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Santorum Wins Alabama, Mississippi Primaries

Republican presidential hopeful Senator Rick Santorum celebrates with his wife Karen after winning primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.
Republican Party presidential candidate Rick Santorum has won primaries in the southern states of Alabama and Mississippi, strengthening his bid to be the party's nominee in U.S. presidential election in November.

But Santorum's victories also still leave the Republican Party without a clear front-runner to face incumbent Barack Obama.

Going into the primaries on March 13, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was presumed by many to be the leading Republican candidate to receive the party's nomination but the defeats in Alabama and Mississippi increase the chances of further weeks of election battles with Santorum.

This comes at a time when many in the Republican Party would prefer to be concentrating on getting an obvious front-runner prepared for the November contest.

Santorum and fellow Republican Party candidate Newt Gingrich were seen as competing for the conservative vote in Alabama and Mississippi with some analysts predicting ahead of the primaries that the two would split conservatives, allowing Romney to make a good showing among moderates, perhaps even winning one or both states.

Results show both races were close, particularly in Mississippi where Santorum received nearly 33 percent of the vote, while Gingrich and Romney received 31 and 30 percent, respectively.

Santorum did slightly better in Alabama where he received 34.5 percent, followed by Gingrich with 29.3 percent and Romney with 29 percent.

Gingrich Under Pressure

Gingrich's losses raises the chances he could drop out of the race soon.

Gingrich has won in only two states, one of which was Georgia, the state he represented in Congress.

Should Gingrich depart the race most of his supporters would likely go over to Santorum, seen as more conservative than Romney.

Santorum mentioned this while campaigning earlier in Mississippi when he suggested Gingrich should drop out of the running, "making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South."

Speaking in Louisiana, another conservative state with a primary coming up later this month, Santorum seemed confident of support from the conservative wing of the Republican Party, support he said would be crucial to defeating President Barack Obama.

"We will compete everywhere," he said. "The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now to make sure...that we have the best chance to win this election and the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama, who can take him on, on every issue."

Speaking to supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, Gingrich gave no indication that he was ready to quit the race but he did use the opportunity to attack Romney's image as the party's front-runner in the campaign.

"One of the things that tonight proved is that the elite media's intention to prove Romney is the front-runner, just collapsed," he said after the primaries. "The fact is, in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote and if you're the front-runner and keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."

To secure the nomination at the party convention in August in Tampa, Florida, a candidate needs 1,144 delegate votes. Romney, with some 450 delegates, still has more than twice the number of delegates that Santorum has but Santorum's strong showing in midwestern and southern states has kept Romney from finishing off the competition from in his own party and concentrating on defeating Obama.

Romney did win the caucuses in Hawaii and the territory of American Samoa that were held on Tuesday. In Hawaii, Romney won 45 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Santorum. Gingrich finished fourth behind Congressman Ron Paul.

Romney won all nine of the delegates available in American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa

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Kazakh Official Says Six People Arrested After January Unrest Were Tortured To Death

Kazakh Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakhstan's deputy prosecutor-general, Aset Shyndaliev, says six people were tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in January anti-government protests that led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from the oil-rich Central Asian nation's political scene.

Shyndaliev said in a statement on June 29 that 232 individuals died during the protests, which were violently dispersed by law enforcement and armed forces. The previous death toll provided by the authorities was 230, including 19 law enforcement officers.

Shyndaliev added that eight officers of the Committee of National Security (KNB) and a police officer had been arrested on a charge of torturing suspects. Overall, he said, 15 officers are suspected of using torture and illegal methods of interrogation on people arrested during and after the unrest.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture by hot irons, which investigators used on them during interrogations related to the deadly unrest.

'Burned With An Iron': Relatives Say Detainees Tortured After Massive Kazakh Protests
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Shyndaliev's comments come amid demands by rights activists and some who survived the brutality for more transparency to get justice for the victims in ongoing probes over the use of torture.

Thousands of people were detained by officials during and after the protests, which President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said were caused by "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities have provided no evidence.

The unrest occurred after a peaceful demonstration over a fuel-price hike in the tightly controlled nation's western region of Manghystau on January 2 led to widespread anti-government protests.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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Human rights groups say the number of people killed was much higher than any of the figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence proving that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by law enforcement and military personnel.

The government has not published the names of those killed during and after the unrest and has rejected calls by domestic and international human rights organizations to launch an international probe into the deaths.

Zelenskiy Asks NATO Allies For Modern Heavy Weapons, More Financial Support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy address NATO leaders via a video link on June 29.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has told NATO leaders that his country needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with Ukraine.

"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage...We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via a video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."

