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Syrian Foreign Minister Rejects Discussion Of Assad's Future

Security personnel and civilians gather at the site of a large blast in a neighborhood of Aleppo on January 18. State television blamed the explosion on "terrorists," a term used to describe antigovernment rebels.
Security personnel and civilians gather at the site of a large blast in a neighborhood of Aleppo on January 18. State television blamed the explosion on "terrorists," a term used to describe antigovernment rebels.
Syria's foreign minister says any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad's future is "unacceptable."

The statement from Walid al-Moallem on January 19 came just a week after United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the president should not be part of a transitional government.

Speaking on state television, Moallem also invited the country's rebels to lay down their weapons and take part in a dialogue conference.

He said that everyone who participates will be included in a new cabinet with wide executive powers.

The Syrian opposition rejected the proposal.

The ambassador in Paris for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Monzer Makhous, said the opposition will never establish a government with the Assad regime because it was refusing to move toward a political solution.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

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France Accuses Azerbaijan Of Backing An Online Campaign To Incite Violence On New Caledonia

A protester holds the flag of New Caledonian nationalists at a demonstration in Paris on May 16, 2024.
A protester holds the flag of New Caledonian nationalists at a demonstration in Paris on May 16, 2024.

France has again accused Azerbaijan of interfering in the internal politics of New Caledonia by backing a disinformation campaign that Paris says is encouraging deadly riots in the French territory located between Australia and Fiji.

A French government agency said on May 17 that France has detected a "massive and coordinated" online campaign accusing French police of shooting pro-independence demonstrators. The agency linked the disinformation efforts to "Azerbaijani actors." Azerbaijan has rejected the claims.

Viginum, the French government's watchdog for online disinformation campaigns, pointed to the manipulation of information on social media platforms over the recent riots in New Caledonia.

"On May 15 and 16, 2024, Viginum detected massive and coordinated dissemination on various platforms of clearly inaccurate or misleading content, accusing French police of firing on pro-independence demonstrators," the agency said.

In recent days New Caledonia has been engulfed in clashes between supporters and opponents of independence. The protests started over an electoral reform law that expanded the voting rights of French nationals living in New Caledonia. Opponents of the law believe that it will weaken the vote of the local population and increase the influence of Paris.

French authorities in New Caledonia and at the Interior Ministry said that five people, including two police officers, have been killed in the clashes since May 13.

France imposed a state of emergency and deployed military forces to protect ports and airports. High Commissioner Louis Le Franc announced stringent measures under the state of emergency, which will run for at least 11 days, including a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The accusation made on May 17 by Viginum follows the comments of French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanen, who told French television that "some leaders of Caledonia's supporters of independence made a deal with Azerbaijan."

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said the French official’s words were "another baseless opinion" and added on May 17 that Azerbaijan was not connected to the New Caledonia protests.

Darmanen’s comments came after a delegation from New Caledonia visited Azerbaijan and held meetings with the chairman of the parliament, deputies, and other officials.

Azerbaijani Deputy Asim Mollazadeh said that according to the information provided by the guests from New Caledonia “almost all their rights are violated. It is not suitable for anyone to live in the 21st century with the actions of the 15th century," Mollazadeh said.

Mollazadeh, who participated in a conference in April dedicated to the topic New Caledonia’s history, modern challenges, and future, said that Azerbaijan can provide moral support to New Caledonia. The territory is "fighting for its freedom and rights…. History also remembers the crimes committed by France," he said.

New Caledonia held three referendums on independence between 2018 and 2021. None of them passed.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Bill Allowing Military Service For Some Convicts Endorsed In Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 17 signed into law a bill allowing for convicts under certain circumstances to serve in the armed forces as Kyiv deals with a military personnel shortage amid Russia's ongoing invasion. Parliament approved the bill on May 8 after the government dropped its opposition to the move. Kyiv has sharply criticized Moscow for recruiting convicts from prison to fight in the war in exchange for a release from their sentences. Reports in recent months say former prisoners have committed serious crimes across the country after they served in the war. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

At Least 4 Killed In Attack On Foreign Tourists In Afghanistan

Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan (file photo)
Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan (file photo)

At least four people were killed in an armed attack on a group of foreign tourists at a market in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan on May 17, according to government and security sources.

Taliban-led Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Matin Qane was quoted by AFP as saying that 11 people were shot and that four of them, including three foreigners, died. Among the other seven victims were four foreigners and three Afghans, he added.

But a Taliban security source told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that the attack left eight people dead.

The source, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that five Afghan civilians and three foreigners were shot dead. The governor of Bamiyan did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for additional information about the shooting.

Qane said the foreigners were tourists but did not provide their nationalities.

Hospital sources quoted by AFP said preliminary information indicated that three Spanish nationals were killed, and that the wounded were from Norway, Australia, Lithuania, and Spain.

A spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry confirmed to Reuters that Spanish nationals were among the victims in the attack. The spokesman said the total number of victims had yet to be confirmed.

Security forces have arrested four people in connection with the attack, Qane said.

The Taliban government "strongly condemns this crime, expresses its deep feelings to the families of the victims, and assures that all the criminals will be found and punished," Qane said in a statement.

