'Alarming State' Of Religious Freedom In Russia, Central Asia To Be Discussed In Virtual Hearing
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will hold a virtual hearing on September 16 about what it says is the alarming state of religious freedom in Russia and Central Asia.
Russia and various Central Asian countries have undermined religious freedom since the late 1990s, when former Soviet states adopted repressive religion laws that drew upon past precedent, according to the Washington-based commission.
“Officials across the region strictly monitor and regulate religious practice, including placing surveillance cameras in places of worship and keeping official databases with the detailed personal information of community members,” the commission said in a notice announcing the hearing.
The independent, bipartisan USCIRF was created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom. In its annual report in April, it proposed that the State Department remove Uzbekistan from its "worst of the worst" list of offenders of religious freedom, while reiterating that Russia should be put on that list.
The commission says regional governments in Russia suppress religious minorities and use vague extremism laws that effectively criminalize any speech or religious practice of which they disapprove.
Russia has also exported repressive practices to Ukraine, making mandatory religious regulation and vague extremism laws "weapons in the subjugation of occupied Crimea," the commission said.
Its annual report said that "[in] Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will."
Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries.
Participants in the hearing will provide analysis on the abuse of registration and extremism laws used to target the rights of religious communities across this region and offer policy recommendations to the U.S. government.
Representative Joe Wilson (Republican-South Carolina) will make opening remarks. Among the other participants is John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The hearing is being held virtually as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.
Top EU Diplomat Visits Odesa, Calls Russian Attacks On Ukrainian Port City 'Barbaric'
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited the embattled Ukrainian port city of Odesa on the Black Sea on September 30, lamenting that is has been in the news not because of its beauty and historical significance but because it has been targeted by Russian missile and drone attacks.
“Odesa is a beautiful historic city. It should be in the headlines for its vibrant culture & spirit. Instead, it marks the news as frequent target of Putin’s war,” Borrell said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“I’ve been witnessing the consequences of this war, how Ukraine and Odesa are paying a high price for it,” he said in a video posted on X. “This is a good example of how Russia is trying to destroy Ukraine,” he added, pointing to damaged walls inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration.
As he toured the cathedral, Borrell called the Russian assault on the city "barbaric."
Odesa's old quarter and the historic Cathedral of the Transfiguration were badly damaged by a Russian bombardment in July. Harbor infrastructure that is key to Ukraine's grain exports has also been hit in recent attacks.
Borrell noted that a year has passed since Russia's illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions. He also mentioned the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The top EU diplomat promised that Europe would not abandon Ukraine in its grinding war to recapture those areas, saying further military, economic, political, and diplomatic support is needed.
He also said his visit to Odesa was meant to highlight how the EU is supporting Ukraine in multiple ways in hopes for a “just peace that preserves the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.”
Borrell again reproached President Vladimir Putin for ending the UN-brokered agreement that allowed the safe transit of Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea.
The deal was seen as essential to addressing global food insecurity and containing grain prices. Borrell noted that Ukraine had once been the largest supplier of grain to the UN's World Food Program.
Borrell's trip was not announced in advance for security reasons. No details were given on what else was on his agenda.
With reporting by dpa
Kyrgyz Presidential Adviser Backs Flag-Change Away From 'Sunflower'
An adviser to Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has expressed support for changing the post-Soviet Central Asian republic's flag so it appears less like "a sunflower." The adviser, Cholpon Abykeev, said "There is no need to make a tragedy out of changing the flag, considering its flaws." The speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament this week opened public debate on a bill to "improve" the flag, which shows a yellow sun with a yurt-like opening against a red backdrop. The current design was adopted in March 1992, one day after Kyrgyzstan joined the United Nations along with seven other former Soviet states. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Kazakh Court Rejects Atazhurt Movement's Complaint Over Registration
An interdistrict court in Astana has rejected a complaint by an unregistered movement called Atazhurt protesting the Kazakh Justice Ministry's refusal to grant it registration, according to the group's local representative.
Kapar Ahatuly said the special court concluded on September 29 that the complaint was groundless based on the presence of deceased people on Atazhurt's petition for registration as well as an Excel formatting mistake.
Ahatuly dismissed the accusation that the list of at least 700 petitioners might include any dead people.
Contacted by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, the Justice Ministry declined to comment.
Atazhurt was started by Serikzhan Bilash, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang who moved to Kazakhstan in 2000 and received citizenship in 2011, and later helped highlight alleged mass abuses against Uyghurs in western China.
Kazakh officials have bristled at China's treatment of ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs but have avoided joining international condemnations of Beijing for the alleged mass roundups and brutality.
China is a major trade partner with Kazakhstan and a significant investor in Kazakh projects.
Bilash led the Atazhurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) group, which in 2018-19 staged several gatherings of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who have resettled in Kazakhstan and asked for help securing the release of their relatives and friends from reeducation camps in Xinjiang.
Kazakh authorities in March 2019 arrested Bilash and charged him with inciting ethnic hatred. They held him in custody for five months before fining and releasing him.
Bilash later fled Kazakhstan.
Kazakh officials reject accusations that they withhold registrations for political reasons.
Pakistan Death Toll Rises As UN Security Council Condemns Attacks On Religious Events
The death toll has risen to at least 59 from an explosion at a religious gathering in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, after officials said more critically ill victims died in the hospital overnight.
Dozens more were injured in the attack that took place on September 29, when one or more suicide bombers are believed to have targeted a procession celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad in the Mastung district, some 60 kilometers from the provincial capital, Quetta.
It was one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Pakistan in months and prompted officials to declare a state of emergency at Quetta area hospitals.
Police on September 30 filed a report to launch an investigation, saying they had sent DNA from the suicide bomber to be analyzed.
Pakistani Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti told reporters in Quetta that India's intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), was involved in the suicide attack but provided no details or evidence to support the claim.
Pakistani officials have long claimed that India sponsors violent groups in Pakistan. India has consistently denied the claims.
On the same day as the attack in Balochistan, at least five people were killed in explosions that targeted a mosque and a police station in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, according to police and media reports.
