the appeals of Russia and Belarus against the IIHF's decision to ban them from competition over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The board's decision on July 5 came the same day that 35 allies of Ukraine called for the sports governing bodies of Russia and Belarus to be suspended from international sport federations.

The IIHF board said in a statement on July 5 that it agreed that the decision of the IIHF Council on February 28 "was not a sanction but was a safety policy."

The board also said the policy was not discriminatory and was proportionate.

The IIHF's decision to suspend all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from participation in international competitions was announced four days after Russian troops went into Ukraine.

The IIHF said at the time that the policy was to ensure the safety of players, fans, and other tournament participants.

"The independent board supported our view that it would have been an unacceptable safety risk to either host the [world junior championship] and [world championship] in Russia or to have the Russian and Belarusian teams currently participating in IIHF competitions," IIHF President Luc Tardif said.

Russia and Belarus could still take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Neither Russia nor Belarus played at the men's world championship in May, which host nation Finland won.

Russia was also stripped of the right to host next year's men's world championship, which was to be played in St. Petersburg.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it and several other allies of Ukraine, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, called for the suspension of Russian and Belarusian sports governing bodies.

The statement said sports organizations should also consider suspending the broadcast of competitions into Russia and Belarus.

The joint statement reaffirmed a statement issued on March 8 saying Russia and Belarus should be barred from hosting international sporting events and its athletes subjected to other restrictions.

The July 5 statement said that in cases where sports organizations permit athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, it should be made clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states. The use of Russian and Belarusian flags, emblems, and anthems should be prohibited.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a number of sporting bodies have banned athletes representing Russia and Belarus, which has not sent troops but has backed Russia's military aggression. Among the most notable was FIFA, which suspended Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from international soccer.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Jailed Iranian Activist Says He Will 'Never' Ask For Pardon

Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb (file photo)

Jailed Iranian civil activist Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb has said in a message that he rejected a proposal by prison officials to seek a pardon.

In a message published online on July 4, Ragheb, who is imprisoned in Rajaeeshahr prison, west of Tehran, said that a delegation from the prosecutor's office visited him twice last week and asked him if he wanted to apply for a pardon. "Never," he said he replied.

Ragheb is a former employee of the fire department who has been arrested several times due to his peaceful activism.

He is also one of the 14 civil and political activists who published a statement in June 2018 demanding the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and asking for fundamental change of the constitution.

Ragheb, who has been in prison for the past four months, underwent stomach surgery in June and was returned to prison despite not completing his treatment.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Schools, Government Offices Shut Down In Several Iranian Cities Over Air Pollution

Government offices and educational centers have been shut down in parts of Iran due to high levels of pollution, state media report.

Authorities decided to close offices and educational centers in 16 cities in Isfahan Province, which is home to around 5 million people, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported on July 5.

The Air Pollution Emergency Task Force in Yazd Province also announced late on July 4 that "due to the prediction of dust stability by the General Meteorology Department," all offices and educational activities in this province will be closed on July 5.

At the same time, the director-general of environment of the southern province of Khuzestan also said in an interview, "All offices of Khuzestan Province were closed on July 5, due to the severe dust phenomenon."

On July 4, following the intensification of air pollution, the offices, schools, and universities of Tehran and Alborz provinces, the offices of four cities in Khuzestan Province, as well as educational, sports, and production activities in Isfahan Province were closed.

Climate change, the increasing frequency of droughts, improper management of water and soil resources, deforestation, and theunscientific exploitation of agricultural lands are the most important factors of soil erosion and the occurrence of dust storms in Iran.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

U.S. Envoy Says Iran Added Demands In Nuclear Talks

U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley (file photo)

U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley says Iran has added demands unrelated to discussions on its nuclear program during the latest talks in Doha aimed at breaking an impasse in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

"They have, including in Doha, added demands that I think anyone looking at this would be viewed as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they've wanted in the past," he said in an interview with National Public Radio.

