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McMaster: U.S. Must Be Prepared To 'Compel' Denuclearization Of North Korea

U.S. national security advisor H. R. McMaster

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster says that the United States "must be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearization of North Korea."

McMaster's comments, in an interview with the BBC that was posted on the Internet on December 19, were the latest indication that the United States is ready to use force at some point to remove the threat posed by Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.

Asked whether the United States is committed to a peaceful solution to the standoff with North Korea, McMaster said: "We're committed to a resolution. We want the resolution to be peaceful, but as [President Donald Trump] has said, all options are on the table.

"And we have to be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime," he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's government.

McMaster called North Korea "a grave threat to all civilized people across the globe."

North Korea has carried out repeated nuclear and missile tests, violating UN Security Council resolutions and drawing international condemnation. It has boasted of developing a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching the mainland United States.

Trump has threatened that the United States will destroy North Korea if provoked.

With reporting by BBC and Reuters

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Video Of Iranian Activists Protesting Woman's Arrest Over Hijab Goes Viral

Sepideh Rashno was shown for a few seconds on state television on July 30 in what looked like a studio setting. Her halting voice raised suspicion she was reading from a text written for her.

A video posted online by a group of Iranian female activists in support of a woman arrested for protesting mandatory head-scarf rules has gone viral just days after she appeared on television making a "confession" they allege was made under duress.

In the video published by on social media on August 16, the activists recite a piece of poetry titled The Confession, written by an anonymous user who uses the moniker "Darya."

The poem is addressed to Sepideh Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist who was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on head scarfs on a bus in Tehran was posted online.

Iranian authorities have not provided any information about Rashno's case, nor her state of health since she was taken into custody.

The poem says Rashno remains in the country's memory and praises her "beauty, courage, and pride."

Rashno was riding the bus without wearing the mandatory hijab. The other woman took a video of her and threatened to send it to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

After she disappeared for several days, Iranian state television aired a "confession" by Rashno in a video report on July 30 where she appeared to be in a poor physical state.

The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency, the media outlet for Human Rights Activists in Iran, alleged on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.

The group cited eyewitnesses who said Rashno appeared to move slowly and was hospitalized immediately after the video of her admitting her guilt was recorded.

Mooniter, the pseudonym of one of the female activists who participated in the video to support Rashno, said the poem was aimed at "raising the voices of women like Sepideh" and "women and people who have been taken hostage in Iran."

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

Turkmen Activists Beaten At Istanbul Consulate Trying To Deliver Letter To President

Atamurad Saparov was one of the activists trying to deliver a letter at the consulate in Istanbul on August 16.

Five Turkmen rights activists say they were attacked on the grounds of the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul as they tried to hand in a letter addressed to President Serdar Berdymukhammedov to protest the human rights situation in the extremely isolated and tightly controlled Central Asian state.

The Turkmen Helsinki Human Rights Foundation (THF) said on August 16 that the activists, two women and three men, accompanied with their Turkish lawyer, Gulden Sonmez, came to the consulate that day and told the security that they had come to deliver a letter from exiled Turkmen rights activists to the president.

After being allowed to enter the consulate grounds, they say they were attacked by six men, identifying one of the attackers as consulate employee Merdan Mustakov.

Two of the activists, Dursoltan Taganova and Atamurat Saparov, who sustained serious head injuries during the confrontation, were taken to the police.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. Serdar Berdymukhammedov took over the former Soviet republic in March after his authoritarian father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, ruled the country with an iron fist from 2006.

Last year, dozens of Turkmen activists residing abroad held protests in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union calling on the international community to pay more attention to the situation regarding human rights and civil freedoms in Turkmenistan.

China Says It Will Send Troops To Russia For Joint Military Drills

The Chinese Defense Ministry said on August 17 that participation in the joint exercises is "unrelated to the current international and regional situation," an apparent reference to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. (file photo)

Beijing says it will send a contingent of troops to Russia to attend joint military drills involving several other countries, including India, Belarus, Mongolia, and Tajikistan.

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The Chinese Defense Ministry said on August 17 that participation in the joint exercises is "unrelated to the current international and regional situation," an apparent reference to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The drills are part of an ongoing bilateral annual cooperation agreement, the statement said. Similar Russian-led joint exercises involving China have taken place in recent years.

"The aim is to deepen pragmatic and friendly cooperation with the armies of participating countries, enhance the level of strategic collaboration among the participating parties, and strengthen the ability to respond to various security threats," the statement said.

China is among a number of countries that have avoided imposing sanctions in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Chinese counterpart last month that he did not accept China’s claims that it is neutral in the Ukraine conflict and said Washington was "concerned about [China’s] alignment with Russia.”

With reporting by Reuters

Iran Says It's Ready To Implement 'Immediate' Prisoner Swap Agreement With U.S.

Siamak Namazi

Tehran says it is ready to implement a prisoner swap with the United States and urged President Joe Biden to "act" and "remove obstacles" to making progress on the subject.

Tehran has long sought the return of more than a dozen Iranians currently held in the United States, while Washington has been seeking the release of several Iranian-American dual nationals, including businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015.

"We are ready to swap prisoners with Washington.... The U.S. must release jailed Iranian citizens without any conditions," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani told journalists on August 17.

Kanaani's comments come a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Namazi had now spent 2,500 days "wrongfully detained" in Iran.

"We are determined to secure his freedom and ensure all Americans who have been wrongfully detained by Iran, including his father, Baquer, can return home," Blinken wrote.