The UN Security Council's members issued a statement in which they "condemned in the strongest terms the heinous and cowardly suicide terrorist attacks in Pakistan today that targeted a religious procession in Mastung, Balochistan Province, to commemorate 12 Rabi-ul-Awaal, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and a mosque in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province."
They "underlined the need to hold perpetrators, organizers, financiers, and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism accountable and bring them to justice."
Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar and President Arif Alvi along with cabinet ministers and other officials and religious leaders condemned the killings.
No group has claimed responsibility.
Dr. Rashid Mohammad Shahi, the head of the Mastung Health Department, told RFE/RL that more than 50 people were wounded in the Mastung incident at a celebration of what is known as Mawlid al-Nabi, during which Muslims usually hold gatherings and distribute free meals to the poor.
Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran, is regularly targeted by Islamist militants, sectarian groups, and nationalist separatists.
The most prominent militant group in the region, the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces.
The BLC claims that ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities, a charge that Islamabad rejects.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Putin, Medvedev Combine Spin With Threats On Anniversary Of Unilateral Annexations In Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin and his lockstep deputy chairman of the federal Security Council Dmitry Medvedev issued separate statements on September 30 aimed at whitewashing the unrecognized annexation one year ago of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine and seemingly threatening another land grab.
Putin said in an address released overnight that residents of the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September 2022 “made their choice -- to be with their Fatherland.”
One year ago, Moscow unilaterally declared Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson to be part of Russia.
The United Nations continues to recognize all four regions -- along with Crimea, which was occupied and annexed in 2014 -- as Ukrainian territory.
Throughout its 19-month-old defense against Russia's full-scale invasion that began in February 2022, Kyiv has insisted that it will claw back all of its territory, including Crimea.
In his anniversary remarks, Putin claimed that the referendum under occupation and the rest of the process was “in full accordance with international norms."
Then, former Russian Prime Minister and ex-President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to continue the invasion and even hinted that Russia could try to annex more of Ukraine.
Medvedev, who is now the deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, invoked the Kremlin's talking points to justify the invasion of Ukraine and said the "special military operation" -- Moscow's term for the invasion -- "will continue."
"Victory will be ours," he added, according to AFP. "And there will be more new regions within Russia."
Russian officials routinely use the term "new regions" in reference to the illegally annexed Ukrainian regions.
Russian authorities held voting in occupied parts of Ukraine earlier this month in an effort to tighten their grip on the territories in a vote Kyiv and the West have condemned as "fake" and a "propaganda exercise."
The voting for Russian-installed legislatures in the illegally occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya began on September 8 and concluded on September 10, coinciding with local elections in Russia.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the Russian-orchestrated voting, saying the "sham elections in the temporarily occupied territories" will have "no legal consequences and will not bring any changes in the international status of Ukrainian territories seized by Russian military forces."
Ukraine has recently reported advances in its counteroffensive to drive Russian forces out of the occupied territories.
With reporting by AFP and AP
Zelenskiy Unveils Defense Industries Alliance To Boost Military Manufacturing Might
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has announced the creation of a Defense Industries Alliance to manufacture weapons in his country and underscore its commitment to developing a modern defense industry as Russia's ongoing 19-month-long full-scale invasion grinds on.
Zelenskiy made the announcement at an event in Kyiv, billed as the Defense Industries Forum, which he said included industry representatives from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
"We have developed an appropriate basic declaration as the basis of the alliance, which can be joined by manufacturers of weapons and military equipment around the world who share our intention to provide protection against aggression in the risky conditions of today," Zelenskiy told attendees on September 30.
Zelenskiy said later that he believes that Ukraine will become one of the world's key producers of weapons and defense systems.
"This is not just an ambition or a prospect, it is a potential that has begun to be realized," he said. "We are working to start producing the systems we need in Ukraine."
Someday Ukraine will see its "maximum armed power" through its manufacturers and its new cooperation with the world and will be able to say that its beginning "was laid right now," he said.
The Kyiv event followed unannounced visits by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the British, French, and Slovak defense ministers.
Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine has met with fierce Ukrainian resistance since it was launched 19 months ago, but also with massive contributions of weapons from NATO and other states declaring support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"Our priority is the development of defense production using modern technologies, including the production of shells, missiles, and drones in Ukraine, in cooperation with global leaders in this field," Zelenskiy said on social media.
He added that his country is "ready to offer special conditions to companies willing to develop defense production together with our country."
Zelenskiy said the declaration had already been signed by 13 companies "which are ready to build a new arsenal for defense together with Ukraine."
NATO's Stoltenberg, British Defense Minister Grant Shapps, and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu arrived in Kyiv on unannounced visits ahead of the forum.
On September 30, Zelenskiy also welcomed Slovak Defense Minister Martin Sklenar to Kyiv.
Sklenar's visit coincides with snap elections in Slovakia that pit a soured pro-Western alliance against a populist ex-prime minister who has vowed to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine in what could be a blow to NATO and Western unity to counter the Russian invasion.
Ukraine's war-tested officials were reportedly planning to meet with representatives of more than 160 companies from 26 countries at the defense forum in Kyiv.
Romania Issues Another Airspace Alert Amid Russian Attacks On Ukraine's Danube Region
Romania's National Defense Ministry said on September 30 that an army surveillance system had detected a "possible unauthorized entry into national airspace" overnight around Galati, although authorities said they were still looking for fragments of any possible intrusion. Romania has implemented local take-cover alerts in response to a surge in Russian drone attacks on ports across the border in Ukraine's southern Danube region since Moscow walked away in July from a UN-backed deal to allow Ukrainian Black Sea grain exports despite the war. Fragments have landed three times this month in NATO member Romania, Ukraine's primary alternative export route. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.
U.S. Senators Demand Russia Free 'Wrongfully Detained' Americans Gershkovich And Whelan
The bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee has led the introduction of a call by 27 senators for the immediate release by Russian authorities of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who they say has been "wrongfully detained in Russia for merely doing his job."
