U.S. Moves Embassy Out Of Kyiv As Germany's Scholz Urges De-Escalation Over Ukraine
The United States has announced the relocation of its embassy operations from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv out of concern for the safety of embassy staff, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on February 14.
"My team and I constantly review the security situation to determine when prudence dictates a change in posture," Blinken said. “With that in mind, we are in the process of temporarily relocating our Embassy operations in Ukraine from our Embassy in Kyiv to Lviv due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces.”
Most embassy staff have already been ordered to depart Ukraine and U.S. citizens have been advised to leave the country.
The move comes as U.S. officials warn that Moscow could launch an attack on Ukraine, including on Kyiv, any day after amassing more than 130,000 troops close to the eastern border of the former Soviet republic and more forces in Belarus to the north.
"The embassy will remain engaged with the Ukrainian government, coordinating diplomatic engagement in Ukraine," he said. "We are also continuing our intensive diplomatic efforts to deescalate the crisis."
Earlier on February 14 Moscow signaled its willingness to continue talks with the West to ease a crisis over Ukraine as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz embarked on another round of diplomacy with a visit to Kyiv.
Scholz met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for two hours on February 14 and urged Russia to take immediate steps toward reducing the tensions triggered by an estimated 130,000 soldiers amassed near the border with Ukraine, adding that the Kremlin should accept offers to discuss European security.
"We are ready for a serious dialogue with Russia on European security issues," Scholz told a news conference after meeting Zelenskiy, adding that Germany was extending a new credit of 150 million euros to Ukraine.
Scholz is scheduled to fly to Moscow to meet on February 15 with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that while Moscow has "warned more than once" that negotiations can't be "endless," he also indicated there was still space for diplomacy to defuse the crisis.
"It seems to me that our possibilities are far from exhausted,” Lavrov said, speaking in a televised meeting with Putin.
The White House has said Russia may be planning to invade Ukraine "any day now," and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on February 14 said Russia continues to add “more military force and capability near Ukraine's border with each passing day.”
Kirby told MSNBC that the military buildup continues to grow stronger and more ready.
“They're exercising, so we believe that [Putin] has a lot of capabilities and options available to him should he want to use military force," Kirby said, adding that the U.S. has also not ruled out potential cyberattacks from Russia.
Russia says it has no plan to invade Ukraine, but at the same time wants guarantees on European security issues, including a commitment by NATO not to expand to countries like Ukraine, or another former Soviet republic, Georgia.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine would continue to pursue its goal of NATO membership despite Russia's anger and skepticism from some Western countries over the move.
Zelenskiy said later in an address to the nation posted on Facebook that authorities in Ukraine and Ukrainians themselves understand all the challenges they face and expressed confidence in the military, saying it is prepared to respond to all possible forms of aggression.
“We clearly know where the foreign army is near our border, its number, its locations, equipment and its plans,” he said.
Zelenskiy also said he signed a decree declaring February 16 -- the day that he said Ukraine has been told would be the day of attack -- as a day of unity.
"On this day, we will hang national flags, wear blue and yellow ribbons and show the world our unity. We have only one European aspiration -- we want freedom and are ready to fight for it," Zelenskiy said.
Asked about Zelenskiy's reference to February 16 as the date of an attack, Kirby said he would not discuss specific intelligence but said: "It is entirely possible that [Putin] could move with little to no warning."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, BBC, and MSNBC
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Former German Chancellor Resigns From Board Of Russian Oil Giant Rosneft
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and German businessman Matthias Warnig have announced their resignations from the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, the company said.
Schroeder, chairman of Rosneft's board since 2007, and Warnig said it was impossible for them to extend their mandates on the board, Rosneft said in a statement, giving no further details.
A longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Schroeder has come under increasing international pressure since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Schroeder, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He has faced fierce criticism in Germany for years over his work for state-controlled Russian energy companies.
Schroeder also has worked for Gazprom and holds leading positions in the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 natural gas Baltic Sea pipelines for the delivery of Russian gas.
Warnig is also managing director of Nord Stream 2, which has been completed but its operations were switched off following Moscow's invasion. He was included on the U.S. sanctions list after the invasion.
Schroder's decision to step down from the board of Rosneft comes after he had his right to an office at the German parliament in Berlin removed. He is also facing calls to be sanctioned from the European Parliament.
Germany's current chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the SPD, has urged Schroeder to leave the party.
Scholz on May 20 backed the German parliament decision to shut down Schroeder's office and renewed a call for the ex-chancellor to give up all his Russian energy posts.
Based on reporting by AP and dpa
HRW Says Tehran Again Trying To Stifle Civil Groups Amid Growing Protests
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Iranian government has once again resorted to suppressing dissent and detaining protesters as it looks to quell discontent over rising prices and workers' rights and low wages.
The rights watchdog said in a statement on May 20 that Iranian authorities have arrested several prominent activists since the protests broke out two weeks ago, including a prominent sociologist and four labor rights defenders.
"The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country," said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW.
"Instead of looking to civil society for help in understanding and responding to social problems, Iran's government treats them as an inherent threat," she added.
Even though many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet amid a poor economy crushed by U.S. sanctions and years of mismanagement, President Ebrahim Raisi announced earlier this month a series of economic measures, including cutting subsidies and increasing the prices of several staples such as flour and cooking oil.