In response, human rights lawyer Jared Genser shared a letter from Namazi calling on the Biden administration to "match up claims that rescuing us is a priority with effective action."

Talk of a prisoner swap also comes amid lengthy negotiations between Iran and global powers to revive the 2015 nuclear pact. Former President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal.

Washington has been participating indirectly in the talks.

With reporting by IRNA and Fars

Kazakh Rights Groups Call Government's List Of Unrest Victims 'Insufficient'

Security forces are seen being sued against anti-government protests in Almaty on January 6.

NUR-SULTAN -- Human rights activists in Kazakhstan have slammed a government list of men and women killed during and after anti-government protests in January, calling it "insufficient."

The unregistered Qaharman (Hero) human rights group said in a statement on August 17 that the list, released by the government a day earlier, showed only last names and initials of the victims.

The group demanded that detailed information on each victim be made public, including first and patronymic names, ages, exact times of death, causes and exact places of death, and the circumstances when the deaths occurred.

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The group also called on Kazakh citizens who lost people in the unrest but did not see those victims on the list to contact it immediately.

Bakhytzhan Toreghozhina, a leading member of the Almaty-based human rights group Ar, Rukh, Khaq (Dignity, Spirit, Truth), said the list provided by the Prosecutor-General's Office was incomplete.

"For example, during the unrest in Almaty, a 22-year-old citizen of Israel, Levon Kogeashvili, who resided in Kazakhstan for several years, was killed. But his name is not in the list. Why? We have our own list with all necessary details, such as names, ages, and cities where they were killed. We will make our list public in the coming days," Toreghozhina said.

On August 16, Kazakh authorities raised the death toll from the unrest to 238, adding six more people who died in police custody to the original tally.

Thousands were detained during and after the protests, which erupted when a peaceful demonstration in a western district over a fuel-price hike led to nationwide anti-government protests that were violently dispersed by law enforcement and the military.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed the unrest on "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities provided no evidence. Russia briefly sent troops to help protect key government facilities.

In June, prosecutors said the overall death toll stood at 232. Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev also said at the time that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the January protests.

He also said that an unspecified number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.

Eldos Qilymzhanov, a top official with the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on August 16 that six individuals who were detained during the riots had died as a result of “illegal methods of interrogation by law enforcement structures,” adding that 15 law enforcement officers were under investigation.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture and had been subjected to hot irons used by investigators during interrogations.

Human rights groups have said the number of killed demonstrators was much higher than any of the various figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by law enforcement and military personnel.

The unrest led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from Kazakh politics. Some relatives have been stripped of their posts, lost influential positions at companies, or even been arrested on corruption charges.

Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by Kazakh and global human rights groups for an international probe.

UN Envoy Says China Employing Forced Labor, Possible 'Enslavement' In Xinjiang

A Uyghur activist rallies in front of the White House. (file photo)

China's coercing of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities into forced labor in agriculture and manufacturing in Xinjiang could amount to "enslavement as a crime against humanity," an independent UN expert has concluded.

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group mainly originating from and culturally affiliated with the Central and East Asian regions.

Their treatment by Chinese officials in Xinjiang Province, where Uyghurs have been forced into a network of detention camps, has been labeled genocide by the United States, while the UN has accused Chinese authorities of unlawfully arresting and mistreating Uyghurs and using them for forced labor.

According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers in the western Chinese region.

WATCH: Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from China, was sent to work as a teacher in one of the country's so-called "reeducation camps." Human rights researchers say more than 1 million detainees, mostly Muslims, have been imprisoned in the camps. In 2018, Sauytbay escaped to Kazakhstan, then Sweden, and began recounting shocking stories of torture and oppression at the camp in China's Xinjiang region. Her efforts to reveal the conditions there have won her international recognition.

After Fleeing China, An Ethnic Kazakh Works To Expose Xinjiang 'Reeducation Camps'
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China denies that the facilities are internment camps, saying they are necessary to curb terrorism, separatism, and religious radicalism. But people who have fled the province say that thousands are undergoing "political indoctrination" at facilities known officially as reeducation camps.

The report, released late on August 16 by the UN special rapporteur on modern slavery, Tomoya Obokata, pointed to two "distinct state-mandated systems" in China in which forced labor has occurred.

One is a vocational skills education and training center system in which minorities are detained and subject to work placements, while another involves attempts to reduce poverty through labor transfer, in which rural workers are moved into "secondary or tertiary work."

"While these programs may create employment opportunities for minorities and enhance their incomes...the special rapporteur considers that indicators of forced labor pointing to the involuntary nature of work rendered by affected communities have been present in many cases," the report said.

The nature and extent of powers exercised over the workers -- including excessive surveillance and abusive living and working conditions -- could "amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis," it said.

Obokata said a similar labor transfer system exists in Tibet, where the "program has shifted mainly farmers, herders, and other rural workers into low-skilled and low-paid employment."

In May, the United Nation's human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, made a rare six-day visit to China that took her to Xinjiang.

Bachelet's trip was criticized by Washington and major rights groups for "whitewashing" Beijing's "atrocities," with critics calling for her resignation.

Bachelet is due to publish a report detailing her visit before she steps down at the end of the month when her term expires.

With reporting by AFP

Russia Pounds Kharkiv Region With Fresh Air And Artillery Strikes

Russian rockets launches against Ukraine from Russia's Belgorod region are seen at dawn in Kharkiv on August 15.

