U.S. Says Still Unclear Whether Chemical Weapons Used In Syrian Attack
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. officials were doing everything possible to learn the facts about the alleged attack early on August 21 near Damascus.
She said President Barack Obama has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to work to help verify allegations made by opposition forces that Syrian government forces carried out the reported attack.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Syrian government to allow UN weapons inspectors already in Damascus to investigate the reports "without delay."
A UN spokesman said Ban has urged the Syrian government to allow the UN experts access to the site of the alleged attack.
He also instructed UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane to travel to Damascus.
The UN Security Council on August 21 backed an impartial and prompt investigation of the reported attack but did not say whether it should be done by UN experts who are currently in Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad's opponents gave death tolls ranging from several hundred to well over 1,000 for the August 21 attack near Damascus.
The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces continued to bombard the Damascus suburb that was allegedly hit by chemical weapons.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said mortar and rocket attacks resumed east of the capital on August 22.
On August 22, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed frustration at the inaction of the UN Security Council.
"All red lines have been crossed but still the UN Security Council has not even been able to make a decision," he said. "This is the responsibility of the countries who are still setting these red lines and of all of us."
According to reports, Russia and China have opposed calling for an immediate UN-led probe. In the past, China and Russia have blocked UN Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions against Syria. Russia has been a long-time backer of the Assad regime, selling it advanced weapons systems.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio and television that, in the absence of UN-approved action, it might be time for individual countries to consider a military response.
"If [the use of chemical weapons] is proven, the position of France is that there must be a reaction. What do I mean by saying a reaction? It is not to send soldiers into there, but a reaction -- of course, of international condemnation -- but a reaction which could take the form -- I don't want to be more precise -- of force."
WATCH: Amateur video appears to appears to show shelling in Damascus on August 21
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi denied any involvement in the attack by the government, instead accusing rebel forces of "fabricating" the incident following successful operations by government troops.
"Everything that has been said is absurd, primitive, illogical, and fabricated," he said. "What we say is what we mean: There is no use of [chemical weapons] at all, at least not by the Syrian Army or the Syrian state, and it's easy to prove."
Video and other images distributed by opposition supporters -- whose authenticity could not be independently confirmed -- showed scores of victims, including many children. The victims did not have visible wounds or other injuries.
Some experts said sarin gas may have been involved. But it was not immediately known what toxic substances may have been used.
Russia has questioned the circumstances of the incident, suggesting it could have been a rebel "provocation.”
The UN team currently in Syria has a mandate to investigate allegations of previous chemical weapons use in the conflict.
Both sides have accused each other of using the weapons during their 30-month conflict.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
CPJ Urges Probe Into Threats Against Two Prague-Based Russian Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the Czech Republic to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into recent threats received by journalists at the independent investigative news website IStories and ensure the journalists’ safety. Between March and September, IStories received four threatening messages on the outlet’s website. The messages mentioned the names, addresses, and travel plans of reporters Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina, according to IStories. Both Marokhovskaya and Dolinina live in Prague, where most of IStories’ editorial staff relocated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent criminalization of “false information” about the Russian military.
Afghans Who Recently Arrived In U.S. Get Temporary Legal Status
The Biden administration said on September 21 that it was giving temporary legal status to Afghan migrants who have already been living in the country for a little over a year. The Department of Homeland Security said in the announcement that the decision to give Temporary Protected Status to Afghans who arrived after March 15, 2022, and before Sept. 20, 2023, would affect roughly 14,600 Afghans. This status doesn't give affected Afghans a long-term right to stay in the country or a path to citizenship. It's good until 2025, when it would have to be renewed again. To read the original story by AP, click here.
U.S. Judge Hands Former Russian Gas Company Executive Seven Years For Tax Evasion
A former top executive at Novatek, Russia's largest independent natural gas producer, has been sentenced by a Florida court to more than seven years in prison for tax evasion.
