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COVID-19: Pakistani Lawmaker, Ex-Governor Die After Positive Tests; Chechnya Imposes Eid Restrictions

Shaheen Raza (left), a member of the ruling Tehrik-e-Insaaf Party, and Syed Fazal Agha, the former governor of Balochistan Province, both died of COVID-19 on May 20.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is almost 330,000 with more than 5 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Pakistan

A legislator in the provincial assembly of Punjab and a former provincial governor died on May 20 in separate hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus.

Shaheen Raza, 60, a member of the ruling Tehrik-e-Insaaf Party, passed away in a hospital in Punjab province, marking the first death of a lawmaker from coronavirus in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Arif Alvi expressed grief over her death and offered condolences to her family.

“I would like to console the death of Punjab MPA Ms Shaheen Raza Chheema,” the Pakistani president said in a tweet on May 20

The official Radio Pakistan station reported that Prime Minister Imran Khan had also sent condolences.

Separately, the former governor of Balochistan Province, Syed Fazal Agha, who had tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted to a hospital in Karachi, Sindh Province, died on May 20, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported, quoting hospital sources.

Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus

Updated constantly with the latest figures

Pakistan has recorded 45,898 infections and 985 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Pakistan has relaxed the lockdown, and people are freely shopping in the markets for the upcoming Eid al-Fitr festival.

Meanwhile, mosques have also been opened for the prayers, and many people have gathered without proper precautions.

Khan has repeatedly expressed his opposition to a complete lockdown, arguing that this will result in serious financial problems for lower-paid workers.

Several Pakistani parliamentarians and government figures have tested positive for the coronavirus. Prominent among them are Sindh Province Governor Imran Ismail, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaisar, and former provincial minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain.

North Caucasus

Authorities in Russia's North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Daghestan have imposed restrictions to deter people from gathering in groups this weekend as the mostly Muslim-populated regions mark the Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday, known locally as Uraza Bairam, to mark the end of the month of Ramadan.

Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov said on May 21 that all movements, except for emergency services, will be banned from May 23 to 26 across the republic, adding that a violation of the rule "will be punished in accordance with the law."

In neighboring Daghestan, authorities announced on May 21 that two cities, Kizlyar and Kizilyurt, will be locked down during the four-day celebration of Eid al-Fitr. A decision on Makhachkala, the capital, had yet to be taken.

A day earlier, President Rustam Minnikhanov, head of the mostly Muslim-populated Republic of Tatarstan in the Volga region, told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the republic's residents will mark the holiday at home due to the pandemic.

Usually, Muslims gather in mosques for mass prayers to mark Eid al-Fitr but in many former Soviet republics and other countries, Muslims are set to mark the holiday at home because of the outbreak.

Central Asia

Authorities in Turkmenistan, where no coronavirus cases have been officially reported, have cancelled traditional ceremonies and celebrations marking the end of the academic year at schools and school-graduation events.

RFE/RL's correspondents reported on May 21 that education authorities made the decision without elaborating.

Several senior students of secondary schools in Ashgabat told RFE/RL that their teachers had told them there wouldn't be graduation ceremonies and banquets this year, but did not explain why.

Turkmenistan remains the only nation in the Central Asian region that has not officially admitted a single coronavirus case, though experts are skeptical of the claim given the lack of transparency and the absence of an independent media in the country.

In Kyrgyzstan, authorities in Bishkek said that as of May 25, fitness clubs, swimming pools, and sports centers will resume operations on condition of complying with regulations to prevent the spread of the virus.

Sports venue personnel will be required to wear masks and gloves, while customers will be provided with hand sanitizer and instructed on how to keep a distance of at least 2 meters from others.

Sports venues specializing in contact and group sports will remain closed.

Health authorities said on May 21 that the number of coronavirus cases in Kyrgyzstan was 1,313, including 14 deaths.

In Uzbekistan, authorities said that as of May 22, arts galleries, museums, and parks in some selected towns and cities will be open for those who take sanitary precautions such as masks and social distancing.

In Tashkent, the Tashkent City Park resumed operations on May 20.

As of May 21, the number of coronavirus cases in the country was reported at 2,950, including 13 deaths.

In neighboring Tajikistan, officials said on May 20 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country was 2,140, including 41 deaths.

Tajikistan did not officially register a coronavirus case until April 30, just ahead of the arrival of a mission from the World Health Organization.

Still, many in the country doubt the data and believe the government has been underreporting figures.

In Kazakhstan, where the largest number of COVID-19 cases in Central Asia have been reported, the latest figures are 7,234 cases with 35 deaths.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, and North Caucasus services and RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal

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13 Killed In Iraqi Kurdistan As Iran Escalates Attacks Amid Unrest At Home

The aftermath of Iranian cross-border attacks on part of Iraq's northern Kurdish region where several exiled Iranian Kurdish parties maintain offices.

An Iranian bombing campaign targeted Iraq's northern Kurdish region on September 28, killing least 13 people and wounding 58 others, Iraq's state news agency said.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) fired on targets in Iraq's northern Kurdish regional capital of Irbil and the eastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported.

The strikes took place amid protests that erupted nearly two weeks ago in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died on September 16 three days after being detained in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules on head scarves.

The wave of protests and a crackdown that followed have left scores of demonstrators dead over the past 12 nights.

The IRGC has accused Iraq-based Kurdish groups of "attacking and infiltrating Iran to sow insecurity and riots and spread unrest."

IRNA said the IRGC targeted bases of a separatist group in the north of Iraq with “precision missiles” and “suicide drones.”

The attacks targeted the political offices of Kurdish parties as well as the Iranian Kurdish refugee camp.

U.S. Central Command said it downed an Iranian drone while it was on its way to Irbil, adding that the drone appeared to pose a threat to U.S. personnel in the region.

"No U.S. forces were wounded or killed as a result of the strikes and there is no damage to U.S. equipment," it said in a statement.

A senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of their offices were struck.

Tariq Haidari, the mayor of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Koye, told Reuters that two people, including a pregnant woman, were killed and 12 wounded. Some of the wounded were rushed in critical condition to hospital in Irbil, he said.

The United Nations refugee agency in Iraq said on Twitter that the attack "caused damage to the Iranian refugee camps in Koye," and Iranian refugees were among the casualties.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry and the Kurdistan regional government condemned the strikes, and Iraq's federal government summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest.

The UN mission in Iraq deplored the attack, saying "rocket diplomacy is a reckless act with devastating consequences,” and the U.S. State Department called the Iranian attacks an “unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The IRGC in the last few days has repeatedly attacked areas in Iraqi Kurdistan. The IRGC said in a statement that it will continue to target "terrorists" in the region.

"This operation will continue with our full determination until the threat is effectively repelled, the bases of terrorist groups are dismantled, and the authorities of the Kurdistan Region assume their obligations and responsibilities," the IRGC said in its statement.

