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Sakharov Center Says It's Being Evicted From Moscow Premises

A roundtable event at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in 2019

MOSCOW -- The Sakharov Center in Moscow, the human rights entity named after Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, says it is being evicted from its three premises in the Russian capital.

The Sakharov Center's staff said in a statement on January 26 that Moscow's Property Department had informed it two days earlier that it was canceling the group's lease agreements, including one to its main building, an exhibition hall, and one to Sakharov's former apartment.

The department explained the decision by saying that amendments to the controversial law on foreign agents, which took force on December 1, forbid organizations and individuals labeled as foreign agents from receiving any state support. All the premises were provided to the Sakharov Center free of charge.

"For a quarter of a century, the center has been a place that united thousands of Russian citizens who are not indifferent to the fate of the country, the values of freedom and human rights," the statement from the Sakharov Center said.

"This legal collision proves yet again that the state policy's idea is liquidation of the independent organizations that fight for social interests," it added.

The center was given its first premises by Moscow authorities in 1993.

The personal archive of Andrei Sakharov is currently kept in the center's apartment location on Moscow's Zemlyanoi Val Street.

Exhibits about the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, Polish journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, British cinema director Tom Stoppard, Lithuanian writer and dissident Tomas Venclova, and prominent Soviet and Russian dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky all were featured at one time or another.

The center was also a place where people bid last farewell to well-known Soviet dissidents and post-Soviet Kremlin critics such as Sergei Kovalyov, Boris Nemtsov, Yury Ryzhov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Yury Afanasyev.

The Sakharov Center "created the only historic exposition in the country that told the history of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime...to help society reevaluate the tragic pages of its history and realize that the repetition of political repressions, deportations, aggressive foreign policy is perilous for the country," the Sakharov Center statement said.

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Top Afghan Taliban Leader Issues Decree Against Nepotism

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada

The supreme leader of the Taliban has issued a decree against nepotism, barring officials in Afghanistan's Taliban administration from hiring relatives in government positions. The shadowy leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, also ordered all Taliban officials to sack their sons and other relatives who are working in their administration. The decree was posted late on March 18 on the Taliban government's Twitter account. It did not elaborate on the reasons behind the decree, but it followed rumors that many Taliban officials have appointed their relatives to high-ranking government positions rather than professionals or those with experience needed for the posts. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Pakistani Police Arrest Dozens Of Supporters Of Former Prime Minister

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan gather outside a court in Islamabad on March 18.

Pakistani police have arrested dozens of supporters and aides of former Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of a crackdown on those involved in recent clashes with the security forces, Khan's party and police said on March 20. Supporters of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), clashed with police in the city of Lahore last week as they attempted to arrest him at his home, and later with police in Islamabad as he arrived to appear before a court on March 18. "Around 285 PTI supporters have been arrested in Lahore and Islamabad," said Khan's aide, Fawad Chaudhry. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Indonesia May End Visa-On-Arrival Policy For Russians, Ukrainians Amid Violations

Russians and Ukrainians have flocked to the Southeast Asian country’s popular resort island of Bali following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to seek safety and avoid mobilization.

Indonesia may end its visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine following reports of a wave of behavioral-related incidents and visa violations, CNN reported. Russians and Ukrainians have flocked to the Southeast Asian country’s popular resort island of Bali following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to seek safety and avoid mobilization. About 58,000 Russians traveled to Bali in 2022, with another 22,500 arriving in January alone. About 10,000 Ukrainians arrived over that same period. Many of them have stayed beyond 60 days -- the maximum allowed under Indonesia visa rules -- and have taken up work as guides, hairdressers, and taxi drivers without authorization. To read the original story by CNN, click here.

Montenegrin President Djukanovic To Face Milatovic In Runoff On April 2

Milo Djukanovic, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists, has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991.

Longtime Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic will face off next month against a candidate nearly half his age after failing to secure a majority in the first round of a presidential election held in the former Yugoslav republic on March 19.

Djukanovic garnered 35.3 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, edging out Jakov Milatovic, the former economy minister, who received 29.2 percent.

The leader of the pro-Russian Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic, ended up in third place with 19.3 percent of the votes, while Aleksa Becic, the former speaker of parliament, came in fourth with 10.9 percent.

About 64 percent of the nation’s 542,000 registered voters went to the polls, according to the central election committee.

A runoff between Djukanovic and Milatovic to be held on April 2 could prove pivotal as to whether Montenegro can escape two years of political stalemate and return to the path of reform.

The 61-year-old Djukanovic, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists, has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991.

He is running on the slogan "Our President," but his three decades in power have been dogged by perceptions of rampant organized crime and corruption.

Milatovic, 37, is a leading member of the Europe Now movement. He served as economy minister in a government cobbled together by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church.

He campaigned on boosting prosperity in a country that averaged nearly 3 percent growth for two decades before huge volatility over the past three years caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine that drove energy prices to record highs.

Europe Now shot into the national spotlight with a strong showing in last year's local elections in the capital, Podgorica, within months of being formed.

Polling in Montenegro is frequently unreliable, although some surveys have suggested that broad opposition to Djukanovic far outweighs support.

Following his first-place finish on March 19, Djukanovic said his 6-point lead gave him a “serious advantage” over Milatovic in the next and final round.

However, Milatovic could potentially count on the support of Mandic and Becic as all three share close ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church, experts say.

A Milatovic victory would potentially represent a new era in Montenegro's political life.

In an interview with RFE/RL shortly before the first-round vote, Kenneth Morrison, a specialist in modern Southeastern European history and politics at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, said that few presidential elections in Montenegro have been as important as this one.

The last comparable national choice came in 1997, he suggested, when, as prime minister, Djukanovic unseated a staunch ally of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic for the presidency to put Montenegro on the path toward independence in 2006.

"This election could be equally pivotal in that the outcome could determine the country's future trajectory," Morrison said.

Putin Lauds Xi, Russia-Chinese Relations As War, Arrest Warrant Deepen His Isolation

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping (combo photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin touted his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and boasted that Moscow-Beijing relations have never been stronger as he prepares to host his Chinese counterpart this week amid deepening international isolation over his invasion of Ukraine.

In a March 19 article for The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Putin tried to portray Russia and China as close allies united against U.S. hegemony and NATO expansion, including into the Asia-Pacific region.