Afghanistan has been attracting more and more tourists since improvements in security following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after the withdrawal of international forces.

The Bamiyan region is home to many members of the mainly Shi'ite Hazara ethnic minority. The historically persecuted religious minority has been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State extremist group, which considers them heretics.

In 2001, the Taliban blew up the giant, centuries-old Buddha statues that were carved into cliffs at Bamiyan. The statues once stood alongside caves, monasteries, and shrines that are among the tourist attractions in the province.

Before blowing up the statues, the hard-line Islamist group declared them "false idols.” Their destruction has been called the "cultural crime of the century.”

With reporting by AFP

Uzbeks Who Broke Laws In Russia Recommended To Avoid Travel To Kazakhstan

An Uzbek-Kazakh border checkpoint (file photo)
An Uzbek-Kazakh border checkpoint (file photo)

Uzbekistan's Foreign Labor Migration Agency on May 17 called on the Central Asian nation's citizens who may have broken laws in Russia to avoid travel to neighboring Kazakhstan, citing Kazakh-Russian agreements on joint efforts against crime. According to the agency, Uzbeks registered in Russia's database as violators will be arrested if they cross into Kazakh territory and subsequently handed to Russia. Many Uzbek migrant workers have left Russia in recent months, fearing forced recruitment into the war in Ukraine. As an alternative, many have chosen Kazakhstan as a destination for job opportunities. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Intense Border Clashes Between Taliban, Pakistan Cause Deaths, Destruction

The border gate in Kurram tribal district's Kharlachi between Afghanistan and Pakistan (file photo)
The border gate in Kurram tribal district's Kharlachi between Afghanistan and Pakistan (file photo)

At least one Taliban border guard and one Pakistani soldier have been killed and several more injured in the latest border clashes between them.

The clashes continued into the early hours of May 17 after they first erupted five days ago. Pakistani and Taliban forces targeted each other in several places along the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost, which borders Pakistan's western Kurram district.

Most of the casualties occurred on May 15 when one Pakistani soldier was killed and six more injured after a Taliban rocket hit their post, according to official sources in the country. The Taliban also acknowledged the death of one of its fighters.

"Intense shooting is spreading a wave of fear among locals,” Imran Ali, a Pashtun tribal leader in Kurram, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal on May 17.

Sameer Khan, a resident of the Teri Mangal area straddling the border, said that locals are moving to safer regions after mortar shells landed in civilian homes.

Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, a Taliban official in eastern Afghanistan, said they are collecting information on the human and material losses in the fighting.

The clashes erupted on May 13 after Pakistani forces began repairing the barbed-wire fence it first erected in 2017 to demarcate the Durand Line border, which no government in Afghanistan has formally recognized after it was first drawn by the British Empire in India in 1893.

Relations between Afghanistan's Islamist rulers and Pakistan have been tense since the Taliban returned to power in 2021. Islamabad blames the Taliban for sheltering the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TPP), a longtime ideological and organizational ally of the Taliban.

The recent tensions were partly flamed by an alleged Pakistani air strike in the southeastern Paktika Province, reportedly targeted by the Pakistani Taliban.

On May 12, at least seven Pakistani soldiers were killed and two more injured in two separate militant attacks in Pakistan’s North Waziristan district, which borders Paktika.

Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, director of news at the Khorasan Diary, a website tracking militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the Taliban blames Islamabad's border fence for the tensions. At the same time, Pakistani authorities allege that the TTP is exploiting the border to infiltrate Pakistan with the help of the Taliban.

“Unlike previous Afghan regimes led by Karzai and Ghani, which largely relied on verbal criticisms over border issues, the Taliban has resorted to force,” he said, referring to former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.

He said that the clashes have severely disrupted trade between the two countries, wreaking havoc among the Pashtun border communities in the two countries.

“Border tensions not only disrupt trade but also undermine trust,” he said. “This underscores the pressing need for a peaceful resolution to this long-standing dispute.”

But both the Taliban and Islamabad have been silent over the clashes, which experts say might indicate a complete breakdown in their relations.

'Leaders' Of Banned Islamic Group Detained In Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said on May 17 that four "leaders" of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group and several of the banned organization's members have been apprehended in Bishkek and other locations inside the Central Asian nation. According to the ministry, the suspects were detained during a special operation two days earlier. Police confiscated books with "extremist content," mobile phones, and other electronic devices as they searched the suspects' homes. Hizb ut-Tahrir, along with such Islamic groups as Yakyn Inkar, Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaihul-Mahdi, Ansarullah, Jihad Tobu, and the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, have been outlawed in Kyrgyzstan since 2003. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Russian Officer Who Fled To Kazakhstan To Avoid Ukraine War Detained

Russian officer Kamil Kasimov's military ID
Russian officer Kamil Kasimov's military ID

Kazakh rights defender Artur Alkhasov said on May 17 that Russian military officer Kamil Kasimov, who fled Russia last year to avoid being sent to the war in Ukraine and was legally residing in Astana, was arrested in late April and is currently being held at a Russian military base in Kazakhstan's central Qaraghandy region. The 23-year-old Kamilov was charged with being absent without notice in order to evade military service and faces up to 10 years in prison if extradited and convicted, Alkhasov said. Officers at the Russian military base in Kazakhstan’s Priozyorsk refused to comment on the situation when contacted by RFE/RL. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Dubai Unlocked: Convicts, Wealthy Iranians With State Ties Implicated In Leaked Property Data

An aerial view of the palm tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah real estate development in Dubai (file photo)
An aerial view of the palm tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah real estate development in Dubai (file photo)

Over 7,000 Iranians, including convicts and some with ties to the state, own what experts estimate to be billions of dollars of property in Dubai, according to a report by the Netherlands-based outlet Radio Zamaneh.

