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Saudi Court Orders Prison, Lashes For Website Editor

Website editor Raif Badawi in an undated photo
Website editor Raif Badawi in an undated photo
The editor of a Saudi Arabian social website has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for violating Islamic values.

The "Al-Watan" newspaper reported on July 30 that Raif Badawi, who founded the "Free Saudi Liberals" website, had avoided the death penalty when the judge hearing the case dropped charges of apostasy against Badawi.

Badawi’s site had urged Saudis to share opinions about the role of religion in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

"Al-Watan" did not say when the verdict was rendered.

Badawi was taken into custody in June 2012 on charges of cybercrime and disobeying his father.

"Al-Watan" reported the judge also ordered that Badawi’s website be shut down.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the sentence.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

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Director Who Fled Iran Gets 12-Minute Ovation, Special Jury Prize At Cannes Film Festival

Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof poses for photographers after winning a special jury prize at the Cannes festival on May 25.
Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof poses for photographers after winning a special jury prize at the Cannes festival on May 25.

Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who fled a prison and flogging sentence in his home country, was awarded a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his tale of a court investigator whose family life is torn apart during anti-government protests.

In accepting the award in the French resort town, the 51-year-old Rasoulof said his heart was with his film crew, who were "still under the pressure of the secret services back in Iran."

The special jury prize was given to Rasoulof for "drawing attention to unsustainable injustice" in Iran, organizers said after a screening of the film, The Seed of the Sacred Fig, led to a 12-minute ovation.

The festival's top prize, meanwhile, went to the film Anora, a sensual drama and comedy about an exotic dancer who becomes involved with a Russian oligarch's son.

Earlier at a news conference, Rasoulof recalled how he had to decide within hours whether to go into exile or serve a prison sentence, saying it was still difficult to talk about.

"I had to say to myself, well, do I want to be in prison, or should I leave Iran, geographic Iran, and join the cultural Iran that exists beyond its borders?" said Rasoulof, who is an outspoken critic of repression in Iran and has twice served prison terms.

Iran’s judiciary sentenced Rasoulof to flogging and eight years in prison after he was convicted of "collusion against national security," his lawyer, Babak Paknia, said on May 8.

Details of his escape from Iran are not totally known. He said the action was plotted by using contacts he had made during his prison stays.

"The more you spend time with interrogators, the secret police, the more you learn how to thwart them," he told the AFP news agency at Cannes.

"They show you your emails, so you learn how to write them. They show you your bank statements, so you learn when you should not have used your credit card."

Rasoulof said he also came up with the idea for The Seed Of The Sacred Fig while in prison.

Western rights advocates and film-industry groups had condemned Iran’s actions against Rasoulof and demanded his release.

Rasoulof won the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize in 2020 for his film There Is No Evil, which tells four stories loosely connected to the themes of the death penalty in Iran and personal freedoms under oppression.

"I am also very sad, deeply sad, to see the disaster experienced by my people every day...the Iranian people live under a totalitarian regime," he said in Cannes.

With reporting by AFP and Variety

Self-Exiled Iranian Director Rasoulof Talks Of 'Mixed Feelings' At Cannes Festival

Director Mohammad Rasoulof holds pictures of cast members Missagh Zareh (left) and Soheila Golestani following the screening of his film The Seed Of The Sacred Fig in Cannes.
Director Mohammad Rasoulof holds pictures of cast members Missagh Zareh (left) and Soheila Golestani following the screening of his film The Seed Of The Sacred Fig in Cannes.

CANNES, France -- Self-exiled Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof -- who had to escape his home country to be able to appear at the Cannes Film Festival -- told RFE/RL that he has “mixed feelings” about the screening of his film and the attention he received during the famed event in France.

The May 25 screening of his film, titled The Seed Of The Sacred Fig, was greeted by a 12-minute ovation. He later received a special jury prize for "drawing attention to unsustainable injustice" in Iran, festival organizers said.

"It's interesting for me that I'm [in Cannes] after seven years in which I was banned from traveling,” he told RFE/RL in an interview prior to receiving the jury prize.

“I have mixed feelings. There were members of my team...who wanted to be here but didn’t have that possibility. So, there is a heavy sadness within me.”

“On the other hand, I'm glad that the movie is [being screened] here. It can be heard; the voices of those who wanted this movie to be made are being heard.

“Therefore, it is all a paradoxical situation."

In accepting the special jury prize, the 51-year-old Rasoulof had told the audience that his heart was with his film crew, who were "still under the pressure of the secret services back in Iran."

Iran’s judiciary had sentenced Rasoulof to flogging and eight years in prison after he was convicted of "collusion against national security," his lawyer, Babak Paknia, said on May 8.

Prior to Rasoulof's flight from Iran, Western rights advocates and film-industry groups had condemned Iran’s actions against the outspoken film director and demanded his release.

Details of his escape are not totally known. On May 13, he posted a short video to Instagram of an undisclosed mountainous location and wrote that he would talk about his journey out of Iran later.

In a Cannes news conference, he said the action was plotted by using contacts he had made during his prison stays.

"A few days after Norouz (the Persian New Year) -- I think it was around April 12 -- I learned from my lawyers that my prison sentence had been confirmed and then the case would be sent for enforcement and I would have to go to prison.”