"This is not a war being waged by Russia against only Ukraine. This is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe -- for what the future world order will be like," Zelenskiy said.

He also pressed the allies for more financial aid, saying that Ukraine needs $5 billion monthly for its defense and protection against Russia's aggression.

He also rhetorically asked why NATO's ties with Kyiv have not been closer: “Hasn’t our contribution to defending Europe and the entire civilization been sufficient? What else is necessary?”

Zelenskiy called for more sanctions on Russia that will prevent from getting the money to pay for the war.

"Russia still receives billions every day and spends them on war. We have a multibillion-dollar deficit, we don't have oil and gas to cover it," Zelensky said.

Three Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' May Face Death Penalty

The Minsk-based Vyasna human rights center has identified the three men as Dzyanis Dzikun (left), Aleh Malchanau (center), and Dzmitry Ravich (file photo)

MINSK -- Three Belarusian activists who were arrested for allegedly damaging railways in the country to disrupt Russian arms and troops supply to war-torn Ukraine may face the death penalty if convicted.

The Investigative Committee said on June 29 that a probe launched into the case of the three activists in the southeastern region of Homel had been completed, with the suspects expected to face trial in the near future.

The three men were among some 60 activists arrested for their alleged involvement in damaging Belarus's railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and arms to Ukraine as part of Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The other cases are still being investigated.

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 Investigative Committee did not identify the trio, giving only their ages -- 29, 33, and 51 -- and calling them 'traitors of the motherland."

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center has identified the men as Dzmitry Ravich, Dzyanis Dzikun, and Aleh Malchanau, all from the southeastern city of Svetlahorsk.

They have been charged with being members of an extremist group, carrying out a terrorist act, inflicting premeditated damage to communication lines, and high treason.

The campaign called "railways war" was initiated in Belarus by a group called BYPOL. Those involved in the campaign have been nicknamed "railway guerrillas."

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia for the invasion by allowing Russian forces to enter Ukraine via Belarusian territory.

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

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.

In May, the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allowed the use of capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."

Britain Announces New Russia Sanctions List That Includes Potanin And Putin's Cousin

Billionaire Vladimir Potanin (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

The United Kingdom has announced new sanctions aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, including his close ally Vladimir Potanin, the country's second-wealthiest man with an estimated net worth of more than $30 billion.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement on June 29 that Potanin "continues to amass wealth as he supports Putin’s regime, acquiring Rosbank, and shares in Tinkoff Bank in the period since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."

The sanctions include an asset freeze, travel ban, and transport measures that make it a criminal offence for any Russian aircraft to fly or land in the United Kingdom, and give the government powers to remove aircraft belonging to designated Russian individuals and entities from the U.K. aircraft register, even if the sanctioned individual is not on board.

The statement added that Anna Tsivileva, Putin’s cousin and president of the prominent Russian coal mining company, JSC Kolmar Group, has also been sanctioned. Tsivileva’s husband, Sergey Tsivilev, is the governor of the coal-rich Kemerovo region.

The couple have "significantly benefitted" from their relationship with Putin. JSC Kolmar Group is also being sanctioned, the statement said.

"As long as Putin continues his abhorrent assault on Ukraine, we will use sanctions to weaken the Russian war machine. Today’s sanctions show that nothing and no one is off the table, including Putin’s inner circle," the statement quoted a government spokesperson as saying.

The statement said that the British government is also sanctioning a group of Russian individuals and companies for their involvement in "repressing civilians and supporting" the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria -- "exposing Russia’s malign activity across the globe."

Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Britain has sanctioned more than 1,000 people and over 120 businesses.

Kyrgyz TV Station Director Detained Over Report On Ukraine War Faces Additional Charge

Taalaibek Duishembiev's pretrial detention has been extended until at least August 3. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- The director of the NEXT television channel in Kyrgyzstan, who is currently under arrest over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the war against Ukraine, now faces an additional charge.

Taalaibek Duishembiev's lawyer, Timur Sultanov, said on June 29 that his client faces another charge of inciting ethnic hatred over an unspecified report posted on Instagram in early March.

A day earlier, a court in Bishkek extended Duishembiev's pretrial detention until at least August 3.

Duishembiev was arrested and charged with inciting interethnic hatred in early March.

The initial charge stemmed from a report by the channel that quoted the exiled former chief of the Committee for National Security of neighboring Kazakhstan, Alnur Musaev, as saying that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had agreed to support Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by sending troops to help Russia.

NEXT officials have insisted the report was balanced as it quoted Musaev directly while giving other people's views on the issue as well.

There has been no evidence of Tajik or Kyrgyz troops fighting in Ukraine since the invasion was launched on February 24.

