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Deadly Mortar Attack Hits Damascus University

Insurgents have been waging a two-year fight against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian state television reports that mortar shells have hit the Damascus University campus, killing 15 students.

The official SANA news agency said six others were wounded in the attack.

Al-Ikhbariya television said the mortar rounds struck the canteen of the university’s architecture department in the Baramkeh district in central Damascus on March 28.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the shells hit the campus.

Rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule are increasingly using mortars to hit targets in Damascus.

Earlier this week, mortar shells killed at least three people and wounded dozens in the capital.

In other news, the United Nations refugee agency has expressed deep concern over reports of deportations of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

On March 28, the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Turkish official as saying that Turkey sent hundreds of refugees back to Syria after clashes with military police at their camp near the border.

A protest against poor living conditions was reportedly sparked by the death of a child in a fire.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said on March 28 the agency was "very concerned" over reports of "possible deportations from Akcakale Tent City in the past 24 hours."

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu denied refugees were forcibly deported and said 50 to 60 Syrians had returned "voluntarily."

An estimated 1 million Syrians have fled the conflict into neighboring countries.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

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FIFA Allows Banners Supporting Iranian Protesters At World Cup After Iran Eliminated

Players fight for a header during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States in Doha on November 29.

FIFA has given permission for the display of banners supporting protests in Iran and rainbow items at the World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar -- but only after the Middle Eastern country was eliminated from the competition.

Since the start of the World Cup on November 20, stadium security staff organized by Qatari authorities had confiscated items with rainbow colors and slogans such as "Women, Life, Freedom" to stop them from being taken inside stadiums.

During matches involving the Iranian national team, Iranian spectators were not allowed to wear clothes with slogans in support of the months-long protest movement in Iran triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained in September for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.

At least 459 protesters have been killed so far by security forces during the unrest in Iran, including 64 minors, according to the activist HRANA news agency.

The U.S.-Iran game on November 29 was charged with emotion for Iranian fans, some of whom had come to Qatar to back the protest movement back home with banners and flags. Iran lost 1-0 and was eliminated from the tournament.

“FIFA is aware of some incidents where permitted items were not allowed to be displayed at stadiums,” soccer’s world body said in a statement on November 30, more than a week after some infractions were reported at World Cup stadiums.

“FIFA has received assurances by authorities that venue commanders have been contacted in relation to the agreed rules and regulations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

In the first week of the tournament, seven European teams including Wales were banned by FIFA from wearing multicolored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches and some fans complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.

“FIFA continues to work closely with the Host Country to ensure the full implementation of related regulations and agreed protocols,” FIFA said.

Russian Interior Ministry Adds Noted Lawyer Ilya Novikov To Its Wanted List

Russian lawyer Ilya Novikov has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's Interior Ministry has added noted Russian lawyer and outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Novikov, who currently resides in Ukraine, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Novikov's picture and data appeared on the ministry's online registry of wanted persons on November 30. Novikov, 40, has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He has gained prominence for defending Ukrainian nationals and human rights activists in high-profile cases in recent years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Switzerland Freezes $8 Billion In Financial Assets Under Russia Sanctions

A poster with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the word "Murderer" at a rally against the Russian invasion of Ukraine near the UN headquarters in Geneva on September 25.

Switzerland has frozen financial assets worth 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($7.94 billion) as of November 25 under sanctions against Russians to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the agency overseeing sanctions, said on December 1 that 15 properties in six cantons are also "blocked." Up until June 3, it said, SECO had been notified of existing deposits held by Russian nationals, and individuals and legal entities in Russia, amounting to 46.1 billion francs. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Two New Letter Bombs Detected In Spain After Ukraine Embassy Blast

A suspected explosive device hidden in an envelope was mailed to the Torrejon de Ardoz Air Force base outside of Madrid on December 1.

Spanish police are investigating a suspect letter bomb sent to an air base outside Madrid early on December 1, a day after a letter bomb exploded at the Ukrainian Embassy and injured an employee. Government officials said another explosive package was detected on November 30 at an arms factory in Zaragoza. The factory makes grenade launchers which Spain has sent to Ukraine. Police carried out a controlled explosion of the parcel. A government official said the letter bomb in Zaragoza and the one at the embassy listed the same email address as the sender. To read the original story from AP, click here.