Judge Joan Ericksen on September 21 sentenced Mark Gyetvay to 86 months behind bars after a jury in March found him guilty of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns.
He was ordered to pay more than $4.3 million in restitution and fines.
Gyetvay, 66, served as Novatek’s chief financial officer for more than a decade and was the face of the company to its Western stock investors. He later became deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board.
An accountant who was born and grew up in New Jersey, Gyetvay joined Novatek in 2003 when it was a bit player in Russia’s gas market and received a small stake in the company.
The value of his Novatek stock surged over the years after French giant TotalEnergies and then later Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, took large stakes in the fast-growing company.
Novatek was valued at around $5 billion at its initial public offering in 2005. It would reach about $80 billion at its peak in 2021.
By 2010, Timchenko, who is sanctioned by the West, had become Novatek's largest shareholder.
Novatek enjoyed preferential treatment due to Timchenko's ties to Putin, analysts have said. The company received large gas fields and the right to export liquefied natural gas.
Timchenko sold his stake in his holding company Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed in 2014 following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.
According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005 to 2015 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release following his March conviction.
Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before joining Novatek.
Beginning in 2005, Gyetvay opened two accounts at a bank in Switzerland to hold assets amounting to more than $93 million, the Justice Department said.
“Over a period of several years, Gyetvay took steps to conceal his ownership and control over these funds, including removing himself from the accounts and making his then-wife, a Russian citizen, the beneficial owner of the accounts,” the department said.
Additionally, despite being a CPA, Gyetvay did not file his 2013 and 2014 U.S. tax returns and did not file documents on foreign bank accounts, as required, to disclose his control over the Swiss accounts.
As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income, even if he spends most of the year in Russia.
At the time of his arrest in September 2021, Gyetvay called the charges “baseless” and said he had already settled them through a voluntary program. He vowed then to vigorously fight the charges.
Tensions High In Armenian Capital As Opposition Protesters Blame Government For Karabakh Defeat
Tensions remained high in central Yerevan on September 21 as government opponents gathered to protest against what they say was inadequate support for ethnic Armenians in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Opposition leaders called on protesters to block the main government building to disrupt executive sessions, with some calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to resign. On September 20, separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh were forced to agree to lay down their arms in the face of overwhelming Azerbaijani military actions. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.
Thousands Of Russians In Latvia To Be Told To Leave
Around 3,500 Russian citizens in Latvia will receive letters from the migration authority this week asking them to leave the country. The government body said on September 21 that they were people who hadn't submitted documents to extend a permanent residence permit or hadn't registered for a Latvian language test by September 1. They must leave Latvia by November 30, it said. An amendment passed by parliament in 2022 tightened residency rules for Russian citizens in response to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To continue living in Latvia, they must apply for permanent residence status and prove a decent knowledge of the Latvian language.
Kyrgyz Investigative Group Says Charity Led By President's Wife Received Foreign Funding
BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz investigative group Temirov Live said a charity led by the Central Asian nation's first lady received enormous funding from foreign sources, even as the government seeks to adopt a law that would allow authorities to register organizations receiving financing from abroad or foreign nationals as "foreign representatives."
The investigative group said Aigul Japarova's Ene-Balaga Tirek (Mother-Child's Pillar) foundation received more than 9.1 billion soms ($102 million) from the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last year.
Temirov Live also said Ene-Balaga Tirek received 563 million soms ($6.3 million) from a private medical institution owned by foreigners last year.
It added that the As-Safa Center, also owned by foreign nationals, provided the charity with technical and humanitarian aid worth of 1.3 billion soms ($14.6 million)
Japarova’s charity didn’t deny it received money from the Chinese Embassy, but insisted the amount was 9 million soms ($101,000) not 9.1 billion, and that it was used for social projects in the southern Batken region.
The foundation said other funds received were used on medical equipment, including wheelchairs, that had been distributed among people in need.
The foundation said it is ready to provide journalists with all necessary documents.
