Assad Hails Recapture Of Palmyra From Islamic State
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) militants, an advance that President Bashar al-Assad hailed as an "important achievement" demonstrating the success of his army's fight against terrorism.
The loss of Palmyra is a major setback for the extremist IS group, which declared a caliphate in 2014 across large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
It follows a nearly three-week push by Assad's forces to recapture the central city, which IS militants overran in May 2015.
"The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian Army and its allies in the war against terrorism," Assad told a delegation of French parliamentarians in Damascus.
He also took a swipe at the global coalition striking Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria and Iraq, saying the Syrian Army's victory "shows the coalition -- led by the United States and including more than 60 countries -- isn't serious about fighting terrorism."
Syrian television announced earlier in the day that the army and its militia allies took complete control of Palmyra and were clearing mines and bombs set up by the militants.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said that there was still gunfire in the eastern part of the city early in the morning on March 27, but that the majority of IS militants there had pulled out and retreated east.
Retaking the town is a major symbolic and strategic victory for Assad's government, which has made steady gains in recent months against IS and opposition rebel groups.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Ancient City Of Palmyra
The road linking Palmyra to Raqqa, an IS stronghold, is now under army control, which means that IS fighters can only retreat eastward toward the Iraqi border.
The Syrian Army's general command said that Palmyra would become "a launchpad to expand military operations" against IS forces in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, another stronghold of the extremist group.
It vowed to "tighten the noose on the terrorist group and cut supply routes…ahead of their complete recapture."
Despite Russia's announcement that it was pulling out most of its military forces from Syria two weeks ago, Russian jets and helicopters carried out dozens of strikes over the ancient city at the height of the fighting.
The Russian Defense ministry said on March 27 that its forces had made 40 flights over the area of Palmyra during the last 24 hours, striking 117 targets and killing more than 80 militants, Russian news agencies reported.
The ministry added that the cease-fire in Syria had been violated 10 times during the past 24 hours but that overall it was holding, news agencies reported.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin congratulated Assad on the recapture Palmyra in a March 27 phone call.
"In a conversation with the Syrian president, Vladimir Putin congratulated his colleague on Syrian forces liberating the city of Palmyra from terrorists, noting the importance of preserving this unique historic city for world culture," Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency quoted Peskov as saying.
Meanwhile, Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Observatory, said that 400 Islamic State fighters and 180 government troops and allied militiamen died in the fighting for Palmyra.
Abdulrahman described the battle as the single biggest defeat for the group since it declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas of Syria and Iraq that it controlled in 2014
IS fighters have been under pressure since Syrian and Iraqi military forces launched offensives to retake the key bastions in the group's self-proclaimed caliphate.
They were driven out of the Iraqi city of Ramadi only three months ago, a major victory for Iraq. They also lost the Iraqi city of Tikrit last year and the Syrian town of Al-Shadadi in February.
On March 24, the Iraqi Army announced that it would launch an offensive to retake Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which has been under IS control since June 2014.
Many of Palmyra's Roman-era relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph, have been blown up by IS, which claims they promoted "idolatry."
UNESCO has called the campaign of destruction a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.
Syrian television on March 27 broadcast footage from inside a Palmyra museum that showed toppled and damaged statues, as well as multiple smashed display cases.
The Syrian government's antiquities chief said other ancient landmarks remained standing and vowed to restore the damaged monuments.
"Palmyra has been liberated. This is the end of the destruction in Palmyra," Mamoun Abdelkarim was quoted by Reuters as saying. "How many times did we cry for Palmyra? How many times did we feel despair? But we did not lose hope."
With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters
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Iranian Sunni Cleric Says He Has Received Reports Of Sexual Assaults On Female Prisoners
Iran’s top Sunni cleric, a vocal critic of the government, says he has received reports of sexual assaults on female prisoners in Iranian prisons.
Molavi Abdolhamid wrote on his Twitter account on December 6 that the assaults on female prisoners were being committed with the intention of humiliating, suppressing, and obtaining forced confessions from them.
