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Russia In Milestone Oil Pipeline Supply To China

Russia has started delivering oil to China through a new pipeline.

The Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft announced that it had started sending oil through the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline.

Some 2,700 kilometers of the pipeline have been built.

When it is finished in 2013, the pipeline will stretch more than 4,000 kilometers, making it the world's longest.

At a cost of $25 billion, it dwarfs all other infrastructure projects in post-Soviet Russia.

Up till now, Russia has shipped oil to China by railroad.

compiled from Reuters reports

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G7 Announces Infrastructure Program To Counter China's Belt And Road Initiative

A working dinner during the first day of the G7 summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

The Group of Seven (G7) has formally launched a global infrastructure and investment partnership aimed at countering a Chinese program that has been embraced by many developing countries.

The G7 program seeks to raise $600 billion in investment to boost infrastructure development in lower- and middle-income nations, the White House said in a statement on June 26.

Unlike China's program, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the one proposed by the G7 would provide funding largely from private investors.

Western officials have argued that China’s BRI uses strong-arm tactics that trap countries in debt and employs investments that benefit China more than the countries participating in the program. Among the countries that have signed long-term BRI deals are Afghanistan, Iran, and Hungary.

The United States says the G7-backed effort, announced during a summit taking place in Germany, promotes responsible investments that aim to benefit the communities that receive the investment.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the G7 is offering “sustainable, quality infrastructure” and will be “listening closely to the recipient countries.”

The plan, a relaunch of a program unveiled during last year's G7 summit, will target countries desperately needing everything from roads to harbors that until now often relied on China’s BRI.

Among the first initiatives are a $2 billion solar farm investment in Angola, a $320 million investment for hospital construction in Ivory Coast, and a $40 million investment to promote regional energy trade in Southeast Asia.

The $600 billion investment target is only aspirational, but a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters denied that China has a real advantage.

"There's no doubt that the Belt and Road Initiative has been around for several years and it's made a lot of cash disbursements and investments -- and that we're coming to this after years of their investments," the official said. "But I would argue that it is definitely not too late. And I'm not even sure that it is late."

The official also said that many countries that have partnered with China come to regret it and conclude that Beijing is more interested in establishing economic and geostrategic footholds than helping them develop.

The G7 program, on the other hand, will offer to make investments that "have lasting effects” on the countries’ economies and population, the official said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa
Updated

Iran Reports Test Of Satellite Launcher As Diplomats Announce Restart Of Nuclear Talks

Video footage released on June 26 by Iran state TV shows an Iranian satellite-carrier rocket, called Zuljanah, blasting off from an undisclosed location in Iran.

Iran says it has tested its Zuljanah satellite launcher for a second time ahead of the expected start of talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

State-run media on June 26 broadcast footage of the rocket blasting off, and Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for Iran's Defense Ministry, said the 25.5-meter-long rocket was capable of carrying a satellite that would ultimately gather data in low-Earth orbit and promote Iran's space industry.

"The second launch of the Zuljanah satellite carrier has taken place in order to achieve the predetermined research objectives," said Hosseini, according to state news agency IRNA.

It was not clear when or where the rocket was launched. Earlier this month, Hosseini said the ministry planned three test launches, including one that had already been carried out.

The White House said it was aware of Iran’s announcement and criticized the move as “unhelpful and destabilizing.”

The launch comes a day after European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Borrell announced on June 25 that talks over the nuclear deal would resume in the coming days in a Persian Gulf country.

Borrell did not name the country, but RFE/RL reported on June 26 that the Secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council had reported that "given Qatar's continued efforts to resume talks on lifting sanctions, Doha has a chance to host future talks."

Iranian media also reported that Qatar would likely host the negotiations.

Tehran has long asserted that its satellite program is aimed at scientific research and civilian goals and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal. But Western critics are skeptical of the claims because some of the same technology used in satellite launches can be used in the development of long-range missiles.

A previous test of the Zuljanah took place in February 2021. At the time, Iran said the new satellite-carrying rocket could reach an altitude of 500 kilometers.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on June 25 repeated his hopes that Tehran could successfully negotiate in EU-brokered talks an end to international sanctions, including through restoration of the nuclear pact with world powers.

During his visit to Tehran, Borrell met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who described the meeting as "long, but positive," but said Iran was prepared to resume talks with world powers in the coming days.

"What is important for Iran is to fully receive the economic benefits of the 2015 accord," he said.

Under the deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart when the U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government, which denies that its nuclear program seeks to build a bomb, backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement but the talks in Vienna abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Reuters, AP, and AFP

Lithuania's President Vows To Stick To Kaliningrad Restrictions

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda: "It is absolutely clear that Lithuania must implement and will implement EU sanctions." (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has stressed that his Baltic country "must" and "will" enforce EU sanctions on Russian goods amid harsh rhetoric from Moscow over Vilnius's recent restrictions affecting the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

He called for an "urgent" start to consultations with the European Commission to protect Lithuania's interests and international obligations in the shadow of sanctions against Ukraine's "aggressor."

