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Obama Says Russia's Support Of Assad 'Doomed To Fail'

U.S. President Barack Obama says Russia's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "doomed to fail."

Russia has said it is bolstering Assad's army because it is the most effective force to fight the Islamic State extremist group.

Obama said on September 11: "The strategy that they are pursuing right now, doubling down on Assad, I think is a big mistake."

Obama said Russia's escalated military involvement in Syria indicates that Assad is worried and is turning to Russian advisers for help.

The president's comments came in response to a question from a U.S. service member during a town hall with troops.

Moscow has acknowledged that Russian military experts were present in Syria to assist with Russian arms deliveries to the war-torn country which Moscow says are aimed at combating terrorism.

Washington has warned that the Russian military buildup in Syria could lead to a "confrontation" with the U.S.-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the IS group.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

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Ukraine, Israel Aid Advances In Rare House Vote As Democrats Help Republicans

The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)
The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)

With rare bipartisan momentum, the U.S. House of Representatives pushed ahead on April 19 on a foreign aid package of $95 billion for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and humanitarian support as a robust coalition of lawmakers helped it clear a procedural hurdle to reach final votes this weekend. The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance overwhelmingly by 316 votes to 94. Final House approval could come this weekend, when the package would be sent to the Senate.

Detained Former Karabakh Separatist Official Begins Hunger Strike, Says Family

Ruben Vardanian (file photo)
Ruben Vardanian (file photo)

Ruben Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has begun a hunger strike in a Baku prison, his family said on April 19. Vardanian, a billionaire banker who had renounced his Russian citizenship, was arrested and brought to Baku after a military operation by Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic-Armenian forces in September. He served as prime minister of the region from November 2022 to February 2023. He has demanded his release and that of other detained former Karabakh separatist leaders, his family said. Baku hasn't confirmed the hunger strike. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Armenia Agrees To Return 4 Villages To Azerbaijan As First Step To Define Borders

The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)
The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)

Armenia has agreed to return four abandoned border villages that it has controlled since the early 1990s to Azerbaijan as the initial step in defining the frontier between the two bitter South Caucasus rivals, the countries said in identical statements on April 19.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said the agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev, which was held at an undisclosed section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

It said the parties reached preliminary agreement that the initial stage of the delimitation process will involve sections between four villages in the territory of Armenia’s northeastern Tavush Province and four abandoned villages that used to be part of Azerbaijan’s northwestern Qazax district.

"Armenia has agreed to return four villages under occupation since the early 1990s," Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizade wrote on social media.

The abandoned former Azerbaijani villages face the Armenian villages and have been under Armenia’s military control since 1991-92, when ethnic clashes between the two former Soviet nations intensified. The proposed border will run between the Armenian and Azerbaijani villages.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought wars over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh -- with more than 30,000 people killed -- as they transitioned into independent countries.

Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning military offensive last year, but much of the border between the countries remains in dispute, with both sides occupying villages that formerly belonged to the other.

The statement says the paired villages are Baghanis (Armenia) and Baganis Ayrum (Azerbaijan), Voskepar (Armenia) and Asagi Askipara (Azerbaijan), Kirants (Armenia) and Xeyrimli (Azerbaijan), and Berkaber (Armenia) and Qizilhacili (Azerbaijan).

According to the statement, the process is aimed at “bringing them in line with the legally established inter-republican border that existed within the framework of the Soviet Union at the time of its disintegration.”

"It was agreed...to continue the process of delimitation of all other sections of the border, including on the issues of enclaves and exclaves."

The agreement comes two days after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian visited three border villages in Tavush to meet with residents and discuss upcoming arrangements, which he said were vital to ensuring Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.

Residents of border villages have expressed concerns that the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan in accordance with the Soviet-era configuration would deprive them of access to their farmlands and complicate their communication with the rest of the country due to the fact that some sections of the only road they have would fall under Azerbaijani control.

Pashinian pledged his government’s efforts to address the difficulties that local residents might face in connection with the planned border demarcation, including building new sections of the road stretching along the border.

Talking to residents in Berkaber on April 17, Pashinian said that he was putting his political career in the balance so that “Armenia can become a truly independent state.”

Armenian opposition groups have strongly criticized Pashinian for agreeing to discuss the transfer of four formerly Azeri villages to Baku without immediately getting Azerbaijan to withdraw from parts of sovereign Armenian territory that Baku's military captured during a series of border incursions in 2021-22.