Temirov Live's founder, prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov -- who has extensively reported about corruption among government officials in Kyrgyzstan -- was deported to Moscow in November after a court ruled that he illegally obtained Kyrgyz citizenship.
Temirov, who held Kyrgyz and Russian passports, rejected the accusation and insisted the probe against him was launched after he published the results of his investigation suggesting corruption among top Kyrgyz officials.
Amnesty International Urges Tajik Government To Immediately Release Imprisoned Pamiri Minority Activists
Amnesty International has urged Tajik authorities to immediately release jailed activists from the Central Asian nation's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), which is home to the community known as the Pamiri minority. In its statement on September 21, Amnesty said the activists were "arbitrarily detained, tortured and unfairly convicted." Since May 2022, Tajik authorities have stepped up their ongoing crackdown on the GBAO residents, and imprisoned more than 200 activists, including journalists and rights defenders, on terrorism and extremism charges that domestic and international rights watchdogs call "trumped up."
EU Calls On Bosnian Serb Parliament To Reject Draft Law That Brands NGOs As 'Foreign Agents'
The European Union on September 21 urged authorities in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia to immediately withdraw a draft law that brands nonprofit groups funded from abroad as “foreign agents.” The law is to be adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session starting on September 26. The assembly is dominated by lawmakers who are close to the ministate’s separatist pro-Russian leader, Milorad Dodik. Critics say the draft law resembles a similar one adopted by the Russian Duma on the eve of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Media Watchdog Urges Belarus To Stop Using Extremism Legislation To 'Silence' Independent Reporting
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the authorities in Belarus to stop using the country’s extremism legislation to “silence independent reporting” and allow the media to work freely.
The media watchdog's statement follows a decision by the authorities in Belarus to label the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC), an independent investigative media outlet based in the Czech Republic, as “extremist.”
“By labeling the Belarusian Investigative Center as ‘extremist,’ the Belarusian authorities are once again seeking to intimidate and obstruct the work of an independent outlet known for its sharp investigations into alleged corruption in the country,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a CPJ statement.
“Belarusian authorities should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press.”
Belarus's independent media has been targeted amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society that started after mass unrest triggered by the "official" results of an August 2020 presidential election, which awarded authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office. The opposition and some Western governments have said the vote was rigged.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, more than 15 media outlets have been labeled as “extremist” in Belarus. The association itself was added to the list in March.
Belarusian authorities also have designated as “extremist” individual journalists, including three RFE/RL journalists -- Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk.
In June 2022, Kuznechyk was sentenced to six years in prison on a charge of creating an "extremist" group.
Many other journalists, rights activists, and opposition figures have also been charged for extremism.
Organizations classified as extremist are banned from operating in Belarus and individual entrepreneurs and legal entities face up to three years in jail for displaying the logo of an organization deemed to be "extremist."
Anyone charged with creating or participating in an “extremist” group faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, with potential sentences of up to eight years for financing extremism and up to seven years for facilitating such activity.
Thousands -- including journalists, rights activists, and representatives of democratic institutions -- have been detained during the countrywide protests over the election results and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.
Family Of Iranian Teen Calls Off Memorial Amid Heightened Security Presence
Plans to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old protester believed to have been killed by Iranian security forces during widespread protests last year, have been abruptly canceled amid an increased security presence around her grave site and the detention of several people who tried to come and pay their respects.
Nasrin Shakarami, Nika's mother, said in a post on Instagram that "problems" had forced the family to call off a memorial.
"I don't want to endanger the honorable citizens who intended to join us," she wrote, noting the severe consequences handed to those who have voiced dissent over the situation in Iran.
Aida Shakarami, Nika's sister, also took to Instagram, reporting an increased security presence around Nika's grave in recent days. She added that several individuals who tried to pay their respects were detained.
The 16-year-old Nika went missing during protests in September 2022 in Tehran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.
In her last communication with her friends, she said she was being chased by security forces.
