Pompeo Says U.S. To Be More Engaged In East Europe, Warns Russia Trying To Divide West
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States must be more engaged in Central and Eastern Europe as Russia tries to divide the West.
On the first day of a five-country European tour that will focus on opposition to the growing influence of Russia and China in Central Europe, Pompeo met with Hungary's right-wing populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, on February 11 to stress the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law.
Washington sees those issues as key to countering Russian and Chinese moves to sow discord in the European Union and NATO.
"We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO," Pompeo told a joint news conference in Budapest with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.
Pompeo specifically pointed to Central Europe's reliance on Russian energy as well as the presence of the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, particularly in Hungary.
But Szijjarto parried any criticism of his country's energy policy, noting many European countries have deals with Moscow in the sector.
"There is an enormous hypocrisy and political correctness in the European political arena," he said.
U.S. officials are concerned by Huawei's expansion in Europe, especially in NATO member states where they believe the Chinese firm poses significant information-security threats.
Orban, a vocal admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump, is an outspoken critic of mass immigration to Europe from areas such as the Middle East.
On February 10, Orban launched a program to encourage women to have more children and reverse Hungary's population decline. He said the initiative was meant to "ensure the survival of the Hungarian nation."
"This is the Hungarians' answer, not immigration," he said.
His stance against migrants and refusal to join a new European Union public prosecutor's office focusing on fraud and corruption have also raised concerns.
In the past, Hungary had been ranked by Freedom House as politically "free," but it was reclassified in the Freedom In The World 2019 report as "partly free" because of "sustained attacks" by Orban's Fidesz party on the media, courts, religious groups, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector.
Orban's government has also been targeted for criticism, including from Washington, for forcing a Budapest-based university founded by Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most of its programs out of the country.
Pompeo will "express support for civil society" in Hungary and that he will meet with leaders of nongovernmental organizations, the officials said.
Human rights groups and others have lamented Pompeo's plans to meet with Orban and urged him to take a strong stance against his policies.
Pompeo's visit to Hungary comes as the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner said on February 11 that Hungary was facing "many interconnected human rights challenges," including legislation targeting civil society, backsliding on women's rights, and the detention of asylum seekers.
Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who visited Hungary last week, also voiced concern about the independence of the media and the judiciary.
Last year, Budapest approved legislation that provides for jail sentences for people convicted of aiding asylum seekers.
Mijatovic said that "the space for the work of NGOs, human rights defenders, and journalists critical of the government has become very narrow and restricted," and called on Orban's government to "reverse its worrying course" on human rights.
The State Department said that Pompeo's visit to Central Europe marked 30 years since the peoples of the region "tore down the Iron Curtain to reclaim their freedom and sovereignty, choosing the path of Western democracy denied to them for decades, and solidifying that commitment by joining NATO and the European Union."
The United States was "committed to a strong, united, and capable transatlantic alliance rooted in the principles of common defense, democracy, and fundamental freedoms," a February 10 statement said.
It said that Washington was also committed to increasing its "diplomatic, military, commercial, and cultural engagement with Central Europe in order to strengthen this region's ties with the West as it faces increased pressure from Russia and China."
Pompeo is also due to visit Slovakia and Poland, and is set to complete his journey with stops in Brussels and Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, on February 15.
In Poland, Pompeo will attend a conference on the Middle East on February 13-14 that is expected to focus on Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser on the Middle East and son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, the special U.S. envoy for international negotiations, are also expected to attend.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Polish President Promises Ukraine Help With Grain Transit Amid Dispute
Poland remains ready to help export grain from Ukraine to global markets outside of Europe despite an ongoing dispute over access to the Polish market, President Andrzej Duda said. Duda defended his government's decision to maintain a ban on the sale of Ukrainian grain in Poland. Speaking in a September 24 interview with the Polish public channel TVP1, he said radical measures were necessary to support Poland's farmers and agricultural market. But Duda said the country would do everything possible to ensure as much Ukrainian grain could be transported through Poland to reach the poorest countries in the world, where Duda said it is most needed.
Iran Demands Sweden Act Against Koran Burnings, Urges Release Of Prisoner
Iran has demanded that Sweden take action over Koran burnings before the two countries can exchange ambassadors again, and urged it to release a jailed Iranian citizen, the Foreign Ministry said on September 24. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discussed the Koran issue with his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billstrom, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the ministry said. Sweden has seen a series of public burnings of the Islamic holy book. Stockholm has voiced condemnation but said it cannot stop acts protected under laws on free expression.
Erdogan To Meet Azerbaijani President On September 25
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan on September 25, the Turkish presidency said. The "latest developments" in Nagorno-Karabakh will be at the heart of the meeting, the presidency said in a statement. The meeting follows a lightning Azerbaijani offensive which recaptured the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. The Turkish president has repeatedly expressed his support for Azerbaijan's army this week.
Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Arrives At Siberian Prison And Quickly Sent To Punishment Cell, Says Lawyer
Longtime Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza has arrived at a maximum-security prison colony in Siberia to serve a 25-year- sentence for treason and criticism of the invasion of Ukraine and was immediately placed in a punishment cell, a lawyer said. Lawyer Vadim Prokhorov quoted from a letter from Kara-Murza to lawyer Maria Eismont. He said it was unclear why the Russian-British citizen was put into a punishment cell at the IK-6 prison in Omsk. The secretive transfer from a Moscow facility to Omsk took about three weeks. U.S. lawmakers recently urged the President Joe Biden's administration to designate longtime U.S. resident Kara-Murza as "wrongfully detained." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Iran Says It Defused 30 Bombs In Tehran, Detained 28
Authorities in Iran have neutralized 30 bombs meant to go off simultaneously in Tehran and detained 28 terrorists linked to Islamic State, Iran's Tasnim news agency reported on September 24. The agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, cited the Intelligence Ministry as saying "some of the members are of Islamic State (IS) and the perpetrators have a history of being affiliated with Takfiri groups in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq." The militant Islamic State group has claimed several attacks in Iran, including deadly twin bombings in 2017 that targeted Iran's parliament and the tomb of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Zelenskiy Pivots To Talk Of Postwar Rebuilding As Russian Invasion Enters 20th Month
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pivoted to postwar reconstruction after his return to Europe from North America, as Ukrainian intelligence claimed a major blow against Russia's navy in annexed Crimea. Russian officials also said a Ukrainian drone struck near Russian intelligence offices in the northern city of Kursk as Moscow's full-scale invasion reached the 19-month mark.
Following a stop in Poland, Zelenskiy said via social media on September 24 that he had met with in the United States with leading individuals from the business and finance sectors, including media mogul Michael Bloomberg.
The gatherings were part of a visit that took him to the floor of the UN General Assembly and before the UN Security Council in New York, as well as to crucial meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders in Washington and to Canada.
"The American entrepreneurs and financiers confirmed their readiness to make large-scale investments in our country immediately after the end of the war and the receipt of security guarantees," Zelenskiy said via social media. "We are working for the victory and reconstruction of Ukraine."
As the unprovoked Russian invasion entered its 20th month, the Ukrainian military and an outside assessment suggested that Ukrainian forces were penetrating deeper into Russian defenses in their ongoing counteroffensive, especially in a crucial southern region.
Ukraine's General Staff said on September 24 that Russian drone and missile strikes had continued in the last 24 hours, and said its forces were engaged in offensive operations "in particular in the Verbove area of the Zaporizhzhya region" in the south.
A day earlier, analysts from the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said they had used geolocation and other information to conclude that "Ukrainian forces are deepening their penetration" in the Zaporizhzhya region.
Much of the latest focus of the three-month-old Ukrainian counteroffensive has been on Zaporizhzhya and its surroundings, which host Europe's largest nuclear plant at a facility captured by Russia in the early weeks of the invasion.
Kursk regional Governor Roman Starovoit said on Telegram that what he described as a Ukrainian drone had struck an administrative building downtown and "the roof was slightly damaged."
Reports on social media showed images of smoke rising over the city center and referred to multiple explosions, although RFE/RL could not immediately verify their authenticity.
Kursk is about 90 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. A drone strike there last month damaged a railway station and injured five people.
On September 23, Ukrainian military intelligence claimed a missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula on September 22 had targeted "a meeting of the Russian navy's leadership" and resulted in high casualties, including a group commander.
With reporting by Reuters
Pope Says Countries Should Not 'Play Games' With Ukraine On Arms Aid
Pope Francis suggested on September 23 that some countries were "playing games" with Ukraine by first providing weapons and then considering backing out of their commitments. Francis was responding to a reporter's question about whether he was frustrated that his efforts to bring about peace had not succeeded. He has sent an envoy to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing to meet with leaders. "We should not play games with the martyrdom of this people," he said. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said later the pope was not taking a stand on whether countries should continue to send weapons to Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Tracking Sites Show Second Ukraine Wheat Shipment Reaches Turkey
A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on September 24, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbor and enemy. The Palau-flagged bulk carrier Aroyat -- laden with 17,600 tons of wheat -- left the port city of Chornomorsk on September 22 bound for Egypt. Ukraine is testing a new sea route that avoids using international waters and follows those controlled by NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, following Russia's withdrawal from a UN-backed grain export deal.
Pashinian Laments Armenia’s Security As First Refugees Arrive, Talks Set With Aliyev
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has told his Caucasus nation on the heels of a bruising defeat for allies in a breakaway region of Azerbaijan that while Baku and Russian peacekeepers bear responsibility for protecting ethnic Armenians there, if necessary his government "will welcome our brothers and sisters of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia with all care."
Yerevan on September 24 reported that the first refugees from the region had begun arriving in Armenia and that Pashinian would conduct previously arranged talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Grenada, Spain, on October 5.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and EU chief Charles Michel will also participate in the talks, Armenia’s security council said.