Word of the latest agreement comes shortly after the Group of Seven (G7) nations called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain “fully committed” to the peace process as the group’s foreign ministers issued a communique after their meeting in Capri, Italy, on April 19.

In the lengthy statement on various challenges around the world, the top diplomats of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States, as well as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also called on Azerbaijan “to fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“We urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain fully committed to the peace process to achieve a dignified and durable peace based on the principles of non-use of force, respect for sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity,” the part of the communique concerning the South Caucasus reads.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

'Security Measures' Taken For Kazakh Judge In Murder Trial Of Ex-Minister Amid Threats

Former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev in court last month
Former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev in court last month

Kazakhstan's Supreme Court said on April 19 that Judge Aizhan Qulbaeva -- who is presiding over the high-profile trial of former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev -- has been provided with "measures of personal security" after she received multiple unspecified threats by phone from persons unknown. The court added that a probe has been launched regarding an "obstruction of justice." Bishimbaev, who is accused of viciously beating his wife, Saltanat Nukenova, to death in a restaurant in Astana in November, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Russian Military Court To Try Theater Director Berkovich, Playwright Petriichuk

Russian playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and director Yevgenia Berkovich appear at a Moscow court hearing last year.
Russian playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and director Yevgenia Berkovich appear at a Moscow court hearing last year.

Moscow theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk will face trial in a Russian military court after prosecutors affirmed charges of justifying terrorism, lawyer Sergei Badamshin said on April 19. The two women were arrested in May 2023 following the production of the play Finist The Brave Falcon. The play is about Russian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria. Berkovich and Petriichuk maintain their innocence. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison. Military courts handle cases related to terrorism charges in Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Belarusian Gets Prison Term For Sending $32 To Banned Groups

A court in Belarus has sentenced a man to 3 1/2 years in prison for sending the equivalent of $32 to three Belarusian groups -- Honest People, the Belarusian Culture Council, and ByHelp -- which were labeled extremist and banned by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. Fyodar Shvedau, 48, was found guilty of "financing extremist groups." Shvedau pleaded partially guilty. He was held handcuffed in a glass cage during the court proceedings, which human rights groups have called a common practice under Lukashenka's regime to additionally humiliate people on trial. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

G7 Urges Armenia, Azerbaijan To Stay 'Fully Committed' To Peace Process

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations meet on the island of Capri, Italy, on April 18.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations meet on the island of Capri, Italy, on April 18.

The Group of Seven (G7) nations have called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain “fully committed” to the peace process as the group’s foreign ministers issued a communique after their meeting in Capri, Italy, on April 19.

In the lengthy statement on various challenges around the world, the top diplomats of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States, as well as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also called on Azerbaijan “to fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“We urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain fully committed to the peace process to achieve a dignified and durable peace based on the principles of non-use of force, respect for sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity,” the part of the communique concerning the South Caucasus reads.

Recalling the joint statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan on December 7, 2023, which also included a prisoner exchange deal, the G7 foreign ministers encouraged the sides “to uphold that spirit of cooperation in their future interactions,” stressing that “further escalation would be unacceptable.”

They also called on Azerbaijan to “fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law” and encouraged “appropriate steps to ensure the safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees and displaced persons wishing to come back to their homes.”

According to the statement, the G7 and its members are “ready to facilitate further constructive contacts at all levels, notably within the established negotiating frameworks provided by the EU and the USA, whose enduring efforts we commend.”

“We reiterate the importance of the commitment to the Alma Ata 1991 Declaration through which Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We encourage greater regional cooperation and the re-opening of all borders, including the border between Armenia and [Turkey],” it said.

Locals Fear Being Cut Off Amid Armenian-Azerbaijani Peace Talks
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Last November, the top diplomats from the G7 nations expressed “grave concern” regarding the humanitarian consequences of the displacement of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh after the military operation conducted by Azerbaijan,” and called on Baku to “fully comply with its obligations.”

Russia confirmed on April 17 that its peacekeepers are leaving Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan's once-breakaway region. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Azerbaijani media reports saying that Russian troops had started leaving the region were true.

Armenia has criticized Russian peacekeepers deployed to the once mostly ethnic Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh for failing to stop Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in September 2023, which ended with Baku regaining control over the region that for three decades had been under ethnic Armenians’ control.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan Service

EU's Von Der Leyen Visits Finland-Russia Border To Assess Security Situation

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (left), and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo attend a press briefing in eastern Finland on April 19.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (left), and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo attend a press briefing in eastern Finland on April 19.

