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First Of Insurgents Reported To Evacuate Syrian Rebel Enclave

UN and International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles wait to pass through the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on March 9.

Small groups of Islamist militants have begun to evacuate the besieged Syrian rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta after negotiations with the United Nations.

Syrian state TV late on March 9 showed a video of about a dozen fighters and their families arriving at the Al-Wafideen crossing point into government territory and then boarding a bus.

The Jaish al-Islam, the largest of several militant groups in eastern Ghouta, issued a statement saying that fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a smaller militant group, were being evacuated to the northern province of Idlib. HTS is composed mainly of members from the Al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.

Jaish al-Islam said the decision to evacuate fighters had been made in consultation with the UN, several unidentified international parties, and civil leaders from eastern Ghouta.

Jaish al-Islam has been fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the nearly seven-year civil war in Syria.

If insurgents do, in fact, leave the enclave, it could bring an end to days of bloody violence in the region.

Over the past two weeks, the Syrian Army, backed by artillery fire and air strikes, has retaken about half the territory formerly held by rebels in the assault on eastern Ghouta.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres have estimated that 940-1,000 civilians have been killed in the assault.

Earlier on March 9, a United Nations official in Syria said an emergency aid convoy was shelled in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta "despite assurances of safety from parties including the Russian Federation."

UN resident coordinator Ali al-Za'tari said on March 9 that "shelling in proximity of Douma, eastern Ghouta, today is putting the...convoy at risk."

The comments came after a 13-truck Red Cross and Red Crescent convoy delivering aid to the besieged enclave was put into danger from the shelling shortly after crossing front lines amid a sustained offensive by Syrian government troops.

No injuries were reported, and officials later said the convoy had safely left the region after unloading aid supplies for some 12,000 people in Douma.

Syria and its main backer, Russia, claim the offensive is designed to stop the rebels from shelling nearby Damascus and to drive Islamist insurgents out of eastern Ghouta.

The offensive has been severely criticized by the UN, the United States, and others.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has said the assault was "legally, and morally, unsustainable."

Russia has given Assad's government crucial support throughout the Syrian conflict, which began with a government crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011.

The UN says 400,000 people live in rebel-held areas of eastern Ghouta. The Syrians and Russia's military claimed to have opened safe routes to allow civilians to leave, but few if any were thought to have left before the reported departures on March 9.

Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and by stepping up its military presence on the ground.

But it has suffered losses, and on March 7, Jaish al-Islam claimed its fighters shot down a military plane that crashed and killed dozens of Russian military personnel earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, in a separate offensive in Syria’s northwest, Turkey said its troops and allied opposition fighters have surrounded the key city of Afrin in a Syrian Kurdish-held enclave and are on the verge of entering it.

Turkey on January 19 began an air-and-land military campaign in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, vowing to clear it of the U.S-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

All Of The Latest News

Ukraine Says Russian Forces In Lyman 'Surrounded'

Residents were evacuated from Lyman in early May ahead of advancing Russian troops.

KYIV -- Ukrainian forces have surrounded Russian troops in the area of the crucial rail hub of Lyman, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces has said.

"The Russian group in the Lyman area is surrounded," spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy said on October 1. "The settlements of Yampil, Novoselivka, Shandryholove, Drobysheve, and Stavky have been liberated and stabilization measures are being taken there."

Video posted on social media appeared to show Ukrainian troops raising the country's flag on the outskirts of Lyman.

Cherevatiy estimated the number of surrounded Russian troops at about 5,000, adding that Russian forces continue to try to break out of the encirclement.

The fierce fighting around the Donetsk region railway hub of Lyman threatens to deal Russia a significant military setback in one of the regions that Russia has illegally claimed as its own territory.

Russia did not comment on the reports.

Moscow has used Lyman as a logistical hub for operations in the northern part of the Donetsk region. Its fall would mark the most serious setback for Russian forces since a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive sent Russian troops reeling in the Kharkiv region last month.

Cherevatiy added that the liberation of Lyman would enable Ukrainian forces to push into the Luhansk region "toward Kreminna and Syevyerodonetsk."

Such a move would further embarrass the Kremlin, which declared the Luhansk region fully occupied in early July.

"It is psychologically very important," Cherevatiy said, emphasizing that "the operation is not yet over."

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 illegally proclaimed the partially occupied Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya as Russian territory, a significant political escalation that was broadly condemned by the West.

The four regions together with Crimea, which Moscow grabbed in 2014, make up around 20 percent of Ukraine, including some of its most industrialized territory.

Kyiv has said it will not negotiate with Moscow as long as Putin remains in power.

