Damascus Says It's Ready For Prisoner Exchange, Cease-Fire
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem made the announcement following talks in Moscow on January 17 with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
"I also informed Minister Lavrov about our fundamental position to agree to an exchange of prisoners in Syrian prisons with those captured by the other side," Moallem said. "In that regard, we are ready to exchange the lists and to work out an arrangement about how to achieve all that."
Moallem also said he had handed Russia plans for a cease-fire in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo.
"In that regard, I asked Minister Lavrov to use his contacts to implement this plan and to establish a specific time when all military actions in this area should be ceased."
If such a cease-fire held, Moallem added, similar agreements could be introduced for other Syrian cities.
Lavrov said Moallem had informed him of President Bashar al-Assad's readiness "to take a series of humanitarian steps" that would lead to the speedy delivery of assistance to those suffering from the 34-month civil war.
The meeting between the Russian and Syrian sides came ahead of next week’s international peace talks on Syria.
Syria's main political opposition is currently gathering in Istanbul to decide whether to go to the conference due to begin in Switzerland on January 22.
Lavrov urged the Syrian National Coalition (SCN) to put Syria's interests above its own ambitions.
"Of course we are worried that while the government of Syria already a long time ago expressed its agreement to take part in the conference, and already formed its delegation, so far there have not been similar steps on behalf of the opposition, first of all by the so-called National Coalition. This process is being dragged out."
The SNC is under pressure from the United States and its allies to participate in the talks, dubbed Geneva 2, though many of its members have already pulled out.
The coalition says the conference should lead to a transitional government with no future role for Assad and his inner circle. Damascus says there should be no preconditions for the talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on January 16 that the United States "urges a positive vote."
He described the Swiss peace conference as the beginning of a process "that is the best opportunity for the opposition to achieve the goals of the Syrian people and the revolution".
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
U.S. Imposes Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Drone-Procurement Network
The United States has imposed sanctions on entities in Iran, Hong Kong, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. Treasury Department says comprise a network for the procurement of parts for Iran's drone program.
The network has facilitated shipments and financial transactions in support of a critical component used in Iran's Shahed drones, which Iran has been supplying to Russia for use against Ukraine, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said on September 27.
The critical component is known as a servomotor and is used in Iran’s Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The OFAC said the sanctions took aim at the procurement of servomotors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) aerospace organization.
The OFAC said one of the servomotors procured by the network was recovered in the remnants of a Russian-operated Shahed-136 that was recently shot down in Ukraine.
"Iranian-made UAVs continue to be a key tool for Russia in its attacks in Ukraine, including those that terrorize Ukrainian citizens and attack its critical infrastructure," Undersecretary of the Treasury Brian Nelson said in a news release.
Two of the five entities designated for sanctions are Iran-based Pishgam Electronic Safeh Company (PESC) and Hongkong Himark Electron Model Limited. The other three are based in Turkey and the U.A.E., the OFAC said.
PESC has procured thousands of servomotors with one-way attack UAV applications worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the IRGC, the OFAC said. The company's CEO, Iran-based Hamid Reza Janghorbani, was also designated for sanctions along with Hongkong Himark official Fan Yang, who is based in China.
The OFAC said Fan had represented Hong Kong-based Hongkong Himark in fulfilling servomotor orders worth more than $1 million for PESC. In addition to selling servomotors to PESC, Fan attempted to hide that an Iranian company was behind the shipments by falsifying invoices, the OFAC said.
Hongkong Himark is being designated for having provided or attempted to provide financial, technological, or other support for PESC. The firms based in Turkey and the U.A.E. have been designated for facilitating financial transactions, shipping, and material and technical support for PESC’s servomotor procurement from Hongkong Himark.
The sanctions build on designations announced in November 2022 by the OFAC aimed at Iran's Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center. The Iranian firm is subordinate to the IRGC's aerospace organization and designs and manufactures the Shahed-136, the Treasury Department said.
The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals hold in U.S. jurisdiction and block people in the United States from having any dealings with the entities and individuals named.
Bulgarian Parliament Approves Sending Antiaircraft Missiles To Ukraine
Bulgaria's parliament approved on September 27 a decision to provide missiles for S-300 air-defense systems to Ukraine. The missiles are defective and more than 30 years old, but Ukraine can use them for spare parts, Bulgarian parliamentary Defense Committee Chairman Hristo Gadjev said after the vote. Russia reacted with a statement urging Bulgaria to reconsider the decision. It said providing the missiles to Kyiv would violate an agreement for military cooperation between the Russia and Bulgaria that dates back to 2002. Bulgaria has been providing military aid to Ukraine since December 2022 following a decision by parliament. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.