Russian forces pounded civilian settlements in the Kharkiv area while attempting to advance in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine's military said on August 17, as Russia blamed sabotage for explosions at one of its military bases in Moscow-annexed Crimea amid hints by Kyiv that it was responsible for the incident.

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The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces carried out air and artillery strikes near Stariy Saltiv and Mospanove in the Kharkiv region, adding that the Russians were conducting an offensive near Lebyazhe and Bazaliyivka, where the fighting continues.

In Donetsk, Russian troops attempted to advance near Bohorodychne but had to retreat, the General Staff reported, adding that fighting continued near Mazanivka and Novodmytrivka.

Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on August 17 that two civilians were killed and seven wounded in shelling by Russian forces in the last 24 hours in the region.

In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said a Russian ammunition storage unit in occupied Crimea exploded on August 16, wounding at least two people and prompting the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents.

The ministry blamed the blast on sabotage, in a rare admission that armed groups loyal to Ukraine are damaging military logistics and supply lines on territory it controls.

Ukrainian officials avoided publicly or directly claiming responsibility for the incidents, but some appeared to suggest that Kyiv was involved.

Crimea was captured and annexed by Russia in 2014 and is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, but Moscow has threatened severe reprisals for any attacks on the peninsula.

After the blasts, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his nightly address on August 16, called on Ukrainians living in the occupied territories to stay away from the military facilities of the Russian Army located in Crimea.

"Every day and every night we see new reports of explosions in the territory temporarily occupied by the invaders," Zelenskiy said, without admitting direct responsibility for the blasts. He said the explosions could have various causes, including incompetence.

"But they all mean the same thing -- the destruction of the occupiers' logistics, their ammunition, military and other equipment, and command posts saves the lives of our people," he said.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report that while the cause of the blasts remains unclear, it is "highly likely" that the incidents are causing increasing concerns among Russian commanders about the apparent deterioration of the security situation in occupied Crimea, which functions as a rear base for the occupation of Ukraine.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, another top Zelenskiy aide, said in a post on Twitter that the latest blasts were a reminder that the "Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses, explosions, and a high risk of death for invaders and thieves."

"What is stolen does not bring prosperity," Podolyak later told Ukrainian television.

The incidents came roughly a week after a series of unexplained explosions tore through Russia’s Saky air base, in a western district of Crimea, destroying a number of Russian warplanes.

There's been no confirmation as to what caused those explosions, though satellite imagery showed extensive destruction at the base.

The Dzhankoy district is about 50 kilometers from the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine.

With reporting by Crimea.Realities and AP

Kazakhs Mourn Veteran Opposition Politician Baltash Tursymbaev

The funeral of Baltash Tursymbaev in Almaty on August 16.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Family, friends, colleagues, opposition activists, public figures, and journalists paid their respects on August 16 to Baltash Tursymbaev following the death of the longtime Kazakh government critic.

Tursymbaev died on August 14 at the age of 75 from a heart attack.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev sent written condolences to Tursymbaev's relatives.

After oil-rich Kazakhstan gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian-born Tursymbaev served in various senior posts, including as a deputy prime minister, agriculture minister, regional governor, Security Council secretary, and an ambassador to Turkey.

In 1999, Tursymbaev joined the opposition and had since harshly criticized the country's first postindependence president, Nazarbaev, and his successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

In recent months, Tursymbaev was demanding from the authorities a thorough investigation into the violent dispersal of mass anti-governments protests in the country in 2020 that left 238 people dead, including some from torture.

Rights groups insist the official death toll is vastly underreported.

Kyrgyz Investigators Drop One Of The Charges Against Jailed Health Minister

Alymkadyr Beishenaliev was detained in early June along with two subordinates on charges of corruption, extortion, and abuse of office as part of a series of corruption cases at the ministry.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz investigators have dropped a corruption allegation from a list of charges against the country's health minister, Alymkadyr Beishenaliev, in a high-profile case alleging skimming and other wrongdoing related to vaccines and purported remedies for COVID-19.

Beishenaliev was detained in early June along with two subordinates on charges of corruption, extortion, and abuse of office as part of a series of corruption cases at the ministry.

Beishenaliev's lawyer, Kaisyn Abakirov, told RFE/RL on August 16 that the Interior Ministry dropped the charge of corruption linked to allegedly misusing state funds when buying vaccines against COVID-19 in 2021.

Investigations into other charges continue.

Beishenaliev was named health minister after a new government was established following mass anti-government protests in October 2020 sparked by parliamentary elections that many in the Central Asian nation said were rigged.

He was at the center of a scandal last year after he promoted a toxic substance -- a solution with extracts of aconite root -- as a treatment for COVID-19. Several persons were hospitalized after using the solution.

Aconite roots contain aconitine, a cardiotoxin and neurotoxin. Consuming aconite root can lead to sickness or even death.

Kyrgyz Blogger Ordered Into 60 Days Of Pretrial Detention Over Post On Mining Project

Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev in court in Bishkek on August 16.

BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz blogger has been sent into pretrial detention on a charge of making public calls for mass disorder and violence after he posted online materials questioning the legality of the government's plans to develop iron-ore mining in the Central Asian nation's Jetim-Too mountain region.

The Birinchi Mai district court ruled on August 16 that 19-year-old Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev must stay in custody for at least two months.

Jekshenaliev was detained on August 14 after investigators questioned him regarding his post on a Facebook account called Polit Uznik (Political Prisoner).