The head of the European Union's executive branch said Finland's decision to close its border with Russia over a surge in migrants is a security matter for the whole 27-member bloc. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the remarks on April 19 during a trip to the frontier, visiting a part of the border in southeastern Finland. “We all know how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his allies instrumentalize migrants to test our defenses and to try to destabilize us,” von der Leyen told officials. “Now Putin is focusing on Finland, and this is no doubt in response to your firm support of Ukraine and your accession to NATO.”

Rising Rivers Force More Evacuations in Kazakhstan, Russia

Kazakh rescue workers seek to evacuate residents from the flooded settlement of Pokrovka in northern Kazakhstan, close to the border with Russia, a region that has been badly affected by floods in recent weeks.
Kazakh rescue workers seek to evacuate residents from the flooded settlement of Pokrovka in northern Kazakhstan, close to the border with Russia, a region that has been badly affected by floods in recent weeks.

Water levels are still rising in rivers crossing Kazakhstan and Russia as floods continue to wreak havoc and force the evacuation of thousands from towns and cities.

Authorities in the West Kazakhstan region said on April 19 that the water level in the Oral River, which is known in neighboring Russia as the Ural, rose 28 centimeters overnight to 8.84 meters in the area close to the village of Yanvartsevo -- the first settlement on the Kazakh side of the border.

Yanvartsevo, home to some 1,200 people, is located 70 kilometers from the regional capital, Oral. Despite an official call to evacuate, most residents have remained in the village filling sand bags and reinforcing the river's banks along with military personnel and rescue teams from the Emergencies Ministry.

Regional government spokesman Erkhan Tatken said on April 19 that the high waters, which have been caused by abrupt warm weather that led to a massive snowmelt, are expected to reach the region from the adjacent Russian region of Orenburg sometime after April 22.

Tatken added that about 3,000 private houses in the region have been damaged by the floods and some 14,000 people have been evacuated. Kazakh officials have said that well over 100,000 people have been forced from their homes across the country because of heavy flooding.

Kazakhs Prepare For Second Wave As Central Asia, Russia Struggle With Floods
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A day earlier, Kazakh Deputy Interior Minister Marat Qozhaev said seven deaths had been confirmed and two people were missing because of the floods in Kazakhstan’s northern regions, which began in late March.

Frustration over the preparations and response to the floods has boiled over in some parts of the country, with authorities meeting criticism with a heavy hand.

At least two people were handed jail terms of up to 10 days in early April on a charge of "spreading ungrounded information" over publicly accusing local governments in the Qostanai and Pavlodar regions for what they called a failure to properly deal with the floods.

In neighboring Russia, the situation is just as dire, with water levels in rivers continuing to rise in the regions bordering Kazakhstan.

As of April 19, the water level in the Ishim River in Russia's Tyumen region, which borders the North Kazakhstan region, reached 7.23 meters overnight, while 8.5 meters is considered to be the critical point.

The region’s governor, Aleksandr Moor, called on the residents of several villages located close to the river to "evacuate immediately, before it is too late."

According to Moor, the region has not experienced floods of this scale since 1947.

Russian officials said on April 18 that the number of houses affected by the floods in the southern regions was about 18,000 in total.

Russian Journalist's Home Searched Over Case Against Colleague In Exile

Andrei Zakharov left Russia in 2021.
Andrei Zakharov left Russia in 2021.

Police in St. Petersburg on April 18 searched the home of journalist Ksenia Klochkova as part of an investigation of her former colleague, Andrei Zakharov. Klochkova was told that she is a witness in the case against Zakharov, who is accused of failing to comply with the requirements of a "foreign agent," a status he received in 2021, after which he fled Russia. Zakharov worked with Klochkova at the Fontanka online newspaper until 2016, before he moved to Moscow. Russia has used the controversial law on "foreign agents" to muzzle free media and dissent for years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Bulgarian President Blocks Replacement Of Caretaker Minister

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who has been criticized by the oppposition as taking a pro-Russian stance, has refused to endorse the replacement of current caretaker Foreign Minister Stefan Dimitrov with Daniel Mitov from the pro-Western GERB center-right party, raising concerns about Bulgaria's support for Ukraine. The caretaker government took office on April 9 after the dissolution of the previous pro-Western cabinet of Nikolay Denkov. Caretaker Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev had requested Dimitrov's replacement following concerns about his stance on Ukraine. In contrast, Mitov is known for his consistently pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian positions. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Hungary's Government To Discuss Potential Fuel-Price Intervention

(file photo)
(file photo)

Hungary's government will discuss fuel prices at its upcoming government meeting on April 24, the economy minister told a press conference on April 19. The minister said reintroducing fuel price caps is "not ruled out," putting further pressure on suppliers to cut fuel prices closer to the Central European average as part of a wider government price-setting intervention after the worst inflationary surge in the European Union.