Rasoulof said he felt that Iranian authorities wanted to send him to prison “for a long time.”

“I had to decide whether I wanted to go to prison…wait to see what happens, or leave and keep telling the story. I chose the second option."

The film by Rasoulof -- a longtime activist for human rights in his home country -- tells the tale of a court investigator whose family life is torn apart during anti-government protests.

Rasoulof, an outspoken critic of the Iranian government, has served two terms over previous films. His passport was revoked in 2017.

Zelenskiy Visits Kharkiv As Death Toll From Russian Strike On Hardware Store Rises To 16

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy made an appeal to U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping from the site of a printworks in Kyiv that was hit by a Russian strike earlier this week.
Ukrainian President Zelenskiy made an appeal to U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping from the site of a printworks in Kyiv that was hit by a Russian strike earlier this week.

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the battle-scarred northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on May 26 and issued a fresh plea for additional aid. His comments came as rescuers searched the charred wreckage of a shopping center in the city for the bodies of people killed in a Russian missile attack the previous day, which has so far claimed at least 16 lives.

Nearly four dozen people were wounded in the May 25 attack, which hit the store as scores of shoppers were visiting the Epicentr hardware supply store.

Oleh Synyehubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region, said the toll stood at 16 as of the late afternoon on May 26 amid fears it would climb higher as emergency workers used heavy equipment to pick through the debris.

At least 43 people were wounded, said Ihor Terekhov, Kharkiv’s mayor.

"The attack targeted the shopping center, where there were many people," Terekhov said in a post to Telegram. This is clearly terrorism."

Russia Hits Hypermarket In Ukraine's Second-Biggest City
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Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko, meanwhile, said 16 people were still missing after the strike.

“This blow to Kharkiv is another manifestation of Russian madness,” Zelenskiy said on Telegram on May 25 moments after the attack.

While in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian leader urged U.S. President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping to attend a planned peace summit in Switzerland starting on June 15.

"There is no nation that is able to stop such a war only through its own efforts. The participation of world leaders is needed,” he said in a Telegram posting.

"The efforts of the world's majority are the best guarantee of the fulfillment of obligations. Please support the peace summit with your personal leadership and involvement," Zelenskiy said in comments directed in English to Biden and Xi.

The Russian state news agency TASS cited an unnamed security official as saying, without providing evidence, that there was a "military store and command post" inside the shopping center.

A video released by Ukraine’s national police depicted the moment of the attack on the hypermarket, showing what appeared to be workers and shoppers standing in a home-goods section of a large store.

A woman who identified herself as Svitlana told RFE/RL that she rushed to the site “because my son works here. He is an assistant in the paint department.”

When asked if she had any word from him, she responded: “No.”

Lyubov, who also only gave her first name, said: “So many colleagues [remain inside]. We looked for them. There were other people who needed help, too. But it was impossible to reach them due to the fire.”

Oleksandr Filchakov, Kharkiv's regional prosecutor, showed RFE/RL what he said was “shrapnel from the D-30 versatile intermediate gliding ammunition.”

“The Russian Federation has used it to bomb this supermarket.”

Kharkiv Residents Deal With Aftermath Of Deadly Russian Strike On Supermarket
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Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has come under intensified missile and rocket attacks over the past month as Russia opened a new front in its offensive operations, crossing the border into Ukraine from the north.

Experts say the offensive is aimed at stretching Ukrainian forces to the breaking point and possibly putting Kharkiv within artillery range.

Overnight on May 26, Russia fired dozens of missiles and kamikaze drones at various targets in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force said 12 missiles, and 31 drones had been downed by air defenses.

Also on May 25, Synyehubov said at least five people were injured in the village of Kupyansk-Vuzloviy and that an emergency vehicle had been damaged in a Russian missile strike.

Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western allies to step up deliveries of air defense weapons and other armaments to aid their outmanned and outgunned forces, especially in the country's northeast.

Ukrainian officials have also stepped up their calls for the United States to relax its restrictions preventing Ukrainian forces from using U.S.-supplied weaponry to more aggressively hit targets inside of Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview published on May 24 in The Economist that Ukraine should be allowed to use Western-supplied weapons in strikes against military targets inside Russia.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service

Flooding Kills 10 Members Of 1 Family In Northeast Afghanistan

Afghans search through a building destroyed by heavy flooding earlier this month. Afghanistan has suffered a series of disastrous inundations this year
Afghans search through a building destroyed by heavy flooding earlier this month. Afghanistan has suffered a series of disastrous inundations this year

Flooding from heavy rainfall swept through a remote village in northeast Afghanistan, killing 10 members of a single family. Local Taliban officials in Badakhshan Province told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that four bodies had been recovered, and rescuers were searching for more after the May 26 flooding overnight. Mohammad Akram Akbari, the head of the provincial Anti-Disaster Department said a number of villages were hit by the flooding. In Baghlan, about 300 kilometers north of Kabul, Taliban officials said that 40 houses had been destroyed by flooding. The impoverished country has suffered a series of catastrophic floods this year. To see the original article by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Lithuanians Vote In Presidential Runoff Amid Russia Fears

Lithuanians voting in the first round of the presidential election on May 12, 2024.
Lithuanians voting in the first round of the presidential election on May 12, 2024.