The information was obtained as part of a monthslong investigative project known as Dubai Unlocked. Journalists from 75 media outlets from across the world, including Radio Zamaneh, pored over the leaked data and have gradually released their findings over the past week.

Radio Zamaneh’s report cites academics and experts who say the total value of properties owned by Iranians in Dubai is around $7 billion.

It notes that while there is a slew of ordinary Iranians who have properties in the United Arab Emirates, there are also convicts, fugitives, and known figures with links to the Iranian establishment.

An office in Dubai’s Aspect Tower worth around $650,000 belongs to Abbas Iravani, a former head of the Ezam Automotive Parts Group who was sentenced to 65 years in prison earlier this year for his involvement in smuggling auto parts, disrupting the economy, and bribing officials. He has denied the charges.

Another prominent figure is Mohammad Emami, an investor and TV producer who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for his involvement in financial corruption. His friend and alleged co-conspirator in the case, Amir Reza Farzanrad, is a fugitive and also implicated in the Dubai Unlocked leaks.

Radio Zamaneh says Emami and Farzanrad each own a villa in the affluent Al-Merkadh neighborhood of Dubai worth $5.5 million and $12 million, respectively.

Convicted steel magnate Rasul Danialzadeh, sentenced to 16 years in prison for bribery, owns $12.6 million worth of property in Dubai, including five apartments in the upscale Al-Thanyah Fifth community and a villa in Palm Jumeirah.

The family of the late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani feature prominently in the leaks.

His oldest son, former Tehran City Council chairman Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, owns an apartment worth an estimated $380,000. Mohsen’s son, Ehsan, has a small apartment in Dubai valued at $100,000.

Yasser Hashemi Rafsanjani -- the ex-president’s youngest son -- and his wife, Maryam, own two apartments in the Burj Khalifa worth a combined $1.45 million.

The reports also notes that several dual national Iranians own properties in Dubai, including Mehdi Shams, a former executive at the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line Group.

The report said Shams, who is sentenced to 20 years in prison over his involvement in a multibillion-dollar embezzlement case, purchased a villa valued at $20 million on his British passport.

To put the figures into perspective, the average annual household income in Tehran in the Iranian year 1401 (March 2022-23) was around 2.3 billion rials. That is roughly $3,900 per year, or around $325 a month.

“With a reputation for financial secrecy, low taxes, and an ever-expanding spread of valuable real estate, [Dubai] is an appealing option for those looking to launder or hide cash,” says the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which along with Norwegian financial outlet E24 coordinated the investigation project.

Russia Pounds Kharkiv Region As Putin Looks To Create 'Buffer Zone'

A police officer runs past a burning house destroyed by a Russian air strike in Vovchansk on May 11.
A police officer runs past a burning house destroyed by a Russian air strike in Vovchansk on May 11.

Russia continues to pound Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region in an offensive that has seen the active combat zone grow as Moscow looks to establish what President Vladimir Putin called a "buffer zone."

The Ukrainian military's commander in chief, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on May 17 that the combat zone had expanded by some 70 kilometers in a move meant to force Kyiv, already at a troop disadvantage on the battlefield, to concentrate more soldiers in the area and stretch it thin elsewhere.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Speaking during a trip to China on May 17, Putin said Russia needed to create a safe zone, as Ukraine was regularly launching attacks on border regions such as Belgorod, around 80 kilometers north of the city of Kharkiv.

"Civilians are dying there. It's obvious. They are shooting directly at the city center, at residential areas. And I said publicly that if this continues, we will be forced to create a security zone, a buffer zone. That is what we are doing," Putin said.

Syrskiy said in a message on Telegram that Moscow's attack failed because it was launched prematurely.

"The enemy launched an offensive well ahead of schedule when it noticed the movement of our troops. However, it failed to break through our defenses," Syskiy wrote, adding that Ukraine "understands that there will be tough battles ahead."

The fiercest battles have been under way for the town of Vovchansk, some 5 kilometers from the Russian border.

Kharkiv's regional administrator, Oleh Synyehubov, said on May 17 that Russian forces had been attempting to encircle the small town that has all but been abandoned by its inhabitants with the exception of some 200 people trapped inside.

"The enemy has actually started to destroy the city. It is not just dangerous to be there, but impossible," Synyehubov said.


President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his evening address on May 16 that Russian shelling continued, but Ukrainian forces "have managed to increase confidence in the Vovchansk area."

Meanwhile, a source told RFE/RL that a joint operation of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) and the Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) targeted Russian military-logistics facilities in Sevastopol in the occupied Crimea and in Russia's Krasnodar region along the Black Sea coast.

