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Trump's Running Mate Backs Away From Total Ban On Muslims Entering U.S.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (right) and his running mate Mike Pence. (file photo)

The running mate of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says Trump has backed away from his call for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Vice presidential running mate Mike Pence said on October 6 that the provocative proposal was "not Donald Trump's position now."

In December, after an Islamic State-inspired mass shooting in California by a Muslim couple, Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

In recent months, Trump has said he would suspend immigration from countries where Islamist militants are active.

But he has been vague about whether he was narrowing or expanding his original policy position.

Pence said during television interviews on October 6 that, if elected on November 8, Trump would suspend immigration from "countries that have been compromised by terrorism."

Asked if this amounted to a ban on Muslims, Pence told MSNBC's Morning Joe program: "Of course not."

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and MSNBC

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Afghan Taliban Says New Political Chief Won’t Attend Talks With U.S. Envoys

Afghan Taliban leaders said on February 21 that their new political chief will not attend peace talks with U.S. envoys that are due to place in Qatar next week.

U.S. officials want to meet with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, hoping the Taliban's co-founder and military veteran will add momentum and have the clout to discuss issues that have made it difficult to broker a peace deal with Afghanistan’s government.

But senior Taliban leaders said Baradar would not be travelling to Qatar because he has had difficulties obtaining travel documents.

They said there are also differences among the Taliban leadership over the precise role that Baradar should have in the talks.

Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail in October. His appointment was widely seen as marking a new push by the Taliban to achieve political and diplomatic legitimacy.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Afghan Service and Reuters

Poisoned Bulgarian Arms Dealer Suggests Attackers Had Help Inside Bulgaria

Bulgarian businessman Emil Gebrev (file photo)

SOFIA -- Emil Gebrev, a Bulgarian businessman who fell into a coma in April 2015 with symptoms of severe poisoning, says he believes whoever was involved in the attack against him had help from inside Bulgaria.

Gebrev, a veteran of the Bulgarian arms industry, survived the poisoning, as did his son and a company executive who were treated for similar symptoms.

The case bears hallmarks of the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2018.

The British-based open-source investigation group Bellingcat said on February 14 that Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeyev, a high-ranking military intelligence officer and a graduate of Russia's Military Diplomatic Academy, arrived in Bulgaria just days before Gebrev fell ill. The investigative group says Sergeyev used an alias while in Bulgaria.

Bellingcat said Sergeyev is also suspected of being involved in the attack against the Skripals in Salisbury, having arrived in Britain two days before they were poisoned.

"External support is extremely important and powerful, but without any internal cooperation there is no way [the attack] can happen," Gebrev told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service on February 20.

"The more I personally analyze what has happened so far, however cruel and ugly it sounds, it is the result of an extremely thoughtful, purposeful and consistent war on me, the company I lead and, analyzing the whole situation, on the companies in defense sector," Gebrev said.

An initial investigation into Gebrev’s poisoning found traces of the highly toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos in his coffee and food at his home -- but no substance banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention such as Novichok.

Little else, however, was discovered and no one was punished for the attack.

The Kremlin has disputed the findings of the new Bellingcat investigation implicating it in Gebrev’s poisoning.

'Close Partnership'

British and Bulgarian officials, however, said earlier in February that the case has been reopened and that the two countries have been "closely" coordinating their efforts for "several months."

"We are working in a joint team and a close partnership, and we are going to find out the facts in this case," U.K. Ambassador to Bulgaria Emma Hopkins told reporters in Sofia on February 11.

While Gebrev did not name Russia specifically as a co-conspirator in the attack against him, he told RFE/RL that reports of a Russian agent's involvement don't surprise him.

“It's not even a coincidence. It's overlapping interests, which are even stronger," Gebrev said, noting that it appears to indicate Moscow was involved in some way.

The Bulgarian arms dealer also criticized local investigators in Bulgaria, noting that the case was reopened only after pressure exerted by Britain because of the possible link between the attacks in Sofia and Salisbury.

“When the state wants to investigate, then it can. And when it doesn't want to, well, here it is 2019, four years later, and only now are they trying to understand what happened," Gebrev said.

A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia
A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) anf his daughter Yulia

Skripal and his daughter also survived after weeks in critical condition. But Dawn Sturgess, a British national who authorities said came in contact with the poison after her boyfriend found a fake perfume bottle containing it, died in July 2018.

British authorities have charged that two Russian men, identified by Bellingcat as agents of Russia's GRU intelligence services, carried out the Salisbury attack.

However, they have not identified a third suspect. Bellingcat has acknowledged that it’s "unclear what [Sergeyev's] role may have been, if any, in the preparation and execution of the poisoning operation."

Moscow has denied involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals using the highly toxic nerve-agent Novichok, which led to a series of sanctions against Russia by the West and tit-for-tat diplomatic actions.

Two men who British police say traveled under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov and have ties to Russian military intelligence, have denied involvement. They say they are traveling vitamin salesmen who visited Salisbury to view its cathedral spire.

Nazarbaev Sacks Kazakh Government Over Low Living Standards, Economic Failures

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has dismissed the government, citing its failure to raise living standards and diversify the economy away from the energy sector.

"In many areas of the economy, despite the adoption of many laws and government decisions, positive changes have not been achieved," Nazarbaev said in a statement on the presidential website on February 21.

