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Obama Aligns U.S. With Arab Protesters, Endorses 1967 Borders For Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department in Washington. "Our message is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States," he said.
WASHINGTON -- In a major speech that laid out his vision for the U.S. role in the increasingly tumultuous Middle East, President Barack Obama said the "shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region" and acknowledged that if the United States fails to respond to the "aspirations of ordinary people" it will deepen the belief that Washington's interests in the region are self-serving.

He also announced a significant shift in the U.S. position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.


Speaking at the State Department, which he called "a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy," Obama for the first time since popular uprisings began sweeping Arab countries late last year addressed the collective yearning for democratic reforms across the region -- what he called "a longing for freedom."

"For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa," he said. "Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights."

Declaring "there must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity," Obama sought to erase ambiguity about U.S. loyalties by firmly aligning the United States with the citizens calling for change, not their leaders, many of who are longtime U.S. allies.

"The United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves," he said. "Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just."

'The Path Of Murder'

He said America has an "historic opportunity" to show that it "values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator."

In that spirit, the U.S. leader delivered his strongest message yet to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he said has "chosen the path of murder and mass arrests" in response to two months of peaceful demonstrations for reforms. Assad must lead his country in a peaceful democratic transition "or get out of the way," Obama said.

Obama Addresses 'Arab Spring' In Keynote Speech
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Some 850 people have died in the Syrian regime's crackdown and thousands have been arrested. Washington's response has been criticized as muted in deference to a strategic calculation that Damascus might loosen its ties with Tehran. Obama's words today, and the new sanctions he authorized on May 18 on Assad and six senior Syrian officials, signaled a sharp break with that diplomatic approach.

U.S. foreign policy in the region has been seriously tested throughout six months of upheaval, and the Obama administration has been criticized for its inconsistent response to each country experiencing a popular democratic uprising.

In Egypt, support for longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak only waned after weeks of street demonstrations, and though Obama finally did call on Mubarak to leave, he has not done the same in Bahrain, where the royal family has beaten and killed citizens demanding more freedoms.

U.S. forces are helping NATO drive Libya's Muammar Qaddafi from power but until today Washington had stayed largely quiet about Assad's similarly brutal treatment of his own people in Syria.

'Follow Through' Needed By Yemen

Obama said Bahrain -- which he called "a long-standing partner" -- must begin a dialogue with members of its opposition, many of whom first need to be released from jail. He urged Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to "follow through on his commitment to transfer power," in an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Obama said the United States would support the calls for democratic change, even though it might run counter to its strategic interests in the region.

"There will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region. But we can -- and will -- speak out for a set of core principles -- principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months," Obama said.

That support, he said, will take the shape of more assistance to civil society, outreach via social media as a way to listen to the voices of the people -- especially young people -- and important economic aid aimed at encouraging job growth and investment in the future.

"Our message is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States," he said.

The White House has announced that it will cancel some $1 billion of Egypt's debt to free up money that can be used to invest in jobs and entrepreurship, and will guarantee up to $1 billion in loans for Egypt through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government institution that mobilizes private capital.

Return To Israel's 1967 Borders

Obama also seized the historic moment to announce a significant shift in the U.S. position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For the first time, he publicly called for Israel to agree to a Palestinian state based on borders that existed in 1967, before the Six-Day War led to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank.

"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps," Obama said, "so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."

By endorsing one of the Palestinian's key demands, Obama walked a delicate diplomatic line between U.S. support for Israel and its desire to break a decades-old impasse that has tainted U.S. relations with the Arab world.

"At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever," he said.

He said the U.S. commitment to Israel's security "is unshakeable," but the deep friendship between the two countries compels a blunt statement of fact -- namely, that "the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace."

"What America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples -- Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace," Obama said.

But Obama also rejected a plan by Palestinians to push for United Nations recognition of statehood this fall, saying, "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."

Israel Defiant

Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama successfully communicated the idea that although America did not inspire the popular uprisings across the region, it does have a stake in their success.


"People in the Arab world felt that this was an Arab moment -- that it was people in the region that really led these uprisings, led the revolts, led to the changes in government in Tunisia and Egypt. They don't want anyone to take that away from them," he said. "I think the president struck a balance: He tried to tell Americans how the change in the region is connected to the United States, he acknowledged that this is an Arab moment, but he also acknowledged that the United States does have a role to play."

Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, said Obama failed to fully explain the inconsistencies in U.S. policies toward various countries in the region, but did effectively communicate U.S. support for a universal set of values that includes political freedoms and human rights.

But he predicted that among Arabs, the impact of Obama's words would be minimal.