"The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we're prepared to have that. It's between Iran and itself. They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal," Malley added.

He said that there was a proposal on the table for a timeline by which Iran could come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and Washington could ease sanctions on Tehran.

Two days of indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States ended in Qatar on June 29 after failing to make significant progress.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while Tehran gradually backed away from some of the commitments in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to make the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

With reporting by Reuters

Iran Shuts Three Cafes In Qom Over Unveiled Women

Women in Iran must wear a hijab that covers the head and neck while concealing their hair.

Authorities in Iran have closed three coffee shops in the central city of Qom because female customers were not wearing their head scarves, local media report.

"Three coffee shops were closed in Qom due to numerous violations, including women's lack of veils and other issues," said a July 4 statement by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps published in the newspaper Hamshari.

"The owners of the cafes were summoned by police before legal action was taken," the statement added.

The holy Shi'ite city of Qom is home to dozens of religious seminaries and senior clerics.

Under Islamic law enforced in Iran since the 1979 revolution, women must wear a hijab that covers the head and neck while concealing their hair.

Many have pushed the boundaries over the years by allowing their head coverings to slide back and reveal more hair, especially in Tehran and other major cities.

Recently, the government has reportedly renewed its crackdown on women who are deemed insufficiently veiled.

Based on reporting by AFP and Hamshahri

Ukraine, Allies Adopt Principles For Reconstruction

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis (left) and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal shake hands at the closing plenary of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, Switzerland, on July 5.

Dozens of countries have committed to support Ukraine through what is expected to be a long and expensive recovery, and agreed on the need for broad reforms to boost transparency and battle corruption.

Wrapping up a two-day conference in the southern Swiss city of Lugano on July 5, leaders from some 40 countries signed on to the Lugano Declaration, laying out a set of principles for rebuilding Ukraine.

Signatories, including the United States, Britain, France, and Japan, condemned Russia's military aggression against Ukraine "in the strongest terms" and urged Moscow to withdraw its troops without delay.

Swiss President Iganzio Cassis, who co-hosted the conference with Ukraine, hailed the declaration as a "key first step on the long road of Ukraine's recovery."

"Our work prepares for the time after the war even as the war is still raging," he told the closing ceremony.

"This should give the people in Ukraine hope and the certainty that they are not alone."

The signatories welcomed commitments to provide political, financial, and technical support and launched the "Lugano principles" to guide the reconstruction effort, which Kyiv says could cost up to $750 billion.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on July 5 that the declaration was "definitely the start of our long-distance" process.

"We have to make everything that was destroyed better than it was," he said.

Scott Miller, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, urged allies of Ukraine to help not only with longer-term rebuilding but also with more immediate needs.

“While we recognize the importance of preparing for Ukraine’s future, all of us must also deliver on our commitments to provide Ukraine its immediate and urgent needs," he said.

Many attendees pointed out that rebuilding efforts were likely to take many years. Some called for support for Ukraine along the lines of the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II.

The Lugano principles stress that "the recovery process has to contribute to accelerating, deepening, broadening, and achieving Ukraine's reform efforts and resilience in line with Ukraine's European path."

"The recovery process has to be transparent and accountable to the people of Ukraine," the document says.

It also calls for the recovery process to be "inclusive and ensure gender equality," and for Ukraine to be rebuilt in a "sustainable manner."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ukrainian Mathematician Becomes Second Woman To Receive Prestigious Fields Medal

Maryna Viazovska (left) was awarded for her work in sphere packing -- a problem first posed by German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler nearly 400 years ago.

Four mathematicians have been awarded prestigious Fields medals, including Ukrainian Maryna Viazovska, the International Mathematical Union jury said on July 5.

Viazovska is only the second woman to win the prize, considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics.

She accepted the award at a ceremony in Helsinki as war raged in her home country.