In his 1,100-word article, Putin papered over his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, using a false Kremlin narrative to refer to it as a domestic “crisis” provoked and fueled by NATO.

Yet Russia’s war will be a major topic of discussion between the two leaders during their meeting in Moscow on March 20-22. In his article, Putin thanked Xi for his “balanced” position on the war and said he is open to China playing a role in bringing it to an end.

Xi’s visit comes at a crucial time for Putin as the Russian leader’s international isolation intensifies. The International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 17 issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing the Russian president of being responsible for the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine, which constitutes a war crime.

“Russian-Chinese relations have reached the highest level in their entire history and continue to grow stronger,” Putin’s article stated. “We have high expectations for the upcoming negotiations. We have no doubt that they will give a new powerful impetus to the entire complex of bilateral cooperation.”

Putin has tried to justify his war against Ukraine on various grounds, including claiming NATO expansion was a threat. In an attempt to connect their respective security concerns, Putin warned NATO was a threat to China as well.

“It is impossible not to understand that NATO is trying to give its activities a global reach, aiming at penetration into the Asia-Pacific region,” Putin’s article stated.

Putin and Xi have met about 40 times in various capacities over the past 13 years.

Putin described the Russia-Chinese partnership as one of equals, saying there is no “leader and follower.” However, many experts say that China, the world’s second-largest economy and a quickly growing military power, is the clear senior partner in the relationship.

China’s senior status within the relationship is only growing as Russia’s economy suffers under the weight of Western sanctions, deepening the Kremlin's reliance on Beijing for trade, experts say.

China has become a crucial transit route for Russia to import goods banned by the West.

Economic ties, including Russian energy exports to China, will be another key topic of talks.

Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On As EU Ministers Discuss Ammunition For Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian forces at the front line near Bakhmut on March 18.

Ukrainian forces repelled fresh Russian attacks on Bakhmut over the past 24 hours, Kyiv said, as the battle for the ruined city in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk continued to exact a heavy toll on both sides while European Union ministers on March 20 prepared to discuss a 2 billion euro ($2.13 billion) plan to supply Ukraine with badly needed ammunition.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russian forces launched 69 attacks over the past day on Bakhmut and the nearby locations of Avdiyivka, Lyman, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in its daily report.

Russian forces kept shelling civilian settlements in Donetsk and Zaporyzhzhya regions, causing casualties among the civilian population and damaging infrastructure, the military said.

In the Moscow-occupied part of the southern region of Kherson, Russian forces manning checkpoints have been pushing civilians to take up Russian passports, threatening them with violence and imprisonment, the Ukrainian military report said.

The western part of Kherson, including Kherson city, was liberated by Ukrainian forces in November as Russians retreated across the Dnieper River.

In Brussels, EU foreign and defense ministers gather on March 20 to discuss plans to provide 2 billion euros worth of artillery shells to Ukraine under a deal that will include joint EU ammunition purchases.

"Time is of the essence -- we need to deliver more artillery ammunition and we need to deliver faster," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has warned.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is due to address the gathering via video link from Kyiv to brief the ministers on the current situation on the battlefield.

Kyiv has said it need 350,000 shells every month to stave off Russia's offensive in the east and to be able to prepare for a counteroffensive this spring.

EU member states have so far given $13 billion worth of military support to Ukraine since the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion.

The bloc's foreign ministers are also due to address Moscow's accountability for forcibly deporting Ukrainian children to Russia as well as measures to facilitate Ukrainian exports.

On March 17, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. The court also issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Russia's FSB Raids Moscow Bar After Owners Held Fund-Raising Event For Ukrainian Group

Eyewitnesses said the FSB officers tried to humiliate the workers and customers in the bar, forcing them to sing songs by pro-war artists and paint the letter Z, a symbol of support for the invasion that opponents see as a fascistic emblem.

Officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) raided two Moscow bars, temporarily detaining dozens of workers and customers, after its owners last year allegedly held a fund-raising event for a Ukrainian group.

Members of the FSB anti-terrorism unit raided La Virgen Taqueria and Underdog on March 17, temporarily detaining at least 40 people, according to customers who were present. All were eventually let go. Police allegedly used force against some detainees, eyewitnesses said.

The owners allegedly held a fund-raising event last year for Kyiv Angeles, a Ukrainian volunteer organization that delivers food and medicine to Ukrainian citizens as well as equipment to the armed forces. The bar owners claim the funds went to a Ukrainian animal shelter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has come down hard on any signs of domestic opposition to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine or Russian sympathy toward Ukrainians resisting his war.

Last year he outlawed criticism of the invasion and the Russian military, and since then many citizens have been handed stiff prison terms for violating those laws.


Following the March 17 raid, Pavel Kosov, one of the bar owners, announced he was exiting his investment in the establishments.

He and other owners were detained and questioned last year over the fund-raiser, their lawyer said at the time. It is unclear why the FSB returned on March 17.

In a statement posted on Telegram by their lawyer Konstantin Yerokhin, the owners said they were demoralized and frightened and claimed some of their customers have received multiple threats.

"We are afraid of another raid and other negative developments and are ready to do everything necessary to avoid that," they said in their statement.

Eyewitnesses said the FSB officers tried to humiliate the workers and customers in the bar, forcing them to sing songs by pro-war artists and paint the letter Z, a symbol of support for the invasion that opponents see as a fascistic emblem.

The FSB officers took two payment terminals from the bars and other equipment containing financial information, their lawyer said.

Underdog said it would be closed for an undisclosed period of time while La Virgen Taqueria reopened on March 19 after being closed for two days.

Serbian President Says ICC Arrest Warrant For Putin Will Prolong The War

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks to the media in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has criticized an international arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court will prolong the war in Ukraine. "My question is now that you have accused him of the biggest war crimes, who are you going to talk to now?" Vucic told journalists on March 19. Unlike most European countries, Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Moscow after Putin launched his unprovoked war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Iran's Foreign Minister Says He Has Agreed To Meet Saudi Counterpart

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (right) greets his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, in Tehran on January 29. In recent weeks, Iran has expressed interest in holding meetings with regional leaders.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on March 19 that he had agreed to meet his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, proposing three locations during a news conference. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on March 10 to reestablish relations and reopen embassies within two months after years of hostility, following talks in China. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistani Police File Terrorism Charges Against Ex-PM Khan

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks with reporters in Lahore on March 17.