New Law Broadens The Net For 'Foreign Agents' In Russia

A police officer detains a supporter of the Memorial society, which Russia has deemed a foreign agent, outside the Moscow Supreme Court in December 2021. The supporter holds a sign reading, "We will live always."

A Russian law that expands the definition of so-called foreign agents has come into force that rights groups say will make it easier for the state to target its domestic critics at a time when the Kremlin is cracking down on dissent over its war in Ukraine.

The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in July, took effect as of December 1 and allows officials to include in the foreign agents registry anyone who is "under foreign influence."

The new law also broadens the definition of political activities to include a vague clause covering any activities that "contradict the national interests of the Russian Federation."

Under the previous version of the law, prosecutors had to assert that an individual charged as a foreign agent had to receive financial or material assistance from abroad.

Russia has used its foreign agent law for the past decade to label and punish critics of government policies. It also has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Individuals who are officially labeled as foreign agents are banned from receiving state grants for creative activities, working as teachers, organizing public events, and working for organizations that distribute information.

According to the law, the four existing registries of foreign agents will be merged and a new list will be created to register all individuals tagged as foreign agents.

That designation requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and which the government claims are engaged in political activities to register as foreign agents, publicly identify themselves as such, and submit to cumbersome audits.

They also must label any content they produce with an intrusive disclaimer or face criminal fines for not doing so. Kremlin critics say the foreign agent designation is also intended to stigmatize any independent civic activity in Russia.

Hungarian Government Misused Personal Data For Political Campaigns, HRW Says

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has tightened state control over media, courts, academia, and migrants from Africa and the Middle East and NGOs that support them.

Hungary's right-wing government misused personal data during the campaign for national elections this year, undermining privacy and tipping an already uneven political playing field in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on December 1.

Orban and his party won a fourth consecutive term in power in April by a landslide.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has tightened state control over media, courts, academia, and migrants from Africa and the Middle East and NGOs that support them. He also has clashed with the EU over alleged discrimination against LGBT people

In its report, Trapped in a Web: The Exploitation of Personal Data in Hungary’s 2022 Elections, HRW says the government repurposed data it collected from people applying for services to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.

"Using people's personal data collected so they could access public services to bombard them with political campaign messages is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power," said Deborah Brown, a senior researcher for HRW.

"The Hungarian government should stop exploiting personal data for political campaigns and guarantee a level playing field for elections," she added.

HRW found that the personal data collected from people who signed up for the COVID-19 vaccine, applied for tax benefits, or registered for mandatory membership in a professional association was used to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.

For example, political messages intended to tilt voters toward the ruling party were received by people who had submitted their data to a government-run website to register for the vaccine, HRW said.

HRW urged the European Union to establish whether the exploitation of personal data collected by the Hungarian government for political campaigning is consistent with EU laws, in particular with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

It also called on the European Commission, the bloc's executive branch, to bring infringement proceedings against Budapest for the failure of the national body that that supervises data protection to act as an independent authority.

The HRW report comes a day after the commission proposed that billions of euros of European Union funds allocated to Hungary remain blocked over the failure of Orban's government to implement credible rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms.

Orban, who maintains warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also antagonized EU officials with his repeated criticism of EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Orban continues to block crucial EU decisions such as the disbursement of 18 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine and a global tax deal.

Russian Forces Attack In East, Strengthen Positions In South, Ukrainian Military Says

Ukrainian soldiers fire a Bureviy multiple-launch rocket system at a position in the Donetsk region on November 29.

Ukrainian forces fought pitched battles in the eastern region of Donetsk region while in the south Russian troops strengthened their defensive positions and bombarded the regional capital of Kherson, recaptured by Ukraine last month, the Ukrainian General Staff said on December 1.

Across Ukraine, technicians were frantically working to restore electricity supplies heavily damaged by relentless waves of Russian bombardment that have left millions in darkness and cold at the onset of winter.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Donetsk, where Russians have been attempting to make further advances, remained the site of the heaviest fighting, the General Staff said, adding that Russian artillery pounded Ukrainian positions and several towns, including the flashpoint town of Bakhmut and nearby Soledar and Opytne.

Russian troops were building defense lines in the direction of the town of Lyman, the General Staff said. Fresh units as well as those that sustained losses are being resupplied with personnel, ammunition, and fuel, it said.