Separately, authorities in the Krasnodar region said a drone attack early on May 17 caused a fire at an oil refinery in Tuapse but it was contained and there were no casualties.

WATCH: Russian forces opened a new front in the war with an invasion of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine's northeast last week. That has not meant a letup in the fighting in the east, where Ukrainian forces are still battling to defend territory that they retook almost two years ago. Troops in the town of Terny in the Donetsk region say they're short on munitions and manpower as they await fresh military aid.

As Russia Attacks Northern Kharkiv Region, Ukrainian Troops In The East Are Stretched Thin
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In Sevastopol, a drone strike on a power station caused power cuts, according to reports. The Russian-appointed head of the city, Mikhail Razvozhayev, claimed that Russian defense systems destroyed "dozens of drones and more than five unmanned boats."

The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 17 that 51 drones were destroyed over occupied Crimea, 44 over Krasnodar, six over Belgorod, and one over the Kursk region. Overnight, naval aviation and patrol boats destroyed six Ukrainian naval drones in the Black Sea, the ministry said.

The Russian claims could not be independently confirmed immediately.

Ukraine's Air Force said early on May 17 its air defenses shot down all 20 drones that were launched by Russia at five of its regions overnight.

The drones were downed over the Kharkiv, Poltava, Vinnytsya, Odesa and Mykolayiv regions, it reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Lukashenka Meets Azerbaijan's Aliyev In Nagorno-Karabakh

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) is greeted by Ilham Aliyev at the Fuzuli airport on May 17.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) is greeted by Ilham Aliyev at the Fuzuli airport on May 17.

Authoritarian Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka on May 17 visited Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region, known as Qarabag Province in Azeri, for the first time since Baku regained full control over the region last year following several decades of ethnic Armenian control. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev greeted Lukashenka at the international airport in the town of Fuzuli that was built after Azerbaijan took over the district in 2020. Lukashenka and Aliyev also visited the city of Susa (Shushi in Armenian). Lukashenka asked Aliyev to include Belarus in renovation programs in the region launched since Azerbaijan retook control. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

First Russian Transgender Politician Decides To Detransition

Yulia Alyoshina changed her gender to female in 2020. (file photo)
Yulia Alyoshina changed her gender to female in 2020. (file photo)

Yulia Alyoshina, the first Russian transgender politician, announced on May 16 that she had decided to change gender again and return to using her former name, Roman. The ex-chief of the Civic Initiative political party's branch in the Siberian region of Altai said the idea to restore her former gender came to her during Lent after she prayed for her ancestors. Born in 1990 as Roman Alyoshin, she changed her gender to female in 2020. After the Supreme Court labelled the "international LGBT movement" extremist, Alyoshina quit politics. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Slovak PM Remains In Intensive Care As Doctors Consider Move To Bratislava

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is stretchered into the Banksa Bystrica hospital after an assassination attempt on May 15.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is stretchered into the Banksa Bystrica hospital after an assassination attempt on May 15.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico remains in intensive care in serious condition and will stay in a hospital in the central city of Banksa Bystrica at least until May 20 before he may be moved to Bratislava, according to local media and government officials. Fico, who was shot four times on May 15, is able to speak a little, officials said, and his state of health has improved since the attack, when his injuries were considered life-threatening. Local media reported on May 17 that a medical council would assess Fico on May 20 to decide whether he could be medically evacuated to the capital.

Chechen Teen Flees Russia Complaining Of Domestic Violence

Lia Zaurbekova
Lia Zaurbekova

A 19-year-old from the North Caucasus region of Chechnya has fled Russia after leaving home to escape domestic violence, Aleksandr Ionov, a member of Russia's Public Monitoring Commission and Human Rights Council, said on May 17. The Marem human rights group said Lia Zaurbekova left Chechnya for Moscow on May 13, fearing for her life after she was physically and psychologically abused at home. Her family tracked her down in Moscow and tried to forcibly take her back to Chechnya but was unable to do so after Zaurbekova called the police and a lawyer. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Noted Political Analyst Flees Russia After Being Denounced

Aleksandr Sungurov (file photo)
Aleksandr Sungurov (file photo)

Aleksandr Sungurov, a Russian political analyst and professor at the Higher School of Economics, has fled Russia after pro-Kremlin film director Nikita Mikhalkov accused him of anti-Russian activities, one of Sungurov's students said on May 17. Mikhalkov said recently on his television show that the Sungurov-organized Strategia (The Strategy) foundation received financial support from abroad and must be labeled a "foreign agent." Sungurov has led Strategia, a liberal and analytical center in St. Petersburg, since 1994. He has also worked as an expert on the Council of Europe and the European Union. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Issues Warrant For Journalist Marshenkulova In Exile

Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)
Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)

A Moscow court on May 17 issued an arrest warrant for Zalina Marshenkulova, an activist journalist in exile, on a charge of justifying terrorism. The charge stems from Marshenkulova's online post last year in which she called the death of pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a blast in a restaurant in St. Petersburg, "appropriate." Marshenkulova, a native of Russia's mostly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region, has a Telegram channel called Women's Power, with around 30,000 subscribers. Last month, the Interior Ministry added her to its wanted list. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

EU Urges Iran To 'Reverse Nuclear Trajectory' As Tehran Threatens To Cross Threshold

 The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (left) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran in June 2022.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (left) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran in June 2022.