Police in the Pakistani capital filed charges on March 19 against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, 17 of his aides, and scores of supporters, accusing them of terrorism and several other offenses after the ousted premier's followers clashed with security forces in Islamabad the previous day. For hours on March 18, Khan's followers clashed with police outside a court where the former prime minister was to appear in a graft case. Riot police wielded batons and fired tear gas while Khan's supporters threw fire bombs and hurled rocks at the officers. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Rights Activists Injured In Attack In Banja Luka Following LGBT Event Ban

Police gather outside the Transparency International office after an attack on activists on March 18.

Several rights activists in Banja Luka, a city in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, were injured after being assaulted late on March 18, hours after the police banned an LGBT event planned there, citing security concerns. Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the attack took place outside the offices of the Bosnian branch of the global anti-corruption group Transparency International in Banja Luka. Journalist and activist Vanja Stokic said she and other were attacked by a group of "hooligans" armed with sticks and bottles. One activist was taken to the hospital after being hit in the head, she said. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Updated

Polls In Kazakhstan Close In Parliamentary Elections As Authorities Look To Counter Unrest Threat

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev votes during the parliamentary election in Astana on March 19.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Millions of voters in Kazakhstan cast ballots in snap parliamentary elections on March 19 as the Central Asian nation completed a political cycle after bloody unrest last year left at least 238 people dead.

Slightly more than half of the 12 million eligible voters went to the polls to choose lawmakers for the 98-seat lower house, according to the Central Election Committee. The parliamentary elections took place at the same time as local elections across the vast, oil-rich country.

According to three separate exit polls, the ruling Amanat party is in the lead with about 53 percent of the vote. At least three other parties have surpassed the 5 percent threshold in order to enter parliament, according to the three polls, with one poll showing as many as six parties winning seats.

The outgoing parliament had only three parties. The final results will be announced on March 20.

The vote follows a referendum in June that marked the end of special privileges for long-reigning former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and snap presidential elections in November that handed 69-year-old incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev a fresh seven-year presidential term.

The early elections will be the first since 2004 in which candidates without party affiliations can stand for seats in the lower house, called the Mazhilis, as part of a package of electoral reforms initiated by Toqaev in the wake of the unrest in January 2022.

But only 29 of the parliament's seats are available to the single-mandate candidates, with the rest reserved for party list candidates.

With socioeconomic pressures such as strident inflation compounded by Russia’s war in Ukraine, authorities are aiming to prevent a repeat of the 2022 events now popularly termed Bloody January.

Earlier this week, Toqaev signed a law strengthening punishment for individuals calling for mass disorder -- a crime authorities often equate with calls for spontaneous protests, which are illegal.

According to the law, the punishment for such actions will rise from three years to up to seven years in prison, with the possibility of early release on parole excluded for individuals convicted on the charge.

Toqaev has admitted issuing a "shoot to kill" order to troops last year when peaceful protests against a fuel price spike gave way to violent clashes in cities across the country.

The return of single-mandate district races has added some dynamism to a ballot dominated by system candidates in a country where no elections have been deemed free or fair by international election monitors since Kazakhstan gained independence more than 30 years ago.

But several opposition-minded figures have been excluded from races at the parliament and city council level on administrative pretexts, while others complained of government pressure on their campaigns.

Of the seven parties competing, the most well-established is Amanat, a renamed version of the Nur Otan party bossed by octogenarian Nazarbaev, who remained powerful even after stepping down and allowing Toqaev to succeed him in 2019.

Last year’s crisis effectively ended the political career of Nazarbaev, who relinquished his remaining positions to Toqaev, while denying rumors of a rift with his protege.

Two new parties, Respublica and Baitaq, became the first parties in two decades to be allowed to officially register in the months before the vote.

But like the other pro-establishment parties on the ballot, neither has been critical of Toqaev during the campaign.

Updated

Ukrainian Officials Express Outrage Over Putin's Surprise Visit To City of Mariupol After Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who heads construction and regional development, as he visits the city of Mariupol in Russian-controlled Ukraine on March 19.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced nighttime visit to Mariupol, the occupied Ukrainian city that symbolizes Kyiv's fierce resistance to Moscow’s invasion, in a possible show of defiance after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a war for his arrest.

Putin flew by helicopter to the port city, which had been destroyed by Russian bombardments and heavy fighting, for a "working visit," Russian state media reported on March 19. He visited several sites in Mariupol and spoke with residents, the reports said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The trip was the first by Putin to a region of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces after the launch of his full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. Putin’s trips are almost always highly choreographed by the Kremlin to boost his image at home.

The battle for Mariupol captured international attention as Ukrainian fighters, encircled and holed up in a massive metals plant, heroically defended the city for three months before surrendering in May 2022 as they ran low on food and medicine.

But the battle also highlighted for the world Russia's brutality as its military launched strikes on civilian infrastructure, killing what is believed to be thousands of Mariupol residents, and triggering accusations of war crimes.

In two of the most infamous cases, Russia shelled a theater used as a bomb shelter, killing as many as 600 people, as well as a maternity ward.

Putin’s visit to the symbolic city sparked anger in Kyiv and in the West.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement that Putin chose to visit at night to hide from Russian TV viewers the destruction he wrought on Mariupol and the ensuing desolation it has caused.

Once a bustling port city with a population of half a million, Mariupol is now home to just about 90,000 people, many of them too old or too ill to leave the ravaged city.

The outskirts of Mariupol are filled with the graves of those killed in the fighting.

"The criminal always return to the crime scene," Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said in a tweet about Putin's visit to Mariupol. "The murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and [its] graves. Cynicism and lack of remorse."

Amid the intense Russian bombing and blockage, some Mariupol residents managed to escape to Kyiv-controlled territory. Others went to Russia, many forcibly so, including children.

The alleged deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia is at the center of the ICC's unprecedented March 17 warrant for the arrest of Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children," the ICC said in a statement on March 17.

The warrant means Putin could be arrested if he enters any of the court's 123 member states.

The Kremlin dismissed the warrant, arguing that it is void because Russia is not in the ICC's jurisdiction. Ukraine is also not a member of the ICC.