In a televised address to his nation of around 3 million, Pashinian also seemingly delivered a barb to Russia and Moscow-led efforts at regional security.
"The attacks carried out by Azerbaijan against the Republic of Armenia in recent years lead to an obvious conclusion that the external security systems in which we are involved are not effective from the point of view of the state interests and security of the Republic of Armenia," Pashinian said.
Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which traditionally has served as Armenia's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Russia has tried to position as a counterweight to NATO, although as recently as this month its armed forces were conducting exercises with U.S. forces.
Pashinian has been on rocky political footing since overwhelming Azerbaijani forces retook much of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh held for decades by ethnic Armenians in a six-week war in late 2020 that led to a Russian-brokered cease-fire.
Then this week the breakaway leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh was thrashed by a lightning Azerbaijani offensive that led Baku to declare victory in returning its sovereignty to the territory.
Around the time Pashinian was addressing the nation on September 24, an adviser to the defeated leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh said virtually all of the territory's ethnic Armenians will leave for Armenia in a bitter exodus from "our historic lands."
Davit Babayan, an adviser for foreign policy to the separatist government’s de facto leader Samvel Shahramanian, told Reuters on September 24 that "Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands."
He said nothing of a time frame and there was otherwise no official position on a possible mass exodus.
Calls have increased in urgency for humanitarian help from the United Nations and the international community since the ethnic Armenian separatists agreed to a Russian-brokered cease-fire after a 24-hour blitz by Azerbaijani military forces on September 19-20.
Baku has repeatedly vowed to ensure the rights of what ethnic Armenians say is around 120,000 locals but the Azerbaijani side says is around half that figure.
"The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world," Babayan said. "Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins."
Azerbaijan again signaled victory in Nagorno-Karabakh while Armenia urged international help to ensure the safety of the local ethnic Armenian population in competing speeches before the United Nations General Assembly, as evacuation and disarmament efforts continue.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile used his UN appearance to say the two post-Soviet foes have "put things in order" and now it's time to build "mutual trust."
The trio of September 23 speeches came as the Yerevan-backed separatists said they were implementing the terms of the days-old cease-fire but concerns continued over the safety of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the territory and with evacuations of the wounded under way.
Azerbaijan and Armenia's foreign ministers struck opposing tones in their speeches to the UN forum.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov hailed the success of his country's September 19-20 military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, as achieving the "goals of anti-terrorist measures."
"Armenia and its subordinate illegal regime were forced to agree to disarmament, liquidation of all so-called structures and withdrawal of forces from Azerbaijan," Bayramov said.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly several hours later, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan lamented Yerevan's repeated calls for greater UN activity to break a nine-month-long de facto Azerbaijani blockade of the region before the latest offensive.
Armenia's government has distanced itself from the latest cease-fire mediated by Russia's peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 20, with daily protests targeting Pashinian and his government.
Mirzoyan accused much larger neighbor Azerbaijan of pursuing a "path of war" and disregarding accepted international principles.
He said the message from Azerbaijan has been that "you can talk about peace, but we can go on the path of war, and you will not be able to change anything."
Mirzoyan said the latest casualty toll of this week's Azerbaijani actions were "more than 200 confirmed dead and 400 wounded, including civilians, women, and children." He said the fates of hundreds more remained "uncertain."
He also repeated Yerevan's "imperative" call for a UN mission in Nagorno-Karabakh "to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation on the ground, "with "unhindered access."
Armenia's Health Ministry announced on September 24 that ambulances were transporting 23 seriously injured individuals from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian territory.
RFE/RL reporters said the first refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh had arrived at a humanitarian aid facility in the border village of Kornidzor on September 24. Photos showed men, women, and children gathered around Red Cross tents and other receiving areas.
In his speech to the General Assembly on September 23, Russia's Lavrov said "the time has come for confidence-building measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh."
He said Russia's peacekeepers would assist, and he accused Western governments of inserting themselves unnecessarily in the Caucasus.
Lavrov said that "Yerevan and Baku actually put the situation in order."
Nagorno-Karabakh‘s ethnic Armenian separatist leaders said on September 23 said they were implementing the cease-fire, including evacuations of injured civilians to Armenia with the help of Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The separatists said that, as part of the September 20 agreement, aid was to be delivered from Armenia to Stepanakert -- the de facto capital of the breakaway region under ethnic Armenian control -- through the Lachin Corridor, for decades the main link between Karabakh and Armenia.
Also as part of the agreement, separatists said, talks would take place on “the political future” of the region, which is suffering from shortages of food, fuel, and electricity.
Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that Karabakh separatists had already handed over more than 800 firearms, grenades, mortars, anti-tank guided missiles, and anti-tank missile systems, and the disarmament process would continue over the weekend.
U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called for international observers needed to monitor the situation and said people in Karabakh were "very fearful."