Earlier in the day, the Bishkek-based Media Police journalists right group called on the Kyrgyz authorities to drop all charges against Jekshenaliev and release him, saying the case against the blogger was launched for his views, which are critical of the government.

The Interior Ministry said earlier that Jekshenaliev was detained because "recently, many disputes appear regarding the development of iron-ore mines at Jetim-Too," adding that the Polit Uznik account in Facebook distributes "controversial, false information."

Polit Uznik posted a handwritten statement Jekshenaliev wrote while in custody in which he calls the case again him "100 percent politically motivated."

Polit Uznik also said the post in question was an old video in which a former security chief raises environmental issues when talking about the government’s plans to develop the project.

On August 14, President Sadyr Japarov condemned unspecified "defenders" of the environment in the region, calling them "false patriots and liars."

Japarov, who initiated the project to develop iron-ore mining in Jetim-Too, called on law enforcement "to work" with such persons. He did not elaborate.

Ukrainian Nuclear Operator Accuses Russians Hackers Of Attacking Its Website

Energoatom is central to the current concerns around Zaporizhzhya and Ukrainian and international efforts to safeguard against a nuclear disaster at the facility.

Ukrainian state nuclear operator Energoatom said on August 16 that Russian-based hackers unleashed an hours-long attack on its website but said major problems had been avoided.

It blamed the attack on what it said was a Russian group called "narodnaya kiberarmya," or "popular cyberarmy."

Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, after eight years of "hybrid warfare" that included disinformation and hacks, in addition to backing for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine following the occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Energoatom has been dragged into the conflict since the early days as Russian troops occupied the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant and other nuclear facilities.

"The Russians have launched an unprecedented cyberattack on the official website of Energoatom," the company said on its Facebook page.

It called the attack "the most powerful hacking attack" on its site since the invasion started.

It said the Russian group employed "7.25 million bot users who simulated hundreds of million views of the company's homepage for three hours."

But it said the operations of the site were not "significantly" affected and users were unaware of the attempted disruption.

Energoatom is central to the current concerns around Zaporizhzhya and Ukrainian and international efforts to safeguard against a nuclear disaster at the facility, including through efforts to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts to visit the site. The plant has been controlled by Russian forces since March.

French, Ukrainian Leaders Discuss Nuclear Crisis; Zelenskiy Alleges Russian 'Nuclear Terrorism'

Exhausted Ukrainian workers at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant have complained of being held at gunpoint.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has decried "Russia's nuclear terrorism" in a phone call on August 16 with his French counterpart, as Ukrainian and international nuclear experts continue to demand greater safeguards against catastrophe at the occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy tweeted that he had also informed President Emmanuel Macron about the "situation at the front" and thanked Paris for its "tangible defense aid," as well as discussing economic aid and food-security challenges.

"We must increase sanctions on Russia," Zelenskiy said, continuing a recent push for harsher international penalties to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to call off his five-month-old invasion.

Macron's office said the French leader "underlined his concern about the threat posed by the presence and actions of the Russian armed forces and the context of war with the ongoing conflicts over security and safety of Ukrainian nuclear installations, and called for the withdrawal of these forces."

Champs-Elysees said Macron also stressed his support for the possible terms of the UN nuclear agency director-general's proposal to send a mission of experts to Zaporizhzhya as soon as possible.

Macron along with Zelenskiy also hailed the continued implementation of a UN- and Turkish-brokered deal with Russia and Ukraine on the export through Ukrainian ports of Ukrainian grain "essential for world food security."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked for a demilitarized zone to be created around Zaporizhzhya.

Both the UN and its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have said IAEA inspectors should be allowed to visit the plant.

Guterres reportedly spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on August 15, when Russia's Foreign Ministry also insisted it would do "everything necessary" to allow IAEA experts access to the facility, which lies near the front lines in southeastern Ukraine.

Exhausted Ukrainian workers at the plant have complained of being held at gunpoint, and the plant's operator, Enerhoatom, has said Russia is preparing a risky maneuver to divert Zaporizhzhya's energy production to a Russian-controlled grid.

Ukraine's nuclear power company Enerhoatom alleged on August 16 that Russian-based hackers had unleashed an hours-long attack on its website but said major problems had been avoided.

Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, acknowledged in a state TV interview on August 16 that the Zaporizhzhya situation represents "dangers all of us are facing... as major contamination or a Chernobyl-like disaster could occur there under certain conditions."

Russia's TASS also quoted him repeating Moscow's accusations that Ukrainian forces and its Western backers are behind the recent shelling around Zaporizhzhya, which Russian forces captured in March.

Kyiv has insisted that Russian troops are using Europe's largest nuclear plant as a military base, including storing dangerous weapons and shelling in the area.

On August 14, 42 countries condemned Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and said the presence of Russian military forces at Zaporizhzhya is preventing authorities from maintaining nuclear and radiation safety obligations.

"It is undeniable that Russia's invasion and its continued presence at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities significantly raise the risk of nuclear incidents and accidents," the statement on the European Union's website says.

Swiss To Return 'Illegal' Millions Of Late Uzbek Leader's Imprisoned Daughter

Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of former Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo)

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan and Switzerland have agreed on the return by Swiss authorities of $131 million in assets seized during criminal proceedings against Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

The Uzbek Justice Ministry said on August 16 that Minister Ruslanbek Davletov and Swiss President Ignazio Cassis signed an agreement in Bern to place the confiscated assets for a UN fund for sustainable development in Central Asia's most populous nation of 35 million.