In the draft resolution introduced this week, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) and Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), who are the chairman and ranking member of the influential committee, also demand the release of another American, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
"Evan and Paul cannot be left behind, and as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I will continue to sound the alarm about this grave injustice and do everything in my power to safely bring them home to their families," Cardin said in the text.
Gershkovich, 31, was detained six months ago and accused of espionage.
Whelan is serving a 16-year espionage sentence in a notorious Russian penal colony in Mordovia.
U.S. officials have called the charges against both men baseless and their detentions "wrongful."
Gershkovich was detained in late March in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, and few details are available as materials for the case have been classified. Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said at the time of the arrest that it had opened an espionage case against Gershkovich for collecting what it said were state secrets about the military industrial complex.
Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow, had been in Yekaterinburg reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin's war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.
If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Gershkovich is the first American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War.
Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Whelan was convicted of spying charges in 2020. Both he and the U.S. government have denied the 53-year-old is a spy.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy has said the plight of U.S. citizens “wrongfully” held in Russia “remains a top priority for me.”
As Ethnic Armenian Exodus Tops 100,000, UN Readies For Nagorno-Karabakh Visit
Armenia says more than 100,000 people have fled Nagorno-Karabakh since Azerbaijan's seizure of that breakaway territory a little over a week ago, while Yerevan has appealed to a UN court to stop Baku from allegedly targeting ethnic Armenians there.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's office told journalists early on September 30 that authorities had registered 81,827 of the 100,437 people who had left Nagorno-Karabakh so far -- the latter representing more than three-quarters of the higher estimates of the territory's entire population.
The update came hours after Armenia said it had filed a suit with the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) to prevent the targeting of ethnic Armenians amid signs of a roundup by Baku amid the massive exodus a week after Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning offensive.
Armenian officials and outsiders have expressed fears of ethnic cleansing and international calls have escalated for help to avoid a humanitarian disaster.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has urged ethnic Armenians to stay and has invited UN agencies to send a mission "to become acquainted with the current humanitarian activities being carried out by Azerbaijan in the region."
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on September 30 that its forces were taking "retaliatory measures" after one of its soldiers was killed by an Armenian Army sniper on the border between the two countries.
Armenia denied the accusation, saying the claim "does not correspond to reality."
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said late on September 29 that the United Nations will send a mission this weekend to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but was controlled by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support for decades since the waning years of the Soviet Union.
Dujarric said the UN mission will mainly assess humanitarian needs in a region to which it had not had access "in about 30 years."
"The government of Azerbaijan and the UN have agreed on a mission to the region. The mission will take place over the weekend," Dujarric told reporters.
Both sides have expressed hope that a more durable peace agreement between the longtime Caucasus archfoes might be reached ahead of a possible meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in connection with European-wide meetings in Granada, Spain next week.
But Azerbaijani authorities have detained several key figures from the ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians refer to as Artsakh.
The Artsakh leadership has already announced that it would cease to exercise authority over the territory by the end of this year, a bitter pill for Armenians who have made control of Nagorno-Karabakh a national priority.
European and other Western governments meanwhile have been responding to Armenia's calls for assistance to help it deal with the influx of refugees. The office of Italy's prime minister said in a statement that Armenia has asked the EU for temporary shelters and medical supplies, adding that Rome is working to promote stabilization in the region.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said "urgent, continuous, unhindered humanitarian support" is needed to support the people who are still in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as those who have left.
The EU supports the work of the Red Cross, he said, saying that the European Commission announced an additional 5 million euros in humanitarian aid to help those displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and those in vulnerable situations in the region. He also said it is important that the UN mission be able to enter the area in the next few days.
With reporting by AFP
Public Administration Employees In Republika Srpska Demand Pay Rise
Six unions representing public administration employees, including in health care, internal affairs, and justice, protested on September 29 in Bosnia-Herzegovina demanding a salary increase from the government of the Republika Srpska entity.
The unions said the government violated an agreement reached in June last year under which they say nearly 55,000 public administration employees were supposed to receive an average monthly salary increase of about 130 marks ($69) this year.
The protesters now say that is not enough and they are demanding a raise of 160 marks ($84) by the end of the year, as well as the payment of outstanding contributions, overtime, and the signing of special collective agreements with the government of Republika Srpska.
"I think it is at least inappropriate public administration employees employed by the government of Republika Srpska were forced to take these requests out on the streets, especially doctors, nurses, policemen,” Bozo Maric, one of the trade union leaders, told RFE/RL ahead of the protest. “The agreement was reached in an earlier period and the funds have been planned in the budget. We are asking why it is not being fulfilled and where the money went."
Several hundred trade union activists took part in the protest in Mladen Stojanovic Park in Banja Luka, and then headed to the Republika Srpska government building, where they blew whistles and shouted "thieves."
They carried banners calling for an end to discrimination in the judiciary and claiming that salaries in health care drove numerous workers in that sector out of the country to seek work in Western countries. “They will not return from the West," one banner said.
The protest continued across Krajina Square past the National Assembly building and the Palace of the President of Republika Srpska.
The government told RFE/RL before the demonstration that the agreement with unions has been fully respected and that there is no money for additional salary increases. However, government officials invited the union leaders to hold talks and negotiate.
The average net salary in August in Republika Srpska was 1,286 marks ($694) per month, according to the entity’s Institute of Statistics. There is no available data on the average salary for public administration employees.
The unions announced plans to stage a more massive protest should the government fail to fulfill their demands by the time the budget for the next year is adopted.
With reporting by Ermin Zatega of RFE/RL's Balkan Service
Slovaks Choose Between Pro-Russian Ex-PM Fico And Pro-Western Liberals
Slovaks have begun voting in parliamentary elections that are being closely fought between former leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has pledged to end military aid for neighboring Ukraine, and pro-Western liberals. Final polls showed the two parties in a dead heat, with the winner expected to get the first chance to form a new government to replace a caretaker administration running the country of 5.5 million since May. A government led by Fico would mean Slovakia joining Hungary as EU countries challenging the bloc's consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to keep unity in opposing Russia's invasion. To see the original story by Reuters, click here.