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has rejected the report and called on local media outlets to base their reporting on the ongoing war in Ukraine solely on official government statements.

Domestic and international human rights organizations have demanded Duishembiev's release, saying that his arrest violates freedom of expression.

Biden Says U.S. To Strengthen European Posture In Face Of Russian Aggression

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's summit in Madrid on June 29.

President Joe Biden says the United States will change its military posture in Europe because of threats resulting from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking as he was greeted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a summit of the alliance on June 29, Biden said the United States would raise the number of destroyers it has in Spain from four to six. He also said Washington will send two additional F-35 squadrons to Britain and establish a 5th Army headquarters in Poland.

The alliance is needed more today "than it ever has been," Biden said, adding that NATO will be "strengthened in all directions across every domain -- land, air and sea."

Moscow-Imposed Administration Plans Referendum In Ukraine's Kherson On Joining Russia

Kherson has been fully under Russian control since early March. (file photo)

The Moscow-installed military administration ruling the area around the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson said it is preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

"Yes, we are preparing for a referendum -- and we will hold it," Kirill Stremoussov, the deputy head of Kherson's military and civil administration, said in a video published on Telegram.

Stremoussov said Kherson should become "a full-fledged member" of Russia.

Russian-installed officials said earlier that their security forces had detained Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev on June 28 after he refused to follow Moscow's orders. A local official said the mayor was kidnapped.

Kherson, an important port on the Black Sea, has been fully under Russian control since early March, just weeks after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Missile Strike Kills At Least Three In Mykolayiv Residential Building

The aftermath of a deadly missile strike in Mykolayiv on June 29.

A missile strike killed at least three people in a residential building in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv on June 29 in an attack that Russia said was meant to destroy a training base for foreign fighters.

Mykolayiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said eight Russian missiles had struck the city, including an apartment block. Photographs showed smoke billowing from a four-story building with its upper floor partly destroyed.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement quoted by TASS that its forces carried out strikes on a military training base for "foreign mercenaries" near Mykolayiv.

Mykolayiv, a river port and shipbuilding center just off the Black Sea, has been a Ukrainian stronghold against Russia's westward push in the direction of Odesa.

The Mykolayiv strike took place just two days after Russia hit a commercial center in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, killing at least 18 people. Dozens of people were still missing on June 29.

Russian Blogger Finally Allowed To Enter Georgia, Immediately Flies From Tbilisi To Lithuania

Russian blogger Insa Lander, aka Insa Oguz (file photo)

A blogger from Russia's North Caucasus facing terrorism charges that she says are an attempt to stop her investigative reporting has been allowed to enter Georgia after being stranded for more than two weeks in a neutral zone at the Russian-Georgian border.

Insa Lander, also known as Insa Oguz, told RFE/RL on June 29 that she had gone to Georgia and then flew on to Lithuania after Georgian authorities allowed her to enter the country on July 27.

Lander, who fled her native Kabardino-Balkaria region on June 12, was stuck in a neutral segment of the border as Georgian authorities refused to allow her to enter the country, saying she had given "controversial information about the goal of her visit to the country." They never explained what that meant.

Amid an outcry by human rights groups, Georgia's Foreign Ministry then tried to justify its hesitance to allow the blogger to enter the country by saying that she was facing terrorism-related charges at home.

Lithuania's ambassador to Tbilisi, Andrius Kalindra, said at the time that Vilnius was ready to provide Lander with a visa if she was allowed to enter Georgia.

Lander, who resided in Moscow for many years, was arrested in Kabardino-Balkaria in December when she came to visit relatives. She was charged with recruiting a person to a terrorist group. The charge was based on an online chat she had with an acquaintance.

Lander and her supporters have rejected the charge, saying the case was fabricated to stop her from investigating possible corruption at a charity foundation led by a top official in Kabardino-Balkaria.


NATO Officially Declares Russia A 'Significant And Direct Threat' To Members' Peace And Security

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29.

NATO has declared Russia the "most significant and direct threat” to its members’ peace and security amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Western military alliance made the declaration in a statement as its leaders met in Madrid on June 29 to confront what NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called the biggest security crisis since World War II.

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.

NATO's declaration underscores how dramatically Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unsettled Europe’s post-Cold War security order.

The alliance also promised to “step up political and practical support” to Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion.

Stoltenberg said Ukraine is fighting for its independence but also for Western values and security.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a video address to the summit, chided NATO for not embracing his embattled country more fully and asked for more weapons to defeat Moscow's forces.

Zelenskiy told NATO leaders that Ukraine needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with his country.

"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage.... We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelensky told a NATO summit in Madrid via video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."

