As Accusations Of Russian War Crimes Mount, Mariupol Defenders Struggle To Hold Off Invasion
Amid growing accusations of war crimes, Ukrainian forces and residents of Mariupol have continued what the government called their "heroic" resistance to a brutal Russian attack as the Ukrainian president restated his call for peace talks even as he took a defiant stand against the Kremlin's surrender ultimatums.
As Mariupol's Ukrainian defenders battled to stave off the deadly onslaught on March 21, Russian forces intensified and broadened their attacks elsewhere, including on the capital, Kyiv, where an air strike on a shopping mall and nearby apartment building killed at least eight people.
Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remained defiant as Kyiv rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender Mariupol, saying Ukraine could never give up the strategic port or other cities, including Kharkiv and the capital.
In comments to local media on March 21, Zelenskiy accused Moscow of trying to "destroy" his country. "Ukraine cannot fulfill Russian ultimatums," he said. "We should be destroyed first, then their ultimatum would be fulfilled."
He said the Russians wanted Ukraine to "hand over" the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol but that neither the Ukrainian people "nor me, as president, can do this."
In an interview with news site Suspilne on March 21, Zelenskiy restated his insistence on the need to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin "in any format" to end the fighting.
"I believe that without this meeting, it is impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war," said Zelenskiy, who added that any compromises made in talks with Russians would be put before the Ukrainian people in a referendum.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 21 that "significant progress" in the peace talks between negotiators is needed before a meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy would be a possibility.
Russia has for the past two weeks attempted to encircle Mariupol, an important port on the Sea of Azov. It is seeking to take control of the city, allowing it to link Crimea -- which it seized in 2014 -- with territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At least 2,300 people have died in Mariupol, some buried in mass graves, authorities have said.
On March 20, an attack destroyed an art school sheltering some 400 people in the city. There was no immediate report on casualties, but authorities fear many people could still be under the rubble.
WATCH: Russian troops occupying the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson fired live rounds and stun grenades at peaceful protesters. Amateur video showed at least one person being wounded.
That attack came after Russian air strikes on March 16 flattened a theater in Mariupol where civilians were also sheltering. City authorities said 130 people were rescued but many more could remain under the debris.
In addition, Russian forces have been accused of bombing a maternity hospital in the city, where an estimated 90 percent of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
The U.S. military on March 21 accused Russian forces of committing war crimes in their bloody invasion of Ukraine.
"We certainly see clear evidence that Russian forces are committing war crimes and we are helping with the collecting of evidence of that," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing.
Earlier, Josep Borrell, the European Union's top diplomat, said that "what's happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody."
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov hailed Mariupol's "heroic defenders" after authorities rejected an ultimatum by Russia to give up the besieged city as of 5 a.m., saying there was “no question of any surrender.”
Reznikov said their resistance was slowing the progress of Russia's military and disrupting attempts to subjugate other Ukrainian cities.
"By virtue of their dedication and superhuman courage, tens of thousands of lives throughout Ukraine were saved. Today, Mariupol is saving Kyiv, Dnipro, and Odesa," he said.
Residents of Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the war broke out, have for the past two weeks been trapped without basic supplies, such as water, food, and fuel.
In Kyiv, air strikes hit the Retroville shopping mall in the northwest outskirts of the capital late on March 20, killing at least eight people. The mall, surrounded by several high-rise apartment buildings in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv, was still smoldering on the morning of March 21.
RFE/RL correspondents saw devastating scenes in the area, with workers attempting rescue efforts as ambulances, police, and firefighters converged on the area.
One man, who said he lives about a kilometer away, told RFE/RL: “I have never felt the earth shake like that. It was a powerful explosion."
“They are killing my city. They are killing the place where I live,” he added.
Hours after the attack, Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian capital's mayor, announced a new 35-hour curfew to come into force at 8 p.m. on March 21.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance and the West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces.
Poland and the Baltics are pushing for tougher sanctions, including an EU ban on Russian oil and gas imports. However, Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas, and some other EU member states are resisting.
WATCH: People in Kyiv voiced shock after a massive Russian air strike destroyed a shopping mall and also hit residential buildings. At least eight people were reported to have been killed.
Peskov said Europe would be hit hard in the event of an embargo on Russian oil, striking the continent's energy balance.
The Russian military claimed that it had for the first time in combat used its state-of-the-art hypersonic missile to hit particularly important targets in Ukraine, a move widely condemned in the West.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on March 21 that the Kinzhal hypersonic missile “has proven its efficiency in destroying heavily fortified special facilities.”
Russia has denied targeting civilians, despite incontrovertible evidence of deadly attacks on nonmilitary sites.
Observers have speculated that Russian military momentum has been stopped by Ukrainian forces in many parts of the country and that the sides could be heading for a long, protracted stalemate in the war.
Filippo Grandi, head of the UN's refugee agency said on March 20 that at least 10 million of Ukraine's population of 44 million people have fled their homes.
About 3.4 million have fled across Ukraine's borders to neighboring countries, with the bulk of them arriving in NATO and European Union member Poland.