Ukraine Says Its Forces Repelled Attacks, Inflicted Losses On Enemy Across Front Line
Ukrainian forces repelled attacks by Russian troops in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya regions, fighting 24 combat clashes on the front, the General Staff said on September 30.
Clashes took place in areas near Avdiyivka, Mariynka, and Zaporizhzhya, the General Staff said in its evening message, which said Ukrainian forces continued their offensive operations near Melitopol and Bakhmut, "inflicting losses in manpower and equipment on the occupying troops [and] exhausting the enemy along the entire front line."
According to the message, Ukrainian aviation made 14 strikes on areas where Russian personnel, weapons, and military equipment were concentrated. They also carried out eight strikes on anti-aircraft missile systems, and used missiles to hit six Russian anti-aircraft systems and nine artillery pieces.
Russian forces carried out 71 air strikes and 17 attacks from rocket salvo systems on the positions of Ukrainian troops and populated areas, the message said.
The regional military administration in Kherson said Russian forces dropped explosives on residential areas the region, injuring a 48-year-old man in the village of Kozatske.
Russia reported a drone attack in the southern region of Bryansk. The region's governor said one person was injured in the attack, which also damaged windows and the roof of an administrative building.
The governor, Aleksandr Bogomaz, said on Telegram that the incident occurred in the town of Trubchevsk. Bogomaz earlier reported that a village in the region had been shelled by Ukrainian forces, damaging three homes.
Earlier on September 30, a huge fire erupted at an oil pipeline in the western Ukrainian region of Ivano-Frankivsk.
"Nine people were injured," regional Governor Svitlana Onyshchuk said. "According to preliminary information, two children and three adults are in critical condition, with numerous burns," she added.
The blaze caused an oil spill spanning 100 square meters before it was extinguished. Footage shared on social media showed thick clouds of black smoke billowing out over a village, while firefighters worked to tackle the blaze.
The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, but local media outlets reported there had been a powerful explosion.
Moscow and Kyiv said earlier they had shot down dozens of airborne attacks over their respective territories overnight as the furious pace of nighttime air assaults continued.
Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces had intercepted all nine missiles that it claimed Ukraine fired into its western Belgorod region.
It said the attack was with Uragan (Hurricane) multiple-launch rocket systems.
In Ukraine, air alert sirens blared in cities and towns across the southern and eastern parts of the country around 1:30 a.m. local time on September 30, followed by explosions far from the front lines including in the central region of Vinnytsya.
At least one explosion was also reported in Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainian military's rear base is located for the frontline eastern region of Donetsk.
A spokeswoman for Ukraine's Southern Defense Forces said on Ukrainian television that Russia had launched more than 20 kamikaze drones apparently bound for southern and central Ukraine overnight but that around 20 of them were destroyed.
Spokeswoman Natalya Humenyuk said many of the attacks appeared to target areas south of the Black Sea port of Odesa and that "the enemy's priority is still the Danube, in particular, the port infrastructure."
Authorities in Vinnytsya, a central Ukrainian city used extensively for humanitarian shipments since the start of the 19-month-old invasion, ordered an evacuation from the area around an infrastructure site that they said had been struck in the Russian attack.
Regional Governor Serhiy Borzov and the head of the local administration in the Vinnytsya-area town of Kalynivka confirmed the incident but did not provide details.
Humenyuk, the Southern Defense Forces spokeswoman, said the fire in Vinnytsya had been put out and the situation was no longer critical there.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm accounts by either side of fighting in areas of heavy combat as Russia's 19-month-old full-scale invasion continues.
With reporting by Reuters
Bulgarian Government Adopts Green Transition Plans Amid Protests By Energy Sector Workers
The Bulgarian government adopted plans on September 29 for the green transition of three coal regions in the country, but the decision met with protests by Bulgarian miners and other energy sector workers who blocked key roads.
The approval of the plans for the transition of the three regions is a condition for the European Commission to allocate 1.2 billion euros ($1.27 billion). The money would be used for the green transformation of the regions, which is intended to create new jobs for coal industry workers.
The plans must include a timetable for reducing the capacities of coal power plants in order to be approved by the European Commission.
But miners and energy workers do not want the coal power plants and mines to close, saying that they would lose their jobs. The protesters want the government to guarantee that coal power plants and mines would continue to operate without setting any dates for their shutdown.
Despite the demonstrations, which drew hundreds of people onto the streets to block roads in the coal-mining regions of Stara Zagora, Pernik, and Kustendil, the government approved the plans and said it would send them to the European Commission on September 30.
Bulgaria is already late in submitting the territorial plans for the transition of the three coal regions and lost almost 100 million euros ($106 million) for 2022 from the EU and risks losing another 800 million euro ($850 million) for 2023.
Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said the end of September was the deadline for the government to approve and submit the plans so that the country does not lose the funding for 2023.
Denkov said that the government would not close coal power plants in Bulgaria before 2038 and that this would be clearly stated in the plans that would be sent to the European Commission.
He said that the plans would not specify dates for closing coal power plants but added that “gradually some of them will drop out of the energy system because it will not be economically possible for them to function anymore.”
“That is why it is extremely important to create mechanisms by which people who have the necessary qualifications can find employment in the same region,” Denkov added.
The government also agreed to pay compensations of 36 months' salary for energy sector workers who decide to quit.
Denkov called on the protesters to stop the demonstrations, saying that their demands have been fulfilled.
The Bulgarian government said last month that it had finished the draft territorial plans for the transition and vowed to send them to the European Commission by the end of September.
But it faced protests by miners and energy workers who were not satisfied with the plans.
The government held negotiations earlier in September with the trade unions that represent the protesting miners and energy workers and agreed on the creation of a state enterprise in which all those currently working for the state-owned mines and coal power plants would be reassigned.
Bulgaria is the only EU country that has not submitted its plans for what the European Commission formally calls the Just Transition Mechanism.
The country previously was among the last to submit its Recovery and Resilience Plan -- another European mechanism that provides funding for a transition to renewable energy. But this funding is now blocked following a parliament decision in December 2022 demanding that the government renegotiate Bulgaria’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants by 40 percent by 2026.