Lithuania's heads of state and government faced off in the second round of a presidential election, as the Baltic nation prioritizes defense and security amid fears over neighboring Russia.

Both candidates agree that the NATO and EU member of 2.8 million should boost defense spending to counter Russia, with funds coming from a newly passed tax increase.

Incumbent Gitanas Nauseda, 60, is the heavy favorite to win another five-year term.

There have been no opinion surveys since the first round, when Nauseda received 44 percent of the ballot.

His opponent, 49-year-old Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, who got 20 percent in the first round, lost to Nauseda in the last presidential vote.

Polls in the May 26 voting close at 7 p.m. Prague time.

Sudanese General Says Russia Seeks Red Sea Fuel Station In Swap For Weapons

Russia previously sought a Red Sea naval base deal with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir before he was deposed in 2019. (file photo)
Russia previously sought a Red Sea naval base deal with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir before he was deposed in 2019. (file photo)

A top Sudanese general, Yasser al-Atta, said on May 25 that Russia had asked for a fueling station on the Red Sea in exchange for weapons and ammunition, and that agreements with Russia would be signed soon. The two countries signed a naval base deal under former President Omar Al-Bashir, but army leaders later said that plan was under review and it never materialized. Russia has previously developed ties with the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, which is the army’s foe in a year-old war and which Western diplomats say has also had ties with Russia's Wagner private military group.

Report: Zelenskiy To Travel To Portugal After Visit To Spain

Portuguese Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (left) and Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a meeting in 2023.
Portuguese Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (left) and Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a meeting in 2023.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is set to travel to Portugal on May 28, after his planned visit to Spain, CNN Portugal reported on May 25. CNN Portugal said that the "Ukrainian president's arrival in the Iberian Peninsula is scheduled for the beginning of next week but will always depend on the course of the war in Ukraine in the coming hours." Representatives for the Portuguese prime minister and president did not comment. Spanish radio station Cadena SER reported that Zelenskiy will travel to Spain on May 26. Earlier this month, Zelenskiy postponed his trip to Madrid and Lisbon amid intense fighting in the Kharkiv region.

Russia, Iran Reaffirm 'Firm Commitment' To Strategic Partnership, Ministers Say

Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers reaffirmed their ties and “strategic partnership” in a phone call on May 25, less than a week after Iran’s president, foreign minister, and others died in a helicopter crash in northern Iran. Both Russia and Iran are bitter rivals of the West, and Tehran has supplied the Kremlin with deadly drones used in Moscow’s war with Ukraine. Following the call between Russia's Sergei Lavrov and Iran's new acting foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, Russia's Foreign Ministry said the “parties reaffirmed their firm commitment to the unconditional continuation of the course chosen by the leaders of the two countries on the formation of a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran and their readiness to implement all available agreements and projects in various fields.”

Updated

Armenian PM Defends Demarcation Deal With Azerbaijan In Visit To Border Region

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (center left) is confronted by villagers on the country's border with Azerbaijan on May 25.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (center left) is confronted by villagers on the country's border with Azerbaijan on May 25.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian visited the northeastern province of Tavush on May 25 to meet with residents of several border communities where a controversial demarcation process with Azerbaijan was completed earlier this month.

Pashinian insisted that despite a few infrastructural problems, which have emerged as a result of the process, the sections of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border where the demarcation has been conducted are now safer than before due to their newly acquired legitimacy.

At the same time, talking to RFE/RL after the meetings, the prime minister stressed that "not a single inch" of sovereign Armenian territory has been ceded to Azerbaijan.

“We are not drawing a new border now, but we are reproducing the de jure border that existed at the moment of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said, again hailing the process as a success.

“In the modern-day world, there is no more effective security guarantee than a delimitated, legitimate border…. And we are now creating for our villages and our republic in this section of the border the most reliable security guarantee that can exist in the modern world today,” the Armenian premier added.

Pashinian experienced an incident during the visit to the border region when his helicopter was forced to make an “unscheduled landing” due to bad weather.

“Everything is fine,” Pashinian wrote on Facebook. “Due to bad weather conditions, our helicopter made an unscheduled landing in Vanadzor. Now we continue our journey by car.”

The incident came less than a week after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian were killed when their helicopter crashed in poor weather near Iran’s border with Azerbaijan on May 19.

Both the United States and the European Union have hailed the border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, stressing that the deal announced by the two bitter South Caucasus rivals in April contains a reference to the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration, a document by which a dozen former Soviet countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, pledged to recognize each other’s territorial integrity within existing administrative borders.

In the process that was formally completed on May 15, Baku regained control over four abandoned villages near the Armenian border that had been under Yerevan’s military control since the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war in the early 1990s.

Armenia and Azerbaijan announced on May 24 that their border guards were deployed at the sections where the demarcation was completed.

Armenian opposition groups have denounced what they describe as the latest “unilateral territorial concessions” to Azerbaijan. They argue that the border demarcation, which affects the infrastructure of border communities, leaves local residents more vulnerable to further possible Azerbaijani aggression.

The demarcation process in April sparked protests in Kirants, the village most affected by the process, as well as later in Yerevan.