"I am certainly very concerned about what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh right now. I think there needs to be some visibility," Peters told reporters.
Azerbaijan has vowed to protect the rights of civilians there.
The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.
Baku has said it envisages an amnesty for Karabakh Armenian fighters who give up their arms and seeks to reintegrate the territory's ethnic Armenian population. Some separatist fighters have vowed to continue to resist Azerbaijani control.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Pashinian in a phone call on September 23 that Washington continues to support Armenia's "sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity" and that it has "deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh."
During a special meeting of the UN Security Council after this week's cease-fire, council members including the United States and Russia called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.
During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
Kosovo Condemns Deadly Assault On Police In Mostly Serb Region; One Suspected Attacker Killed
Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on September 24 that Kosovar police are still in a standoff with a sizable group of "heavily armed" individuals suspected in an overnight attack that killed a police officer in mostly Serb northern Kosovo and sparked vague accusations of involvement by neighboring Serbia.
Authorities said at least one of the suspected attackers was later killed in an exchange of gunfire with police in the village of Banjska. Full details of the shooting were not immediately available.
Kurti said the group -- dressed in security- or military-like uniforms -- appeared to have ties to a Serbian Orthodox monastery complex at Banjska, where the deadly encounter began around 2:30 a.m. local time.
"There are at least 30 heavily armed people, professionals, military and police, who are under the siege of our police forces and whom I invite to surrender to our security bodies," Kurti told a press conference.
He said Kosovar security authorities and prosecutors would scramble "to understand more about these uniforms."
Kurti showed images of vehicles reportedly being used by the perpetrators and said neither local Serbs in the area nor other civilians in Kosovo have "such vehicles."
An RFE/RL team said earlier that rounds of gunfire continued to echo near the scene in northern Kosovo where ethnic and national tensions appear to have erupted into violence again in a predominantly Serb region of a Balkan hot spot.
Serbia does not recognize the 2008 declaration of independence of its mostly ethnic Albanian former province, with many ethnic Serbs in Kosovo following suit while remaining dependent on so-called parallel structures that Pristina regards as illegal.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he "condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms the hideous attack by an armed gang against Kosovo Police officers in Banjska/Banjske" and said more innocent lives were in danger "in ongoing hostilities" around the monastery.
He said the EU's peacekeeping force, EULEX, was "on the ground" as a second security responder and was in touch with authorities and with NATO KFOR peacekeepers.
"The EU and its Member States repeatedly urge all actors to work to de-escalate the situation in north of Kosovo," Borrell said.
Earlier, Kurti said the incident was a "criminal and terrorist act."
The Kosovar Interior Ministry said authorities closed the nearby Brnjak border crossing with Serbia.
Police have closed the main road from Pristina and an RFE/RL team was prevented from approaching the scene in Banjska.
Kosovo's main hospital network said it had raised preparedness levels in at least two area facilities.
Kosovo's president, Vjosa Osmani, called it "an attack on law and order in the north of the country" and "an attack against Kosovo."
"These attacks testify once again to the destabilizing power of criminal gangs organized by Serbia, which have long since, as evidenced by attacks on KFOR members, journalists, and citizens, have been aiming to destabilize Kosovo and the region," Osmani said.
The U.S. envoy to Pristina "strongly condemned" the violence and urged that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
There was no immediate response from Belgrade to the incident or the suggestions from Pristina of indirect or indirect involvement by Serbia.
Kurti said a gunbattle had begun around 3 a.m. local time in Banjska, in the Zvecan municipality, between police and "professionals with masks and armed with heavy weapons."
Kurti blamed "organized crime with political, financial, and logistical support from official Belgrade," saying it was "attacking our state."
A Kosovar police statement later confirmed the officer's death and said the wounded person had been transferred to a hospital in Pristina with non-life-threatening injuries.
A physician at a local medical facility told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that doctors had removed grenade shrapnel from the chest and arm of the injured policemen.
Police say their officers are occasionally targeted in attacks by organized armed groups in the area.
Zvecan is one of four mostly Serb municipalities where unrest erupted in May after boycotted elections and attempts by Pristina to forcibly seat ethnic Albanian local officials.
Local Serbs sometimes block roads and carry out other acts of defiance against Kosovar authorities in the northern areas.
In a statement, the Kosovar police said three rapid-response units "encountered resistance from several different positions" while responding to the discovery around 2:30 a.m. local time of two unmarked heavy trucks that were blocking a bridge that leads to Banjska. It said they were fired on "with an arsenal of firearms, including hand grenades."
Western officials mediating talks with Serbia and Kosovo have signaled frustration since negotiations this month, which also involved Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, failed to achieve a breakthrough on normalization.
Those talks are part of a decade-long U.S. and EU diplomatic push toward formalized relations and to repair some of the wounds from bloody internecine wars in the 1990s, after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In May and June, Kurti ignored outside warnings and tried to forcibly install four mayors in mostly Serb northern municipalities following boycotted by-elections to fill posts vacated by protesting Serbs.