Russia this week summoned an EU envoy to "strongly" protest and threaten unspecified "retaliation" over the overland curbs on shipments to its sliver of land between Poland and Lithuania.

"It is absolutely clear that Lithuania must implement and will implement EU sanctions," Nauseda, whose country was reoccupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II and regained independence in 1990, said via Facebook.

"Lithuania must maintain and will maintain control of goods transported through its territory and there can be no talk of any 'corridors' as well as any thoughts of degrading Russia in response to Kremlin's threats," he said.

Vilnius shut the route for transport of steel and other ferrous metals, which it says it is required to do under EU sanctions that took effect on June 18. The EU imposed the punitive measures on Russia after it launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Kaliningrad's Moscow-backed leadership has said more than half of the exclave's imports are affected by the Lithuanian blockage, which is most acutely felt on rail routes.

Lithuanian officials have rejected Moscow's language of a blockade, as Kaliningrad is Russia's only ice-free port year-round and goods can be shipped there by sea.

"The government must urgently begin consultations with the European Commission so that the implementation of sanctions do not harm Lithuanian interests or international agreements," Nauseda said. "Only by acting together will we achieve that sanctions are painful for the aggressor country."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on June 21 that EU Ambassador to Moscow Markus Ederer was informed of the "inadmissibility of such actions" and warned "retaliation will follow" if the restrictions aren't removed immediately.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said it was "ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties" from Russia, which she accused of violating "possibly every single international treaty."

Updated

Biden Calls Missile Strike On Kyiv 'Disgusting Barbarism' As G7 Summit Gets Under Way In Germany

G7 leaders pose for a family photo during the summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

U.S. President Joe Biden called a Russian missile attack on Kyiv ahead of the start of a Group of Seven (G7) summit "disgusting barbarism" as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude for the assistance provided thus far, but said more is needed.

The missile attack hit at least two residential buildings in Kyiv, killing one person and injuring six others, including a 7-year-old girl and her mother, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

The strikes on June 26 -- the first to target the Ukrainian capital in three weeks -- also damaged a nearby kindergarten. Another missile strike hit the city of Cherkasy, southeast of Kyiv, that until now had not come under attack.

“It’s more of their barbarism," Biden said, speaking alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other leaders attending the summit at Schloss Elmau in the German Alps.

Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said the Russians launched the missiles from warplanes over the Caspian Sea more than 1,500 kilometers away.

Russia dismissed reports that its missiles struck a residential area, saying the air strikes hit a weapons factory.

Biden, speaking earlier at the summit, emphasized Western unity.

“We have to stay together, because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been counting on, from the beginning, that somehow NATO and the G7 would splinter, but we haven’t and we’re not going to,” Biden told Scholz during a bilateral meeting.

“We can’t let this aggression take the form it has and get away with it," he added.

Other leaders echoed Biden’s praise of coalition unity.

The G7 leaders were set to announce the latest in a long series of international economic steps to pressure and isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.

Even before the G7 summit got under way, U.S. and U.K. officials announced that member countries would be imposing a ban on purchases of Russian gold in another blow aimed at elite Russians' wealth.

The missile strikes on Kyiv and on Cherkasy highlighted Ukrainian officials' pleas for more assistance to beat back the 4-month-old Russian invasion.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba shared an image of a 7-year-old girl being rescued from the rubble of her Kyiv apartment building hours before and called for "more sanctions on Russia and more heavy arms for Ukraine" from the G7.

Zelenskiy said late on June 26 that he had a call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and he thanked him for the assistance and "comprehensive support" to counter Russian aggression.

He said on Twitter that he and Trudeau "coordinated positions on the eve of important international events" and "discussed further increase in defense support for Ukraine."

The gathering of the leaders from the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan is the first of two key summits in the upcoming week amid growing global emergencies, with Putin's war in Ukraine and related food and fuel crises high on the list.

After the G7 meeting, NATO leaders will gather for a summit in Madrid on June 28-30.

Zelenskiy is scheduled to speak virtually to the two summits and ask for more arms and air-defense systems.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the G7 and NATO “will continue to do collectively everything we can to make sure that the Ukrainians have what they need in their hands to repel the Russian aggression.’’

Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion are having “a profound impact,” he added in an interview with CNN at the G7 summit.

“Even as [Russia] gets oil revenues with higher prices, it’s unable to spend them because of the export controls,” he said. Russia “can’t acquire what it needs to modernize its defense sector, to modernize its technology, to modernize its energy exploration, which means that over time each of these areas is going to go in decline.”

With reporting by AFP, AP, CNN, and dpa

G7 To Ban Russian Gold In A 'Strike At The Heart' Of Putin's War Effort

Wealthy Russians have been purchasing gold bullion recently to ease the sting of international financial punishments.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized democracies gathering for a two-day summit in the German Alps on June 26 will announce a ban on new imports of Russian gold to boost sanctions, according to British and U.S. officials.

Wealthy Russians have been purchasing gold bullion recently to ease the sting of international financial punishments put in place since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, the British government said in a statement.

"The measures we have announced today will directly hit Russian oligarchs and strike at the heart of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's war machine," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in the statement.