Eight days later, Nika's body was returned to her family. The official cause of death was cited as "multiple blunt force traumas" to the head, though authorities pushed the narrative that her death was a suicide.
The incident echoed what happened to Amini. Authorities have said she fell into a coma soon after her arrest because of health problems. But her family says she was in good health, while eyewitnesses said the 22-year-old was beaten during her arrest.
Amini's family was also denied access to her grave on the anniversary of her death on September 16.
Amjad Amini, Amini's father, was detained outside his home on September 16 and taken to the Intelligence Ministry in his hometown of Saghez for interrogation in what is widely seen as a thinly veiled attempt to keep him from going to his daughter's burial place.
The public anger at Amini's death has widely been seen as one of the biggest threats to Iran's clerical establishment since the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979.
At least 500 people have been killed around the country since authorities began the current crackdown on her sympathizers, with thousands more detained or harassed.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Prosecutor Seeks Eight Years In Prison For Russian Activist On Terrorism Charges
Prosecutors have asked a Russian court to convict and sentence anti-war activist Richard Rouz to eight years in prison on charges of justifying terrorism and distributing fake information about Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Rouz, who is from the city of Kirov, about 900 kilometers northeast of Moscow, was arrested in April 2022. His wife, Maria Rouz, fled Russia in December. Investigators say Rouz called in social media posts for President Vladimir Putin to be "liquidated" and posted materials allegedly related to atrocities that are believed to have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.
Bulgaria Expels One Russian, Two Belarusian Clerics Accused of Spying
Bulgaria on September 21 said it was expelling one Russian and two Belarusian nationals for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.
The announcement followed a statement by the Russian Embassy in Sofia that said Bulgaria had expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country, Archimandrite Vassian, and two other clerics.
Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said in statement that the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”
The agency did not mention the full name of the expelled citizens. But the Russian national’s initials -- N.Z. -- match those of Archimandrite Vassian’s secular name -- Nikolai Zmeyev.
The three expelled individuals have been stripped of the right of residence and barred from entering Bulgaria for a period of five years.
Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova told the Russian state news agency TASS earlier on September 21 that the three clerics were summoned to the migration office and were told they had to leave Bulgaria because they “represent a threat to Bulgaria’s national security.”
In a statement published on its social media channels, the Russian Embassy in Sofia condemned the expulsion of the three clerics saying it was a “flagrant action.”
Earlier in September, Bulgarian lawmaker Atanas Atanasov said Archimandrite Vassian was “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”
Atanasov’s comments followed reports that Archimandrite Vassian, using diplomatic status, was among three Russian diplomats expelled from neighboring North Macedonia earlier this month.
On September 16 Skopje said it ordered the expulsion of three Russians without mentioning their names or specifying the reasons.
In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian. The Russian Orthodox Church has supported Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.
Russia Suspends Fuel Exports Amid Shortages
Russia's government announced on September 21 that it had suspended exports of gasoline and diesel fuel to curb price hikes during harvest season amid reports of gasoline shortages in the country's south. The cabinet's press service called the move 'a temporary measure." A day earlier Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak said the government was ready for "radical measures" to curb fuel price hikes caused, among other things, by inflation and an increase in international oil prices. Since late July, the price of diesel fuel, which is widely used in Russia's agriculture sector rose by 25 percent. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
British Prosecutors OK Charges Against Five Bulgarians Suspected Of Spying For Russia
Britain's Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said on September 21 that it had authorized espionage charges against five Bulgarian nationals -- three men and two women -- who are suspected of conspiring to spy for Russia. It said the five were trying to "collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy" to damage Britain's interests and safety. Three of the group -- Orlin Roussev, Bizer Dzhambazov, and Katrin Ivanova -- were arrested in February and later charged with possessing false identity documents. They will appear in a Westminster Magistrates' Court on September 26, the CPS said.