The other winners were French mathematician Hugo Duminil-Copin of the University of Geneva; Korean-American mathematician June Huh of Princeton; and British mathematician James Maynard of the University of Oxford.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40.

Maryam Mirzakhani , an Iranian-born professor at Stanford University, was the first woman to receive the prize for her work in 2014. She died of breast cancer in 2017.

Viazovska has been a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland since 2017.

She was awarded for her work in sphere packing -- a problem first posed by German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler nearly 400 years ago.

The International Congress of Mathematicians, where the prize is awarded, was initially scheduled to be held in the Russian city of St. Petersburg -- and opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this year, hundreds of mathematicians signed an open letter protesting the choice of the host city. After Moscow invaded Ukraine in late February, the event was moved to the Finnish capital.

With reporting by AFP, AP and The New York Times

NATO Launches Ratification Process For Swedish, Finnish Membership

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (center), Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde hold a joint press conference after signing the countries' accession protocols at NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 5.

The 30 NATO allies have signed off on the accession protocols for Sweden and Finland, sending the membership bids of the two countries to the alliance capitals for legislative approval, in a historic step brought on by Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine.

"This is a good day for Finland and Sweden and a good day for NATO," alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in a joint press statement with the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers on July 5.

"With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades," he added.

The historic shifts by Sweden and Finland came in the face of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine in February and other aggressive moves by the Kremlin in the region. Public opinion in the Nordic countries quickly turned in favor of NATO membership following the invasion.

Every alliance member has different legislative challenges and procedures to deal with, and it could take several more months for the two to become official members.

"I look forward to a swift ratification process," Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said.

"Thank you for your support! Now the process of ratification by each of the allies begins," Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said on Twitter.

Ankara initially said it would veto their bids, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of providing havens for Kurdish militants operating in Turkey and for promoting what he called "terrorism."

Following negotiations, Erdogan said he would drop his objections but indicated he could still block their membership bids if they failed to follow through on promises, some of which were undisclosed.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Civilians Urged To Evacuate Donetsk Region In Eastern Ukraine After Deadly Russian Strikes

A regional official said at least two people were killed and seven wounded in Slovyansk as a result of the shelling on July 5.

The head of the Donetsk regional military administration has urged the last remaining civilians to evacuate the eastern Ukrainian region as Russia escalated its offensive, hitting several cities and towns in the region and elsewhere in the country.

More than 350,000 residents remain in Donetsk, and Pavlo Kyrylenko said getting them out is necessary to save lives and enable the Ukrainian Army to defend against the Russian advance.

"The destiny of the whole country will be decided by the Donetsk region," Kyrylenko told reporters on July 5 in Kramatorsk, the administrative center of Donetsk. "Once there are fewer people, we will be able to concentrate more on our enemy and perform our main tasks."

Ukraine's railway system said more passenger wagons were being added to trains leaving Pokrovsk, a city northwest of the regional capital, to step up departures.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that air alerts were issued late on July 5 in nearly all parts of the country, including places that had experienced relative calm in recent weeks.

"The Russian Army does not take any breaks. It has one task -- to take people's lives, to intimidate people -- so that even a few days without an air alarm already feel like part of the terror," he said.

Russia's main targets are now Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, Kyrylenko said, describing the shelling as "very chaotic" without "a specific target...only to destroy civilian infrastructure and residential areas."

Slovyansk came under sustained bombardment on July 5, Mayor Vadym Lyakh said on Facebook. He initially urged people to evacuate but then said residents who remained should take cover in shelters.

Kyrylenko said earlier that at least two people were killed and seven wounded as a result of the shelling of Slovyansk on July 5. Kyrylenko posted a video on social media showing smoke rising from a commercial area and photos of firefighters dousing flames. The claims could not be independently verified.

Deadly Russian Strike Hits Market In Eastern Ukraine's Slovyansk
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Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on July 5 that the war in Ukraine would continue until all the goals set by Russian President Vladimir Putin were achieved. However, Shoigu said the main priorities for Moscow were "preserving the lives and health" of the troops, and "excluding the threat to the security of civilians."