With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, BBC, and Reuters
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Thousands Protest In North Macedonia Against Compromise With Bulgaria
SKOPJE -- Tens of thousands of people gathered in North Macedonia’s capital to protest against a French proposal that seeks to end a dispute with Bulgaria that is blocking Skopje’s bid to join the European Union.
The July 2 rally, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise agreement was near over the long-standing dispute.
North Macedonia's prime minister, Dimitar Kovachevsk, said the proposal is a “solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country.”
However, VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in a dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.
Macron did not provide details when he made the comment on June 30 at a news conference at the close of the NATO summit in Spain.
EU officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the proposal takes into account concerns expressed by both sides, potentially breaking a deadlock that has prevented the start of accession talks for more than two years.
Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the deadlock in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.
Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping their opposition, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership.
Bulgaria, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was hate speech against Bulgaria.
North Macedonia said that its identity and language weren’t open for discussion.
The French proposal would have Skopje include ethnic Bulgarians in its constitution "on an equal footing with other peoples" and change history textbooks.
Bulgaria claims the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian, and both countries lay claim to certain historical events and figures, mainly from the Ottoman era.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Famed Soviet Animator Leonid Shvartsman Dies At Age 101
Famed Soviet and Russian animator Leonid Shvartsman has died at age 101, Russia’s TASS news agency reports on July 2.
"Leonid Aronovich Shvartsman, a legend of animated cinema, a unique artist and director who gave millions of people kind, cheerful fairy tales, colorful book illustrations, has passed away," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said in a statement on Telegram.
Born in Minsk, Shvartsman began working with Soyuzmultfilm in Moscow in 1951 and remained there his entire career, being credited with work on 70 films at the studio.
He is credited with creating the visual image of Cheburashka, a popular fictional character created by Soviet writer Eduard Uspensky in a 1965 children's book.
Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax
Russia Reports Fatal Blasts In Belgorod As Fighting Rages In Ukraine's Luhansk Region
The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv, has said that at least three people were killed and numerous buildings damaged overnight in the regional capital in what a senior Russian lawmaker called “a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine.”
In a post on Telegram on July 3, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported numerous explosions in Belgorod, a city of some 400,000 people about 40 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine. He said at least 11 apartment buildings and 39 detached houses were damaged or destroyed in the overnight incident.
At least four people, including a 10-year-old child, were injured, Gladkov claimed.
Russian Federation Council lawmaker Andrei Klishas blamed Ukraine for the purported incident.
“The death of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Belgorod are a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine and require the most severe -- including a military -- response,” Klishas wrote on Telegram.
The claims of the Russian officials could not be independently verified, and Ukraine made no immediate response. Videos posted on social media purported to show explosions and fires in the city.
The same day, the governor of Russia’s neighboring Kursk region, which also borders Ukraine, wrote on Telegram that “our air defenses shot down two Ukrainian Strizh drones” during the night, adding that there were no casualties in the incident. Unverifiable video posted on social media purported to show a large plume of smoke near the city of Kursk.
The claims of the Russian officials could not be independently verified, and Ukraine made no immediate response. There have been numerous reported incidents of fires and explosions in Belgorod and other regions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for any of them.
The report from Belgorod comes as the Russian military has stepped up missile attacks across Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and millions displaced since the war began, although Russian officials have denied targeting civilians.
Intense fighting continued on July 3 in parts of eastern Ukraine, particularly in and around the city of Lysychansk, one of the last population centers in Ukraine’s Luhansk region that is not fully controlled by Russia or its proxy forces.
Russian troops have blasted Lysychansk with rocket and missile attacks in the past several days, and the latest fighting comes a week after the fall of its sister city, Syevyerodonetsk, just across the Siverskiy Donets River. That city had been reduced to rubble by Russian forces prior to the takeover.
The head of the Ukrainian military administration of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said on Telegram late on July 2 that shelling had prevented the residents of Lysychansk from putting out fires.
"Private houses in attacked villages are burning down one by one," he said.
Ukrainian officials on July 2 rejected claims by Kremlin-backed separatists that Lysychansk had been completely encircled.
"Fighting rages around Lysychansk. (However) the city has not been encircled and is still under control of the Ukrainian Army," Ruslan Muzytchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, told Ukrainian television on July 2.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa
Iranian Foreign Minister Travels To Damascus Amid Tensions Between Syria, Turkey
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has traveled to Damascus in a bid to "prevent a new crisis" amid tensions between Syria and Turkey over Ankara’s threats to launch a new offensive against Kurdish militias in northern Syria.
Amir-Abdollahian said on July 2 that his trip "was aimed at establishing peace and security in the region between Syria and Turkey."
"Developments are happening in the region [and Iran should] try to prevent a new crisis in the region," he said.
The Syrian civil war killed thousands of people and drove millions from their homes and the country.
Iran and Russia backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the United States supported differing rebel groups.
Ankara has also conducted military operations against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, accusing them of having links to Kurdish separatist groups inside Turkey.
Meanwhile, Iran is also plagued by Kurdish separatist elements in its own country.