Ship With Ukraine Grain Back In Turkey Under 'Humanitarian Corridor'
The cargo ship Resilient Africa arrived off Turkey's Bosphorus Strait on September 21, the first vessel loaded with grain from Ukraine to sail in and out of the Black Sea using a temporary corridor. The ship left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk this week with 3,000 metric tons of grain, Kyiv had said. Ukraine last month announced a "humanitarian corridor" to release ships bound for African and Asian markets, and to circumvent a de facto blockade after Russia abandoned a deal this summer that had guaranteed its exports during the war. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistan Sets Election For January, Likely Without Imran Khan
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on September 21 announced a general election for January, almost three months later than scheduled, removing political uncertainty over the timing to help salvage a falling economy. Elections in the politically and economically troubled nation were due to be held in November but delayed due to the fresh demarcation of constituencies under a new census. The election commission has already questioned the impartiality of the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, who comes from a pro-military party, saying it appears to be aligned with the opponents of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Iranian Court Sentences Tajik National To Death Over Deadly Attack On Mausoleum
Iran's judiciary has sentenced Rahmatollah Nouruzof, a Tajik national, to death over an attack on the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the city of Shiraz last month that killed two people.
The head of the judiciary in Fars Province, Kazem Mousavi, said Nouruzof was the main suspect in the attack and that he had admitted to ties with Islamic State (IS).
Nouruzof, also known as Mostafa Islam-Yar, was charged with "waging war against God," "corruption on Earth," and "conspiring against national security" following his armed assault on the Shah Cheragh shrine on August 13. The Mizan news agency reported that he was sentenced to death on two of the charges.
The August attack on the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz was the second of its kind within a year. While initial reports from the ISNA news agency cited four deaths and at least seven injuries in the attack, Mizan recently updated the death toll to two confirmed deaths and seven injuries.
The judiciary said on September 21 that two other minor suspects were “cleared of direct involvement in the crimes as they were unaware of the primary attacker's intentions.” They were sentenced to five years of discretionary imprisonment and expulsion from Iran.
A previous attack in October 2022, for which IS claimed responsibility, resulted in 13 deaths and left dozens injured.
Iran's Intelligence Ministry said in a statement on November 7, 2022, that the "main element directing and coordinating the attacks inside the country" was a citizen of Azerbaijan. It also reported the detention of 26 foreign nationals, primarily from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, in the case.
In December, indictments were issued for five other individuals linked to the Shah Cheragh attack.
In early 2023, Shiraz's Revolutionary Court sentenced two of them, Mohammad Ramez Rashidi and Seyed Naeim Hashemi Qatali, to public execution. All five were identified as foreign nationals and members of the IS terrorist group. The remaining three people detained received lengthy prison terms.
The execution of the two Afghan nationals in July was met with concerns from human rights activists who questioned the fairness of the judicial process and the lack of evidence proving their guilt.
The Iran Human Rights group said the sentences issued to Rashidi and Qatali were not legally valid and were based on forced confessions. The two were hanged in a public execution on July 8.
Iran has seen a surge in executions this year, a trend that has drawn widespread domestic and international condemnation with critics saying that many judgements are rushed through the judiciary while "sham" trials and forced confessions are routine.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Top Russian Officer Among Troops Killed During Azerbaijan's Attack On Nagorno-Karabakh
A top official from Russia's armed forces was killed during Azerbaijan's shelling of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh just two months after he was appointed to be the second in command of a Russian peacekeeping force in the region.
Captain First Rank (Colonel) Ivan Kovgan, the deputy commander of Russia's North Fleet submarine forces, was among Russian troops killed during Azerbaijan's "anti-terrorist" operation on September 20, according to the Club of Navy Submarine Veterans in St. Petersburg.
The group said Kovgan was killed when Azerbaijani forces opened fire at a vehicle transporting Russian peacekeepers. The 52-year-old had been appointed to the post of deputy commander of the peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh two months earlier.