"If proven, the real corrupters on earth are the perpetrators of these crimes," Abdolhamid added, and asked the judiciary to punish these people severely.
"Corruption on Earth," is a common charge often leveled by Iran’s judiciary in cases involving attempts to overthrow the government.
Molavi Abdolhamid is regarded nationwide as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, who are a minority among the mainly Shi'ite population of Iran. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.
CNN first published an investigative report last month about the "sexual assault and rape" of some of the detainees from recent protests while they were being held in Iran's prisons. Citing the testimony of a number of released detainees or hospital sources, CNN said it has confirmed that young women and teenage boys and girls have been raped in prisons.
In response to the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the Iranian authorities' use of sexual violence as a tool for protest suppression.
Price said on November 23 that the United States “is disgusted by the reports and eyewitness accounts of protesters, including minors, being sexually assaulted while in the custody of law enforcement.”
Previously, in an open letter to Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist imprisoned in the notorious Evin prison, called for a special investigation into the assault of detained women.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Top Official At Kazakh City's Thermal Power Plant Found Dead Amid Heating Crisis
A top official at a heating plant in Kazakhstan’s northern city of Ekibastuz, Sergei Vidlog, has been found dead as parts of the city have been left without heat since late November. Authorities said on December 6 that Vidlog's body was found in his car in a garage two days earlier. Last week, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev sacked the region's governor after experts described the situation in Ekibastuz, where temperatures have been minus 30 degrees Celsius for weeks, as "catastrophic." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Hungary Vetoes EU Aid For Ukraine; Bloc Delays Decision On Funds For Budapest
Hungary vetoed an 18 billion euro ($19 billion) EU loan for Ukraine and EU finance ministers delayed a decision on whether to unfreeze billions of euros in aid earmarked for Budapest. At a meeting in Brussels, Hungarian Finance Minister Mihaly Varga confirmed his government's opposition to supporting Ukraine with the loan. Locked in a tug-of-war with Hungary, the ministers decided to take off their agenda on December 6 any decision about 7.5 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in EU funds earmarked for Hungary, according to EU officials. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service story, click here.
Gas Explosion Kills At Least Eight In Siberia
A gas explosion has killed at least eight people and destroyed five apartments in a five-floor residential building in the Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk in Siberia. Local officials said on December 6 that teams continue search-and-rescue operations after the explosion, which took place two days earlier. Ten other apartments were also at least partially damaged in the blast. Gas explosions occur with some frequency in Russia due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.
Man In Military Uniform Opens Fire At Police In Russia's Rostov Region
A man in military dress opened fire with a machine gun at a group of police officers on December 6, wounding one of them, in the southwestern Russian region of Rostov, which borders Ukraine. The region's governor, Vasily Golubev, said on Telegram that the wounded officer was being treated in a hospital in the town of Novoshakhtinsk, where the incident took place. Law enforcement is working on locating the perpetrator, whom media described as a possible deserter from the war in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Ukraine Says Embassies In Denmark, Romania Receive More 'Bloody Packages'
Ukrainian embassies in Denmark and Romania have received more "bloody packages," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an online interview on December 6 with the Ukrinform news agency. Last week, Ukrainian embassies and consulates in several European countries received "bloody packages" that contained animal eyes as Russia continues its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in late February. To read the original story by Ukrinform, click here.
Zelenskiy Makes Lightning Trip To Ukraine's Donbas As Battle Rages
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made a working trip to the Donetsk region and met with the Ukrainian troops close to hotly contested battle lines with Russia. The president's office said in a statement on its website that Zelenskiy made the December 6 visit to hand the soldiers state awards on Ukraine's Day of the Armed Forces. The statement said that Ukraine's east "today is the most difficult front." Russia has backed separatists in the region since 2014 and the region is the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine at the moment.