Widespread protests took place for a 12th straight night in Iran on September 27, according to opposition media based outside Iran.

The protests started in Amini’s hometown of Saghez in Iran’s Kurdistan region and spread to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.

The police command was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying that Iran’s enemies and some rioters “seek to disrupt the order, security, and comfort of the nation using any pretext."

It said police officers will oppose “with all their might the conspiracies of counterrevolutionaries and hostile elements, and deal firmly with those who disrupt public order and security anywhere in the country."

The statement came only hours after the UN said its Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres called on Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi not to use "disproportionate force" against protesters.

Raisi planned a television address to talk about domestic and foreign issues facing the country later on September 28, ISNA said.

Raisi last week said the protests over Amini's death were unacceptable "acts of chaos."

Officials say 60 people have died during the protests, but the group Iran Human Rights says at least 76 people have been killed. As of September 26, more than 1,200 people had been arrested, including of activists, lawyers, and journalists.

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

Armenia Says Three Soldiers Killed In Fresh Cross-Border Clash With Azerbaijani Troops

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (third from left) meets with French senators in Yerevan on September 28.

Renewed fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces broke out on September 28, killing three Armenian troops, Yerevan said as the two sides again blamed each other for shooting first across their shared border.

The Armenian Defense Ministry’s press service said "Azerbaijani forces opened fire from mortars and large-caliber firearms at the eastern direction of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border."

Armenia's Defense Ministry said in a statement three died on the Armenian side as a result.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said in a tweet that three of his troops had been killed in "an attack against Armenian independence, sovereignty and democracy."

"Withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops and deployment of an international observer mission on the Armenian territories affected by Azerbaijani occupation and bordering areas is an absolute necessity," he wrote.

The Armenian side resorted to retaliatory actions after the shooting started, Defense Ministry spokesman Aram Torosyan said.

The Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan blamed the Armenian side, saying it violated the cease-fire. According to Baku, one Azerbaijani soldier was wounded.

"All responsibility for the incident lies with the military and political leadership of Armenia," the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said.

The ministry said despite the cease-fire agreement the Armenian armed forces opened fire on the units of the Azerbaijani Army around 6 p.m. local time in the Kalbajar region with different types of firearms.

The fighting threatens a fragile cease-fire agreement that ended the worst fighting between the two ex-Soviet Caucasus countries since a 2020 war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

After a flare-up that killed more than 200 soldiers, the two sides on September 23 agreed to the Russia-brokered cease-fire to end the most recent hostilities.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

The two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region, which is part of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent districts.

Under the cease-fire Armenia ceded swaths of territory it had controlled for decades and Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers.

With Moscow increasingly isolated following its invasion of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have taken leading roles in mediating the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization process.

Last week, the two countries' foreign ministers met in New York for talks arranged by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Earlier this year the EU led negotiations in Brussels between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Pashinian at which they agreed to "advance discussions" on a future peace treaty.

They last met in Brussels on August 31, for talks mediated by European Council President Charles Michel.

The issue of ensuring a land link between Azerbaijan and its ally Ankara via Armenian territory has emerged as the primary sticking point.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Fourth Leak Discovered On Nord Stream Pipelines, Says Swedish Coast Guard

A gas leak in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark, on September 27.

The Swedish Coast Guard found a fourth gas leak on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea earlier this week, a Coast Guard official said on September 29.

Three leaks -- two in the Danish zone and one in the Swedish zone -- were discovered in the two major Russian underwater pipelines designed to ship natural gas to Germany.

NATO and the European Union said the leaks were caused by "sabotage" and vowed to take strong action to protect critical European infrastructure.

"There are two leaks on the Swedish side and two leaks on the Danish side," the coast guard official told journalists.

Neither pipeline was in use at the time of the suspected blasts, but they were filled with gas that has been spewing out in the Baltic Sea since the September 26 breakages.

Seismologists from Sweden and Denmark said they had recorded powerful explosions in the area, prompting Swedish police to launch an investigation into possible sabotage.

The fourth leak was on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, in close proximity to a larger hole found on the nearby Nord Stream 1, the official said.

The incident has caused natural gas prices in Europe to spike.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

West Prepares New Sanctions To Make Russia Pay 'Severe Economic Cost' For Escalating War Through Referendums

An employee stands near galvanized coils at the Novolipetsk steel mill in Lipetsk, Russia. The proposed eighth sanctions package includes, among other things, a ban on Russian steel and steel products.

The United States and its allies are preparing to impose fresh sanctions on Russia in the wake of what the West and United Nations have called "sham" referendums in four Ukrainian regions, with the White House saying the measures would exact a "severe" economic price on Moscow.

On September 28, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen introduced a new package of measures, saying they are designed "to make the Kremlin pay" for escalating the conflict in Ukraine.

"We do not accept the sham referenda nor any kind of annexation in Ukraine, and we are determined to make the Kremlin pay the price for this further escalation," she told reporters in Brussels.

The proposed eighth sanctions package includes further import bans on Russian products that are meant to deprive Moscow of an additional 7 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in revenues.

The White House said the United States will "never" recognize Russian attempts to annex parts of Ukraine and is preparing new economic sanctions on Moscow that will impose a "severe economic cost on Russia when they move forward with annexation."

"We will never recognize these illegal and illegitimate attempts at annexation," Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on September 28.

"We will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia and individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia."

The EU will fully ban imports from Russia of steel and steel products, pulp and paper, machinery and appliances, intermediate chemicals, plastics, and cigarettes, according to an EU diplomat.

The sanctions would also ban the export of EU of goods used in aviation, such as tires and brakes, and electrical components including certain semiconductors and less sophisticated components than those already banned, the diplomat added.

In addition, the diplomat said, the proposal also aims to ban the export of specific goods that can be used for torture.

The sanctions package will lay the legal basis for an oil price cap and ban EU citizens from sitting on governing bodies of Russian state-owned companies, von der Leyen said.

The new sanctions also would include restrictions on 37 individuals and companies that are engaged in organizing referendums.

This would include deputy ministers, celebrities, musicians, and people involved in spreading disinformation.

The proposal has been presented to the EU ambassadors of the 27 member countries, who are scheduled to discuss it on September 30. They will have to overcome differences in order to reach the required unanimity.

In Washington, two architects of the U.S. sanctions regime told lawmakers that future sanctions must focus on depriving Putin of what he needs to fund and fight the war.

This includes revenue from Russia's oil and gas sales and access to global supply networks to replenish his military.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, an assistant treasury secretary, stressed that the United States should be "laser-focused" on starving Russia of energy profits.

Rosenberg testified on September 28 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside James O'Brien, head of the State Department's sanction coordination office, as senators complained that the first rounds of sanctions did not hit Moscow as hard or fast as the administration had forecast.

Rosenberg told lawmakers that Russia should be in a fiscal deficit by the end of the year but for now the ruble is managing far better than the United States projected and inflation and its stock market levels aren't out of line with those of other countries.