The Iranian foreign minister’s trip to Damascus comes days after he visited Turkey to meet with leaders there.
"We understand Turkey's security concerns very well," he told a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
In Syria, Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by Iranian state news agency IRNA as saying, "After my visit to Turkey...it is necessary to have consultations with the Syrian authorities."
He was also quoted as saying he opposed any new military incursion into Syria by Turkish forces.
With reporting by AFP and AP
After Protests, Uzbek President Backs Down On Proposed Changes To Karakalpakstan's Status In Constitution
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has abruptly scrapped plans to abolish the country’s Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic’s right to secede following rare mass protests in the restive region, according to his office.
Mirziyoev’s office on July 2 said the president made the remarks during a visit to Karakalpakstan, declaring that changes to Karakalpakstan’s status must be dropped from a proposed constitutional reform plan.
The decision, if confirmed, would mark an apparent backing down by the Uzbek government, which on June 27 had proposed constitutional changes that included eliminating mention of Karakalpakstan’s long-standing right to seek independence from Uzbekistan.
It is not clear if the move would satisfy the protesters. Hours after Mirziyoev’s announcement, presidential press secretary Sherzod Asadov wrote on Telegram that Uzbekistan was imposing a one-month state of emergency in the region, running to August 2.
According to the draft amendments initiated last month by Mirziyoev, Karakalpakstan would retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants would be taken out.
Other constitutional reforms proposed would allow Mirziyoev to run for two more terms in office.
The planned changes sparked street protests in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, and other regional cities.
Prior to Mirziyoev’s visit to Nukus, regional authorities said protesters “attempted to seize government bodies” after mass demonstrations broke out in the region’s capital over the planned constitutional changes.
Authorities said unnamed "organizers of the riots" had gathered citizens on the square near the complex of administrative buildings in Nukus, "made an attempt to seize these state institutions, and thus split society, and to destabilize the sociopolitical situation in Uzbekistan."
The statement added that security forces "stopped the actions of the instigators," who were detained.
Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry claimed that the protests were "a result of misunderstanding the [proposed] constitutional reforms."
Obtaining accurate information from Karakalpakstan is difficult because of limited or disrupted Internet and telephone service.
Local media had cited authorities as saying that the amendments curtailing the region’s right to seek independence were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well as in Tashkent due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."
Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
The current Uzbek Constitution describes Karakalpakstan, located in northwestern Uzbekistan, as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.
Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months on the new version of the constitution, which would eliminate Karakalpakstan's right to secede.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Britain Condemns Russia's 'Exploitation' Of Ukraine Prisoners Following Capture Of Two More Britons
Britain's Foreign Office has condemned what it called the “exploitation” of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes following the capture of two British men by Russian forces in Ukraine.
“We condemn the exploitation of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes and have raised this with Russia,” the Foreign Office said on July 2. “We are in constant contact with the government of Ukraine on their cases and are fully supportive of Ukraine in its efforts to get them released.”
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said aid worker Dylan Healy, 22, and military volunteer Andrew Hill have been charged with carrying out “mercenary activities.”
A pro-Kremlin website said Healy and Hill would face the same charges as two British military volunteers captured in Mariupol.
In early June, the two Britons -- Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner -- and a Moroccan national -- Saaudun Brahim -- were sentenced to death by the separatists for "mercenary activities."
All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russia separatists while fighting Russian forces.
Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany condemned the death sentences.
The European Court of Human Rights on June 30 intervened in the case and warned Moscow it must ensure the death penalty is not carried out.
The British government insisted that as legitimate members of the Ukrainian armed forces, they should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
Westerners have been traveling to Ukraine to help defend it against Russia's unprovoked invasion or to assist in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians forced to fleet their homes by the Russian military onslaught.
Based on reporting by PA Media, dpa, and Reuters
Shoot-Out Among Migrants Leaves One Dead, Six Hurt In Serbia, Near Hungarian Border
A shoot-out between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border has left at least one person dead and six others wounded, Serbian state-run RTS television reports.
RTS on July 2 said a 16-year-old girl suffered serious injuries in the shoot-out in a forest outside of Subotica, about 160 kilometers north of Belgrade. The injured were taken to the capital for treatment.
Subotica Mayor Stevan Bakic said the victims -- mostly aged 20-30 -- did not have identity documents.
The report said police blocked access to the forest about a kilometer from the Hungarian border.
Authorities did not describe what caused the shoot-out, but local media said it occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants, most likely over human trafficking from the area to Hungary, a member of the European Union.
Migrants often use the so-called Balkan route in hopes of reaching Western Europe, many fleeing poverty or conflict in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Based on reporting by AFP and RTS Television
Greece Authorizes Release Of Iranian-Flagged Oil Tanker Seized In April
Greece said on July 2 that an Iranian-flagged tanker seized by Athens in April was being towed to the port of Piraeus following a decision by a Greek judicial panel to release the vessel.
The Lana has been anchored off the Greek island of Evia for the past two months in a diplomatic standoff that has strained relations between Athens and Tehran.