The long-ruling president cited the government's failure to raise real incomes for Kazakhs, to boost employment opportunities, or to improve living standards in a country that enjoys vast energy resources.

He also said small- and medium-sized businesses have not become a driving force for the Central Asian country's economic growth as had been hoped.

The move comes amid growing protests across the country about living conditions for Kazakhs that were sparked by the deaths of five children of a single family when their home in Astana burned down.

The tragedy occurred while both parents were working overnight shifts to make ends meet.

The decision to sack the government marks the end of 55-year-old Bakytzhan Sagintayev's premiership, which started in 2016.

An order on the presidential website said Deputy Prime Minister Askar Mamin, 53, had been appointed as acting prime minister until a new government can be formed.

Ahead of Nazarbaev's address, Mamin called in a statement for a "more aggressive and proactive" policy to help the country boost its exports.

Nazarbaev said he would propose "a number of measures to strengthen social welfare and people's quality of life" at a conference of his Nur Otan party on February 27, adding that "considerable funds" would be allocated to pay for the measures.

The 78-year-old president has been in power in energy-rich Kazakhstan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rights activists and critics say he has suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential political opponents.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Russia's Memorial Says Leader Of Anti-Landfill Protests Is Political Prisoner

Environmental activist Vyacheslav Yegorov

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center says the leader of anti-landfill protests in the city of Kolomna near the Russian capital is a political prisoner.

The group made the announcement in a statement posted on its website on February 21, saying that Vyacheslav Yegorov was being persecuted because of his sociopolitical positions.

Yegorov, 41, is an activist with the No Dump In Kolomna public group, which opposes the dumping of garbage from Moscow in landfills in the area of Kolomna, a historic city of some 140,000 people located about 120 kilometers southeast of the Russian capital.

Since February 2, Yegorov has been held under house arrest while facing a charge of repeatedly violating regulations on holding public gatherings and protests.

Russia's Criminal Code envisions criminal prosecution for at least three violations of the law on public gatherings in six months, a provision which Memorial said is illegal because it contradicts the constitution.

If convicted, Yegorov could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Vyacheslav Yegorov last year led several rallies protesting the environmental consequences of poorly managed landfills and household-waste disposal in Kolomna.

Similar rallies have been held in recent months in other Russian cities and towns.

The latest such rallies took place in 30 Russian regions on February 3.

Tajik Opposition Figure Arrested After Return From Self-Imposed Exile, Netherlands Confirms

Sharofiddin Gadoev, exiled businessman and co- leader of opposition Group-24, had said he would "never" return to Tajikistan.

The Netherlands' Foreign Ministry says Tajik authorities have confirmed that an opposition activist who resurfaced in Dushanbe last week from self-imposed exile was arrested, and that he is accused of "criminal activities."

"At this time the Dutch [Foreign Ministry] investigates whether and how it can assist [Sharofiddin] Gadoev. We are following the case closely," ministry spokeswoman Willemien Veldman said in a statement sent to RFE/RL on February 21.

A legal representative for Gadoev said earlier that authorities in the Netherlands, where the activist is said to have a residency permit, had launched an investigation into the situation after concerns were raised by Tajik opposition and rights activists about his fate.

Gadoev's mother told RFE/RL that her son had been "taken away at 8 p.m. on February 20" after spending one night at his family home, adding that she didn't know where he was.

Oishamoh Abdulloeva said Tajik authorities told her that Gadoev would be released soon. But she said she was "very concerned about" her son.

According to her, Gadoev arrived at his family home in the southern district of Farkhor on February 19, "along with several people" that Abdulloeva said she didn't know.

She said the men accompanying Gadoev stayed in her house and spent the night there, before taking him away the following evening.

Oishamoh Abdulloeva says she doesn't know where her son is. (file photo)
Oishamoh Abdulloeva says she doesn't know where her son is. (file photo)

Gadoev's sudden return to Dushanbe sparked conflicting information about whether Gadoev had willingly traveled to Tajikistan or was forcibly returned.

Viktoria Nadezhdina, a legal representative for Gadoev, said that the activist was detained by the authorities in Russia before he reappeared in Tajikistan's capital.

"According to an official response from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sharofiddin Gadoev was arrested in the Russian Federation based on two Interpol red notices," Nadezhdina told RFE/RL on February 20.

A "red notice" is a request through Interpol for the authorities in other countries to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.

Asked whether Gadoev was extradited to Tajikistan by Russia, Nadezhdina said the ministry's response did not include further "details."

Nadezhdina said authorities in the Netherlands, where Gadoev has a residency permit, have also launched an investigation into the situation after concerns were raised by Tajik opposition and rights activists about his sudden reappearance in Dushanbe.

Abdusattor Boboev, a member of the National Alliance of Tajikistan, says the Europe-based opposition association is concerned about Gadoev's fate.

"We are worried that the government could create all kinds of problems for Sharofiddin, including eliminating him physically," Boboev said on February 21.

Tajik authorities claim Gadoev, co-founder of the opposition Group-24, returned to Tajikistan voluntarily and surrendered to police at Dushanbe International Airport on February 15.