Imprisoned Father Of Russian Girl Who Drew Anti-War Picture Placed In Solitary Confinement Five Times
A Russian man who was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces in April after anti-war drawings by his 13-year-old daughter drew attention to his online posts about the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine has been placed in punitive solitary confinement five times since August. Aleksei Moskalyov's lawyer said on September 27 that his client's latest, 14-day stint in solitary confinement was imposed on September 22. All punitive confinements have been imposed on Moskalyov for minor "violations" such as "failure to get up quickly," or "not having his hands behind his back," the lawyer said. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Poll Shows Slovaks Split Ahead Of Elections With Ukraine In Spotlight
Slovak opposition party Direction-Social Democracy (Smer), led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, holds a narrow lead over its liberal challenger, Progressive Slovakia (PS), ahead of weekend elections that have revealed stark dividing lines over whether the country should continue to support Ukraine or instead seek closer ties with Russia.
In the final opinion poll conducted by the IPSOS agency prior to the September 30 vote, Smer, which has taken a more pro-Russian stance over the war in neighboring Ukraine than other European Union members, garnered support at 20.6 percent compared with 19.8 percent for PS, which has shown a late surge in popularity.
No matter which party wins, they are likely to need at least two coalition partners to form a government, according to the poll, conducted for news website Dennikn.sk, among 1,000 participants between September 22 and September 25.
During the campaign, Fico, 59, has criticized Slovakia's arms supplies to Ukraine while pledging to stop shipments to Kyiv if he takes power. He has also dismissed further EU sanctions against Russia, questioned the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and repeated Kremlin narratives that NATO caused the war.
"Why aren't we holding peace talks, for God's sake? Why are we always talking about what kind of munitions we're going to send to Ukraine, what kind of tanks we'll send there, how many billions of euros will be spent on further armaments?" he asks in a statement that mirrors the thinking of Viktor Orban, the leader of neighboring Hungary.
"It's naive to think Russia will leave Crimea, it's naive to think that Russia will leave the territory it controls. So, explain to me, what's the good of all this killing?" Fico added.
Progressive Slovakia leader Michal Simecka has warned such a policy shift could push the country into isolation. He has promised to maintain support for Ukraine as it tries to repel Russia's invasion, in line with EU and NATO partners.
Slovakia has provided neighboring Ukraine with substantial military and humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.
But a study by the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec conducted earlier in 2023 noted that 69 percent of respondents agreed that by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia was provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to war.
Slovaks' support for NATO membership has also shrunk to 58 percent this year from 72 percent in 2022, the poll showed. Globsec analysts say the results are due to disinformation.
Fico was Slovakia's prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018.
He remained a member of parliament and in 2022, he faced criminal charges of using sensitive information on political opponents. He denied the charges, which were eventually dropped, and has been seeking the removal of the special prosecutor who investigates high-level corruption allegations.
With reporting by Ray Furlong in Bratislava, Reuters, and AFP
Russian Court Rejects Appeal Of Ukrainian Activist From Crimea Against 15-Year Prison Term
A military court in Russia has rejected an appeal filed by Ukrainian activist Bohdan Zyza from Russian-occupied Crimea against the 15-year prison term he was handed in June on terrorism charges, Zyza's sister, Oleksandra Barkova, said on September 27. Zyza was arrested in May 2022 after he splashed yellow and blue paint -- the colors of the Ukrainian flag -- on a building of the Russian-imposed administration in the Crimean city of Yevpatoria. He also threw a Molotov cocktail at it. Earlier in June, Barkov held a 17-day hunger strike, demanding all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russian custody be released. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Eight Killed, Including Five Children, In Explosion Of Stray Ordnance In Pakistan
Eight people -- five children, a man, and two women -- were killed on September 27 after a rocket-launcher round exploded inside a house in the Kashmor district of Pakistan's southeastern Sindh Province, police said. The round was found by children in the fields who brought it home, local police officer Rohail Khosa told RFE/RL. He said investigations were under way to establish the circumstances of the blast.