"I think that it would be a mistake to think that everyone is sitting at the edge of their seat in the Arab world waiting for the pronouncements of Mr. Obama. As the events of the last four months or so have demonstrated, the fates and the history of the Arab world is being written by Arabs, and the United States has some impact on that, but it's certainly not the decisive factor," Shehata said.

Regional reaction to Obama’s 1967 border proposal was swift.


Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas voiced appreciation for Obama's efforts to resume peace talks, saying through a spokesman that he welcomed the efforts to reach a final status agreement.


But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the speech “disappointing,” and told Al Jazeera television that Obama offered nothing new. "What Obama needs to do is not to add slogans but to take concrete steps to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation," Abu Zuhri said.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Obama's vision of a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders could leave the Jewish state "indefensible.”


In a statement, Netanyahu said he expected Washington to allow Israel to keep major settlement blocs beyond the 1967 lines in the occupied West Bank in any peace deal with the Palestinians.


The Israeli leader meets with Obama at the White House on May 20, an event that could prove tense in light of the speech.

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Another Imprisoned Kazakh Activist's Term Replaced With A Parole-Like Sentence

Kazakh activist Noyan Rakhymzhanov (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.

Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.

Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.

The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.

The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."

Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.

In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.

“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.

Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.

Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Former U.S. Marine Describes Harsh Conditions Of Russian Imprisonment

Trevor Reed stands inside a defendants' cage at a court hearing in Moscow in 2020.

Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.

In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.

"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.

"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."

Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."

He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.

Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.

Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.

“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.

"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”

He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."

“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”

Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.

“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.

Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.

In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.

Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.

"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.

"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."

Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine

Starbucks will be shuttering all its stores across Russia. (file photo)

Starbucks Corp says it will be closing its 130 stores in Russia and exiting the market after nearly 15 years because of the war against Ukraine.

The Seattle-based coffee giant informed its employees on May 23 that it will shut its operations in Russia, though the company will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 Russian employees for six months to help them as they search for new jobs.

"Starbucks has made the decision to exit and no longer have a brand presence in the market," the company said in a statement. In March it announced a suspension of operations because of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.

McDonald's announced on May 19 that it had signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee that will give him the global fast food giant's entire portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.

Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.

At Least Five Dead, 80 Trapped Under Rubble After Building Collapses In Iran

Rescue crews work at the site of a collapsed building in Abadan, Iran, on May 23.

At least five people were killed and 27 injured when parts of an unfinished 10-storey building in Iran's southern city of Abadan collapsed, trapping at least 80 more people under the rubble.

A rescue operation was being carried out, Iranian state TV reported on May 23, with emergency teams being sent in from other cities to help.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency said the building was a residential-commercial property on Amir Kabir Street in the city, which is close to the border with Iraq.

Most of those trapped under the rubble were people who were shopping on the ground floor in one of the finished parts of the building, reports said. The collapse caused nearby buildings to "shake violently," they added.

State TV showed footage of angry Abadan residents shouting slogans against the city authorities.

The ILNA news agency reported that the mayor of Abadan, Hossein Hamidpour, was beaten by the angry mob. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident while the owner and the contractor who built the building have been arrested, state TV said.

'Ashamed' Russian Diplomat In Geneva Resigns In Protest Against War In Ukraine

There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN. (file photo)

A diplomat at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva says he has resigned in protest at the "needless" war Russia has launched against Ukraine.

Boris Bondarev said in a statement placed on his LinkedIn page on May 23 that he has "never been so ashamed of my country as on February 24," when Russia launched an invasion of its neighbor.

"The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia," Bondarev, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a counsellor at the mission who worked on arms control, wrote.

"Those who conceived this war want only one thing -- to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this," Bondarev's statement added.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN.

Bondarev confirmed the statement to both Reuters and the Associated Press, telling Reuters that he started to imagine making such a move a few years ago "but the scale of this disaster drove me to do it."

He added that he had raised concerns about the invasion with senior embassy staff, only to be told to "keep my mouth shut."

"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless, and absolutely needless ignominy," Bondarev concluded in his statement.

The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine, which has involved tens of thousands of troops, as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in the war despite claims by Russia that it has not targeted them.

​With reporting by Reuters and AP

Ukraine Warns Of Increased Military Moves By Belarus Near Border

Ukraine says it has been seeing an uptick in military activity and troop levels in neighboring Belarus. (file photo)

Ukraine's Armed Forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.

"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.

"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.

After the Ukrainian statement, Belarus's Defense Ministry said that it had started what it called "another phase of checks" of military equipment to observe their mobility and capacity.

Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.