Rosenberg and O'Brien called for stronger action against Russia as U.S. and European officials prepare to impose a system of price caps on Russian maritime oil exports. The system would be designed to keep Russian oil on the world market. The architects of the plan say this would avoid driving up prices even higher, while forcing down the price that Russia gets for its exports.

The next step must be to double down on the global arms procurement networks Russia is using to replenish its weapons and technology for the war in Ukraine, Rosenberg and O'Brien said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa

U.S. Announces $1.1 Billion In Aid For Building Ukraine's Military

The package includes funding for 18 units of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS. (file photo)

The United States will provide an additional $1.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including funding for about 18 more advanced rocket systems and other weapons to counter drones, the White House announced on September 28.

The package is aimed at helping Ukraine secure its longer-term defense needs under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which funds the purchase of weapons and equipment. This means it could take a year or more for Ukraine to get the systems.

Most of the other military aid packages announced by the United States have thus far used Pentagon drawdown authority to provide weapons more immediately.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The new package "represents a multi-year investment in critical capabilities to build the enduring strength of Ukraine's Armed Forces" as they continue to battle the invading Russian Army, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The package includes funding for 18 units of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, and 12 Titan systems, which are used to counter drones.

The Pentagon and Ukrainian military leaders say HIMARS have been key to Ukraine's recent battlefield successes. Titan systems will be deployed against Iranian-made drones that Russian forces have started to use to target Ukrainian forces.

The announcement came after what Western countries say were “sham” referendums held in parts of Russian-occupied Ukraine on joining Russia.

“We will not be deterred from supporting Ukraine, we will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people, and provide them with the security assistance they need to defend themselves, for as long as it takes,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Also in the package is funding for about 150 armored vehicles, 150 tactical vehicles for towing weapons, trucks and trailers, and a variety of radars, communications, and surveillance equipment.

The United States has now committed approximately $16.9 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since January 2021.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Activists Push For International Feminist Groups To Show Solidarity With Iranian Women

An Iranian protester burns an Islamic head scarf or hijab during protests over the death of a young woman in police custody earlier this month.

Hundreds of professors and academic activists have signed an open letter urging international feminist communities to join them in building transnational solidarity with women and marginalized groups in Iran.

The letter is signed by academics from universities in Europe, Britain, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and other countries who say that the death of Mahsa Amini is "among many other state murders committed systemically and purposefully by the gender-apartheid regime of Iran."

The letter, titled Listen to the Voices of a Feminist Revolution in Iran, said that now more than ever "it is critical to show more potent transnational solidarity with women and other marginalized bodies in Iran.”

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

"This country-wide revolt is against not only the brutal murder of Mahsa but also the essence of the Islamic regime," the letter said. "The demand is loud and clear: an end to a theocratic regime whose multi-faceted violence against marginalized bodies is manifested in Mahsa’s death."

The country is "witnessing a feminist revolution...ignited by rage at the murder of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini," the letter added.

The protests have galvanized Iranians while also highlighting four decades of state violence and discrimination against women, who have been pushing back against state repression for years.

The government has recently arrested more than 1,200 protesters, including 20 journalists, four lawyers, and about 25 activists and students. According to official figures, more than 40 people have been killed, including several members of the security forces. Rights groups that monitor the country believe the real number of people killed is much higher.

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

North Ossetia Imposes Limits On Incoming Cars As Line Grows At Region's Border Crossing With Georgia

The traffic jam at the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border stretched more than 20 kilometers on September 28, and the wait time was about two days.

North Ossetia has imposed restrictions on cars arriving from other parts of Russia as an exodus of military-age men out of the country has resulted in a long line of vehicles at a remote border crossing with Georgia.

Sergei Menyailo, North Ossetia's governor, said on September 28 that the restrictions were being introduced in Russia's North Caucasus region because it “will not be physically able to ensure order and security if this flow continues to grow."

The restrictions apply to "citizens who are registered with the military not only in North Ossetia, but also in other regions of the country," Menyailo said on Telegram after imposing the restrictions by decree.

Menyailo calls the decision to restrict entry a "forced measure" associated with "a huge amount of transit traffic" and many kilometers of queues at the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border.

Exceptions will be made only for residents of North Ossetia, Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, and Georgia, and tourists who have the necessary documents.

Mobile operational groups are already working at the entrances to North Ossetia and at the entrance to the Upper Lars checkpoint to check whether those entering are subject to conscription.

Representatives of the military registration and enlistment offices in the operational groups have general lists of conscripts from the Ministry of Defense, Menyailo said.

North Ossetian authorities announced the creation of a temporary draft office at Upper Lars on September 27 to issue draft papers to reservists who are attempting to leave Russia in defiance of the mobilization order.

Tens of thousands of draft-age men have been leaving Russia since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization last week. Georgia, which allows Russians to stay without a visa for up to a year, has been one of the most popular destinations.

There are no direct flights between Russia and Georgia, and the Upper Lars crossing, which straddles a remote mountain pass, is the only operational crossing point between them.

The traffic jam at Upper Lars on September 28 stretched more than 20 kilometers, and the wait time was about two days. On September 27, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that the number of trucks and cars waiting to cross the border had grown to 5,500.

In response to the huge traffic jam, Russian citizens have been allowed to cross the border at the Upper Lars on foot despite the border crossing not being intended for this.

Before Putin announced the military mobilization about 5,000 to 6,000 Russian citizens crossed into Georgia through Upper Lars every day. Now the daily influx of Russians is about twice that, said Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri. Georgia does not plan to impose restrictions on Russians.

Georgian authorities on September 28 also condemned the so-called referendums that took place from September 23 to September 27 in four territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia.

“These attempts to annex Ukrainian territories are unacceptable. Georgia strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The statement described the referendums as “cynical violations of international law and the will of the Ukrainian people, who continue to fight heroically against the invasion.”

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Strikes Kharkiv, Cuts Power, Hits Railway Yard; Heavy Fighting In Kherson

Investigators inspect a crater left by a Russian missile strike on an electrical transformer facility in Kharkiv.

Russian missile strikes in Ukraine's second city Kharkiv hit a railway yard overnight and knocked out power to more than 18,000 households, officials said on September 28.

Kharkiv governor Oleh Synehubov said Russian forces had fired S-300 missiles, designed as an anti-aircraft weapon but now often re-purposed to hit civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian cities.

The Kharkiv regional emergency service said the blasts destroyed an electrical transformer and hit a workshop.

No casualties were reported, but the regional electricity company said 18,500 customers in the Shevchenkivsky, Kholodnogirsky, and Novobavarsky districts of the city had lost electricity.

The strike came exactly a week after a similar attack that hit a nearby rail freight yard as well as residential blocks.

Heavy fighting also continues in the Kherson region, Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on September 28.