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, the outspoken head of the Tavush diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has emerged as the leader of these protests in recent weeks, staging several rallies attended by tens of thousands of supporters. He has called on his supporters to rally in Yerevan again on May 26 to push for Pashinian’s resignation.

Pashinian and members of his political team dismiss the opposition’s criticism, rejecting the resignation demand.

Unlike the three other border sections, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on a transitional border protection scheme for the section of the village of Kirants where part of the road and some houses and land are to be handed over to Azerbaijan.

Border Village Residents Challenge Armenian PM Over Demarcation With Azerbaijan
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The scheme will be in place until July 24, when Armenia hopes to build a new section of the road that will provide the village with connectivity with the rest of Armenia without having to use the road section that will be controlled by Azerbaijan.

The Pashinian government has also pledged to provide compensation to people who are losing their land and property as a result of the demarcation.

“We will do everything so that the rights of our citizens will be maximally preserved and protected,” the Armenian prime minister told RFE/RL on May 25.

Most of the residents of Kirants who are losing property in the border demarcation said this week that they would reject the compensation.

Some of them challenged Pashinian over the demarcation process when he visited the village.

One resident, whose father’s grave is apparently in the territory that will now be controlled by Azerbaijan, rebuked Pashinian for the land concession.

“You are giving away my homeland and you are giving my father’s grave together with it,” he said.

Stressing again that “not an inch of sovereign Armenian territory has been handed over to Azerbaijan in the process,” Pashinian replied: “Brother, the homeland begins where the state border begins. Period.”

Updated

Russian Forces Hit Hypermarket In Deadly Assault On Kharkiv, Surrounding Villages

Ukrainian firefighters battle a blaze at a shopping mall hit by a Russian air strike in Kharkiv on May 25.
Ukrainian firefighters battle a blaze at a shopping mall hit by a Russian air strike in Kharkiv on May 25.

Russian forces continued their intensified offensive against Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, where officials said a shell struck a building-materials store on May 25, killing at least six people and trapping dozens of others, while surrounding villages reported damage and injuries under a hail of drone and missile attacks.

Mayor Ihor Terekhov said a shell appeared to hit a massive shopping area in a residential zone in Ukraine’s second-largest city, leaving a "large number" of people missing and injured.

In a Telegram posting, he said preliminary information indicated the blast “occurred in a construction hypermarket.”

“It is already known that two [workers] are dead. We have a large number of people missing. Many wounded...It's pure terrorism,” he said.

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondents filmed first responders rushing to the scene as thick smoke was billowing from the hypermarket. People were seen running away from the site, at least one of them visibly suffering from injuries.

Russia Hits Hypermarket In Ukraine's Second-Biggest City
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Officials later raised the death toll to six, with at least 40 injured and 16 missing.

A woman who identified herself as Lyubov told the AFP news agency that she was working as a cleaner at the hypermarket when a massive explosion occurred.

"It happened all of a sudden,” she said. “We didn't understand at first. Everything went dark and everything started falling on our heads."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said dozens of people may have been in the store when the shells hit.

"As of now, we know that more than 200 people could have been inside the hypermarket," Zelenskiy said on Telegram.

“This blow to Kharkiv is another manifestation of Russian madness,” Zelenskiy said.

The details could not immediately be independently verified.

The Russian state-run TASS news agency cited a security source as saying, without providing evidence, that there was a "military store and command post" inside the hypermarket.

Russia has denied it targets civilian areas, despite widespread proof of such actions.

Western and Ukrainian military experts say the Kremlin’s latest offensive is aimed at stretching Ukrainian forces to the breaking point in the northeast and moving Russian forces to within artillery range of Kharkiv, a city of some 1.4 million people.

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 counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Separately, Oleh Synyehubov, governor the Kharkiv region, said at least five people were injured in the village of Kupyansk-Vuzloviy and that an emergency vehicle had been damaged in a Russian missile strike.

Two days earlier, Synyehubov said at least seven people were killed in Kharkiv in a wave of Russian strikes that Zelenskiy called "extremely brutal."

In his nightly video address of May 24, Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces had recaptured some territory in the region, although details are difficult to pin down given the heavy fighting there.

Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western allies to step up deliveries of air defense weapons and other armaments to aid their outmanned and outgunned forces, especially in the country's northeast.

In Russia, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov claimed that Ukrainian rockets had killed three people in residential districts of two villages in the area.

Kyiv did not comment on the reports but has insisted it does not target civilian areas. In recent months, several fuel depots and military sites inside Russia have been hit by missies, often in the Belgorod region near the border.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview published on May 24 in The Economist that Ukraine should be allowed to use Western-supplied weapons in strikes against military targets inside Russia.

The NATO head called on members to “consider whether they should lift” their current restrictions, saying they make it “very hard” for Ukraine to defend itself.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian media reported that at least 28 Ukrainian commanders are facing criminal probes over perceived military failures amid Russia's intensified offensive operations near Kharkiv.

The reports said the investigations are being carried out by Ukraine's State Bureau of Investigations and focus on allegations of failing to properly organize defenses along the border with Russia.

Ukrainian forces have been under immense pressure since Russia launched a surprise offensive on the Kharkiv region beginning May 10, shelling border settlements and attempting to capture Vovchansk, a small town just 5 kilometers from the Russian border.