The resulting tensions erupted into violence that injured dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters.
The U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Jeff Hovenier, said on social media that he "strongly condemn[s] the orchestrated, violent attacks on the Kosovo Police" and stressed the Kosovo Police's "full & legitimate responsibility for enforcing the rule of law in Kosovo."
He added that "the perpetrators must & will be held accountable and brought to justice."
Kosovar authorities identified the slain police officer as Sergeant Afrim Bunjaku.
"His murder should be translated into an even greater commitment in the fight against gangs, illegal structures, crime, and terrorism, which threaten the security of citizens and the constitutional order," Kurti said.
Russian Foreign Minister Says Ukraine Peace Plan, UN Bid To Revive Grain Deal 'Not Realistic'
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 23 that Ukraine's proposed peace plan as well as the latest UN proposals to revive the Black Sea grain initiative were both "not realistic."
"It is completely not feasible," Lavrov said of Kyiv's 10-point peace blueprint. "It's not realistic...but at the same time, they say this is the only basis for negotiations."
Lavrov added during a news conference at the UN' headquarters in New York that Moscow left the Black Sea grain initiative because promises made to it -- including removing sanctions on a Russian bank and reconnecting it to the global SWIFT system -- hadn't been met.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly earlier on September 23, Lavrov didn't discuss his country's war in Ukraine, but accused the West of "doing everything they can to prevent the formation of a genuine multipolar world order" and of "trying to force the world to play according to their own self-centered rules."
Lavrov also recapped some historical complaints and alluded to Western aid for Ukraine., but he didn't delve into the current fighting while addressing the assembly.
About 90 Russian Men Seeking To Avoid Conscription Back Home Granted Asylum In Germany
About 90 Russian men have been granted asylum in Germany in their bids to avoid military conscription back home, the Interior Ministry in Berlin said on September 23. Some 3,500 men have applied for such status, with 1,500 applications having so far been decided upon with either acceptance or rejection, officials said. German courts decide on refugee status based on whether a person would face particularly severe penalties at home because they are members of a group of people who are discriminated against, and not solely on the desire to avoid conscription. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.
German Politician Warns Against Rise Of Right-Wing Populism In EU, Citing Hungary, Poland, Italy
European Parliament Vice President Katarina Barley warned on September 23 against the rise of antidemocratic movements in Europe. "Democracy and the rule of law can no longer be taken for granted in the European Union," Barley said at a party conference for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin. She is an SPD member. Hungary, she said, was already no longer a democracy. "We see a similar development in Poland," she said. Democratic rights were also being curtailed in Italy, she added. The European Commission, she noted, was in danger of tilting to the right.
Polish PM Tells Ukraine's Zelenskiy 'Never To Insult Poles Again'
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to "insult" Poles, maintaining harsh rhetoric toward Kyiv after the Polish president had sought to defuse a row over grain imports. Poland last week extended a ban on Ukrainian grain imports, shaking Kyiv's relationship with a neighbor that has been one of its staunchest allies since Russia invaded Ukraine. Zelenskiy angered Poland when he told the UN General Assembly that "political theater" around grain imports was only helping Moscow. "I...want to tell President Zelenskiy never to insult Poles again, as he did during his UN speech," Morawiecki told an election rally late on September 22. (Reuters)
To read the original story by Reuters, click here. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/polish-president-says-ukrainian-grain-row-wont-significantly-affect-relations-2023-09-22/
Zelenskiy Meets Sudanese Leader, Discusses Russian Paramilitaries
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on September 23 that he held an impromptu meeting in Ireland's Shannon Airport with the head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and that they discussed Russian-funded armed groups. "We discussed our common security challenges, namely the activities of illegal armed groups financed by Russia," Zelenskiy said. He thanked Sudan, which is in the midst of a deadly civil war, for its support of Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russia's Wagner mercenary group has operated in Ukraine throughout Moscow's invasion. Western diplomats have said the group is also present in Sudan.
U.S. Senator Leads Delegation To Armenian-Azerbaijan Border, Calls For International Monitors In Karabakh
U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called on September 23 for international monitors to be sent to observe conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh, the mostly ethnic-Armenian breakaway region captured by Baku after a lightning military strike. "I am certainly very concerned about what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh right now. I think there needs to be some visibility," Peters told reporters. The U.S. Embassy said the group will meet Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and other officials "to discuss U.S.-Armenian relations and the impact of Azerbaijan's recent military actions on the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.
