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Putin Awards Serbia's Dacic Friendship Medal

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Kremlin in Moscow in December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has awarded Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic the Order of Friendship, a state medal he bestows upon several foreigners every year.

Dacic was honored for "achievements in strengthening friendship and cooperation between nations," according to the text of Putin's decree, which was posted on an official Russian government website on January 30.

A former prime minister, Dacic is considered one of the most pro-Russian politicians in Serbia.

The Balkan country is seeking to join the European Union but also to preserve warm ties with Moscow, which shares its Orthodox Christian heritage and has supported Belgrade in numerous disputes with the West.

The award comes weeks after Dacic and President Aleksandar Vucic visited Moscow, where they held talks with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Days before the December visit, Vucic said Serbia was planning to buy Russian military-transport helicopters and air-defense systems. He said that Serbia had embarked on a pro-European course but it had no plans to join NATO.

Serbia's moves to heighten military ties with Moscow have worried the West and neighboring countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and NATO member Croatia.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

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White House Now Says 400 ‘Peacekeepers’ To Remain In Syria, Up From 200

The White House has clarified its plans for U.S. forces in Syria, now saying it will leave 400 troops in the war-torn country a day after saying the number of “peacekeepers” would be 200.

A White House official on February 22 confirmed the revised number and said they will be based as part of the Tanf garrison in northeastern Syria.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on February 21 had said that a “peacekeeping” group of about 200 troops would remain in Syria for "period of time."

There was no immediate explanation for the revised figure of troops.

The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hailed the U.S. decision to keep military personnel in northern Syria as a "positive" sign, saying it might encourage other members of the U.S.-led coalition to maintain forces in the country.

President Donald Trump denied on February 22 that his decision to leave troops in Syria represented a backing off of an earlier pledge to pull all U.S. forces out of the country.

"I am not reversing course," Trump said at the White House, adding that the number remaining was "a very small tiny fraction" of the original U.S. force in Syria.

Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intended to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that Islamic State (IS) insurgents had been defeated.

Trump received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Ankara accuses the Kurdish fighters in Syria to having links to Kurdish separatists operating in Turkey.

Moscow and Tehran back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year civil war and have provided key military support to keep his government in power. The United States and Turkey back differing antigovernment forces.

With reporting by dpa and AFP

Trump Calls India-Pakistan Standoff ‘Very Dangerous’

U.S. President Donald Trump says India is considering "something very strong" after its forces were hit in Kashmir.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called the standoff between Pakistan and India a "very dangerous situation" and warned that New Delhi is considering "something very strong" after an attack on its forces in the disputed region of Kashmir.

"It's very dangerous situation between the two countries. We would like to see it stop," Trump said on February 22.

"Right now, there is a lot of problems between India and Pakistan because of what happened," he told reporters in the Oval Office.

"India is looking at something very strong. India just lost almost 50 people with an attack. So I can understand that also," he added.

India has blamed Pakistan for a February 14 attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers, and it has warned its neighbor of a "jaw-breaking response."

Islamabad has denied any involvement and warned New Delhi against any "misadventure,” vowing to retaliate if it comes under attack.

The attack on Indian troops was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM) militant group.

The Indian Foreign Ministry accused the Pakistani government of providing the militant group with a safe haven and allowing its leader, Masood Azhar, "to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity.”

India has long accused Pakistan of supporting militants in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which is divided between the two nuclear archrivals but claimed in full by both since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. The two neighbors have fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan territory.

Washington in recent years has bid to improve ties with New Delhi, seeing India has an ally in the fight against Islamic militants.

Trump has also accused Islamabad of providing a safe haven for terror groups based in Pakistan and with not doing enough to stop them them from conducting attacks across the border, including in Afghanistan against U.S. and Afghan troops.

The U.S. administration in 2018 slashed its military aid to Pakistan, saying that Islamabad has not done enough to fight extremists.

Still, in his remarks on February 22, Trump said the United States has developed a "much better" relationship with Pakistan in the "last short period of time" and that he might set up meetings with Islamabad over the current situation.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Trump Says Will Nominate U.S. Envoy To Canada As Next UN Ambassador

President Donald Trump says he will nominate Washington's current envoy to Canada as the next UN ambassador.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump says he is nominating Washington’s current envoy to Canada, Kelly Craft [eds: a woman], to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I am pleased to announce that Kelly Knight Craft, our current Ambassador to Canada, is being nominated to be United States Ambassador to the United Nations,” Trump wrote on Twitter on February 22.