The ministry said the Russian military force in the area, located on the right bank of the Dnipro River, remains vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.

British intelligence also said that Russia is using its forces to continue its "grinding" attempts to advance near Bakhmut in the Donbas despite facing severe pressure on its northern and southern flanks.

The latest fighting came as U.S. officials said Washington was preparing a new $1.1 billion weapons package for Ukraine that will be announced soon.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
Updated

NATO, EU Say Gas Pipeline Leaks Are 'Sabotage' But Stop Short Of Pointing Finger At Russia

A photo taken from a Danish fighter jet on September 27 of a gas leak from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea.

NATO and the European Union said leaks in two major Russian underwater pipelines designed to ship natural gas to Germany were caused by "sabotage" and vowed to take strong action to protect critical European infrastructure.

However, their statements on September 28 stopped short of accusing anyone of being behind the incident, which caused natural gas prices in Europe to spike.

The Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which are owned by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, burst in several locations in the exclusive economic zones of Denmark and Sweden.

Neither of the pipelines is currently in operation amid a standoff between Moscow and Brussels over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 28 that he discussed the "sabotage" of the pipelines at a meeting with Danish Defense Minister Morten Bodskov in Brussels.

"We addressed the protection of critical infrastructure in NATO countries," the chief of the Western military alliance that also includes most EU countries said on Twitter.

The EU issued a strong warning the same day to anybody attempting to attack the energy backbones of the 27-nation bloc.

"Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement, echoing a warning by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Borrell announced that the bloc would step up the protection of its energy infrastructure following the incidents.

"We will support any investigation aimed at getting full clarity on what happened and why, and will take further steps to increase our resilience in energy security," he noted.

Borrell's statements came after seismologists from Sweden and Denmark said they had recorded powerful explosions in areas near where evidence of leaks from the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea had been found, prompting Swedish police to launch an investigation into possible sabotage.

"These incidents are not a coincidence and affect us all," Borrell said.

Neither NATO nor the EU accused anyone in particular of being behind the leaks, which come as Europe tries to fill up its natural gas storage ahead of winter amid the biggest energy crisis in decades.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak tweeted on September 27 that the reported gas leaks were likely the result of a "terrorist attack" carried out by Moscow.

Podolyak accused Russia of seeking to "destabilize the economic situation in Europe and cause pre-winter panic."

Western officials for months have been warning that Russia could cut natural gas exports to Europe to pressure Brussels over its support of Ukraine.

Russia accounted for about 40 percent of EU natural gas supplies last year, giving it enormous leverage over energy prices in the bloc. Much of the natural gas, which is used to heat homes in the winter, flows through the Nord Stream pipelines.

Nord Stream 1 accounted for more than one-third of Russian natural gas exports to the EU last year. Nord Stream 2 was set to start operation in 2022 but Germany blocked its launch in February in a failed attempt to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

Moscow began reducing gas flows through Nord Stream 1 earlier this year, claiming Western sanctions had caused technical difficulties, driving prices to record highs and pushing the EU toward a recession.

It completely suspended exports along the pipeline in August as the EU imposed more sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia could face billion-dollar lawsuits from European customers if it doesn’t resume the gas flows along Nord Stream 1.

But analysts say Moscow can now try to use the explosions to declare force majeure -- circumstances beyond its control due to an unforeseen event -- and avoid penalties.

The Kremlin on September 28 vehemently rejected accusations it was behind the two incidents, calling them "absurd and stupid."

It pointed the finger at Washington, adding that the United States had opposed the pipelines and that U.S. energy companies are earning large profits supplying gas to Europe.

However, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden declined to stop the completion of Nord Stream 2.

The Biden administration also wants to avoid a natural gas crunch in Europe this winter for fear it could weaken EU unity on Russia sanctions and support for Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the incident needed to be investigated and the timing for the repair of the damaged pipelines was not clear.

"This is a big problem for us because, firstly, both lines of Nord Stream 2 are filled with gas -- the entire system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive.... Now the gas is flying off into the air."

"Are we interested in that? No, we are not. We have lost a route for gas supplies to Europe," Peskov said.

However, Russia has been burning large amounts of natural gas, a process known as flaring, for months amid much lower sales to Europe, analysts said.

Russia also has enough spare capacity along pipelines that cross Ukraine to supply Europe.

The explosions came on the same day of the inauguration of a long-awaited pipeline that will bring Norwegian gas to Poland, which used to rely heavily on Russia for supplies.

The new system will bring Norway's gas across Denmark and the Baltic Sea to Poland.

Anders Puck Nielsen, a researcher with the Center for Maritime Operations at the Royal Danish Defense College, was quoted by Reuters as saying the timing of the leaks was "conspicuous" given the ceremony for the Baltic Pipe.

He said it appeared someone may have sought "to send a signal that something could happen to the Norwegian gas."

"The arrow points in the direction of Russia," Puck Nielsen said.

"No one in the West is interested in having any kind of instability in the energy market."

With reporting by SVT, Reuters, AFP, BBC, and TASS
Updated

Kyiv Slams Results Of 'Sham' Vote In Russian-Occupied Lands As 'Null And Worthless'

Members of an electoral commission wait for voters at a polling station in the Donetsk region during a referendum on the territory joining the Russian federation, which has been dismissed by Ukraine, Western governments, and the United Nations because the vote is illegal under international law.

Kyiv said on September 28 that Moscow-orchestrated votes on becoming part of Russia held in four Ukrainian regions partially controlled by Moscow were "null and worthless," and called on the West to "significantly" increase its military aid to Ukraine.

Russian-backed officials had announced the final results earlier, saying voters had "overwhelmingly" supported becoming part of Russia. Two Moscow-appointed regional heads sent "requests" to join Russia shortly after

Referendums that the West and United Nations have called “sham” votes took place between September 23- and September 27 in the parts of the Zaporizhzhya, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson regions that are under Moscow's military occupation. The territories account for about 15 percent of Ukraine's territory.

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The move has been dismissed by Ukraine, Western governments, and the United Nations because the vote is illegal under international law.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Russian-staged votes were "null and worthless" and urged its international partners to impose tough new sanctions on Moscow and provide Kyiv with more military aid.

"Ukraine will never agree to any ultimatums," the ministry said.

"Ukraine calls on the EU, NATO, and the Group of Seven to immediately and significantly increase pressure on Russia, including by imposing tough sanctions and significantly increase their military aid to Ukraine," it said.

The White House called the referendums "illegal and illegitimate" and said that the United States will not recognize Russian-annexed areas in Ukraine. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a briefing that the referendums were manipulated by Moscow and would be challenged internationally.

"Based on our information, every aspect of this referanda process was pre-staged and orchestrated by the Kremlin," Jean-Pierre said.

"Regardless of Russia's claims, this remains Ukrainian territory," she added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on September 28 slammed the "illegal annexation" votes and their "falsified" results.