Blinken Suggests Iran Is Not A Responsible Actor In Its Nuclear Program
Iran's decision to bar some UN nuclear inspectors suggests it is not interested in being a responsible actor when it comes to its atomic program, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on September 22. "We tried to work indirectly with Iran as well as with European partners and even Russia and China to see if we can get a return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal ... But Iran couldn't or wouldn't do that," Blinken told reporters. On September 23, the head of the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) condemned Tehran's move to bar multiple inspectors assigned to the country. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Former Wagner Fighter Reportedly Detained In Norway Near Russian Border
Norwegian police on September 22 detained a former fighter for Russia's private mercenary force, the Wagner group, along the Scandinavian country's border with Russia, according to the Barents Observer. Andrei Medvedev fled to Norway from Russia after fighting with Wagner in Ukraine and had stated his willingness to provide testimony related to war crimes he said had been committed by the now-deceased Wagner head, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Norwegian authorities had not yet made a decision on Medvedev's asylum request. Just hours before his detention, Medvedev reportedly told a journalist he feared being extradited to Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Pakistani PM Claims Possibility Of Coming Elections Being Manipulated By Military Is 'Absolutely Absurd'
Pakistan’s interim prime minister said he expects parliamentary elections to take place in the new year, dismissing the possibility that the country’s powerful military would manipulate the results to ensure that jailed former premier Imran Khan’s party doesn’t win. In an interview with the Associated Press on September 22, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said it was the Election Commission that is going to conduct the vote, not the military, and Khan appointed the commission’s chief at the time. The commission has announced that the elections will take place during the last week in January, delaying the vote that was to be held in November. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Ukrainian Military Claims Russian Navy Commanders Killed In Sevastopol Attack; De Facto Crimean Authorities Say Fresh Attack Thwarted
The Ukrainian military says that a missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula on September 22 targeted "a meeting of the Russian Navy's leadership" and resulted in high casualties, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stopped in Poland on his way back home after his major diplomatic push in the West.
"The details of the attack will be revealed as soon as possible and the result is dozens of dead and wounded occupants, including senior fleet commanders," the Ukrainian military said on September 23.
In comments to Voice Of America, Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov claimed the attack, in which at least one cruise missile struck the Black Sea Fleet's headquarters, killed "at least nine people" and that 16 were injured, including high-ranking officers.
"Among the wounded is the commander of the group, Colonel-General [Oleksandr] Romanchuk, in very serious condition. The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General [Oleg] Tsekov, is unconscious. The number of casual military servicemen who are not employees of the headquarters is still being determined," Budanov was quoted as saying in VOA's September 23 report.
Romanchuk commands frontline forces defending Russian-occupied parts of southeastern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region and was promoted to the rank of colonel-general in 2023, according to VOA. Tsekov was identified as the commander of coastal forces of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet.
RFE/RL was not able to verify Budanov's or the Ukrainian military's casualty claims.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Telegram on September 22 that five cruise missiles involved in that day's attack had been shot down. The ministry claimed that one Russian soldier was missing, after having earlier reported the death of one soldier.
Moscow has not issued updated information regarding casualties or commented on the Ukrainian military's claims that a meeting of Russian naval commanders was targeted.
RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, a regional outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reported early on September 23 that a powerful explosion was heard in Sevastopol, prompting air-raid warnings.
On the morning of September 23, Russian authorities in Crimea confirmed that Sevastopol had again come under attack.
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014, said that preliminary information indicated that Russian air defense forces had shot down a missile and that debris had fallen along the shore of Sevastopol Bay.
In a follow-up Telegram post, Razvozhayev declared that the "missile danger is clear."
On September 22, following the attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, Razvozhayev had denied reports by multiple Telegram channels that thermal power plants near Sevastopol had been struck in a Ukrainian missile attack.
Razvozhayev alleged that Ukrainian media were "trying to sow panic among citizens" by reporting the attacks.
Ukraine has increasingly targeted naval facilities in Crimea as its counteroffensive in the east and south of the country grinds on.
As Kyiv continues to defend its military strategy amid Western criticism, a commander of Ukraine's Tavria force fighting in the Zaporizhzhya region told CNN on September 22 that Ukraine had made a breakthrough near the rural settlement of Verbove.
“On the left flank [near Verbove] we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further,” Oleksandr Tarnavsky said.
"Not as fast as it was expected, not like in the movies about the Second World War,” he said, but “the main thing is not to lose this initiative [that we have]."
Verbove is part of the Surovikin Lines -- triple-layered defenses named for the Russian general who ordered their construction last year to thwart any Ukrainian effort to breach and try to outmaneuver Russian forces along a 1,200-kilometer front line.
On September 23, the Ukrainian military said Russia had launched 15 Iranian-made Shahed drones against Ukraine's frontline forces in the Zaporizhzhya region and in the neighboring Dnitropetrovsk region to the north.
In the southeastern Kherson region, officials said on September 23 that at least one person had died and three were injured due to Russian shelling, which hit residential, medical, and educational buildings over the previous day.
Meanwhile, Zelenskiy stopped in Poland on his way back to Ukraine on September 23 amid a simmering feud with Warsaw, which has been a major diplomatic ally in the war with Russia, taking in refugees and providing arms to Kyiv.