The European Union has joined the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in urging Iran to abandon suggestions that it might develop nuclear weapons.

"We continue to call Iran to reverse its nuclear trajectory and show concrete steps, such as urgently improve cooperation with the IAEA," EU spokesman Peter Stano told RFE/RL in written comments on May 16.

The Islamic republic has long claimed that its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes, but a growing number of officials in recent weeks have openly suggested that Iran might review its nuclear doctrine if it deems it necessary.

A landmark deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and world powers in 2015 restricted Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions.

However, Iran expanded its program and restricted IAEA inspections of its nuclear sites after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United Staes from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018.

The EU, which is the coordinator of the JCPOA's Joint Commission, mediated several rounds of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington from 2021 to 2022.

The 27-member bloc presented a final draft of an agreement to revive the deal in August 2022, but talks broke down soon after as Tehran and Washington accused each other of making excessive demands.

"Our goal has always been to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, through a diplomatic solution," Stano said, adding that the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and his team continue efforts to revive the Iran deal.

Iran has particularly upped the rhetoric since last month, when it launched an unprecedented missile and drone attack against its archfoe Israel in response to a deadly air strike on its embassy compound in Syria that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

An IRGC general at the time warned that an attack on Iran's nuclear sites could lead to a rethinking of its policy on nuclear weapons.

Kamal Kharazi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, repeated the threat earlier this week.

"We do not want nuclear weapons and the supreme leader's fatwa is to that effect. But if the enemy threatens you, what do you do?" he said.

The fatwa refers to a religious decree by Khamenei in which he said the Islamic republic considers the use of nuclear weapons to be "haram" and Iran would not pursue one.

The fatwa has long been cited by the Iranian authorities as evidence that Iran would never weaponize its nuclear program. Experts, however, question how effective of a barrier the fatwa really is.

Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute, said, "The nuclear fatwa does not pose an insurmountable religious or legal obstacle inside Iran for the system there to pursue nuclear weapons or potentially build them."

Despite the public comments by Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry has insisted that there has been no change in the country's nuclear doctrine.

Stano said that it "is imperative to show utmost restraint" given the heightened tensions in the Middle East.

"Further escalation in the region -- also in the form of statements about the nuclear posture, even if not reflecting the official position of the country -- is in no one's interest," he added.

In response to in Iran's new rhetoric, the United States has said it "will not allow" Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Separately, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi has called on Iran to "stop" suggestions that it might review its nuclear posture.

Russian Scientist Charged With Treason Reiterates Innocence In Final Statement Before Verdict

Anatoly Maslov (file photo)
Anatoly Maslov (file photo)

Russian physicist Anatoly Maslov reiterated his innocence in his final statement on May 17 at his treason trial before the court renders its verdict. A day earlier, the prosecution asked the court to convict the scientist and sentence him to 17 years in prison. The 77-year-old Maslov was arrested in June 2022. A leading expert in the field of fluid gas and a professor at the Aerohydrodynamics Department at Novosibirsk State Technical University, he is accused of passing classified information to Germany. At least 12 scientists have been arrested in Russia on treason charges since 2018, mostly for activities considered a normal part of scientific work such as publishing papers internationally, collaborating with colleagues from around the world, and attending conferences outside of Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Events Marking 'Family Purity Day' In Georgia Contrast Sharply With 'Foreign Agent' Protests

Government figures and senior Orthodox clerics attended Family Purity Day at Kashveti Cathedral in Tbilisi.
Government figures and senior Orthodox clerics attended Family Purity Day at Kashveti Cathedral in Tbilisi.

TBILISI -- Top officials from the ruling Georgian Dream party joined senior Orthodox clerics and conservative religious groups in rallies across the country on May 17 to mark a new holiday known as Family Purity Day, including a march in central Tbilisi, the scene of weeks of protests against a divisive "foreign agent" bill that was passed by parliament earlier this week.

Family Purity Day was established by Georgia's conservative Orthodox Church in 2014 in response to the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), which is marked every year on May 17 to raise awareness of LGBT rights violations around the world.

To avoid confrontation, no rallies against the "foreign agent" law were scheduled during the march for Family Purity Day.

In Georgia, Church-Led 'Family Purity Day' Forces Out LGBT Events
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The event, which is being marked for the first time with an official holiday, is backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which pushed a bill curtailing LGBT rights in March, just weeks before it reintroduced in parliament the "foreign agent" bill seen as modeled on a similar draconian Russian law.

The anti-LGBT Georgian Dream bill bans transgender surgery, child adoption by same-sex couples, indicating sex that is other than male and female in official documents, and organizing public events propagating same-sex relations.

Both pieces of legislation are seen as attempts by Georgian Dream, founded by Russia-friendly billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to tout its conservative policies ahead of elections scheduled for October.

In Tbilisi, the celebrations began at the Kashveti Cathedral with a Mass officiated by Shio Mujiri, the patriarchal locum tenens.