“Kelly has done an outstanding job representing our Nation and I have no doubt that, under her leadership, our Country will be represented at the highest level. Congratulations to Kelly and her entire family!” he added.

Reports a day earlier had suggested that Craft was emerging as the top candidate to take the UN post.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on February 21 said that the influential lawmaker was backing Craft, a native of his state of Kentucky, for the post.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement said Craft "has been an outstanding advocate for America's national security and economic interests in Canada," adding that she is "extremely well-qualified to do the same at the United Nations."

Craft is the wife of coal billionaire Joe Craft. Both supported Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and are major donors to the Republican Party.

Craft in 2007 was appointed by President George W. Bush as an alternate delegate to the UN General Assembly.


If confirmed, she will succeed Nikki Haley, who resigned and left the post at the end of the year.

Trump's first pick to replace Haley, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, withdrew over the weekend for what she said were family reasons. Democrats had complained that Nauert lacked international diplomatic policy experience.

U.S. Calls On Kabul To Form 'Unified, Inclusive' Negotiating Team For Peace Talks

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad speaks in Washington on February 8.

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan has called on the Afghan government to create a "unified, inclusive, and national negotiating team" to join in peace talks with Taliban negotiators.

Zalmay Khalilzad said the Afghan negotiating team should include members of "the Afghan government and other Afghans."

Khalilzad issued the call in a Twitter statement on February 22 after meeting in Ankara with his Russian counterpart, Ambassaodr Zamir Kabulov, to discuss how to move the Afghan peace process forward.

"Ambassador Kabulov and I also discussed travel barriers to talks," Khalilzad said. "We will explore options for securing UN travel waivers for Taliban negotiators to participate in peace talks."

"We also agreed that any final agreement must guarantee that Afghan soil is never used by international terrorists against any country," Khalilzad tweeted. "Also discussed a potential regional framework to coordinate efforts for peace and deter spoilers."

The February 22 meeting between Khalilzad and Kabulov came ahead of the next round of talks between U.S. diplomats and members of the Taliban, which is scheduled in Qatar's capital, Doha, on February 25.

Afghan Taliban leaders said on February 21 that their new political chief, Taliban co-founder and military veteran Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, will not attend the February 25 talks because he has had difficulties obtaining travel documents.

The Taliban also said there are differences among the Taliban leadership over the precise role that Baradar should have in the talks.

Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail in October. His appointment was widely seen as marking a new push by the Taliban to achieve political and diplomatic legitimacy.

Amnesty Calls On Iran To Halt 'Imminent' Execution Of Three Child Offenders

Iran is one of the world's leading executioners.

Amnesty International has called on Iran to immediately halt plans to execute three young men who are on death row for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

The London-based rights group said on February 22 it had learned that Mohammad Kalhori, Barzan Nasrollahzadeh, and Shayan Saeedpour -- all convicted for separate crimes that took place while they were minors -- are at risk of "imminent" execution.

"The Iranian authorities must act quickly to save these young men's lives. Failing to stop their execution would be another abhorrent assault on children's rights by Iran," Saleh Higazi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, said in statement.

"International human rights law strictly prohibits the use of the death penalty against people who were under the age of 18 when the crime was committed," Higazi said.

Iran is among a handful of countries that executes juvenile offenders.

Amnesty International said it was aware of more than 90 cases of people in Iran currently on death row for crimes that took place when they were under 18. The rights organization said the real number is likely to be far higher.

Kalhori was 15 years old when he was arrested in December 2014 over the fatal stabbing of one of his schoolteachers, the rights group said.

According to Amnesty International, Nasrollahzadeh was arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence at the age of 17. He has said that he was tortured while in detention. He was later sentenced to death on charges of "enmity against God."

The rights group said Saeedpour was arrested when he was 17 for a murder committed during a fight in 2015. Saeedpour was sentenced to death for first-degree murder in 2018.

Amnesty said it had noted an "alarming pattern" by the Iranian authorities, who schedule executions of juvenile offenders at short notice in order to minimize the chances of public or private interventions for a reprieve.

It called on Iran's parliament to urgently amend Article 91 of the 2013 Islamic Penal Code to abolish the death penalty for crimes committed by people under 18 in line with Iran's international obligations.

Iran is one of the world's leading executioners. Amnesty said in April that 507 people were executed by the Iranian authorities in 2018, including at least five juvenile offenders.

Former Kyrgyz PM's Defense Lawyer Says Targeted By Smear Campaign

Nurbek Toktakunov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A defense lawyer in a high-profile corruption case for former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov says he has been targeted in a smear campaign by security officials.