Prosecutors Seek Five Years In Prison In Retrial Of Protest Artist Krisevich
Krisevich was arrested in June last year on Moscow's Red Square and charged with hooliganism after he fired two blanks into the air while shouting: "There will be shots before the Kremlin's curtain." He then held the gun to his head and fired another blank.
Krisevich's girlfriend, Anastasia Mikhailova, said at the time that the goal of the protest performance was to support political prisoners in Russia.
Declaring that his protest was aimed at "state intimidation," Krisevich described the performance as "a kill shot" -- an expression used by hired assassins in Russia's criminal underworld to describe a gunshot to the head of a victim to ensure they are dead.
"The state labels protests as crimes," Krisevich's statement said. "It forces us to think that we are criminals in our cells and chats. But what is it without state intimidation? Clearly, it is an empty space."
Krisevich, who is originally from Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, has been jailed in the past over his protests in the Russian capital.
In November 2021, he was sentenced to 15 days in jail for a protest in front of the Federal Security Service’s headquarters in Moscow in which he was staged a mock crucifixion of himself over burning files. He said that protest symbolized criminal cases against Russian citizens.
In addition to jail time, he was also expelled from the university in Moscow he was attending.
In May 2022, Krisevich was sentenced to 10 days in jail for taking part in an action to support political prisoners in Russia by displaying their paintings in central Moscow.
Binance, World's Largest Cryptocurrency Exchange Company, Quits Russian Market
Binance, the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange company, said on September 27 it will sell all of its Russian operations to a newly established company, CommEx. Binance’s chief compliance officer, Noah Perlman, said that "as we look toward the future, we recognize that operating in Russia is not compatible with Binance's compliance strategy.” The process of leaving the Russian market will last for up to one year to ensure a smooth process for clients in Russia, the company said. All assets of current Russian users are safe and securely protected, the statement added. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Rights Watchdog Urges Uzbekistan To Ensure Safety Of Imprisoned Karakaplak Journalist
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Uzbek authorities to ensure the safety of imprisoned Karakalpak activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in January for joining mass anti-government protests in Uzbekistan's Karakalpak Autonomous Republic last year.
HRW cited Tajimuratov's lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, in a statement late on September 26 as saying that his client’s rights “are being violated while he is serving his prison sentence.”
According to Mayorov, his client has been refused adequate health care and food. He added that Tajimuratov doesn’t have access to a prison library or media, and that he is being isolated in a single cell, while prison officials refuse to assign him work detail, further limiting his contact with other prisoners.
"Tajimuratov had noticeably lost weight and the conditions of his imprisonment were taking a serious toll on his physical and psychological health,” the HRW statement quoted Mayorov as saying.
HRW Senior Researcher Mihra Rittmann said that "like any detainee," Tajimuratov has a right to "absolute protection against inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his other basic rights including to adequate nutrition and health care."
"Tajimuratov, whose 'crime' was to call for a peaceful protest and speak out against proposed constitutional amendments that would have stripped Karakalpakstan of its sovereign status, should not be languishing in prison," Rittmann added.
The HRW statement said that Uzbek authorities have the responsibility to ensure Tajimuratov suffers no further harm in prison and that he is not isolated from others without just cause.
Tajimuratov, a lawyer for the El Khyzmetinde (At The People's Service) newspaper, where he previously was the chief editor, was sentenced on January 31 by the Bukhara regional court along with 21 other defendants.
In March, another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in the protests in Karakalpakstan’s capital, Nukus, were convicted with 28 of them sentenced to prison terms of between five and 11 years, while 11 were handed parole-like sentences.
Uzbek authorities say 21 people died during the protests in early July 2022, which were sparked by the announcement of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.
However, the Austria-based Freedom for Eurasia human rights group said in July that at least 70 people were killed during the unrest.
The violence forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.
Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.
The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.