A procession attended by thousands began at the Holy Trinity Cathedral attended by Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, who is also Georgian Dream's secretary-general, and parliament speaker Shalva Papuashvili, who posted a congratulatory message on social media on May 17.

The official attention given to the event appears to be an attempt to tamp down the impact of weeks of massive protests against the contentious "foreign agent" bill approved by parliament earlier this week as police violently cracked down on demonstrators.

Ana Subeliani, co-director of Tbilisi Pride, told RFE/RL in an interview that the LGBT topic is being used as a tool of manipulation to create anti-Western emotions in the population.

The government’s policies are meant to “create the narrative that the West -- our partners, our friends, from the Western countries -- that they are grabbing our values and that LGBT people are the main enemies,” she said.

She also said the LGBT community no longer holds events on May 17 because it doesn’t want “to give them any additional reason to…attack the queer community members.

“Unfortunately, this day become a day of violence and hatred…in our country,” she added.

It has been a “super traumatic experience” for the LGBT community that Family Purity Day events have replaced IDAHOBIT events, she said. It's already become normalized that on May 17 the LGBT community "should not do anything.… If we do, it’s connected to big risk.”

Pro-Western President Salome Zurabishvili, who has been at odds with Georgian Dream, has called the "foreign agent" legislation "unacceptable" and "not consistent" with the country's path toward integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Zurabishvili has vowed to veto the law, a move for which she has 10 days following the May 14 vote of approval in parliament. But Georgian Dream's parliamentary majority will allow it to easily override the presidential veto.

The law has been condemned by the United States, the European Union, and rights watchdogs, who have pointed to its similarity with legislation used by President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent in Russia and stifle independent institutions, prompting Georgians to refer to the measure as "the Russian law."

Zurabishvili has warned that Georgia's survival as a state is in danger because of the legislation, which requires media outlets, NGOs, and other nonprofits to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if more than 20 percent of their funding comes from abroad.

"It's unacceptable because it reflects a turn of the Georgian attitudes towards the civil society, towards the media and towards the recommendations of the European Commission that are not consistent with what is our declared policy of going towards a European integration,” Zurabishvili told the Associated Press in an interview on May 16.

On May 15, protesters marched along with the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Iceland in a gesture of solidarity with Georgians' Western aspirations.

An RFE/RL source in Brussels said European Council President Charles Michel held talks with Zurabishvilil and Kobakhidze, where he stressed that the Georgian people must determine their own future. Michel told Kobakhidze to search for a way out of the political turbulence, the source said.

Kobakhidze has accused the protesters of "following the agenda of the political minority" and charged that they were showing a "great irresponsibility" toward their country.

The Georgian Dream-controlled security forces have repeatedly cracked down violently on protesters in recent weeks using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis voiced concern about the violence employed to crack down on protesters.

"It's truly worrying what we see happening in the street when it comes to intimidations and brutality," he said in an interview with RFE/RL in Tbilisi. "This has to stop."

The Western foreign ministers' presence at the anti-foreign agent law protests, while not prevented by the government, has sparked irritation among Georgian Dream leaders.

"This is a very big insult," Kaladze, the Tbilisi mayor and Georgian Dream party chief, told the media after attending the religious march in Tbilisi on May 17.

"All developed countries would have taken these foreign ministers by the hand and kicked them out of the country," Kaladze said.

Moldova To Hold Presidential Vote, EU Referendum In October

Moldova's parliament set the date on May 16.
Moldova's parliament set the date on May 16.

Moldovan lawmakers have set October 20 as the date for both a presidential election and a referendum on the country joining the European Union. Pro-Western President Maia Sandu, whose first presidential term ends on December 24, has announced her intention to run for reelection. Moscow-friendly socialist and communist parliamentary opposition leaders have said they are currently holding talks on proposing a common presidential candidate. Sandu, who defeated pro-Russian Igor Dodon in November 2020, has since turned Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, on a firm Western path. Moldova was invited to open accession negotiations with the 27-member EU in June 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, click here.

U.S. Ambassador To NATO Calls On Western Balkan Countries To Increase Defense Spending

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith (file photo)
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith (file photo)

BRUSSELS -- The United States hopes that by the upcoming NATO summit in Washington, nearly all 32 alliance members will meet the pledge made 10 years ago to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, said U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith.

"By this summer, when we get to the Washington summit, we expect to have roughly two-thirds of the alliance meeting the target," Smith said on May 16 in an interview with RFE/RL.

NATO members Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia in particular were urged "to work harder to try and hit the 2 percent target" by the time the NATO summit takes place, she said.

"They have all worked tirelessly over the last decade to increase their defense spending, and we salute those efforts," Smith said.

"Those are difficult national decisions to make that are hard when there are demands on the domestic side of the house to spend money on other priorities."

President Joe Biden is hoping to celebrate the largest number of allies at 2 percent than seen over the last decade at the July 9-11 summit, she said.

"So, anything that our friends in the Western Balkans can do to increase that defense spending would be appreciated. And it's not just because of burden sharing, but it's because of the current security environment," Smith said. "There are threats all around us."

She cited the war in Ukraine, Russia's evolving partnership with China, its increased defense production, and the support Russia is receiving from Iran and North Korean.