Putin’s Mariupol visit comes a day after he toured Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.

Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea following Kyiv's overthrow of Moscow-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was the start of a new phase of Kremlin aggression against Ukraine that would culminate with the full-scale invasion of the country last year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has vowed to regain all territory captured by Russia, including Crimea. Ukraine is preparing a new, major counteroffensive that experts say could begin as early as next month.

In the meantime, Ukraine and Russia have agreed to extend a deal allowing the safe passage of grain exports through Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea.

WATCH: Standing just behind the front line in Donetsk, the former industrial city of Avdiyivka lies in ruins. As Russian shelling continues, the few remaining residents say they're not going anywhere.

Ukrainian Forces Fight Off 'Unlimited' Russian Attacks On The Donetsk Front
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Following several days of talks, Ukraine announced the deal had been extended for 120 days, while Russia said it had agreed to a 60-day extension.

"The Black Sea Grain Initiative, signed in Istanbul on 22 July 2022, has been extended," the United Nations said on March 18 in a statement, referring to the initial agreement brokered last summer by the UN and Turkey with Russia and Ukraine.

The UN statement said the deal had allowed the supply of 25 million tons of grain and foodstuffs, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilize markets. The statement also thanked the Turkish government for its diplomatic and operational support of the deal.

Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin that the temporary switch to an alternative regional capital in the Zaporizhzhya region -- one of four illegally annexed by Russia last year -- is "likely a tacit acknowledgment" that Russia is failing to meet its objectives in the near future.

On March 3, authorities in the Russian-controlled region issued a decree saying that occupied Melitopol would temporarily replace Zaporizhzhya city as the regional capital until it was controlled by Russia, Britain's Defense Ministry said in an update on Twitter, adding that Russia has never occupied Zaporizhzhya city, which is approximately 35 kilometers from the current front line.

"The quiet declaration of an alternative capital is likely tacit acknowledgement within the Russian system that its forces are highly unlikely to seize previously planned major objectives in the near future," the intelligence update said on March 19.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Current time, Reuters, AFP and dpa

Montenegro Votes For President Against Backdrop Of Crisis, Stalemate

The March 19 vote is the first national election in the tiny Adriatic nation since the narrow defeat of President Milo Djukanovic's party to a mostly pro-Serb coalition in 2020 spelled the end of an era but failed to establish a workable majority.

Montenegro's voters are casting presidential ballots on March 19 in a race between a long-dominant incumbent and a half-dozen challengers that could prove pivotal to whether the ex-Yugoslav republic can escape two years of political stalemate.

It's the first national election in the tiny Adriatic nation since the narrow defeat of President Milo Djukanovic's party to a mostly pro-Serb coalition in 2020 spelled the end of an era but failed to establish a workable majority to move the country forward.

Djukanovic feuded with two subsequent governments and resisted naming a third as he jockeyed to reestablish supremacy for his populist Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), culminating in the sudden dissolution of parliament on March 16.

"Few presidential elections in Montenegro have been as important as this one," said Kenneth Morrison, a specialist in modern Southeastern European history and politics at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom.

The last comparable national choice came in 1997, he suggested, when, as prime minister, Djukanovic unseated a staunch ally of Slobodan Milosevic for the presidency to put Montenegro on the path toward independence in 2006.

"This election could be equally pivotal in that the outcome could determine the country's future trajectory," Morrison said.

Djukanovic, 61, has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991, when the DPS arose as the successor to the local Communist League.

He won outright five years ago with nearly 54 percent of the vote, and most experts say he is almost certain to advance to a second-round runoff on April 2 for a final presidential term under the constitution.

Since it exited its political union with Serbia and then joined NATO in 2017, Montenegro has stalled on the kind of reforms that once made it a front-runner for the next wave of EU enlargement.

It has struggled to put aside ethno-national divisions, including over identification as Serb versus Montenegrin, as well as tensions in relations with the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, politicians in Belgrade, and pro-Russians in and outside the region.

Polling in Montenegro is frequently unreliable, although some surveys have suggested that broad opposition to Djukanovic far outweighs support.

He is running on the slogan "Our President," but his three decades in power have been dogged by perceptions of rampant organized crime and corruption.

Many observers question whether Djukanovic or any other candidate can successfully bridge the 620,000-strong population's divisions.

Vesko, a voter in Podgorica who did not want his last name published, called it "a circus of a campaign."

"Everyone promises something, everything," he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "And everyone is sinful."

One of the most recognizable challengers is Andrija Mandic, a veteran politician who heads the right-wing New Serb Democracy party and is supported by the pro-Serb Democratic Front that helped unseat Djukanovic's DPS two and a half years ago.

Mandic was accused alongside Russians and Serbians of plotting a failed coup attempt in 2016, although an appellate court eventually threw out all 13 convictions.

Montenegro has long been one of the Balkans' most conspicuous theaters for pro-Russian disinformation.

Another candidate, pro-NATO and pro-EU Social Democratic lawmaker Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic, won 8 percent of the vote as a presidential candidate in 2018. She is the lone woman in the race.

The pro-EU Europe Now movement is fielding candidate Jakov Milatovic, a former economic minister campaigning on boosting prosperity in a country that averaged nearly 3 percent growth for two decades before huge volatility the past three years. Europe Now shot into the national spotlight with a strong showing in last year's local elections in the capital, Podgorica, within months of being formed.

Aleksa Becic, a 35-year-old former speaker of parliament from the centrist Democratic Montenegro party, is another pro-EU candidate.

Goran Danilovic heads the conservative United Montenegro party, which has a single seat in parliament.

Internet influencer Jovan Radulovic is the political outsider among candidates and has largely avoided staking out traditional political turf.

Djukanovic set June 11 for snap parliamentary elections after his dissolution of the 81-seat Skupstina.

The DPS this time hopes to erase the razor-thin one-seat margin that the Democratic Front and its allies mustered in 2020.

Montenegrin civil activist Aleksandar Dragicevic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the presidential campaigns were as important for their success in winning over committed voters ahead of early parliamentary elections as picking a president.

Zelenskiy Announces Sanctions On Hundreds Of Individuals, Including Syrian President, Iranian Drone Makers

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Iranian and Syrian individuals -- "those who help terror" -- are also among the newly blacklisted.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has announced sanctions against hundreds of individuals and companies, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranians associated with the production of Shahed drones.