Chief Editor Of Belarusian Newspaper Goes On Trial On Charge Of Discrediting Belarus
A court in the city of Maladechna near Minsk began the trial of journalist Alyaksandr Mantsevich on September 27 amid an ongoing crackdown on independent journalists and democratic institutions. The chief editor of Rehiyanalnaya hazeta (Regional newspaper) was arrested in mid-March and charged with discrediting Belarus and its government entities. The charge stems from the newspaper's coverage of the political situation in the country in 2020-2023. Belarusian rights watchdogs have designated Mantsevich as a political prisoner. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Polish Minister Says Talks With Ukraine On Track After Grain Import Ban
Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus said on September 27 that talks with Ukraine were on track as the two countries try to resolve a dispute about a ban imposed by Warsaw on Polish grain imports. Telus spoke at a press conference after online talks with Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky. Warsaw and Kyiv are allies, but relations have soured since Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia decided to extend a ban that was introduced to protect their farmers from a surge in grain and food imports from Ukraine after Russia's invasion last year. The Polish government is also under pressure from the far right to take a tougher stance on Ukraine before October 15 elections. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Baku Detains Former Russian Businessman Vardanian, Who Briefly Served As Nagorno-Karabakh's De Facto PM
BAKU -- Azerbaijan's State Border Service (DSX) said on September 27 that it has detained billionaire Ruben Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent, who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for less than four months before he was dismissed from the post in February.
According to DSX, Vardanian was detained while leaving along with thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh, which is now under the full control of Azerbaijan, for Armenia via the Lachin Corridor. Vardanian was then transferred to Baku, the statement said.
Vardanian's wife, Veronika Zonabend, has confirmed her husband's detention.
"My husband, Ruben Vardanian...has been arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities at the border as he attempted to leave this morning, along with thousands of Armenians escaping Azerbaijani occupation," Zonabend said in a statement released by Vardanian's office.
When Vardanian was dismissed from the post of de facto prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh in February. Media reports in Armenia indicated that Azerbaijan had made the removal one of its conditions in reaching a peace agreement during talks between Baku and Yerevan about the future of the ethnic-Armenian dominated region, which lies wholly inside Azerbaijan's borders.
Vardanian publicly renounced his Russian citizenship in September 2022 and said he made the decision to move to Nagorno-Karabakh with an understanding of all the risks he may face.
He said at the time that after the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in Baku's regaining control over large chunks of the disputed region and seven adjacent districts, “Armenians around the whole world” must be together with Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which along with the seven adjacent districts had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades prior to the war in 2020, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The 2020 war ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire under which Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers.
Last week, Azerbaijani forces staged a lightning offensive, overwhelming Nagorno-Karabakh forces, and taking control, after which tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the region for Armenia.
Vardanian was born in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in 1968. He is the former chief executive officer of Russia’s Troika Dialog investment bank, which was bought by Sberbank in 2011.
In 2021, Forbes estimated Vardanian's assets at $1 billion. Forbes has called Vardanian one of the "founding fathers" of Russia's stock market.
Ukraine Says It Will Boycott All UEFA Tournaments With Russian Participation
Ukraine has strongly condemned a decision by UEFA to allow the return of Russia's youth football teams to international competitions and said it would boycott all tournaments with Russian participation. Ukraine's football federation said in a statement that Ukraine "will not take part in any competitions with the participation of Russian teams" and appealed to other countries to follow suit. After banning all Russian teams -- national or club sides -- from participating in its competitions following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, UEFA said on September 26 that it was "aware that children should not be punished for actions whose responsibility lies exclusively with adults.”
Uzbek Journalists Handed Prison Terms After Closed-Door Trial
A court in Tashkent has sentenced Uzbek journalists Khurshid Daliev and Siyovush Hoshimov to seven years in prison each on charges of slander, extortion, fraud, and tax evasion. On September 26, the Shaikhontohur district court handed a third defendant, a former press secretary of the Employment Ministry, journalist Mavjuda Mirzaeva, a five-year parole-like sentence on a charge of extortion and another defendant Ahmadullo Ahmadjonov a three-year parole-like sentence on a charge of failing to report a crime. Mirzaeva pleaded partially guilty, while Hoshimov rejected the charges. It was not clear how Daliev pleaded in the trial held behind closed doors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
Moscow Bars 23 British Nationals, Including Senior Admiral, From Entering Russia
Russia's Foreign Ministry said on September 27 that it has banned 23 British nationals, including the chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, from entering Russia, saying they have been responsible for training Ukrainian armed forces or have coordinated activities to collect data to fight against Russia. The ministry added in a statement that it will continue to add to the sanctions list as warranted. The British government has so far offered hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Ukraine as its armed forces fight against Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion, which was launched in February 2022.