A two-minute video, posted anonymously, has circulated on the Internet for several days with claims that Nurbek Toktakunov has psychological problems and was involved in the killing of a police officer in southern Kyrgyzstan during ethnic clashes in 2010.

Toktakunov told RFE/RL on February 21 that he thought the smear campaign was organized by the State Committee of National Security (UKMK) in an attempt to put pressure on his professional activities.

The video alleges that Toktakunov is a drug addict and claims he is a "bad person" because "his civil rights organization Precedent in Bishkek is financially supported by the United States."

The video also criticizes Toktakunov for working as the defense attorney of human right activist Azimjan Askarov in 2010.

Askarov is serving a life sentence in prison on charges widely criticized as being politically motivated.

The video also contains intimate scenes, apparently shot by a hidden camera, showing a man who looks like Toktakunov with a woman.

UKMK spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov told RFE/RL on February 21 that security officials had nothing to do with the video.

The video appeared on Facebook on February 19, a day after preliminary hearings started in the corruption case against Toktakunov's client Isakov and several other former top Kyrgyz officials.

Washington Lawyers Move To Delay Deadline For Turning Over Lesin Autopsy Records

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) gestures as Media Minister Mikhail Lesin listens to him during a meeting with local press in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in August 2002.

WASHINGTON -- City lawyers in Washington, D.C., have moved to delay turning over autopsy documents related to the death of former Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, following a judge's order to release the files.

The motion, which was dated February 19 but has yet to appear in the court docket, has not yet been ruled on by D.C. Superior Court Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo.

Puig-Lugo on February 13 ordered the city's medical examiner to turn over autopsy records and other files to RFE/RL in response to a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit brought by the news organization 16 months ago.

The motion is the latest development in a long-running fight to gain access to files that could provide a definitive answer on how Lesin, a once-powerful media adviser to President Vladimir Putin, died in a hotel room just blocks from the White House in November 2015.

In their argument, city lawyers said they had not decided whether to appeal the February 13 ruling, but needed the statutory 30-day window to decide -- until March 15.

In the meantime, they said the documents should not be released to RFE/RL.

"The bell of producing the documents cannot be unrung once the documents are produced," they wrote.

A key shaper of the Kremlin's media strategy under Putin, Lesin fell out of favor sometime around 2012 and had largely been out of public view until his body was found in the Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015.

An initial report by the medical examiner's office in March 2016 declared Lesin's death was caused by blunt-force trauma. It said the manner of death was "undetermined."

The final report, released in October 2016 by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Washington and city police, called his death accidental -- caused by blunt-force injuries to the neck, torso, and lower upper extremities "which were induced by falls." Acute ethanol intoxication was cited as a contributing factor.

The report was met with deep suspicion by business acquaintances and others familiar with the once-powerful, wealthy Kremlin insider who was instrumental in Russia's crackdown on independent TV.

Lesin was also behind the creation of RT, the government-funded international TV broadcaster previously known as Russia Today.

Terrorism-Finance Watchdog Gives Iran Until June To Pass Money-Laundering Laws

Iranian protesters show their hands with writing in Persian that reads, "No to FATF," to protest the passage of a related bill outside parliament in Tehran in October 2018.

An international task force to combat money laundering has given Iran four months to pass anti-money-laundering and terrorism-financing rules or face increased international scrutiny of its banks.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization that underpins the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing, announced the deadline at its February 22 meeting in Paris.

"If by June 2019, Iran does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran," it said.

FATF acknowledged that Iran had passed a series of legislative measures since 2017, but said more steps were needed.

It also called on Iran to change domestic rules that offer exemptions to UN-designated terrorist organizations if those groups are "attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism, or racism."

Tehran also needed to fully identify and freeze "terrorist assets" in line with UN Security Council resolutions, the task force said.

Foreign businesses say compliance and Iran's removal from the FATF's blacklist are key issues to be resolved before they invest in the country.

Hard-liners in Iran have opposed the measures, claiming it threatens national security.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

IAEA Report Says Iran Still In Compliance With 2015 Nuclear Deal

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran's nuclear activities have remained within key limits of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers -- despite growing economic pressure from U.S. sanctions reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, which monitors Iran's nuclear activities under the 2015 agreement, said in a quarterly report that Iran stayed within the accord's uranium-enrichment limits and complied with limitations on its stock of enriched uranium.

The report was distributed to IAEA member states on February 22 and reviewed by Western news agencies.

IAEA inspectors also said in the report that they did not find any irregularities related to Iran's Arak nuclear research reactor, which originally was designed to produce plutonium as a by-product.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.