The same day, the Interior Ministry shared a video in which Gadoev said that he had returned "willingly." In that video, Gadoev also criticized the opposition and urged other activists to do the same.

However, on February 19 the National Alliance posted a contradictory video message from Gadoev that the group says was recorded ahead of his trip to Russia.

"I am recording this video [to warn] that if I suddenly appear on Tajik television or some YouTube channel, saying that I have returned of my own accord -- you must not believe it," he said in the undated footage.

"I am not planning to go to Tajikistan willingly. Never. I'm not going to Tajikistan and surrender to [President] Emomali Rahmon's government," he said.

But Gadoev said he might be kidnapped and forced "under torture and pressure" to publicly speak against "certain movements, groups, and persons."

He noted that some other Tajik opposition figures had been killed, kidnapped, or disappeared during visits to Russia and that he might face a similar fate.

"I'm travelling to Russia on the 14th to meet with officials from the Security Council of Russia...to discuss some problems that have occurred in Tajikistan, also to discuss the situation of Tajik labor migrants," Gadoev said in the video.

Gadoev's return to Tajikistan raised suspicions among opposition activists and others, while his mother said she was unaware of her son's plans to return to his home in the southern district of Farkhor.

Pro-government media and some Facebook accounts posted photos of Gadoev meeting his mother and relatives at his home.

Others shared a video that shows Gadoev calling his mother from a mobile phone while a man in a Tajik police uniform and the Dushanbe correspondent of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency look on.

The government of President Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has long been criticized for its crackdowns on dissent.

Tajikistan banned its longtime political rival, the Islamic Renaissance Party, in 2015 and has imprisoned dozens of opposition party officials and supporters.

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 12-Year Prison Term For Woman In 'Krasnodar Cannibals' Case

Natalya Baksheyeva (left) is accused of urging her husband, Dmitry Baksheyev, to kill a woman.

KRASNODAR, Russia -- A prosecutor has asked a court in southern Russia to sentence a woman to 12 years in prison in a case which came to be known as the "Krasnodar cannibals."

Natalya Baksheyeva, 43, was found guilty on February 5 of incitement to murder and dismemberment of a person.

She was accused of urging her husband, 36-year-old Dmitry Baksheyev, to kill a woman after an argument at the couple's home in September 2017.

During the investigation, police found pickled body parts in the home Baksheyeva shared with her husband. Forensic tests later revealed that pieces of flesh found in jars of brine in the couple's home were parts of the victim's body.

The couple was arrested in 2017, after authorities said they received a call from people who found a phone that Baksheyev had lost and which contained selfies showing him posing with human body parts.

Baksheyeva went on trial in October.

Baksheyev was also arrested but is being treated for tuberculosis and is to be tried separately.

U.S. Embassy Demands Access To Detained American Investor In Russia

Michael Calvey appears in court in Moscow on February 15.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow is demanding that Russia give U.S. diplomats immediate access to American investment-fund manager Michael Calvey, who was formally charged with financial fraud and is being held in a Russian pretrial detention center.

Calvey's lawyer, Dmitry Kletochkin, confirmed on February 21 that Calvey was formally charged by the Russian authorities, adding that his client maintained his innocence and had refused to answer interrogator's questions.

"My client chose not to answer questions. The charge is pretty vague and not concrete. That is why he will start answering questions [by interrogators] only after outlining defense position with his lawyers," Kletochkin said.

Calvey, a U.S. citizen who founded the Baring Vostok private-equity fund in 1994, is one of the most prominent foreign investors in Russia.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said on February 21 that it "has not received permission from Russian authorities to visit" Calvey since his arrest on September 14.

"Russia's obligations under the Bilateral Consular Convention require them to provide consular access within four days," the U.S. Embassy statement said.

"We have requested this access multiple times. The Russian Federation's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet complied with the terms of our Bilateral Consular Convention and has not allowed us to provide consular assistance. We have expressed our strong concern about this delay through diplomatic channels."

Calvey's February 14 arrest on accusations of large-scale fraud in Russia sent shock waves through Western business circles.

The 51-year-old Calvey was detained in Moscow along with three other Baring Vostok employees, including French citizen Philippe Delpal, and two other suspects. All six have since been ordered held in pretrial detention.

According to Kletochkin, all other persons arrested in the case were also formally charged with large financial fraud on February 21. All of them maintain their innocence, he said.

Russia's Association of Professional Investors issued a statement on February 21, calling on the authorities to choose a pretrial restriction other than arrest for Calvey and other suspects in the case.

And Russia's sovereign wealth fund on February 21 said that its head, Kirill Dmitriev, had appealed to a Moscow court and the Investigative Committee to move Calvey, Delpal, and two Russian suspects in the case to house arrest.

Media reports in Russia said on February 21 that business ombudsman Boris Titov had sent a request to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika urging him to assess the legality of Calvey's arrest.

If convicted Calvey could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address on February 20 that "honest businesses" should not live in fear of prosecution. It was not immediately clear whether he was referring to Calvey's case.

Baring Vostok is one of the largest private-equity firms in the former Soviet Union, according to its website. It manages more than $3.7 billion in assets, is particularly active in the technology sector, and owns a stake in the Yandex search engine.