"EU denounces holding of illegal 'referenda' and their falsified outcome," Borrell said on Twitter.

"This is another violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, amidst systematic abuses of human rights," he said.

The sham referendum was held amid claims by some local officials that voters have been threatened and coerced into voting. Election officials brought ballot boxes house-to-house in many cases accompanied by armed Russian forces.

In eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region, 99.23 percent of those who came to the polls voted for its entry into Russia, prompting Moscow-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin to hail the result as "colossal."

In another eastern region, Luhansk, Russia-appointed election officials said the final result was 98.42 percent in favor of the annexation

After the announcement of the final results, the Moscow-backed administrator of the Luhansk region, Leonid Pasechnik, sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a request for the territory under his control to join Russia, citing alleged Ukrainian crimes and the threat of genocide as the reason.

"Taking into account the decision of the republic's population at the referendum, I am asking you to consider making the Luhansk People's Republic a subject of the Russian Federation," Pasechnik said in a statement.

The head of the Russian-controlled part of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, later followed suit.

"Our residents made a historic choice and decided to become part of the multinational population of the Russian Federation, in which all people are equal before each other and before the law," Saldo said in a statement published on social media.

The requests are seen as a prelude to Putin declaring their annexation in the coming days.

Valentina Matviyenko, the chairman of the Russian parliament's upper house, said Putin was scheduled to address the parliament about the referendums on September 30 and said lawmakers could consider annexation legislation on October 4 -- three days before Putin celebrates his 70th birthday.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa, and TASS

German Police Search Superyacht Believed To Be Owned By Uzbek-Born Russian Tycoon

The Dilbar as seen in Monaco in 2017.

German police have searched the superyacht Dilbar, the world's biggest yacht by tonnage, believed to be owned by Alisher Usmanov -- an Uzbek-born billionaire and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Alisher Usmanov
Alisher Usmanov

The search conducted on September 27 was part of investigations of Usmanov's alleged tax evasion, money-laundering, and violations of European Union sanctions imposed on him and Russia over Putin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine launched in late February, public prosecutors in Frankfurt told reporters.

German authorities in March said they had seized the Dilbar, a 156-meter superyacht worth $600 million, and Forbes magazine subsequently reported that the vessel belonged to Usmanov.

Prosecutors did not mention Usmanov’s name or provide the names of any suspects. They specified only that the search was conducted in “northern Germany” and did not say why nearly six months passed before they searched the vessel.

Last week, German police searched dozens of houses and apartments belonging to Usmanov and discovered four rare Faberge eggs.

Usmanov, 69, is currently believed to be residing in Uzbekistan, according to Der Spiegel, which said he is accused of evading at least 555 million euros ($534 million) in German taxes since 2014.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and Der Spiegel

Iranian Oil Workers Warn Of Strike If Government Doesn't End Crackdown

Iranian oil workers on strike in June 2021.

Iranian oil industry contract workers have warned the government to end its crackdown on protesters or they will strike, a move that could cripple a key sector of the economy.

"We support the people's struggles against organized and everyday violence against women and against the poverty and hell that dominates the society,” the Organizing Council of Oil Contract Workers said on September 26.

Iran has been roiled by unrest that has spread to more than 80 cities and towns, including in the northwest, where 22-year-old Mahsa Amini lived before eyewitnesses and family said she was beaten -- and later died -- after being seized by the morality police in Tehran on September 13.

Labor protests in Iran also have been on the rise in recent months in response to declining living standards and state support as crippling Western sanctions wrack the economy.

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

The Iran Human Rights Organization said on September 27 that at least 76 people have been killed in anti-government protests across Iran.

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

Kyrgyz Musician Back In Kazakhstan For Probe Into His Alleged Beating While In Police Custody

Vikram Ruzakhunov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A well-known Kyrgyz jazz musician who was arrested in Kazakhstan during deadly anti-government protests in January says he is in Almaty, where investigations into his alleged beating and torture by Kazakh police officers have started.

Vikram Ruzakhunov told RFE/RL on September 27 that he arrived in the Almaty region a day earlier and has met with a Kazakh investigator involved in the probe.

"The meeting [with the investigator] was fruitful. Today, we will visit the crime site, where I was detained and tortured. We will hold face-to-face confrontations with identified individuals," Ruzakhunov said.

Ruzakhunov said earlier that he had suffered a chest injury, broken ribs, a concussion, and multiple bruises while in Kazakh custody.

Anti-government protests sparked by a fuel-price hike erupted in Kazakhstan in early January. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has publicly blamed what he said were “extremists” trained abroad for attacking Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, during the unrest. He has not produced any evidence to back up the claim.

Ruzakhunov's situation was amplified when a Kazakh television channel showed a video in which he said he was recruited by an unspecified group to take part in the unrest for $200. In the video, severe bruises can be seen on Ruzakhunov's face, leading to speculation he was forced to make the statement.

The video sparked protests in Kyrgyzstan, where Ruzakhunov was immediately recognized by his fans. He was freed several days after his arrest and allowed to go to Bishkek after the Kyrgyz government demanded his release.

Kazakh officials said earlier that six people were tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the protests and 238 people died during or after the unrest, which was violently dispersed by law enforcement and the armed forces.

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office has said 25 people were officially considered victims of torture as investigators used hot irons during their interrogations.

Human rights groups insist that the number of killed during the unrest may be much bigger, presenting proof that many peaceful demonstrators and persons who had nothing to do with the protesters were killed by police and military personnel following an order by Toqaev to "shoot to kill without warning."

In July, police in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, concluded that Kazakh authorities had inflicted severe injuries on Ruzakhunov's body during his illegal arrest in January.

Relatives Say They Had To Pay Bribes To Get Family Members On Turkmen Prison Clemency List

According to the decree on the mass amnesty signed by Berdymukhammedov, 834 inmates, including four foreign nationals, will be released from prisons. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Relatives of inmates in Turkmenistan say they were forced to pay up to $2,000 to secure the inclusion of their loved ones on lists of inmates affected by a recent mass amnesty by President Serdar Berdymukhammedov.

According to several men and women who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity on September 26, they had to pay bribes to police officers who investigated the cases of their relatives and to prosecutors involved in the cases to make sure that their incarcerated relatives would be included in the clemency.

Representatives from prosecutors' offices and law enforcement structures in Ashgabat were not immediately available for comment.

According to the decree on the mass amnesty signed by Berdymukhammedov, 834 inmates, including four foreign nationals, will be released from prisons.

One of the world's most isolated and repressive countries, Turkmenistan marks its independence on September 27.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov took over the tightly controlled former Soviet republic in March from his authoritarian father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who ruled the nation with an iron fist from 2006.