But Washington has reimposed tough sanctions on Tehran after Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018.

Other signatories to the nuclear deal -- Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union -- have been have been working to keep it alive and have resisted U.S. pressure to abandon the accord.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

Gazprom Executive Becomes New Chief Of Russian Soccer Federation

Aleksandr Dyukov

Aleksandr Dyukov, the head of a subsidiary of Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom, is the new president of the country's soccer federation.

Dyukov, who is chairman and CEO of Gazprom Neft, was elected unopposed on February 22 as Russian Football Union president.

Until last year, Dyukov was also president of Zenit St. Petersburg, the Russian club owned by Gazprom.

He oversaw a period of big spending at the club, which won a UEFA Cup title in 2008. Zenit was criticized by some Russians for its dependence on state funding at the time.

Gazprom is a UEFA sponsor and Zenit's home stadium will host European Championship games next year.

In June, UEFA will also decide whether to stage the 2021 Champions League final in St. Petersburg.

The federation's top position has been unoccupied since Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko quit in December. Mutko was banned from the Olympics for life in 2017 in connection with a huge doping scandal during his time as sports minister.

Based on reporting by AP and Interfax

Ex-Yanukovych Aide To Be Removed From EU Sanctions List: Sources

Andriy Klyuyev

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is set next week to remove Andriy Klyuyev, the head of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential administration, from its sanctions list, but the assets freeze on Yanukovych and 11 of his associates are likely to be prolonged by another year, according to several EU diplomats familiar with issue.

EU ambassadors are expected to make the decision when they meet in Brussels on February 27.

The move comes after a ruling by the EU’s general court in July which said that the bloc’s restrictive measures against Klyuyev for 2017-18 should be annulled.

He did, however, remain on the sanctions list as the asset freeze was prolonged by one year in March 2018, with a separate ruling for the new sanctions period necessary to be delisted.

In the July ruling, the court concluded that since Klyuyev informed the European Council that Ukrainian criminal proceedings against him had been suspended before the renewal of the bloc's restrictive measures, the council should have sought clarification on the issue from Ukrainian authorities.

Diplomats from several EU member states who are familiar with the talks but not authorized to speak on the record told RFE/RL that the lack of compelling evidence from Ukraine has forced the EU to consider removing Klyuyev from the list.

Andriy’s brother, Serhiy Klyuyev, was removed from the same sanctions list last year. Serhiy, who was a businessman and lawmaker from Yanukovych's Party of Regions, was the nominal owner of Mezhyhirya, the lavish Yanukovych residence outside Kyiv that is now a museum.

The EU imposed asset freezes against Yanukovych and his inner circle shortly after the collapse of his government in February 2014.

The bloc accused Yanukovych and his collaborators of misappropriation of Ukraine's state funds.

Apart from the former president, the restrictive measures still include his son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, and the former Prime Ministers Mykola Azarov and Serhiy Arbuzov.

Russian Widow Protests By Bringing Coffin With Dead Husband's Body To Local Government Building

The open casket was exposed in front of the building for several hours, before the widow removed it.

A Russian woman on February 21 placed an open coffin containing the body of her deceased husband in front of the regional government building in Samara in the Volga region, in protest against what she said was "competition between funeral homes" that prevented her from interring him.

Media reports in Russia say that the man died two weeks ago and the woman was trying to obtain money to bury him in the city cemetery.

The cemetery funeral home asked her to pay at least 30,000 rubles ($460), an amount too high for her.

The woman then went to a second funeral home, which agreed to bury her husband for 8,000 rubles ($120).

But when the gravediggers arrived at the cemetery, some 30 men prevented them from completing their task.

The incident prompted the woman to bring her husband's body in the casket in front of the regional government building.

The open casket was exposed in front of the building for several hours, before the widow removed it.

Amid the reports and outcry on social networks, the Samara region's governor, Dmitry Azarov, stated that he will personally investigate the case and vowed to assist the woman in burying her husband.

The woman, whose identity was not disclosed, now says she will bury her husband in a village.

Samara, with population of around 1.2 million people, is located on the Volga River.

Based on reporting by Mash, Govorit Moskva, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and RIA Novosti

Iran Starts Gulf War Games, To Test Submarine-Launched Missiles

The inauguration of the Iranian-made Fateh (Conqueror) submarine in the southern port of Bandar Abbas on February 17.

Iran on February 22 opened large-scale naval drills at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, state media reported, adding that the maneuvers will feature submarine cruise-missile launches for the first time.

State agency IRNA said that more than 100 vessels were participating in the three-day drills held in an area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean.