But in a sign of how Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have closed ranks in the face of international isolation, the two met for the third time in the last month on May 23.

The meeting, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, centered on the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Lukashenka thanking the West for "giving an impetus to our own development."

With reporting by BelTA and Interfax

'Putin Is The Devil!' Daghestani Schoolgirl Protests Ukraine War At Graduation Ceremony

Authorities in the Daghestani town of Izberbash have refused to comment on the incident. (file photo)

IZBERBASH, Russia -- A young girl from Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan has chosen her high-school graduation ceremony to express her opposition to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

A video of the girl, which went viral on social media on May 22, purportedly shows her shouting: "No to war! Liberty to Ukraine! [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the devil!"

The video shows that the girl's action was apparently applauded by members of the audience, comprising students, parents, and teachers.

Pro-government Daghestani Telegram channels say the footage was taken from a graduation ceremony at school No. 11 in the city of Izberbash, adding that the girl was charged with an administrative offense, namely taking public actions to discredit the Russian Federation's armed forces.

According to the Telegram channels, the girl’s mother was charged with "failing to properly bring up a minor." The identity of the girl was not officially disclosed, but various media outlets said her name is Zukhra Albekova. She and her mother may face fines.

The Daghestani Interior Ministry refused to comment on the incident.

A source in the Education Ministry of Daghestan told RFE/RL that "the girl did it after she made a bet with her classmates."

Later in the day, several online social groups in Daghestan showed the girl and her mother apologizing for the "incident."

The girl said she regretted her action, which was prompted by her desire "to attract classmates' attention to her."

Her mother said she fully supports Putin and his policies, including what Russian officials call the "special military operation in Ukraine."

A source in the Daghestani government told RFE/RL that the girl and her mother were forced to make online statements after the regional head Sergei Melikov personally called Izberbash's mayor ordering him "to clear up the situation."

Izberbash authorities refused to provide any comments to RFE/RL.

For The First Time, Number Of Forcibly Displaced People Tops 100 Million

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.

Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world to more than 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.

"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on May 23.

The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.

The UNHCR said the "alarming" numbers of forcibly displaced people rose towards 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Burma, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.

"One hundred million is a stark figure -- sobering and alarming in equal measure. It's a record that should never have been set," said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.

"This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes."

The figure represents more than 1 percent of the global population, the UNHCR said.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Former Austrian Foreign Minister, Who Danced With Putin, Leaves Rosneft Board

Then-Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl dances with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding on August 18, 2018.

Russian state oil giant Rosneft has confirmed that Austria's former foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, whose wedding in 2018 was attended by President Vladimir Putin, has left the company's board of directors.

Rosneft said in a statement on May 23 that Kneissel had stepped down three days earlier, and that she would not seek to renew her position on the board for a second term.

Her resignation comes after former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder left the board under pressure from lawmakers in the Bundestag, who had announced he would lose his taxpayer-funded office and staff amid the controversy over his close ties to Russia.

Kneissl was confirmed to the Rosneft board as an independent director in June 2021. The move immediately raised eyebrows as it came at a time when the European Union was at odds with Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.

Kneissl had already made headlines with regard to Russia when pictures of her dancing with Putin at her 2018 wedding were splashed across newspapers around the world.

Kneissl, a Middle East expert without political affiliation, was appointed to her cabinet post by the far-right Freedom Party, which had a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party.

She left the government in 2019.

According to Kneissl's personal website, the 57-year-old was recently interviewed by the Kremlin-backed RT media outlet, for which she has written several opinion pieces.

Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil producer, is headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin.

Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life In Prison In First War Crimes Case Since Ukraine Invasion

Twenty-one-year-old Vadim Shishimarin in the Kyiv courtroom.

A court in Kyiv has sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With a packed courtroom looking on, judges at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 23 handed down the punishment to the Russian sergeant, who had earlier pleaded guilty in the death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov.

Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the three months since the invasion was launched in February and has said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Independent media and rights groups have also gathered mounting evidence that Moscow has targeted civilians in the fighting.

Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in war crimes.

Judge Serhiy Agafonov said Shishimarin had carried out a "criminal order" given to him by a soldier of higher rank when he fired several shots at the victim's head from an automatic weapon.

"Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity, and the international legal order...the court does not see the possibility of imposing a [shorter] sentence," he said.

WATCH: Kateryna Shelipova confronted the Russian soldier who killed her husband during a war crimes trial in a Kyiv courtroom on May 19.

Widow Confronts Russian Soldier Who Killed Her Husband At War Crimes Trial
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In his final statement to the court last week, Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he didn’t want to kill Shelypov and was "sincerely" sorry for what had happened.