Russia Extradites Nephew Of Jailed Informal Leader Of Restive Tajik Region
DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have extradited a nephew of Tolib Ayombekov, the jailed informal leader of Tajikistan's volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Law enforcement sources in the Central Asian country told RFE/RL that Russian police arrested 33-year-old Qurbonjon Ayombekov on December 1 as he was trying to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, and extradited him to Dushanbe days later.
Relatives told RFE/RL that Qurbonjon Ayombekov, who has resided in Russia since autumn 2021, decided to flee Russia for Ukraine after his uncle Tolib was handed a life sentence in November along with several other prominent Gorno-Badakhshan figures on charges of murder, hooliganism, robbery, drug and weapon smuggling, inciting hatred, organizing mass disorder, and creating a criminal group.
Also last month, Tolib Ayombekov's brother, Inoyatsho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while 16 years were added to the prison term of another brother, Okil, who in 2013 was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Also in November, another of Tolib Ayombekov’s nephews, Mamadamon Ayombekov, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Earlier in August, Tolib Ayombekov's three sons were handed lengthy prison terms.
Details of the charges and sentences are not clear as all the trials were held behind closed doors.
The crackdown on informal leaders and activists in Gorno-Badakhshan has been under way since May, when police violently dispersed protesters in the restive region.
Demonstrators in Gorno-Badakhshan had demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional governor and mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."
Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them during and after the rallies.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Darya Losik, Wife Of Jailed RFE/RL's Journalist, May Face Up To Seven Years In Prison
MINSK -- Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, may face up to seven years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity in Belarus.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said on December 6 that an investigation of the case against Darya Losik had been completed and sent to court, meaning that her trial is expected to start soon.
According to the statement, the charge against Darya Losik stems from an interview she gave to the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. During the interview, she "positioned herself as the wife of a 'political prisoner,'" the statement said.
"She expressed her personal negative assessment of state organs involved in criminal prosecution and justice. She also said her husband had not committed any crimes and had been illegally convicted. She called on relatives of other convicts to follow her example," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in the statement.
Darya Losik was detained in October after police searched her home.
The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded her immediate release and condemned her detainment.
Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on charges that remain unclear.
The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.
Losik and other defendants have insisted that the case against them is politically motivated.
Separatist Leader In Ukraine's Donetsk Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 60 Prisoners Each
The leader of the Kremlin-backed separatists in the occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 60 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 6 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
Iran Sentences Five To Death Over Killing Of Basij Paramilitary
Iran has sentenced to death five people over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests, the judiciary said on December 6. Another 11 people, including three children, were handed lengthy jail terms over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences could be appealed. Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking 40 days since her death.
EU, Western Balkans States Gather For Summit In Tirana
EU leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts have gathered in the Albanian capital, Tirana, for talks aimed at boosting their partnership amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Brussels wants to use the one-day gathering -- the first EU-Western Balkans summit to be held outside the European Union -- to tell leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to give them concrete signals, rather than just vague promises, that they will join that the 27-country bloc one day.
"I am convinced that the future of our children will be safer with the Western Balkans within the European Union, and we hope that we will progress in that direction," European Council President Charles Michel said at the start of the summit on December 6.
The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has reiterated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six countries is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security given Russia's war in Ukraine.
Tensions have also mounted in the Balkans since the start of the conflict and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders. Brussels is also wary of the battle to increase influence in the region by Moscow and Beijing.
"In the Western Balkans, several crises are looming, and partners feel the immediate damaging impact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said last month.
"The shock waves of this war are hitting the Western Balkans. To counter that, we are stepping up our engagement as the Western Balkans remain our geostrategic priority -- the closest and most important geostrategic priority."
According to a draft of the declaration to be adopted at the summit, the EU will repeat "its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans" and call for an acceleration of accession talks with the incumbents.
In return, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies.
The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia, was uncertain until the day before the summit.
Vucic said that he decided to come to Tirana "after consultations with the state institutions."
"It's always better to be at the table because when you're not at the table, you're on the menu," Vucic said.
Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani emphasized that she expects clear messages from the European Union regarding her country's membership prospects.