The breakthrough is one of a handful of efforts by Tashkent to agree on the return of some $1 billion in illicit funds, in some cases slowed by foreign authorities' desire to ensure transparency in the funds' return to public coffers.

"The fund will allow the returned assets to be used for the benefit of the population of Uzbekistan," Cassis said at the signing ceremony.

Switzerland froze around 800 million Swiss francs ($842 million) in 2012 in connection with criminal proceedings against Karimova, a pop diva and businesswoman who had a public falling-out with her late father and is currently in an Uzbek prison on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.

The Uzbek Justice Ministry said in February that it was working with authorities in Switzerland, the United States, France, Russia, and several other nations on the return of Karimova's assets that it said were "earned through criminal activities."

The ministry said at the time that Uzbek and Swiss authorities had agreed to create a multiparty trust fund with the United Nations to work on the return of assets that were confiscated under a court decision as part of the probe against Karimova.

It said that assets worth about $131 million and confiscated in 2019 were ready to be transferred to Uzbekistan.

In 2020, the Swiss government said a nonbinding framework agreement signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan meant any returned assets "shall be used for the benefit of the people of Uzbekistan."

Tashkent has sought over $1 billion from foreign jurisdictions since announcing Karimova's imprisonment in 2017.

Once seen as a possible successor to her father, Karimova was placed under house arrest in Tashkent in 2014 while he was still alive and running the country. Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded him soon afterward.

Criminal investigators in Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands have linked Karimova to a massive, years-long bribery scheme that revolved mainly around foreign telecommunications companies gaining access to the Uzbek market.

In December 2017, Karimova was sentenced to a 10-year prison term but the sentence was later commuted to house arrest for five years. She was detained in March 2019 for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.

In February 2020, Karimova sent a letter to Mirziyoev offering to return $686 million to the country's treasury in exchange for the dismissal of the court case against her at home.

But a month later she received an additional 13-year sentence after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and other crimes.

German Troops Rejoin EU's Bosnian Mission, Sparking Russian Anger

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell visits the EUFOR base near Sarajevo on March 16.

A contingent of around two dozen German troops arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina on August 16 as part of the European Union's nearly two-decade peacekeeping and security mission in the troubled Balkan state, in a move quickly disparaged by Russia's embassy.

The return of German troops to the EUFOR mission for the first time in a decade reflects Western concern at centrifugal ethnic and political forces and potential geopolitical spillover from the Ukraine war.

EUFOR last week announced the deployment of up to 50 Bundeswehr troops to the former Yugoslav republic, which remains divided into a Bosniak and Croat federation and a mostly Serb entity known as Republika Srpska under the terms of a 1995 cease-fire known as the Dayton Agreement.

On August 16, it called the arrival of around 30 troops "a further demonstration of the EU's commitment to a stable, prosperous, and European future for all the citizens" of Bosnia.

EUFOR's Althea mission in Bosnia comprises around 1,100 soldiers from 20 countries.

EUFOR said after the German troops' arrival at Camp Butmir that "the advance party of German personnel arriving this week are expected to be followed by further troops deployed on a phased basis."

The Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, who has openly sought secession for Republika Srpska and hastened instability with rival institutions, has criticized the arrival of German troops with references to World War II.

EUFOR is in part tasked with ensuring civilian order and compliance with Dayton alongside an international high representative, currently German Christian Schmidt.

Dodik ally Russia last year accelerated its push to phase out Schmidt's post.

EUFOR's current mandate expires in November and there is speculation that Moscow could use its UN Security Council veto to scupper an extension.

Russia's embassy in Sarajevo alleged on August 16 that the United States and Britain are "preparing the ground for the creeping NATOization" of Bosnia.

Given European forces' most recent report to the UN Security Council suggesting Bosnia is calm and stable, the embassy said, "the reasons for the need to expand military personnel in EUFOR, including at the expense of Bundeswehr soldiers, are groundless."

It said that it "especially" considers suggestions that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is affecting the situation in Bosnia as "unacceptable."

Bosnia has EU aspirations but has struggled to implement reforms and even maintain unified policies in the face of governmental and administrative divisions based on ethnicity and geography.

Elections scheduled for later this year are in jeopardy as Serbs continue to press for independence and ethnic Croats insist on major electoral changes or they will boycott the vote.

More than 100,000 people died in the 1992-95 Bosnian War that ended with the signing by Serb, Croat, and Bosniak leaders of a U.S.-mediated peace in Dayton, Ohio.

EUFOR replaced NATO peacekeeping troops in Bosnia in 2004.

With reporting by Reuters

After Going Dark, Ship With Ukrainian Corn Appears In Syrian Port

The Razoni is pictured leaving the Ukrainian port of Odesa on August 1.

The first ship to have left Ukraine under a UN- and Turkish-brokered deal two weeks ago to resume food and fertilizer exports amid the Russia-Ukraine war was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port city of Tartus.

The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine with its cargo of 26,000 tons of corn on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled but went dark -- when a ship turns off the transponder beaming location data -- before appearing in Tartus.

Russia is a key ally that has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.

In June, Damascus recognized the independence declarations of two regions of eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists have controlled wide swaths of land since 2014, prompting Kyiv to sever diplomatic relations with Syria.

Reuters quoted imagery from Planet Labs PBC as showing the Razoni at Tartus and a shipping source as saying at least some of its cargo was being unloaded there.

The original buyer in Lebanon reportedly refused delivery before the Razoni continued to Turkey on August 11, where some of the cargo was unloaded.