Russian Poet Hospitalized, Charged After Reciting Verses Critical Of Ukraine Invasion

Artyom Kamardin

Russian poet and activist Artyom Kamardin, who was reportedly beaten and raped during his arrest, has been charged with inciting hatred over the presentation of his verses critical of the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine

Kamardin's lawyer, Leonid Solovyov, said on September 27 that his client was hospitalized with symptoms of a concussion, bruises on his body, scratches on his face, and chest wounds and remains in custody. A court is to decide his pretrial restrictions.

Kamardin, 31, was detained on September 26 along with his girlfriend, Anna Popova, and friend Aleksandr Menyukov after police broke into their apartment in Moscow. The Novaya gazeta.Europe newspaper cited Popova as saying that police severely beat Kamardin and raped him with a dumbbell.

Popova and Menyukov were released hours later.

Doctors diagnosed Popova with a concussion, head wounds, hip and legs wounds, and graze wounds on her left hand. The Sota online newspaper says it obtained a medical report on Popova conducted after her release.

The detainments came a day after Kamardin presented his verses at an annual poetry event at a monument to Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in Moscow. The verses criticized the Russian government for its war in Ukraine.

Police in Moscow also detained poets Nikolai Daineko and Yegor Shtovba, who also presented their verses at the Mayakovsky readings on September 25.

The two were also charged with inciting hatred and are waiting for the court's decisions on their pretrial restrictions.

With reporting by Novaya gazeta.Europe, Sota, and OVD-Inform
Updated

Twelfth Night Of Protests In Iran As Professors Join Outcry Over Death Of Woman Arrested For Hijab Violation

Students gather to protest the death of Mahsa Amini.

Iranians on September 27 staged a 12th straight night of protests over the death of Mahsa Amini despite a growing death toll and a fierce crackdown by security forces.

Widespread protests continued in various cities, including Tehran, Tabriz, Karaj, Qom, Yazd, and many other Iranian towns and villages more than a week after Amini, 22, died while she was in the custody of the morality police for allegedly wearing an Islamic head scarf, or hijab, improperly.

Scenes showing street clashes with security have been posted on social media, but activists said an Internet blackout was making it increasingly tough to share videos.

"Iran remains under Internet/mobile blackouts but some videos are still getting out," said the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

The semiofficial Fars news agency said that "around 60" people had been killed since Amini's death on September 16, up from the 41 reported on September 24, but the Iran Human Rights group says at least 76 people have been killed.

State TV reported that a police officer died on September 27 in a hospital after being injured by rioters in the town of Robatkarim in Tehran Province.

Officials said they had made more than 1,200 arrests across the country, including the detention of activists, lawyers, and journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said at least 20 journalists are among those arrested.

WATCH: A funeral has been held for a 20-year-old woman who was said to have been shot dead by Iranian security forces in the city of Karaj, near Tehran. Hadis Najafi was shot six times on September 21 during ongoing nationwide protests following the death of Mahsa Amini.

Tears And Anger After Iranian TikToker Killed In Ongoing Protests
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Many students, high-profile activists, rights advocates, and intellectuals have also been arrested in recent days, including Majid Tavakoli and Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour.

The daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was arrested for inciting protests, the Tasnim news agency reported.

Students in Tehran and other Iranian cities have often chanted the slogan, "The streets are covered in blood; our professors are silent," during rallies in recent days.

Several Iranian university professors responded by refusing to participate in classes or by resigning.

Lily Galehadaran, a member of the academic faculty of the Shiraz Art University, was one of the first.

“I was interrogated many times in the Intelligence Department of Shiraz and Tehran, but I continued to teach because of the love of my students. But today I am resigning from my job because of the love I have for them,” Galehadaran wrote in her resignation letter.

Ammar Ashuri, a professor who resigned from Tehran Azad University’s faculty of art and architecture, said he had been pressured and threatened by university security officers because of the posts and stories he has posted on Instagram.

Nasrollah Hekmat, a prominent Iranian philosopher and philosophy professor at the Beheshti University, also joined the protesting students.

"Today, I consider myself your student and you are my teacher. Only God knows that in these few days, I have learned more from you than in my entire life," Hekmat wrote in a letter, adding that “as long as students are protesting, I will not hold any classes.”

During a demonstration in the city of Qamishli on September 27, several women cut off their hair, threw it to the ground along with their head scarves, and set the pile on fire.

“Long live freedom. Women demand free life. Revolution is in our hands," the marchers chanted. “Women, life, freedom!"

State media branded the protesters "hypocrites, rioters, thugs, and seditionists," while state television said police clashed with "rioters" in some cities and fired tear gas to disperse them.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Iran to "end its use of violence against women for exercising what should be a fundamental freedom."

He told reporters in Washington that the United States stands with “all those who are exercising the universal right to peaceful protest."

Germany summoned the Iranian ambassador over the crackdown, Canada announced sanctions, and Tehran called in the British and Norwegian envoys.

A hard-line lawmaker slammed female protesters who have taken off their head scarves.

“These rioters are out to prostitute themselves,” Mahmud Nabavian was quoted as saying by Fararu, a news website. He suggested that taking off the head scarf was akin to being naked in public to attract male attention.

Senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamadani used more conciliatory language.

“It is necessary for officials to listen to people’s demands and solve their problems and be sensitive to their rights,” Hamadani said, according to IRNA.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP; Ardeshir Tayebi contributed based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Updated

RFE/RL Freelance Correspondent Jailed For Five Days In Russia's Daghestan, Says Lawyer

RFE/RL freelance correspondent Yulia Vishnevetskaya

RFE/RL freelance correspondent Yulia Vishnevetskaya has been sentenced to five days in jail after being detained along with dozens of others by police in Daghestan, her lawyer, Aida Kasimova, announced on September 28.

Vishnevetskaya was covering an unsanctioned rally against the Kremlin's partial military mobilization to support troop levels in the war against Ukraine.

Kasimova said Vishnevetskaya was charged with participating in an unsanctioned rally.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called for Vishnevetskaya's immediate release.

“Yulia was only doing her job reporting the truth for the Russian people,” Fly said. “She should be released immediately.”

Idris Yusupov and Sergei Ainbinder, two journalists who were also held, said police confiscated mobile phones from most of the detained journalists and have been keeping them in custody without access to lawyers since.

Yusupov and Ainbinder said they were released about 17 hours after being detained.

Yusupov told RFE/RL that more than 100 men and women remain in the police custody, adding that they all were charged with administrative misdemeanors and will face court hearings.

The arrests came after hundreds rallied in Makhachkala on September 26, a day after another rally, attended mostly by women, ended with the detainment of about 120 people. Eight of the demonstrators detained on that day face criminal charges.

Protests against the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin on September 21 have taken place in several towns and cities across Russia in recent days, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

According to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests in Russia, at least 2,398 people have been detained for protesting the mobilization since September 21. All public criticism of Russia's "special military operation" is banned.

Dushanbe City Bank Suspends Russia's Mir Payment System

Moscow has vowed to expand its Mir payments system in so-called "friendly countries" as Western sanctions attempt to shut it out of international finance over its war against Ukraine.