The European Union aims to be climate-neutral by 2050 -- an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The bloc has allocated billions of euros in funding for its member states to fulfill this objective.
Russians Allowed To Take Part In Paris 2024 Paralympics As Individual, Neutral Athletes
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) voted on September 29 to allow Russian para-athletes to compete as individual and neutral athletes at the Paris 2024 Paralympics. The decision came hours after the IPC voted against a full ban on the Russian athletes. They will be allowed to take part in the Paralympics scheduled for August 28- September 8, 2024, without national flags, colors or emblems. After Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the IPC banned Russian athletes from taking part in the Paralympics.
NATO Says It Will Send More Troops To Kosovo Amid Deteriorating Security Situation
NATO on September 29 said it would beef up its KFOR peacekeeping Kosovo force amid rising tensions in the predominantly ethnic-Serb north. "Yesterday the North Atlantic Council authorized additional forces to address the current situation," the alliance said in a statement on September 29. It did not say how many more troops it would send to Kosovo. Four people were killed on September 24 in an attack at a 14th-century Orthodox monastery in north Kosovo when some 30 gunmen stormed the monastery, sparking a gunbattle with Kosovar police. In May, violence erupted when Kosovar authorities tried to install mayors in some Serb-majority towns. Dozens of KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters were injured.
Swiss Accuse Late Uzbek President's Daughter Of Running Criminal Organization
Switzerland's federal prosecutor has filed an indictment against the imprisoned daughter of Uzbekistan's former president, accusing her of taking bribes and running an elaborate criminal organization known as "The Office."
Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan from 1991 until his death in 2016, is accused of leading the operation, which allegedly channeled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes from telecoms companies.
Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) said on September 28 that money was funneled through bank accounts in several countries before being transferred to banks in Switzerland.
According to the statement, Karimova's network began its operations in Switzerland in 2005 “in order to conceal the capital originating from its criminal dealings in Swiss bank accounts and safes and by purchasing real estate.”
"‘The Office conducted its criminal activities as a professional business, complying with mandatory regulations and observing a strict allocation of tasks, while also resorting to violence and intimidation," the prosecutors' statement said.
In 2012, Switzerland said it froze around 800 million Swiss francs ($871.3 million) in connection with criminal proceedings against Karimova, a pop diva and businesswoman who had a public falling out with her late father and is currently in an Uzbek prison on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.
The Uzbek Justice Ministry said earlier that it was working with authorities in Switzerland, the United States, France, Russia, and several other nations on the return of Karimova assets that it said were "earned through criminal activities."
In 2020, the Swiss government said a nonbinding framework agreement signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan meant any returned assets "shall be used for the benefit of the people of Uzbekistan."
Once seen as a possible successor to her father, Karimova was placed under house arrest in Tashkent in 2014 while her father was still alive and running the country. Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded him soon afterward.
Criminal investigators in Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands have linked Karimova to a massive, yearslong bribery scheme that revolved mainly around foreign telecommunications companies gaining access to the Uzbek market.
In December 2017, a Tashkent court sentenced Karimova to a 10-year prison term, but the sentence was later commuted to house arrest for five years. She was detained in March 2019 for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.
In February 2020, Karimova sent a letter to Mirziyoev offering to return $686 million to the country's treasury in exchange for the dismissal of the court case against her at home.
But a month later, she received an additional 13-year sentence after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and other crimes.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
German Chancellor Scholz, Five Central Asian Leaders Meet As Berlin Looks To Blunt Moscow's Influence
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and five Central Asian nations' leaders have discussed cooperation and ties as Berlin looks to gain influence in the region that has been traditionally a sphere of dominance for Russia.
Scholz greeted presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev of Kazakhstan, Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Shavkat Mirziyoev of Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan's former president and current chairman of the People's Council, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, in the German capital, on September 29.
The gathering comes amid efforts to counter Russian influence on the Central Asian states during the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year.
Scholz and Toqaev held talks a day earlier, at which the German chancellor praised Kazakhstan's efforts to stop the circumvention of sanctions against Russia imposed by the West over its aggression against Ukraine.
Since the unprecedented sanctions were implemented, exports from the five Central Asian states to Russia have significantly increased, sparking concerns that some Western companies are using these former Soviet republics to evade the measures taken against Moscow.
As the summit started on September 29, a group of about a dozen Central Asian rights activists rallied in front of the German chancellor's office, demanding the immediate release of political prisoners in region amid signs of backsliding on free speech.
Rahmon's car was pelted with eggs, at least one of which splattered on the window and car seat where the president was sitting as the vehicle stopped near the Chancellery.
On September 28, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Scholz to focus on human rights in the five tightly controlled Central Asian nations during the summit.
"Germany plays a strong role on Central Asia, as a leading trade and investment partner and a key political motor behind the European Union’s Central Asia strategy. It should use this position to make clear that upholding fundamental human rights standards and respecting rule of law are essential to any long-term partnership between Europe and these authoritarian states," the HRW statement said.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden held talks with presidents of the five Central Asian nations in New York amid the United Nations General Assembly.
With reporting by dpa and regionalHeute.de
Prosecutors Seek Up To Five Years In Prison For Russian-Swede Accused In Spying Case
Swedish prosecutors have asked a court to sentence a Russian-Swedish citizen, Sergei Skvortsov, to up to five years in prison on a charge of passing Western technology to Russia. Skvortsov, who was arrested in November last year in a dramatic dawn raid on his suburban home, went on trial in Stockholm on September 4. The 60-year-old dual national has lived in Sweden since the 1990s, where he has run import-export companies. He pleaded not guilty to the charge of "unlawful intelligence activities" against the United States and Sweden. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
U.S. Urges Serbia To Pull Back Large Military Deployment Along Border With Kosovo
The White House has urged Serbia to pull back what it said is a large military deployment from its border with Kosovo amid rising tensions after deadly clashes this week in a Kosovar village.
"We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on September 29, adding that the build-up was a "very destabilizing development."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Serbian officials, and national-security adviser Jake Sullivan has spoken with Kosovar officials, Kirby said.