London said Russian gold exports totaled more than $15 billion last year.

The ban should be announced on June 27, will come into force quickly, and will apply to newly mined or refined gold, officials said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said via Twitter that the gold ban represents further "unprecedented costs on Putin to deny him the revenue he needs to fund his war against Ukraine."

Biden called gold a "major export that rakes in tens of billions of dollars for Russia."

The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

G7 leaders will meet beginning on June 26 at a castle in Germany's Alps, with a NATO summit to follow on June 29 in Madrid.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Russia Shows Shoigu Awarding Troops For Ukraine Fighting

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awards a soldier during an inspection of Russian troops reportedly engaged in the Ukraine invasion at an unknown location and date.

Russia's Defense Ministry released a video on June 26 that showed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu among troops and said he had inspected Russian forces involved in the fighting in Ukraine, but it was unclear when or where the video was made.

Shoigu was shown in military fatigues getting off a plane and speaking with military officials.

"At the command posts of Russian units, Army General Sergei Shoigu heard reports from the commanders on the current situation and actions of the Russian Armed Forces in the main operational areas," the ministry said.

There was no indication of Shoigu's specific location.

The ministry said Shoigu had awarded soldiers with medals for their actions in a full-scale invasion that Russia officially calls a "special military operation" following years of support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Shoigu's effectiveness was questioned early in the 4-month-old invasion amid Russian setbacks, retreats, and evidence of conscripts sent into the fighting, despite denials from Moscow.

Based on reporting by dpa and Reuters
Updated

Deadly Strikes On Kyiv, Cherkasy Residents Prompt Fresh Ukrainian Pleas For G7 Help

Rescuers work at a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike in Kyiv on June 26.

KYIV -- Russian missile attacks on the Ukrainian capital and the central city of Cherkasy on June 26 killed at least two people and injured 11 others, including a 7-year-old girl pulled from the rubble, with more blasts reported later, in the first major strikes against either city in weeks.

Ukrainian officials who have pledged to retake lost cities responded with a fresh plea for more weapons to fight the Russian invasion as G7 leaders opened a two-day summit at which they are expected to announce further punishing sanctions on Russia.

The bombardments against Kyiv and Cherkasy came as Ukraine's defense forces battled to regroup after the loss of a strategic town to Russian forces on the front lines hundreds of kilometers to the southeast, where some of the most intense fighting is raging four months into Russia's full-scale invasion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko went to the scene in one of that city's historic northern neighborhoods, known as the Shevchenko district, after at least two buildings were affected by the early morning explosions blamed on up to four Russian missiles.

Klitschko said one person was killed and six were injured, including the 7-year-old, who was in stable condition after surgery. The condition of her mother, who was also hospitalized, was much more serious, Klitschko said on Telegram.

Russia said its strike on Kyiv had hit a weapons factory, dismissing as "fake" reports that it had struck a residential area. The Artyom factory "was the target, as military infrastructure," the Russian Defense Ministry said. It claimed in a statement that damage to a nearby residential building had been caused by a Ukrainian air- defense missile.

Klitschko called the attacks on Kyiv an attempt by Russia to "intimidate Ukrainians" ahead of a NATO summit slated for Madrid on June 28-30.

Others suggested they and other bombardments -- including near Ukraine's border with Poland -- might also be an effort to send a message to G7 leaders gathering near Munich to discuss pro-Ukraine measures on June 26.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to the fresh Kyiv attacks with an image of the 7-year-old being lifted from the apartment building rubble and urging "more sanctions on Russia and more heavy arms for Ukraine" from the G7.

Also on June 26, current and former officials in central Ukraine said explosions had rung out in the city of Cherkasy, which had so far avoided being targeted by Russia's worst attacks on Ukrainian cities.

Later, Cherkasy Regional State Administration Chairman Ihor Taburets blamed two Russian missiles for the blasts and said one person had been killed and five more injured.

"Today, the enemy launched missile attacks on the Cherkasy region," Taburets said via Telegram. "There are 2 strikes near the regional center. One dead and five wounded. Infrastructure damaged."

Ukrainian Firefighters Rescue Residents, Clear Rubble As Russian Missiles Hit Housing Area
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Cherkasy has not been targeted previously by major attacks by Russian forces.

Farther to the southeast, Ukrainian forces said a day earlier that they had made a "tactical withdrawal" from the city of Syevyerodonetsk in a blow that could shape the fighting in the east.

But President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed in his nighttime video address that Ukraine would eventually retake the cities it has lost since Russia's all-out invasion began on February 24.

Zelenskiy said the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II had taken a heavy toll on Ukrainians and their defenders but spoke of eventually winning the war.

"We don't have a sense of how long it will last, how many more blows, losses, and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy is due to remotely address the G7 on June 27 to urge further international support for Ukraine's defense.

On June 25, Ukraine's military said defense forces had withdrawn from Syevyerodonetsk after weeks of intense battles to fight from higher ground in nearby Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.

Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said his forces were carrying out a "tactical regrouping" by pulling its forces out of Syevyerodonetsk.