On the southern front, the military said, Russian forces dug in on the left bank of the Dnieper River, taking up defensive positions and training tank, mortar, and artillery fire on the city of Kherson, causing further damage to power systems.

Despite the relentless Russian bombardment from across the Dnieper River, electricity had been restored to 65 percent of consumers in Kherson, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine's presidential administration.

In the central Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian troops shelled the Nikopol region from artillery and rocket systems, destroying several houses, a gas pipeline, and an electric transmission line, Valentyn Reznichenko said. No one was injured, he added in a message on Telegram.

Other battleground activity was reported in northeastern and central Ukraine, the military said.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

In his regular nightly address on November 30, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, without elaborating, that Ukraine was taking further steps to counter the Russian forces' actions.

"We are analyzing the intentions of the occupiers and preparing countermeasures -- tougher countermeasures than is now the case," Zelenskiy said.

But even with the technicians' efforts, nearly 6 million customers in a majority of Ukraine's regions and in Kyiv had no electricity, Zelenskiy said.

The United States and other Western allies pledged more financial support and relevant equipment to boost Kyiv's energy resilience during a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Romania on November 30.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference at the end of the meeting in Bucharest that Russia's strategy of targeting Ukraine's energy infrastructure will not divide Ukraine's supporters.

Blinken said Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused "his ire and his fire" on Ukraine's civilian population, hitting infrastructure that provides heat, water, and electricity to Ukrainians.

"We know President Putin's playbook: Freeze and starve Ukrainians, force them from their homes, drive up energy, food, and other household costs, not only across Europe but around the world, and then try to splinter our coalition," Blinken said.

"This strategy has not, and will not, work. We will continue to prove him wrong," he added.

With reporting by Reuters

Biden Nominee For Ambassador To Russia Pledges To Prioritize Prisoner Release

"The plight of U.S. citizens detained in Russia will be a top priority for me," Tracy said on November 30 during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (file photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has pledged to make the release of detained Americans a priority if she is confirmed. "The plight of U.S. citizens detained in Russia will be a top priority for me," Tracy said on November 30 during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tracy, a career diplomat and current ambassador to Armenia, promised to visit detained Americans, including basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Blinken Says Putin's 'Ire And Fire' Attacks On Ukrainian Energy Infrastructure Will Not Divide Allies

Kyiv residents stand in line to fill up bottles with fresh drinking water after critical civil infrastructure was hit by Russian missile attacks on the capital on November 24.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russia's recent strategy of targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure will not divide Ukraine's supporters.

Blinken on November 30 told a news conference in Bucharest following a two-day NATO foreign ministers' meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused "his ire and his fire" on Ukraine's civilian population, hitting infrastructure that provides heat, water, and electricity to Ukrainians.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"We know President Putin's playbook: Freeze and starve Ukrainians, force them from their homes, drive up energy, food, and other household costs, not only across Europe but around the world, and then try to splinter our coalition," Blinken said.

Russia's recent attacks have left millions of people in the dark and without heating amid sub-zero temperatures. Blinken said his "brutalization of Ukraine's people is barbaric."

Blinken accused Putin of trying to force Ukraine's partners to abandon their support for Ukraine.

"This strategy has not, and will not, work. We will continue to prove him wrong. That's what I heard loudly and clearly from every country here in Bucharest," Blinken added.

The United States and other Western allies pledged more financial support and relevant equipment to boost Kyiv's energy resilience during the foreign ministers' meeting.

In addition, U.S. military planners are working to ensure that the equipment provided thus far to restore Ukraine's energy infrastructure is not destroyed by Russian attacks, Blinken said.

The United States also is trying to establish the best possible defense for Ukraine's energy infrastructure, he said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who also attended the meeting in Bucharest, said on Twitter that he and Blinken "focused on urgent assistance to restore Ukraine's energy system and new military aid, including [air defense], to protect it from Russian strikes."

WATCH: After Ukrainian troops retook large parts of the Kherson region from Russian forces, officials began the work of investigating military and civilian deaths and removing mines and booby traps from the area.

Ukrainians Say Russians Left Behind Bodies And Booby Traps In Kherson Region
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Blinken also said NATO is considering the possibility of investing in the production of Soviet-era weapons systems used by the Ukrainian Army.