DUSHANBE -- One of Tajikistan's largest banks, Dushanbe City Bank, has suspended operations of Russia's Mir payment cards in the country, citing technical issues.

Dushanbe City Bank said on September 27 that the "problems with using Mir payment cards" started four days earlier. It gave no further details.

The statement comes amid repeated warnings from the United States and other countries that those who fail to adhere to international sanctions against Moscow for its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may themselves face penalties.

On September 23, another Central Asian country, Uzbekistan, said Mir payment cards issued outside the country would no longer work, though those issued locally were still functioning.

Earlier last week, several banks in Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Vietnam suspended the use of Mir payment cards amid warnings by the U.S. Treasury about possible sanctions on institutions supporting Russia's payment system outside of Russia.

Moscow has vowed to expand its Mir payments system in so-called "friendly countries" as Western sanctions attempt to shut it out of international finance over its war against Ukraine.

Last week Reuters quoted a senior U.S. administration official as saying that steps by Turkey's Isbank and Denizbank to suspend the use of Russian payment system Mir "make a lot of sense."

"Cutting off Mir is one of the best ways to protect a bank from the sanctions risk that comes from doing business with Russia. We expect more banks to cut off Mir because they don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of the coalition's sanctions," the official said.

With reporting by RBK and Reuters

EU Plans Sanctions On Organizers Of 'Illegal' Referendums In Ukraine

Peter Stano, lead spokesman for the external affairs of the European Union (file photo)

The European Union plans to follow suit with the United Kingdom and others and impose sanctions on the organizers of "illegal, illegitimate referendums" that are being conducted in four regions of Ukraine that are at least partially controlled by Moscow.

"There would be consequences for all people who participate in the illegal, illegitimate referendums," Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told journalists on September 27, the fifth and final day of voting in the referendums, which many Western governments have called "sham" votes.

The vote in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions is being held in the midst of the largest conflict in Europe since the end of World War II and amid claims by some local officials that voters have been threatened and intimidated.

On September 26, the United Kingdom announced new sanctions in response to the referendums, calling them "a clear violation of international law, including the UN Charter."

The new sanctions hit many top Russian officials involved in enforcing the votes, as well as dozens of individuals from state-linked organizations that the U.K. said continued to "bankroll the Russian war machine, serving as a stark reminder of the cost of supporting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's operation."

Kazakhstan Chosen To Host Central Asia's First MotoGP Race

MotoGP racers round a turn at the Japanese Grand Prix in Motegi, Japan, on September 25.

Kazakhstan has signed a deal to become the first Central Asian country to host a race in the premier category of the motorcycle world championship.

MotoGP promoter Dorna said on September 27 in a statement that a five-year deal had been reached for the Sokol International Racetrack -- located just outside the city of Almaty -- to hold a race starting in 2023 as part of the FIM MotoGP World Championship.

"The region will be a new pitstop for MotoGP as the sport continues to expand around the world, engaging with new markets and fan bases," Dorna said in the statement.

Kazakhstan will be the 30th country to host a MotoGP race since the championship started in 1949.

Kazakhstan Plans Talks With Moscow Regarding Influx Of Russians Amid Military Call-Up

Russians wait at a public service center in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 27.

TURKISTAN, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says his country plans to hold talks with Moscow regarding the massive influx of Russian citizens entering the country following the Kremlin's introduction of a partial military mobilization to support its war in Ukraine.

Talking to journalists in the southern Kazakh city of Turkistan on September 27, Toqaev called the inflow of Russian citizens into the country "a political and humanitarian matter," stressing that all necessary measures must be implemented to secure the safety of those entering the country.

"We do not have any crisis. Our government must do its work. The incoming people will be provided with help, but not special benefits. All necessary procedures will be held in accordance with the law," Toqaev said.

"We will hold talks with Russia and resolve this issue with taking our people's interests into account."

Toqaev's statement comes amid concerns among Kazakhs that the huge number of Russians entering the country is already fueling a real-estate crisis. Some media reports said landlords have begun to evict Kazakh tenants in order to rent homes to Russians at much higher prices.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the traffic jam near the Russia border with Georgia on September 25.
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the traffic jam near the Russia border with Georgia on September 25.

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

Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov said on September 27 that all issues related to the influx of Russian citizens will be "taken care of while giving priority to the interests of our people."

Smayilov's statement a day earlier about the "necessity to provide incoming Russian citizens with registration papers and jobs" has sparked harsh criticism in Kazakhstan since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial military mobilization on September 21.

Some media outlets in Russia say that more than 260,000 have fled the country since the announcement.

According to Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry, some 98,000 Russian citizens have entered the country since September 21.

The acting chief of the Migration Committee, Colonel Aslan Atalyqov, said on September 26 that around 40,000 Russian citizens had already left for other countries -- mainly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- after entering Kazakhstan in recent days.

Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov said on September 27 that Russian citizens who come to Kazakhstan to evade the mobilization will be extradited back to Russia only if they are officially added to Russia's wanted list.

Russian citizens trying to avoid being called up to join the war are also fleeing to Finland, Georgia, and Mongolia.

Authorities in Russia's North Ossetia-Alania region, which borders Georgia, said on September 27 that a mobile conscription point was placed on the border checkpoint to tighten controls on Russian men leaving the country.

A traffic jam leading to the border checkpoint stretched for about 15 kilometers on September 27, according to the online service Yandex Maps. Georgia's Interior Ministry said more than 53,000 Russians have entered the country since last week.

With reporting by Tengrinews and Echo of the Caucasus

Death Toll In Russian Shooting Spree Rises To 17

Onlookers gather near the crime scene after the shooting in Izhevsk on September 26.

The death toll from a shooting spree at a Russian school on September 26 has risen to 17, as the Udmurtia region holds a day of mourning to honor the victims of the tragedy.

The press service of the governor of Udmurtia said on September 27 that two people died overnight, bringing the death toll from the attack -- the fourth school shooting in the Volga region in the past 15 months -- to 11 children and six adults.

Russia's Investigative Committee said on September 26 that the gunman had been identified as Artyom Kazantsev, 34, who was a graduate of the school, which is attended by students from elementary school up to the end of high school.

The gunman, who some media said was wearing a T-shirt with a swastika on it, shot himself dead at the scene, the committee said.

Aleksandr Shaklein, the chief physician of the regional clinic in Izhevsk, where the school is located, said on September 27 that 16 children and two adults were currently in the city's hospitals, and that seven of the children and the two adults were in intensive care.

According to Shaklein, 15 patients will be transported to Moscow for further treatment.

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

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

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

With reporting by TASS and Interfax
Updated

Sweden Investigating Baltic Sea Gas Pipeline Leaks As Possible Sabotage

Gas flares at a Nord Stream station on the coast of the Gulf of Finland in Russia's Leningrad Region.