The move sparked protests in several cities across the country, with security forces arresting dozens of people. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died during the unrest.
Meanwhile, bus drivers and other employees of the Tehran Bus Company have held strikes since May 16, fueling a transportation crisis that has led the city to use police buses and drivers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of the military, to keep routes open.
The bus employees, angered by the government's failure to deliver fully on a promised wage hike and undeterred by the arrest of their union leader as well as 12 strikers, have vowed to continue their protests until municipal authorities pay up.
The bus strike is widely seen as separate from the street protests over the country's worsening economic situation, some of whom have chanted for the end of the clerical regime.
But observers have suggested that Tehran is eager to prevent the two protests from merging, and have questioned the veracity of the city's announcement on May 17 that it was closing schools and government offices due to high air-pollution levels.
Authorities have also cut Internet services in many areas to try and keep the protests from spreading further.
"Iranian authorities have long sought to criminalize solidarity among members of civil society groups inside and outside the country," Sepehri Far said.
"The intention is to prevent accountability and scrutiny of state actions that civil society provides."
G7 To Provide $9.5 Billion In New Aid To Support Ukraine's Economy
The Group of Seven (G7) leading economies have agreed to provide $9.5 billion in new economic aid to Ukraine to help Kyiv pay public-employee salaries and ensure the government can continue to function as it defends itself from Russia's invasion.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner told reporters on May 20 that with the addition of the $9.5 billion pledged during a meeting of the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors in Germany this week, the support for Ukraine so far this year totals $19.8 billion.
"We agreed that Ukraine's financial situation must have no influence on Ukraine's ability to defend itself successfully," Lindner said. "We need to do our utmost to end this war."
The new pledges include $7.5 billion in grants from the United States and $1 billion in grants from Germany. The remaining $1 billion will be provided by the other G7 countries in the form of guarantees and loans, the German Finance Ministry said.
"We will continue to stand by Ukraine throughout this war and beyond and are prepared to do more as needed," the G7 ministers said in a communique at the end of the two-day meeting in Koenigswinter, a town outside Bonn.
Russia's invasion touched on almost every topic covered during the meeting of finance ministers and central-bank governors from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
"Russia's war of aggression is causing global economic disruptions, impacting the security of global energy supply, food production and exports of food and agricultural commodities, as well as the functioning of global supply chains in general," the statement says.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other leaders spoke earlier about the need for allies to provide enough additional aid to help Ukraine "get through" the Russian invasion.
"All of us pledged to do what's necessary to fill the gap," Yellen said on May 19 after the first day of the meeting. "We're going to put together the resources that they need."
The International Monetary Fund's latest world economic outlook says Ukraine’s economy is projected to shrink by 35 percent this year and next.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Canada Slaps New Sanctions On Russian Oligarchs, Including Formula One Driver Mazepin
Canada has announced new sanctions on 14 Russians -- including Formula One race-car driver Nikita Mazepin -- and a ban on the importing and exporting of certain luxury goods from Russia in response to what it called President Vladimir Putin's "continued aggression" against Ukraine.
"These new measures impose restrictions on 14 individuals including Russian oligarchs, their family members, and close associates of the Putin regime," Canada's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 20.
"These individuals have directly enabled Vladimir Putin's senseless war in Ukraine and bear responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine," it added.
Mazepin and his billionaire father, Dmitry Mazepin, a long-standing associate of Putin, headline the list of those hit with sanctions.
Following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Nikita Mazepin and his father, a prominent racing-team sponsor with close ties to Vladimir Putin, were pushed out of Formula One, while governments around the world have been seizing the family's assets, including a villa in Italy estimated to be worth more than $110 million.
Yelena Timchenko, the wife of billionaire oligarch Gennady Timchenko, Ksenia Frank and Natalya Browning, Timchenko's daughter, and oil and gas magnate Farkhad Akhmedov, are also on the new list, among others.
The news measures also ban the importing of Russian goods including alcoholic beverages, seafood, and nonindustrial diamonds, while the export ban targets luxury goods such as footwear, luxury clothing, and jewelry.
Detention Of Khachaturov's Son Upheld On Assault Charge During Yerevan Protests
YEREVAN -- A court in Yerevan has upheld the detention of Igor Khachaturov, the son of the former chief of Armenia's armed forces, Yuri Khachaturov, after he was charged with assaulting a policeman during opposition protests this week seeking to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from office.
"Based on the sufficient evidence obtained, Igor Khachaturov was charged with...violence against a government official and a motion was submitted to the court to detain him as a measure of restraint. This motion has been upheld," the Investigative Committee's Serious Crimes Investigation Division said on May 20.
Khachaturov, whose father is also the former secretary-general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, was taken into custody on May 17 after he allegedly struck a policeman, knocking him out.
Khachaturov has denied the allegation, while opposition leaders have accused police of arresting demonstrators "on false, fabricated charges" to deter people from protesting.
Hundreds have been detained this week during demonstrations organized by the opposition over what they say are unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Opposition supporters continued their demonstrations on May 20, starting in front of the presidential palace, where the Armenian president was meeting his Lithuanian counterpart.
Another group of protesters gathered outside the venue where Armenian officials and Western diplomats were attending a democracy forum.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.
Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including the mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia lost control over parts of the region in a 2020 war with Azerbaijan that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
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.
Shoigu Says Russia To Strengthen Its Western Defenses In Response To NATO Growth
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Moscow will create new military bases in its western regions and form 12 new units and divisions in response to Sweden and Finland's move to join the NATO military alliance.
"Tension continues to grow in the zone of responsibility of the Western Military District. We are taking adequate countermeasures," Shoigu said at a meeting in televised remarks.
"By the end of the year, 12 military units and divisions will be established in there," Shoigu said, adding that the army expects to receive more than 2,000 units of military equipment and weapons.
Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the Western defense alliance NATO on May 18, renouncing their longtime neutrality status amid growing security concerns prompted by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin said on May 16 that Swedish and Finnish NATO membership didn't pose a threat to Russia, but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance boosted military infrastructure in the two countries.
The processing of the two Nordic countries' applications is expected to move quickly despite opposition from NATO member Turkey.
U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced strong backing for both NATO applications as he met with the leaders of the two countries at the White House on May 19, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Duma Mulls Scrapping Upper Age Limit Of 40 For Military Enrollment
Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, says it will discuss a draft bill that would remove the upper age limit and allow anyone over the age of 18 to sign up for the military, a possible sign that Moscow has suffered heavy personnel losses in its war against Ukraine.
According to current legislation, only Russians aged 18 to 40 and foreigners aged 18 to 30 are permitted to enroll as professional soldiers in the military.
The amendment, introduced by the head of the Duma's Defense Committee, Andrei Kartapolov, and his deputy, Andrei Krasov, does not mention any new upper age limit.
"For the use of high-precision weapons, the operation of weapons and military equipment, highly professional specialists are needed. Experience shows that they become such by the age of 40–45," the draft, placed on the State Duma website, said on May 20.
Western military experts have questioned how much longer Moscow will be capable of sustaining its offensive operations in Ukraine due to heavy losses it is suspected of having incurred since launching its invasion on February 24.
The amendment would also make it easier for Russia's armed forces to recruit civilian medics, engineers, and operations and communications specialists.
With reporting by Reuters
'I Did Not Want To Kill,' Russian Soldier Tells War Crimes Trial
KYIV -- A Russian soldier on trial for committing a war crime in Ukraine has told the court in his final statement that he didn’t want to kill an unarmed civilian as his unit moved through a small village in the north of the country.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin is accused of firing an assault rifle from a car at 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian Oleksandr Shelypov after being ordered to do so. He is the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
The 21-year-old Russian has already pleaded guilty to the shooting death of Shelypov, who was killed while riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.
"I sincerely repent. I was nervous at the time. I did not want to kill.... It's just how it happened," Shishimarin told the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 20.
Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Shishimarin to life in prison. The judge is expected to hand down the 21-year-old tank commander’s punishment on May 23.
Viktor Ovsyannikov, Shishimarin’s lawyer, said in his closing argument that his client feared for his life after twice refusing to follow an order to shoot Shelypov.
"I personally think that it should not be this young man in the dock, but the senior leadership of the other country that I think is guilty of unleashing this war," Ovsyannikov said.
During the trial, the victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelypova, said she wants life in prison for the defendant but would agree to an exchange for Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia troops.
Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, told the court that he understands it is impossible for Shelypova to forgive him, even though he was sorry.
The killing occurred just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the first.
She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha.
The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near Kyiv revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.
On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.
The UNHRC's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.
With reporting by Reuters
UN Concerned About Situation In Restive Tajik Region After Deadly Protests
DUSHANBE – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern over reports of escalating tensions and violence, including casualties, in Tajikistan's restive region of Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO).
Protesters have clashed with police in recent days, with reports of as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.
The protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters -- 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev -- was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."
"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.
Earlier on May 19, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing deep concern about the unrest and calling on all parties to "de-escalate, exercise restraint, and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."
WATCH: One person died as police broke up a demonstration in Khorugh, the capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, on the border with Afghanistan. Zamir Nazrishoev is believed to have died as security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters calling for the resignation of political leaders in the region on May 16.
The situation in the restive region has been tense since November 2021 when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Locals rallied at the time to demand a probe into Ziyobekov's death.
The protesters in GBAO have insisted their actions are peaceful and that they have a right to peacefully demonstrate. Opposition groups based abroad have called on Tajik authorities to stop what they called the "persecution of peaceful demonstrators in the GBAO."
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Deeper tensions between the government and residents of the region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
GBAO, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict. While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
Azovstal Defenders 'Ordered' To Stop Fighting; Russia Intensifies Offensive In Eastern Ukraine
The last Ukrainian soldiers holed up in Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks say they were "ordered" by Kyiv to stop fighting as Russia intensifies its assault on eastern Ukraine, relentlessly pounding the Donbas region that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says now resembles "hell."
After more than 12 weeks of fighting since Moscow launched its invasion, Ukrainian authorities said that "massive" artillery barrages by Russian forces continued to target civilian infrastructure, including residential districts.
"The higher military command has given the order to save the lives of the soldiers of our garrison and to stop defending the city," Denys Prokopenko, the commander of a battalion leading the trapped Azovstal soldiers said in a video on Telegram on May 20.