Before founding Baring Vostok, Calvey worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the investment bank Salomon Brothers. He is a member of the board of directors of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

Amid severely strained ties between Moscow and Washington, Calvey is the second U.S. citizen to be arrested in a high-profile case in Russia in as many months.

Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine who says he is innocent and was in Moscow for a friend's wedding, was detained in late December on an espionage charge and is in pretrial detention.

Russian officials have denied that the country’s troubled relations with the United States influenced the arrests.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Turkmen, Afghan Presidents Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (left) shakes hands with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a previous meeting in June 2016.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have signed an agreement on a strategic partnership between their countries.

Turkmenistan's State Information Agency said the two leaders signed the document in Ashgabat on February 21 after discussing bilateral trade, energy, and cultural ties.

Berdymukhammedov reportedly said Turkmenistan was ready to try to help bring Taliban negotiators together with Afghan officials for peace talks.

Among other issues they discussed was the ongoing construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline.

Agreements also were signed in a bid to boost cooperation in the energy and transports sectors -- including an accord on customs cooperation and construction of a railroad connecting Turkmenistan with Tajikistan via Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by TDH, Pajhwok, and Khaama Press

Flash Floods, Heavy Rains Kill 26 In Pakistan

Flash floods and heavy winter rains have killed at least 26 people in Pakistan's southwest and central regions, officials said on February 21.

The National Disaster Management Authority said 14 people were killed and 200 families were affected by flash floods that submerged villages near the southwestern town of Lasbella.

Multan
Multan



In central Pakistan, nine people were killed in three separate incidents of roofs collapsing during heavy rains, four of them in the city of Multan.

Emergency teams are working to rescue people from flooded parts of Lasbella in Baluchistan Province, said Imran Zarqoon, a spokesman for the provincial disaster authority.

Heavy seasonal rains often cause landslides and flash floods in Pakistan.

Based on reporting by AP and Dawn.com

Pashinian Calls On Armenians To Mark 11th Anniversary Of Deadly Protests

Eight protesters and two police officers were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters on March 1-2, 2008.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has called on all Armenians to mark the 11th anniversary of the deadly repression of the 2008 postelection protests with "a powerful civil march" in Yerevan.

Pashinian said in his live video statement on Facebook on February 21 that the March 1 event will be held in downtown Yerevan and will be dedicated to "the victory of the Armenian Citizen."



"The march will be against violence, electoral fraud, corruption, lawlessness, and will prove that the victory of the Armenian citizen is irreversible.... We will honor the 10 people killed on March 1, 2008, as well as all the victims of political violence," Pashinian said.

The march is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. local time, Pashinian said.

On March 1-2, 2008, the Armenian government used force against opposition protesters who were challenging the official results of a presidential poll officially won by Serzh Sarkisian, a close ally of the outgoing president, Robert Kocharian.

Eight protesters and two police officers were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters.

Pashinian became prime minister last year following peaceful protests that he spearheaded, ousting Sarkisian and severely weakening the establishment that had been in place in the South Caucasus nation since Kocharian's rule.

Kocharian is currently under arrest. He was charged with illegally ordering security forces to use force against opposition supporters in 2008.

He denies any wrongdoing.

EU States Begin Selection Process For New European Prosecutor

Former Romanian corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Koevesi arrives for a hearing by prosecutors probing her for official misconduct and bribery in Bucharest on February 15.

In a first move to choose the head of a future European public prosecutor's office for financial crimes, ambassadors of 22 EU states have held a secret ballot that was reportedly won by French candidate Jean-Francois Bohnert, followed by former Romanian anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Koevesi, and Germany's Andres Ritter.

The ballots cast by the 22 countries that chose to join the upcoming anticorruption structure was secret, but according to diplomats speaking to Politico.eu under the condition of anonymity, Bohnert got 50 points, while Koevesi and Ritter got 29 points each.

The vote was an "indicative" one, according to the diplomats, and marked the beginning of a complicated process of selection. The candidates were chosen based on an initial February 14 recommendation by a selection panel, which placed Koevesi as the front-runner due to “outstanding achievements both as a leader and as a manager” of Romania's National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA).

Koevesi was dismissed by the government last year in what critics say was a move to prevent the DNA from convicting senior members of the governing alliance.

Koevesi has been widely praised by the EU for her results in fighting graft in one of the bloc's most corrupt countries.

The February 20 vote could be followed by other "indicative" votes before negotiations will start in several EU committees ahead of a final vote in the European Parliament.

The move came amid an escalating dispute between the European Union and Romania, with the bloc asking Bucharest for clarification after the government imposed measures that critics say will exert more political control over the judiciary.

Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, needs to "very urgently put the reform process back on track" and abstain "from steps which reverse progress" in fighting corruption, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on February 20.

The bloc was "following with great concern the latest developments concerning the rule of law in Romania," Schinas added.

Written by Eugen Tomiuc, with reporting by Politico.eu, G4media.ro, and Digi24live.ro

Trump Bars U.S.-Born Woman Who Joined IS From Returning

An undated photograph obtained on February 20 from attorney Hassan Shibly shows Hoda Muthana.

The United States says it will not allow a U.S.-born woman who joined the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria to return to the United States because she is not a citizen, an assertion her lawyer disputes.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on February 20 said the woman, Hoda Muthana, now in a refugee camp in Syria with her toddler son, has no legal claim to U.S. citizenship.