Iran has in the past threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile U.S. action.

"The exercise will cover confronting a range of threats, testing weapons, and evaluating the readiness of equipment and personnel," Iranian navy chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said on state television.

"Submarine missile launches will be carried out...in addition to helicopter and drone launches from the deck of the Sahand destroyer," Khanzadi said.

State media said the military would be testing its new domestically built Fateh (Conqueror) submarine, which was launched last week and is said to be armed with cruise missiles.

U.S. President Donald Trump in May withdrew from a landmark 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

Trump said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles.

Based on reporting by Reuters and IRNA

Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Admits 'Many Mistakes' When In Office

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov (right) and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev (combo photo)

BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has admitted that he made mistakes while running the Central Asian nation from 2011 to 2017.

Atambaev's statement comes amid persistent tensions between him and incumbent President Sooronbai Jeenbekov -- two politicians who used to be close allies.

Speaking to journalists along with other leaders of his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) on February 22, Atambaev said that his party will soon start cleaning its ranks from "traitors," referring to a split faction within the party.

Anti-Atambaev members of the party initiated the "SDPK Without Atambaev" campaign last year as tension between the former president and his successor deepened.

"As party chairman and then as president, I have made many mistakes and it is very good that now I am able to see many things differently," Atambaev said, adding that he might also quit the SDPK chairmanship.

"I am not eternal. I am going to be 63 this year. As I handed over the presidency, the same way I will pass on the leadership in the party. Although Atambaev won't be the leader of the party officially, the party spirit will be safeguarded," Atambaev said.

The SDPK deputy chairwoman, lawmaker Irina Karamushkina, said at the press conference that Atambaev will lead the SDPK's list of candidates for next year's parliamentary elections.

The SDPK press conference takes place four days after preliminary hearings started into a corruption case against several former government officials known to be close to Atambaev.

Some politicians have said in recent months that Atambaev, who enjoys immunity as an ex-president, must also face justice for alleged corruption while in office.

In October, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by the country's former presidents is unconstitutional.

In December, the Kyrgyz parliament approved in the first reading a bill that would eliminate immunity for ex-presidents, potentially opening the path for Atambaev's prosecution.

Moscow Court Extends Pretrial Detention Of U.S. Citizen Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan appears in a Moscow court on January 22.

A Moscow court has extended the pretrial detention for former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russia on an espionage charge.

The Lefortovo district court on February 22 rejected a motion filed by Paul Whelan's lawyer to transfer him to house arrest and prolonged his pretrial arrest until May 28.

Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said the court ruling will be appealed.

A former U.S. Marine, Whelan, who holds U.S., Irish, Canadian, and British citizenship, was arrested on December 28 in Moscow and charged with spying.

If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in a Russian prison. His family says he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Russian officials have not released details of the allegations against him.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Andrea Kalan, wrote on Twitter on February 22 that the embassy was closely following Whelan’s case.

Kalan also wrote that the embassy had been unable to release any information regarding the case because Whelan had not been allowed to give a signed Privacy Act Waiver to the embassy.

"U.S. privacy laws require a consular official obtain permission from someone before we can release any information about their case, and this is done routinely," Kalan wrote.

Kalan also expressed concerns over the refusal of Russian authorities to allow Whelan to do so.

Whelan was working as a global security director for a U.S. auto-parts manufacturer at the time of his arrest.

Relations between Russia and the United States have been strained over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its seizure and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, and the 2018 poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain with a nerve agent.

Whelan's detainment came weeks after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

In the past, Russia has arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.

Whelan's lawyer has said that his client is innocent and suggested that Russian officials may be trying to use him in an exchange for Butina.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has rejected that scenario.

With reporting by The Washington Post, Interfax, and Reuters

Turkey Orders Almost 300 Military Personnel Arrested Over Alleged Links With Coup

Fethullah Gulen

Turkey's prosecutor's office has ordered the arrest of 295 serving military personnel accused of ties with an alleged network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says orchestrated a 2016 attempted coup.

The prosecutor's statement issued on February 22 says that those facing detention included three colonels, eight majors, and 10 lieutenants.

About half of the suspects are members of the army, with the remainder serving in other military forces, including the navy and air force, the statement said.

Police launched simultaneous arrest operations one hour after midnight under an investigation into payphone calls between suspected Gulen operatives, the statement said.

It was not immediately known how many suspects have been arrested so far.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the July 15, 2016, failed coup, during which 250 people were killed.

Gulen, a former ally of President Tayyip Erdogan, has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

More than 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial since the attempted coup.