"The civilians have been evacuated. The heavily wounded received the necessary assistance and they were evacuated, to be later exchanged and delivered to territory controlled by Ukraine," Prokopenko added.
Prokopenko said that the process of removing the dead from Azovstal was still under way and that he "hopes that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honor."
British intelligence on May 20 noted in its daily report on the situation in Ukraine that after securing the strategic Sea of Azov port following a monthslong siege that turned the city into ruins and killed thousands of civilians, Moscow is likely to redeploy troops to aid in the offensive in the east.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant had surrendered so far.
"The blocking of the Azovstal plant continues," Shoigu said in televised remarks. "Nationalists are actively surrendering to captivity," he said, referring to the Ukrainian troops. "At the moment, 1,908 people have laid down their arms."
Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that number, and it could not be independently verified.
WATCH: The widow of a Ukrainian civilian killed by the first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes in Ukraine said he could have "missed" her husband instead of carrying out orders. The Russian soldier accused of killing him pleaded guilty in a Kyiv court on May 18.
Those soldiers who left Azovstal, including those who were wounded, were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said it is registering the hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who left the Azovstal plant in Mariupol as prisoners of war (POWs).
The ICRC says the registration of the fighters as POWs was "critical to ensure they’re accounted for & treated humanely and with dignity" and allows the organization to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families.
Kyiv has expressed hope that the fighters will be exchanged for Russian prisoners, but separatist authorities in the eastern Donetsk region suggested some of them could be put on trial.
In southeastern Ukraine, an estimated 1,000 vehicles carrying Ukrainian civilians were prevented from crossing into Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporizhzhya. The regional military administration said on May 20 that cars full of people trying to evacuate were stuck at a Russian checkpoint in the city of Vasylivka.
"In Vasylivka, the occupiers have not allowed more than 1,000 cars to enter the territory controlled by Ukraine for the fourth day in a row," the administration said in a Telegram post, adding that there are women and children in the cars, and that most of them no longer have money for food and water.
In Luhansk, local authorities said on May 20 that indiscriminate Russian bombardment had killed at least 13 civilians over the past 24 hours and caused substantial damage.
Twelve people were killed in the town of Severodonesk, where a Russian assault has been unsuccessful, said the regional governor, Serhiy Hayday. The town and the city of Lysychansk are in an area where Russian troops have launched an offensive.
In Donetsk, "the Russian enemy carried out massive artillery shelling of civilian infrastructure, including multiple-rocket launchers," Ukraine's General Staff said in a statement.
Ukraine's Prosecutor-General's Office said that as of May 20, 232 children had been killed and 427 wounded since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
In a regular address to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had "completely destroyed" Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
"It is hell there -- and that is not an exaggeration," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address, repeating his accusation that Russia is committing genocide, a claim Moscow has denied.
Zelenskiy also said that in the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv, the village of Desna was hit with Russian missiles on May 19 and that many were killed. Desna is some 70 kilometers from the border with Belarus.
Zelenskiy spoke on May 19 with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about a range of issues, including financial aid to assist the shattered Ukrainian economy, agricultural exports, and "the evacuation of our heroes from Azovstal."
Shoigu said on May 20 that the "liberation of the Luhansk People's Republic" -- a territory in Ukraine recognized by Russia as independent and controlled by Moscow-backed separatists -- would be completed soon.
The minister also said Russia would beef up its western defenses with troops and 12 additional military bases in response to Sweden and Finland's bid to join NATO.
The two Nordic countries shed their longtime neutrality this week by formally submitting applications to join the alliance, saying the move was necessary because of security concerns sparked by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, CNN, and TASS
Navalny Allies Urge U.S. Lawmakers To Spread Pain Of Sanctions To Mid-Level Russian Politicians
Members of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s team were in Washington on May 19 to urge lawmakers to impose sanctions over the war in Ukraine to include figures lower down Russia’s political ranks.
The group is pressing for sanctions to be expanded to thousands of Russian government officials, mid-level politicians, and public figures, including Russian defense and security officials, members of parliament, and editors and managers at state-aligned media operations.
Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), said in an interview with journalists during his visit to the U.S. Capitol that sanctions are “one of the few instruments available to the Western countries to affect what’s going on.”
Sanctions imposed so far are having an effect in Russia, he said, but the group seeks “the next wave” to reach beyond wealthy allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin to spread the financial pain to lower-level people more susceptible to the financial strain.
The list of new sanctions was an idea from Navalny himself, said another official involved with the group.
Navalny has been jailed since returning to Russia last year after being poisoned. Despite his imprisonment, Navalny remains “very much operational,” said Anna Veduta, FBK vice president.
Navalny last month urged President Joe Biden and other Western leaders “to urgently find a solution to crush Putin’s propaganda using the advertising power of social media.”
Even if ads were bought at full price, the cost would be “laughable compared to the price of this war,” Navalny said on Twitter on April 14.
The group met with Senator Jim Risch (Republican-Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), and others.
The group also planned to meet with officials at the State Department, the Justice Department, and other offices in Washington.
Based on reporting by AP
Blinken Accuses Russia Of Blocking Exports Of Ukrainian Grain, Worsening World Food Crisis
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of using food as a weapon in its war against Ukraine by blocking ports used to ship grain and other commodities.