Thousands of civilians have been evacuated during the offensive, and Ukrainian troops have been forced to pull back amid heavy losses to better-defended lines.

The reports said the 28 officers being investigated are at the command level of the 125th Brigade, the 415th Rifle Battalion, the 23rd Mechanized Brigade, and other units.

Neither the Ukrainian government nor the country's military have commented on the reports.

On the diplomatic front, G7 finance ministers meeting in northern Italy said some "progress" has been made in finding ways to use profits from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine.

"We are making progress in our discussions on potential avenues to bring forward the extraordinary profits stemming from immobilized Russian sovereign assets to the benefit of Ukraine, consistent with international law and our respective legal systems," ministers said in a draft statement seen by the AFP news agency.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Kosovo Census Indicates Population Decline, But Ethnic-Serb Participation Uncertain

The dominant Serbian political party in Kosovo said Serbs wouldn't participate in the Census process.
The dominant Serbian political party in Kosovo said Serbs wouldn't participate in the Census process.

Preliminary results of Kosovo’s census suggest that the Western Balkan nation’s population has declined over the past decade, although a boycott by the ethnic-Serbian minority may have skewed the data. An official said on May 25 that the country’s population was about 1.5 million, down from 1.74 million in 2011, the date of the last census. When the census began, Serb List, the dominant Serbian political party in Kosovo -- which enjoys Belgrade's support — said Serbs wouldn't participate in the process. Serbia has never acknowledged its former province's 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions are high between ethnic-Albanian and Serbian residents. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Pakistani Christian Community Attacked After Blasphemy Accusation

Hundreds of Muslims in eastern Pakistan went on a rampage over allegations that a Christian man had desecrated the pages of Islam's holy book, ransacking and burning his house and beating him before police officers rescued the man and his father, officials said on May 25. The incident occurred in the Mujahid Colony residential area in Sargodha, a city in Punjab Province, said district police chief Ijaz Malhi. He said police quickly responded and saved the lives of the two men. Malhi said the situation was under control and officers were investigating the allegations.

Updated

Israel Continues Gaza Attacks Despite UN Court Order To 'Immediately Halt' Rafah Offensive

Palestinians fleeing Rafah earlier this month
Palestinians fleeing Rafah earlier this month

Israel continued bombing in the Gaza Strip, including the city of Rafah, on May 25, one day after a top UN court ordered it to halt military operations against the southern city.

Israel gave no indication that the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had affected its planning.

“Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that ‘create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part,’” Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a statement, echoing wording found in the ICJ ruling.

Separately, following a meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials in Paris on May 25, an Israeli official said Tel Aviv was seeking to restart talks in the coming days in an effort to reach a hostage-release deal in Gaza.

"There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement," the official told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

Early on May 25, hours after the court ruling, Israel carried out strikes on the Gaza Strip as fighting between Israeli troops and fighters for Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, continued.

Air strikes were reported in Rafah and the central city of Deir al-Balah.

European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that “ICJ orders are binding on the Parties and they have to be fully and effectively implanted.”

In its May 24 ruling, the ICJ said Israel must “immediately halt” its offensive against Rafah and take urgent measures to address the humanitarian crisis in the entire region. Measures should include reopening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to allow aid to flow into Gaza.

The order is part of a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide and asking the court to rule that Israel must stop its offensive in the southern Gaza city.

In a ruling on January 26, the 15-judge panel ruled that Israel must do everything to prevent genocide during its offensive in response to an attack in October by Hamas -- which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU -- but stopped short of ordering a cease-fire.
On March 28, it ordered Israel to take all necessary and effective action to ensure basic food supplies to Gaza’s Palestinian population.

Though the court's rulings are legally binding, it has no way to enforce them.
Still, the 13-2 vote ordering Israel to halt its Rafah offensive, and to report on its progress in easing the humanitarian crisis within one month, increases pressure on Israel and further isolates it.

The ruling stepped up pressure against Israel just days after Norway, Ireland, and Spain announced they would recognize a Palestinian state and after the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced he would seek arrest warrants on war crimes charges for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and several top Hamas leaders.

Israel and Hamas have been fighting since October 7, 2023, when Hamas fighters launched a massive cross-border attack on Israel. Some 1,200 Israeli citizens were killed in the attack, while another 240 were taken hostage, some of whom are still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

(with reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters)

Satellite Photos Show Ukrainian Drone Strike Damaged Russian Radar Station

A satellite image taken on May 23 showing damage to Russia's Armavir radar station
A satellite image taken on May 23 showing damage to Russia's Armavir radar station

Satellite images taken shortly after a May 23 Ukrainian drone strike in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region show significant damage to a key radar installation providing air-defense coverage to the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, as well as the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf.

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 counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

The Armavir radar station, which has two Voronezh-DM radars with a range of some 6,000 kilometers, appears to have suffered serious damage to the buildings housing the radars, RFE/RL’s Russian Service reported.

According to The War Zone blog, the station is part of Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile early warning system.

The blog said the station may have been targeted because it is capable of tracking U.S.-made ATACMS long-range missiles, which were recently approved for distribution to Ukraine by Washington.

Norwegian military analyst Thord Are Iversen, writing on X, formerly Twitter, argued that targeting elements of Russia’s nuclear early warning system “isn’t a particularly good idea…especially in times of tension.”