"She does not have any legal basis, no valid U.S. passport, no right to a passport nor any visa to travel to the United States," he said, without explaining why it was determined the 24-year-old woman did not have citizenship.

President Donald Trump said he gave orders not to allow the New Jersey-born woman to return to the United States.

"I have instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he fully agrees, not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!" Trump tweeted.

Her lawyer, Hassan Shibly, insisted the woman was born in the United States, had been living in Alabama, and had a valid U.S. passport before she joined IS in 2014. He claimed she had renounced the terrorist group and wanted to come home to protect her son regardless of the legal consequences.

Muthana's father was a Yemeni diplomat -- and children of diplomats are not automatically granted citizenship. Shibly said, however, that her father had stopped being a diplomat "months and months" before her birth.

"She's an American. Americans break the law," Shibly said. "When people break the law, we have a legal system to handle those kinds of situations to hold people accountable, and that's all she's asking for."

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

North Macedonia Arrests Ex-Speaker, Two Others For 2017 Parliament Invasion

Zoran Zaev (center) was injured in the 2017 invasion of the parliament in Skopje.

SKOPJE -- Police in North Macedonia have arrested the former parliament speaker and two ex-ministers in the previous government, alleging they played roles in a violent invasion of the legislature in 2017.

Prosecutors on February 20 said the alleged acts constituted a "terrorist conspiracy to undermine constitutional order and security."

Arrested were former speaker Trajko Veljanovski, former Education Minister Spiro Ristovski, and ex-Transport Mile Janakieski, who are suspected of helping organize the invasion of the main parliament chamber by supporters of the former nationalist government on April 27, 2017.

A court in Skopje ordered the two former ministers held in pretrial custody for 30 days after questioning them until after midnight on February 21. Their lawyers said they will appeal the decision.

Veljanovski, who is a current lawmaker, cited his parliamentary immunity and was released.

He denied the accusations in brief comments to reporters after his release.

The invasion of the parliament, which included masked men, resulted in dozens of journalists and lawmakers being injured, including then-opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister.

Nationalists expressed anger over demands made by ethnic Albanian parties that were negotiating to form a government with the Social Democrats, including making Albanian a second state language.

A statement by prosecutors alleged that Veljanovski, Ristovski, and Janakieski prepared and implemented a plan at the beginning of 2017 with the intention of preventing the peaceful transfer of power.

"For that purpose, they organized and financially supported the mass protests, first before the State Election Commission, and then the protests of the 'For Macedonia' movement that culminated in the violent entry" into the parliament building, the statement said.

At least 33 people were originally charged in the matter, but after a government amnesty, the number subject to trial was reduced to 15 people.

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is reportedly under investigation in the case. He was sentenced to prison for corruption but has fled the country and has been granted political asylum in Hungary.

Gruevski’s nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party had been in power from 2006 until June 2017. Gruevski served as prime minister from 2006 to 2016.

With reporting by dpa, AP, and IBNA

Serbian Prime Minister's Gay Partner Gives Birth To Baby Boy

Ana Brnabic is Serbia's first woman prime minister and openly gay leader.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic's partner has given birth to a baby boy, her office reports, in a country that still does not recognize same-sex marriages.

"Ana Brnabic is one of the first prime ministers whose partner has given birth while in office...and the first in the world in a same-sex couple," her office said on February 20.

The statement said the mother, Milica Djurdjic, and the baby, named Igor, are "doing fine."

The brief statement did not give further details of the birth.

Serbian lawmakers elected Brnabic as prime minister in June 2017, making history by choosing both the conservative Balkan state's first female prime minister and its first openly gay leader.

Gay marriages are not legal in Serbia, but some reports say lawmakers could soon introduce same-sex partnership in part of efforts designed to bring the country closer to European Union membership.

Brnabic herself has often declined to comment publicly on whether she would like to see same-sex marriage being legalized in Serbia.

The U.S.- and British-educated Brnabic, 43, is an ally of Serbia's populist president, Aleksandar Vucic.

Based on reporting by the BBC, AP, and AFP

French Businesswoman Has Been In Iranian Custody Since October, Paris Confirms

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian

A French citizen has been in Iranian custody since October, France’s foreign minister has confirmed.

Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers on February 20 that Nelly Erin-Cambervelle, a 59-year-old businesswoman from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, was arrested on the Iranian island of Kish on October 21 for allegedly “signing an illegal mining contract and carrying out an unauthorized trip."

Her arrest had not been confirmed by French authorities until now.

Details over the arrest first appeared in local Martinique media last week after a friend and colleague of Erin-Cambervelle was quoted as saying that she had been arrested for illegally buying gold after originally going to Kish to negotiate a minerals contract.

The friend, Patricia Gros-Desirs Dicanot, said that the Iranian authorities were demanding 40,000 euros ($45,392) for her release.

Relations between Paris and Tehran have been strained over the past months despite the two sides committing to upholding the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers -- which the United States exited in May last year.

Paris suspended nominating a new ambassador to Iran after accusing Iran’s Intelligence Ministry of being behind an alleged plot to bomb a rally of an exiled opposition group in June.

Tehran has rejected the accusation.

Le Drian said that French consular services had met Erin-Cambervelle several times and were “very concerned about her situation."