"This is not a war being waged by Russia against only Ukraine. This is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe -- for what the future world order will be like," Zelenskiy said.

The statement also said that NATO leaders agreed on June 29 to formally invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance after Turkey struck a deal with the Nordic duo to drop its objections.

"Today, we have decided to invite Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO and agreed to sign the Accession Protocols," a declaration from a summit in Madrid said.

Russia's war on Ukraine raised fears in Finland and Sweden, prompting them to seek to join the 30-member alliance. Finland's long border with Russia means the Russian-NATO border will expand dramatically.

Finland and Sweden applied to join the military alliance last month, but their bids were held back by Turkey, which has accused both nations, particularly Sweden, of offering a safe haven to Kurdish militants who have been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state.

Stoltenberg also said he expected a swift ratification of Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance.

Earlier, President Joe Biden said during the summit that the United States is strengthening its military presence in Europe in the face of new threats posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Biden said the alliance will be "strengthened in all directions across every domain -- land, air, and sea."

Biden said at a meeting with Stoltenberg that Washington was boosting the fleet of U.S. naval destroyers from four to six in Rota, Spain, and would establish a permanent headquarters in Poland of the 5th Army Corps.

It will also send an "additional rotational brigade" to Romania, consisting of "3,000 fighters and another 2,000 personnel combat team" and will enhance rotational deployments in the Baltic countries, Biden said.

Two additional squadrons of the F-35 stealth plane will be sent to Britain and more air defense and other capabilities will be placed in Germany and in Italy.

"We're sending an unmistakable message...that NATO is strong, united, and the steps we're taking during this summit are going to further augment our collective strength," Biden said.

"We mean it when we say an attack against one is an attack against all," he told reporters at the start of a working session of NATO leaders.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and Time

'Fighting Everywhere' In Lysychansk As Russia Steps Up Attacks Across Ukraine

A man walks past a barricade made with destroyed police cars in the besieged Ukrainian city of Lysychansk.

Russian forces continue to press ahead with their assault on Lysychansk, with regional officials saying the situation was "very difficult" in the last Ukrainian holdout in the east as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy again called on the West to deliver more advanced heavy weapons to allow his forces to stave of Moscow's artillery onslaught.

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.

Ukraine's Armed Forces General Staff said on June 29 that Russian troops were trying to surround the hilltop city of Lysychansk, a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland of Donbas.

The head of the military administration in Luhansk, where Lysychansk is situated, reported increased military action, saying there was "fighting everywhere" around the city.

"The Russians are using every weapon available to them...and without distinguishing whether targets are military or not -- schools, kindergartens, cultural institutions," Serhiy Hayday said.

"The situation in Lysychansk is very difficult," Hayday said on television.

"Everything is being destroyed. This is a scorched-earth policy."

He added that the situation in Lysychansk resembles that in its twin city Syevyerodonetsk where Russian forces started destroying building after building. Syevyerodonetsk fell to Russia on June 25.

British intelligence said that Russian forces continue to make progress in their efforts to encircle Lysychansk. It said that, since June 25, Russian forces have advanced a further 2 kilometers near the Lysychansk oil refinery, south of the town.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told NATO leaders who have gathered for a crucial summit in Madrid that Ukraine needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with his country.

"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage...We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."

He also accused Russia of intentionally targeting civilians in Kremenchuk, where at least 18 people were killed and dozens are still missing after a missile attack on a crowded commercial center.

Stories Of Heroism At Ukrainian Shopping Center Hit By Russian Missile
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"A Russian missile hit this location precisely. De-li-be-ra-te-ly...It is clear that Russian killers received those exact coordinates," Zelenskiy said in his regular evening video address. "They wanted to kill as many people."

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 29 that there is a "realistic possibility" the missile strike on the Kremenchuk shopping center was intended to hit a nearby infrastructure target.

It said that Russia’s lack of accuracy in conducting long-range strikes has previously resulted in mass civilian casualty incidents, including at the Kramatorsk railway station on April 9.

The British report said it was "highly likely" that Russian strikes will continue to cause further civilian casualties given Russia’s shortage of more modern precision strike weapons and the professional shortcomings of their targeting planners.

The mayor of the southern city of Mykolayiv, Oleksandr Senkevych, said a missile strike killed at least three people in a residential building in the city on June 29 in an attack that Russia said was meant to destroy a training base for foreign fighters.

In the Dnipropetrovsk region, toward Ukraine's east, the head of the regional administration, Valentyn Reznychenko, said on June 29 that the bodies of a man and a woman had been found buried under the rubble of a building that was hit by a Russian missile the previous day..

He had earlier said that Russia had fired six missiles in the region on June 28, three of which were shot down.