"The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not -- to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said in an address on May 19 to the UN Security Council.
"As a result of the Russian government's actions, some 20 million tons of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos," he said. As global food supplies dwindle, prices skyrocket, causing more people around the world to experience food insecurity, he added.
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.
Blinken appealed to Russia to stop blockading the ports so that food produced in Ukraine can begin flowing again.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said it was "absolutely false" that Russia was to blame for a crisis that he claimed has been ongoing for several years.
He accused Ukraine of refusing to cooperate with shipping companies to free up dozens of foreign freighters that are blocked in ports and said Ukraine has placed mines along the Black Sea coast.
Nebenzia also blamed Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for slowing Russian exports of food and fertilizer.
Blinken rejected Russian claims that sanctions were to blame for the food crisis.
"Sanctions imposed by the United States and many other countries deliberately include carve-outs for food, for fertilizer, and seeds from Russia," he said. "The decision to weaponize food is Moscow's and Moscow's alone."
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
U.S. Senate Gives Final Congressional Approval To $40 Billion Aid Package For Ukraine
The U.S. Senate on May 19 overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion package of military and economic aid for Ukraine, sending the legislation to President Joe Biden for his signature just three weeks after he proposed it.
The 86-11 vote gave final congressional approval to the package, which Biden is expected to quickly sign.
“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) backed the measure, saying Ukraine’s defeat would jeopardize America’s European trading partners, increase U.S. security costs there, and embolden autocrats in China and elsewhere to grab territory in their regions.
“The most expensive and painful thing America could possibly do in the long run would be to stop investing in sovereignty, stability, and deterrence before it’s too late,” McConnell said.
A top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the U.S. Senate after it approved the bill, which passed the House of Representatives last week.
"We are grateful for the historic decision of the U.S. Senate to provide Ukraine $40 billion in aid. Let's win together," Zelenskiy's chief of staff Andriy Yermak said on Twitter.
When Biden signs the bill into law, it will bring the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine to well over $50 billion since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
Schumer said on May 18 that he was not confident it would be the final measure to help Ukraine.
“They’re doing the fighting. They’re the ones getting killed. They’re the ones struggling and suffering. The least we can do is give them the weaponry they need,” he said.
The legislation contains around $24 billion for weapons, equipment, and military financing for Ukraine and to cover the cost of restoring U.S. weapons stocks sent to the region.
The rest includes economic aid to keep Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government functioning, food programs for countries that rely on Ukraine’s crop production, refugee assistance, and funds for Kyiv to investigate Russian war crimes.
Shortly after the Senate vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released another $100 million in previously approved funding for military assistance for Ukraine. It is the 10th "drawdown" of arms and is valued at $100 million, Blinken said in a statement.
The funding will include 18 new howitzers and some anti-artillery radar, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. The equipment will be in the hands of Ukrainian forces “very, very soon,” Kirby added.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the $40 billion package sent to Biden includes $7.5 billion in new economic aid.
Speaking to reporters in Germany after the first day of a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers and central bank governors, Yellen said that the finance leaders agreed to provide Ukraine the financial resources it needs in its struggle against Russia's invasion.
Yellen said that funding pledges during the meeting exceeded the $15 billion that Kyiv has estimated it needs over the next three months to make up for the loss of revenue caused by the war.
The European Commission pledged 9 billion euros, and other countries, including Canada and Germany, pledged additional amounts, she said.
"The message was, 'We stand behind Ukraine. We're going to pull together with the resources that they need to get through this,'" Yellen said.
With reporting by AP and AFP
Ukrainian Lawmakers Outline Resolution Recognizing Putin As A 'War Criminal'
Ukrainian lawmakers have outlined a resolution that would designate Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal over for his "aggressive" moves against the country, including launching an unprovoked invasion in February.
The draft resolution was prepared by parliamentary groups and committees and registered at the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) on May 19.
The authors of the resolution linked Putin directly to "the aggressive war against Ukraine," including the ongoing invasion that he started on February 24, and the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014.
The draft resolution, which now awaits the setting of a date for debate in parliament, says Putin is directly responsible for the aggression "in which millions of Ukrainians suffered damage to their health, in many cases death, lost movable and immovable property, and were forced to abandon their homes."
The resolution also mentions Putin’s open statements and activities "aimed at liquidating Ukraine's national culture, identity, and statehood."
"The goal of the resolution is to publicly confirm the crimes committed by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, against mankind’s security and international law, and call on international institutions to investigate mentioned illegal acts and bringing Putin to account," the document says.
Before launching the invasion, which he calls a "special military operation," Putin explicitly denied that Ukraine had ever had “real statehood” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, [and] spiritual space.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says almost 3,800 civilians have been killed in the 12 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. The government in Kyiv has said that about 3,000 of the country's soldiers have died in the fighting, though the United States estimates the number to be at least double that.
Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians and claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.
Earlier on May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, who went on trial on May 18, has already pleaded guilty in the shooting death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov, who was shot while riding his bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.
McDonald's Reaches Agreement To Sell Russian Operations To Local Licensee
McDonald's says it has signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee, Aleksandr Govor, that will give him the global fast-food giant's entire restaurant portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.