The minister also said that she "did not complain about the custodial conditions and appeared to be in good physical and moral health."

"We are in touch with the family and with the Iranian authorities to ensure that Mrs. Erin[-Cambervelle]'s situation improves, while respecting Iranian procedures," he said.

Le Drian declined to give any further details on the case, saying Erin-Cambervelle’s family did not wish it to be publicized.

Iranian authorities have not publicly commented on the case.

With reporting by Reuters and Le Monde

Poroshenko Wants UN To Move Ahead With Peacekeeping Mission In Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on February 20.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called on the UN secretary-general to draw up options for a peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine, saying such a mission could be a "decisive factor" in ending the conflict there.

Poroshenko told the UN General Assembly on February 20 that Ukraine is ready to discuss a multinational, UN-mandated peacekeeping operation with "a clear objective to end the Russian aggression and restore Ukraine's sovereignty."

Russia, which illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014, supports armed separatists who control parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where more than 10,300 have died since the conflict with Ukrainian government forces erupted in April 2014.

Fighting persists despite cease-fire deals reached as part of the September 2014 and February 2015 Minsk accords.

Ukraine has been pressing for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine as long as they are placed along the border with Russia to monitor and ensure Russian troops and weapons do not come over the border to aid the separatists.

Russia has said it would support a limited UN peacekeeping mission to protect observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who are on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

In his address to the General Assembly in New York, Poroshenko said that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should send a fact-finding mission for a peacekeeping mission to eastern Ukraine in order to outline "elaborate respective options" that could be discussed.

The Ukrainian president, who is running for a second five-year term in the March 31 presidential election, accused Russia of conducting an "undeclared war."

He also called for Moscow to be deprived of its veto power in the UN Security Council on issues related to the “Russian aggression against Ukraine."

Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya later told the assembly that Poroshenko was "the president of war, a war which continues to this day."

"Today, this General Assembly hall has become nothing other for him than an election campaigning rostrum," Nebenzya also said.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Kabul Rebukes Pakistan Envoy Over Remark About Peace Talks

The wreckage of a bus after an attack that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers on February 14

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry has summoned the Pakistani ambassador to Kabul over his remark that Afghan peace talks could be affected if India resorted to violence against Pakistan in response to last week's deadly suicide attack on Indian troops in disputed Kashmir.

After the February 20 meeting with Ambassador Zahid Nasrullah, the ministry said in a statement that it deemed his comment to be "in contradiction with Pakistan's commitments with regards to realizing peace in Afghanistan."

Amid rising tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi, Nasrullah said on February 19 that any attack by India would "affect the stability of the entire region and impact the momentum" of the Afghan peace effort.

India has blamed Pakistan for the February 14 attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers and warned its neighbor of a "jaw-breaking response."

Islamabad has denied any involvement and vowed to retaliate if it comes under attack.

The attack on Indian troops was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM) militant group.

India has long accused Pakistan of supporting militants in Muslim-majority Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between the two nuclear archrivals but claimed in full by both.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry said the Kabul government "once again calls on Pakistan to act upon its commitments with regards to Afghanistan, particularly those in relation to peace and refrain from making irrelevant statements that do not help solve any problem."

Afghanistan “has always wanted a reduction in any tension in the region, and the differences to be resolved through dialogue and peaceful means,” the statement also said.

The Afghan Taliban has held a series of direct talks with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in recent months to put an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

As an important player in the region and an Afghan neighbor, Pakistan is seen as potentially having a key role in any settlement.

During his news conference in Kabul on February 19, Nasrullah said that Islamabad wants a "peaceful, stable, prosperous, sovereign Afghanistan."

"We have always said that we have influence -- but limited influence -- on the Taliban, and we would use that to the best effect. We are working sincerely on that," the Pakistani ambassador added.

With reporting by Reuters and TOLOnews

Afghan Loya Jirga To Convene Next Month To Discuss Peace Talks

Omar Daudzai

KABUL -- Afghan politicians and tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders are set to meet for at least four days next month to discuss negotiations with the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani's special peace envoy has said.

Omar Daudzai said on February 20 that the gathering, known as a Loya Jirga, will be held from March 17-20, adding: “If the discussions continue, it will be extended.”

Daudzai said that the consultative Loya Jirga will discuss the government's "values and red lines" and will aim to come up with a framework for the Western-backed government in Kabul to engage in peace negotiations with the militant group.

The Taliban, which now reportedly controls nearly half of Afghanistan, has so far refused to hold direct negotiations with the Afghan government, calling it a Western puppet.

However, it has held a series of direct talks with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in recent months to put an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Speaking at an event organized by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kabul, Daudzai said that most Afghan politicians want these talks to lay the groundwork for direct negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul.

AIHRC head Sima Samer warned that using human rights as a bargaining chip in the talks with the Taliban would undermine any peace agreement.

U.S. Ambassador John Bass emphasized that the final goal of the talks was "peace and dignity" for the people of Afghanistan.

Khalilzad is scheduled to meet Taliban negotiators for talks in Qatar on February 25.

During their previous round of talks in Doha, the Qatari capital, U.S. and Taliban negotiators reached the basic framework of a possible peace deal.