After setting sail on August 11, the Razoni appeared to turn off its transponder.

Ukrainian officials said they were no longer responsible for the cargo or vessel.

Kyiv has already accused Syrian authorities of taking at least 150,000 tons of grain stolen from Ukrainian stockpiles after Russia invaded in February.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will meet with the Ukrainian and Turkish presidents in Ukraine on August 18-19 including in the port city of Odesa in part to discuss the scheme that resumed grain and fertilizer shipments.

Based on reporting by Reuters

UN's Guterres To Meet With Zelenskiy, Erdogan In Ukraine This Week

The Liberia-flagged bulk carrier Arizona is seen in the sea port of Pivdenniy on August 8 after the resumption of grain exports.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will meet with the Ukrainian and Turkish presidents in Ukraine on August 18 and visit a Ukrainian Black Sea port the following day that has resumed shipments of grain exports halted by Russia's five-month-old invasion.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will join Guterres in Lviv, in western Ukraine, to discuss the security situation at a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant and possible paths out of the conflict with Russia.

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Guterres and the international community have expressed intense concerns over the risk of disaster at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, amid reports of shelling and other dangers in the past week.

The United Nations has offered to help facilitate a visit by its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Zaporizhzhya, but Moscow has dismissed a mission traveling through Kyiv despite vowing it would do all it could to help ensure IAEA access to the plant.

Zelenskiy earlier on August 16 accused Russia of "nuclear terrorism" in its actions while Moscow says Ukrainian troops are responsible for artillery fire near the facility.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly sought a role for his NATO-member state to mediate in the conflict, and Ankara was crucial to a recent deal that allowed for the restart of grain and fertilizer exports from three of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.

Dujarric said Guterres on August 20 will visit the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul that oversees the seaborne shipments.

The center is staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials.

The first ship to have left Ukraine under the multilateral deal two weeks ago was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port city of Tartus.

The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled but went dark before appearing in Tartus.

Russia is a key ally who has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.

A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tons of Ukrainian grain meanwhile set sail on August 16 from a Black Sea port for Ethiopia, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine, according to Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry.

Based on reporting by Reuters
Updated

Yerevan Market Director Denies Safety Breach As Blast's Death Toll Rises To 16

The explosions at the market in Yerevan sparked a devastating fire.

YEREVAN -- The director of a market where an apparent fireworks warehouse explosion killed at least 16 people in the Armenian capital has denied any breach of fire-safety regulations ahead of the tragedy.

But fire inspectors said that two dozen violations identified last year at the sprawling Surmalu market had not been eliminated by the market's administration before the August 14 incident.

Sixteen bodies have been recovered so far and three people are still missing, with 61 more people injured in the massive fire triggered by the blast, about 2 kilometers from downtown Yerevan.

Emergency Situations Minister Armen Pambukhchian said an Iranian and a Russian are among those still unaccounted for as rescue crews continue to search the site.

Razmik Zakharian, the 86-year-old businessman and former politician who owns Surmalu, was not immediately reachable.

Irina Madatova, the manager of Surmalu, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service by phone that the operators had addressed the violations. She did not elaborate.

Fire inspectors said they had given Surmalu until the end of 2021 to comply with city-planning norms and fire-safety rules. They said no subsequent inspection had been carried out.

Vardan Tadevosian, a spokesman for Armenia's Investigative Committee, said that about two dozen people, most of them survivors of the fire, have been questioned so far.

Surmalu's managers and owners have not been interrogated, he said, and no charges have been filed against any individuals.

Tadevosian said authorities were still trying to clarify the identities of tenants and vendors.

Investigators together with experts are also examining the scene of the explosion and fire, he said but added that with rescue work still continuing it would likely take time to establish a cause.

Pambukhchian told reporters a day earlier that authorities had "practically ruled out" terrorism as a cause, based in part on footage showing smoke before a small fire and then an explosion.

"Watching the footage of the explosion, we almost rule out such a theory [that a bomb had been planted], because first there was smoke, then fire covering some small area, then came an explosion," he said. "Quite a large amount of explosive materials was stored there."

Iranian Women Protest Arrest, Alleged Forced Confession Over Hijab Offense

Sepideh Rashno was shown for a few seconds on state television on July 30 in what looked like a studio setting. Her halting voice raised suspicion she was reading from a text written for her.

Dozens of female civil activists have called on Iranian authorities to release a woman who was arrested for protesting mandatory head-scarf rules after she appeared on television and gave a "confession" they allege was made under duress.

According to the Free Union Workers of Iran's Telegram channel, the women took to the streets of Tehran carrying placards asking, "Where is Sepideh Rashno?" and demanded to know her status after the 28-year-old writer and artist was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.

The other woman threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without a hijab -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Rashno was subsequently detained and has been held since without access to a lawyer, nor have the charges against her been made public.

Amid growing concern over her whereabouts, a Twitter campaign started with the hashtag "Where is Sepideh?"

Iranian state television subsequently showed Rashno in a video report on July 30 where her eyes appeared darkened. Witnesses said she seemed listless and moved slowly.

The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency, the media outlet for Human Rights Activists in Iran, said on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.

According to eyewitnesses, Rashno had low blood pressure, had difficulty moving, and was transferred to a hospital. She returned to prison immediately after being examined.

During a one-sided narrative over the confrontation, Rashno was shown for a few seconds on state television in what looked like a studio setting. Her halting voice raised suspicion she was reading from a text written for her.

The confession aired amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.