Russian Suspect In Assassination Attempt On Ex-Ukrainian Security Officer Arrested

Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)
Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)

A court in Moscow on April 18 sent to pretrial detention a Russian man suspected of being involved in the attempted murder of a former officer of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), according to local media reports. Vladimir Golovchenko is the second suspect arrested in the case. Former SBU officer Vasily (Vasyl) Prozorov, who in 2019 defected to Moscow and publicly stated that he had collaborated with the Russian secret services, survived the car bombing in Moscow last week. Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Poland Detains 2 Suspects In Attack On Navalny Associate In Lithuania

Leonid Volkov (file photo)
Leonid Volkov (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on April 19 that Polish authorities had detained two men suspected of attacking Leonid Volkov, an associate of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny who left Russia in 2019 fearing for his personal security. Nauseda added that the suspects will be extradited to Lithuania following due process. Volkov was attacked in March with a meat hammer by an unidentified assailant in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, leaving him bloodied with a broken arm and other injuries. The attack occurred less than one month after Navalny died in a Russian Arctic prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Apparent Israeli Air Attack Strikes Near Iranian City Of Isfahan

Video Purportedly Shows Israeli Aerial Attack On Iran
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Israel's military reportedly struck targets inside Iran in retaliation for an unprecedented air attack Tehran launched last weekend on its sworn enemy, but the limited scope of the operation and a muted Iranian response appeared to indicate an escalation of the conflict had been avoided.

Explosions were heard early on April 19 -- the 85th birthday of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- near the central city of Isfahan, with reports unclear over the cause.

Several major U.S. media organizations, all citing U.S. government sources, said Israel launched a missile or drones to strike targets inside Iran.

Video posted on social media and broadcast around the world showed several large explosions that were reportedly near Isfahan.

Iranian state media quoted officials in Tehran as saying the explosions were caused by air defenses that shot down three drones in the area of Isfahan.

Hossein Deliriyan, the spokesman for Iran's National Center for Cyberspace, refuted the U.S. media reports, saying in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that "there has been no air attack from outside the borders on Isfahan or other parts of the country."

Speaking at a mosque on April 19, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi didn’t mention the attack near Isfahan and with the Israeli retaliation limited in size and scope, experts said it appeared it was aimed at deescalating soaring tensions while still sending a clear message to Tehran.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Iranian official as saying that Tehran “has no plan to strike back immediately.”

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in the early morning hours of April 14, almost all of which were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

The attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, on April 1 that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, had urged restraint as they awaited Israel's response.

According to Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Washington informed the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations that it had received word from Israel on the strikes at the "last minute," but “there was no sharing of the attack by the U.S. It was a mere information.”

“I’m not going to speak to that [the suspected Israeli attack] except to say that the United States has not been involved in any offensive operations,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after a G7 ministerial meeting on the Italian island of Capri.

Iran's state news agency IRNA said air defenses fired from a large air base in Isfahan that is home to Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats acquired before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Isfahan also houses facilities that are part of Iran's nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had seen no damage to Iran's nuclear sites. Earlier this week, the sites were rumored to be a possible target if Israel launched a strike inside Iran.

One of Iran's top nuclear facilities, the installation at Natanz, is located in central Isfahan. Such sites have seen several sabotage attacks that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

"IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran's nuclear sites," the UN nuclear watchdog said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"Director-General Rafael Grossi continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts. IAEA is monitoring the situation very closely."

Israeli strikes targeting a Syrian Army position in the country's south were also reported on April 19.

According to AFP, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes, which he attributed to Israel, "targeted a radar installation of the Syrian Army" between the provinces of Sweida and Daraa provinces.

Raisi had warned earlier this week that Tehran would deliver a "severe response" to any attack on its territory and the limited scope of the reported Israeli attack appeared to heed U.S. President Joe Biden's comment to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should show restraint with any response and instead "take the win" since the Iranian attack didn't have a great impact.

"It is absolutely necessary that the region stays stable and that all sides refrain from further action," European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Finland on April 19.