"We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border that includes unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units. We believe that this is a very destabilizing development," Kirby said in a conference call.
He also said there would be an increase in the peacekeeping force known as KFOR in northern Kosovo. There currently are about 600 U.S. forces participating in the force, he said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he had spoken on the phone with Blinken, and they “agreed that de-escalation is needed" along with a greater role for KFOR.
Milan Radoicic, the top official of the main ethnic-Serb political party in Kosovo, admitted earlier to organizing and participating in the events that sparked the most recent clash with police, which occurred at an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo and left four people dead.
In a statement read by his lawyer on September 29 in Belgrade, Radoicic said that he “personally made all the logistical preparations,” adding that the Serbian government had no knowledge of what was happening.
Radoicic described his actions as a way to “encourage Serbs” from the region to resist what he called “the terror of [Kosovo Prime Minister Albin] Kurti's regime.”
The admission comes days after Kosovo accused the ethnic-Serb politician of organizing and participating in the attack in Banjska on September 24, in which three attackers were killed, along with a Kosovar police officer.
Pristina has said that at least six of the suspected attackers who escaped were in Serbia and demanded Belgrade hand them over to Kosovar authorities.
Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla told RFE/RL in an interview that Radoicic didn't act alone and said he had been "continuously supported by Vucic" and the government of Serbia. He claimed it was Vucic and his "extremist ideas related to the whole region" that were the real culprit behind the attack on the monastery.
He also said Kosovo will continue to investigate in an effort to identify all those involved in the attack and will ask Serbia to surrender all participants who managed to escape to surrender to Kosovo's justice system.
He added that the investigation thus far has shown that "over 80 terrorists" were involved in the attack and confirmed that the probe is looking into possible Russian involvement.
More than 20 cars filled with ammunition and other materials were found, and in one of them there were Russian materials, as well as two engines for use in difficult terrain manufactured by Russia that had been donated to the Serbian Army, he told RFE/RL. There is also intelligence information about the involvement of elements that are directly linked to Russia, he said.
Svecla said in an interview on September 28 with the Associated Press that Russian weapons, other equipment, and documents suggesting Russian involvement had been found.
Vucic, who has denied claims that Serbia was involved in the clashes saying the gunmen were local Kosovo Serbs “who no longer want to withstand the terror” of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian authorities, told Serbian state television that Radoicic would be questioned by the Serbian authorities about the matter.
“He will certainly respond to the invitation of the competent authorities of Serbia, I am convinced that he will be heard,” Vucic said.
“He considers himself a fighter for freedom, he has never given up on his comrades and he will never give up, but there are things and questions that he will have to answer,” he added.
Radoicic is a construction tycoon as well as a top official of the main ethnic Serb political party in Kosovo, Serbian List, funded mainly by Belgrade. He was hit with sanctions by the United States and Britain in 2021 for allegedly being part of an organized crime group.
Kosovo has accused Serbia of direct involvement in the clashes, which Belgrade denies.
Xhelal Svecla told the Associated Press in a September 28 interview that investigators were looking at evidence linking Russia, an ally of Serbia, to the armed assault.
Russian weapons, other equipment and documents suggesting Russian involvement were discovered after the daylong gunbattle, he said.
Svecla also alleged that the insurgents had come from Serbia and that they were trained in camps in Serbia.
“We found some documents which lead us to a suspicion that there were individuals coming from Russia too,” he added.
“For the equipment, we have evidence, but for the people we still have only suspicion.”
The monastery attack further raised tensions in the region at a time when European Union and U.S. officials have been pushing for a deal that would normalize ties between Serbia and Kosovo.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters
More Than 50 Killed In Blasts At Two Pakistan Mosques
An explosion at a religious gathering in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan on September 29 killed at least 52 people and dozens more wounded, police and hospital officials told RFE/RL.
Separately, at least four people were killed in explosions that targeted a mosque and a police station in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, according to police and media reports.
The first blast, in Balochistan's Mastung district, some 60 kilometers from the provincial capital, Quetta, targeted a procession celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad, Jan Muhammad Achakzai, Information Minister in Balochistan's caretaker government, told RFE/RL on the phone.
Rashid Mohammad Shahi, head of the Mastung Health Department, told RFE/RL that 55 people were injured in the incident.
Some 500 people had gathered in Mastung for the celebration, known as Mawlid an-Nabi, during which Muslims usually hold gatherings and distribute free meals to the poor.
No group has claimed responsibility so far for the blast, which prompted authorities to declare a state of emergency in the hospitals in Quetta.
Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province that borders both Afghanistan and Iran, is regularly targeted by Islamist militants, sectarian groups, and nationalist separatists.
Balochistan is sparsely populated but rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, and gas and has been marred by instability and violence.
The most prominent militant group in the region, the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces.
The BLC claims that ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities.
Islamabad rejects the charges. Ethnic Baluchis account for just under 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 231 million.
In the second incident, at least four people were killed, including a police officer, and 12 others were wounded in blasts that targeted a police station and a mosque in the Doaba area of Khyber Pakhtuknkhwa.
The roof of the mosque, located on the premises of the police station, caved in under the force of the second explosion, which happened as the mosque was full of people attending Friday Prayers.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Dawn
Kremlin Tasks Senior Ex-Wagner Commander With Forming Volunteer Corps
The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with Andrei Troshev, the former chief of staff of the Wagner mercenary group, and handed him the responsibility for establishing new volunteer fighting units.
“At our last meeting, we talked about the fact that you will be engaged in the formation of volunteer units that can perform various combat tasks," Putin said at a meeting with Troshev and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov on September 28, according to a transcript of the conversation published a day later.
Putin stressed that Troshev "is aware of issues that need to be solved beforehand to secure better and successful combat activities."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 29 that Wagner's former chief of staff is now working at the Defense Ministry.
In August, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Wagner's commanders had accused Troshev and other top officials of the mercenary group of "betraying Wagner for the Russian Defense Ministry-affiliated Redut private military company."