Ukrainian forces early on July 5 took up new defensive lines in Donetsk, where they still control major cities, after withdrawing from Lysychansk.

The withdrawal prompted Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region, although Zelenskiy vowed to regain the lost ground.

Putin on July 4 declared that Russian forces should continue to advance throughout the Donetsk region "as has happened in Luhansk."

An intelligence report from the British Defense Ministry on July 5 said the battle for the Donbas "has been characterized by slow rates of advance" and Russia's heavy use of artillery, leveling towns and cities in the process.

"The fighting in Donetsk Oblast will almost certainly continue in this manner,” the intelligence report said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by phone with Zelenskiy on July 5, telling him he believes Ukraine can retake territory recently captured by Russia.

Johnson reiterated Britain's commitment to helping Kyiv defend itself and rebuild, and Zelenskiy thanked him for a further 100 million pounds ($119 million) in support.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the prime minister also updated Zelenskiy on the latest U.K. military equipment, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems, which would be arriving in the coming days and weeks.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on July 5 that the first group of Ukrainian soldiers had recently arrived in Britain as part of a program to train up to 10,000 new Ukrainian recruits.

Wallace said the weekslong courses, based on Britain's basic soldier training, includes weapons training, battlefield first aid, patrol tactics, and training on the law of armed conflict.

Zelenskiy said earlier Kyiv's armed forces were undeterred in their efforts to "break" Moscow's will to pursue the war against his country hours after Putin ordered his military to continue its offensive.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video message on July 4 that despite Ukraine's withdrawal from Lysychansk, which enabled Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region, its troops continued to fight.

"We need to break them," he said. "It is a difficult task. It requires time and superhuman efforts. But we have no alternative."

Ukraine's military said it withdrew from the bombed-out city of Lysychansk late on July 3 to save the lives of its soldiers, while Zelenskiy vowed to retake the city "thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons."

"This is the last victory for Russia on Ukrainian territory," Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said in a video posted online.

Arestovych said that besides the battle for Donetsk, Ukraine was hoping to launch counteroffensives in the south of the country.

"Taking the cities in the east meant that 60 percent of Russian forces are now concentrated in the east and it is difficult for them to be redirected to the south," he said.

"And there are no more forces that can be brought in from Russia. They paid a big price for Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk," he said.

Early on July 5, Russian rockets hit the southern city of Mykolayiv, on the main highway between Kherson and Odesa, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa

Belgian Detained In Iran As Brussels Mulls Controversial Prisoner-Swap Treaty With Tehran

Iranian opposition activists protest with a poster depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi in Brussels in October 2018.

Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months on "espionage" charges, Belgium's justice minister has said, as the country considers a controversial treaty with Tehran.

The man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in "illegal" detention since, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told Belgian lawmakers without identifying him. Some reports suggested that Iran had arrested an former NGO worker.

Quickenborne said officials from Belgium's embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed man to give all possible assistance, and that his family had earlier on July 5 made public his detention.

"I cannot say more, at the express request of the family," the minister said.

His comments came as Belgium's parliament is set to debate whether to ratify a proposed treaty with Iran that could allow an Iranian diplomat serving a 20-year sentence for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris to be sent back to Tehran.

The treaty has been criticized by opposition lawmakers and lawyers for a dissident Iranian group, who say it would pave the way for Assadollah Assadi, convicted of terror charges and sentenced in February 2021, to be repatriated.

The treaty's text "is tailored to Assadi", opposition deputy Georges Dallemagne said.

Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, near Paris in June 2018. The NCRI is the political wing of the exiled Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK), an exiled opposition group that is seeking to overthrow the Islamic republic.

Dallemagne predicted the Belgian government would present any release of Assadi as a "humanitarian operation," a trade for a Swedish-Iranian academic, Ahmadreza Djalali, who is being held in Iran under sentence of death.