Iran Claims It Launched Noor 3 Satellite Into Orbit
Iran's Revolutionary Guards successfully launched a third military satellite into orbit on September 27, state media reported, citing Minister of Communications Issa Zarepour. The Noor 3 imaging satellite orbits at an altitude of 450 kilometers above the earth's surface and was launched by the three-stage Qased, or messenger carrier, state media said, which launched its predecessor Noor 2 in 2022. The U.S. military says the same long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also allow Tehran to launch longer-range weapons, possibly including nuclear warheads. Tehran denies U.S. assertions that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development and says it has never pursued the development of nuclear weapons. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Death Toll From Nagorno-Karabakh Fuel Blast Revised Down To 68
The number of confirmed deaths following an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh is 68, the breakaway region's ombudsman, Gegham Stepanian, has told RFE/RL, adding that so far only 21 victims have been identified. Previous media reports had cited Armenia's health minister as putting the death toll at 125. The blast occurred as people seeking to flee to Armenia had lined up to fuel their cars in order to leave the region. The cause of the blast has not been determined. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.
Zelenskiy Says Ukrainian Forces 'Advancing' In Donetsk As Russia Shells Civilians
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukrainian forces are making gains against Russian troops in the eastern region of Donetsk as Moscow launched fresh artillery strikes on Ukraine's southern region of Nikopol and Kherson overnight, wounding civilians and damaging houses and infrastructure.
"We are advancing in the Donetsk direction," Zelenskiy said after a conference call with military officials, adding that he was also briefed on the situation in the partially liberated southern region of Kherson, which has been targeted for months by Russian shelling.
"The Russians continue to terrorize the territories their [artillery] can reach," he said.
Earlier on September 27, Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the Kherson regional military administration, said on Telegram that 12 people were wounded in the region over the past day as a result of Russian shelling.
In the Nikopol region, two people were wounded by Russian shelling, Serhiy Lysak, the head of Dnipropetrovsk region's military administration, said on Telegram on September 27.
"At night, the enemy fired heavy artillery at Myrivska Hromada and [the city of] Nikopol itself," Lysak wrote, adding that the two men who had been wounded were in a moderate condition in hospital. He said a two-story building was set on fire during the attack. "Rescuers put out the fire," Lysak said.
The General Staff of Ukraine's military said in its daily update that Ukrainian forces were conducting offensive operations in the direction of the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut and the southern region of Melitopol, adding that a total of 26 close-quarters battles were fought along the front line over the past 24 hours.
On September 26, Russia again struck grain-exporting facilities in the Odesa region, causing damage and injuries among the local inhabitants, Ukrainian officials said.
Odesa governor Oleh Kiper said Izmayil, one of the two Danube ports that Ukraine uses to export grain, was hit, and a checkpoint building, storage facilities, and more than 30 trucks and cars were damaged. Two people were wounded, Kiper said.
Russia has stepped up its aerial bombardments of Ukrainian sites, targeting in particular Ukraine's grain-exporting infrastructure in the southern Odesa and Mykolayiv regions.
Ukraine has resumed exporting grain despite Russia’s pulling out of a United Nations-brokered deal allowing safe grain shipments in July.
Zelenskiy has vowed new Ukrainian actions against Russia following a missile strike last week against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters that Kyiv said killed nearly three dozen officers, including its top commander.
"We clearly see which directions of pressure on Russia need to be strengthened to prevent [its] terrorist capabilities from growing," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on September 26.
"Sanctions are not enough," he said.
Ukraine's claim about its strike against the Russian Black Sea Fleet could not be immediately confirmed, and Russia released markedly lower casualty figures from the September 22 attack in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
But the strike itself was the latest in a series of increasingly audacious attacks by Ukrainian forces on Russian ships and Black Sea facilities -- attacks that Western experts say may have drastically curtailed Russia’s naval operations in the region.
In a statement on September 25, Ukraine’s special operations forces cited “new information about the losses of the enemy as a result of the special operation,” claiming that 34 officers, including the fleet commander, were killed when cruise missiles -- believed to be either British or French -- hit the Sevastopol building. At least 105 others were wounded, it said.
The Ukrainian statement did not name the naval commander. The current top officer in the Black Sea Fleet is Admiral Viktor Sokolov.
Asked by reporters on September 26 about the Ukrainian claim, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no comment.
Sokolov was shown on Russian state television on September 26 among other senior officers attending a video conference with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, although it was not clear when the footage has been recorded.