Separately, the Moscow-installed military administration ruling the area around the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson said it is preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

Lysychansk Civilians Under Fire: Ukrainian Police Officer Records Phone Video Of The Dangers
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"Yes, we are preparing for a referendum -- and we will hold it," said Kirill Stremoussov, the deputy head of Kherson's military and civil administration in a video published on Telegram.

Stremoussov said Kherson should become "a full-fledged member" of Russia.

Earlier, the Russia-installed officials said their security forces had detained Kherson city Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev on June 28 after he refused to follow Moscow's orders. A local official said the mayor was kidnapped.

Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, is located northwest of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and BBC

Bulgaria Expels 70 Russian Embassy Staff Accused Of Working Against Sofia's Interests

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters that the Russian diplomats who had been expelled “worked against our interests."

Bulgaria has ordered 70 Russian diplomatic staff out of the country, claiming that they have been working against Sofia's interests.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Irena Dimitrova summoned Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova on June 28 to inform her of the expulsions, a Foreign Ministry statement said.

The statement said the first reason for the expulsions was "reciprocity” and the second was because Bulgarian authorities have determined that the Russian officials' "activity” is incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters on the sidelines of a National Assembly session that the diplomats “worked against our interests."

"I want to tell all foreign countries, not only Russia, that all those who work against the interests of Bulgaria will be sent back to the country they came from," Petkov was quoted as saying by state news agency BTA.

He declined to give more details about the Russians' activities, saying the information was confidential.

"I can say that most of them worked directly for foreign services and their diplomatic role was just a cover," Petkov said.

He added that the 70 people affected, who have been given until July 3 to leave, held various official roles in the Russian Embassy but performed uncharacteristic activities for their diplomatic positions.

The move is not meant as an aggression against the Russian people, Petkov said.

"It's just that when foreign governments try to work and interfere in Bulgaria's internal affairs, we have clear institutions that will counter this type of action. And on Sunday (July 3) we expect a full plane with 70 seats to go back to Moscow," Petkov added.

European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomatic staff since Moscow launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine on February 24. Russia has reciprocated by sending home diplomats from numerous EU countries.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Wives Of Russian Officers Urge Buryatia Leader To Return Their Husbands From Ukraine

A screen grab of the video statement from the wives of Buryatia men who are serving in Ukraine.

More than a dozen women in Russia's Republic of Buryatia have recorded a video statement urging the head of the Siberian region to recall their husbands from Ukraine where they are serving with the Russian armed forces.

One of the women, Vera Partilkhayeva, told RFE/RL on June 28 that the women's husbands were deployed in what were officially called military drills in January. But since February, they have been taking part in what Russian officials call the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

"Since February 24, they have been taking part in the special operation. They have been exhausted both morally and physically. All of them have suffered light- and medium-level contusions," the women said in the video statement, adding that many of the men were sick due to their living conditions.

Partilkhayeva wrote on her social network accounts that region head Aleksei Tsydenov will be personally responsible for every death of local residents in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

According to her, the video statement was recorded by the wives of military personnel of the Fifth Tank Brigade of Tatsin. At least 30 officers and soldiers of that military unit have been confirmed killed in Ukraine.

The exact number of Russian troops killed in Ukraine in more than four months of the war remains unknown.

Ukrainian authorities claim that more than 35,000 Russian troops have been killed, while the Russian Defense Ministry last commented on the subject in March, saying that 1,351 of its personnel had died.

Putin Arrives In Tajikistan For First Stop On Trip To Central Asia

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) greets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Dushanbe on June 28.

DUSHANBE -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has started a one-day visit to Tajikistan, where he is holding talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine continues to raise concerns in Central Asia.

Rahmon greeted Putin at the Dushanbe international airport on June 28 and the two leaders immediately left for talks.

Rahmon's spokesman Abdufattoh Sharifzoda told RFE/RL that no documents will be signed during Putin's visit, the Russian president's first public foreign trip since the start of the war in February. Sharifzoda added that Putin is on a working trip and all talks will be held face-to-face.

Sharifzoda also said that the two presidents will discuss "bilateral ties, the development of cultural and economic relations, and regional and global issues, especially the situation in Afghanistan."

Putin aide Yury Ushakov was quoted by Russian media as saying that Putin and Rahmon will also discuss "issues related to military cooperation and Tajik migrant workers in Russia."

Ushakov said they also would discuss measures to improve security along Tajikistan's porous 1,357-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Moscow has stationed about 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division at three facilities that are considered part of a Russian base in Tajikistan.

On July 29, Putin will leave Tajikistan for the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, where he will attend a summit of countries bordering the Caspian Sea, which include Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan.