Zelenskiy said on March 18 that most of the more than 400 individuals and companies designated for sanctions are Russian and are involved in the defense industry, but Iranian and Syrian individuals -- "those who help terror" -- are also among the newly blacklisted.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

According to a decree issued by Zelenskiy, the sanctions against Assad are imposed for 10 years. The new sanctions also list Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous and Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

In addition, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' drone force was placed on the sanctions list. Sanctions were also introduced against other Iranian citizens.

Ukraine severed diplomatic relations with Syria last year. Assad recently visited Moscow and declared his full support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling Russia's war against Ukraine a struggle "with "old and new Nazis."

Russia has backed the Syrian Army in its fight against rebel forces in northern Syria, and Assad has said the presence of Russian troops in Syria is legitimate as his government has requested Moscow's support.

Zelenskiy's sanctions decrees list 141 legal entities, including companies from Russia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.

Zelenskiy said the Ukrainian sanctions are part of the global pressure on Russia.

"We study in depth each of our sanctioning steps," he said on Telegram. The sanctions are aimed at "all those who produce weapons for terror against Ukraine, who help Russia incite aggression, in particular by supplying Shahed drones, and who support Russia’s destruction of international law."

Russia has used Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones to attack critical Ukrainian infrastructure, including electrical substations and water facilities.

Iran Court Sentences Two To Death Over Deadly Shrine Attack

Workers clean up the scene following an armed attack at the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the Iranian city of Shiraz on October 26, 2022.

An Iranian court has handed death sentences to two men over an attack on a Shi'ite shrine in Iran that killed 15 people in October and was claimed by the militant group Islamic State (IS), the official news agency IRNA reported on March 18. Fars Province judiciary head Kazem Mousavi said the two men had been found guilty of charges including "spreading corruption on Earth" and acting against national security, IRNA reported, adding that the sentences can be appealed. The men are alleged to have collaborated with IS members in the attack. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Updated

UN Says Black Sea Grain Export Deal Extended, But Ukraine, Russia Disagree Over How Long

A grain terminal in the seaport in Odesa

The Black Sea Grain Initiative -- a deal allowing the safe passage of grain exports through Ukraine's ports on the Black Sea -- has been extended following days of talks, but Ukraine and Russia disagree over the length of the extension.

Ukraine said the deal had been extended for 120 days, while Russia said it had agreed to a 60-day extension.

"The Black Sea Grain Initiative, signed in Istanbul on 22 July 2022, has been extended," the United Nations said on March 18 in a statement, referring to the initial agreement brokered last summer by the UN and Turkey with Russia and Ukraine.

The UN statement said the deal had allowed the supply of 25 million tons of grain and foodstuffs, helping to bring down global food prices and stabilize markets. The statement also thanked the Turkish government for its diplomatic and operational support of the deal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also announced that the deal had been extended without saying how long.

"The deal for the grain corridor was due to expire today. As a result of our talks with the two sides, we have secured an extension to this deal," Erdogan said in a speech in the western city of Canakkale.

"This deal is of vital importance for the global food supply. I thank Russia and Ukraine, who didn't spare their efforts for a new extension, as well as the United Nations secretary general," Erdogan said in remarks carried on Turkish television.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister of Reconstruction Oleksandr Kubrakov said the extension would last for 120 days.

Kubrakov thanked Erdogan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and "all our partners for sticking to the agreements." Due to the joint efforts, 25 million tons of grain had delivered to world markets, he said on Twitter.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow agreed to a 60-day extension of a deal.

"We are seeing reports from parties to the 'grain deal' that the deal has been extended for 120 days," Zakharkova said in comments carried by Interfax. "We have repeatedly stated...that the Russian side has notified all parties to the deal that it is extending the deal for 60 days."

Moscow proposed the 60-day extension citing concerns that a parallel agreement on Russian food and fertilizer exports was not being respected.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on March 17 that it was vital for global food security that both agreements continue and be fully implemented.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative was set to last into late November and was then renewed for 120 days to combat a global food crisis that was fueled in part by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The 120-day period was set to expire on March 18.

Ukraine and Russia are important suppliers of food and fertilizer throughout the world. Before the war, Ukraine exported approximately three-quarters of the grain it produced. According to the data of the European Commission, about 90 percent of these exports were shipped from Black Sea ports.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Putin Visits Crimea On Anniversary Of Annexation As Ukraine's Allies Condemn Action

Russian President Vladimir Putin (second left), Sevastopol's Russian-imposed Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev (center), and Metropolitan Tikhon (right), chairman of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, visit a children's center in Sevastopol, Crimea, on March 18.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on March 18 to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine as allies of Kyiv in the fight against the Russian invasion issued statements condemning the annexation.

Russian state TV showed a video of a casually dressed Putin walking with a group of officials in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, eight years before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine says it will fight to expel Russia from Crimea and all other territory that Russia has occupied in the year-long war.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea triggered a wave of international condemnation and sanctions against Moscow in 2014, and several European countries continue to condemn it.

"Nine years after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Britain continues to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression," the British Embassy said on Twitter. "In Crimea, Ukrainians suffer: citizens have no freedom, civilians are detained, and children are in 're-education' camps."

The Finnish Embassy said Russia has grossly violated international law and continues to do so.

"Finland does not recognize Russia's illegal annexation. We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine and efforts to restore it. Crimea is Ukraine," the country's Foreign Ministry said.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry marked the anniversary by publishing a poster saying "Crimea is Ukraine. Donetsk is Ukraine. Kherson is Ukraine. Luhansk is Ukraine. Zaporizhzhya is Ukraine."

Sweden does not recognize Russia's illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories, the ministry said, pledging to continue to "steadfastly support Ukraine."

Armed men in uniforms without identification began seizing government buildings, the Simferopol airport, the Kerch ferry crossing, and other strategic objects in Crimea in February 2014. The Russian authorities initially refused to recognize that the men were soldiers from the Russian Army. Later, Putin admitted it was the Russian military.

A referendum on the status of the peninsula was held on March 16, 2014, on the territory of Crimea and Sevastopol. Two days later Putin announced the "accession" of Crimea to Russia.

In Moscow, pro-Kremlin activists rallied on March 18 outside embassies of countries considered "unfriendly" to Russia.