Djalali was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists. He taught at a Brussels university. However, it is not clear if he would be covered by the treaty as he doesn't have Belgian nationality.

Amnesty International said in May that Iranian authorities were using Djalili as a hostage "to pervert the course of justice in Sweden and Belgium."

The London-based rights group suggested that Iran's threat to execute Djalali was tied to the trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official, who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s. Amnesty also said that Iran wants the release of Assadi.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said, "there is no connection with Djalali's case.”

He added that the minister would "explain his point of view" to parliament on July 5. The spokesman declined to give further details.

A copy of the treaty obtained by AFP showed it was signed on March 11 by the Belgian Justice Ministry and the Iranian ambassador to Belgium. It says that "the best way" to boost cooperation with Iran in justice matters was to allow convicts to serve out their sentences in their home countries. It also allows that each jurisdiction grant amnesty to the returned convicts or commute their sentences.

"This is an erosion of the legal system," opposition lawmaker Michael Freilich said. "Iran has made clear publicly that they don't see Assadi as a terrorist, but as a diplomat. He will be freed as soon as he steps foot on Iranian soil."

Debate on the treaty was to start on July 5, with the full parliament to vote whether to adopt it later in the week.

With reporting by AFP and Politico

Protesters Rally In Skopje For Third Night Against Compromise With Bulgaria

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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SKOPJE -- Thousands of people protested for the third night in North Macedonia's capital against a French proposal that seeks to end a dispute with Bulgaria that is blocking Skopje's bid to join the European Union.

Some of the protesters in the July 4 rally threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital. Some hung flowers on police shields.

Demonstrators say the proposal "Bulgarianizes" the country and does not recognize the Macedonian language and history.

The protests, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise was near over the long-standing dispute to end Bulgaria's veto of North Macedonia's EU membership.

Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski said the French proposal was a "solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country."

However, VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents demand the government reject the plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in a dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

Bulgaria, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has said its identity and language aren’t open for discussion.

The French proposal would have Skopje include ethnic Bulgarians in its constitution "on an equal footing with other peoples" and change history textbook, among other items, some not yet publicly disclosed.

North Macedonia's government is expected in the next few days to present the proposal to parliament.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, is scheduled to visit Skopje on July 5 to offer support for the French proposal as a compromise between Skopje and Sofia.

Britain To Slap New Sanctions On Belarus For Aiding Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson views destroyed Russian military equipment during a June 17 visit to Ukraine.

The British governments says it will introduce a new round of economic, trade, and transport sanctions on Belarus and the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

In a statement on July 4, the British Foreign Office said the package of sanctions "extends some of the significant measures made against Russia to Belarus."

It said the new sanctions will be formally announced and take effect on July 5.

Western governments have imposed financial sanctions on Russia to punish it for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war, but it has provided logistical aid to Russian troops, many of whom crossed the border into Ukraine from Belarus, leading the West to also impose sanctions on Minsk.

The statement said the British government will also restrict "Belarus's access to the U.K.'s world-class financial services sector -- banning more Belarusian companies from issuing debt and securities in London."

"The Belarus regime has actively facilitated [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's invasion, letting Russia use its territory to pincer Ukraine -- launching troops and missiles from their border and flying Russian jets through their airspace," the statement said.

Lukashenka "has also openly supported the Kremlin's narrative, claiming that Kyiv was 'provoking Russia' in order to justify Putin's bloody invasion."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while plagued by a series of scandals at home, has taken a leading role among Western states in hitting Russia and Belarus with sanctions following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

The Foreign Office said the new action built on the "wide-ranging measures" the government had imposed on Minsk, including a 35 percent increase on tariffs on a range of goods originating from Belarus.

It has also placed sanctions on Lukashenka and senior government officials "for their continued human rights violations and undermining of democracy."

Lukashenka, 67 years old and in power since 1994, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.

Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service

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