Ukraine’s NATO allies are considering all options to provide Ukraine with what will be effective, including Soviet-era weapons systems that have been in the Ukrainian arsenal for decades, and ammunition for these systems.

In some cases, this may require the production of equipment that has not been produced for some time, he told CNN.

Blinken's comments came after The New York Times reported last week that NATO member states are discussing the possibility of investing in old factories in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria to resume production of ammunition for Ukrainian Soviet-style artillery systems.

NATO foreign ministers also used their meeting in Bucharest to reassure countries in Russia's neighborhood that could be destabilized by Russia as the conflict in Ukraine drags on.

The NATO ministers pledged to provide stronger "individualized support" for Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said are "facing pressure from Russia" amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and CNN

Four Lion Cubs Saved From War In Ukraine Arrive At U.S. Sanctuary

The orphaned lion cubs explore the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota, on November 30.

Four lion cubs that were orphaned during the war in Ukraine have arrived safely at an animal sanctuary in the U.S. state of Minnesota that has pledged to give them a permanent home. The arrival of one male cub and three female cubs on November 29 marked the final step of their journey after they lived through sporadic bombings and drone attacks in Ukraine, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "These cubs have endured more in their short lives than any animal should," said Meredith Whitney, wildlife rescue program manager at the fund. To read the original story from AP, click here.

U.K. Unveils New Sanctions Targeting Russian Officials Over Mobilization

The new package of 22 sanctions hit Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, who London said is responsible for overseeing the country's weapons industry and equipping newly mobilized troops. (file photo)

Britain has unveiled a new round of sanctions on Russian officials over the war in Ukraine, targeting those accused of spearheading the recent mobilization and the recruitment of "criminal mercenaries." The new package of 22 sanctions hit Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, who London said is responsible for overseeing the country's weapons industry and equipping newly mobilized troops. It also targeted 10 governors and regional heads, including in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kalmykia, noting that “a significant number" of conscripts had been drawn from those regions. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Zelenskiy Thanks Germany For Recognizing 1932-33 Famine In Ukraine As Genocide

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena Zelenska, attend a memorial to the victims of the Holodomor famine of 1932-1933, in Kyiv on November 26.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has thanked the German parliament for recognizing the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.

"Germany recognized the 1932-1933 Holodomor as a genocide. I thank the members of the Bundestag for this historic decision. The truth always wins," Zelenskiy said on Twitter.

The Bundestag voted on November 30 in favor of the resolution, which was submitted by three parties of the ruling coalition and the main opposition bloc. It passed with their support in a show of hands, while the two other opposition parties abstained.

The vote took place after a debate attended by Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany and comes days after Ukrainians marked the 90th anniversary of the start of the famine, which is believed to have killed millions of Ukrainians.

Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

Zelenskiy said on November 26 as he marked the anniversary that Ukraine “cannot be broken” in its current fight against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion.

"Ukrainians went through very terrible things.... Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger -- now, with darkness and cold," Zelenskiy said.

The resolution states that “the mass deaths from hunger were not a result of failed harvests; the political leadership of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin was responsible for them." It adds that all things Ukrainian were “deeply suspect” to Stalin and notes that “the whole of Ukraine was affected by hunger and repression, not just its grain-producing areas.”

The resolution says that from today's perspective, “a historical and political classification as genocide is obvious. The German Bundestag shares such a classification.”

Such resolutions aren't binding and don't mandate government action, but Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has thanked lawmakers who championed it.

Lawmaker Robin Wagener of the Green party told the Bundestag that the “horror” of the Holodomor “had its cause in the Kremlin,” where “the dictator took the cruel decision to push through collectivization by force and cause hunger.”

He said that “the parallels with today are unmissable.”

According to the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv, in addition to Ukraine and Germany the states that so far have recognized the famine as genocide are Australia, Ecuador, Estonia, Canada, Colombia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, the United States, and the Vatican. Some other countries, including Argentina, Chile, and Spain, have condemned it as “an act of extermination.”

The resolution calls on the German government to work against “any attempts to spread one-sided Russian historical narratives” and to keep supporting Ukraine as a victim of the current war.