McDonald's, which operated in Russia for more than 30 years, said in a statement on May 19 that agreement remains subject to certain conditions, including regulatory approval, with closing expected to occur "in the coming weeks."
"The sale and purchase agreement provides for employees to be retained for at least two years, on equivalent terms. The buyer has also agreed to fund the salaries of corporate employees who work in 45 regions of the country until closing, as well as fund existing liabilities to suppliers, landlords, and utilities," the statement added.
The sale agreement comes three days after McDonald's announced it would exit the Russian market and had initiated a process to sell its Russian business.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have abandoned Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Since 2015, Govor has served as a McDonald's licensee and has operated 25 restaurants in Siberia.
The statement did not give any details on Govor's plans for the operations.
Popular Russian Rocker Charged Over Critical Statement About War In Ukraine
UFA, Russia -- Yury Shevchuk, leader and frontman of DDT, one of Russia's most popular rock groups, has been charged with an administrative misdemeanor over a statement he made during a concert about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Producer Radmir Usayev said in a post on Instagram on May 19 that police approached Shevchuk after a concert in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, a day earlier and "first wanted to detain him," but then just informed the popular rock musician that he was being charged with an unspecified misdemeanor.
According Usayev, the police officers "talked" to Shevchuk about "the concert, its goals and statements made by Shevchuk about the war and the motherland."
Video of Shevchuk talking about the war at the concert has since gone viral on social media.
"The motherland is not the president's ass that one must lather and kiss all the time. The motherland is a beggar, an old woman that sells potatoes at the railway station. That is what motherland is," Shevchuk said at the concert.
His words were cheered by the crowd.
Last month, authorities in the Siberian city of Tyumen canceled a DDT concert in the city after Shevchuk refused to perform on a stage decorated with a huge "Z" -- a sign of support of Russia's war against Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prosecutors Seek Life In Prison For Russian Soldier Accused Of War Crime
Prosecutors in Ukraine are seeking life in prison for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.
Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, who went on trial on May 18, pleaded guilty in the shooting death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov, who was shot while riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.
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Prosecutors on May 19 asked the court to sentence Shishimarin to life in prison. The trial was then adjourned until May 20. The trial is being held at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv and is open to the public.
The victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelypova, testified on May 19 that she wants life in prison for the defendant but would agree to an exchange for Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia troops.
Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he understands that it is impossible for Shelypova to forgive him, but still said he is sorry.
The 21-year-old Shishimarin said he did not want to kill Shelypov but was ordered to shoot him to prevent him from reporting on the Russians' presence. He said he fired several shots through an open car window, hitting the civilian in the head.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier that Russia has no information about the trial, adding that Russia's ability to provide assistance is limited due to the absence of its diplomatic mission.
The killing occurred just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
WATCH: The widow of a Ukrainian civilian killed by the first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes in Ukraine said he could have "missed" her husband instead of carrying out orders. Kateryna Shelipova's husband, Oleksandr, was fatally shot in the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Russian soldier accused of killing Shelipov pleaded guilty in a Kyiv court on May 18.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes." She added that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the first.
With reporting by Hraty
Kazakh Political Prisoner Released On Changed Sentence Amid Rights Outcry
PETROPAVL, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh civil right activist Asqar Qaiyrbek has been released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of his prison term with a parole-like penalty amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Qaiyrbek, recognized by Kazakh human rights organizations as a political prisoner, left the ES-164/3 penal colony in the northern city of Petropavl early in the morning on May 19, just over two weeks after the Petropavl City Court ruled the 45-year-old activist's 26-month prison term would be changed unless prosecutors appealed the decision.
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Since no appeal was filed, the decision became official on May 18, paving the way for Qaiyrbek to leave the prison.
Qaiyrbek was arrested in September 2020 and sentenced in June last year on extremism charges stemming from his support for the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party. The two groups are labeled as extremist and banned in Kazakhstan.
He has rejected the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
On April 25, rights defenders said Qaiyrbek was severely beaten by prison guards. Kazakhstan’s Penitentiary Service has confirmed Qaiyrbek sustained bruises and injuries but did not give any other details or say how the injuries occurred.
Qaiyrbek is the fourth political prisoner in Kazakhstan imprisoned for supporting DVK and the Koshe party to be released in recent weeks after their prison terms were replaced with parole-like sentences amid protests by Kazakh rights defenders and opposition activists.
Many activists across the Central Asian nation have been handed prison terms or parole-like restricted freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of DVK and the Koshe party and for taking part in the rallies organized by the two groups.
DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
The Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.
Biden Hails 'Momentous' Applications Of Sweden, Finland To Join NATO
U.S. President Joe Biden expressed strong support for the applications of Sweden and Finland to join NATO as he met with the leaders of the two countries at the White House, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”
Biden said he was proud to welcome Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on May 19 to mark the "momentous" applications of the formerly neutral countries. He offered “the strong support of the United States” for their applications “to join the strongest most powerful defensive alliance in the history of the world."
Biden added that his administration on May 19 would submit reports on the two countries' NATO accession to the U.S. Congress, which must approve the expansion of the alliance.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some," he said, and “having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance.”
Prior to formally submitting their bids on May 18, Sweden and Finland said the war in Ukraine prompted the move to reverse their long-standing neutrality and apply for membership in NATO, whose expansion was cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a justification for Russia's invasion.