Inside Israel, some hawkish lawmakers appeared to acknowledge the strike while criticizing it.

"Feeble," wrote hard-right Security Minister Itamar Ben-Givir in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades but Iran's was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

With reporting by CNN, ABC, CBS, and IRNA

Japanese Group Escapes Suicide Bombing Attempt In Pakistan

Five Japanese nationals escaped unhurt from a suicide attack in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, early on April 19. Police official Azfar Mahesar told a news conference the five Japanese were on their way to Karachi's Landi Economic Zone, when a suicide bomber attempted to blow himself up neat them. Mahesar said the suicide attacker and another armed accomplice were shot dead by the Japanese nationals' security detail. Three security guards were wounded in the exchange of gunfire. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Updated

Zelenskiy Presses NATO For More Help As U.S. Aid Package Advances

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects new fortifications on a visit to the Donetsk region on April 19.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects new fortifications on a visit to the Donetsk region on April 19.

As Ukraine recognized a day of mourning for victims of deadly missile strikes around the city of Dnipro, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stepped up his calls for urgent military assistance, saying NATO members must decide “whether we indeed are allies” amid new signs that further U.S. aid might finally be on the way.

"Our sky must become safe again," Zelenskiy told a video conference with NATO defense ministers on April 19.

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"It depends fully on your choice. Choice whether life is indeed equally valuable everywhere. Choice whether you have an equal attitude to all partners. Choice whether we indeed are allies," he said.

Zelenskiy said his embattled nation could not defend itself from the Russian invasion without additional support from Western allies.

"It is obvious that -- now while Russia has air advantage and can rely on its drone and rocket terror -- our capabilities on the ground, unfortunately, are limited," he added.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance’s support for Kyiv and stressed to members the need to further aid Ukraine given the perilous battlefield situation.

"The allies must dig deep into the inventories and speed up the delivery of missiles, artillery, and ammunition," Stoltenberg said.

"Ukraine is using the weapons we provided to destroy Russian combat capabilities. This makes us all safer. So support to Ukraine is not charity. It is an investment in our own security," he added.

Ukraine has been pleading for months for more air defense systems as it grapples with increasingly intense Russian air strikes on its infrastructure while its stocks of weapons and ammunition dwindle as critical U.S. aid remains stuck in Congress.

The United States has been by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022.

A desperately needed $60.84 billion military aid package for Ukraine has until this week been blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives amid opposition from hard-liners in the Republican party who want to tie domestic policy issues such as immigration to a decision on foreign aid.

But the House on April 19 pressed forward on a package of $95 billion in aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and humanitarian support as a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers helped it clear a procedural hurdle to reach final votes this weekend

On April 19, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that his recent visit to Washington marked "a shift in the issue of unblocking the aid from the United States."

"We received assurances of the support for the bill from both [the Republican and Democratic] parties. We expect that this large aid package from the U.S. will be voted on in the near future," Shmyhal added.

Separately, members of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations responded to the strikes by pledging to boost Ukraine's air defenses.

"Every country that provides air defense systems to Ukraine, every leader who helps persuade our partners that air defense systems should not be stored in warehouses but deployed in real cities and communities facing terror, and everyone who supports our defense is a life saver," Zelenskiy wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"We are determined to continue to provide military, financial, political, humanitarian, economic, and development support to Ukraine and its people," the G7 foreign ministers said at the end of a two-day meeting on the Italian island of Capri.

The G7 will "bolster Ukraine's air defense capabilities to save lives and protect critical infrastructure," the statement said, but without providing a specific deadline.

A day of mourning was declared on April 19 for those killed in Russian missile strikes on the city of Dnipro and its surroundings in Ukraine's southeastern region of Dnipropetrovsk as Ukraine's air force for the first time said it had downed one of Russia's attacking strategic bombers.

At least eight people were killed and 25 were wounded when Russian warplanes fired missiles at targets in the Dnipropetrovsk region -- the country's industrial heartland.

Residential Building Burns After Deadly Russian Attacks On Dnipropetrovsk
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Two people were killed in Dnipro, a city of 1 million that is also the region's capital, and six in the Synelnykivskiy district, some 60 kilometers south of Dnipro, where more than a dozen homes were damaged, Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said.

Serhiy Lysak, the head of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said on Telegram that 24 people were wounded and residential buildings and infrastructure facilities were also damaged in the city.

Dnipro Mayor Boris Filatov declared April 20 a day of mourning in the region.