Authorities have suspended or dismissed 150,000 civil servants and military personnel.

Erdogan has been accused of using the failed coup as a pretext to stifle dissent.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Tens Of Thousands Rally In Slovakia On Anniversary Of Journalist’s Killing

The grave of a murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak at a cemetery in Stiavnik on February 20.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Bratislava and other parts of Slovakia to mark the one-year anniversary of the slayings of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Crowds gathered on February 21 in rallies organized by a group of students and organizations calling themselves For A Decent Slovakia.

The group released a statement saying they demanded a proper investigation of the murders and a trustworthy government.

"If we want to move forward, we have to know the names of those who ordered this monstrous murder," organizers said.

Kuciak was shot dead along with Martina Kusnirova at their home near Bratislava in February 2018. Both were 27 years old.

The authorities have said they believed it was a contract killing linked to Kuciak's work.

The journalist was investigating political corruption at the time of the slayings, which triggered the biggest street protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism in 1989 and a political crisis that led to the fall of former Prime Minister Robert Fico's government in March.

Kuciak was investigating possible government corruption and ties between politicians and Italian mobsters.

Four suspects have been charged, but the mastermind is believed to be still at large.

The U.S.-based Committee to Project Journalists and the International Press Institute on February 19 called on Slovak authorities to "expedite charges against all parties allegedly involved in the murder" of the investigative journalist.

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa

IOC Assails India's Decision To Deny Entry Visas To Pakistani Sports Competitors

Activists from a right-wing Hindu group burn portraits of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as tensions rise between India and Pakistan.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has suspended all Indian applications to host future events and called for the country’s international sports isolation after two Pakistanis were denied visas for a competition in New Delhi.

The IOC on February 22 said it had been informed that Indian authorities did not grant entry visas to the Pakistani delegation for the 25-meter rapid-fire pistol event at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup.

At stake in the competition are two places at next year's Tokyo Olympics.

The visa refusal comes as tensions are rising to new highs between the rival nuclear powers.

India has blamed Pakistan for a February 14 attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers, and it has warned its neighbor of a "jaw-breaking response."

Islamabad has denied any involvement and vowed to retaliate if it comes under attack.

The attack on Indian troops was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM) militant group.

The ISSF said on February 20 that it faced "an urgent situation as Pakistani athletes cannot get entry visas to participate in the competition" because of the Kashmir attack.

The IOC said that "since becoming aware of the [visa denial] and in spite of intense last-minute...efforts...and discussions with the Indian government authorities, no solution has been found to allow the Pakistani delegation to enter India in time to compete.”

"As a result, the IOC Executive Board also decided to suspend all discussions with the Indian [National Olympic Committee] and government regarding the potential applications for hosting future sports and Olympic-related events in India," it said.

The IOC said India’s action went against the principles of the Olympic charter relating to discrimination and political interference from the host country.

The IOC said the Olympic spots would still be at stake in the competition, "in the interest of the other 500 athletes from 61 countries participating in the other events who are already in India for their competition."

The body also urged all international sports federations not to hold events in India, or grant it rights to host future competitions, until the government had provided "clear written guarantees" to ensure access for all athletes.

Rajeev Mehta, secretary-general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), told Reuters that the developments constituted "a big setback for sports in the country.”

"We've been in constant touch with the government, trying to explain to them and convince them to grant visas to the Pakistani shooters. This is really unfortunate," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, The Times of India, and Dawn

U.S. Says 200 ‘Peacekeeping’ Troops To Stay In Syria After Pullout

The United States is set to leave behind a "peacekeeping" force in Syria after the main force withdraws.

The United States says it will at least temporarily leave 200 “peacekeeping” troops in Syria after a planned pullout of the main U.S. force from the war-torn country.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a brief statement on February 21.

President Donald Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that Islamic State (IS) insurgents had been defeated.

Trump received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Moscow and Tehran back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year civil war and have provided key military support to keep his government in power. The United States and Turkey back differing antigovernment forces.

The White House announcement came after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The statement said the two presidents agreed to "continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone" in Syria.

The United States and Turkey are NATO allies, but tensions have been raised in recent years over a number of issues, including Washington’s support of Kurdish forces in the region. Ankara considers Kurdish fighters to be terrorists with links to Kurdish separatists operating in Turkey.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish troops have been fighting to expel IS insurgents from their remaining small enclaves in Syria. Some military officials have expressed concerns that the militants could regroup if U.S. forces fully pull out.

The timeline for the U.S. pullout remains uncertain.