The Ukrainian attack on the Armavir station came shortly after Russia began exercises of its tactical nuclear-weapons forces in the Southern Military District.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the exercises were held “in response to provocative statements and threats from certain Western officials.”

Neither Russia nor Ukraine have commented on the Armavir attack.

Also on May 23, the airport in the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan region, Kazan, and several industrial facilities in the region were temporarily closed because of “possible drone attacks.” Tatarstan is more than 1,000 kilometers away from the border with Ukraine.

In recent months, Ukraine has stepped up strikes on Russian territory and off its shores, targeting, in particular, oil production and refining facilities, air defense installations, and naval vessels.

Updated

G7 Ministers Cite 'Progress' But No Done Deal On Russian Assets For Ukraine

G7 finance ministers and central bank governors have been meeting in Italy for the past two days.
G7 finance ministers and central bank governors have been meeting in Italy for the past two days.

G7 finance ministers cited "progress" in finding ways to use profits from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine, envisioning a concrete proposal to present to a leaders' summit next month. A search for creative yet legally sound solutions was top of the agenda at the two-day Group of Seven meeting in Stresa, northern Italy, which wrapped up on May 25 as Kyiv continues its urgent appeals for more funds from Western allies in its war with Russia. "We are making progress in our discussions on potential avenues to bring forward the extraordinary profits stemming from immobilized Russian sovereign assets to the benefit of Ukraine, consistent with international law and our respective legal systems," ministers said in a draft statement seen by the AFP news agency.

NATO Head Urges Lifting Restrictions On Kyiv Striking Targets In Russia

NATO's Jens Stoltenberg (left) meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv in April
NATO's Jens Stoltenberg (left) meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv in April

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Ukraine should be allowed to use Western-supplied weapons in strikes against military targets inside Russia. In an interview with The Economist published on May 24, the NATO head called on members to “consider whether they should lift” their current restrictions, saying they make it “very hard” for Ukraine to defend itself.

Blinken To Visit Chisinau, Prague Next Week

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Moldova and the Czech Republic on May 29-30.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Moldova and the Czech Republic on May 29-30.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Moldova and the Czech Republic next week in a show of support for the two countries and to participate in a gathering of NATO foreign ministers.

Blinken will arrive on May 29 in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, where he will meet with President Maia Sandu, Prime Minister Dorin Recean, as well as other senior officials.

He will travel to Prague later that evening for meetings with senior Czech officials before taking part in an informal NATO ministerial meeting on the evening of May 30, James O'Brien, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters.

In Chisinau, Blinken will announce a "package of support" that includes assistance for Moldova's transition away from dependence on Russian energy, O'Brien said.

He'll participate in an informal meeting of foreign ministers in preparation for the NATO summit in July and will "have an opportunity to highlight Moldova's progress in its path toward European integration, its solidifying its democracy, and the threat posed by the Russian interference in its internal processes."

In Prague, Blinken will meet with a number of senior officials and highlight the Czech Republic's support for Ukraine, including its efforts to provide much-needed munitions.

During the NATO ministerial meeting, the foreign ministers will focus on Ukraine and prepare for the annual NATO summit, which will be held in Washington in July.

O'Brien said the United States does not anticipate the ministers will announce an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO at the conclusion of their meeting but said there will be "a substantial show of support" for the country.

"This will include ongoing NATO support in building Ukraine’s future force and efforts to help Ukraine as it makes the reforms needed so that it’s able to join the EU and run across the bridge to NATO as quickly as it's able," he said without giving specifics.

Blinken, who visited Kyiv last week, is pushing the Biden administration to end a ban that forbids Ukraine from striking inside Russia with U.S. weapons, according to The New York Times.

"Ukraine uses its own weapons very effectively in attacking targets in Russia, but I’m not going to comment...further than that," he said.

Several NATO members, including the Baltic states, support the idea.

Kadyrov Names Former Parliament Chief To Head Chechen Government

Magomed Daudov (file photo)
Magomed Daudov (file photo)

The former chairman of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, a close associate of Ramzan Kadyrov, has been appointed head of Chechnya's government. Kadyrov said on Telegram on May 24 that he introduced Daudov as the new prime minister during a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. He said that "taking into account the experience and professionalism" of Daudov, "the deputies will support his candidacy." Kadyrov added that Daudov would take the post according to the "procedure provided for by law" but at the same time congratulated him on his new position. Daudov's resignation as chairman of parliament was announced on May 15. He had headed the parliament since 2015. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, click here.

U.S. Announces $275 Million In New Military Assistance For Ukraine

A HIMARS artillery unit
A HIMARS artillery unit

The United States on May 24 announced an additional $275 million in military aid for Ukraine that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was part of the United States' efforts to help repel Russia's assault near Kharkiv. Blinken announced the aid in a statement, saying the United States "will move this new assistance as quickly as possible so the Ukrainian military can use it to defend their territory and protect the Ukrainian people." The package includes High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), artillery rounds, anti-tank systems, anti-tank mines, tactical vehicles, small arms, and ammunition for those weapons, Blinken said.