The agreement calls for the Taliban to prevent international terrorist groups from basing themselves in Afghanistan and for the United States to withdraw its forces from the country.

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since an October 2001 invasion that brought down the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for launching the September 11, 2001, in the United States.

Taliban leaders, who took control in 1996, imposed a harsh form of Islamic law that denied education and work to women and girls as they cracked down on other social activities.

With reporting by AP

EU Warns Romanian Government Against Gutting Anticorruption Legislation

Romanian Public Prosecutor Augustin Lazar

BUCHAREST -- The European Union has asked Romania's government for clarification after Bucharest effected measures that critics say will exert more political control over the judiciary.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on February 20 that the commission, the EU's executive, was "following with great concern the latest developments concerning the rule of law in Romania."

Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, needs to "very urgently put the reform process back on track" and abstain "from steps which reverse progress" in fighting corruption, he told journalists in Brussels.

The Romanian government adopted emergency legislation on February 19 including a provision limiting the period of time that top prosecuting agencies can be run by acting managers. It also removes the prosecutor general's oversight of a unit tasked with investigating magistrates.

That eliminates the power of the prosecutor -- Augustin Lazar -- to dismiss an investigation by the unit into crimes allegedly committed by former chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Koevesi.

President Klaus Iohannis, an opponent of the leftist government, said the government wants to render the justice system inefficient "for personal interests."

Laura Koevesi
Laura Koevesi

The government was "obsessed about weakening the justice system until it is longer effective," Iohannis wrote on his Facebook account late on February 19.

Romania should not be allowed to be run by people "who want to place justice under political control," he added.

Koevesi was dismissed by the government last year in what critics say was a move to prevent her anticorruption agency, the DNA, from convicting senior members of the governing alliance.

Koevesi, who has been widely praised by the EU for her results in fighting graft in one of the bloc's most corrupt countries, has emerged as a front-runner for the newly established position of EU anticorruption prosecutor.

The controversial unit tasked with investigating Romanian magistrates, which was established by the government in November in what observers say was a move to intimidate the judiciary, has opened a probe into alleged bribe-taking by Koevesi.

The emergency legislation now prevents Lazar from killing the investigation, which has been widely criticized as an attempt to smear Koevesi and prevent her from getting the EU job.

In a related development, Romanian media on February 20 published a document showing that the same investigative unit earlier this month opened a probe into accusations filed in January by a local online publication against Lazar, the European Commission's First Vice President Frans Timmermans, and other senior EU officials for "falsifying” a commission report on Romania's lack of progress on judicial reform.

With reporting by G4media.ro, AP, AFP, dpa, and luju.ro

Microsoft Says Russia-Linked Hacking Group Targeted European Think Tanks, NGOs

Software giant Microsoft says it has uncovered a series of cyberattacks by hackers linked to Russia targeting democratic institutions, think tanks and nonprofit organizations in Europe, highlighting concerns of possible interference in European Union elections in May.

The attacks occurred between September and December, targeting employees of the German Council on Foreign Relations and European offices of The Aspen Institute and The German Marshall Fund, the company said in a blog post.

Microsoft said the activity targeted more than 100 employee accounts in Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Serbia. The attacks were discovered through Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Center and Digital Crimes Unit, the company said.

Many of the attacks originated from Strontium, one of the world's oldest cyberespionage groups, which has been previously associated with the Russian government.

Strontium has also been called APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofancy, and Pawn Storm by a range of security firms and government officials.

Security firm CrowdStrike has said the group may be associated with the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU.

Microsoft's cybersecurity service AccountGuard will be expanded to 12 new markets in Europe including Germany, France, and Spain, to help customers secure their accounts, the company said.

The AccountGuard service will also be available in Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, and Slovakia.

The announcement comes as EU officials are bracing for attempted meddling ahead of the bloc’s elections in May, when far-right parties appear set to make gains.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and bloomberg.com

'Electric Shocks, Suffocation': Jehovah's Witnesses Say Russian Police Tortured Church Members

Jehovah's Witnesses have been labeled as "extremist" in Russia and the Supreme Court has banned the denomination. (file photo)

Jehovah’s Witnesses, a U.S.-based religious denomination that Russia has branded extremist and banned, says that police in Russia's Khanty-Mansi region have tortured several members of the congregation.

In a February 19 statement, the religious group said that at least seven of its adherents were "subjected to torture -- electric shocks, suffocation, and cruel beatings" by the Investigative Committee's officers in the city of Surgut, in northwestern Siberia, after they were detained on February 15 on extremism charges.

The statement says that those detained refused to answer police questions about other members of the congregation and after the only legal representative left the interrogation room, the officers "tied the victims’ hands behind their backs, beat them, poured water on their naked bodies, and subjected them to electric shocks."

"The torture lasted for several hours," the statement said.

According to the statement, 19 members of the congregation were charged with the alleged organization of extremist activities and at least three of them remain behind bars.

The released members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses turned to medical institutions to document bodily harm sustained during torture, the statement says, adding that the group will seek justice in court.

The Investigative Committee rejected the Jehovah's Witnesses' statement.

Homes Raided

A committee spokesman in the Khanty-Mansi region, Oleg Menshikh, told the TASS news agency on February 20 that no law was violated during the interrogations.