Syevyerodonetsk, a city in the Luhansk district of around 100,000 residents before the war, has been devastated as Russian forces sought to concentrate gains in the two eastern districts known collectively as the Donbas.

Russia-backed separatists have controlled swaths of that region since Russia annexed Crimea and helped kick off the eastern Ukrainian fighting in 2014.

Meanwhile, fears mounted of a widening war since Ukrainian officials reported "massive bombardment" from rockets "fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air" and Moscow said it would provide Belarus with an advanced missile system.

In Belarus, strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has increased since a crackdown over protests that began when he claimed a sixth presidential term in flawed elections two years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in St. Petersburg on June 25.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in St. Petersburg on June 25.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with Lukashenka on June 25 that Moscow plans within months to supply Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, a nuclear-capable, mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.

"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said of the missiles launched from Russian warplanes over Belarusian territory.

Lukashenka allowed thousands of Russian troops to stage attacks on Ukraine from the earliest stage of the invasion.

A representative of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, Vadym Skibitskiy, told RBC-Ukraine on June 25 that Belarus is maintaining 4,000-6,000 of its own troops near the Ukrainian border.

He estimated that Russia has around 1,500 of its troops in Belarus to help with air, special forces, and missile components of the invasion.

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

Ukraine Says It Uncovered Russian Spy Network Involving U.S.-Sanctioned Lawmaker

Andriy Derkach (file photo)

Ukrainian authorities said they have uncovered a Russian spy network involving Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, who has previously been accused by Washington of being a Russian agent.

The State Security Service (SBU) on June 24 alleged that Derkach set up a network of private security firms to help facilitate the entry of Russian units into cities during Moscow's February 24 invasion.

Derkach could not immediately be reached for comment, but he has previously denied wrongdoing, claiming he was being targeted for exposing corruption. His whereabouts are unknown.

The SBU cited testimony from Derkach's parliamentary aide, Ihor Kolykhayev. It said Kolykhayev had been arrested at the beginning of the war, accused of being a go-between between Derkach and Russian military intelligence.

Derkach was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2020 for what it said were attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

The Treasury Department alleged at the time that Derkach -- a member of the Ukrainian parliament who studied at the KGB school in Moscow -- had been "an active Russian agent for over a decade."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Reuters

Putin Says Russia To Supply Belarus With Iskander-M Missile Systems

The Iskander-M is a mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.

Russia will supply ally Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised meeting with Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Putin said in the June 25 remarks that delivery of the weapons systems would take place within a few months.

The Iskander-M is a mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.

Putin and Lukashenka are meeting in St. Petersburg to mark 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The talks come as Ukraine said it had come under "massive bombardment" from rockets "fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air" targeting the village of Desna in the northern Chernihiv region.

The Ukrainian military said infrastructure was hit but that no casualties had yet been reported.

"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said.

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia's invasion that began on February 24, with some Russian forces entering Ukraine across the Belarus border.

Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin war on Ukraine and for Belarus’s efforts to aid the Russian invasion.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Earthquake Measuring 5.6 Strikes Iran's Hormozgan Province

At least one person was killed in the earthquake.

An earthquake of 5.6-magnitude struck the Langeh area of Iran’s southern Hormozgan Province early on June 25, killing at least one person and injuring dozens of others.

The quake was centered 22 kilometers northeast of Kish Island in Hormozgan Province, according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. Kish Island is located in the Persian Gulf, about 1,025 kilometers south of Tehran.

Several earthquakes have shaken parts of Hormozgan Province over the past two weeks ago. Previously, the largest was of 5.2-magnitude near Maqam Harbor.

Iran, which sits on major fault lines, is the 10th most earthquake-prone country in the world.

Many aid organizations, officials, and experts have warned that there is insufficient preparedness to manage a crisis in the event of major earthquakes in the country.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, AP, and Reuters

Russia Removes Polish Flag From Katyn WWII Memorial Amid Tensions Over Ukraine Invasion

Russia has removed the Polish flag from a memorial in the Katyn Forest.

Russian authorities have removed a Polish flag from a memorial in the Katyn Forest marking the area where the mass killings of Polish officers by Soviet forces took place in April-May 1940.

Local officials on June 25 confirmed that the flag had been removed amid tensions between Russia and Poland, which has vocally backed Kyiv and provided assistance following the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Andrei Borisov, the mayor of Smolensk, said on social media the decision was made by the Ministry of Culture.

“I will express my general opinion: There can be no Polish flags on Russian memorials! And after the frank anti-Russian statements of Polish politicians, even more so,” he posted on the social media platform VKontakte, along with a photo.

"The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation made the right decision by removing the Polish flag. Katyn is a Russian memorial," he added.

After the Nazis triggered World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939, the Soviets occupied the eastern part of the country, eventually massacring more than 20,000 Polish officers that they had taken prisoner at Katyn.

The Soviet Union originally blamed the Nazis for the killings, but in 1990 ended decades of denials and admitted the truth.

Based on reporting by AFP and The Telegraph

Iraqi PM Traveling To Iran, Saudi Arabia In Bid To Revive Talks Between Bitter Rivals

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (file photo)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is traveling to Saudi Arabia and Iran in an effort to broker new talks between the two bitter rivals, officials said.