It notes that the famine in Ukraine happened in a period of massive crimes against humanity in Europe, which included the Holocaust “in its historical singularity,” the war crimes of the German military, and the systematic murder of millions of civilians as part of the “the racist German war of annihilation in the east.”

With reporting by AP

Zelenskiy Invites Elon Musk To Ukraine To See Damage Caused By Russian Forces

The Ukrainian president said that only after the Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (pictured) sees the damage in Ukraine could he tell Zelenskiy how to end the war. (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has invited American billionaire Elon Musk to visit Ukraine to see with his own eyes the damage caused by Russian forces, The New York Times reported on November 30. The visit would help Musk understand the situation before making statements about it, Zelenskiy said on a video link at the New York Times DealBook Summit. Zelenskiy said that only after the Tesla and SpaceX CEO sees the damage could he tell Ukraine how to end the war. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Germany, Norway Seek NATO-Led Hub For Key Undersea Structures

A gas leak in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline the Baltic Sea in September was blamed on sabotage.

Germany and Norway want to start a NATO-led alliance to protect critical underwater infrastructure, their leaders said on November 30, weeks after explosions hit two key gas pipelines in the fallout from the war in Ukraine. "We are in the process of asking the NATO secretary-general to set up a coordination office for the protection of underwater infrastructure," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a press conference in Berlin. "We take the protection of our critical infrastructure very seriously, and nobody should believe that attacks will remain without consequences," he said.

U.S. 'Deeply Concerned' About American Jailed In Russia And Out Of Touch For Days

Paul Whelan is serving 16 years in the Russian region of Mordovia on charges of espionage, which he denies. (file photo)

The United States is deeply concerned about American Paul Whelan, who is in a Russian jail, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on November 30 after Whelan's family said they had not heard from him for a week.

U.S. diplomats have been trying to get more information about Whelan's condition and his whereabouts, Kirby said.

"As we speak this morning, regrettably, we do not have an update specifically about where he is or what condition he's in," Kirby told reporters in a telephone briefing. "That deeply concerns us, and we certainly share the anxiety and the concern of the land and family."

Kirby addressed the issue after Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said the family had become concerned about his whereabouts.

David Whelan said in an e-mail on November 29 that it was unusual that the family did not know the whereabouts of the former U.S. Marine and corporate security executive, who is serving 16 years in the Russian region of Mordovia on charges of espionage, which he denies.

The U.S. State Department has said it has been negotiating with Russia on a potential prisoner swap that would involve Whelan and U.S. women's basketball star Brittney Griner, who is serving nine years in Russia after being convicted on drug charges.

The negotiations appear to be stalled as the Russian side has not provided a "serious response" to any of the U.S. proposals on a prisoner swap, a senior U.S. diplomat said on November 28.

The penal colony's staff said Paul Whelan was moved to the prison hospital on November 17, a day after a visit by U.S. and Irish diplomats, David Whelan said in the e-mail.

Paul had spoken to his parents every day from the 17th to the 23rd and did not mention the move and had appeared healthy and well to the diplomats, David Whelan said in the e-mail.

“Paul has always mentioned when he's been transferred to the prison hospital," said David Whelan, adding that the transfers usually have occurred without his request or need for medical attention.

“And he spoke to our parents a number of times after the [penal colony] staff say he was moved, at least as recently as November 23, and never mentioned it,” David Whelan said, questioning why his brother has been prohibited from making calls if he is at the prison hospital.

"Is he unable to make calls? Or is he really still at [prison colony] IK-17 but he's been put in solitary and the prison is hiding that fact?" David Whelan asked.

David Whelan added that it was highly unusual that the family did not hear from him on November 24, the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday.

With reporting by Reuters

Exiled Group Uniting Russia's Non-Russian Ethnic Groups Protest Pope's Comments

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience at the Vatican on November 23. Francis been an outspoken critic of the war in Ukraine and has been criticized by Russian officials.

The Free Nations League, an exiled group representing some of the dozens of non-Russian ethnic groups inside Russia, has sent a letter to Pope Francis protesting against his recent comments calling Chechens and Buryats "perhaps the cruelest" in Moscow's ongoing war in Ukraine.

In the letter, the Free Nations League calls the statement by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church "humiliating, offensive, and unproven."

In an interview with the Jesuit publication America published on November 28, Francis answered a question about the war in Ukraine by saying: "When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in. Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia, but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on. Certainly, the one who invades is the Russian state."