The pro-Kremlin youth movement Molodaya Gvardia (The Young Guard) said that more than 5,000 people demonstrated outside the embassies of 20 "unfriendly" nations, including the United States, France, Germany, and Poland.

Around 400 activists gathered outside the U.S. Embassy holding posters with messages such as "Crimea with Russia forever" and "The United States, you sow death," according to AFP.

A similar demonstration of some 200 people took place outside the British Embassy, AFP reported.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Bosnian Police Prohibit LGBT Pride Event In Banja Luka

People take part in Sarajevo's third Pride Parade on June 25, 2022.

Police in Banja Luka, a city in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, has prohibited an LGBT pride event, citing what it said were security concerns. A movie screening and a panel discussion about human rights, organized by the activist groups -- Bh. Pride March from Sarajevo and Geto from Banja Luka -- has been scheduled for March 18. A member of Bh. Pride March told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it was disappointed with the decision. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Russia Launches Fresh Wave Of Drone Strikes In Ukraine After ICC Issues Arrest Warrant For Putin

A Ukrainian police officer takes cover in front of a burning building that was hit by a Russian air strike in Avdiyivka, Ukraine, on March 17.

Ukraine said Russia launched drone strikes in several areas of the country overnight after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it had issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes.

The Ukrainian Air Force said Russia launched 16 attack drones early on March 18 and that 11 had been shot down by Ukrainian air-defense systems in the central, western and eastern regions. Among areas targeted were the capital, Kyiv, and the western Lviv region.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Serhiy Popko, the head of Kyiv's military administration, said Ukrainian air defenses shot down all drones heading for the Ukrainian capital, while Maksym Kozytskiy, the governor of the Lviv region, said six drones had targeted that area and three had been shot down.

In the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk region, a drone struck what was described as a "critical infrastructure facility, sparking a blaze.

Farther west, Russian rockets hit a residential area overnight in the city of Zaporizhzhya, the regional capital of the partially occupied province of the same name.

According to the Ukrainian Air Force, the attacks were carried out from the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov and Russia's Bryansk Province, which borders Ukraine.

In its regular update on March 18, the Ukrainian military also said Russian forces over the previous 24 hours had launched 34 air strikes, one missile strike, and 57 rounds of anti-aircraft fire.

According to the Ukrainian statement, Russia is continuing to concentrate its efforts on offensive operations in Ukraine's industrial east, focusing attacks on Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

Elsewhere, three senior U.S. security officials held a video call with a group of their Ukrainian counterparts on March 18 to discuss military aid to Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's chief of staff said.

WATCH: As Russian shelling continues, the few remaining residents say they're not going anywhere. Despite the risk to life and limb, Ukrainian civilians carry on in the city of Avdiyivka while the defending army says it's holding the line in this hot zone just southwest of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian Forces Fight Off 'Unlimited' Russian Attacks On The Donetsk Front
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"We discussed the further provision of necessary assistance to our country, in particular vehicles, weapons, and ammunition," Andriy Yermak wrote on Telegram.

He added that Zelenskiy had joined the meeting at the end to give his views on freeing Ukrainian territory occupied by invading Russian forces.

The ICC on March 17 said it had issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine, together with Russia's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the ICC move was "justified," telling reporters in Washington that Putin had "clearly committed war crimes."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia found the questions raised by the ICC "outrageous and unacceptable" and noted that Russia, like many other countries, does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.

In Ukraine, Zelenskiy called it a "historic decision from which historic responsibility will begin."

The deportation of Ukrainian children "means the illegal transfer of thousands of our children to the territory of a terrorist state," Zelenskiy said, adding this could not have taken place without an order from Putin.

"Separating children from their families, depriving them of any opportunity to contact their relatives, hiding children on the territory of Russia, scattering them in remote regions -- all this is an obvious state policy of Russia, state decisions, and state evil, which begins precisely with the first official of this state," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address to the nation.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
Updated

Despite 'Difficult' Talks, Kosovo And Serbia Reach Agreement On Normalizing Ties

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) meet on March for talks with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (second right) in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says an agreement has been reached on ways to implement an EU-backed deal on normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Speaking late on March 18 at after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti met with him for three-way talks in North Macedonia for some 12 hours, Borrell said implementing commitments from both sides is a precondition for their integration into the EU.

"What the parties have accepted: the agreement and its implementation through the annex will become an integral part of their respective European Union paths," Borrell said.

It had been expected that the March 18 meeting would result in an agreement on the annex to the EU's original 11-point proposal for the normalization of relations following the 1998-1999 war the two fought and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 which Belgrade still does not recognize.

Vucic confirmed an agreement was reached on the implementation of the EU-backed deal, adding that he and Kurti had "a decent conversation" despite many disagreements during their meeting in Ohrid.

WATCH: U.S. Special Envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar has said that the Serbia-Kosovo normalization agreement will create "a peaceful, predictable, and friendly relationship" between the two countries and will open "the door for both of them to move faster into Euro-Atlantic structures.

U.S. Special Envoy: Normalization Agreement Creates Predictable Relationship Between Serbia And Kosovo
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“Parties could not reach an agreement on this more detailed proposal,” Borrell said. “Kosovo lacked flexibility on the substance (of the agreement), while Serbia previously stated its principle not to sign although they are ready to implement.”

“It is clear that both parties will gain a significant benefit from this agreement, because the dialogue is not only because Kosovo and Serbia...It is about the stability, the security and the prosperity of the whole region,” Borrell added.

Tensions were running high in the runnup to the meeting with a solution to the dispute becoming more important as war rages in Ukraine and fears mount that Russia, a traditional ally of Belgrade, could try to stir instability in the volatile Balkans.

Vucic and Kurti first held separate meetings with Borrell before beginning a three-way session that concluded late in the evening.

Borrell said that evem though the sides decided not to officially sign the deal, they nonetheless agreed to start implementing it as soon as possible.

"The annex and the agreement are considered adopted through my statement that will be published [soon]," and not through a joint statement signed by all parties, as originally envisioned, Borrell said.

He noted, for instance, that Kosovo had agreed to immediately begin to implement steps to enhance self-management of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo.

"Kosovo has agreed to launch immediately - and when I am saying immediately, I mean immediately - negotiations with the European Union facilitated dialogue on establishing a specific arrangement and guarantees to ensure an appropriated level of self-management for the Serbian communities in Kosovo," he said.