Redut, a combination of several minor veteran groupings of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Russian Air Force, and units of the Russian Defense Ministry, has been active in the war in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The ISW report came three days before a plane linked to Wagner founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed between Moscow and St. Petersburg on August 23, killing all 10 people on board.
On August 27, Russian authorities said Prigozhin’s body had been identified by medical examiners, along with those of nine other people on board the Embraer 600 jet that crashed in the Tver region in suspicious circumstances.
Two months before his death, on June 23-24, Prigozhin sent thousands of his fighters in a short-lived rebellion against the military command fighting in Ukraine, imposing one of the biggest challenges to Putin in his more than two decades in power.
The insurrection came on the heels of months of intense public infighting with Russia’s military leadership over the war strategy in Ukraine and ammunition supplies, as Wagner's fighters played the major role in heavy fighting for the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's east.
In mid-September, the British government added Wagner group to its list of terrorist organizations, saying it remains a threat to global security even after Prigozhin's death.
Earlier in January, Washington designated Wagner a transnational criminal organization.
Britain Slaps More Sanctions On Russian Officials One Year After 'Sham' Votes In Ukraine
The United Kingdom announced a fresh set of sanctions against Russian officials and Moscow's electoral authority on the one-year anniversary of "sham" elections held in occupied Ukrainian regions.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement that the new measures targeted 11 Russian officials and the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Russia for the "sham elections" that amounted to "a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize Russia's illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory."
Those who orchestrated the referendums in late September 2022 and general elections earlier this month in occupied Ukrainian territories in the east and southeast "all directly acted to undermine Ukraine and threaten its territorial integrity," the statement said.
"You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country," Cleverly said in the statement.
Natalya Budarina, one of the most senior CEC officials, Andrei Aleksyenko, the chief of the Russia-controlled part of the southern region of Kherson, and Marina Zakharova, the Moscow-installed head of the Kherson electoral authority, were among those sanctioned with asset freezes and travel restrictions.
The latest set of punitive measures brings the total number of individuals and entities sanctioned by Britain since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine to more than 1,600.
The measures were announced a day after British Admiral Tony Radakin, chief of the Defense Staff, and the United Kingdom's new Defense Secretary Grant Shapps visited Kyiv.
Earlier on September 29, Russian troops launched a missile attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv, damaging infrastructure, a regional official said, as the governor of Russia's Kursk region bordering Ukraine said a drone attack has cut off the energy supply of several settlements in the area.
"On the morning of September 29, around 4:13, the city of Mykolayiv was targeted by a missile attack," the head of Mykolayiv regional military administration, Vitaly Kim, said on Telegram. "An infrastructure objective was damaged on the outskirts of the city. The resulting fire was extinguished at 6:45. Detailed information is being clarified," Kim wrote.
Meanwhile, Roman Starovoit, the governor of Russia's Kursk region that borders Ukraine, said on September 29 that a Ukrainian drone attack on a power substation in the region's Belovsky district left five settlements without electricity.
“One of the transformers caught fire. Five settlements and a hospital were left without power. Fire crews have left for the scene. They will begin restoring power supply as soon as it is safe,” Starovoit said on Telegram. Russia's Defense Ministry later said in a statement that it had shot down 11 drones overnight -- 10 over the Kursk region and one over the Kaluga region.
On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces continued to conduct both defensive and offensive operations in the east and south, where they fought 26 close-quarters battles against Russian troops over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily update on September 29
On September 28, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to Kyiv that Ukrainian forces were "gradually gaining ground" in their counteroffensive against Russian invaders.
"[Ukrainian troops] face fierce fighting, but they are gradually gaining ground," Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"Every meter that Ukrainian forces regain is a meter that Russia loses.... Moscow is fighting for imperialist delusions," Stoltenberg said.
WATCH: Ukraine's homegrown UAV producers are modifying their drone fleets with the latest, cutting-edge technology. The domestic company Warbirds of Ukraine says that the development of so-called smart drones will play a key role in the outcome of the war.
The NATO chief also announced that the alliance has framework contracts in place for 2.4 billion euros ($2.53 billion) of key ammunition for Kyiv, including 1 billion euros in firm orders.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
UN To Send Humanitarian Mission To Nagorno-Karabakh As Exodus Of Ethnic Armenians Continues
The United Nations will send a mission to Nagorno-Karabakh this weekend, a UN spokesman said after Azerbaijan invited UN agencies to visit the region to monitor the situation there as an exodus of ethnic Armenians continued on September 29.
The mission will mainly assess humanitarian needs, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that the body had not had access to the region "in about 30 years."
"The government of Azerbaijan and the UN have agreed on a mission to the region. The mission will take place over the weekend," he told reporters.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said earlier in a statement that the UN agencies had been invited to send a mission "to become acquainted with the current humanitarian activities being carried out by Azerbaijan in the region."
The ministry said the group members would also be shown "the process of rebuilding certain infrastructure, disarmament, and confiscation of ammunition from illegal Armenian armed forces, as well as the dangers posed by mines."
The announcements come 10 days after a lightning military offensive that gave Azerbaijan complete control over its breakaway region.
The United States and others have called on Baku to allow international monitors into Nagorno-Karabakh amid concerns about possible human rights abuses and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The UN World Food Program has already set up tents in Goris to help provide meals to the refugees, and representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population and Azerbaijani officials also met for the third time since September 19 in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax. The sides again discussed humanitarian issues and the reintegration of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijani society.
Armenia's government estimated that nearly 93,000 Armenians -- more than three-quarters of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh -- had crossed onto its territory as of 4 p.m. local time on September 29.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has accused Azerbaijan of "ethnic cleansing" and warned that no Armenian will remain in the breakaway region in the following days.
"This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing that we warned the international community about," Pashinian told a government meeting on September 28, calling for concrete action by the international community.
WATCH: Armenian volunteers are doing what they can to provide relief to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have flooded into the country since Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19.
Baku has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and said that it wanted to "reintegrate" the enclave's ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on September 29 that it's time for teams from Azerbaijan and Armenia to sit down and work on a draft peace agreement.