The Free Nations League did not demand an apology from the pontiff but instead recommended he become better acquainted with examples of cruelty by "the carriers of the Russian tradition" against Chechens and Buryats, a reference to "war crimes" committed against Chechens during Russian-Chechen wars in the 1990s, the "institutionalized assimilation of Buryats," and their disproportionate mobilization in the war in Ukraine.

The letter also urged Francis to "look at what Russian tradition is doing in Ukraine if examples of faraway Muslims and Buddhists are alien and unclear for you."

"Is it Buryats and Chechens who order the shelling of civilian targets, bomb maternity clinics and hospitals? Is it us who kidnap and forcibly take to Russia hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children and conduct deportations within the occupied territories? Look into the eyes of that tradition -- those are Russian eyes," the letter says.

Representatives of Buryat, Chechen, Kalmyk, Tatar, Bashkir, Yakut, Erzya, Moksha, Cossack, and Ingermanland movements signed the letter.

Francis, who has been an outspoken critic of the war, has also been criticized by Russian officials, who reportedly lodged a protest in connection with the statements made in the interview.

The Vatican has not officially commented on the controversy surrounding the pontiff's remarks.

Russia's state-controlled TASS news agency quoted a source in the Vatican as saying that "there was no intention to offend Russia's peoples" and that "the interview's interpretations and translations will be checked."

With reporting by TASS

Iranian Sunni Clerics Release Video Urging End To Deadly Crackdown On Protesters

Iranian youths protest against the government in the western city of Sanandaj on November 16.

Sunni clerics of the southern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan have released a video calling on authorities of the Islamic republic to stop a deadly crackdown on protests that has "no justificiation."

The video, released on November 29, shows the signatories of the statement together in a mosque.

According to the statement, the Sunni clerics of the southeastern Iranian cities of Khash, Taftan, and Mirjaveh were united in their stance with regional elders and cultural figures in condemning the repression of "Bloody Friday" in Zahedan and Khash as a sign of "national solidarity."

During the Bloody Friday massacre in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces during protests sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman while in custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

At least 96 protesters were reportedly killed in the violence, with more than 300 others injured.

The Sunni clerics announced in their statement that "the killing of people in Zahedan and Khash, and in our beloved Kurdistan, and in other parts of Iran, has no justification and is completely condemned."

Earlier this month, top Iranian Sunni cleric Molavi Abdulhamid, who is regarded as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters in Zahedan and called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

Anger over Mahsa Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread demonstrations represent the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23 at least 445 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Lawyer, Family Of Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Denied Hospital Access

Belarusian opposition politician Maryya Kalesnikava, charged with extremism and trying to seize power illegally, forms a heart shape in handcuffs inside a defendants' cage as she attends a court hearing in Minsk in September 2021.

Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September last year, remains in the hospital after surgery, her father said on November 30.

Alyaksandr Kalesnikau also said he was not allowed to see his daughter due to the "absence of Kalesnikava's request." He is allowed to talk to the medical facility's personnel only in presence of law enforcement officers, who are permanently in the hospital, he said, according to Viktar Babaryka, an excluded presidential aspirant in the 2020 race whose campaign Kalesnikava coordinated.

Doctors told Kalesnikau that his daughter’s condition remains grave but stable. According to unconfirmed information provided by sources close to the medical personnel, Kalesnikava was diagnosed with a ruptured ulcer.

Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, has not been able to see his client either due to "the absence of the convict's request."

Kalesnikava joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.

Kalesnikava, 40, is the only one of the three still in the country but has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that lasted for more than two years.

Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after Lukashenka claimed victory in the presidential election that many people in Belarus believe she won, expressed her concerns about the situation faced by her colleague.

"We know that political prisoners in Belarus are being denied proper medical care. It is impossible to imagine what...Kalesnikava has been going through in the punishment cell. Without more information & access to her, we can't be sure she is getting the proper treatment," she tweeted on November 30.

Kalesnikava, and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years respectively on September 6, 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.

Kalesnikava has been in custody since masked men snatched her and two male colleagues from the streets of Minsk on September 7, 2020. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.

Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she tore up her passport after they arrived in the no-man’s land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently arrested.

Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called her prosecution a "politically motivated conviction and shameful sentencing" on "bogus" charges.