With reporting by Current Time, AFP, TASS, and Reuters
More Than 50,000 Arrive In Armenia From Karabakh, Baku Detains Separatist Ex-Leader
More than 50,000 people have arrived in Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, the government in Yerevan announced on September 27, amid an ethnic-Armenian exodus prompted by an Azerbaijani offensive that gave Baku complete control of the breakaway region.
As tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians were fleeing the region, Azerbaijani authorities announced that they had detained the separatist region's former prime minister, Ruben Vardanian, at a border crossing.
As of 3 p.m. local time, 50,243 people forcibly displaced from Nagorno Karabakh had crossed the border into Armenia, Nazeli Baghdasarian, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, told the media on September 27.
Azerbaijan opened the only road leading from the breakaway region to Armenia on September 24, four days after a cease-fire agreement that ended a lightning military operation that gave Baku full control over Nagorno-Karabakh.
On September 27, Azerbaijan's State Border Service (DSX) said Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region for less than four months before being removed from the post in February, was detained at the border and transferred to Baku.
His wife, Veronika Zonabend, has confirmed her husband's detention.
Earlier in the day, Nagorno-Karabakh's ombudsman, Gegham Stepanian, said the number of confirmed deaths following an explosion at a fuel depot in the separatist region is 68, after previous reports had put the number as high as 125. Stepanian told RFE/RL that so far only 21 victims have been identified.
The blast occurred as people seeking to flee to Armenia had lined upvto fuel their cars in order to leave the region. The cause of the blast has not been determined.
Baku said on September 27 that 192 Azerbaijani servicemen and one civilian had been killed during the September 19-20 blitz offensive. Another 511 soldiers were wounded in the course of the operation, Azerbaijan's Health Ministry said in a statement.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on Azerbaijan on September 27 to allow international observers to enter Nagorno-Karabakh and announced that Berlin was stepping up its humanitarian aid for the refugees.
"I have decided to significantly increase our humanitarian aid once again and to increase our additional funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross from 2 to 5 million euros ($5.28 million)," Baerbock said.
Baku has pledged equal treatment for mainly ethnic Armenian residents who are fleeing, but the Armenian government has warned of possible “ethnic cleansing.”
On September 26, Samantha Power, the top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters in Yerevan that it was "absolutely critical" that independent monitors and aid organizations be given access to people in Karabakh, and she later announced a $11.5 million package of humanitarian aid for Armenia.
The European Union also said it would increase humanitarian aid by 5 million euros ($5.2 million) in response to growing needs caused by the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on September 26 that he must protect civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Blinken spoke by phone with Aliyev to underscore “the urgency of no further hostilities” and to state that there be “unconditional protections and freedom of movement for civilians,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
Blinken also told Aliyev that there must be unhindered humanitarian access to Nagorno-Karabakh.
The EU stressed in a statement the need for transparency and access for international humanitarian and human rights groups and for more detail on Baku’s vision for Karabakh Armenians’ future in Azerbaijan.
During the meeting Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Aliyev, outlined Azerbaijan’s plans to provide humanitarian assistance and security to the local population.
The meeting also discussed a possible meeting of Nagorno-Karabakh stakeholders on October 5 in Granada.
"The participants took note of the shared interest of Armenia and Azerbaijan to make use of the possible meeting in Granada to continue their normalization efforts," the statement said.
Armenian representative Armen Grigorian and Hajiyev "engaged in talks on possible concrete steps to advance the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process in the upcoming possible meeting, such as those with regard to border delimitation, security, connectivity, humanitarian issues, and the broader peace treaty," the statement said.
The statement added that the EU believes that the meeting should be used by both Yerevan and Baku to reiterate publicly their commitment to each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in line with previous agreements.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
With reporting by RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service, AP, AFP, The New York Times, and Reuters
'Too Bad, Vladimir:' Hillary Clinton Taunts Putin On NATO Expansion Since Invasion
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taunted Russian President Vladimir Putin over the expansion of NATO since launching his invasion of Ukraine. "Too bad, Vladimir. You brought it on yourself," Clinton said on September 26 as she returned to the State Department for the unveiling of her official portrait. She said the United States has always stressed that joining NATO was a choice. Ukraine sought to join the alliance before the invasion, and Putin cited this as a reason for his action. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO soon after the invasion, and Finland has been admitted.