"Sometimes confusing messages are being sent. On the one hand, we have countries that are fully aligned with the EU, and on the other hand, you have countries that are fully aligned with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. The EU needs to be clear in its messages. Standing on the right side of history today is the least that is expected of us," Osmani said.
Osmani has confirmed Kosovo's intention to submit an application for full EU membership this month.
Kosovo has only started the first step, with the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement.
Among the concrete measures to be adopted in Tirana, a deal involving telecommunications operators that will bring down data roaming charges will be announced.
With reporting by AP
Iran Arrests 12 With Alleged European Links: Report
Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested 12 alleged members of a European-linked group accused of planning acts of sabotage in the country, Tasnim news agency said. Iran has been rocked by more than two months of what it calls deadly "riots" that it says have been fomented by the United States, its allies, and foreign-based opposition groups. In a statement quoted by Tasnim, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Markazi Province, southwest of Tehran, said it had arrested "a network with 12 members with links abroad."
Prosecutors Seek Life Sentence For Former Russian Lawmaker Arashukov, Father
Prosecutors in Moscow are seeking a life sentence for a former member of the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, Rauf Arashukov and his father, Raul, both of whom a jury found guilty in September of organizing two murders.
The request was made on December 5 at the post-verdict sentencing stage of the trial at the Moscow City Court.
In late September, a jury found Rauf Arashukov guilty of organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.
The jury also found Arashukov's father, Raul Arashukov, guilty of ordering the two killings. Raul Arashukov was a lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.
Rauf Arashukov, 36, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house, after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.
The younger Arashukov was also charged with participating in a "criminal community" and witness tampering.
He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His membership in the regional branch of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party was suspended after his arrest.
His 62-year-old father was also arrested at the time along with several other people, including Rauf Arashukov's cousin.
Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the case against him and his father is politically motivated.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Interfax
Father Of Jailed Belarusian Opposition Figure Kalesnikava Allowed Brief Visit
Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, the father of jailed Belarusian opposition activist Maryya Kalesnikava, has been allowed to see his daughter for 10 minutes after she spent several days in an intensive care unit following a surgery to save her life.
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram that Kalesnikau met his daughter under supervision of guards in the penitentiary's infirmary on December 5, where Kalesnikava was transferred over the weekend. She will remain in the infirmary for at least 10 days.
Babaryka quoted medical personnel as saying that Kalesnikava, who lost a significant amount of weight, had a ruptured ulcer.
Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a prison in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.
Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that have lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 years and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021 after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.
Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
Drone Strikes Airfield In Russia's Kursk Region, Governor Says
A drone has struck an airfield in the Russian region of Kursk bordering Ukraine, setting fire to an oil storage tank, the regional governor said on December 6. "There were no casualties. The fire is localized. All emergency services are working at the site," Governor Roman Starovoyt said on the Telegram messaging app. Starovoyt did not say who was responsible for the incident. Russia previously accused Ukraine of carrying out drone strikes inside Russian territory, including on December 6. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Russia Deploys Defense Missile System On Kurile Island Near Japan
Russia's Defense Ministry says it has deployed mobile coastal-defense missile systems on a northern Kurile island, part of a strategically located chain of islands that stretch between Japan and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula. Japan lays claim to the Russian-held southern Kurile Islands, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, a territorial row that dates to the end of World War II, when Soviet troops seized them from Japan. The Russian Bastion systems, which have missiles with a flight range of up to 500 kilometers, were deployed on the island of Paramushir, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Latvia Cancels License Of Exiled Independent Russian TV Dozhd
Latvia's electronic media authority has revoked the broadcasting license of the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain), the authority's chief announced on December 6.
The decision, due to come into force on December 8, was made "in connection with the threat to national security and public order," National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) Chairman Ivars Abolins said.
The TV channel's management "does not understand and is not aware of the significance and seriousness of the violations, and therefore cannot operate on the territory of Latvia," Abolins said.
Dozhd said in a statement that the move was "unfair and absurd."