Georgians March Against 'Foreign Agent' Law As Parliament Set To Consider President's Veto

Demonstrators march against the "foreign agent" bill and to support Georgia's membership in the European Union in Tbilisi on May 24, with a banner reading "Serve Georgia."
Demonstrators march against the "foreign agent" bill and to support Georgia's membership in the European Union in Tbilisi on May 24, with a banner reading "Serve Georgia."

TBILISI -- Opponents of Georgia's controversial "foreign agent" bill marched in Tbilisi on March 24, expressing their opposition to the legislation and the Interior Ministry’s handling of earlier protests that turned violent.

Thousands of participants took part in the march, which started at Freedom Square and headed to the building of the Interior Ministry.

They unfurled a large banner with the words "Serve Georgia" and carried Georgian, EU, and U.S. flags.

Georgians Demand Detainees' Release At Latest Protest Over 'Foreign Agent' Bill
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Earlier demonstrations against the legislation ended in clashes, with riot police using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protesters, but there was no indication of any clashes during the march on May 24.

The demonstration took place as Georgia's parliament announced that the procedure to override a presidential veto of the "foreign agent" bill would begin on May 27.

The legislature had been widely expected to announce that it would move to override President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of the legislation, which targets media and NGOs that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

The ruling Georgian Dream has a majority in parliament sufficient to override Zurabishvili's veto and is expected to do so in a vote during the plenary session scheduled to take place on May 28.

Georgian Dream has insisted that it remains committed to joining Western institutions and the law was only meant to increase transparency on NGO funding.

Zurabishvili vetoed the bill on May 18 following weeks of mass protests by Georgians who see the legislation as a way for the government to stifle civil society and believe it endangers the country's path toward EU integration.

The legislation -- formally called the Law On Transparency Of Foreign Influence -- is also seen as mirroring a similar repressive measure introduced by the Kremlin in Russia.

European Council President Charles Michel said on May 19 that Zurabishvili's veto "offers a moment for further reflection" on the legislation and called on Georgia’s politicians and leaders "to make good use of this window of opportunity and ensure Georgia stays on the European course the population supports."

The United States has also criticized the law and said it would implement visa restrictions on Georgian government officials and undertake a comprehensive review of bilateral relations with Georgia.

The top U.S. diplomat for Europe, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien, told reporters on May 24 in a conference call that Georgia must play by the rules if it expects to gain membership in the European Union.

“If you say you want to join a football match, you don't get to say that our side will play with 15 people and you will play with seven or we will play with an extra ball,” he said.

"You play by the rules of the club you are trying to join, and the point is that the actions being taken [by Georgia] are incompatible with the both the pursuit of membership and actually getting to membership."

Georgia was given EU candidate status on December 14 but has yet to start the accession negotiations, which can last for years.

NATO Members Bordering Russia To Build 'Drone Wall'

A soldier holds a drone over a NATO military vehicle during a military exercise in Lithuania in June 2023.
A soldier holds a drone over a NATO military vehicle during a military exercise in Lithuania in June 2023.

Lithuania said on May 24 that the Baltic state and five other NATO members neighboring Russia had agreed to build a "drone wall" to defend their borders from "provocations." The plan to use unmanned aerial vehicles for protection was agreed because of security concerns in the region amid Russia's war in Ukraine. Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite announced the plan after talks with her counterparts from fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, as well as Finland, Norway, and Poland. "This is a completely new thing -- a drone wall stretching from Norway to Poland, and the goal is to use drones and other technologies to protect our borders," she told the BNS news agency.

Updated

Putin Says Zelenskiy's Term In Office Over, Questions Legitimacy To Negotiate

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka emerge after talks at the Palace of Independence in Minsk on May 24.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka emerge after talks at the Palace of Independence in Minsk on May 24.

President Vladimir Putin said on May 24 that Russia is willing to hold talks about the war in Ukraine, but questioned whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has the legitimacy to negotiate on Ukraine's behalf.

Putin, who spoke in Minsk after meeting with authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, said that Zelenskiy's five-year term in office was supposed to end on May 20.

"Of course, we are aware that the legitimacy of the current head of state has ended," Putin said at a joint news conference with Lukashenka. "We must be completely sure that we are dealing with legitimate authorities."

Zelenskiy was inauguraged for a five-year term on May 20, 2019. An election was to have taken place on March 31 of this year but was postponed because the country is still under martial law.

Under the Ukrainian Constitution, Zelenskiy must continue to perform his duties until a new head of state is elected.

Ukraine has been under martial law since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022 and would have to amend the law in order to hold elections during a state of war.

When the question of Zelenskiy's legitimacy was raised earlier this week, an EU spokesman said that the European Union had no doubt about Zelenskiy's status as leader of Ukraine, and the spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Zelenskiy "remains...the person with whom the secretary-general communicates when he needs to contact the Ukrainian leader."

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 counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

In his comments at the joint news conference, Putin, who was reelected to a fifth term in March in an election that the United States and other Western countries did not consider free and fair, failed to acknowledge the limitations on Ukraine holding an election while the country is regularly under Russian attack.

Putin reiterated that Russia "is for negotiations on Ukraine," but said it would be possible to return to talks "only based on today's realities in the special operations zone."

Zelenskiy has rejected Moscow's preconditions, including allowing Russia to retain the territory its forces have taken thus far in the war.