The vessel was seized by Greek authorities on April 15 when it anchored off the port of Karystos on Evia. At the time, it was flying a Russian flag and was carrying a crew of 19 Russians.
The Greek Coast Guard said it was seized over suspicions it had breached EU sanctions imposed against Russia due to the war in Ukraine.
The oil on the ship was confiscated by the United States and transferred to another vessel.
It was unclear whether the oil was seized because it was Iranian oil subject to U.S. sanctions or whether it was due to sanctions on the tanker, which recently changed its name from Pegas to Lana and which has been flying the Iranian flag since May 1.
A source at Greece's Shipping Ministry quoted by Reuters said the U.S. Department of Justice had "informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil."
The decision to seize the ship was overturned on June 10, but it remained anchored over claims by another company over debts owed for towing services.
The ship was eventually released after the debt was paid off, Reuters quoted legal sources as saying.
The Greek judicial panel overturned the ruling that had allowed the United States to seize the cargo, but it was not immediately clear if the Lana would attempt to retrieve the oil.
The incident prompted Iranian forces in May to seize two Greek tankers in the Persian Gulf and sail them back to Iran, with Tehran warning of "punitive action" against Athens. They are still being held.
Greece's Foreign Ministry protested to the Iranian ambassador in Athens over the “violent taking over of two Greek-flagged ships” in the Persian Gulf. “These acts effectively amount to acts of piracy," it said.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Germany To Open New LNG Ports By Early 2023 In Bid To Cut Dependence On Russia
Germany will begin operation of two temporary terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by early 2023, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in an interview published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on July 2.
In all, the German government has leased four floating LNG terminals in its aggressive effort to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.
“Two ships are already available this year and are to be deployed in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel at the turn of the year 2022-23,” Habeck said.
He said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has “never been seen before in Germany.”
Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany’s Network Agency, which oversees energy supplies, said on July 2 that he fears Russia could cut off gas supplies to Germany entirely.
The same day, Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, was also quoted by Welt am Sonntag as saying rationing of hot water for residences in the city could be imposed if Russia reduces gas supplies.
“In an acute gas shortage, warm water could be only made available at certain times of day,” Kerstan said, urging citizens and companies to reduce energy consumption to help the government fill storage capacity ahead of the winter heating season.
Kerstan said a temporary LNG terminal planned for Hamburg would not be operational until mid-2023 at the earliest.
Russia reduced gas supplies to Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia last month, citing technical issues with the Nord Stream-1 pipeline. At the time, Habeck said there were no technical issues and that Germany was “in a trade dispute” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In June, the European Union as a whole imported more LNG from the United States than pipeline gas from Russia for the first time ever.
Nonetheless, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, wrote on Twitter that “the drop in Russian supplies calls for efforts to reduce EU demand to prepare for a tough winter.”
With reporting by Welt am Sonntag, Reuters, TASS, and dpa
Fatalities Reported As Earthquake Rocks Southern Iran
A powerful earthquake rocked southern Iran overnight, officials reported on July 2.
Iranian state television reported that at least five people had been killed and 80 injured in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the epicenter of which was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.
Rescue workers were on the scene as aftershocks continued to drive locals into the streets.
The early morning earthquake damaged dozens of buildings and other structures in the village of Sayeh Khosh, where about 300 people live. Homozgan Governor Mehdi Dousti told the IRNA news agency that Sayeh Khosh was largely destroyed.
It was not clear where the fatalities occurred.
Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi traveled to the province on July 2 and told journalists that the government’s top priority was to restore water and electricity service in the affected areas.
Iran straddles several tectonic plates and is crisscrossed by seismic fault lines.
In 1990, the country was struck by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in the northern part of the country that killed more than 40,000 people. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake in southern Kerman Province left more than 31,000 people dead.
Based on reporting by IRNA, Tasnim, Reuters, and AP
Ukraine Asks Turkey To Detain Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain
Ukraine has asked Turkey to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship believed to be carrying Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Ankara on July 1 said the Zhibek Zholy had reached the Turkish port of Karasu after setting sail from Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.
"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Twitter.
"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said.
The ambassador's tweets did not specify the ship's cargo.
Marinetraffic.com said the 140-meter general cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about 1 kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.
Yevhen Balytskiy, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk. He said it was headed for "friendly countries" but did not name them or give any details on the origins of the grain.
A letter dated June 30 to Turkey's Justice Ministry says the Zhibek Zholy was involved in the "illegal export of Ukrainian grain" from Berdyansk, according to Reuters, which said it had seen the document.
Bodnar last month accused Turkey of purchasing grain seized by Russia from Ukraine during its invasion.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Ankara was investigating reports of Russian-seized Ukrainian grain reaching its shores. He added that Turkey had been unable to find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments to date.
Moscow-installed officials claim that they have nationalized state infrastructure and buy their crops from local farmers.
Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports, endangering the world's food supply.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Detained Russian Hockey Star Fedotov Reportedly Hospitalized
Russian ice hockey goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov was taken by ambulance from the St. Petersburg military commissariat during the night of July 1-2 and hospitalized, Russian media reported.