A third location in Dnipropetrovsk, Zelenskiy's hometown of Kriviy Rih, was targeted by a separate Russian attack that damaged infrastructure and wounded three people, according to Mayor Oleksandr Vilkul, who said the strike on infrastructure caused a fire.

Following the strikes, Ukraine's air force said it destroyed a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber.

"This is retaliation for the fact that the Russian strategic aircraft attacked our peaceful cities today, where civilians were killed," air force spokesman Ilya Yevlash told RFE/RL.

"This is the first time that our air force together with our partners from the [military intelligence] and other defense forces were able to shoot down a Tu-22M3 strategic aviation aircraft. And for the first time, two Kh-22 missiles fired by this aircraft were also shot down. Of course, it's a combo. Today is a rainy day in the Russian propaganda media," Yevlash said.

Ukraine Says It Shot Down Russian Strategic Bomber
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Yevlash later added that a second Tu-22M3 was forced to turn around before it had time to launch its missiles, without providing details.

The Ukrainian claim could not be independently verified.

Russia's Defense Ministry said a Tu-22 had crashed in the southern region of Stavropol due to a technical malfunction while returning to base from a combat mission.

Stavropol regional chief Vladimir Vladimirov said one of the four members of the crew had died, while rescue services were searching for one that was missing. Two other members were found alive, Vladimirov said.

"Russia must be held accountable for its terror, and all missiles and 'Shahed' drones must be intercepted," Zelenskiy wrote on X.

"The world can ensure this, and our partners possess the necessary capabilities. This has been demonstrated in the skies over the Middle East, and it should also work in Europe," Zelenskiy said in an apparent reference to a massive Iranian drone attack on Israel last week that was virtually completely repelled in a joint effort by Israeli, U.S., French, British, and Jordanian air defenses.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Cyberpartisans Hack Belarusian Fertilizer Plant, Demand Release Of Political Prisoners

The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)
The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)

A group known as Cyberpartisans says it hacked into the computers and security systems of a major Belarusian state-run producer of nitrogen compounds and fertilizers and is demanding the release of workers who were arrested during protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

The group claimed that it took control of all internal e-mail accounts of the Hrodna Azot plant in the region of Homel as well as hundreds of computers, servers belonging to the facility, and the security system and security cameras in the plant’s buildings. In addition, the plant's heating center stopped functioning due to the cyberattack.

The hackers say they will undo their work in exchange for the release of all the workers of the facility incarcerated for participating in the 2020 protests against the official results of the presidential poll that named authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. The hackers also demand 75 other political prisoners with medical conditions be released.

Hrodna Azot's website has not been accessible since April 17.

An employee of the plant told RFE/RL on April 18 on condition of anonymity that "there was a big buzz at the plant” the day before.

"People have been discussing that. Everybody knows what happened and who did it. But I do not know to what extent the attack affected the work," the employee said.

Official representatives of Hrodna Azot refused to comment and hung up the phone when RFE/RL correspondents called to request comment.

Yulyana Shametavets of the Cyberpartisans group told RFE/RL on April 18 that the cyberattack had been prepared for several months.

"The attack was huge enough and may have affected not only documentation and networks but the production of outputs as well," Shametavets said, adding that the attack revealed the weakness of the electronic systems used by industrial facilities in Belarus.

An unspecified number of the facility's workers were arrested during and after the 2020 rallies and many were later handed lengthy prison terms.

In February 2023, a court in the Homel region sentenced 10 activists of the Rabochy rukh (Workers' Movement) consisting of workers of Hrodna Azot on charges of high treason and creation of an extremist group. The Rabochy rukh movement was created in 2020 amid nationwide protests against the disputed reelection of Lukashenka.

Alyaksandr Kapshul and Uladzimer Zhurauka were sentenced to 15 years in prison each then; Syarhey Shelest, Andrey Paheryla, and Alyaksandr Hashnikau to 14 years in prison each; Syarhey Dzyuba, Ihar Mints, Valyantsin Tseranevich, and Syarhey Shametska to 12 years in prison each; and Hanna Ablab, the only woman in the group, to 11 years in prison.

Kapshul was also convicted of illegal use of a firearm, while Shelest, Zhurauka, and Paheryla were additionally found guilty of slander.

All members of the group, which went on trial in November 2023, pleaded not guilty at the time.

The movement tried to organize strikes at Hrodna Azot and another factory, Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ), also located in the southeastern Homel region.