“New members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation," Biden said in a reference to Putin's demand that the alliance stop expanding. "It never has been.”
Andersson and Niinistro later visited the U.S. Capitol and met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), who said she was honored to offer "the fullest support and endorsement" of their request to be part of NATO.
While the processing of the two countries' applications is expected to move quickly, it still must overcome an obstacle in Turkey's opposition.
Niinisto said Finland was open to discussing Turkey's concerns, adding that the country is ready to commit to Ankara's security.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is against their accession because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.
On May 19, Erdogan reiterated his opposition, saying Turkey was "determined" to block Sweden's and Finland's bids to join NATO, calling Sweden in particular a "complete terror haven."
The Finnish and Swedish leaders said their governments already are in discussion with Erdogan to try and overcome Turkey's opposition.
“As NATO allies, we will commit to Turkey’s security, just as Turkey will commit to our security,” Niinisto said. “We take terrorism seriously. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and we are actively engaged in combating it.”
Washington also believes Turkey's concerns can be overcome.
"We're confident that at the end of the day Finland and Sweden" will enter NATO and "that Turkey's concerns can be addressed," U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on May 18.
The two Nordic countries' choice to join NATO marks a watershed in the current European security architecture.
Helsinki chose to remain neutral in the postwar era following two wars with the Soviet Union that saw Finland lose one-tenth of its territory, while Sweden has been traditionally nonaligned for the past two centuries.
Both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union, and the latter shares a 1,340-kilometer-long of border with Russia.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa
U.S. Condemns Belarusian Move To Introduce Death Penalty For 'Terrorists'
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka's move to introduce the death penalty for those convicted of "terrorism," a charge his regime often uses against its critics and dissidents.
Belarusian state-controlled media reported that Lukashenka on May 18 signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allows for the usage of capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."
Blinken said in a statement issued hours later that the move targeted pro-democracy activists and opponents of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
"The regime has levied politically motivated charges of 'extremism' and 'terrorism' against many of the more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more," Blinken said in the statement.
"These actions are those of an authoritarian leader desperate to cling to power through fear and intimidation," he added.
Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to stage its attack on Ukraine, is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.
Blinken said that ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, Washington was reiterating its call for the "unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to the regime's violence against its own citizens, and a national dialogue inclusive of civil society and the democratic movement, leading to free and fair elections under international observation."
For years, the UN and the European Union have urged Belarus to join other countries in declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.
According to rights organizations, more than 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
With reporting by BelTA
Amnesty Says Swedish-Iranian 'Hostage' At Risk Of Retaliatory Execution By Tehran
Amnesty International says Iran is threatening a Swedish-Iranian doctor with imminent execution in order to force Belgium and Sweden to release two imprisoned former Iranian officials and to deter Western countries from future prosecutions of other Iranian officials.
Ahmedreza Djalali, a medical doctor and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was arrested in Iran in 2016 during an academic visit. He specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups have condemned his detention.
He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.
Iran has threatened to execute him by May 21.
Amnesty and other groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official, who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.
Amnesty also said that Iran wants the release of Asadollah Asadi, a former Iranian diplomat who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Belgium for his role in a thwarted 2018 bomb attack in France.
"The Iranian authorities are using Ahmadreza Djalali's life as a pawn in a cruel political game, escalating their threats to execute him in retaliation for their demands going unmet," Amnesty International's Diana Eltahawy said in a statement issued on May 19.
"The authorities are attempting to pervert the course of justice in Sweden and Belgium, and should be investigated for the crime of hostage taking," Eltahawy said.
"The Iranian authorities must halt any plans to execute Ahmadreza Djalali, release him immediately and offer reparations for the harm they have caused him."
Tehran has denied the cases are linked.
Russia Issues Additional Arrest Warrants For Four Navalny Associates
MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has issued additional arrest warrants for several close associates of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, this time on charges of creating an extremist group.
The Basmanny district court said on May 19 that it had ruled in recent days during separate hearings that the former director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Ivan Zhdanov, former FBK lawyers Lyubov Sobol and Vyacheslav Gimadi, and the former coordinator of Navalny's regional network, Leonid Volkov, should be arrested and placed in pretrial detention for at least two months.
Russia's Criminal Code envisages a penalty of up to 12 years in prison for persons found guilty of such charges.
There were already arrest warrants issued for the four activists, who are currently living outside of Russia, on different charges that they and their supporters have also called politically motivated.
Separately on May 19, police in the largest city in Siberia, Novosibirsk, searched the homes of two former members of Navalny's team, Yelena Noskovets, who left Russia last year, and Polina Golobkova. Police said the searches were linked to "a case launched into the activities of an extremist group."
Police in Novosibirsk also searched the homes of two local independent lawmakers, Anton Kartavin and Sergei Boiko, who used to be close to Navalny's groups. Boiko said on Telegram that he was currently outside of Russia.
The day before, police in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk broke into and searched the apartment of another former associate of Navalny, Natalya Peterimova, who fled Russia earlier fearing for her safety.
FBK and other groups associated with Navalny, as well as his political movement, were declared "extremist organizations" by Russian authorities in June 2021 and disbanded.