The hijab first became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

Hundreds Protest Water Shortage In Central Iran, Chant 'Death To Raisi'

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari administrative building in the regional capital, Shahrekord, 10 days into a water shortage crisis so severe that the only source of daily water is through trucks.

Hundreds of people protested water shortages in the central Iranian province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, chanting "Death to Raisi," a reference to President Ebrahim Raisi.

According to videos published on social media on August 16, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari administrative building in the regional capital, Shahrekord, 10 days into a water shortage crisis so severe that the only source of daily water is through trucks.

Security forces have been seen among the protesters, though no reports of violence have been reported.

While much of Iran has been suffering through water shortages for years, the recent crisis in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari intensified when the Kohrang spring was removed from the drinking-water supply circuit.

Ahmadreza Mohammadi, head of water and sewerage for Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, announced that the spring was out of service due to the "turbidity of the Kohrang spring water" due to a recent flood.

On August 14, Etezad Moghimi, director general of the crisis management office at the Energy Ministry, promised that within a day all water treatment plants will be in operation and the water supply problem would be solved.

Residents of the province, however, have complained on social media that the situation has not improved despite the pledge.

Experts say climate change has amplified the droughts and floods plaguing Iran and that their intensity and frequency in turn threaten food security.

Dozens of protests have been held across Iran in recent months over deteriorating living conditions in the country, which has been hit hard by U.S. sanctions imposed over Tehran's nuclear program.

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

Kazakh Authorities Raise Death Toll From January Unrest To 238

Kazakh authorities have resisted calls for an international probe into the January unrest and the response of law enforcement, which left hundreds of people dead. (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh authorities have raised the death toll resulting from January anti-government unrest that rocked the county to 238, adding six more people who died in police custody to the overall tally.

Officials also released a full list of the victims for the first time on August 16.

The updated figure comes as officials continue to investigate the causes of the violence, and its aftermath, as well as the police response.

Thousands were detained during and after the protests, which erupted when a peaceful demonstration in a western district over a fuel-price hike led to nationwide anti-government protests that were violently dispersed by law enforcement and the military.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed the unrest on "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities have provided no evidence. Russia briefly sent troops to help protect key government facilities.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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In June, prosecutors said the overall death toll stood at 232. Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev also said at the time that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the January protests.

He also said that an unspecified number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.

Eldos Qilymzhanov, a top official with the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on August 16 that six individuals who were detained during the riots had died as a result of “illegal methods of interrogation by law enforcement structures.”

The updated overall toll now stands at 238, he said, as the Prosecutor-General's Office for the first time released the names of those killed.

Qilymzhanov also said that 15 law enforcement officers were under investigation.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture, and had been subjected to hot irons used by investigators during interrogations.

'Burned With An Iron': Relatives Say Detainees Tortured After Massive Kazakh Protests
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Human rights groups say the number of demonstrators killed was much higher than any of the various figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those slain by law enforcement and military personnel.

The unrest led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from Kazakh politics. Some of his relatives have been stripped of their posts, have lost influential positions at companies, or have even been arrested on corruption charges.

Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by Kazakh and global human rights groups for an international probe in the events in January.

With reporting by Kazinform and KazTAG

Finland To Sharply Cut Russian Tourist Visas Amid Outcry Over Ukraine War

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Russian tourist visas would be cut to 10 percent of current volumes as of September 1. 

Finland said it will cut the number of Russian tourist visas it issues by 90 percent due to rising discontent over the war in Ukraine.

The decision, announced on August 16 by Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, is the latest in a series of moves by the country in direct response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters in Helsinki, Haavisto said Russian tourist visas would be cut to 10 percent of current volumes as of September 1.

"Tourist visas will not stop completely, but their number will be significantly reduced," he was quoted as saying.

"This means that other types of visas -- visits to relatives, family contacts, work, study -- will be given preference and more time," he said

Finland currently processes around 1,000 Russian visa applications a day, according to the public broadcaster Yle.

He said Finland will also look into establishing a specific humanitarian visa category, which could help journalists or NGO workers.

A small, but growing number of European Union members have publicly called for either restricting completely banning Russian tourists from Europe in response to the war.

The EU’s largest members, including Germany, have so far resisted the idea, though the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has pledged to discuss the issue further.

After decades of adhering to a neutral, nonaligned military status, Finland has moved quickly to embrace NATO membership following the February 24 invasion. Finnish public opinion has shifted in just a matter of months in favor of joining the alliance.

Sweden has also moved to join and currently, 20 out of NATO’s 30 members have approved the two countries’ membership.

"It's not right that Russian citizens can enter Europe, the Schengen area, be tourists...while Russia is killing people in Ukraine. It's wrong,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on August 15.

With reporting by AFP

Moscow Court Fines Telegram, Twitch For Failing To Delete 'Illegal' Content

(file photo)

A court in Moscow has fined the Telegram and Twitch applications for failing to delete content that the Russian government deems illegal as the Kremlin continues to ramp up pressure on social media networks.

The Magistrate Court of the Taganka district ruled on August 16 that Telegram must pay 4 million rubles ($64,770) for failing to take down materials related to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In a separate hearing, the court ordered Telegram to pay 7 million rubles ($113,350) for failing to remove a manual on how to prepare and conduct acts of sabotage.

The court also ordered the video-streaming service Twitch to pay 2 million rubles ($32,400) as a fine for its failure to remove materials related to the war in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin has accused social media platforms and other foreign-based tech companies of flouting the country's Internet laws. He has been pushing ways to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia and to store users' personal data locally.