Shishmarin's lawyer, Viktor Ovsyannikov, said the sentence was expected given "certain pressure from society." He said his client would appeal the decision.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the beginning of her findings.

She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha, a town just outside of Kyiv.

The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near the capital revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.

On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.

The council's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.

Influential Gorno-Badakhshan Figure Killed In Tajikistan's Restive Region

Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov

One of the informal leaders of Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was killed on May 22 in Khorugh, the region's administrative capital, police said, adding that the death was the result of "internal clashes between criminal groups."

The death of Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov was reported after clashes between protesters and police in recent days in the GBAO left as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.

In an official statement, the GBAO branch of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry described Mahmadboqirov as "the leader of an organized criminal group," saying that his death was "the result of internal clashes between criminal groups.”

The statement said the regional prosecutor's office has launched a preliminary investigation into the incident.

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said 19 residents of GBAO's Rushon district, whom it called "members of organized criminal and terrorist organizations," had "surrendered" to police after taking part in anti-government protests on May 15-18.

The list of those detained includes Amirbek Qayobekov and Nuriddin Saidov -- the former leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in Rushon -- as well as 15 members of a group led by Kholbash Kholbashov.

Authorities have accused Kholbashov, his former wife, well-known civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, former opposition field commander Yadgor Ghulomhaidarov, and exiled opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov of organizing the unsanctioned anti-government rallies. Mahmadboqirov was also accused of organizing the demonstrations.

The whereabouts of Kholbashov and Ghulomhaidarov are unknown. Mamadshoeva was arrested last week. Before her arrest, she told RFE/RL that all accusations against her were baseless and that she has had nothing to do with the protests.

Deeper tensions between the government and residents of the region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into the state structures as part of the peace deal that Russia helped broker.

The current protests were initially sparked several days ago 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.

What's Behind The Continuing Violence In Gorno-Badakhshan?
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The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 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 UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

Gordo-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 a mere 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.

With reporting by AFP

Moscow Accused Of 'Scorched-Earth Tactics' As It Steps Up Assaults In Eastern Ukraine

Smoke rises during Russian shelling in the city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has intensified its offensive in the eastern Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military said on May 23, with Severodonetsk under "round-the-clock" indiscriminate bombardment as Russian troops attempt to encircle the city, while U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Russia wants to "eliminate" Ukraine's national identity.

The heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a severe toll on Russia's military, British intelligence has said, estimating that during the first three months of its war in Ukraine, Moscow has suffered a number of deaths similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine-year war in Afghanistan.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Biden, who was speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on May 23 during his Asia tour, said Russian President Vladimir Putin can't occupy Ukraine, but he can "try to destroy its identity." Biden warned that Putin will have to "pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine."

Russian forces tried to storm Severodonetsk but were unsuccessful and retreated, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.

In total, Ukrainian defenders have repelled 11 enemy attacks in the last 24 hours as Russian troops repeatedly tried to break through, stepping up their use of aircraft to destroy infrastructure, Ukraine's General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said early on May 23.

Regional Governor Serhiy Hayday said Russian forces attempting to encircle Severodonetsk were "using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying" the city.

Hayday said Russia was concentrating forces brought from a vast area -- those withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, others that had been involved in Mariupol's siege, Moscow-backed separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilized from Siberia -- and concentrating their attacks on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

At least seven civilians were killed and eight wounded on May 22 across the Donetsk region, according to the Ukrainian Army's Facebook page.

Russian shelling and missile strikes also kept pounding Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the north, as well as Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya in the south, Ukrainian officials said.

The British military, in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 23, said that Russia's high casualty rate "continues to rise in the Donbas offensive" as a result of converging factors such as poor low-level tactics, insufficient air cover, poor flexibility, "and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes."

The bulletin cautioned that a continuously rising death toll could spark public discontent back home, where Russians in the past proved sensitive to losses suffered during wars of choice.

Pro-Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region on May 22.
Pro-Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region on May 22.

Ukrainian officials have said little since the start of the war about the extent of their armed force’s casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a news conference on May 22 that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.

Russia's war in Ukraine has also pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.

"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," said the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

In Ukraine, 8 million people are internally displaced, while another 6 million have left the country, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.

In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy on May 23 told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.

"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.

In Kyiv, a court sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Shishimarin has admitted to killing a 62-year-old civilian in the early stages of the invasion, but told the court he was pressured into an act for which he was "truly sorry."

Meanwhile, Ukraine's armed forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.

"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance. Additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.

"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.

Officials from Belarus did not immediately comment.

Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa, BBC, and CNN

With World At Turning Point, Zelenskiy Says Sanctions Must Send Clear Message

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seen on a screen as he delivers a video address to the delegates of the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 23.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on the world to tighten punitive sanctions against Russia as a warning to other countries that they face severe consequences if they turn to aggression to achieve their goals.

In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.

"I am thankful to you and your countries for being united in your support to Ukraine and efforts to punish Russia for the war it launched against our country. But I have to say it's only being done now, while we've been talking about the possibility of full-scale aggression by Russia since 2014. If the world's actions were preemptive, and not reactive, this war could have been prevented," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy said that the world faces a turning point in the face of Russia's actions and that failing to act resolutely enough would mean international companies would "be a part of war crimes committed by Russia."

"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy emphasized that his country needs more weapons to stand up to Russia, while diplomatic measures such as pushing all foreign companies to exit the Russian market, an embargo against Russian crude oil, the complete blocking of all Russian banks, and cutting off trade with Russia are needed to stop the war and send a message to other countries with similar aggressive aspirations.

“If we had obtained 100 percent of the weapons we needed at the very beginning [of the war] in February, tens of thousands of lives would be saved. This is why Ukraine needs all the weaponry that we are asking for and not just the ones that we have been supplied with," Zelenskiy added.

Armenia-Azerbaijan Joint Commission To Meet At Border 'Soon,' EU Says

European Council President Charles Michel (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Brussels on May 22.

The first meeting of a joint commission on the demarcation and security of the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be soon held on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, European Council President Charles Michel said on May 22 in Brussels after talks with the leaders of the two South Caucasus countries.

Michel held bilateral meetings with both Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev before a trilateral meeting in which a peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh was discussed.

"We discussed humanitarian issues in detail, including demining, the release of detainees, and the fate of the missing. The first meeting of the joint commission on the border will be held in the coming days at the interstate border, where all issues related to demarcation and ensuring the best security of the border will be discussed,” Michel said, without giving a precise date.

Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 22.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 22.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.

Azerbaijan said in a statement that Aliyev told Michel "that Azerbaijan had laid out five principles based on international law for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and for the signing of a peace agreement."

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Yerevan, Armenian police have detained hundreds of protesters during opposition-led demonstrations seeking to force Pashinian from office.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian and Azerbaijani services and Reuters

Germany's Scholz Seeks To Pursue Energy Projects With Senegal Amid Russian Supply Uncertainties

Senegal's President Macky Sall (right) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hold a press conference at the presidential palace in Dakar on May 22.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says his country wants to “intensively” pursue gas and renewable energy projects with West African nation Senegal amid uncertainties with Russian supplies following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

"It is a matter worth pursuing intensively," Scholz said on May 22 at a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall during his first trip as chancellor to Africa.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Senegal, a country of some 16 million people, has billions of cubic meters of gas reserves and is expected to become a major gas producer in the region.

Berlin is seeking to reduce its heavy reliance on Russia for gas following the country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Scholz says his country has initiated talks with Senegal concerning gas extraction and liquefied natural gas.

Prior to his arrival, a German government official said Germany could help explore a gas field in Senegal.

Berlin has invited both Senegal, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the African Union, and South Africa to attend the G7 summit in Germany in June as guest nations.

Both countries abstained from voting on a UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Sall, speaking in his role as African Union chairman, said many African countries did not want to take sides in the war.

"Very clearly, we want peace," he said. "We're working for a de-escalation. We're working for a cease-fire, for dialogue.... That is the African position."

The war in Ukraine -- a major grains and food supplier for the world -- has sparked supply disruptions that have pushed up food and energy prices in Africa.

Sall said he would travel to Russia and Ukraine soon on behalf of the African Union.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Imprisoned Iranian Activist Taken To Hospital Following Hunger Strike, Lawyer Says

Farhad Meysami (file photo)

Iranian activist Farhad Meysami has been taken to the hospital following a two-week hunger strike protesting the threatened execution of Swedish-Iranian doctor Ahmedreza Djalali, according to Meysami’s lawyer.

Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi wrote on Twitter on May 21 that Meysami’s condition was worsening and that his life was in danger.

Meysami, a medical doctor, has been on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Djalali, who was arrested in 2016 during an academic visit to Tehran.

Djalali specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups and the Swedish government have condemned his detention.

He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.

Amnesty International and other groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current 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.

Djalali was scheduled to be executed on May 21, but his wife said it did not take place. There was no comment from Iranian authorities.

Iran has said the decision to execute Djalali was “final,” but it also said in recent days the judiciary was studying a request by his lawyers to delay the action.

Meysami was detained in July 2018 for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and body in public.