"There are so many reasons for us all to increase our defense spending. And we really want to get to a situation where every member of this alliance spends 2 percent," she said.

The alliance has come a long way since making the 2014 pledge when only three members spent 2 percent of GDP on defense. That has grown to 18, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in an interview with RFE/RL in February.

Smith agreed that three other Balkan non-NATO members -- namely Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia -- have a special relationship with alliance.

Bosnia is a "full-fledged aspirant" that has openly stated a desire to join, and all 32 ambassadors recently traveled to Bosnia to talk about what more could be done to deepen the partnership, help Bosnia transform and modernize its forces, and work on interoperability.

Serbia has its own sovereign decision to make on whether or not it wants to pursue membership, Smith said.

"Right now, the answer coming from Serbia is no. But they do have a partnership with the alliance where we are able to…train with them [and] work with them on any specific needs that they have when it comes to cybersecurity or work on modernizing their forces. They can determine how they want to work with the alliance."

Kosovo is more complicated, because four NATO countries do not recognize its independence.

"But the United States has a very close partnership with Kosovo, and we are not only supporting the EU-led, facilitated dialog that is working towards normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, but from a U.S. bilateral perspective, we are here to support our friends in Kosovo as they work towards their own Euro-Atlantic aspirations and work to strengthen their forces as well."

Asked about U.S. concerns over about Serbia's purchase of military equipment from China and Russia, Smith said the United States had been very clear.

"They should tread lightly and be cautious about working with [Chinese-]owned companies. We believe there are risks and challenges in doing so, and we also do not believe that this is the time for any country to be deepening its relationship with Russia," she said.

The United States has delivered "frank and open messages" in conversations with Serbia, but also recognizes that it is their own sovereign decision.

She also warned against Russian influence and disinformation, saying the United States encourages its friends in the Western Balkans to stay focused on the values they share with the West and their Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

"Russia is doing its very best to put out, a whole sea of disinformation campaigns that often misrepresent what NATO is about," she said. "They often try to make the claim that NATO is directly engaged in the war in Ukraine, which is preposterous and not true."

Russia puts out falsehoods about what NATO does in the Western Balkan region and refuses to acknowledge that NATO is a defensive alliance, she said.

"It is, in fact Russia that is the aggressor in the case of Ukraine. Russia started this war in Ukraine and of course it could end it tomorrow if it so desires," she said.

Ukraine Says It Shot Down All 20 Drones Launched By Russia

Drone debris (file photo)
Drone debris (file photo)

Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 20 drones that were launched by Russia at five of its regions overnight, the military said early on May 17. The drones were downed over the Kharkiv, Poltava, Vinnytsya, Odesa and Mykolayiv regions, the Ukrainian Air Force reported. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. Separately, the military administrator of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Synyehubov, said five drones were shot down over Kharkiv city, and debris from a drone ignited a fire in one of the city's districts. To read the original stories by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here and here.

Deadly Floods Ravage Northeastern Iran

The floods were triggered by an intense rainfall that started earlier this week, inundating streets and sweeping away cars. (file photo)
The floods were triggered by an intense rainfall that started earlier this week, inundating streets and sweeping away cars. (file photo)

At least seven people have died in northeastern Iran amid severe flooding and heavy rainfall in the city of Mashhad, with local authorities warning the death toll may rise as rescue operations continue to hunt for individuals yet to be accounted for.

The floods were triggered by an intense rainfall that started earlier this week, inundating streets and sweeping away cars. Videos on social media show multiple vehicles being carried off by rushing waters.

According to local media reports, at least 12 people have been reported missing. The head of the Crisis Management Department of Khorasan Razavi Province, Reza Abbasi, confirmed that searches are ongoing in Torghabeh, Shandiz, Mashhad, and Fariman county.

Abbasi said authorities are working to ensure proper verification from forensic specialists before attributing deaths to the floods.

Of the confirmed casualties, five were from Mashhad and two from the surrounding rural areas of Fariman.

Abbasi urged residents of Mashhad to avoid unnecessary travel as poor weather conditions are expected to persist in the region through to the end of the week, posing risks of further flooding.

The Iranian Meteorological Organization issued a warning on May 16 for potential severe thunderstorms and heavy winds over the coming 24 hours, affecting several provinces including West and East Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and parts of the Alborz mountain range, among others.

This flooding has acted as a grim reminder of deadly floods in April 2019, when heavy rains in Shiraz triggered a major disaster that claimed 22 lives and caused extensive damage.

Experts say climate change has amplified droughts and floods that are plaguing Iran, and that their intensity and frequency threaten food security.

The Iranian Meteorological Organization has estimated that 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought to some degree.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Western Balkan Leaders See EU Development Plan For Region As Sign Of Bloc's Commitment

Summit of leaders of the Western Balkans and the European Union pose for a photo on May 16 in Kotor, Montenegro.
Summit of leaders of the Western Balkans and the European Union pose for a photo on May 16 in Kotor, Montenegro.

A 6 billion-euro ($6.5 billion) development plan for the Western Balkans is a clear signal of the European Union's commitment to the economic and democratic transformation of the Western Balkans, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milojko Spajic said on May 16 at a summit of the region's six leaders.