"The TV channel will stop broadcasting on cable but will remain on YouTube. We continue to work and believe all accusations against us to be unfair and absurd," Dozhd said on Twitter.
The NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On December 2, Dozhd was fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."
The same day, Latvia's state security service said it had launched an investigation in connection with statements "which raise suspicions about the assistance provided by this TV channel to the soldiers of the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine."
Dozhd anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the station's audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes.
In making the request, he said, "We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."
The security service said in a news release, "No provision of support to the aggressor Russia is justifiable," adding that anyone helping the Russian forces was subject to criminal liability.
Other news organizations have also relocated operations to Riga.
Following the forced suspension of its operations in Russia in March, RFE/RL opened a news bureau in the Latvian capital, which is also currently hosting Novaya Gazeta Europe and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle's Moscow bureau.
The city has also hosted independent news website Meduza since 2014.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Bulgaria Denies Border Police Fired At Refugees Illegally Crossing From Turkey
Bulgaria has denied that its border police fired at refugees on the border with Turkey a day after the release of a video showing a man being shot at the border.
The denials are included in statements on December 6 from Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev, and the press center of the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry statement said there was no evidence that Syrian refugees were shot at the Bulgarian-Turkish border on October 3, when border patrols prevented an attempted border crossing by a group of about 65 people.
The ministry said the group retreated back to Turkish territory after spotting the border patrol but returned “displaying aggressive and hostile behavior which escalated into physical violence," resulting in the injury of a border police officer, who was hit by a stone, and damage to a police vehicle and the windows of a guard booth.
Noting that the incident was two months ago, Geshev said he hoped it would not be used “situationally to harm the people because Bulgaria does not deserve that.” Bulgaria is “a European country and we use European standards," Geshev said on December 6, adding that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has not established that a shooting against refugees took place, and saying this was similar to the conclusion of the Interior Ministry.
The video, which was released on December 5, showed an asylum seeker collapsing to the ground after being struck by a bullet that penetrates his hand and lodges in his chest. In a separate video recorded days later, the man identified himself as 19-year-old Abdullah el-Rustum of Syria. He said he was shot by Bulgarian border guards after his group was caught illegally entering Bulgaria and pushed back to Turkey.
The videos were part of a joint investigation by several European media outlets, including RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Demerdzhiev confirmed at a briefing on December 5 that there was no evidence that shots were fired by officers of the Interior Ministry. The acting minister described the journalistic investigation as biased.
"There is no evidence in this incident that a shot was fired by a Bulgarian border policeman or that active actions were taken that in any way violated the human rights of anyone," Demerdzhiev said.
His statement confirms the official position of the Interior Ministry on the incident, which had been sent to RFE/RL. According to the statement, the refugees showed "aggressive and hostile behavior, which escalated into physical violence -- throwing stones and burning objects at the Bulgarian police officers, their official car, and the security booth."
The ministry’s press center adds that it was not clear in the video from which direction the shot that wounded Rustum came. However, it emphasized that after the investigation it became clear that “no shots were fired from our side."
The European Commission on December 6 urged Bulgaria to thoroughly investigate the shooting. European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper told reporters that Brussels expects authorities in the EU member country to investigate any allegations and to follow up swiftly and effectively.
The Bulgarian government has said its border guards have encountered more aggression from people trying to illegally enter the country. Officials last month reported that a Bulgarian police officer was shot dead by an unidentified person at the border with Turkey and two police officers were killed in August when they were hit by a bus carrying migrants.
With reporting by AP
Russia, Ukraine Exchange More POWs As Moscow Blames Kyiv For Drone Strike On Russian Airfield
Ukraine and Russia have exchanged more prisoners of war, officials on both sides announced, as Kyiv's technicians raced to restore electricity following the latest wave of Russian missile strikes and Moscow said a Ukrainian drone struck an airfield across the border, prompting President Vladimir Putin to convene his Security Council.
On the battlefield, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the situation as "difficult" on December 6 as he visited the front line in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have been pushing to capture the industrial city of Bakhmut.
Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential office, said on Telegram that 60 Ukrainian prisoners returned home in an exchange confirmed by Russia's Defense Ministry, which said an identical number of Russians were released.
Ukrainian officials warned that critical energy infrastructure continues to be threatened by further Russian strikes and there would be emergency blackouts once again in several regions as engineers work frantically to repair damage from the huge wave of missile attacks the previous day that destroyed homes and knocked out power.
Russian shelling was reported overnight in Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhya and central Dnipropetrovsk regions, officials said on Telegram, with critical infrastructure and residential buildings being damaged in the suburbs of Zaporizhzhya city.
No one was injured, according to preliminary information, said Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Zaporizhzhya regional military administration.
About half the region surrounding the Ukrainian capital will remain without electricity for the coming days after Russian missile strikes on power facilities, the Kyiv regional governor said.
Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people, appeared to have escaped serious damage. But the Kyiv region, which does not include the capital and which had a population of about 1.8 million before the war, was badly hit.
"In the coming days, about half of the region will be without electricity," Governor Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram late on December 5.
Volodymyr Kudritskiy, the chief of power grid operator Ukrenerho, said Moscow had deliberately launched the attacks as the temperature fell below zero.
"A day or two is necessary to restore normal generation in the system," Kudritskiy told Ukrainian television.
Other regions sustained damage as well, with all water pumping stations and reserve lines in the Odesa region losing power and water supply being cut.
In the eastern city of Kramatorsk, which remains under Ukraine's control, 370 apartment blocks were without heat because of electricity outages, the city's mayor said.
Ukrainian forces fought off a fresh round of Russian attacks in the east, Ukraine's General Staff said on December 6, as Russian troops continued their relentless offensive in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of Donetsk region, and tank and artillery bombardment hit some 20 settlements in the area, including Soledar, Verkhnokamyanske, Andriyivka, and Yakovlyivka.
Zelenskiy, who visited troops on the front line in the Donbas region, praised soldiers in a selfie video filmed near Bakhmut. In other videos, he presented medals and shook hands with troops in a hangar.
In Russia's Kursk region across the border from Ukraine, an airfield was targeted by a "drone attack," according to Governor Roman Starovoyt, who did not specify where the drone originated.
"As a result of a drone attack in the area of the Kursk airfield, an oil storage tank caught fire," Starovoyt said on social media, adding that there were no casualties.
The December 6 incident comes a day after Moscow accused Ukraine of carrying out deadly drone strikes on two other airfields.
At least one large explosion occurred at a Russian military air base in the Saratov region, about 600 kilometers east of Ukraine, while another blast was reported by Russian state media at an airfield outside Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.
The December 6 incident, coming a day after Moscow accused Ukraine of carrying out deadly drone strikes on two other airfields, prompted the
Kremlin to announce that Putin convened a meeting of his Security Council to discuss how to ensure the state's "domestic security." No other details were provided.
Speaking to reporters separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the authorities were taking "necessary" measures to protect the country from Ukrainian attacks.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian embassies in Denmark and Romania received more "bloody packages," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an online interview on December 6 with the Ukrinform news agency.
Last week, Ukrainian embassies and consulates in several European nations received "bloody packages" that contained cut-out animal eyes as Russia continues its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in late February.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Romania Starts Sending Natural Gas To Moldova Through Pipeline
Romania has started transporting natural gas to Moldova, which is struggling to meet energy demand amid Russia's war against Ukraine. Gas began arriving on December 3 through a pipeline connecting Iasi in eastern Romania with the Moldovan border town of Ungheni, state news agency Agerpres reported, citing Romanian gas distributor Transgaz. The 43-kilometer pipeline, unveiled in 2014 to reduce dependence on supplies from Russia, has not been used until now. Moldova connected it in 2019 to supply Chisinau, and the compressor stations were commissioned in 2021. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
Montenegro Reaffirms Its Support For Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic Path
The prime minister of Montenegro and president of Ukraine have signed a joint declaration on Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic perspective. Dritan Abazovic and Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed the declaration on December 5 in an online meeting. Montenegro is the third country in Europe after Belgium and the Czech Republic to sign the declaration. It reaffirms Montenegro's support for Ukraine's efforts to become a full-fledged part of the Euro-Atlantic society, the government of Montenegro said. Zelenskiy thanked all Montenegrins for their support and for accepting Ukrainian refugees. Abazovic said that Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereignty and a chance to live in democracy. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
FIFA Announces Probe Into Conduct Of Serbian Team, Fans At World Cup
World soccer's governing body, FIFA, has announced a probe into alleged misconduct by Serbian players, team officials, and fans during Serbia’s World Cup loss to Switzerland last week.