He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.

He ended that hunger strike after 145 days.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia-Appointed Head Of Occupied Ukrainian Town Reportedly Hurt In Explosion

An exterior view of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant (file photo)

The Kremlin-appointed head of an occupied Ukrainian town near Europe's largest nuclear power plant was severely injured in an explosion, according to a Ukrainian official and a Russian news agency.

Andrei Shevchik was in intensive care following the blast, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said on May 22, citing an emergency services source in the southern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar.

Shevchik was named mayor of Enerhodar by Russia following its occupation of the town.

Dmytro Orlov, who Ukraine still recognizes as the legitimate mayor of the town that had a prewar population of about 50,000, reported the incident on the Telegram messaging app.

"We have accurate confirmation that during the explosion, the self-proclaimed head of the 'people's administration' Shevchik and his bodyguards were injured," Orlov wrote.

He said Shevchik had been taken to a hospital in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol to be treated.

One local report said the blast occurred around the porch of Shevchik’s residence.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion or whether it was an intentional act.

Many of Enerhodar’s residents had worked at two nearby power plants, one of which is the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.

Based on reporting by Reuters and RIA Novosti

Member Of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Shot Dead Outside His Home

Two women mourn next to the body of Sayyad Khodaei after he was shot dead in his car in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on May 22.

A senior member of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been shot and killed outside his home east of Tehran, state media reported, citing the IRGC.

Sayyad Khodaei
Sayyad Khodaei

Sayyad Khodaei “was assassinated during a gun attack carried out by two motorcyclists in Tehran's Mohahedin-e Eslam Street," state-run IRNA reported on May 22.

IRNA described him as a "defender of the shrine," which the IRGC uses to indicate he had fought in Syria or Iraq on behalf of Iran as part of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force.

Iran backs Shi’ite militia groups in the two Middle East nations.

There was no claim of responsibility.

On its website, the IRGC identified Khodaei as a colonel and denounced the killing as a "terrorist act," blaming "elements linked to global arrogance" -- a reference to the United States and its allies.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

France's European Minister: A Ukraine EU Bid Would Take At Least 15-20 Years

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune (file photo)

France’s European affairs minister said that any bid for Ukraine to join the European Union would take at least 15 to 20 years to complete, putting a damper on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's hopes of gaining a quick entry into the bloc.

"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J on May 22. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."

"I don't want to offer Ukrainians any illusions or lies," he added.

The comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.

“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint news conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on May 21, “because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda, who visited Kyiv on May 22, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s bid to join the EU in the face of opposition by some other bloc members.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Ukrainian Parliament Extends Martial Law For 90 Days

Martial law was first imposed on February 24 following the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military assault.

KYIV -- The Ukrainian parliament has extended martial law for another 90 days as the country continues to battle against the unprovoked invasion of Russian forces.

The Verkhovna Rada said in a statement on May 22 that the decision to extend martial law until at least August 23 came at the request of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy submitted the bill to the parliament on May 18 seeking an extension of martial law, which was first imposed on February 24 following the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military assault.

“We are imposing martial law throughout our country,” Zelenskiy said at the time while urging citizens to “please stay at home” amid the military actions and go on “without panic.”

Following its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, or other major cities in the north and west of the country, Russia has turned its focus to Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, seeking to link up those areas with Crimea -- which it illegally annexed in 2014 -- and areas held by Kremlin-backed separatists in the east.

Ukraine Again Rules Out Concessions As Polish President Arrives To Offer Support

Polish President Andrzej Duda addresses lawmakers during a session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on May 22.

Ukraine continued to rule out any "concessions" to Russia despite the intensive onslaught by Kremlin forces and as Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a surprise visit, urged Kyiv not to give in to the demands of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The war must end with the complete restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said in a Twitter post on May 22.

"That is, our victory. Our common victory with the civilized world. After all, today [Ukraine] is defending not only itself," he said, adding that it was defending all of Europe.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Yermak's tweet, consistent with previous Ukrainian remarks, came as Duda became the first foreign head of state to address Ukraine’s parliament since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 as he sought to bolster resolve and offer support for the country's EU hopes.

In his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, Duda said that "worrying voices have appeared, saying that Ukraine should give in to Putin's demands. Only Ukraine has the right to decide about its future."

He added that surrendering any Ukrainian territory would be a blow to the entire West and repeated Poland’s firm support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.

Shortly after his address, and another one by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, air-raid sirens were heard across the capital, a sign that dangers remain there, although the front lines have shift to the east and south of Kyiv.