Kadhimi is scheduled to first visit Riyadh for meetings on June 25, then move on to the Iranian capital, Tehran, the following day.

Kadhimi “will visit the Islamic republic and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia back-to-back, within days,” the Iraqi News Agency quoted sources as saying.

The Iraqi prime minister is seeking to revive Baghdad-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told AP.

A previous round of talks held in Baghdad in April were suspended amid raised tensions in the region.

Shi’ite-majority Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia have long been rivals competing for influence in the Middle East.

The Saudis broke ties with Iran in 2016 after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia.

A bloody war in Yemen is considered by many to be a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran. The conflict has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, while Iran-aligned Huthi rebels have fired missiles toward Saudi airports and oil facilities.

When he took office in May 2020, Kadhimi said Iraq was seeking to have balanced relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Based on reporting by AP and The National
Updated

Tens Of Thousands Rally As Warsaw Hosts Ukraine's Largest Pride Parade

Tens of thousands took part in the joint equality march in Warsaw on June 25.

Tens of thousands of people joined in Ukraine's largest LGBTQ rights parade, held in the Polish capital, Warsaw, after organizers determined they could not hold the event in Kyiv due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

KyivPride, which would have been staging the 10th Equality March in Ukraine, instead merged this year with gay-pride events in Warsaw on June 25.

“We are marching for political support for Ukraine, and we’re marching for basic human rights for Ukrainian people,” KyivPride director Lenny Emson was quoted as saying on June 25. “It is not a celebration. We will wait for victory to celebrate.”

Emson said the introduction of martial law in the Ukrainian capital following the Russian invasion prevents large gatherings such as KyivPride.

“We are marching for political support for Ukraine, and we’re marching for basic human rights for Ukrainian people,” KyivPride director Lenny Emson said.
“We are marching for political support for Ukraine, and we’re marching for basic human rights for Ukrainian people,” KyivPride director Lenny Emson said.

Organizers have said they expect about 80,000 participants at the Warsaw event, and KyivPride in May called on "people around the world to join the march in Warsaw and stand with us against aggression, for freedom and peace."

Emson said that the defeat of Ukraine by Russia, where LGBTQ people have no legal protection from discrimination or hate crimes, would be a tragedy for the Ukrainian people as a whole, but that LGBTQ people would risk being “erased completely."

KyivPride has called on people to realize that Ukraine's geographical borders with Belarus and Russia are "not just a separation line between the states, but also a boundary between the territory of freedom and a zone of oppression.”

With reporting by AP and dpa
Updated

Talks On Reviving Stalled Iranian Nuclear Deal To Resume

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (right) and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borell in Tehran on June 25.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said that negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal will resume shortly.

"We expect to resume talks in the coming days and break the impasse," Borrell said during a joint news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. "It has been three months and we need to accelerate the work."

Describing his meeting with Borrell as "long, but positive," Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran was prepared to resume talks with world powers in the coming days.

"What is important for Iran is to fully receive the economic benefits of the 2015 accord," he said.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart when the U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government, which denies that its nuclear program seeks to build a bomb, backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks in Vienna abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

In early June, Tehran said it had started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites across the country, further reducing the West's ability to monitor Iran's nuclear program.

The EU's nuclear talks envoy, Enrique Mora, posted a photo late on June 23 of a dinner he was attending in Brussels with Borrell and Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy to the talks.

Mora said Malley reiterated Washington's "firm commitment to come back to the deal."

Updated

Ukraine Vows To Regroup, Fight On After Fall Of Syevyerodonetsk

Ukrainian soldiers in an industrial area of the city of Syevyerodonetsk on June 20.

Ukrainian forces vowed to regroup and fight from "higher ground" after the military acknowledged the fall to Russian forces of the key eastern city of Syevyerodonetsk following a long, brutal battle.

Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, told Reuters late on June 25 that the country’s forces would continue their eastern defense from embattled Lysychansk after the loss of Syevyerodonetsk, located just across the Siverskiy Donets River.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The activities happening in the area of Syevyerodonetsk are a tactical regrouping of our troops. This is a withdrawal to advantageous positions to obtain a tactical advantage," Budanov said.

"Russia is using the tactic...it used in Mariupol: wiping the city from the face of the Earth. Given the conditions, holding the defense in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. So the Ukrainian forces are leaving for higher ground to continue the defense operations," he said.

In a late-night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed that his forces would win back all the cities that had been lost to Russia, including Syevyerodonetsk.

The capture of Syevyerodonetsk, although now mainly a city of rubble, represents the biggest gain by Russian troops since they took the southern port of Mariupol, a city also left mainly in ruins after a bloody, protracted battle.

Syevyerodonetsk’s mayor said earlier in the day that the city was under full Russian control and that all exit routes to Ukrainian-held territory were blocked, leaving escape possible only through Russian-occupied areas.

"The city is now under the full occupation of Russia," Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television.