Putin's visit to the two Central Asian nations comes days after he told another ally, Belarus's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Moscow will supply Minsk with an Iskander-M mobile missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers as the standoff between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine escalates.

Russia, Belarus, and Tajikistan, along with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Earlier this month, while attending an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pushed back against Moscow's narrative of the invasion of Ukraine, rejecting recognition for "quasi-states" such as the regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

He also vowed that Kazakhstan wouldn't break international sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Moscow Court Fines Airbnb, Twitch, UPS, Pinterest For Refusing To Localize User Data

(file photo)

A court in Moscow has fined the holiday rental company Airbnb, video streaming service Twitch, United Parcel Shipping (UPS), and the Pinterest image sharing and social media service for failing to localize the storage of the personal data of their users amid a government campaign to gain more control over the Internet in Russia.

The Magistrates Court in Moscow’s Taganka district ordered Twitch, Airbnb, and Pinterest on June 28 to pay 2 million rubles ($37,500) each for failing to abide by a law that requires the local storage of user data. The court ordered UPS to pay a fine of 1 million rubles on the same charge.

President Vladimir Putin has accused international tech giants of flouting the country's Internet laws, including Moscow's efforts to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia.

In recent months, Moscow courts have fined Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and TikTok over the personal data issue, as well as for refusing to delete content deemed to have been banned under Russian law.

Many critics say Russia's efforts to police online content have nothing to do with "Internet integrity" and instead they have accused the authorities of trying to impose more control over the media in the wake of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Defense Industry, Gold Imports

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

The United States on June 28 imposed sanctions on 70 entities, including Russian defense firm Rostec, and 29 individuals in a move that it said aimed to "strike at the heart of Russia’s ability to develop and deploy weapons."

The new sanctions, which also ban imports of Russian gold, were announced by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and they implement agreements reached during the Group of Seven (G7) summit this week.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the United States reaffirmed its commitment to work with partners and allies “to impose additional severe sanctions in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

“Broad multilateral commitments and actions by G7 members this week further cut off the Russian Federation’s access to technology that is critical to their military,” Yellen said. “Targeting Russia’s defense industry will degrade [President Vladimir] Putin’s capabilities and further impede his war against Ukraine, which has already been plagued by poor morale, broken supply chains, and logistical failures.”

The sanctions on Rostec announced on June 28 build on previously announced sanctions against the state aerospace and defense conglomerate. The Treasury Department said that Rostec's "management umbrella includes more than 800 entities across a wide range of sectors" and that all entities owned 50 percent or more by Rostec are blocked.

This includes United Aircraft Corporation, the maker of Russia's MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets. The Treasury Department said this aims to "weaken Russia's ability to continue its aerial assault on Ukraine."

The ban on gold imports, which the Treasury Department said is Russia's biggest nonenergy export, was also agreed by Britain, Canada, and Japan during the G7 summit.

In addition to targeting Rostec and other industries critical to the defense sector, the sanctions take aim at military units and officers implicated in human rights abuses in Ukraine, the OFAC said.

The Treasury Department's enforcement arm also issued a joint alert with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security advising vigilance against Russian and Belarusian export control evasion, the statement said.

Separately, the U.S. State Department announced visa restrictions on more than 500 military officers "for threatening or violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence."

The department has also taken steps to impose visa restrictions on 18 Russian nationals in relation to the suppression of dissent, including politically motivated detentions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

Washington is also increasing tariffs on more than 570 groups of Russian products worth approximately $2.3 billion.

The U.S. Commerce Department took complementary actions, adding several entities to its so-called Entity List for continuing to do business with Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine.

The additions to the Entity List "demonstrate the United States will impose stringent export controls on companies, including those in third countries, in order to deny them access to items they can use to support Russia’s military and/or defense industrial base," Blinken said.

With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters

Jailed Kyrgyz Ex-President Atambaev Acquitted In 2020 Mass Disorder Case

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) in court on June 28.

BISHKEK -- A court in Bishkek has acquitted former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev in a case related to mass protests that swept the Central Asian nation in 2020.

The Birinchi Mai district court found Atambaev and his six co-defendants not guilty on June 28 of organizing and taking part in mass disorder, the illegal possession of firearms, and threatening law enforcement.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors asked the court to convict Atambaev and sentence him to 12 years in prison. They sought terms of between 7 and 9 years for his co-defendants.

Atambaev is currently serving an 11-year prison term he was handed in 2020 for his role in the illegal release of notorious crime boss Aziz Batukaev in 2013.

The anti-government protests in October 2020 were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election seen by many as rigged.

Atambaev was released during the protests and joined in them along with several other politicians. He was later rearrested and returned to prison.