Several of the Kremlin critic's associates were subsequently charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.
G7 Pledges $15 Billion To Help Ukraine Make Up Economic Losses, Yellen Says
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the Group of Seven (G7) nations have made funding pledges exceeding the $15 billion that Kyiv has estimated it needs over the next three months to make up for the loss of revenue caused by the war with Russia.
Yellen told reporters that the funding pledges came during the first day of a two-day meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bank governors in Germany.
"The message was, 'We stand behind Ukraine. We're going to pull together with the resources that they need to get through this,'" Yellen said at a news briefing in Koenigswinter near Bonn.
The G7 finance leaders also discussed mechanisms to reduce Russia's revenues from oil exports to Europe. Yellen said there is a lot of interest in the concept, but "nothing is really crystallized as an obvious strategy."
High global inflation was another significant topic during the meeting, Yellen said, but none of the policymakers had said they were considering raising their targeted inflation rates.
"What was discussed was the critical importance of central banks taking the actions that are needed to show they are committed to the inflation targets that they've set," Yellen said.
The G7 finance leaders met as they look to shore up funding for Ukraine as it tries to repel Russia's unprovoked invasion, which has derailed its economy.
"I'm quite optimistic that we will be able at this G7 meeting to raise funding which allows Ukraine to defend itself over the next months," German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said at the opening of the meeting just outside of Bonn.
Since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Ukraine has seen its economy decimated and millions displaced from their homes.
Kyiv, which estimated it's running a $5 billion monthly budget deficit, has looked to the West for help finance its government and the war effort, and Linder said a "double-digit, billion-euro" figure was needed to assure Ukraine's "liquidity."
The G7 consists of Germany, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Residents Of Restive Tajik Region Say Death Toll From Clashes Higher Than Reported
DUSHANBE -- Residents of Tajikistan's restive region of Gorno-Badakhshan, where protesters have clashed with police in recent days, say the death toll from the violence is more than double the one given by officials.
Residents of the Rushon district told RFE/RL on May 19 that the bodies of 21 protesters killed during the clashes the day before had been turned over to their families for burial.
That figure contrasts with a May 18 statement from the Interior Ministry, which said that in all, nine people, including a police officer were killed and at least 25 were wounded during what it called an "counterterrorist operation" in the region.
More than 70 local residents have been detained, authorities said.
The protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by the regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16.
Earlier on May 19, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing 'deep concern about the unrest and calling on all parties to "de-escalate, exercise restraint, and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence."
The Interior Ministry said on May 18 that the situation in the region was now "stable" and that public transportation and other social institutions had resumed operations. RFE/RL correspondents, however, reported from the region that schools and state entities in region remained closed.
"The authorities should provide a platform for constructive dialogue with protesters, refrain from excessive use of force, and ensure that any detainees are guaranteed full due process," HRW Central Asia researcher Syinat Sultanalieva said in a statement on May 18.
Tajikistan's leading independent media outlet, Asia Plus, announced on May 17 that it would no longer cover the events in Gorno-Badakhshan, apparently fearing possible repercussions.
The announcement came the same day that four RFE/RL journalists -- two from its Tajik language Service (known as Radio Ozodi) and two from Current Time -- were attacked by unknown assailants after they interviewed civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamatshoeva, who was accused by Tajik authorities of organizing the protests.
Mamatshoeva was arrested on May 18.
The situation in the restive region has been tense since November 2021, when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Locals rallied at the time to demand a probe into Ziyobekov's death.
The protesters in Gorno-Badakhshan have insisted their actions are peaceful and that they have a right to peaceful demonstrations. Opposition groups based abroad have called on Tajik authorities to stop what they called the "persecution of peaceful demonstrators" in the region.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled country of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict.
While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
UN Chief Urges Russia To Allow Exports Of Ukrainian Grain Through Black Sea Ports
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on Russia to allow the secure export of grain through Ukrainian ports.
The ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and others have been cut off by Russian warships in the Black Sea, so the grain can only travel on congested land routes that are far less efficient.
Speaking on May 18 at a major United Nations summit in New York on worldwide food insecurity, Guterres called on Russia to free up exports of Ukrainian grain.
"Let's be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine's food production," he said.
He added that alternative transportation routes can be explored "even if we know that by itself, this will not be enough to solve the problem."
Before Russia's invasion of its neighbor in February, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of agricultural produce per month through its ports -- 12 percent of the planet's wheat, 15 percent of its corn, and half of its sunflower oil.
The meeting, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was held to address a growing global food crisis.
Guterres said the war in Ukraine had compounded global food insecurity, raising the number of severely food-insecure people in the world from 135 million in 2019 to 276 million today.
In addition, more than half a million people are living in famine conditions, an increase of more than 500 percent since 2016, Guterres added.
"Now the war in Ukraine is amplifying and accelerating all these factors: climate change, COVID-19, and inequality," he said.
"It threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine, in a crisis that could last for years," Guterres said.
The war and international economic sanctions on Moscow have disrupted supplies of fertilizer, wheat, and other commodities from both Ukraine and Russia, pushing up prices for food and fuel, especially in developing countries.
The UN chief said that Russian food and fertilizers "must have full and unrestricted access to world markets."
With reporting by AFP
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