"They are trying to establish their own order. As far as I know, they have appointed some kind of commandant," he said, adding that it was "impossible" to leave the city to Ukrainian-held territory, stranding some 10,000 civilians.

Russia's Defense Ministry said that "as a result of successful offensive operations," Russian forces had established full control over Syevyerodonetsk and nearby towns and villages.

Russia continued to target areas across Ukraine with artillery and missile strikes, hitting military facilities in the west and north and continuing to pound key battleground cities in the eastern Donbas region.

Russia's revised military focus on Ukraine's east has brought Moscow closer to reaching its objective of capturing the Donbas, which is composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Parts of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been under the control of pro-Russia separatists since 2014, when Russia also invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The focus there was prompted by Moscow's failure to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first phase of the war following its February invasion.

The continued bombing of targets far from the front lines have led to accusations that Russia is trying to sow fear among civilians and draw neighboring Belarus into the conflict.

"48 cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak wrote on Twitter on June 25. "Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people afraid."

In the west, officials in Lviv said Russian forces launched six missiles from the Black Sea and that four struck a military facility close to the Polish border.

Ukraine's northern military command wrote on Facebook on June 25 that 20 rockets that struck the Chernihiv town of Desna were fired from the air and from Belarusian territory, prompting Ukraine's intelligence service to accuse Russia of trying to drag Minsk into the war.

"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the intelligence service said on Telegram.

Belarus has provided support for Russia's war effort in Ukraine but officially remains a nonbelligerent.

WATCH: Despite there being an exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant since the catastrophic 1986 disaster, people live in the area. On the first day of the war they found themselves facing a new danger, as Russian tanks rolled through their villages -- and opened fire.

Near Chernobyl, Residents Recall Brutality Of Russian Invasion
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In a meeting in St. Petersburg with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin would supply ally Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, a mobile guided-missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers.

Putin also said Moscow would help Minsk upgrade its air forces in view of what Lukashenka called the "aggressive," "confrontational," and "repulsive" policies of neighboring Lithuania and Poland.

Hirske, a key district about 35 kilometers south of Lysychansk, was "fully occupied" by Russian forces on June 24, while officials reported the same day that Russian troops had taken control of Mykolaivka, situated near a highway to Lysychansk.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on June 25 that Ukrainian troops had repelled attacks near Bakhmut, which lies in the Donetsk region along an important supply route to Lysychansk.

Kyiv has received billions of dollars in aid from its Western partners since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion. On June 23, the United States announced $450 million in additional military aid for Kyiv, including four more HIMARS long-range multiple-rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats.

Ukraine's leadership has expressed gratitude for the contributions -- and on June 25 the military said U.S. HIMARS were already being used effectively -- but they say much more is needed.

Fierce fighting has stretched both sides' personnel and equipment resources to the limit, with Kyiv repeatedly pleading with the West for more heavy weapons and Russia facing increasing difficulties in bringing qualified personnel to the front line.

Ukraine spy chief Budanov said the country’s “strategy is very simple. Stabilize the situation. Receive the required amount of equipment and prepare the required amount of forces and means to start the counteroffensive to return all our territory."

Budanov said Russia had committed 330,000 soldiers and noncombat personnel to its operations in Ukraine -- one-third of its total armed forces..

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an outspoken backer of Ukraine in its war with Russia, said he feared Kyiv could face pressure to agree to a “bad peace” deal with Moscow, a move that would lead to a long-term global “disaster.”

“Too many countries are saying this is a European war that is unnecessary ... and so the pressure will grow to encourage -- coerce, maybe -- the Ukrainians to a bad peace," Johnson told reporters during a visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to attend a Commonwealth summit.

That would “be a disaster” and would “be a trigger for further escalation by Putin whenever he wanted,” Johnson said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, and CNN

Popular Russian Food Blogger's Property Seized Over Anti-War Posts

Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.

MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has impounded the property of a popular food blogger and magazine founder who is wanted in Russia over her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Basmanny district court ruled on June 24 to impound Veronika Belotserkovskaya's apartment and parking site, as well as an unspecified number of houses, an apartment, and land in the city of St. Petersburg.

The court said the seizures were necessary to ensure compensation for any possible fines she will be ordered to pay if convicted in a case launched against her on charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces.

Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.

Last month, Russian authorities added her to the wanted list and issued an arrest warrant for her.

In March, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian military on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.

She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."

Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine a "special military operation" and not a war or an invasion.

Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.

Tens Of Thousands Resume Pro-EU, Anti-Government Rallies In Georgian Capital

Georgians rally in support of European integration in Tbilisi on June 24.

TBILISI -- Tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets again to rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi in favor of European Union membership and against the current government.

The rally on June 24 comes a day after EU leaders deferred Tbilisi's candidacy, recognizing it as a "perspective member" but insisting that candidate status could only be granted as soon as "set priorities are met" and widespread reforms are put in place.

While deferring on Georgia, the EU at the same time formally agreed to take the "historic" step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow's bitter denunciations of the two countries' intentions.

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building waving Georgian and EU flags and blocking traffic on the central Rustaveli Avenue.