The 65-year-old is currently involved in another trial that is linked to two days of violence at his compound near Bishkek sparked by his refusal to obey three summonses to appear at the Interior Ministry for questioning about Batukaev’s release.

Kyrgyz Ex-President Detained After Special-Forces Officer Dies In Raid On His Compound
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The 2019 standoff between security forces and his supporters resulted in the death of a senior security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.

In that case, the former president and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.

Earlier this month Atambaev was additionally charged with abuse of office over deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 that claimed almost 450 lives. At that time, Atambaev led an interim government following violent anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Russian Officials Detain Mayor Of Ukrainian City After He Refuses To Collaborate

Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev (file photo)

Russian officials occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson have detained Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev after he refused to work with them.

Kolykhayev's adviser, Halyna Lyashevska, wrote on Facebook that officers of Russia's National Guard searched the mayor's office and detained him on June 28.

According to Lyashevska, Kolykhayev likely was arrested because of his open refusal to collaborate with the occupying Russian authorities.

The governor of the Kherson region, Hennadiy Lahuta, confirmed Kolykhayev’s detention.

No further details were immediately available.

After Russian troops took over the city of Kherson in early March, Kolykhayev remained there and continued to work as the mayor while refusing to cooperate with the occupying forces.

In late April, Russia appointed its own so-called heads of military-civilian administrations in the city and the areas around the Kherson region that Russian troops had taken over during their ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Media reports in Ukraine said on June 28 that occupying Russian forces also detained an official in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhya region last week.

Relatives Fear Tajik Activist Faces Torture, Prison At Home As Russia Considers Extradition

Emomali Kholov (right) with Izzat Amon

DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have detained a Tajik activist residing in the Kursk region and plan to extradite him to Tajikistan, where he may face torture and imprisonment, his relatives and colleagues say.

Emomali Kholov's relatives and colleagues told RFE/RL that the 30-year-old father of 11 was detained on June 26 in the Kursk region.

Kholov's close associate, Suhrob Jahon, quoted his friend's lawyer as saying that Tajik authorities had requested Russian officials extradite the activist after a criminal case was launched against him in March 2021 on extremism charges.

Kholov used to work as a volunteer at the Center of Tajiks in Russia.

The center was led by Izzat Amon, before he was deprived of Russian citizenship and forced to return to Dushanbe in March 2021 at the request of Tajik authorities, who accused him of financial fraud.

Amon was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison in October. Earlier this month, a court in Dushanbe handed Amon an additional six years in prison on a separate fraud charge that his relatives have called politically motivated.

Activists and rights groups say President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has used various levers of power to suppress rights groups and dissent.

Amon's nonprofit organization in Moscow helped Tajik migrant workers find jobs, obtain work and residency permits, and get legal advice.

It was shut down after his arrest and several of its employees and volunteers have complained of being put under pressure by Russian authorities since.

Russian Lawyer Detained After Criticizing Ukraine Shopping-Mall Strike

Dmitry Talantov (file photo)

The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Udmurtia region, Dmitry Talantov, has been detained after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.

Talantov wrote on Facebook that he was detained on June 28 and taken handcuffed to the Investigative Committee for questioning.

The Society of Russian Lawyers wrote on Telegram that Talantov was detained as he was trying to fly to Moscow.

No official reason has been given for Talantov's detention.

On June 27, when news of the deadly missile attack broke, Talantov condemned the strike, calling the Russian authorities "scumbags."

Talantov also is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high-treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.

At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) called "a war crime."

Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.

G7 Leaders Wrap Up Summit Condemning Russian Invasion, Pledge Support For Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a working session of G7 leaders via video link in Kyiv on June 27.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "illegal and unjustifiable," and pledged to hold an international conference to raise funds for the country's postwar reconstruction.

A final statement from the G7 meeting in Germany that ended on June 28 also addresses the issue of global food security, which has been shaken by Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports, keeping grain stocks from one of the world's largest producers from being exported.

"We, the leaders of the Group of Seven...were joined by the leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa, as well as Ukraine," the statement says.

"We reemphasize our condemnation of Russia's illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine."

The three-day summit of leaders from the world's leading democracies has already pledged to keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and to intensify international economic and political pressure on President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in ally Belarus.

By the end of the meeting, they had strengthened that pledge and condemned Russia for an "abominable" attack on a shopping center in central Ukraine, calling it a "war crime," while vowing Putin will "be held to account" for Moscow's actions.