Trump on February 6 said he was close to declaring the total defeat of the IS "caliphate" in Syria, but he has not yet made the statement.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Moldova’s Dodon: EU Uncertainty Highlights Need To Keep Close Russia Ties

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says uncertainty within the EU means his country must maintain ties to Russia.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says his country needs to maintain good relations with Russia amid uncertainty about the future of the European Union.

In an interview with the Associated Press published on February 21, Dodon said his country relies on Moscow for energy, exports, and for help to settle the long-standing conflict in its pro-Russia breakaway republic of Transdniester.

The interview comes ahead of the country’s February 24 parliamentary elections, which have the potential to tilt the country either to the West or East.

The country’s leadership is split, with the ruling Democratic Party pursuing a pro-EU stance while the president has pressed for a policy more focused toward Russia.

Until assuming the presidency, Dodon was the leader of Moldova's Socialist Party, a splinter group from former President Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party. He also is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pro-Russia Socialist Party, the country’s leading opposition group, is expected to win the most votes in the February 24 vote.

However, it is not expected to receive a clear majority. Along with the Democratic Party and the Socialists, the ACUM (Now) bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption and is also considered pro-West, will be among competitors in the vote.

An Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU came into force in 2016, but the Socialists favor the country joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Chisinau’s unsteady record in fighting rampant corruption has angered many Moldovans, increased support for the Socialists, and brought complaints from the EU.

Dodon asserted in the AP interview that he sees the need to maintain ties with the EU, which accounts for 70 percent of Moldova’s exports -- much of it to neighboring Romania, with which Moldova shares a common language and history.

But he also said the EU’s development over the next 10 to 15 years is uncertain, making it important for Chisinau to keep friendly relations with Moscow.

Moldova's mainly Russian-speaking Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania. Most of Moldova was part of Romania in the interwar period.

Moldovan forces and Moscow-backed Transdniester fighters fought a short but bloody war in 1992.

The conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement after Russian troops in the region intervened on the side of the separatists. Some 1,400 Russian troops remain in Transdniester, despite UN calls to remove them.

Dodon won the presidency in 2016 after an election campaign that capitalized on a wave of nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Dodon has been suspended at least five times by Moldova's Constitutional Court, accused of failing to fulfill his constitutional obligations by refusing to sign into law bills passed by parliament and other matters.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Ahead Of General Election, Moldovan Opposition Leaders Say They've Been Poisoned

Moldovan opposition leaders Andrei Nastase (left) and Maia Sandu (file photo)

CHISINAU -- Two Moldovan opposition leaders have accused the authorities of poisoning them, three days before parliamentary elections.

Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase of the pro-European ACUM (Now) bloc said on February 21 that doctors had discovered heavy metals in their blood.

"Suspicions arise, and against the background of the attitude of the current government to those who they think are dangerous, this case should be taken seriously," Sandu told a press conference in Chisinau.

Nastase added that the authorities "want our deaths."

Vitalie Gamurari, a spokesman for the pro-Western, ruling Democratic Party, rejected the allegation, saying: "Strange accusations have been heard in the last few days and are becoming more and more fantastic."

Besides the Democratic Party, groups competing in the February 24 vote include the Socialists, who favor closer ties to Russia, and the ACUM bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption.

Opinion polls suggest none of them will win an outright majority.

With reporting by Reuters

IAAF Allows More Russian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals. (file photo)

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) says it had cleared 21 Russian athletes to compete in coming international competitions -- albeit not under their national flag.

The world governing body for track and field’s doping review board ruled that the 21 Russians have met "exceptional eligibility criteria" to compete as neutral athletes in 2019, a statement said on February 21.

In January, the IAAF had already approved 42 Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag this year.

Athletics' governing body banned Russia in November 2015 after a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency outlined evidence of systematic, state-backed doping in Russian athletics.

Another report a year later documented more than 1,000 doping cases across dozens of sports, most notably at the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014.

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Iran To Hold Navy Drills In Strait of Hormuz

Iran regularly holds navy maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Iran will hold a three-day navy drill in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz this weekend, according to state media.

Officials were quoted as saying that the annual exercise, which will start on February 22, will extend as far as the Sea of Oman and the fringes of the Indian Ocean.

Iran regularly holds maneuvers in the strait, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi told state television that submarines, warships, helicopters, and surveillance planes will participate in the drills.

The exercise, dubbed as Velayat-97, will include missile launches from the vessels, he added.

The exercise aims to evaluate the navy's equipment, practice launching weapons and "enable the troops to gain readiness for a real battle," the semiofficial Tasnim news agency cited the rear admiral as saying.