Speaking on March 19, Vucic said he didn't sign any document in Ohrid "because Serbia is an internationally recognized state, and Kosovo is not."

The agreement envisages that Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo under international law, but will take note of its statehood and recognize Kosovo's passports and custom documents.

Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian former Serbian province. Even though Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its territory.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Amra Zejneli, AP, and dpa
Updated

Arrest Warrant Against Former Pakistani Prime Minister Dropped After Judge Marks Court Appearance

Security personnel escort former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Lahore on March 17.

A Pakistani judge has dropped an arrest warrant against former Prime Minister Imran Khan after he traveled to court in Islamabad to comply with an official order that he appear.

Khan traveled to the court on March 18 amid heavy security as police stormed his home in Lahore and after he said he expected to be arrested in a standoff with the government that has sparked clashes with his supporters.

Khan traveled more than 300 kilometers from Lahore to the Islamabad in a motorcade, but thousands of supporters mobbed the court complex and Khan, 70, was unable to get out of his car. He gave notice to District and Sessions Judge Zafar Iqbal, and the judge accepted Khan's presence, took his signature, and allowed him to return home.

"The court has canceled the arrest warrant after marking Imran Khan's attendance. The hearing has been adjourned till March 30," Gohar Khan, a lawyer for Khan, told AFP.

Khan had been due to answer charges of unlawfully selling state gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries during his time in office.

Security was tight around the judicial complex, and some of Khan's supports tried to enter the court premises but were stopped by authorities, according to media reports.

Referring to the clashes between police and Khan supporters, the judge said it was not possible to hear the case.

Meanwhile, senior police officer Suhail Sukhera, who led the operation at Khan's home in Lahore, said police acted to remove a barricade erected by members of Khan's political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI). He said they piled concrete blocks, felled trees, erected tents, and parked a truck to block lanes around Khan's residence.

Sukhera said 61 people were arrested as Khan supporters attempted to resist police by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and a man on the roof of Khan's residence opened fire. At least three police officers were injured.

Sukhera said police broke down the main door of Khan’s residence and found automatic weapons, Molotov cocktails, iron rods, and batons used in attacks on police during the week.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said later that police would conduct a complete search of Khan's home.

Earlier this week, the Lahore High Court ruled that a police operation be paused after followers of PTI, gathered outside Khan's residence in Lahore on March 14 and battled with police.

Since his ouster last April in a no-confidence vote, Khan has repeatedly ignored arrest warrants and court summons in a string of cases against him, claiming they are a plot by the government led by his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Sharif has insisted Khan's arrest was ordered by a court and was not political.

Two courts in Islamabad on March 13 issued arrest warrants for Khan over his failure to appear before judges in a case involving accusations that Khan has concealed details of gifts received while he was prime minister in his asset declarations, and in a terrorism case.

Khan has failed to attend indictment hearings three times in the gifts case.

Maryam Sharif, a top leader in Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, criticized Khan on March 17 for resisting arrest and lauded the security forces for their restraint.

“The state can arrest him in five minutes, but it exercised restraint to avoid bloodshed,” she said.

Khan, who was shot and wounded while campaigning in November, said in the interview with Reuters that the threat to his life is greater than before and asserted without evidence that his political opponents and the military want to block him from standing in elections later this year.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP

Thousands March In Belgrade In Opposition To Normalization Plan With Kosovo

Demonstrators in Belgrade on March 17 said they opposed the plan because they view it as recognition of Kosovo independence.

Several thousand people protested on March 17 in Belgrade against a plan on the normalization of ties between Serbia and Kosovo on the eve of a new round of high-level talks on the plan.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti are to hold the talks on March 18 in Ohrid, North Macedonia, hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special representative for the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.

Demonstrators in Belgrade said they opposed the plan because they view it as recognition of Kosovo independence. Serbia's constitution considers Kosovo part of its territory even though Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

"This is just the start of the protest," said Milos Jovanovic, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which was one of the organizers of the protest.

The plan "is definitely a recognition [of Kosovo], whether you say it explicitly or whether it is implied indirectly it is still recognition and it is not acceptable," Jovanovic said.

The leader of a right-wing group that also participated in the protest said the group opposed Vucic making "some kind of compromises" with Kurti.

Some masked participants wore symbols of the Wagner group, Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. RFE/RL could not determine the connection between the people wearing Wagner insignia and the group.

Borrell confirmed earlier on March 17 that European officials received comments from Serbia and Kosovo on an implementation annex to the agreement on the road to normalization ahead of the meeting.

"We will talk tomorrow and we will make a consolidated version of the annex based on their feedback. And then, I hope, Kosovo and Serbia will be able to agree on the final result of these talks," Borrell said in Skopje on March 17 after talks with the president of North Macedonia.

The implementation annex will be an integral part of the agreement and is meant to share "a clear understanding of how all their provisions will be implemented," Borrell said.

The meeting is a continuation of a meeting that Kurti and Vucic held on February 27 in Brussels at which they agreed on the text of the principal proposal. Borrell said "discussions are no longer necessary" on the proposal, and therefore, only the implementation annex will be on the table.

Borrell emphasized that he is going to Ohrid with hopes that he will face a unique chance for Kosovo and Serbia to move forward and make progress in normalizing relations.

"If we manage to do that, we will set the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia on a sustainable, long-term and future-oriented one, overcoming the permanent management of the crisis we have been in for the last few months," he said.

He estimated that this will have a positive impact on the European path of Kosovo and Serbia and increase the stability of the region.

"I hope that we will create a new dynamic and a new momentum for expansion, which should be beneficial for everyone in the region," Borrell said.

Borrell on March 17 also spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the latest developments regarding the process, according to a statement issued by the European External Action Service.

"Both agreed that this was the right time to make significant steps forward in the interest of the EU integration of Kosovo and Serbia," the statement said.

The U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, visited Belgrade and Pristina earlier this week. Escobar said at a press conference on March 17 in Pristina that he will be present at the meeting in Ohrid, and he expects a positive outcome of the talks.

The EU normalization proposal does not oblige Serbia to formally recognize Kosovo's independence, but the two countries would recognize each other's documents, such as passports, diplomas, and license plates.