Car Traffic Briefly Suspended On Сrimean Bridge
Car traffic was briefly suspended on the Crimea Bridge on September 27 in the morning, Russian authorities said on the Telegram messaging app, a measure often taken due to drone or missile attacks by Ukraine. The bridge was reopened shortly afterwards and authorities said there were no traffic jams in either direction. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Calls On Canada To Bring Nazi Veteran To Justice Hours After Parliament Speaker Resigns
The speaker of Canada's parliament has resigned after inadvertently honoring a Ukrainian Nazi veteran, triggering global condemnation and calls from the Kremlin for Ottawa to bring 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a Ukrainian who fought for a Nazi unit in World War II, to justice.
Speaker Anthony Rota stepped down saying he made an "error" by inviting Hunka to the House of Commons and hailing him as a "hero" during a visit to the legislature by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Members of parliament from all parties rose to applaud Hunka, unaware of the details of who he was.
Rota, who initially resisted calls to resign, said he had no knowledge Hunka, a Ukrainian immigrant from Rota's parliamentary district, had served in a Nazi-linked military unit that was accused of killing Polish and Jewish civilians, though it was never convicted in a court of committing war crimes.
Polish Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek said on September 26 he had "taken steps" to start the extradition of Hunka, while Russia on September 27 called Rota's resignation an "insufficient step."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Canada's parliament needed to publicly condemn Nazism and called on the Canadian authorities to "bring to justice or to extradite to those who wish to bring to justice this criminal."
The furor comes 19 months into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has accused Ukrainian leaders of being "neo-Nazis" despite Zelenskiy being Jewish and losing family members in the Holocaust. Moscow has also sought to justify its full-scale invasion with the need to "de-Nazify" its neighbor.
Peskov repeated that narrative on September 27, saying that the incident in the Canadian parliament "once again confirms Kyiv's Nazi ideology."
Hunka served in the 1st Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a volunteer unit that was under the command of the Nazis.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies has called the incident "shocking" and "incredibly disturbing."
"This incident has compromised all 338 members of parliament," the organization said in a statement, adding it had "handed a propaganda victory to Russia, distracting from what was a momentously significant display of unity between Canada and Ukraine."
In his apology, Rota said he alone was responsible for inviting and recognizing Hunka. His office confirmed that it did not share its invitation list with any other party or group before Hunka's visit.
Ukraine's government has not commented on the incident.
Zelensky's visit to Canada was part of a tour aimed at bolstering international support, after addressing the United Nations and visiting U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.
During the visit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged additional aid to Zelensky's war-torn country.
Canada is home to the world's second-largest Ukrainian diaspora and Zelenskiy, in his speech to parliament, expressed thanks for the backing given to Kyiv since Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian borders in February 2022.
With reporting by AP, AFP and Reuters
Russian Court Rejects Navalny's Appeal Against His 19-Year Prison Term
A Russian court has rejected Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny’s appeal against a decision to imprison him on extremism charges for almost two decades.
On August 4, judges of the Moscow City Court convicted Navalny on extremism charges and sentenced him to 19 years in prison, ruling that his previously handed prison sentences will be served concurrently in Russia's harshest prison regime. Navalny, his allies, rights groups, and Western governments say all charges are politically motivated.
The first appeals court in Moscow upheld the sentence on September 26 at a hearing held behind closed doors. Only the reading of the verdict was public. Navalny, who has accused the Kremlin of seeking to keep him behind bars for life and to keep Russians from voicing dissent, participated in the proceedings via video link.
Navalny's team reacted to the court's decision on X, formerly known as Twitter, criticizing the secrecy of the trial and saying the decision would not silence Navalny or his team.
"After a shameful verdict for completely legal political activity, they closed the hearing on appeal. Arguing why a shameful sentence is not at all shameful is also much more comfortable behind closed doors," Navalny's team said.
Navalny's team also they would continue their work despite the decision to uphold the verdict against Navalny and co-defendant Daniel Kholodny, former technical director of Navalny Live.
"We continue to fight the regime that has turned the judiciary into this. We continue to work on Aleksei Navalny's projects and continue to tell the whole world about him."
The charges against Navalny are widely seen as retribution for his efforts to expose what he describes as the pervasive lawlessness, corruption, and repression by Putin and his political system.
Navalny was Russia's loudest opposition voice over the last decade and galvanized huge anti-government rallies before he was jailed.