The European Union approved the plan -- 2 billion euros in grants and 4 billion euros in loan guarantees -- in November to help the countries of the Western Balkans accelerate reforms and economic growth.

The plan envisaged by the EU is meant to speed up both the region's economic growth and its integration with the EU norms and legislation that would eventually bring membership in the bloc.

European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelji said at the last summit of Western Balkan leaders that the development plan could double the region's economic output over the next decade if timely reforms are implemented.

The "growth plan is no longer a draft, it is a reality we have started to implement," Varhelji said at a news conference at the summit on May 16 in Kotor, Montenegro.

"Because of the development plan and the intensity of aid from the economic and investment plan, the reform agenda, and additional financial aid until 2027, the Balkans will be ready...or could make itself ready to join the EU," said Varhelji.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia James O'Brien, who also took part in the summit, said the priorities of the plan are to reduce costs, facilitate market movement, and create jobs.

O'Brien added that access to the Single European Payment Area (SEPA), an EU payment initiative aimed at simplification of bank transfers in euros, would reduce the cost of transfers by as much as 7 percent.

"This will reduce the cost of borrowing, which will allow businesses to expand," O'Brien said.

Borjana Kristo, president of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said that there is consensus in her country that the main foreign policy goal is the path to joining European Union, while Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti confirmed his commitment to reforms that need to be implemented under the plan.

Kurti also called on Serbia to prosecute those responsible for last year's deadly attack by armed Serbs on Kosovar police officers in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that the growth plan will bring good results to the region. Belgrade is the single-largest recipient of the plan.

"We appreciate and are grateful for the money, but more important than the money are the structural reforms that we have to implement, and we appreciate that very much."

He also said he is convinced that the countries of the region will not enter the EU before Ukraine.

"My intelligence tells me that it will be like that," he said, adding that he knows that the EU is "very popular in your countries," but "not so much in mine."

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Announces New Sanctions Over North Korea-Russia Arms Transfers

Suspected North Korean-made F-7 rocket-propelled grenades (file photo)
Suspected North Korean-made F-7 rocket-propelled grenades (file photo)

The United States announced sanctions on May 16 on two Russian individuals and three Russian companies for facilitating arms transfers between Russia and North Korea, including ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine. It is the latest round of sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury and State departments to disrupt and expose arms transfers between the two countries, a Treasury Department statement said. "Today's action reflects our commitment to disrupt [North Korea's] deepening military cooperation with Russia," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Pyongyang has been providing ballistic missiles and munitions to Russia and seeking military assistance in return, the statement said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Warns Georgia's Approval Of 'Foreign Agent' Law Endangers Its EU Bid

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he hopes his visit to Georgia shows the Caucasus nation that it faces a choice between one path leading to the EU and another "closer to Russia."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he hopes his visit to Georgia shows the Caucasus nation that it faces a choice between one path leading to the EU and another "closer to Russia."

TBILISI -- Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his visit to Tbilisi this week was meant to show support for demonstrators opposed to Georgia's "foreign agent" bill and to warn against a "fateful decision" that could derail all the work the country has done toward becoming an EU member.

Landsbergis, who spoke with RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 15, said he hopes his visit to Georgia shows the Caucasus nation that it faces a choice between one path leading to the European Union and another that "brings you closer to Russia."

What he heard "loud and clear" from Georgians during his visit was that "it's obviously clear that Georgia belongs to Europe," he said. And he heard nothing that made him think this was a "forced" or "ambiguous, short-term decision."

But he said he wanted to visit Georgia to "ring the bell and raise a red flag," that if the "foreign agent" bill -- approved earlier this week by parliament -- becomes law, Georgia's EU membership bid may hang in the balance.

"We hear the Georgian people when we think about Georgia, so losing that is a very big decision," he said.


Tens of thousands of Georgians have been demonstrating against the "foreign agent" bill, which is backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party and was passed by parliament on May 14. The demonstrations, which have at times been met with violence from security officers, have opposed Georgia shifting away from a pro-Western course.

The legislation requires media outlets, NGOs, and other nonprofits to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if more than 20 percent of their funding comes from abroad.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has pledged to veto the bill in the coming days, however the dominant position of Georgian Dream and its partners in parliament is strong enough to override a presidential veto.

Landsbergis said requiring NGOs and other organizations that have operations in Georgia to be labeled as foreign agents because they "raise questions that you don't like" is not democratic and is not in compliance with the European standards.

He added that if it's transparency the Georgian government seeks by pursuing the law, there are "European ways" to achieve these goals, and the European Commission and partner countries such as Lithuania can help Georgia understand how to implement them.

Landsbergis, who met with Zurabishvili during his visit, said he expressed concern over the violence that authorities have used against demonstrators, saying this also conflicts the goal of pursuing a European path.

"It's truly worrying what we see happening in the street when it comes to intimidations and brutality," he said. "This has to stop."

Peaceful protest has to be allowed and protected, he added, "so that people can have a voice in the matters that are important to them."

Landsbergis said the authorities had used "concerted" intimidation against the demonstrators and this means they have been planned and organized. He said he and the other ministers raised questions about the violence in their talks with government officials and said they expected the incidents would be investigated.

"We brought it up in every meeting that we had," he said.

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