In April, Duda visited Kyiv for talks with Zelenskiy as part of a delegation with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

During this trip, Duda offered strong support for Ukraine's bid to join the EU, despite reluctance to move quickly by some major powers, including France and Germany.

Duda said those who "shed their blood" in the fight to belong to Europe must be respected -- "even if the situation is complicated, even if there are doubts."

"I have no doubt that the European Union will make such a gesture," he said.

He pointed to a European Council decision on Kyiv’s candidate status set for June 24, saying it would be "extremely important, above all psychologically and politically."

Zelenskiy on May 21 rejected a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that Ukraine be invited to join some form of “associated” political community with the EU.

“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelenskiy said in Kyiv during a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa. “Because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe. It will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”

An elderly woman stands outside her heavily damaged house after it was hit by a Russian missile in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukrane on May 22.
An elderly woman stands outside her heavily damaged house after it was hit by a Russian missile in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukrane on May 22.

On May 22, France’s European affairs minister told French radio that any bid by Ukraine to join the EU would likely take at least 15 to 20 years to finalize.

"We have to be honest. If you say Ukraine is going to join the EU in six months, or a year or two, you're lying," Clement Beaune told France’s Radio J. "It's probably in 15 or 20 years -- it takes a long time."

Duda’s visit came as Russian forces stepped up offensive operations across broad swathes of eastern Ukraine. There was heavy shelling around the northeastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukraine’s military said.

Ukraine’s lead negotiator, presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak, told Reuters on May 21 that Kyiv had ruled out any cease-fire agreement with Russia that included ceding any Ukrainian territory.

“The war would not stop,” he said, in the event of such an agreement. “It would just be put on pause for a time. They’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale.”

WATCH: Burned-out armored vehicles, notebook doodles, shattered weapons, and the wreckage of a fighter jet are among items belonging to the Russian military to go on display at Ukraine's National Military History Museum in Kyiv.

Destroyed Russian Military Equipment On Display In New Ukrainian Museum Exhibit
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Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation the same day that the war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and newly appointed French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna have agreed on the importance of continuing “steadfast support” for Ukraine, the State Department said.

The two also discussed the importance of “maintaining significant costs” on Russian President Vladimir Putin “for his war of choice,” a statement released on May 22 said.

The two diplomats also discussed steps Washington and Paris could take to best support Finland and Sweden’s recently announced bids to join NATO, decisions that have angered Putin, who said he invaded Ukraine in part to prevent the expansion of the Western military alliance.

“Both agreed on the need to respond to the urgent food security and nutrition needs of millions of people in vulnerable situations around the world, which have been exacerbated by Russia’s continued brutal war in Ukraine,” the statement said.

French President Emmanuel Macron on May 20 named Colonna -- Paris’s current ambassador to Britain -- as foreign minister following his reelection as French leader. She replaced veteran Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Amid Russian Calls For 'Tribunals,' Concerns Expressed Over Fate Of Azovstal Defenders

A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on May 16.

Concerns have been expressed over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after abandoning the Azovstal steel-mill complex in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.

Prominent Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the State Duma and chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on May 22 that the fate of the captured soldiers, many of whom are members of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, “should be determined by a tribunal.”

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

“My opinion remains unchanged: There must be no exchange of members of the Azov [Regiment], which is outlawed in Russia,” Slutsky wrote on his Telegram channel.

Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers have urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on May 21 that Kyiv “will fight for the return” of every one of them.

The Russian Defense Ministry on May 20 asserted its forces had complete control of the massive factory following weeks of intense fighting in the city that has left thousands feared dead.

Ukraine has described the withdrawal from Azovstal as an authorized “evacuation,” rather than a surrender.

Russia has said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken into custody at the plant. Denis Pushilin, the head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”

The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists.

The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Formerly known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultra-nationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.

The Russian state news agency Interfax earlier reported that Moscow was considering exchanging Azovstal prisoners for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is facing criminal charges in Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry on May 21 released video purportedly showing Russian troops taking Serhiy Volynskiy, commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, into custody.

An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol and are facing a major health and sanitation catastrophe, officials say. Local officials have accused Russia of concealing atrocities -- including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater in which hundreds of civilians were sheltering -- by burying slain civilians in shallow mass graves. Satellite images released in April seemed to show possible mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.

“The city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko posted on Telegram.

With reporting by Interfax, AP, and Reuters

Russia Bans 963 Prominent Americans From Entering Russia

The list includes actor Morgan Freeman, who is accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.

Russia has published a list of 963 government officials and leading Americans who are banned from entering the country in retaliation for similar moves by Washington since the offensive in Ukraine.