Stories Of Heroism At Ukrainian Shopping Center Hit By Russian Missile
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"We are strongly committed to supporting Ukrainian reconstruction through an international reconstruction conference," the G7 said, adding that members had agreed to spend $4.5 billion on addressing food-security issues around the globe exacerbated by rising grain and food costs following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The White House added that the United States would pitch in $2.76 billion toward that effort, which will assist 47 countries and regional organizations dealing with food insecurity and malnutrition.

Officials have said during the summit that leaders of the major economies are working on plans to pursue a price cap on Russian oil, raise tariffs on Russian goods and impose other new sanctions, though no final deal was reached in Germany and further discussions beyond the summit are expected.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Belarus Adds Jailed Opposition Activist Tsikhanouski, RFE/RL Consultant Losik To Terrorist List

A popular video blogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski intended to run for president but was disqualified and arrested before the vote in August 2020.

The Belarusian KGB has added 23 people to its terrorists list, including the jailed husband of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik.

The KGB's June 28 move brings the total number of persons on its official registry of terrorists to 870.

Tsikhanouski and Losik were sentenced in December to 18 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, on charges of organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupted social order.

Both denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.

Rights groups consider them, and four other persons who were sentenced behind closed doors in the southeastern city of Homel, to be political prisoners.

“This escalation is an egregious abuse of the state’s authority and underlines the Lukashenka regime’s contempt for journalists who expose the truth," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement, referring to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"We continue to demand Ihar’s immediate release from prison so he can be reunited with his wife and daughter,” Fly added.

The crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has intensified since mass protests erupted in the wake of Lukashenka’s August 2020 reelection, which has not been recognized by the opposition and the West.

A popular video blogger, Tsikhanouski intended to run against Lukashenka but was disqualified and arrested before the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya subsequently mobilized voters and won the election, according to the opposition and Western countries who say Lukashenka rigged the results.

Tsikhanouskaya has been living in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus due to concerns about her safety and that of the couple's two children.

Russia Places Sanctions On Biden's Wife, Daughter, Several Senators In Latest List

U.S. President Joe Biden (in front, from left), First Lady Jill Biden, their daughter, Ashley Biden, and granddaughters Finnegan and Naomi pose for a picture during a celebration of Independence Day in Washington on July 4, 2021.

Russia has added U.S. President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, and daughter, Ashley, to its list of Americans under sanctions in retaliation for Washington's moves against Russia over its war in Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement on June 28 that 23 other academics and U.S. officials, including Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Senators Charles Grassley, Kirsten Gillebrand, Susan Collins, Ben Sass, and Martin Heinrich, were also added to the list.

"As a response to the ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian political and public figures, 25 American citizens are included in the 'stop list' from among the senators responsible for the formation of a Russophobic narrative, participants in the so-called McFaul-Yermak group, which develops recommendations on anti-Russian restrictions, as well as members of the family of President Joe Biden," the statement said.

Those people on the list are banned from entering Russian territory.

The United States has led international efforts to impose far-reaching sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.

Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions against individuals, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, his daughters, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and members of his family, and several oligarchs linked to Putin.

They have also implemented crippling economic sanctions on Russia, such as cutting off much of its financial network from international transactions, freezing assets, and implementing a partial embargo on Russian oil imports.


Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Handed 15-Day Jail Term On Disobedience Charge

Ilya Yashin speaks with the Associated Press at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow in September 2021.

MOSCOW -- Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin has been sentenced to 15 days in jail after being convicted of being disobedient to police, a charge that he and his supporters denied.

Yashin said on Telegram that the Khamovniki district court in Moscow sentenced him on June 28, a day after he was detained while on a walk in a Moscow park with a friend.

"I am an opposition politician, an independent municipal lawmaker, a critic of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and an opponent of the war in Ukraine. This detention of mine is a tool to impose pressure on me," Yashin wrote, adding that he does not exclude that a criminal case may be launched against him after he serves his jail term, which has become a routine practice in the country after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Journalist Irina Babloyan, who was with Yashin when he was detained, tweeted on June 28 that the accusation by police that he fought with them was untrue and that Yashin did not resist.

Yashin, 38, is an outspoken Kremlin critic. He was fined four times in recent weeks on charges of discrediting the Russian military over his open opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Another Jehovah's Witness Gets Prison Term In Siberia Amid Crackdown

For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

A Russian court in Siberia has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to six years in prison amid an ongoing crackdown on the religious group, which has been banned in the country since 2017.

A court in the city of Krasnoyarsk sentenced Yevgeny Zinich on June 27 after finding him guilty of organizing the activities of an "extremist organization."

The court also ruled that Zinich will be on parole for one year after serving his term and banned him from leading public and religious organizations for two years.

The probe against Zinich was launched in early 2021.

Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.

According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.

The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities.

For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, rejection of military service, and refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.

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