Russian authorities made no official statement on the reports, and no information about the state of Fedotov’s health was reported.
Earlier on July 1, Fedotov, 25, had been detained at the request of military prosecutors on suspicion of avoiding military service.
Last month, Fedotov -- one of Russia’s best goalkeepers and a member of the national team -- signed an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers of the U.S. National Hockey League and planned to quit his Russian club, Central Sport Club of the Army (CSKA), to play in the United States.
CSKA is an ice hockey club of the Russian Army and its members are officially considered military personnel. Therefore, termination of CSKA contracts by players may be illegal.
Fedotov played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow in the 2021-22 season, leading the team to the league championship. He was named one of three finalists for the KHL's best goalie award.
Fedotov also played on Russia's 2022 Olympic team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, winning a silver medal as the starting goaltender.
Labor Activist In Iran Ordered To Serve Seven-Year Prison Term
Nasrin Javadi, a trade union activist in Iran, has begun serving a seven-year prison sentence that she and activists have slammed as retribution for her labor agitation.
The Free Union of Iranian Workers said in a statement on June 30, that Javadi was ordered to report to prison on July 2, following "numerous summonses and pressure from the authorities."
Javadi, 64, was first arrested on May 1, 2019, when she attended a workers’ protest rally in front of parliament in Tehran. She was released from Qarchak prison on May 29 that year after posting bail.
Since then, the labor activist has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison and 74 lashes by the Revolutionary Court for charges including "gathering and conspiring to act against the security of the country," "disturbing public order and peace," and "propaganda against the regime.”
Activists and human rights groups have condemned the charges, saying Javadi has been persecuted for her labor activism.
In the past, Javadi’s lawyer had submitted medical documents to court showing she suffers from “numerous illnesses” that make it impossible for her to serve time in prison.
Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.
Authorities have cracked down on the protests, arresting many of those taking part.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Visa Delay Denies Iranian Tennis Player Chance To Play In Wimbledon
The British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates failed to issue a visa to the 18-year-old Iranian tennis player Mashkat Safi, denying her the opportunity to become the first Iranian woman to participate in the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
The tennis player’s manager, Amir Sadri, said in a video on June 30 that with Safi’s first match scheduled for July 2 there was no way she could play due to the visa delay.
The reason for the delay in issuing the visa has not been disclosed by the British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, which received Safi's request.
In 2021, when Safi was 17 years old, she won her match in the first round of the Australian Open, achieving a first in Iranian sports.
She is also the first Iranian female athlete to be ranked in the top 100 of the junior world rankings.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Tokyo Scrambles After Putin Orders Transfer Of Joint Oil And Gas Project
Japan's government warned on July 1 that its "interests must not be undermined" after a Moscow decree ordered a transfer of the operations of a multibillion-dollar joint oil and gas project to a new Russian entity.
The decree over control of the Sakhalin-2 project in Russia's Far East was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier and could mark a dangerous new precedent in Moscow's relations with foreign investors.
"Speaking generally, we believe our resource interests must not be undermined," Japanese government spokesman Seiji Kihara said. He said Tokyo was "closely examining the impact on liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports."
Japan relies heavily on LNG imports and had previously ruled out Japanese companies' withdrawal from the Sakhalin-2 project despite Tokyo's support for international energy sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said later that his government did not think the decree "will immediately stop LNG imports," but his economy minister said officials were examining other potential suppliers.
Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda told reporters that Japanese officials do not regard the decree as a requisition but interpret it as Putin asking stakeholders about a possible handover to a new company.
Japanese trading houses Mitsui and Mitsubishi Corp own a combined 22.5 percent in Sakhalin-2.
Russian officials have been stung by massive financial and other sanctions since tens of thousands of Putin's troops rolled across Ukraine's borders on February 24.
Putin's decree reportedly creates a new Russian operator of Sakhalin-2 and requires current owners to apply to Moscow for the right to participate in it.
Asked about Sakhalin-2 as an example of what might happen to other joint projects with Western investors, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would act on a case-by-case basis.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
The Beet Goes On: UNESCO Designation Sets Off New Sparring In 'Borscht War'
UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has registered “Ukrainian borscht,” the beet-based soup, as part of Ukraine’s “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding,” a move that Ukraine’s culture minister lauded as “victory in the borscht war.”
The culture of Ukrainian borscht cooking “was today inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding” by a UNESCO committee, the agency said in a July 1 statement.
UNESCO acknowledged that Ukrainian borscht is a “national version of borscht consumed in several countries of the region.”
“An inscription of an element of intangible cultural heritage…does not imply exclusivity, nor ownership, of the heritage concerned,” the UNESCO statement said.
The decision was approved after a fast-track process prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the "negative impact on this tradition" caused by the war, UNESCO said in a statement on July 1.
"Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, UNESCO has initiated a series of emergency measures in the fields of culture, education, as well as the protection of journalists, in accordance with UNESCO's mandate," UNESCO added.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko hailed UNESCO's move, calling it Ukraine’s "victory in the borscht war."