An international peace conference on Ukraine is to be held in Switzerland in June to discuss Zelenskiy's peace plan, but Russia has not been not invited. Putin has dismissed the conference's importance.

A U.S. diplomat, asked on May 24 about potential routes for peace in Ukraine, said Ukraine's allies don't view Putin as interested in peace right now.

"He has chosen a path of war, and it’s important that Ukraine have the opportunity to stabilize on the battlefield," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien said in a call with reporters.

"We are always interested in seeing that when Ukraine is prepared to make peace that it’s able to do so on terms that are a success for Ukraine."

Russia and Belarus, meanwhile, have increased their ties and continue to foresee eventually forming a so-called union state.

Lukashenka and Putin held one-on-one talks before the news conference for about 45 minutes.

Putin said that he and Lukashenka discussed "issues of formation of a unified defense space," noting that a "joint regional grouping of troops, Russian defense complexes, and tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on Belarusian territory."

He said Russia regularly conducted exercises of nuclear forces and "now they are conducted with Belarusian allies."

Lukashenka has given Moscow permission to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons and troops to in Belarus, which shares a border more than 1,000 kilometera long with Ukraine.

Lukashenka said there was nothing special about the joint training, which he said was necessary because the because the world is “unstable” and “dangerous.”

"Despite everything, Minsk and Moscow maintain the course of strengthening integration. We support each other and will support each other in all directions," he said.

Putin arrived in Minsk on a two-day visit on the evening of May 23. It is his second foreign visit since his inauguration on May 7. His first visit to a foreign country after his inauguration was to China.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Russia Recalls Ambassador To Armenia In Further Sign Of Strained Relations

Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)
Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)

Russia recalled its ambassador to Armenia for consultations on May 24 amid a continuing deterioration of relations between the two longtime allies.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced that Ambassador Sergei Kopyrkin was "summoned to Moscow for consultations" but gave no reason for the move.

The Armenian government did not immediately react to the decision, which came two days after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian claimed that two member states of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped Azerbaijan prepare for the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is believed that Pashinian was referring to Russia and Belarus.

Zakharova on May 23 challenged Pashinian to name the countries.

She also said that Russia repeatedly tried to stop the 2020 war, pointing to Pashinian's rejection in October 2020 of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Moscow and accepted by Azerbaijan. Armenia suffered more territorial losses before Pashinian agreed to another Russian-brokered truce two weeks later.

Russian-Armenian relations have worsened significantly since then, with Yerevan seeking closer ties with the West and accusing Moscow of not honoring its security commitments to Armenia.

Pashinian has repeatedly threatened to pull his country out of the CSTO, prompting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to charge that Pashinian’s administration was "leading things to the collapse of Russian-Armenian relations" at the behest of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian discussed the rift when they met on May 8 after a Eurasian Economic Union summit in Moscow.

Russian General Denied Release Pending Trial On Fraud Charge

Russian Major General Ivan Popov (file photo)
Russian Major General Ivan Popov (file photo)

A Moscow court on May 24 rejected investigators' recommendation to transfer jailed Russian Major General Ivan Popov from pretrial detention to house arrest. The 49-year-old Popov, the former commander of Russia's 58th Army who once complained about his forces' lack of support from Moscow, was arrested recently on fraud charges. He is one of several top military officials and Defense Ministry officials who have been arrested on corruption charges before and after President Vladimir Putin dismissed close ally Sergei Shoigu as defense minister and appointed former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov to the post. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Romania Arrests Suspected Spy For Russia, Declares Diplomat Persona Non Grata

The Russian Embassy building in Bucharest (file photo)
The Russian Embassy building in Bucharest (file photo)

Prosecutors with Romania's anti-organized crime agency on May 24 announced the arrest of a Romanian man suspected of spying for Moscow since 2022.

The Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) said the suspect had been monitoring Romanian or NATO military objectives near Tulcea, a town near the border with Ukraine.

The DIICOT did not identify the suspect, but the Bucharest court that isued the arrest warrant identified him as Dorin Alexandru Piscan of Ploiesti. RFE/RL confirmed the suspect's name with a source in the prosecutor's office.

He is suspected of "collecting military information and taking photographs of military combat equipment and the movement of personnel in the border area with Ukraine" and then passing the information to a diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Bucharest, DIICOT said.

Prosecutors with DIICOT searched the home of the suspect, where they collected several pieces of evidence, including images he allegedly took at military bases.

According to DIICOT, Piscan started his activity in 2022, the year that Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Piscan was accused of treason and confined to pretrial detention for 30 days. RFE/RL was unable to reach his lawyer for comment.

The Romanian Foreign Ministry subsequently said that a diplomat at the Russian Embassy had been declared persona non grata for activities in breach of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.

The ministry did not identify the diplomat but said it had summoned the Russian charge d'affaires to provide notice about the decision.

The Russian Embassy in Bucharest said in a statement sent to RFE/RL that Romanian authorities had notified the embassy that the diplomat had been accused of "activities incompatible with diplomatic status."

The embassy rejected the accusations and said it "strictly follows" the provisions of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

It said the Russian side "reserves the right to take retaliatory measures."

The embassy's statement also indicated that the move was "aimed a further deterioration of bilateral relations between our countries" and that it "can only cause regret."

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