Tensions have risen between the two nations after Kyiv sharply criticized Warsaw when it extended its ban on Ukrainian grain products to protect Polish farmers from falling prices.
At the UN General Assembly in New York, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that "I want to tell President Zelenskiy that he must never insult Poles again, as he did the other day during his appearance at the United Nations."
Zelenskiy attempted to ease tensions when he made a stopover in Poland after his trip to the United States and Canada.
"I believe that all the challenges on our common path are nothing compared to the strength that exists between our peoples," Zelenskiy said in a video posted on his Telegram channel.
Zelenskiy handed out awards to a journalist who helped transport wounded children to Polish hospitals and to a man who had assembled a medical team to help wounded soldiers near the front line, according to Reuters.
He did not appear to meet with Polish officials.
With reporting by Reuters
Cracks In Western Wall Of Support For Ukraine Emerge As Eastern Europe And U.S. Head Toward Elections
Once rock-solid, the support that Ukraine has gotten from its biggest backers for its fight against Russia is showing cracks. Political posturing in places like Poland and Slovakia, where a trade dispute with Ukraine has stirred tensions, and Republican reticence in the United States about Washington’s big spending to prop up Ukraine’s military have raised new uncertainties about the West’s commitment to its efforts to expel Russian invaders more than 18 months into the war. Still, from Washington to Warsaw, where the military cost and capabilities of helping Ukraine are at issue, officials are playing down talk of a rift. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Woman In Iran Arrested After Head Scarf Protest
An Iranian woman has been arrested after protesting against the compulsory wearing of head scarves, the Norway-based human rights group Hengaw reported on September 22. The engineer, Zeinab Kazemi, was reportedly taken from her home by security forces a few days ago. She had previously received a suspended sentence of 74 lashes on probation. In February Kazemi threw her head scarf on the floor at an event in order to protest against the decision of an engineering association not to admit her to the board because of an ill-fitting head scarf. Members of parliament introduced a new head scarf bill just this week.
Russian-Installed Leader Of Crimea Denies Strikes Hit Power Plants
Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the occupied Crimean Peninsula, denied on Telegram on September 22 that any thermal power plants had been struck in a Ukrainian missile attack. Multiple Telegram channels had reported that several explosions were heard in an area close to a thermal power plant in the city of Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea after the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet was struck earlier in the day. Razvozhayev alleged that Ukrainian media were "trying to sow panic among citizens."
Karabakh Separatists Say They Are Implementing Withdrawal Deal As Aid Arrives Through Lachin
Nagorno-Karabakh‘s ethnic Armenian separatist leaders on September 23 said they are implementing the terms of a cease-fire agreement made three days earlier with Azerbaijani officials, including evacuations of injured civilians to Armenia with the help of Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The separatists said that, as part of the September 20 agreement, aid was to be delivered from Armenia to Stepanakert -- the de facto capital of the breakaway region under ethnic Armenian control -- through the Lachin Corridor, for decades the main link between Karabakh and Armenian.
Also as part of the agreement, separatists said, talks would take place on “the political future” of the region, which has an estimated population 120,000 people, many of whom are now suffering from shortages of food, fuel, and electricity.
The separatists’ statement also said work was under way to restore power to the region, with a target date of September 24.
Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that Karabakh separatists in the ethnic-Armenian populated territory have begun handing over their weapons as part of a deal worked out with Baku following Azerbaijan's lightning offensive this week.
Russian peacekeepers said that more than 800 firearms, grenades, mortars, anti-tank guided missiles, and anti-tank missile systems had been handed over, and the process would continue over the weekend.
The deal was worked out during a meeting between representatives of Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijan held in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax on September 22.
The separatists had earlier said that they are in Russian-mediated talks with Baku to organize the withdrawal of their forces.
A witness told Reuters that an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid convoy was seen at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border early on September 23 for the first time since Baku seized the region.
The Red Cross said it was supplying fuel, blankets, and 28,000 diapers in the initial shipments to the territory.
AFP journalists and ICRC officials at the border confirmed on September 23 that Red Cross aid had entered the region along the Lachin Corridor.
The aid group’s vehicles "have passed through the Lachin Corridor to bring to the community around 70 metric tons of mainly humanitarian supplies and food supplies," ICRC spokeswoman Zara Amatuni told AFP, speaking in Kornidzor at the final checkpoint on the Armenian side of the border.
Armenian civilians have begun gathering at the Kornidzor checkpoint in hopes of receiving news of relatives in Karabakh, AFP reported.
U.S. Democratic Senator Gary Peters, who is leading a congressional delegation to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, called for international observers to monitor the situation and said people in Karabakh were "very fearful."
Peters had earlier condemned the Azerbaijani government’s “military aggression and violence toward the Armenian people.”
“The Azerbaijani government has made it clear, their goal is to erase the historic presence of Armenians in this region,” he said during his visit to the region.
Azerbaijan has claimed that the 24-hour offensive on September 19-20, which it describes as an "anti-terrorist operation," has brought the breakaway region back under its control.