The list, published on May 21, includes U.S. President Joe Biden, business leaders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Jamie Fly, president of RFE/RL, along with several current or former members of the board that oversees RFE/RL.

The largely symbolic move names several top officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The list also includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), and the president's son, Hunter Biden.

Fly said on Twitter that he was “proud to be included on this list. RFE/RL being attacked by authoritarians is nothing new. We know that history is on the side of the Russian people. We’ll continue to expand our reporting for Russian audiences at this critical moment.”

Moscow had already announced sanctions targeting many of those on the list.

One exception is Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who had not previously been cited by Russian authorities. He is now accused by Moscow of having recorded a video in 2017 in which he claimed Russia was plotting against the United States.

Russia also banned three former senators who are deceased: John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), and Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah).

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement the move was in response to "the constantly imposed anti-Russian sanctions" and said it aimed "to constrain the U.S. which is trying to impose a neocolonial 'world order' on the rest of the planet...to change its position and recognize new geopolitical realities."

It added that Moscow remained open to "honest dialogue" and drew a distinction between the people of the United States and authorities who it said have been "inciting Russophobia."

The ministry also said it also banned 26 more Canadians, including Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The Washington Post

Turkey Sets Conditions For Backing Swedish, Finnish NATO Membership

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference following a NATO summit in Brussels on March 24.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set out his conditions for Sweden and Finland to earn his backing for their NATO membership bids, saying they must abandon financial and political support for "terrorist" groups threatening Turkey's national security.

Erdogan spoke by phone separately on May 21 with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, telling Andersson that Stockholm must stop its "political, financial, and military support" for terrorist groups, according to Erdogan's office.

Longtime NATO member Turkey has been especially critical of Sweden for showing leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey and its Western allies list as a terrorist group, and the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara holds responsible for an attempted coup in 2016.

Erdogan has pressed for his concerns to be addressed as Sweden and Finland pursue membership in NATO, which requires the consent of all 30 current member states.

Turkey expects Sweden to "take concrete and serious steps" that show it shares Ankara's concerns over the PKK and its Iraqi and Syrian offshoots, Erdogan told Andersson, according to the presidency.

Erdogan also told Andersson to "lift restrictions imposed on Turkey in the defense industry," referring to an arms embargo in place since Sweden and Finland joined other countries in imposing restrictions after a Turkish military offensive in 2019 against the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG).

Addressing these areas would show that Stockholm shares Ankara's security concerns, Erdogan said, according to the statement.

Andersson said she appreciated the call and Sweden hoped to strengthen bilateral relations with Turkey.

"I emphasized that Sweden welcomes the possibility of cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and emphasized that Sweden clearly supports the fight against terrorism and the terrorist listing of the PKK," she said in a statement.

In his call with Niinisto, Erdogan said turning a blind eye to "terror" organizations posing a threat to a NATO ally was "incompatible with the spirit of friendship and alliance."

Erdogan also said it was Turkey's natural right to expect respect and support for its "legitimate and determined struggle against a clear threat to its national security and people," the presidency said.

Niinisto said he held "open and direct" talks with Erdogan and agreed to continue close dialogue.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February has shifted political opinion in both Nordic countries in favor of joining NATO.

The two countries shed their longtime neutrality this week by formally submitting applications to join the alliance, and Andersson and Niinisto were welcomed to the White House on May 19 by U.S. President Joe Biden, who strongly backed their bids.

Erdogan also spoke with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on May 21, telling him that Ankara will not look positively on Swedish and Finnish membership unless the two countries clearly show cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other issues.

Erdogan said in a statement after the call with Stoltenberg that he supported NATO's open-door policy.

Stoltenberg said on Twitter that he and Erdogan "agree that the security concerns of all Allies must be taken into account and talks need to continue to find a solution."

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP

EU Justice Official Says War Crimes in Ukraine 'Will Not Go Unpunished'

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders (file photo)

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has vowed that war crimes in Ukraine will be criminally prosecuted and that atrocities committed during the Russian invasion "will not go unpunished."

Reynders told the Italian daily La Stampa on May 21 that 11 EU member states were investigating war crimes in Ukraine with more than 600 suspects identified so far.

Reynders said investigations were proceeding in Ukraine but also in various other European countries with testimony from people who fled the violence.

He cautioned that evidence of war crimes must be collected correctly or else, "if you were to include false information or fake news, it would be a disaster."

Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.

Despite ample, concrete evidence of Russian attacks on civilian areas documented by reporters, including RFE/RL correspondents on the ground, Moscow denies targeting civilian areas. Russia also claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.

On May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.

With reporting by dpa

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