Kalesnikava last year won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor outstanding civil society action in the defense of human rights.

Moldova Not Pursuing NATO Membership But Aims To Strengthen Cooperation With Alliance

Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu (second left) poses with Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu (right), German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left), and French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna (second left) on November 21.

Moldova is not aiming to become a member of NATO, Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said on November 30, pointing out that its neutrality is enshrined in the country's constitution.

But Popescu, speaking to journalists on the sidelines of a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Romania's capital, Bucharest, added that Moldova's neutrality does not entail self-isolation, demilitarization, or indifference toward world affairs.

NATO ministers pledged during the two-day meeting to provide stronger "individualized support" for Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said are "facing pressure from Russia" amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has received hundreds of thousands of refugees in the wake of Russia's unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine and has also been affected by power shortages and blackouts caused by Moscow's strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

Popescu mentioned that Moldova's air space had been violated by Russian missiles targeting Ukraine and that a Russian missile even fell on Moldovan territory.

"We live in a difficult region, impacted by Russia's brutal aggression against Ukraine, a fact that has dramatic consequences for our country," Popescu said.

Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and NATO member Romania, last week warned its people to brace for a harsh winter as it was facing an "acute" energy crisis that risked stoking popular discontent.

Stoltenberg told a news conference at the end of the ministerial gathering that the alliance will step up its support for the three countries, without providing details on what shape that support would take.

"If there is one lesson from Ukraine it is that we need to support them now," Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"They are affected from Russian influence in different ways, but better to support them now rather than see developments that go absolutely in the wrong direction as we saw with the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year."

Fears of a spillover from the Ukraine conflict have persisted since the Russian invasion amid concerns that Moscow could attempt to create a land corridor through southern Ukraine to Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.

Russia maintains some 1,500 soldiers in Transdniester who are said to be guarding a huge Soviet-era arms depot.

Besides the troops ostensibly guarding the depot, Russia has another 400-500 soldiers in Transdniester that have been labeled as peacekeepers since the end of a 1992 war between Moldova and Transdniester that ended in a tense cease-fire enforced by Russian troops.

With reporting by Reuters

Explosion Hits Ukrainian Embassy In Madrid, One Person Injured

Police officers stand the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid after a blast injured one employee while handling a letter on November 30.

One employee has been injured by a blast at the building of the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid. Oleh Nykolenko, the embassy's representative, said on Facebook on November 30 that an envelope delivered by post exploded when it was being examined by the building's superintendent, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has asked his Spanish counterpart to thoroughly investigate the situation and urged Ukrainian embassies abroad to boost security measures.

Arash Sadeghi's Family Calls On Other Countries To Pressure Iran Authorities To Release The Activist

Arash Sadeghi underwent surgery due to chondrosarcoma cancer, and the doctors who treated him reportedly say he should have been sent to the hospital every four months for follow-up treatment.

Hossein Sadeghi, the father of imprisoned Iranian activist Arash Sadeghi, has again warned about his son's deteriorating state of health and called on countries around the world to press Tehran to release him.

Arash Sadeghi, who has been imprisoned several times, is suffering from bone cancer and his father says the prison authorities have prevented him from accessing medicine and treatment.

Sadeghi was arrested on October 12 during protests that are rocking the country over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by morality police for allegedly improperly wearing her head scarf, or hijab.

Sadeghi's father has expressed concern several times about his son’s condition. In response, a campaign has been launched on social media in support of the activist. His name has been used more than 1.5 million times on Twitter since the beginning of November.

The activist has already undergone surgery due to chondrosarcoma cancer, and according to human rights groups, and the doctors who treated him say he should have been sent to the hospital every four months after surgery to undergo treatment courses.

Sadeghi was a student at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran where he was expelled by the authorities due to his political activities.

In 2013 he was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of propaganda against the government, defamation of the supreme leader, and threatening national security.

He has gone on hunger strike several times, including in 2016 to protest the arrest of his wife, who was detained on a charge of writing fiction that has not yet been published.

Sadeghi, who was diagnosed with cancer during his previous imprisonment, was released from prison a year and a half ago after enduring more than five years behind bars.

Many high-profile activists, rights advocates, and intellectuals have also been arrested in recent days because of the protests, including Fatemeh Sepehri and Majid Tavakoli.