Swedish police say they have launched a preliminary investigation into possible sabotage related to leaks in the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea after seismologists from Sweden and Denmark said they had recorded powerful explosions in areas near where evidence of leaks had been found.

A national police spokesperson said on September 27 that Swedish police had "established a report and the crime classification is gross sabotage."

The leaks have raised concerns about possible sabotage amid fears of a growing energy crisis as Western nations turn away from Russia as a supplier in response to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak said the reported gas leaks were likely the result of a "terrorist attack" carried out by Moscow.

"The large-scale 'gas leak' from Nord Stream 1 is nothing more than a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression towards the EU," Podolyak said on Twitter.

Podolyak accused Russia of seeking to "destabilize the economic situation in Europe and cause pre-winter panic."


Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki earlier called the events “an act of sabotage," while Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said later on September 27 that it was clear the leaks were caused by "deliberate actions."

"It was not an accident," Frederiksen said, adding that there is no information yet to indicate who may be behind the actions.

The Danish government expects the leaks to last "at least a week" until the methane escaping from the underwater pipelines, which are full of gas but not operational, runs out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the leaks were due to "sabotage," threatening the "strongest possible response" to any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told business leaders that the leaks were due to targeted attacks, not natural occurrences or events or material fatigue.

Moscow reduced the gas flow to Europe through Nord Stream 1 before suspending it completely in August, claiming that Western sanctions had caused technical difficulties.

The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline was recently completed, but Germany scrapped plans to import gas through it just days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

However, both pipelines still contain gas under pressure.

Nord Stream AG, which operates the pipelines, said on September 27 that three offshore lines of the Nord Stream gas pipeline system had sustained what it called "unprecedented" damage in one day, adding that it was impossible to say when the gas network system's working capability would be restored.

One of the leaks on Nord Stream 1 occurred in the Danish economic zone and the other in the Swedish economic zone. The Nord Stream 2 leak occurred in the Danish economic zone.

Russia, which together with Europe spent billions of dollars building the Nord Stream pipelines, said earlier that it was "extremely concerned" about the leaks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 27 that he could not exclude the possibility that sabotage was behind the leaks.

The turmoil came on the same day of the inauguration of a long-awaited pipeline that will bring Norwegian gas to Poland, which used to rely heavily on Russia for supplies.

The new system will bring Norway's gas across Denmark and the Baltic Sea to Poland.

Anders Puck Nielsen, a researcher with the Center for Maritime Operations at the Royal Danish Defense College, was quoted by Reuters as saying the timing of the leaks was “conspicuous,” given the ceremony.

He said it appeared someone may have sought “to send a signal that something could happen to the Norwegian gas.”

“The arrow points in the direction of Russia,” Puck Nielsen said. “No one in the West is interested in having any kind of instability in the energy market.”

With reporting by SVT, Reuters, and TASS

French Foreign Minister Returns To Kyiv In Unannounced Visit

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna visits the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Kyiv during her previos visit in May.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit to show support for Ukraine as it battles Russian troops that invaded the country more than seven months ago.

"Good morning Ukraine, it's good to be back," she wrote in a post on Twitter on September 27.

She also wrote the same in French and Ukrainian, and posted a picture of herself walking in Kyiv with the French ambassador to Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins.

Colonna first visited Kyiv during the war at the end of May.

Earlier this month, French President Emannuel Macron pledged his country's unwavering support for Kyiv in what he said would be a long war.

Macron had been criticized by Ukraine and some Eastern European allies for what they perceived as his ambiguous backing for Kyiv since Russia launched its invasion in late February, and his repeated dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Macron says dialogue is needed to help prevent the conflict from escalating.

Updated

Heavy Fighting Under Way In Ukraine As Anti-Mobilization Protests Continue In Russia

A Maxar satellite image shows a huge traffic jam near the Russia border with Georgia on September 25.

Heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces is under way in parts of eastern Ukraine and the northeast Kharkiv region as Moscow continues a crackdown on protests against a partial mobilization decreed by President Vladimir Putin last week.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the eastern Donetsk region remained Ukraine's -- and Russia's -- top strategic priority, with fighting under way in several towns as Russian troops try to advance to the south and west.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on September 26 that the military situation in Donetsk was "particularly severe."

"We are doing everything to contain enemy activity. This is our No. 1 goal right now because Donbas is still the No. 1 goal for the occupiers," Zelenskiy said.

Regional officials, meanwhile, said that Russia carried out at least five attacks on targets in the Odesa region using Iranian drones in the last few days.

Russian missiles targeted the airport in Kriviy Rih in central Ukraine, destroying infrastructure and making the airport unusable, Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, said on Telegram.

The Ukrainian armed forces' southern command said on September 27 that its counteroffensive in the southeastern Kherson region had resulted in enemy losses of 77 servicemen, six tanks, five howitzers, three anti-aircraft installations and 14 armored vehicles.

The claim could not be independently verified.

Fighting was also raging in the Kharkiv region in the northeast, which has been the target of a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month.

In the south, Ukrainian forces pressed on with a campaign to render four bridges and other river crossings inoperable to disrupt supply lines to Russian forces.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces reported on September 27 that Russian forces used drones, including Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones, in the northeastern Donetsk region to conduct reconnaissance.

Russian troops also launched two missile and six air strikes in the region and carried out more than 20 attacks from rocket systems on military and civilian objects, the General Staff's evening report said.

The Ukrainian Air Force responded by carrying out 10 strikes, hitting Russian troops and military equipment, the General Staff said. The air force also destroyed one Su-25 aircraft and five drones of various types, the report said. These claims could not be verified.

Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov told RFE/RL that Ukraine will continue to defend itself even in the face of Putin's veiled threats that it could use nuclear weapons.

In the event of such an "audacious" attack, Danilov said if even there is no response from the world community or NATO countries, "this does not mean that we will not defend our land."

Danilov said the Security Council has developed detailed instructions for citizens in the event of Russia's use of tactical nuclear weapons and intends to "publicize them as much as possible" in the coming days.

In Russia, the announced mobilization of some 300,000 reservists has sparked the first sustained protests since the start of the unprovoked invasion on February 24.

OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests in Russia, said that 2,386 people had been detained by September 26. All public criticism of Russia's "special military operation" is banned.

In Geneva, the United Nations voiced alarm on September 27 at the report.

"We are deeply disturbed by the large number of people who have reportedly been arrested," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters.

Citing unidentified officials, two Russian news sites that operate from abroad -- Meduza and Novaya gazeta Europe -- reported that the authorities were planning to ban men from leaving as cars clogged border checkpoints, with reports of a 48-hour queue at the sole road border to neighboring Georgia, which allows Russian citizens to enter without a visa.

Asked about the prospect of the border being shut, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 26: "I don't know anything about this. At the moment, no decision has been made on this."

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the United States will consider asylum applications from Russians fleeing mobilization.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

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