"And remember and be sure that we will win both in the war of borscht and in this war," he said, referring to Russia's invasion.
In a post on Twitter, the Russian Embassy in the United States noted that borscht “is a national food of many countries, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Lithuania.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook that “our borscht doesn’t need to be defended and is subject to immediate and complete destruction in the bowl.”
She noted that dishes like humus and pilaf have been declared “national dishes” of multiple nations, but said Kyiv thinks “everything is subject to Ukrainization.”
“What will be next?” she wrote. “The claim that pork is a ‘Ukrainian national product’?”
Ukraine’s application for the UNESCO designation was pushed by the Institute of Culture of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization founded by chef Yevhen Klopotenko. In a 2020 post on Facebook, Klopotenko said the designation was necessary because of claims borscht is “a Russian soup.”
“It’s about national identity,” Klopotenko wrote.
With reporting by AFP, Ukrayinska pravda, Ukrinform, and UNIAN
Armenian Parliament Strips Opposition Lawmakers Of Posts In Vote Boycotted By Opposition
YEREVAN -- Two leading opposition lawmakers in Armenia have lost their posts at the National Assembly after they led rallies in Yerevan to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
All 66 lawmakers, most from Pashinian's Civil Contract party, who took part in the July 1 vote backed the measure to remove Ishkhan Saghatelian from the post of deputy speaker of the parliament and Vage Akopian from the post of chairman of the parliamentary commission on economic issues.
Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote.
The initiators of the move justified the decision by arguing that the two lawmakers had missed a significant number of parliamentary sessions since last year.
Saghatelian, who along with Akopian was not present at parliament’s July 1 session, said to RFE/RL that the move to remove him and his colleague from the parliamentary posts was politically motivated.
The two politicians represent the Hayastan (Armenia) opposition faction in parliament.
Between May 1 and mid-June, the Armenian opposition led almost daily mass protests in Yerevan, demanding Pashinian's resignation.
The protests erupted after Pashinian signaled his readiness in April to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and “lower the bar” on the status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh acceptable to the Armenian side.
Opposition politicians have accused Pashinian of helping Baku regain full control of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenia lost control over parts of the Azerbaijani breakaway region and seven adjacent districts in a 2020 war that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire monitored by Russian troops.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, and Interfax
American Basketball Star's Trial For Drug Possession Begins In Russia
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court on July 1 for the start of a drug-possession trial more than four months into her custody and with U.S.-Russian relations at a low point.
Griner, a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, faces up to 10 years in prison on the possession and smuggling charges.
Authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in Griner's luggage when she passed through Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February while returning to play for a Russian team.
Griner, who was led into the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki in handcuffs and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, was quoted by TASS as saying that she understood the charges but would not comment further until later.
Aleksandr Boikov, an attorney for Griner, declined to discuss specifics of the case or comment on the defense's position, telling reporters outside the court that it’s too early for that.
Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution during the court session. One of them, an airport customs official, spoke in open court. The other, an unidentified witness, spoke in a closed session, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. Two other witnesses did not show up.
The trial was then adjourned until July 7, RIA Novosti reported.
Boikov also told RIA Novosti that Griner, a player on the Phoenix Mercury, has been exercising while in detention. Griner is currently missing the WNBA season, which opened in May.
The 31-year-old was told at a closed-door hearing earlier this week that her detention had been extended until December 20.
The U.S. State Department in May classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. Embassy officials attended the hearing on July 1 and reiterated that her return is a top priority.
Griner's family and supporters have tempered concerns in pursuit of a quiet resolution of the case.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 1 that "the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances" and thus the case "can’t be politically motivated."
Griner's arrest came as the West was warning of a massive buildup of Russian troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap.
Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.
Only around 1 percent of Russian trials end in acquittal.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Bulgarian Finance Minister Handed Mandate To Form Government
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on July 1 handed a mandate to form a new government to the country's finance minister, Asen Vassilev.
Outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, a pro-Western reformist who resigned earlier this week following a no-confidence vote, said earlier on July 1 that his centrist Continue the Change party (PP) party would nominate Vassilev to become the country's next prime minister.
Vassilev now has seven days to try to end Bulgaria's latest political crisis, which Radev warned is also economic and social.
“I expect adequate solutions and the defense of the national interest to build a free, democratic, and prosperous European Bulgaria,” he added.
Vassilev must submit his proposed cabinet for approval to Radev and would then face a confidence vote in parliament.
Vassilev said all are aware of the crises that Bulgaria has to face, adding that it will be important that the cabinet "works in the interest of the citizens, not in the interest of the status quo."
Vassilev was handed the mandate after the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), a partner in Petkov's coalition, ruled out backing him. The BSP, traditionally friendly toward Moscow, said they were angered by Petkov's decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff for allegedly working against Sofia's interests.
Bulgaria’s outgoing prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has rejected a Russian ultimatum to reverse a decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff, calling Moscow’s behavior “unacceptable.”
Petkov earlier on July 1 rejected a Russian ultimatum to reverse the expulsions, calling Moscow’s behavior “unacceptable.”