"The maneuver should prepare us for an emergency," Khazandi added.

The military exercises come at a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which last May withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed tough sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States decides to block oil exports as part of its sanctions.

Iran is a major exporter of oil and a member of the OPEC oil cartel.

The United States has dismissed the threat, saying Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz.

Based on reporting by Tasnim, dpa, AFP, and AP

Afghan Taliban Says New Political Chief Won’t Attend Talks With U.S. Envoys

Afghan Taliban leaders said on February 21 that their new political chief will not attend peace talks with U.S. envoys that are due to place in Qatar next week.

U.S. officials want to meet with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, hoping the Taliban's co-founder and military veteran will add momentum and have the clout to discuss issues that have made it difficult to broker a peace deal with Afghanistan’s government.

But senior Taliban leaders said Baradar would not be travelling to Qatar because he has had difficulties obtaining travel documents.

They said there are also differences among the Taliban leadership over the precise role that Baradar should have in the talks.

Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail in October. His appointment was widely seen as marking a new push by the Taliban to achieve political and diplomatic legitimacy.

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

Poisoned Arms Dealer Suggests Attackers Had Help Inside Bulgaria

"Without any internal cooperation there is no way [the attack] can happen," Emilian Gebrev told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service on February 20.

SOFIA -- Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian businessman who fell into a coma in April 2015 with symptoms of severe poisoning, says he believes whoever was involved in the attack against him had help from inside Bulgaria.

Gebrev, a veteran of the Bulgarian arms industry, survived the poisoning, as did his son and a company executive who were treated for similar symptoms.

The case bears hallmarks of the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2018.

The British-based open-source investigation group Bellingcat said on February 14 that Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeyev, a high-ranking military intelligence officer and a graduate of Russia's Military Diplomatic Academy, arrived in Bulgaria just days before Gebrev fell ill. The investigative group says Sergeyev used an alias while in Bulgaria.

Bellingcat said Sergeyev is also suspected of being involved in the attack against the Skripals in Salisbury, having arrived in Britain two days before they were poisoned.

"External support is extremely important and powerful, but without any internal cooperation there is no way [the attack] can happen," Gebrev told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service on February 20.

"The more I personally analyze what has happened so far, however cruel and ugly it sounds, it is the result of an extremely thoughtful, purposeful and consistent war on me, the company I lead and, analyzing the whole situation, on the companies in defense sector," Gebrev said.

An initial investigation into Gebrev’s poisoning found traces of the highly toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in his coffee and food at his home -- but no substance banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention such as Novichok.

Little else, however, was discovered and no one was punished for the attack.

The Kremlin has disputed the findings of the new Bellingcat investigation implicating it in Gebrev’s poisoning.

'Close Partnership'

British and Bulgarian officials, however, said earlier in February that the case has been reopened and that the two countries have been "closely" coordinating their efforts for "several months."

"We are working in a joint team and a close partnership, and we are going to find out the facts in this case," U.K. Ambassador to Bulgaria Emma Hopkins told reporters in Sofia on February 11.

While Gebrev did not name Russia specifically as a co-conspirator in the attack against him, he told RFE/RL that reports of a Russian agent's involvement don't surprise him.

“It's not even a coincidence. It's overlapping interests, which are even stronger," Gebrev said, noting that it appears to indicate Moscow was involved in some way.

The Bulgarian arms dealer also criticized local investigators in Bulgaria, noting that the case was reopened only after pressure exerted by Britain because of the possible link between the attacks in Sofia and Salisbury.

“When the state wants to investigate, then it can. And when it doesn't want to, well, here it is 2019, four years later, and only now are they trying to understand what happened," Gebrev said.

A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia
A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia

Skripal and his daughter also survived after weeks in critical condition. But Dawn Sturgess, a British national who authorities said came in contact with the poison after her boyfriend found a fake perfume bottle containing it, died in July 2018.

British authorities have charged that two Russian men, identified by Bellingcat as agents of Russia's GRU intelligence services, carried out the Salisbury attack.

However, they have not identified a third suspect. Bellingcat has acknowledged that it’s "unclear what [Sergeyev's] role may have been, if any, in the preparation and execution of the poisoning operation."

Moscow has denied involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals using the highly toxic nerve-agent Novichok, which led to a series of sanctions against Russia by the West and tit-for-tat diplomatic actions.

Two men who British police say traveled under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov and have ties to Russian military intelligence, have denied involvement. They say they are traveling vitamin salesmen who visited Salisbury to view its cathedral spire.

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