The companies did not immediately comment on the decision, but in recent months, Russian courts have fined Google, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok over the personal-data issue, as well as for refusing to delete content deemed to be banned by Russian laws.

Many critics have accused the Russian authorities of trying to quell dissent by imposing stricter regulations on Internet companies.

Based on reporting by TASS and Telegram
Updated

Russian Court Fines Popular Russian Rocker For Criticizing War In Ukraine

DDT bandleader Yury Shevchuk (file photo)

A Russian court has fined the lead singer for the classic Russian rock group DDT 50,000 rubles ($800) for harshly criticizing President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine during a concert.

Yury Shevchuk was not present at the August 16 hearing in Ufa, the capital of the Russian region of Bashkortostan, but his lawyer, Aleksandr Peredruk, read out a statement from his client.

"I, Yury Shevchuk, have been always against wars in any country at any time. I have spoken against wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Georgia, Ossetia, Karabakh, Iraq, etc...I believe that any problems and complications of a political nature between countries and peoples must be solved by diplomatic methods...I am also against the war in the Donbas that has been underway for eight years and the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine," Shevchuk's statement said.

Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a "special military operation" and has made it illegal to refer to it as a war.

Before the hearing, Pavel Chikov, the chief of the legal defense organization Agora, placed Shevchuk's written statement on Telegram.

Peredruk said the court's ruling will be appealed.

Prosecutors charged Shevchuk in May under a law passed shortly after the February 24 invasion, criminalizing public statements that are deemed to discredit the armed forces.

During a DDT concert in Ufa in May, Shevchuk harshly criticized President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

"The Motherland is not the president's ass that one must lather and kiss all the time," Shevchuk said at the concert. “The Motherland is a beggar, an old woman that sells potatoes at the railway station. That is what the Motherland is.”

Shevchuk was loudly applauded by the audience. Videos of his statements went viral on Russian social media channels.

The law that Putin signed in March calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

DDT was founded by Shevchuk in the early 1980s in Ufa and he has written most of its songs over the years.

Tajik Prosecutors Seek Life In Prison For Alleged Organizer Of Protests In Gorno-Badakhshan

Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva (left) and Kholbash Kholbashov (composite file photo)

DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for retired Major General Kholbash Kholbashov for his alleged role in organizing deadly protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO) in May, a charge human rights organizations have called "bogus."

Sources close to law enforcement in Dushanbe told RFE/RL that prosecutors also asked the court to convict and sentence a second defendant in the case, noted journalist and human rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, to 25 years in prison. Mamadshoeva is Kholbashov's ex-wife.

The trial for the two began on August 3 and is being held behind closed doors on the premises of the State Committee for National Security’s detention center in Dushanbe.

Kholbashov and Mamadshoeva also face several charges of publicly calling for violent change to Tajikistan's constitutional order, organizing a criminal group, murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.

They were arrested on May 18 and later shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they, along with opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov and Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, an informal leader in GBAO, had planned and organized the protests. Authorities in the Central Asian nation have claimed those actions were "terrorist" in nature.

The day before her arrest, Mamadshoeva, 65, told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in GBAO's capital Khorugh, and in the district of Rushon.

Authorities say in the footage showing the so-called "confessions" that an unspecified Western country was involved in organizing the unrest. A total of 78 residents from GBAO's Rushon district were arrested at the time.

Mahmadboqirov was killed on May 22 in Khorugh. His relatives say law enforcement officers killed him, while authorities insist he was killed “when criminal groups were settling scores.”

Sherzamonov told RFE/RL that he had nothing to do with the planning of the riots in GBAO and that he suspects Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were forced to make their televised statements.

Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL that 21 dead bodies were found at the sites where the clashes took place.

Deep tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still, protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

The latest protests were sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, a 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is just 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

Estonia Removes Soviet WWII Memorial In Border City

Engineers began removing a tank at one memorial in Narva early on August 16. (file photo)

Estonian authorities has moved to demolish and relocate Soviet-era World War II memorials in the border city of Narva, a decision that earlier sparked warnings and protests from Moscow.

Engineers began removing a tank at one memorial in Narva early on August 16, with a sizable contingent of police and security forces standing guard, Estonia's public broadcaster ERR reported.

“Today’s decision helps to keep our focus on our most important tasks: ensuring Estonia’s security and helping all the people of Estonia weather the crises caused by the war in Ukraine,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was quoted as saying.

The Soviet tank will be moved to a war museum north of the capital, Tallinn.

Narva is a mainly Russian-speaking city on the border with Russia, and the government’s announcement that it planned to move the tank had sparked an outcry from Russian officials.

It's not the first time that Estonia has angered Russia over the relocation of war memorials.

In 2007, the Estonian government announced it would move a monument called the Bronze Soldier from Tallinn's center to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

The monument was erected by Soviet officials to commemorate Soviet forces pushing the Nazi army out of Estonia; many Estonians considered the monument to be offensive due to the decades-long occupation of the country by the Soviet Union.

The decision sparked outrage in Russian-language media and led to two days of riots in Tallinn that injured 156 people and resulted in 1,000 people being detained. The country was later hit by massive cyberattacks that were largely blamed on Russia.

This latest move comes as Estonia and the two other Baltic nations have taken increasingly hard-line positions toward Moscow in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Estonian authorities have called for blocking Russians from getting access to so-called Schengen visas, which allow widespread access to many European Union countries.

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