At least 116 journalists and columnists are among those arrested, according to RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

They include Yalda Moayeri, Arash Ganji, and Niloufar Hamedi, who reported from the Tehran hospital where Amini died on September 16.

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

Toqaev, Macron 'Did Not Discuss' Exiled Opposition Politician Ablyazov

French President Emanuel Macron (right) welcomes Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to Paris on November 29.

ASTANA -- Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vasilenko has rejected a report by Le Figaro newspaper, saying that the issue of fugitive Kazakh oligarch and opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov was not discussed at a meeting between President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Ablyazov, an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government who received political asylum in France several years ago, is wanted in Kazakhstan and Russia on suspicion of embezzling some $5 billion. Ablyazov rejects the charge as politically motivated.

Vasilenko said on November 30 that Macron and Toqaev discussed "political, trade, and economic cooperation and education ties" when they met the day before in the French capital.

"As for Ablyazov, the issue related to him is an extraordinary issue related to law enforcement and the court system not only in Kazakhstan, but also in Europe and the United States. Those sorts of issues cannot be discussed on a political level," Vasilenko said.

Le Figaro had reported prior to the meeting that Ablyazov would most likely be discussed at the meeting.

Vasilenko added that trials related to Ablyazov will be held soon in the United States, Britain, and France with the participation of Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, the Almaty mayor's office, and BTA bank.

Ablyazov, a 59-year-old fugitive tycoon, established the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and regularly organizes unsanctioned anti-government rallies across Kazakhstan via the Internet.

DVK was labelled "extremist" and banned in Kazakhstan in March 2018.

Dozens of Kazakh activists have been jailed in Kazakhstan in recent years for their involvement in DVK activities, including taking part in the DVK-organized rallies.

Human rights groups have said Kazakhstan's law on public gatherings contradicts international standards, as it requires official permission in advance to hold rallies and envisions prosecution for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies even though the nation’s constitution guarantees its citizens the right of free assembly.

Latvia Says Ukraine Should Be Free To Strike Targets Inside Russia

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics (file photo)

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics says Ukraine should be allowed to strike military sites inside Russia as it fends off attacks on its critical infrastructure. "We should allow Ukrainians to use weapons to target missile sites or airfields from where those operations are being launched," Rinkevics said on November 29 in an interview while attending the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest. NATO allies, including the United States, have held back on sending weapons that can strike Russia. To read the original story by Bloomberg, click here.

Ukraine's Odesa To Remove Monument To Russian Empress Catherine

The statue of Empress Catherine II was given an executioner's hood and a rope with a noose by activists in Odesa.

Lawmakers in Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa have decided to remove a monument of 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine the Great, often referred to as "the founder of Odesa," from the city center amid Moscow's ongoing invasion. The Odesa city council also voted on November 30 to remove a monument of 18th-century Russian military commander Aleksandr Suvorov from downtown Odesa. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

EU Executive Recommends Blocking Billions Of Euros In Funds To Hungary

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has antagonized EU officials with its repeated criticism of the EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine. (file photo)

The European Commission has proposed that billions of euros of European Union funds allocated to Hungary remain blocked over the failure of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to implement credible rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms.

The commission said in September that the EU should freeze around 7.5 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in regular funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.

Budapest agreed on 17 anti-corruption measures, including the creation of an anti-corruption task force and changes to its public-procurement rules, but the commission believes it has not done enough to fix the problems.

"The commission finds that, notwithstanding steps taken, there is still a continued risk to the EU budget given that the remedial measures that still need to be fulfilled are of a structural and horizontal nature," the executive arm of the 27-member bloc said in a statement on November 30.

The money can be frozen under a recently adopted conditionality mechanism that permits the bloc to take measures to protect its budget.

The European Council, which represents the member states, has until December 19 to make a decision based on the commission's proposal.

"We are today giving our positive assessment to Hungary's comprehensive recovery and recovery plan. Regarding the rule of law, Hungary has committed to significant reforms. Only once these reforms are implemented in full will access to the EU's recovery fund be unlocked," European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference in Brussels.

Hungary's right-wing populist government has antagonized EU officials with its repeated criticism of the EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Orban, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, continues to block crucial EU decisions such as the disbursement of 18 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine and a global tax deal.

With reporting by Reuters

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