There was no immediate estimate of the size of the crowd, but AFP on June 21 estimated 120,000 people had participated in a similar rally organized by the Shame civil rights group.

At that demonstration, Shota Digmelashvili of the Shame movement read out a manifesto and announced the launch of a new popular movement that will include opposition parties, civil society organizations, journalists, and labor unions to make demands on the government.

The manifesto asserted that the country's "main obstacle on its European path is Bidzina Ivanishvili," the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely believed to be the top decision-maker in the South Caucasus country even though he does not hold office.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy. Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.

The EU's stated conditions for granting Georgia candidate status include the end of political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and what was called "de-oligarchization."

The Georgian Dream party said on June 17 that it "regretted" that the country was not recommended for EU candidate status together with Ukraine and Moldova.

The party in a statement on June 24 defended its record and accused the opposition of having "plans to overthrow the authorities by organizing anti-government rallies."

With reporting by AFP

Former Daghestan PM's Son Gets 13 Years In Prison For Killing Girlfriend

A Moscow court has sentenced Murtuzali Medzhidov, a son of the former prime minister of Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan, to 13 years in prison for the killing of 21-year-old Tomiris Baisafa, his Kazakh girlfriend.

The Izmailovo district court sentenced Medzhidov on June 24 after a jury found him guilty in the high-profile case.

Baisafa's death in the Russian capital in April 2018 sparked a public outcry in Kazakhstan, with ombudswoman Elvira Azimova asking Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova to take the case under her personal supervision.

Medzhidov, also a student, was arrested after a witness said he beat the girl and forced her out of a fourth-floor window in a building at the Moscow State University of International Relations.

However, in June 2021, Medzhidov was acquitted, sparking another wave of anger in Kazakhstan.

In late October, Medzhidov’s lawyer, Shamil Yandarbayev, said his client's acquittal had been annulled and that he would be retried.

Murtuzali Medzhidov's father, Mukhtar Medzhidov, led Daghestan's government from January to July 2013. Before that, he served as deputy prime minister and a lawmaker.

Based on reporting by KazTAG, Kazinform, and TASS

Iranian Teens Arrested For 'Violating Religious Norms' At Skateboarding Gathering

In recent years, Iranian adolescents have repeatedly challenged the regime's efforts to control various aspects of social life.

A viral video of male and female teenagers at a skateboarding day in the southern city of Shiraz has angered Iranian officials, who have arrested 10 participants for their role in the event.

The video, which was posted on social media on June 23, shows several teenagers of both sexes mixing freely on a boulevard in Shiraz to mark "Go Skateboarding Day."

The hijab became compulsory in Iran in public for females over the age of 9 following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

Many have publicly criticized the restrictions and a large number of the females in the video were not wearing headscarves.

The Mehr news agency reported, quoting Shiraz Governor Lotfollah Sheibani, that "so far 10 people who organized the event have been arrested."

"The main organizer of the event has also been identified and action has been taken to arrest him based on judicial authorities," Sheibani said.

"The actions of the teenagers in this gathering are a violation of religious norms, and we strongly condemn these actions and deal with them judicially" he added.

In recent years, Iranian adolescents have repeatedly challenged the regime's efforts to control various aspects of social life.

Iranian media reported last weekend that police had arrested 120 people for alleged "criminal acts," including drinking alcohol, mixed-sex dancing, and not wearing a hijab at a party in a forest in the country's north.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

UN Chief Warns Of Global Food 'Catastrophe' Amid Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Other Crises

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (file photo)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the world faces a "catastrophe" because of the global food shortage, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine only adding to an already difficult situation.

"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022," Guterres said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries meeting in Berlin on June 24.

"And 2023 could be even worse," added Guterres, who called mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.

Guterres told the gathering that "the war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years: climate disruption; the COVID-19 pandemic; the deeply unequal recovery."

He said it was crucial that Ukraine and Russia -- which together produce about 29 percent of global wheat exports -- find a way to resume normal trade.

Shipments from Ukrainian ports have been halted following Russia's unprovoked invasion of that country.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hosted the Berlin gathering, called "completely untenable" Russia's assertions that Western sanctions imposed over the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "the sanctions that we've imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers."

Guterres said UN negotiators were in talks with Russia to seek a deal to restore the flow of products to world markets.

He also said higher fertilizer and energy prices were hitting farmers in Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere, making it difficult for them to bring food products to market.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Urges Glastonbury Festival Audience To Help End War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks via video at the Glastonbury Festival in Worthy Farm, Somerset, England, on June 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has put in an appearance at the Glastonbury music festival, urging the crowd to step up pressure on politicians to try to end Russia's war against Ukraine.

Addressing festival goers in a recorded video message in English on June 24, Zelenskiy called Glastonbury "the greatest concentration of freedom" in the world.

“Greetings, Glastonbury. The festival resumes this year after a two-year break, the pandemic has put on hold lives of the millions of people around the world, but has not broken," he said to cheers.

"We in Ukraine would also like to live life as we used to and enjoy freedom and this wonderful summer," said Zelenskiy, wearing his now-trademark military green T-shirt, before adding, "Russia has stolen our peace."
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He urged the crowds to "spread the truth about Russia's war" and help Ukrainian refugees.