Investigators claim the activists collected sensitive information and passed it to representatives and organizations of foreign countries, including the United States and Lithuania.

Lukashenka, 69, has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Updated

Bosnian Serb Leader Tells Rally In Banja Luka Srebrenica Massacre 'Wasn't Genocide'

The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”
The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka on April 18 that the actions of the Republika Srpska Army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime" but again denied it was genocide.

"I want to express my special respect to all the victims and my condolences to their families. It was a crime," he said, addressing thousands of supporters. But he denied it was genocide.

More than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb troops in Srebrenica in July 1995. International courts have ruled it a genocide, and Bosnian Serb army officers and political leaders also have been convicted of genocide by UN judges.

Earlier on April 18, Dodik told the Republika Srpska parliament that genocide "did not happen," adding that "such a qualification must be dismissed." The parliament adopted a report stating that the massacre in Srebrenica did not constitute genocide.

The moves came as Serbia and the Republika Srpska campaign against a resolution under debate at the UN to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide. Dodik said the government of Republika Srpska will spend the whole day in Srebrenica when the resolution is discussed at the UN.

Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of the ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been designated for sanctions by the United States and Britain over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption.

He organized the rally to voice opposition to the resolution, which would declare July 11 as the International Day of the Remembrance of the Genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995.

The draft resolution, seen by RFE/RL, also calls for the condemnation of any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica and encourages UN members to establish educational programs to prevent future manifestations of revisionism and genocide.

The Serbian people, as well as collective responsibility, are not directly mentioned in this document, which was initiated by Germany and Rwanda. All 193 UN member countries are expected to have their say on the resolution at the UN General Assembly early next month.

Dodik already threatened last week that if the resolution is adopted, "Republika Srpska will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Government representatives from Serbia, including Ana Brnabic, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, and Nikola Selakovic, the acting minister for labor, employment, veterans and social affairs, also attended the rally in Banja Luka. Brnabic said Serbia was in favor of respecting the Dayton accords signed in 1995 bringing an end to the Bosnian War.

"Today in Serbia, there are people in power who will always be with Republika Srpska and with our people. We don't have to think the same, but we will always be together. The harder it gets, the closer we will be," she said.

People attending the rally carried the flags of Republika Srpska and Serbia. Some also held posters bearing the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A photo of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander who was also sentenced to life for his role in the genocide, was on one of the banners.

Hundreds of people who attended the rally were bused in from Serbia.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Sister Of Iranian Protest Victim Detained By Tehran's Morality Police

School students wearing the compulsory hijab
School students wearing the compulsory hijab

The sister of Nika Shakarmi, a victim of the Women, Life, Freedom movement protests, has been detained by Tehran's morality police for failing to adhere to the Iran's mandatory hijab law.

Aida Shakarmi, a university student, was arrested in the Iranian capital on April 17 and remains in custody, her father said on Instagram.

Nika Shakarmi, a 16-year-old from Khorramabad residing in Tehran, was killed by security forces during nationwide protests that broke out following the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police for an alleged hijab offense.

Nika Shakarmi was missing for eight days after being chased by security officers during a protest before her body was discovered. Authorities attributed her death to a fall from a height, a claim her family disputes.

The Shakarmi family has faced continuous threats and harassment from security forces since as they actively pursued justice for their daughter.

The report of Aida Shakarmi's detention comes amid a new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab law. Enforcement intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this law the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

4 Pakistani Customs Officials Killed After Gunmen Ambush Vehicle

Unidentified gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying officials from the customs department in northwestern Pakistan on April 18, killing four of them before fleeing the scene, police said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, local police official Nasir Khan said. The motive behind the attack wasn't immediately clear. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in violence mostly blamed on the Pakistani Taliban, who are known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Russian-American Fined For Supporting Navalny's Foundation

Ilya Startsev (file photo)
Ilya Startsev (file photo)

The Memorial human rights groups says that a court in Russia's western city of Oryol ordered Russian-American citizen Ilya Startsev to pay 400,000 rubles ($4,240) on a charge of financing an extremist group. The court on April 17 found Startsev guilty of sending 7,000 rubles ($74) to the late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Startsev, who was arrested in early September 2023, was immediately released from custody after the court announced its decision. The FBK and Navalny's other groups and organizations were labeled extremist in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Prosecutors Appeal Suspended Sentence For Ex-Memorial Chief

Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)
Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)

Prosecutors in the Russian city of Perm on April 18 appealed a local court decision to hand a three-year suspended prison term to Aleksandr Chernyshov, the ex-chief of the Center of Historic Memory, the successor entity of the Memorial human rights group. Prosecutors say Chernyshov should serve the sentence in prison instead of it being suspended. Chernyshov was found guilty of "attempting to smuggle cultural artifacts" in early April. He was arrested in May 2023 and accused of attempting to transfer Memorial's archives to Germany. The authorities ordered Memorial's archives to be transferred to Moscow after the group was liquidated in February 2022. To see the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Iran In Response To Attack On Israel

An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)
An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has announced new sanctions on Iran targeting its drone production capabilities after its attack on Israel, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement on April 18.