The Kremlin said on September 21 that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he offered his apologies and expressed condolences over the deaths of Russian military personnel during what Baku called “an anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"[Aliyev] emphasized that the most thorough investigation of what happened will be conducted and all responsible persons will face due punishment," the Kremlin's statement said, adding that Russian and Azerbaijani prosecutors are in contact to launch the probe.
Aliyev also expressed a readiness to provide the families of the deceased military personnel with financial support.
Media reports in Russia cited sources in Russian law enforcement on September 21 as saying that the commander of the Azerbaijani armed forces unit, whose subordinates were allegedly involved in the deadly shooting at the car with Russian personnel, was dismissed from his post and "first suspects have been detained."
The exact number of Russian troops killed in the attack remains unknown.
In November 2020, during the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani armed forces shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing two pilots.
Baku said at the time that the aircraft had been shot down “by mistake” and offered apologies to Russia.
Russian peacekeepers were brought in as part of a cease-fire agreement that ended the war after some 7,000 people lost their lives.
With reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL’s Russian Service, TASS, RIA Novosti, and Interfax
Death Toll In Blast Caused By Gas Leak In Residential Building In Moscow Region Rises To Seven
Russian emergency officials said on September 21 that seven people, including two rescue workers, were killed after an explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a nine-story apartment block in the city of Balashikha near Moscow a day earlier. With all rescue works at the site completed, officials said 27 people were injured, of whom eight were hospitalized. The explosion destroyed three levels of the building. Gas explosions occur frequently in Russia due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Amid Rumors About His Grave Condition, Another Unverified Video Surfaces Of Chechen Leader Kadyrov
The Kremlin-backed leader of Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has published a new video on social media amid speculation his health is failing and he had been hospitalized in a coma.
The video, published on Telegram late on September 20, shows Kadyrov, Russian lawmaker from Chechnya Adam Delimkhanov, and Kadyrov's envoy to the Kremlin, Bekkhan Taimaskhanov, in a hospital room visiting Kadyrov's uncle, Magomed Kadyrov.
An unidentified doctor in the room says Magomed Kadyrov has been in the clinic for two weeks and will stay in the medical institution for another two weeks, adding that "today is September 20."
No details were given about the hospital or the doctor who appears in the video. It was not possible to immediately verify the date of the video.
The Agentsvo.Novosti Telegram channel, however, identified the doctor as Kirill Kuchkin, a physician at the Central clinical hospital of the presidential directorate of Russia (TsKB) in Moscow, adding that Kuchkin declined to answer a question about the exact date of the footage.
The text under the footage says the video was taken at the TsKB, adding that Kadyrov visited his uncle in the hospital during his unannounced business trip to Moscow.
"I am alive and well and absolutely do not understand why, even in the case of when I am ill, such a fuss must be raised," the text says.
Reports about Kadyrov's worsening health and that he was being treated at the TsKB started circulating in Russia and Ukraine last week. Several opposition Chechen Telegram channels said later that Kadyrov was in a coma and suffering from kidney failure.
Last weekend, Kadyrov’s Telegram channel released a video showing him smiling and talking to the camera in an apparent attempt to counter speculation about his health.
The location and date of when that video, in which the 46-year-old autocrat speaks in a halting manner, was filmed also has not been verified.
Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since 2007 with a cult of personality around him, is frequently accused by Russian and international human rights groups of overseeing grave human rights abuses including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and targeting the LGBT community.
He has been one of the strongest allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and brought many of his Chechen fighters to battle alongside Kremlin forces in the invasion of Ukraine. Some Chechen rebels are also fighting against Russian troops alongside Ukrainian forces.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 18 that he had no information on Kadyrov's state of health.
Gas Explosion At Highway Construction Site In Romania Kills Four, Injures Five
An explosion at a highway construction site in Romania early on September 21 killed four people and injured five, emergency services said. The blast happened around 1 a.m. local time near the town of Calimanesti, 100 kilometers northeast of the capital, Bucharest. A spokesperson for emergency services said the explosion was caused by the "cracking of a gas transport main and appearance of mechanical sparks" during construction work. Investigators are looking into the causes of the blast. Representatives of operator Transgaz say the pipeline builder did not comply with a specialist opinion issued in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service, click here.
Slovakia, Ukraine Agree Grain Trade System To Replace Ban
Slovakia and Ukraine's agriculture ministers have agreed to set up a licensing system for trading in grains, which would allow a ban on imports of four Ukrainian commodities to Slovakia to be lifted once the system is set up, the Slovak Agriculture Ministry said on September 21. Ukraine also agreed to halt a complaint over the import ban that it had filed against Slovakia with the World Trade Organisation, the Slovak ministry said in an e-mailed statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Biden Assures Zelenskiy Of Global Support: Abrams Tanks Coming, But ATACMS Will Have To Wait
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with President Joe Biden at the White House in the midst of his crucial diplomatic push, thanking the U.S. leader for helping Kyiv to fight “Russian terror,” while Biden told his counterpart that he will “ensure that the world stands” with Ukraine and that the first of the sophisticated U.S. Abrams tanks are on the way.
The White House meeting capped a whirlwind of activity for Zelenskiy, who spoke to the United Nations the previous two days and spent September 21 meeting with U.S. congressional leaders and military chiefs before joining Biden in the Oval Office. He will speak to the Canadian Parliament on September 22.
Biden praised the "enormous bravery" of the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian invasion and said that "the American people are determined to see to it that we do all we can to ensure the world stands with you."
"We're supporting a just and lasting peace, one that respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Biden said.
Biden said Russia “was standing in the way” of peace in the region and that Moscow is hoping to use the impending winter as a “weapon” against the Ukrainian people.
Zelenskiy told Biden that Ukrainians "greatly appreciate the assistance provided by the United States to combat Russian terror."
He said Washington's aid will help boost Ukraine’s defense capabilities during the winter.
The White House said the United States will provide Ukraine with "significant [new] air-defense capability" but that it won’t provide Kyiv the desired long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) at this time.
"President Biden will announce a new package of military assistance today, including significant air-defense capabilities to help Ukraine," national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.
Sullivan said Biden had rejected, for now at least, a request for the ATACMS missiles, which have a range of 300 kilometers.
After their meeting, Biden said that the first of the powerful M1 Abrams tanks promised for Kyiv will be arriving in Ukraine next week.
Zelenskiy earlier met privately with leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives, seeking to shore up support with some reluctant politicians -- mainly Republicans -- for his country’s fight against the Russian invasion.
Republican leaders, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, declined to greet Zelenskiy on camera, although Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries did and escorted the Ukrainian president to the Capitol building.
Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut) wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Zelenskiy had received "two standing ovations so far" during a closed-door meeting with the full Senate.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Ukrainian leader told senators that further military aid was crucial to Kyiv’s effort to survive the Russian invasion.
"If we don't get the aid, we will lose the war," he quoted Zelenskiy as saying.
Zelenskiy told reporters following the meeting with the Democrat-controlled Senate that “we had a great dialogue.”
“We're thankful to you, the journalists, the senators for helping us, supporting us," Zelenskiy added.
The 45-year-old Ukrainian leader arrived in the U.S. capital hours after Russia launched its biggest attack on Ukraine in weeks, hitting several regions -- including the cities of Kyiv and Lviv -- knocking out critical energy infrastructure with its missiles and drones.
"Last night, Russian terrorists launched another massive attack. In particular, on infrastructure. Most of the missiles were shot down. But only most of them. Not all of them," Zelenskiy said on the Telegram messaging app.
"More air defense. More sanctions. More support for Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines," he added.
Zelenskiy's meetings come on the heels of statements from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hinting that Warsaw was "already no longer supplying arms to Ukraine."
Morawiecki prompted confusion late on September 20 when he said in response to a Polsat News interviewer's question about a budding diplomatic dispute over Ukrainian grain exports that NATO member Poland, which has been among Kyiv's staunchest allies in the war, was instead "equipping ourselves with the most modern weapons."
The Polish government had already summoned Kyiv's ambassador to register its "strong protest" after Zelenskiy used a UN speech during his current U.S. diplomatic swing to suggest some allies were only pretending to arm and back his country.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski reportedly said Zelenskiy's comments "alleging that some EU countries feigned solidarity while indirectly supporting Russia" were an "inappropriate" way to resolve disputes.
Along with Hungary and Slovakia, Poland last week announced restrictions on grain imports after the European Commission declined to extend a ban on such goods amid a flood of Ukrainian food exports as Russia blockades Ukrainian ports.
It was unclear whether Morawiecki's threatened cutoff of weapons supplies to Ukraine over the grain dispute was official policy.
Polish President Andrzej Duda attempted on September 21 to ease any tensions, saying Morawiecki’s comments had been taken incorrectly.
"In my opinion, the prime minister meant we won't be transferring to Ukraine the new weaponry that we're currently buying as we modernize the Polish Army. As we receive new weaponry from the U.S. and South Korea, we will be releasing the weaponry currently used by the Polish Army. Perhaps we will transfer it to Ukraine," Duda said.
Nevertheless, the timing is awkward for Zelenskiy and the Ukrainians.
Zelenskiy on September 19 delivered his first in-person speech to the UN General Assembly since the invasion began and the next day appeared before the UN Security Council lamenting "criminal" Russia's veto-wielding seat on the council.
His statements are part of an extended U.S. visit that could prove crucial in Kyiv's ongoing efforts to rally international support for its defense against its much larger post-Soviet neighbor.
He also needs to convince U.S. Republicans like McCarthy to push through a new multibillion-dollar aid package for Kyiv that is at risk of being blocked.
After Zelenskiy's meeting with the House, McCarthy said his presentation was "direct, it was honest, they answered some of the questions [we had]. I heard a lot of positive things.”
The White House has noted that the visit comes at a "really crucial time" given Ukraine is in the midst of a fierce counteroffensive against Russian forces.
Back in Ukraine, officials said early on September 21 that air-raid alerts sounded across the country at around 4 a.m. local time as a wave of early morning Russian missile and drone attacks targeted a number of cities.
Hours later, Ukraine's power-grid operator reported electricity cuts in five regions of the country, saying the Russian attacks had damaged infrastructure.
Casualties were reported in population centers including the capital, Kyiv, and Cherkasy and Kherson.
Kyiv's local military administration said it had shot down more than 20 airborne targets and that debris from several missiles had fallen on the city.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said seven people suffered injuries in the Darnytsya neighborhood, but none was life-threatening.
Ten people were injured by fragments from a Russian rocket in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, the Interior Ministry said.
Two people were killed and five more injured when Russian forces struck a dormitory building in Kherson, a southern city that lies on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea, local officials there said.
Ukraine said on September 21 that its forces had hit Russia’s Saky air base in Crimea, although Moscow-installed officials denied the claim.
A Ukrainian intelligence source told Reuters that the attack "hit the target and caused serious damage" to equipment at the site.
Ukraine said in 2022 that it carried out a strike on the air base on August 9 of that year. That strike destroyed at least nine military aircraft, including Su-30SM fighters and Su-24M bombers.
The Russian-appointed head of Crimea said at the time that one person was killed. Several buildings at the base that may have housed ammunitions were also destroyed.
Earlier on September 21, Russia said it shot down 19 drones in Crimea in what appeared to be another barrage of airborne attacks on the Russian-occupied peninsula.
The Russian Defense Ministry said explosions rang out in some areas overnight as unmanned drones attacked in the northern, western, and central parts of Crimea. It did not report any casualties.
Ukrainian forces have appeared to step up their drone and missile strikes in recent months in annexed Crimea, which also hosts Russia's Black Sea naval fleet.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm claims by either side in areas of heavy fighting.
With reporting by dpa, PAP, Reuters, and The Washington Post
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