On June 30, Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova delivered a diplomatic note that included a threat to close the Russian Embassy unless Sofia reversed the expulsions by noon on July 1.
The embassy remained open despite the ultimatum, but Mitrofanova said she would ask Moscow to close it.
"I intend to immediately raise with the leadership of my country the issue of the closure of the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria, which will inevitably lead to the closure of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Moscow," Mitrofanova wrote on Facebook.
Petkov said earlier that Russia's behavior was unacceptable.
"We will not allow Bulgaria to take a wrong turn.... We will not allow foreign diplomats to give ultimatums to the Bulgarian state [to comply with their demands] by noon," he said.
Earlier on July 1, the BSP called on parliament to vote to revoke the expulsions to save diplomatic ties with Moscow. The biggest opposition party, the center-right GERB, said it backed the expulsions.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Russia Ends All Public Anti-COVID Restrictions
Russian officials have announced the end of all anti-COVID restrictions on the public, including mask requirements.
The country's consumer authority, Rospotrebnadzor, said 93 percent of infected patients were mild or asymptomatic.
It said it was "suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures."
But the decree issued on July 1 makes no mention of two-year-old restrictions on leaving the country via land routes.
Official infection numbers last spiked in Russia in February, although like many places testing has eased there.
More than 800,000 people in Russia have died from confirmed COVID-19 cases from a total of 18 million infections in the country.
Some Russian physicians and other medical professionals faced punishment for blowing the whistle on seemingly underreported COVID-19 figures early in the 2 1/2-year pandemic.
Researchers quickly developed and launched a vaccine, Sputnik-V, and exported it, but take-up was hampered by distrust among Russians.
Some 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus.
Recent surges in case numbers in Europe and the Americas, in particular, have been offset by numbers suggesting current variants are less lethal than some previous ones.
With additional reporting by Reuters
Four Men Found Guilty, Handed Long Prison Terms For Murder Of Daghestani Journalist In 2011
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- More than a decade after prominent journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was gunned down in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, a court sentenced four men to lengthy prison terms after finding them guilty of his murder in the high-profile case.
On July 1, a court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, sentenced the former deputy prime minister of Daghestan, Shamil Isayev, to 16 years in prison after finding him guilty of ordering the assassination.
Two men, whom the court found guilty of conducting the deadly attack, Murat Shuaibov and Magomed Khazamov, were sentenced to 23 and 24 years in prison, respectively.
A fourth defendant, Magomed Abigasanov, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the attack, was handed a 16-year prison term.
Prosecutors had sought life in prison for Isayev, Shuaibov, and Khazamov. The high-profile trial started in November 2020.
Khadzhimurad Kamalov, the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper Chernovik, was shot dead in mid-December 2011 outside the newspaper's office in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan.
Kamalov's newspaper was known for in-depth reporting on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighboring Chechnya and spread across Russia's North Caucasus.
After the verdicts and sentences were announced, Kamalov's brother, Magdi Kamalov, said that he hoped the case will be returned to investigators as, according to him, more people were involved in the journalist's murder.
Khadzhimurad Kamalov's murder was harshly criticized by international and domestic human rights organizations.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time that Kamalov's murder sent "a chilling message to journalists" seeking to cover alleged abuses by authorities and called on the Russian government to conduct a "thorough, transparent and independent" investigation into the journalist's killing and bring the perpetrators to justice promptly.
Russians Hoping To Travel To Ukraine Will Need Visa As Of July 1
KYIV -- Russian citizens will need to obtain visas to enter Ukraine as of July 1, the chief of Ukraine's Border Service, Serhiy Deyneko announced.
"The Ukrainian government’s decision to cancel visa-free visits for Russians went into effect today. Visa-free trips are a privilege for citizens of developed democracies that neither kill civilians nor endanger the sovereignty of neighboring nations," Deyneko wrote on Facebook.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said earlier that Russians could apply for visas in eight cities across Russia -- Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don, and Samara – at the offices of VFS Global, a visa outsourcing company.
The applications will be processed by Ukrainian diplomatic missions in other countries, as Ukraine severed diplomatic ties with Russia shortly after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion on February 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in mid-June that the move to introduce visas for Russians was made "to counter unprecedented threats to Ukraine's national security."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the time that it would respond to the move with measures "based on Russia's national interests and humanitarian issues."
Popular Kyrgyz Blogger Detained For Alleged Calls For Mass Disorder
BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz blogger known for his critical reports of authorities has been detained for 48 hours before a pretrial hearing to decide on whether to place him in detention or under house arrest.
Adilet Ali Myktybek, known on social media as Alibek Baltabai, faces charges of calling for social unrest on the Internet, allegations he says are politically motivated.
Myktybek was detained late on June 30 after he was questioned by Bishkek police for a third time since late May, the Birinchi Mai district court said.
Opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov told RFE/RL that Myktybek's supporters are currently looking for a lawyer to defend the noted blogger.
After questioning earlier by police, Myktybek said that the case against him is the authorities’ retaliation for his numerous reports on Facebook criticizing them.