"I wish to reiterate that Azerbaijan is determined to reintegrate ethnic Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as equal citizens," Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov said in a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 23.
Yerevan's response to the Azerbaijani offensive has led to protests in the Armenian capital, with opposition leaders seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and accusing the government of inadequate support for Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic-Armenian population.
Pashinian has expressed hope that Karabakh Armenians will be allowed to return to their homes, while saying that Yerevan would accept an influx of ethnic Armenians if they chose to leave the territory.
Anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan and at least two other cities over the past two days have led to the detention of scores of people who expressed anger that Pashinian’s administration had not done more to prevent Azerbaijani forces from accomplishing their swift victory in the Karabakh region.
Authorities said more than 80 people were charged in the capital with disobeying police orders on September 22, and reports said at least a further 20 people were detained on September 23.
Armenian opposition groups, led by a so-called National Committee, claimed that more than 350 supporters had been detained. The group called for Pashinian to resign his office.
Spokesman Matthew Miller said Blinken "underscored the United States is calling on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and uphold its obligations to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law."
Pashinian and many Armenians blame Russia -- which traditionally has served as the Caucasus nation's protector in the region -- for failing to use its peacekeeping force to protect ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.
During a special meeting of the UN Security Council this week, council members including the United States and Russia called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan's but has had de-facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s.
During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, AP, Reuters, and AFP
Rights Group Says Iran's Security Forces 'Intentionally' Shot Protesters In The Eyes
The Iran Human Rights group (IHRNGO) said the Islamic nation's security forces “intentionally targeted” the eyes and faces of protesters during a violent crackdown on demonstrations last year sparkled by the death of a young woman in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab law.
In an analysis published on September 22, the Norway-based rights group said it was able to verify 138 cases of eye injuries sustained during the months-long, nationwide protests in Iran last year. Many of the victims lost vision in one eye, some in both.
“IHRNGO’s analysis shows that the brutal crimes committed during the protests by the Islamic republic were planned, coordinated and calculated,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of the rights group.
“The Islamic republic leader, Ali Khamenei, and all the perpetrators of such crimes must be held accountable.”
Reports of Iranian security forces shooting protesters in the eyes emerged in the first months of the demonstrations, which began immediately following the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022. The victims say they were purposely singled out before being wounded.
The Iranian government and senior security officials have rejected the accusations.
WATCH: Amateur video shows the moment Erfan Ramizipour was shot in the eyes by Iranian security forces as he took part in mass anti-regime protests in 2022. The 24-year-old is just one of many protesters who have been shot in the eyes, in what appears to have been a deliberate tactic. Now in Germany, he is receiving medical care -- and continuing to battle for justice in his homeland.
The victims include eight children, the youngest a 5-year-old girl, Iran Human Rights said.
Women accounted for 28 percent of those with eye injuries but only 9 percent of deaths, implying the "repressive forces have chosen to intentionally target women’s eyes instead of fatally shooting them,” the group said in its report.
In a smaller sample collected from the city of Mahabad, northwestern Iran, women constitute 56 percent of those with eye injuries, the group said.
Most eye injuries were caused by pellets made of metal and plastic. In nine of the cases, the injuries were caused by projectiles fired from paintball guns.
The rights group’s data shows that Iran’s security forces started shooting protesters in the eyes from the first days of protests in September 2022, while the last documented cases are from December 2022.
The actual number of protesters who have been blinded by security forces after being shot in the face is unknown.
The New York Times has estimated some 500 young Iranians were treated in Tehran hospitals for eye injuries during the first three months of the protests.
Iranwire, which documents human rights abuses in Iran, said it had confirmed some 580 cases of blinding in Tehran and the province of Kurdistan alone, “but the actual numbers across the country are much higher.”
RFE/RL is unable to verify such reports.
Rights activists have reported several cases of protesters with eye injuries who were arrested in an apparent attempt to be silenced.
In addition to eye and other serious injuries, more than 500 people, including 71 children were killed during the demonstrations trigged by the death of Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating strict dress rules for women.
The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
'The Wiliest Is The Winner': Ukrainian Marine Infantry Gradually Breaks Through Russian Defenses2
The Teenage Sons Of Kremlin-Backed Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov Are In The Spotlight. Why?3
Top Russian Officer Among Troops Killed During Azerbaijan's Attack On Nagorno-Karabakh4
Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh Sides To Meet Again After Inconclusive 'Integration' Talks5
Slovakia, Ukraine Agree Grain Trade System To Replace Ban6
Karabakh Separatists Say They Are Implementing Withdrawal Deal As Aid Arrives Through Lachin7
Heavy Metal: The Radioactive Ammunition Headed For Ukraine8
Former Head Of Kherson Region Found Dead In Kyiv9
Ukrainian Crews Put Hundreds Of Captured Russian Tanks Into Action10
With New Offensive, Azerbaijan Tightens Grip On Nagorno-Karabakh