The 47-year-old threatened the Kremlin by establishing a network of political offices across the country and a corruption watchdog that brought credible graft allegations against political elites.
He was jailed in 2021 after arriving in Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blamed on the Kremlin.
The ruling last month came a year and a half into Russia's invasion in Ukraine, which brought with it an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices.
Navalny has repeatedly spoken out against the military campaign.
Navalny, who has complained of a series of health complications -- and undertook a weekslong hunger strike -- is being held in the IK-6 penal colony, 250 kilometers east of Moscow.
Allies say his health has deteriorated in recent months, during which he has been in and out of solitary confinement. Ahead of the appeal, prison authorities placed Navalny in an detention cell for the 20th time, his team said.
In August the court also ruled to send Navalny to a “special regime” colony, a maximum-security facility reserved for dangerous criminals that will cut him off from the outside world.
The “special regime” prison is a system in which inmates stay in cells either alone, in pairs, or in fours. The cells have additional metal bars on windows and doors, nonstop lighting, and video surveillance. Inmates can request one or two hours of walking outside in specially fenced cubes where there is no direct sunlight.
Special regime inmates are not allowed to communicate with friends or relatives and can have no visits in the first 10 years of their sentences.
With reporting by AFP
Resist Russian Disinformation As Elections Loom, EU Minister Tells Big Tech
European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova has urged Google, Microsoft, Meta, and TikTok to do more to tackle what she called Russia's "multimillion-euro weapon of mass manipulation" ahead of elections in Europe. Jourova on September 26 also singled out X, formerly known as Twitter, saying it had the largest ratio of fake news posts compared with those on the larger platforms. "The Russian state has engaged in the war of ideas to pollute our information space with half-truth and lies to create a false image that democracy is no better than autocracy," Jourova said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Five Bulgarians Charged With Spying For Russia Remanded In Custody By London Court
Five Bulgarian nationals charged in the U.K. with spying for Russia appeared in a London court on September 26 and were remanded in custody until their next hearing in mid-October.
Orlin Roussev, 45, Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, Katrin Ivanova, 31, Ivan Stoyanov, 31, and Vanya Gaberova, 29, appeared at the Westminster Magistrates' Court in London by video from four different prisons where they are being held.
They spoke only to confirm their names and dates of birth, and did not enter pleas of apply for bail. All five were remanded in custody until their next appearance at the Central Criminal Court on October 13.
The three men and two women are accused of conspiring “to collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy for a purpose prejudicial to the safety and interest of the state” between August 2020 and February 2023.
Prosecutor Kathryn Selby told the Westminster Magistrates Court the suspects are thought to have been part of an organized network that carried out surveillance and hostile action on behalf of Russia against specific targets. Their surveillance activities are alleged to have been for the purpose of assisting Russia to conduct hostile action against the targets, including potential abductions.
Much of the activity took place abroad, but coordination took place in the Unite Kingdom, the prosecution said.
Selby said the “operating hub in this country [the U.K.] for the offense of espionage” was the residence of Roussev. His home address was a now-closed seaside guesthouse in Great Yarmouth.
Roussev is alleged to have organized and managed the cell's spying operations from the United Kingdom.
The prosecution said Roussev received tasking from abroad by Jan Marsalek.
Marsalek, an Austrian national who is not charged in connection with the case, was the former chief operating officer of German payment systems provider Wirecard, which collapsed in 2020 in a fraud scandal. Marsalek, who is considered a key figure in that scandal, has been on the run since the summer of 2020. His whereabouts remain unclear.
The suspects are accused of conspiring to collect information with Marsalek and “others unknown.”
The five Bulgarian nationals, who lived in London and Norfolk, were arrested in February by the Metropolitan Police's counterterrorism officers under the Official Secrets Act.
Roussev, Dzhambazov, and Ivanova were charged in February with having false identity documents, but news about them did not emerge until August. The three are accused of possessing 34 ID documents, some of which were suspected to be false, from the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, and the Czech Republic.
Bulgarian prosecutors said in August that they were investigating the case, without adding further details.
The United Kingdom has been seeking to take tougher action on external security threats and potential spies, and in July passed a national security law aiming at overhauling its means of deterring espionage and foreign interference with new tools and criminal provisions.
At the time, the government labeled Russia as “the most acute threat” to its security.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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