"I think that after September 20, when Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty, it will be easier to find a solution and sign a peace treaty as soon as possible,” Aliyev said.
He also said Azerbaijan recognizes the territorial integrity of Armenia and has no intention of continuing what he called the “anti-terrorism measures” against Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yerevan considered it alarming that Baku did not publicly recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia after the cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 21.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry on September 28 urged ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh despite reports of detentions of former leaders of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces.
Sources close to ethnic Armenian de facto authorities in the region confirmed to RFE/RL on September 29 reports that Azerbaijani officials detained Levon Mnatsakanian, a former commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist armed forces, at a border checkpoint with Armenia.
In addition, Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on September 29 it had detained Davit Manukian, former deputy commander of the breakaway region's de facto armed forces, on "terrorism" charges. Two days earlier, Azerbaijan arrested the former de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, billionaire Ruben Vardanian.
WATCH: RFE/RL spoke with refugees in Armenia who said they left everything behind and hadn't eaten in days.
The de facto Internal Affairs Ministry in the breakaway region said on September 29 that the remains of 170 people have been found at the site of an explosion at a fuel depot, which occurred on September 25 as people sought to fuel their vehicles in order to leave the region. The remains are being transferred to laboratories for medical examination, the ministry said.
The official confirmed that the death toll stands at 68, with more than 290 injured. The cause of the blast has not been determined.
Russia, which used to be Armenia's main military backer but has been criticized by Yerevan for its peacekeepers' failure to prevent the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, said fleeing Armenians had nothing to fear.
"It's difficult to say who is to blame [for the exodus]. There is no direct reason for such actions," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an apparent rejection of Armenia's claims of ethnic cleansing.
"People are nevertheless expressing a desire to leave.... Those who made such a decision should be provided with normal living conditions," Peskov added.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Swiss Court Acquits Former Belarusian Security Force Member In Disappearance Case
A former member of Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s special security forces was acquitted in Switzerland on September 28 of involvement in the disappearances of prominent opposition figures more than two decades ago.
A district court in Rorshach acquitted Yury Harauski, 45, after a two-day hearing last week.
A court statement said that due to the defendant's contradictory statements his actual involvement in the disappearances of former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar, and businessman Anatol Krasouski, who had gone missing in 1999, “cannot be considered legally proven."
The court also said the involvement of the Belarusian government in the disappearances could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt because it was not represented in the proceedings.
Harauski sought asylum in Switzerland in 2018 arguing that his life was at risk in Belarus due to his willingness to speak out about his involvement with a special unit that made opponents of Lukashenka disappear.
In explaining his decision, the judge said during the interrogation, “the accused got confused in contradictions” and evaded the questions. The ruling concluded that Harauski may have served in Lukashenka’s special security forces but his role in the abductions remains unclear.
Harauski was arrested in 2021 and formally charged last year. He confessed to taking part in the abduction of the three men but said he was not aware why they were kidnapped and said he did not take part in their killings.
In an interview published earlier this month, the accused said he was involved in arresting the men, but he "neither ordered nor carried out the murders” and was “merely a witness to them."
During his testimony, Harauski said Zakharanka was kidnapped in Minsk on May 7, 1999, driven to a military base outside the Belarusian capital, and then shot by his superior, Dzmitry Paulichenka, a lieutenant colonel who had headed the special unit.
He added that Hanchar and Krasouski were abducted in September 1999 while they were leaving a sauna in Minsk and later shot execution style by Paulichenka.
The case followed criminal claims by the daughters of two of the disappeared men, supported by Geneva-based group Trial International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Vyasna Human Rights Center.
The groups said they were disappointed with the outcome, while one of the daughters said she would appeal the court's decision, according to Reuters.
With reporting by Reuters
Kazakh President Assures Germany His Country Follows Sanctions Regime Against Russia
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says his country will not help Russia circumvent Western sanctions imposed over the war in Ukraine amid suspicions that Moscow is still receiving goods via Central Asian nations.
"Kazakhstan has unambiguously stated that it will follow the sanctions regime," Toqaev said on September 28 following talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Toqaev was on the defensive because his country has been repeatedly accused of helping its larger neighbor obtain goods in violation of sanctions.
Kazakhstan is a close economic and military ally of Moscow that shares a 7,500-kilometer border with Russia, but it has not recognized Ukrainian regions occupied by Moscow as part of Russia.
The European Union has sought to crack down on re-exports of sensitive goods by third countries to Russia with a measure allowing it to restrict certain exports to states that fail to cooperate.
Toqaev maintained that Kazakhstan has “contacts with the relevant organizations to comply with the sanctions regime.” He added that there should be no concerns on the German side about possible actions aimed at circumventing the sanctions regime.
Toqaev also said he did not fear any territorial claims from Moscow.
"The border between Kazakhstan and Russia has been set out, largely demarcated, confirmed, and ratified by the parliaments of both countries. We therefore have no concerns about Russia's territorial claims," he said, according to his press office.
In recent months, Kazakh citizens have faced trial for pro-Russian separatism in Kazakhstan, mainly in the north of the country.
Scholz is scheduled to host Toqaev along with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan for joint talks on September 29.
The meeting with the five Central Asian leaders will be the first joint gathering of its kind with an EU country.
With reporting by AFP
'Messianic' Putin Fell Victim To His Own Propaganda, Says Veteran Journalist2
U.S. Urges Serbia To Pull Back Large Military Deployment Along Border With Kosovo3
As Armenia And Azerbaijan Seek Peace, Proposed Zangezur Corridor Could Be Major Sticking Point4
Putin, Medvedev Combine Spin With Threats On Anniversary Of Unilateral Annexations In Ukraine5
Crimea: The Last 'Gentleman's War'6
Who Was Behind The Deadly Attack At The Orthodox Monastery In Kosovo?7
Kherson Under 'Massive Shelling' As Cities In Southern Ukraine On Alert8
Chechen Strongman Releases Video Of Teenage Son Beating Alleged Koran Burner9
'Too Bad, Vladimir:' Hillary Clinton Taunts Putin On NATO Expansion Since Invasion10
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine