Russia, Iran, Turkey Set Astana Talks To Discuss Syria Cease-Fire
Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry says the co-sponsors of the Syrian peace talks will meet in Astana on February 6 to monitor implementation of the cease-fire in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
The ministry announced on February 2 that Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet for a second round of talks in the Kazakh capital.
The first round on January 23-24 failed to make progress toward a political settlement of the nearly 6-year-old civil war, but the sides did agree to create a mechanism called the Joint Operational Group (JOG), to monitor the fragile cease-fire in Syria.
The JOG includes experts from the three co-sponsoring countries.
Moscow and Tehran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the civil war, while Ankara supports the opposition.
An estimated 300,000 Syrians have been killed and millions have been displaced since the conflict erupted 2011.
Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and yenisafak.com
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.
Russia Says Bulgaria Expelled Russian Orthodox Cleric
Russia's embassy in Sofia said on September 21 that Bulgarian authorities had expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, Archimandrite Vassian, and two other Russian citizens. In a statement published on its Facebook page, the embassy condemned the move. Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova told the Russian state news agency TASS that the clerics were told they “represent a threat to Bulgaria’s national security.” Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry has not commented on the report. Earlier in September, Bulgarian lawmaker Atanas Atanasov said Archimandrite Vassian was “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.” To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, click here.
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.
Zelenskiy Meets With U.S. Congressional Leaders, Seeks To Press Reluctant Republicans
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in the midst of a major diplomatic push, met privately with leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on September 21, seeking to shore up support with some reluctant politicians -- mainly on the right -- for his country’s fight against the Russian invasion.
Zelenskiy, who spoke before the United Nations over the previous two days, is scheduled to meet later with President Joe Biden at the White House and with U.S. military chiefs at the Pentagon.
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.
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 muster more support 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 amid Russia's blockade on Ukrainian ports.
It was unclear whether Morawiecki's threatened cut-off of weapons supplies to Ukraine over the grain dispute was official policy.
The Polish government issued a statement on September 21 seeking to clarify the situation, although Warsaw’s official policy remains uncertain.
"In connection with questions on arms deliveries, I would like to inform you that Poland only executes previously agreed deliveries of ammunition and armaments. Including those resulting from signed contracts with Ukraine," the latest statement said.
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.
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 Vitaliy 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.
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
Romania Soccer Association Sanctioned Over 'Serbia' Chants In Kosovo Match
UEFA has sanctioned the Romanian soccer federation (FRF) over pro-Serbia chanting by supporters during a Euro 2024 qualifier against Kosovo last week, European soccer's governing body said. The September 12 match in Bucharest was suspended for 50 minutes after some home fans chanted "Serbia, Serbia" and held up a banner saying "Kosovo is Serbia." Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and won recognition from more than 100 countries, but not from Romania. UEFA fined the FRF 40,000 euros ($42,540) and ordered Romania's next home game, a Euro qualifier against Andorra on October 15 in Bucharest, to be played without fans. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Poland No Longer Arming Ukraine, Says PM Morawiecki
Poland says it will no longer arm Ukraine and will instead focus on its own defense, as the two allies clashed at a key moment in Kyiv's fightback against invasion by Russia. In a mounting row over grain exports from Ukraine, Poland summoned the Ukrainian ambassador on September 20 to protest remarks at the UN by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian leader said some countries were only pretending to support his nation. Asked about the dispute, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, "We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons."
Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh Sides To Meet Again Soon After Inconclusive 'Integration' Talks
The first session of the closely watched "reintegration" talks in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax between representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh ended without any sign of a breakthrough, as the two sides exchanged accusations and denials over reports of gunfire and apparent cease-fire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, but with word of further meetings to come.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's office said on September 21 that the two-hour session was "held in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere," with Russian peacekeepers present.
The office added that both sides had agreed to further talks.
Separatist leaders also said in a statement following the meeting that they were ready to continue talks with Azerbaijani authorities.
"The parties especially stressed the need to discuss all existing issues in a peaceful environment, noting the readiness to continue meetings," the statement said.
But with Baku hoping to consolidate gains from a 24-hour military offensive on September 19-20 that dramatically shifted political calculations in the Caucasus, ethnic Armenians' leadership in the region was said to be demanding guarantees before their forces surrender all their weapons.
Reports of gunfire 100 kilometers away in the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, and residents citing a "state of panic" there, highlighted lingering tensions as the potentially historic negotiations got under way.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nearly 3-year-old peacekeeping mission was crucial to brokering the cease-fire a day earlier, reportedly spoke by phone with Aliyev on September 21. The Kremlin quoted Putin as stressing "the importance of ensuring the rights and security of the Armenian population of Karabakh."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose administration has backed Baku diplomatically and with drones and other military equipment, also spoke to Aliyev and expressed his "wholehearted support" for Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, neighbor Armenia's envoy to the United Nations, Andranik Hovhannisian, warned the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 21 that Azerbaijan was perpetrating "ethnic cleansing" and a "crime against humanity" as it tried to retake the territory following nine months of a de facto blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Davit Babayan, an adviser for foreign policy to the separatist government’s de facto leader Samvel Shahramanian, told Reuters that "there has not been a final agreement yet."
He said "a whole host of questions still need to be resolved" and security guarantees would have to precede full disarmament.
"We have an agreement on the cessation of military action but we await a final agreement -- talks are going on," Babayan said.
The UN Security Council is due to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis later on September 21.
The talks in Yevlax follow Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's boast to his oil- and gas-rich nation of 10 million after a Russian-brokered cease-fire halted intense fighting on September 20 that he said had "restored its sovereignty."
Aliyev praised the lightning operation to dislodge the territory's de facto leadership nearly three years after another offensive retook many areas controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support, saying, "In just one day, Azerbaijan fulfilled all the tasks set as part of local anti-terrorist measures."
The Yevlax talks on the Azerbaijani side were being led by lawmaker Ramin Mammadov, whom Aliyev appointed in March to be in charge of relations with ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The delegation for the breakaway leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijani that Armenians call Artsakh, included a member of the territory's de facto parliament in Stepanakert, Davit Melkumian, and Artsakh Security Council member Sergey Martirosian. But it has not issued an official list of participants.
Russian peacekeepers, whom the Kremlin says are mediating the talks, were accompanying the ethnic Armenian delegation on its arrival at the venue.
Multiple reports of gunfire, meanwhile, trickled in from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's biggest city.
One resident told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that they heard gunfire in the city and were considering options to leave after moving out of a shelter to spend the night at home. They said many other residents were back in shelters.
"Let's see what we do," the woman said. "Now we are in Stepanakert."
“The situation is very bad,” she said. “They [Azerbaijani troops] have already entered through the neighborhood’s cemetery armed with submachine guns.”
“Everyone is in their basements now. It was a little calm last night. We stayed at home. But now we have to go outside again, as [shooting] started all over again. It is very difficult.”
Another woman told RFE/RL that the expectation is that Russian peacekeepers “will let people leave [Nagorno-Karabakh] rather than be killed. But the peacekeepers for now say they have no order to let people go.”
Reuters also quoted two sources as saying they heard gunfire.
The ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijani forces of rifle fire from areas near Stepanakert and urged residents to stay in shelters. They said they had informed the command of the area's Russian peacekeepers and demanded the Russians take immediate measures to protect them.
Another Nagorno-Karabakh resident who is originally from the town of Martakert but traveled to Stepanakert told RFE/RL that they'd gone to the airport, where Russian peacekeepers are stationed. The person said many people in the city were in "a state of panic."
The person said there were many other ethnic Armenians at the airport on September 21, demanding that they be allowed to leave Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry "categorically denied" accusations that it was violating the day-old cease-fire.
Using the ancient name of Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, it said on Facebook that "information spread in some Armenian social media accounts that the Azerbaijan Armed Forces allegedly launched an attack in the Xankendi direction is completely false and disinformation."
The European Union monitoring mission in Armenia (EUMA) that was established earlier this year to help avoid escalations said it had "reinforced patrols at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border areas & line of confrontation" and in the nearby Armenian village of Sotk to report on military and security developments there. It reiterated the EU mission's commitment to "contributing to stabilizing the situation."
Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leaders were forced to accept Baku's terms for the cease-fire as more numerous and better-supplied Azerbaijani forces armed with artillery and drones quickly tallied victories after the surprise offensive began on September 19, with Russian peacekeepers seemingly unprepared or unwilling to act.
A rights ombudsman for Nagorno-Karabakh, Gegham Stepanian, has said that at least 200 people were killed and about twice as many wounded during the fighting, including children.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian appeared to have been caught off guard by the Azerbaijani offensive, and he has since emphasized that his government was not involved in shaping the terms of the cease-fire. But he welcomed the end of intense fighting.
In his address to the nation, Azerbaijani President Aliyev said, "The day is not far off when Azerbaijan and Armenia will settle the issues between them, sign a peace treaty, and the countries of the South Caucasus will start working on future cooperation in a trilateral format."
He said of Armenia that Azerbaijan "recognize[s] their territorial integrity."
"The integration plan of Karabakh Armenians is ready," Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant to the president of Azerbaijan, told reporters at a briefing organized for accredited foreign diplomats in Baku.
Hajiyev added that "the presence of around 10,000 members of illegal Armenian armed organizations was unacceptable" in the territory.
Thousands of ethnic Armenians converged on Stepanakert's airport on September 20 seeking protection and possible transport to Armenia amid uncertainty over the fighting and the cease-fire that was proffered by Russian peacekeepers on distinctly Azerbaijani terms.
Russia has said that its peacekeepers have "taken in" about 5,000 Karabakh residents.
The Kremlin said that in his phone conversation with Putin, Aliyev had apologized for an incident late on September 20 in which an unknown number of Russian peacekeepers had been killed when the vehicle they were in was fired upon in the region.
The White House has expressed concern about a possible humanitarian and refugee crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and placed the blame on Baku for the situation.
"We're obviously still watching very, very closely the worsening humanitarian situation inside Nagorno-Karabakh," White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Azerbaijani leaders vowed to allow “safe passage" to Armenia for the separatist forces of the region as part of the agreement to halt fighting, putting a halt to the long struggle for ethnic Armenians seeking independence or attachment to Armenia for the territory.
"Safe passage to appropriate assembly points will also be provided by the Azerbaijani side," Aliyev adviser Hajiyev told reporters. "All the actions on the ground are coordinated with Russian peacekeepers."
The European Union called on Aliyev to protect the rights of ethnic-Armenians in region and “to ensure full cease-fire and safe, dignified treatment by Azerbaijan of Karabakh Armenians.”
The fresh offensive was a blow to Armenians who have made control of Nagorno-Karabakh a nationalist priority since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Yerevan saw a second successive night of antigovernment protests after the cease-fire.
In a somber address to the nation to mark the 32nd anniversary of Armenia's withdrawal from the crumbling Soviet Union on September 21 on the heels of the day-old cease-fire, Pashinian said that declaration "as it turned out...was the easiest part of the road to independence."
"Today we are living in difficult times, suffering untold physical and psychological suffering," Pashinian said, adding that independence and difficult tests are "actually a means to a higher goal...[of] the happiness of our future generations."
Pashinian later said in a televised statement that the situation Nagorno-Karabakh as of the evening of September 21 was "generally stable," adding that "reports of mass casualties among civilians are not in line with reality."
Pashinian also said Armenia was preparing to accept any displaced persons from the region if needed and cited the figure of "40,000 families."
In addition to a suspension of fighting and some sort of integration effort, the cease-fire proposal reportedly includes a commitment for a pullout of any "remaining units of the armed forces of Armenia," the withdrawal and destruction of any heavy military equipment from the territory, and the disbandment of the so-called Artsakh Defense Army established by ethnic Armenians in the early 1990s at an early phase of the conflict.
The Russian peacekeepers are in place since a cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory and seven surrounding districts controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
Iran's President Says U.S. Should Ease Sanctions To Demonstrate It Wants To Return To Nuclear Deal
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 20 that relations with the United States can move forward if the Biden administration demonstrates it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, and a first step should be easing sanctions. He told a news conference that the Americans have reached out through several channels “saying they wish to have a dialogue, but we do believe that it must be accompanied by action.” “So talk alone is not going to do it,” Raisi said. But action on sanctions can be “a solid foundation for continuing” discussions. The Iranian leader added: “We have not left the table of negotiations.” To read the original story by AP, click here.
U.S. Lawmakers Call For Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza To Be Designated 'Wrongfully Detained'
U.S. lawmakers on September 21 called on the Biden administration to formally designate jailed Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, a U.S. permanent resident, as "wrongfully detained" in hopes it will help secure his release. A Moscow court in April jailed Kara-Murza, 42, for 25 years, the harshest sentence of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine. He was convicted of treason and other offences in a trial he said was politically motivated. U.S. officials have condemned his detention as politically motivated and called for his release, but a formal designation of wrongful detention would mobilize U.S. government resources and involve the presidential envoy for hostage affairs in the case. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Urges Kosovo, Serbia To 'Fully Implement' Obligations After Talks Fail
PRISTINA -- The United States expects both Kosovo and Serbia to “fully implement” all of their obligations and commitments to normalized relations and mutual recognition.
Speaking to RFE/RL in an interview a week after EU-mediated talks between Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier warned both countries risk losing opportunities to progress in their goal of joining the bloc if compromises aren’t found.
“You have to give a little and get a little,” he said in the interview on September 20 in the capital, Pristina.
Serbia refuses to recognize its former province's 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions between ethnic Serbs and Kosovar institutions spilled over into violence against NATO peacekeepers in May after locals boycotted local elections in four mostly Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo.
Kurti and Vucic met on September 14 for talks in Brussels, which went nowhere according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
He said Kurti was "not ready to move forward" with setting up an association of Serb-majority municipalities that would give Serbs living in Kosovo's north more autonomy, a goal approved by Pristina a decade ago under the EU-sponsored Ohrid agreement with Belgrade.
Hovenier said parallel steps could be taken by both Pristina and Belgrade to ensure progress toward the goal of mutual recognition, but that the association of municipalities is key for getting the process moving forward.
"We could spend a lot of time on who does what, when exactly and in what order. But let's be honest, at the end of the day both things need to happen. Kosovo has got to start moving forward with the association," he said.
“That has to be among the very first steps…. There's an urgency to this. We also do look to Serbia to fulfill its commitments under the Ohrid Agreement,” Hovenier added.
In a statement on September 19, the EU diplomatic service complained about a "lack of progress from both parties in de-escalating tensions in the north of Kosovo."
It called out Pristina for expropriations, evictions, and using special forces for routine policing, while it blamed Belgrade for "blocking the energy roadmap" and other actions.
The statement came a day after Kurti accused Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special envoy for dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, of "taking a position" against Kosovo.
Hovenier said Lajcak “enjoys strong confidence” from Washington and he hopes the government of Kosovo will work with the designated representatives of the EU to achieve their strategic goals.
“The United States supports normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which is what the Ohrid agreement is supposed to do, as a really important step toward our longer-term goal of mutual recognition,” he said.
“But we think this is what is achievable right now. And it needs to happen, because without it, Kosovo's path toward Europe is constrained.”
Mahsa Amini, Activists From Afghanistan, Georgia Nominated For EU's Sakharov Prize
Mahsa Amini and the women of Iran were nominated for this year's Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top rights prize, the EU Parliament said on September 20. Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in Iran last year while in custody for an alleged hijab infraction, was nominated by the parliament’s three largest blocs, making her the favorite to be chosen for the award in December. Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa were nominated, as were the "pro-European people of Georgia" and Nino Lomjaria, former public defender of Georgia. The award will be presented in December.
International Envoy Urges Bosnia To Ban War Criminals From Holding Office
The international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina urged the country’s authorities to ban the election, appointment, and employment in the public sector of people convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. In a statement released on September 20, Christian Schmidt called on authorities to include data on those convicted by international tribunals in the criminal records. Currently, there is no register of individuals convicted of war crimes in Bosnia and the information is not included in the criminal records of the country, torn by a civil war in the 1990s. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
'The Wiliest Is The Winner': Ukrainian Marine Infantry Gradually Breaks Through Russian Defenses2
Russia's Navy Has A Dry Dock Problem. Again.3
Video Appears To Show Smiling Chechen Strongman Kadyrov Amid Rumors Of Failing Health4
The Romanian Ghost Village Where Air-Raid Shelters Are Being Built After Russian Strikes On Ukraine5
Azerbaijan Launches Offensive In Breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, Children Among Casualties6
Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh Sides To Meet Again Soon After Inconclusive 'Integration' Talks7
Romanian Farmers Ask Government To Continue Ban On Ukrainian Grain Products8
Ukrainian Government Dismisses All Six Deputy Defense Ministers9
Pakistani Taliban Attempts Land Grab To Boost Insurgency Against Islamabad10
Kyiv Presses Offensive In South, East As Zelenskiy Thanks Allies Latest 'Support Packages'