Bosnian Serb Leader Threatens To Cut Diplomatic Ties With U.S., Britain

Milorad Dodik, who has been blacklisted by the United States and Britain in multiple rounds of sanctions over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption, has long threatened to seek Republika Srpska's independence from the rest of Bosnia.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has threatened to cut off contacts with U.S. and British diplomats and embassies in Bosnia-Herzegovina over what Dodik's office said was interference in the internal affairs of Bosnia.

Dodik's office said in a statement on March 17 that a team has been formed to "draw up comprehensive information on the anti-Dayton activities of American and British diplomats and embassies and their interference in the internal affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The statement said Republika Srpska, the Bosnian entity that Dodik leads, will make that decision within the next week.

The statement referred to the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian civil war and established an administrative system under which Bosnia remains partitioned between a Serbian entity -- Republika Srpska -- and the Bosniak-Croat federation connected by a weak central government.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said the announcement by Dodik's office "was unconstructive and factually inaccurate." In a tweet, the embassy said the United States would "continue to stand with all the people of BiH as they work to strengthen this country and secure their rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations."

The British Embassy in Bosnia rejected the allegations and called the statement "confusing," saying it did not contribute to anything.

"We completely reject the allegations made, which seem like a bizarre attempt to divert attention from real problems," the British Embassy statement said. "The United Kingdom remains a friend of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and will continue to work across the country for the benefit of all."

Dodik, who has been blacklisted by the United States and Britain in multiple rounds of sanctions over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption, has long threatened to seek Republika Srpska's independence from the rest of Bosnia. He rejects the administrative arrangement and the authority of the Office of the High Representative, the international community's overseer of civil and other aspects of the Dayton Agreement.

Dodik in recent weeks has caused controversy by repeating his denial of genocide during the 1992-95 Bosnian civil war in the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia in 1995.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Prosecutor's Office last week filed a case against Dodik for the denial. Also last week, the United States rejected comments made by Dodik in which he tried to undermine the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and reiterated threats to secede.

The latest round of U.S. sanctions imposed on Bosnian officials was announced on March 15 and named Dragan Stankovic, an ally of Dodik. Stankovic has served as director of the Republika Srpska agency responsible for real estate law and was blacklisted for promoting a law that sought to "usurp" state property in contravention of the national constitution.

Republika Srpska has tried multiple times to implement the law, which aims to transfer Bosnian state property to Republika Srpska, despite it being deemed unconstitutional.

With reporting by Predrag Zvijerac

Biden Welcomes ICC Arrest Warrant for Putin, Says Russian Leader 'Clearly Committed War Crimes'

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova meet in Moscow on February 16. On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for their arrest.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes is "justified."

"He's clearly committed war crimes," Biden told reporters on March 17, referring to Putin.

His comments in Washington came after the ICC said it had issued a warrant against Putin, accusing the Russian leader of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. The move by the ICC was hailed by Kyiv and rejected by Moscow.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official who allegedly directs the removal of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The two are suspected of "having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others" the ICC said in a statement, adding that Putin had failed "to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control, pursuant to superior responsibility."

The immediate impact of the ICC action is unclear. Moscow does not recognize the court and does not extradite its nationals. However, Putin may be more cautious about traveling to a nation bound to arrest him.

While Washington does not recognize the court either, Biden said it "makes a very strong point" to call out Putin's actions in ordering the invasion.

Earlier, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the ICC's decision was the start of "holding Russia accountable for its crimes and atrocities in Ukraine."

"This is an important decision of international justice and for the people of Ukraine," he said.

ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The 123-member ICC doesn't have a police force of its own to carry out arrests.

WATCH: A family from Mariupol spoke to RFE/RL about their experiences of going through a Russian filtration camp and then being taken to Moscow.

'You Are Russian Now': Ukrainian Family Recalls Deportation To Moscow
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With the warrant, Putin becomes the third serving head of state to be targeted in an arrest warrant from the ICC, the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, along with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia found the questions raised by the ICC "outrageous and unacceptable" and noted that Russia, like many other countries, does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.

"Accordingly, any decisions of this kind are null and void for the Russian Federation from the point of view of law," Peskov said.

Peskov refused to comment when asked if Putin would avoid making trips to countries where he could be arrested on the ICC's warrant.

Maria Lvova-Belova
Maria Lvova-Belova

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the ICC. Kyiv has, however, granted the Hague-based court jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed on its territory since Moscow launched its invasion last year. The United States and China also are not members of the ICC.

Lvova-Belova reacted sarcastically to the ICC announcement. “It is great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people,” she said.

The U.S. Treasury outlined her role when adding her to its sanctions lists on September 15, 2022.

"Lvova-Belova's efforts specifically include the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families, the so-called 'patriotic education' of Ukrainian children, legislative changes to expedite the provision of Russian Federation citizenship to Ukrainian children, and the deliberate removal of Ukrainian children by Russia's forces," it said at the time.

WATCH: On March 17, the president of the ICC announced that The Hague-based court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of responsibility for war crimes allegedly committed during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

ICC Issues Arrest Warrant Against Putin Over Alleged War Crimes In Ukraine
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Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament's human rights commissioner, has said that based on data from the country's National Information Bureau, 16,226 children have been deported. Ukraine has managed to bring back 308 children.

Human Rights Watch, which has documented the transfers of Ukrainian civilians and called them "a serious violation of the laws of war that constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity," said the warrant against Putin is the "first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia's war against Ukraine for far too long."

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called it a "historic decision from which historic responsibility will begin."

The deportation of Ukrainian children "means the illegal transfer of thousands of our children to the territory of a terrorist state," Zelenskiy said, adding that this could not have taken place without an order from Putin.

"Separating children from their families, depriving them of any opportunity to contact their relatives, hiding children in the territory of Russia, scattering them in remote regions -- all this is an obvious state policy of Russia, state decisions, and state evil, which begins precisely with the first official of this state," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address to the nation.

In a post on Twitter, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the "wheels of justice are turning," and added that "international criminals will be held accountable for stealing children and other international crimes."

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya recalled that on the night of Russia's invasion, "I said at the Security Council meeting that there is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell. Today, I would like to say that those of them who will remain alive after the military defeat of Russia will have to make a stop in The Hague on their way to hell."

With reporting by Reuters and AP

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