The disciplinary action, which was announced on December 5, comes after complaints from the Football Association of Kosovo about offensive chants against two Swiss players who have ethnic Albanian roots and family ties to Kosovo. Serbia was eliminated from the tournament in the 3-2 defeat on December 2.
A statement from FIFA said its disciplinary committee has opened proceedings against the Football Association of Serbia "due to potential breaches of articles 12 (misconduct of players and officials), 13 (discrimination) and 16 (order and security at matches) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code" related to incidents during the match.
It is the second time that FIFA has launched disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian team during the 2022 World Cup. The first occurred after a flag showing Kosovo as part of Serbia allegedly was displayed in the Serbian locker room after the match on November 26 with Brazil.
Serbian team manager Dragan Stojkovic, speaking at a press conference on December 5 after the national team returned from Qatar, said he had no comment on the latest actions by FIFA.
The Football Association of Kosovo had complained to FIFA about the alleged incidents, judging them to be nationalistic.
"It's good that FIFA dealt with this and that it took it seriously," Agim Ademi, the president of the Football Association of Kosovo, told RFE/RL.
The Football Association of Serbia and the Serbian Sports Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment about the disciplinary charges.
The Football Association of Kosovo had demanded a reaction from FIFA, due to "severe insults by the coach of Serbia and racist actions of Serbian fans" during the match against Switzerland, which was captained by Granit Xhaka, and in which Xherdan Shaqiri scored the opening goal. Both players have roots in Kosovo.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovar sovereignty more than a decade after the mostly ethnic Albanian province declared independence. Kosovo has been a member of FIFA and UEFA, soccer’s European governing body, since 2016.
FIFA’s announcement said that "racist calls against Albanians were heard during the entire match" and "slogans with political messages” were also heard.
Several Serbian players also encroached onto the field when the referee didn't use a video review to study a claim for a penalty kick in the second half.
FIFA gave no timetable for the disciplinary case. Any punishments could apply when Serbia next plays competitive games in March in a European Championship qualifying group.
The Football Association of Kosovo demanded investigation and sanctions against the Football Association of Serbia “so that once and for all fascist chants disappear from football stadiums and events such as the World Cup."
The association said in a statement that teams and fans “with behavior and a philosophy of hatred should not have a place at such important sports events as the World Cup in Qatar."
With reporting by AP
International Criminal Court's Prosecutor Opposes EU Plan For Special Ukraine Tribunal
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has denounced a European Union proposal to create a UN-backed special tribunal to prosecute crimes in Ukraine, saying his court was capable of effectively dealing with war crimes committed there. On December 5, Karim Khan pushed back against the plan that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced last week to establish a special court to prosecute Russia’s invasion. The Hague-based ICC has launched an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine but cannot prosecute the crime of aggression because Russia is not a signatory to the treaty that created the court. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Automobile Traffic Reopens On Part Of Bridge Linking Russia To Crimea
Two-way traffic has been restored on a Russian-built bridge that connects Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. An explosion believed to be from a truck bomb caused heavy damage to road and railway sections of the bridge in October. The attack infuriated the Kremlin. Ukrainian officials have not said who carried it out. Russian state television channel Rossia-24 showed video of President Vladimir Putin driving a vehicle across the bridge. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
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