"Put pressure on all the politicians you know to help restore peace in Ukraine. Time is priceless and every day is measured in human lives," he added.

Zelenskiy has made a series of video-link appearances around the world, including an address to the British Parliament, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Congress.

Based on reporting by dpa and The Guardian

Dozens Rally In Kygyzstan Against President's Move To Reopen Casinos

Protesters rally against legalizing casinos in Osh on May 30.

BISHKEK -- Dozens of people have gathered in Kyrgyzstan to protest against a move initiated by President Sadyr Japarov to reopen casinos that were banned a decade ago.

The protesters gathered in Bishkek's Gorky Park on June 24 to urge Japarov to veto a bill allowing casinos across the country for foreigners of at least 21 years of age only after it was approved by lawmakers two days earlier.

"We intend to turn to the Constitutional Court and demand it finds the bill against the constitution," Akjoltoi Tukunov, one of the protesters, said during the rally.

The protesters said the bill was approved without proper public discussion and therefore should be withdrawn.

They also raised concerns that even though casinos will be open to foreigners only, Kyrgyz citizens will end up being clients as well.

A similar protest was held in the country's second-largest city, Osh.

Lawmakers approved the bill on June 22 after voting was disrupted four times due to the refusal of many lawmakers to take part in the proceedings.

Casinos were officially banned in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. Since then, police have uncovered numerous underground casinos in Bishkek, Osh, and other towns and cities.

In April 2021, Japarov initiated the idea to legalize casinos to help tackle the economic hardships the Central Asian country has faced for decades.

Belarusian Blogger Handed Parole-Like Sentence

Mark Bernshteyn

MINSK -- A well-known Belarusian blogger and Wikipedia author, Mark Bernshteyn, has been handed a parole-like sentence after being found guilty of organizing and preparing activities that disrupt social order, a charge he has rejected.

A family member said on June 24 that they had been informed that a court in Minsk had sentenced Bernshteyn to three years of restricted freedom as the government continues to crack down following mass protests sparked by a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Bernshteyn, who went on trial the day before, was arrested on March 11. He was initially sentenced to 15 days in jail on charge of "disobeying law enforcement."

Instead of releasing him after serving the term, officials kept Bernshteyn, listed among the 50 best authors of Wikipedia's Russian segment, in detention and charged him again.

It remains unclear what exactly Bernshteyn did to warrant the second charges.

State-controlled media has said that the charge he faced stemmed from an entry he wrote on Wikipedia about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, adding later that investigators had found data on his mobile phone that led to the new charge.

Lukashenka, 67 and in power since 1994, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people.

Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee 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.

With reporting by Mediazona

Popular Punk-Rave Group Leaves Russia Over War In Ukraine

Little Big was scheduled to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.

The popular Russian punk-rave band Little Big says it has decided to leave the country over Moscow's ongoing, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The group issued an anti-war video clip called Generation Cancellation on June 24 to announce that it had rebased in Los Angeles, California.

"We condemn actions of the Russian government, and Russia's military propaganda is so disgusting for us that we decided to leave everything behind and flee the country," the group's leader, Ilya Prusikin, known under the nickname Ilyich, said in a statement.

The members of the group added in the statement that they "adore their country, but absolutely oppose the war in Ukraine."

Little Big was established in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, in 2013. The band was scheduled to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.

However, because of the coronavirus pandemic the contest was cancelled. The group didn't take part in Eurovision in 2021, saying another artist should be given the chance to represent Russia.

With reporting by Meduza

Bulgarian Lawmakers Vote To Lift Veto On North Macedonia's EU Talks

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's (front left) government was toppled on June 22, after his shaky coalition lost its majority in part over accusations that it was disregarding national interests in pushing to lift the veto.

Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping Sofia's opposition to North Macedonia opening accession talks with the European Union, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership amid Russia's war in Ukraine.

The June 24 move allows for lifting the veto, which was imposed two years ago over a dispute about history and language, once tweaks are made in the government's negotiating framework text that guarantee the rights of Bulgarians in the country through constitutional changes and commit Skopje to maintaining good relations with Bulgaria.

The framework also cannot have any reference that may suggest that Bulgaria recognizes the Macedonian language.

The motion was approved with 170 votes in favor and 37 against in the 240-member parliament, deputy speaker Atanas Atanasov said, adding that 21 lawmakers abstained.

North Macedonia has held EU candidate status for 17 years and received a green light in 2020 to begin accession talks, although no date was set for the start of negotiations.

Sofia, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia said that its identity and language weren't open for discussion.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's government was toppled on June 22, after his shaky coalition lost its majority in part over accusations that it was disregarding national interests in pushing to lift the veto.

Bulgaria's dropping its opposition to North Macedonia's talks with the EU comes a day after the bloc granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and marks another step toward the 27-member bloc's enlargement.

However, the Bulgarian change of position will only bring Skopje a small step closer to EU accession, as Bulgarian lawmakers vowed on June 24 to be ready to impose new blockades if necessary.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

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