"Nobody tortured them. There was no physical or psychological pressure on them," TASS quoted Menshikh as saying.

Police have started raiding the homes of Jehovah's Witnesses in that region and in the region of Mordovia on February 7, a day after a Russian court convicted Dennis Christensen, a Danish member of the religious group, on an extremism charge and sentenced him to six years in prison in the western city of Oryol.

Human rights organizations, the European Union, and United States officials have condemned Christensen’s conviction and called on Russia to respect freedom of religion.

Christensen was arrested in Oryol in May 2017, a month after Russia's Supreme Court labeled the religious group an extremist organization and banned it.

He was the first Jehovah’s Witness to be detained in Russia following the ban.

Since then, dozens of other members of the group in different Russian regions have been detained and face similar extremism charges.

With reporting by TASS

Avalanche Kills Belgian Tourist In Kyrgyzstan

A Belgian woman has been killed by an avalanche in Kyrgyzstan's northern Issyk-Kul region, local authorities said on February 20.

According to the authorities, 34-year-old Klartje Cuyckens died near Boz-Uchuk Gorge on February 19.

The woman was killed by the avalanche while skiing down a slope with her brother.

Boz-Uchuk Gorge
Boz-Uchuk Gorge

They had arrived in the regional capital, Karakol, on February 16 as tourists and traveled to mountains, where they set up a tent campHer body was recovered and is currently in a local morgue, local police said.

Her brother escaped unharmed.

Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and in the spring.

Based on reporting by KyrTAG, AKIPress, and Kaktus

EU Extends Belarus Arms Embargo

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) meets with EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn in Minsk last year.

BRUSSELS -- EU ambassadors on February 20 extended for another year an arms embargo against Belarus and sanctions on four Belarusian citizens.

The embargo, which has been extended annually since its introduction in 2011, does not provide for any new exemptions.

During the rollover process in the last two years, Hungary managed to exempt biathlon rifles and other arms used in sports.

This year, Hungary initially wanted to link the extension of the embargo with the swift adoption of the Belarus Partnership Priorities, an EU document outlining the bloc's future relationship with Minsk in areas such as people-to-people contacts, environmental issues, economic cooperation, and human rights that has been under negotiation for two years.

The Partnership Priorities document was close to being signed in 2018, but Lithuania insisted on including several safeguards regarding the Astravyets nuclear power plant that is being built with Russian assistance in Belarus just 50 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

Under pressure from the other 27 EU member states earlier in February, Budapest backed down on the demand to formally link the two issues, but there was an agreement that Belarus would host what sources call "a high-level event" within the framework of the Eastern Partnership in October.

The four people who are on the visa-ban and asset-freeze list are considered to have played key roles in the unresolved disappearances of four Belarusians in 1999-2000.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak

Rohani Says Iran-U.S. Tensions At 'A Maximum'

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (file photo)

Tensions between Tehran and Washington are at "a maximum" rarely seen in the decades-long antagonistic relations between the two countries, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on February 20.

Animosity between the United States and Tehran -- bitter foes since Iran’s 1979 revolution -- has escalated since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in May from a landmark 2015 international nuclear agreement with Tehran and reimposed sanctions lifted under the deal.

Trump said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran's development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.

"The struggle between Iran and America is currently at a maximum. America has employed all its power against us," state broadcaster IRIB quoted Rohani as saying during a cabinet meeting.

The Iranian president asserted that U.S. economic sanctions amounted to "economic terrorism," arguing that "when...they threaten companies with punitive measures for doing business with a country, they’re in fact creating fear in the banking and commercial sector.”

Rohani also said that a conference on the Middle East focusing on Iran organized by the United States in the Polish capital Warsaw last week did not achieve its goals.

Senior officials from 60 nations gathered at the conference, where U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called on Washington's European allies to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, saying that Iran was the "greatest threat to peace and security" in the Middle East.

However, foreign ministers from major European powers still committed to the 2015 nuclear deal did not attend the Warsaw conference, and neither did Russia and China, who are also signatories of the agreement under which Tehran pledged to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Rohani claimed that attendance at the conference reflected "another failure of...U.S. regional policies."

With reporting by Reuters, IRNA, and AFP

Ruling Due For American Held On Russian Spy Charge

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan at a court hearing in Moscow last month

A court in Moscow is expected to decide on the extension of pretrial detention for a former U.S. Marine being held in Russia on an espionage charge.

Paul Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said on February 20 that investigators want his client's pretrial detention prolonged until May 28.

Zherebenkov said the Lefortovo District Court will look into the investigators' request on February 22. Whelan's current pretrial arrest term expires on February 28.

Court spokeswoman Ksenia Petrovlasenko confirmed Zherebenkov's information, saying that the hearing will be held behind closed doors as the case is classified.

Whelan, who holds U.S., Irish, Canadian, and British citizenship, was arrested on December 28 in Moscow and charged with spying.

The charge carries a potential sentence of 20 years if convicted. His family has said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Russian officials have not released details of the allegations against him.

Whelan was working as a global security director for a U.S. auto-parts manufacturer at the time of his arrest.

Zherebenkov has said that his client is innocent and suggested earlier that Russian officials might consider exchanging him for Maria Butina, a Russian woman who pleaded guilty in December to U.S. charges of acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

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