"This is, I am confident, pressure being put on me for my opposition stance and my criticism of the authorities. What they are using against me is my own reports, in which I expressed my social and political stance, my activism," Myktybek said.
Myktybek is also known for actively covering anti-government rallies and pickets in the Central Asian nation.
He is also a freelance correspondent of the Next television channel, whose director, Taalai Duishembiev, is currently in pretrial detention over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the ongoing war against Ukraine.
Domestic and international human rights groups have urged Kyrgyz authorities to release Duishembiev, who was arrested on March 24.
Montenegrin President Urges Calm Over Government Deal With Serbian Church
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has downplayed a seemingly imminent agreement between the government in Podgorica and the Serbian Orthodox Church in an effort to ease tensions in his fractious Balkan coastal state.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic pledged on June 29 that despite coalition frictions his government would sign a "fundamental agreement" governing sensitive relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has considerable influence in his country and within the ruling coalition.
A majority of Montenegrins worship under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has an arm based in Cetinje called the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.
"The most important thing for Montenegro is to unblock the negotiation process and move toward Europe, but due to the circumstances, it has become an important political issue," Djukanovic said in Madrid after a NATO summit concluded on June 30.
"We just need to reduce tensions [and] the media should not overemphasize the importance of this issue," he added.
Some protests broke out in Podgorica after Abazovic's announcement alongside the Serbian patriarch.
In addition to unsettled questions about property and primacy, the Serbian church has sometimes meddled politically in Montenegrin affairs, including by organizing protests before the election that unseated Djukanovic's governing allies in 2020.
Critics say the draft agreement recognizes Serbian Orthodox subjectivity six centuries further back than the church is afforded in Serbia itself, and that it improperly extends extraterritoriality to it.
It also reportedly sets criteria for settling registration disputes over property. The Serbian church controls hundreds of properties throughout Montenegro.
Abazovic did not specify when the agreement should be signed.
Djukanovic has made Montenegrin identity a prominent theme over a checkered tenure atop domestic politics dating back to the breakup of Yugoslavia three decades ago, and has sought to curb the Serbian church's influence while promoting a Montenegrin alternative group.
Montenegro existed in federation with Serbia until a referendum opted for independence in 2006, and the two countries' ethnonationalist, historical, and cultural ties are deep.
Montenegro's largest ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), and the Social Democrats (SDP) criticized a draft of the "Basic Agreement on the Regulation of Mutual Relations" published on June 28 as overly generous toward the Serbian church.
Abazovic countered that "those parties had an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction" but neither group's officials objected when they saw the draft agreement before publication.
He suggested they could exercise their rightful powers but that "this government will close this issue."
After their meeting at church headquarters in Belgrade on June 30, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Porfirije said the new agreement would mark a "crowning" of the normalization of relations between Montenegro and his church.
He noted that efforts to hammer out an agreement had begun in 2012.
Since then, in late 2019, Djukanovic and a previous government pushed through a legislative challenge to the Serbian church's operations and property.
The move sparked a walkout by some pro-Serbian parties and protests that eventually cost Djukanovic's allies their governing majority in 2020 elections.
Indonesian Leader 'Conveyed Message' From Zelenskiy To Putin
Indonesian President Joko Widodo says he delivered a message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with the Kremlin leader on June 30, one day after a stopover in Kyiv.
He did not reveal the contents of the message.
"I conveyed President Zelenskiy's message to President Putin," Widodo said in Moscow as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine entered its 19th week.
He expressed his "readiness" to facilitate "communication" between the two leaders.
Indonesia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 wealthiest nations and will host a G20 summit in Bali in November.
"Although the external situation is still difficult, it is still important to move toward a settlement and open dialogue," Widodo said in Moscow.
He said that his country would like "the war to end soon."
After several meetings between Russian and Ukrainian delegations early in the Russian invasion that began on February 24, peace talks have mostly been on hold.
Zelenskiy said he has accepted an invitation to the summit but his attendance will depend "on the composition of the summit's participants" -- an apparent reference to Putin.
Indonesia has reportedly come under pressure from several Western nations not to invite Putin over the war.
Based on reporting by AFP and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Detained Russian Hockey Star Fedotov Reportedly Hospitalized2
Russia Deeply Offended By Johnson's 'Toxic Masculinity' Comment On Putin's Decision To Invade Ukraine3
Odesa Prepares Its Labyrinth Of Catacombs As Shelters Against Russian Attack4
Russians Hoping To Travel To Ukraine Will Need Visa As Of July 15
Ukraine Takes Control Of Snake Island, Fighting Rages In Lysychansk6
With 70 Russian Diplomats Leaving Bulgaria, Moscow's Controversial Ambassador Is Staying7
Ukraine Says It Has Retaken Infamous Snake Island; Russia Says It Withdrew For 'Goodwill'8
Interview: Why It's Difficult To Measure Progress In The Ukraine War9
Russia Accused Of 'Genocide' After Fast-Tracking Adoption Of Ukrainian Children10
Bulgarian Finance Minister Handed Mandate To Form Government