The sanctions designate 16 individuals and two entities enabling Iran’s drone production, including engine types that power Iran’s Shahed drones, which were used in the April 13 attack.

“These actors work on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), its UAV production arm, Kimia Part Sivan Company (KIPAS), and other Iranian manufacturers of UAVs and UAV engines,” the Treasury Department’s statement said.

The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is also designating five companies in multiple jurisdictions providing component materials for steel production to Iran’s Khuzestan Steel Company (KSC), one of Iran’s largest steel producers, or purchasing KSC’s finished steel products.

Also targeted were three subsidiaries of Iranian automaker Bahman Group, which OFAC said had materially supported Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In addition, the U.S. Commerce Department is imposing new controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies, such as basic commercial grade microelectronics.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States and its allies had helped Israel beat back the April 13 missile and drone strike and were now holding Iran accountable with the new sanctions and export controls.

“The sanctions target leaders and entities connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s Defense Ministry, and the Iranian government’s missile and drone program that enabled this brazen assault," Biden said in a statement. "And our allies and partners have or will issue additional sanctions and measures to restrict Iran’s destabilizing military programs."

He added that the Group of Seven (G7) leaders are committed to acting together to increase economic pressure on Tehran.

Finance ministers and central bank governors of the G7 industrial democracies on April 17 said they would "ensure close coordination of any future measure to diminish Iran's ability to acquire, produce, or transfer weapons to support destabilizing regional activities."

The Treasury Department’s statement noted that Britain is imposing sanctions targeting several Iranian military organizations, individuals, and entities involved in Iran’s drone and ballistic missile industries.

Britain said these sanctions included the General Staff of the Armed Forces and the IRGC Navy.

Tehran says it carried out the April 13 attack in retaliation for a presumed Israeli strike on April 1 on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus that killed two generals and several others.

With reporting by Reuters

EU Set To Provide Nonlethal Assistance To Armenia

A preliminary agreement has been reached in Brussels on providing nonlethal assistance to Armenia from the European Peace Facility (EPF), according to a diplomatic document obtained by RFE/RL.

The document, obtained on April 17 from diplomatic sources in Brussels, shows that the European Union plans to allocate 10 million euros ($10.6 million) to Armenia under the EPF as part of an assistance measure that will last 30 months from the date of the adoption of the decision.

According to the document, the assistance measure will finance setting up a mobile field camp for a battalion-size unit, including a medical treatment facility and other relevant services.

“The objective of the assistance measure is to contribute to strengthening the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia’s capabilities to enhance national security, stability, and resilience in the defense sector,” the document says.

The assistance also aims to allow Armenian forces to enhance operational effectiveness and accelerate compliance with EU standards and interoperability, thereby better protecting civilians in crises and emergencies, it adds.

The EPF was established in 2021 to provide funds for the purchase of nonlethal weapons or capabilities to promote peace, prevent conflict, and strengthen international security around the world. EU membership is not a prerequisite for applying to receive EPF funding.

Details about the EPF agreement come as Armenia turns away from Russia for security assistance. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in February spoke about “freezing” Armenia's membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led regional security grouping that Pashinian criticized for its “failure to respond to the security challenges” facing Armenia.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, Peter Stano, spokesman for the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that discussions on possible support to Armenia under the EPF were ongoing but said that security policy is a “strictly member state-controlled area where any decision needs to be agreed by unanimity of all the member states.”

The draft agreement seen by RFE/RL is expected to be submitted for final approval in the coming weeks.

Armenia first submitted an application for funding from the EPF in 2023, and it earned the backing of then-French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who said during a visit to Armenia last October that she had personally appealed to the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy on this issue.

Among other countries that have received assistance from the EPF in previous years are Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, all of which are seeking membership in the European Union. A number of African countries also have tapped into EPF funding.

With reporting by Heghine Buniatyan

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