With reporting by Reuters

Munich Soccer Fans Unfurl Banners Supporting Iranian Player For Backing Protests In Iran

The banners were unfurled when Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, came off the bench in the 60th minute of the match on September 30, which Bayern Munich ultimately won 4-0.

Bayern Munich fans have shown their support for Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun, who has backed anti-government protests taking place in Iran, during a match in their home stadium.

The Munich fans revealed two banners expressing solidarity with women in the Islamic republic who have been demonstrating to demand more freedoms.

The banners were unfurled when Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, came off the bench in the 60th minute of the match on September 30, which Bayern Munich ultimately won 4-0.

One banner read "Women, life, freedom" in Persian -- a common chant heard in the Iranian protests. Another read "Solidarity with the feminist revolution in Iran" in English.

Earlier this week, Iranian soccer bloggers took screenshots of an Instagram post from Azmoun saying that because of "restrictive rules on the Team Melli (Iran), I could not say anything."

But he added that he also could not stay silent about the crackdown against the protests.

"This will never be erased from our consciousness. Shame on you!" he wrote on his Instagram account, which is followed by some 5 million people.

The post was deleted, and the entire content of his account disappeared for days.

The protests in Iran began after the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody. Amini was arrested for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules requiring women to wear an Islamic headscarf, or hijab.

Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based rights organization, has said 83 people, including children, have been killed during the two weeks of protest.

Iranian media reported on September 29 that Hossein Mahini, the retired captain of Iranian soccer giant Persepolis FC, has been arrested on charges of "encouraging riots and sympathizing with the enemy" after he posted content on social media in support of the protesters.

Based on reporting by AFP

Iran Threatens Response If U.S. Targets Drones Used In Campaign Against Kurds In Iraq

A man and woman hold up a banner depicting the image of Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of Iranian authorities, during a demonstration denouncing her death by Iraqi and Iranian Kurds outside the UN offices in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on September 24.

Iran has threatened retaliation against the United States if it targets drones that Tehran has been using to attack Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

Since September 23, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been using drones in deadly attacks targeting the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Irbil, and the eastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah.

Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff for the Iranian armed forces, was quoted as saying that Iran would consider any U.S. response to Iranian drones as a "hostile action" and reserved the right to respond.

U.S. Central Command said on September 28 that it downed an Iranian drone on its way to Irbil, adding that the drone appeared to pose a threat to U.S. personnel in the region.

Washington confirmed on September 30 that an American was killed in the attacks the day before.

"We can confirm that a U.S. citizen was killed as a result of a rocket attack in the Iraqi Kurdistan region" on September 29, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said, declining to provide further details but reiterating U.S. denunciations of the strikes.

"We continue to condemn Iran's violations of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Patel told reporters.

Iraq's state news agency said the attacks had killed least 13 people and wounded 58 others.

The attacks have been carried out against Kurdish political parties, as well as an Iranian Kurdish refugee camp, while a senior member of Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party, told Reuters that several of its offices had been struck as well.

The attacks come amid massive protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody after being arrested by the so-called morality police for allegedly wearing an Islamic headscarf, or hijab, improperly.

The protests started in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan Province and quickly spread to dozens of cities and towns across Iran.

The IRGC attacks started after security forces in the city of Oshnavieh in West Azarbaijan Province temporarily lost control of the city and the soldiers stationed there were on the defensive.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it would summon the Iranian ambassador to voice Iraq's opposition to the attacks, which Baghdad considers to be a violation of its sovereignty.

The IRGC said in a statement that it would continue to target "terrorists" in the region.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Turkey Joins Condemnation Of Russian Bid To Claim Ukrainian Territories

The Moscow-appointed heads (left to right) of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, and Zaporizhzhya region, Yevgeny Balitsky, jRussian President Vladimir Putin, Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin, and Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik react after signing treaties formally annexing the regions in Moscow on September 30.

Turkey has joined a growing international chorus in condemning Russia's attempt to illegally annex an additional four Ukrainian regions, as the three Baltic states urged NATO to open a fast track for Ukraine to join the transatlantic alliance.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on October 1 called the Russian gambit a "grave violation" of international law, noting that Ankara had also refused to recognize Russia's illegal 2014 seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

"We reiterate our support for the resolution of this war, the severity of which keeps growing, based on a just peace that will be reached through negotiations," the Turkish statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 signed documents formalizing Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions, parts of which are occupied by Russian forces. Earlier, Moscow held sham wartime referendums in the four regions that were broadly rejected by the international community.

U.S. President Joe Biden said that "these actions have no legitimacy," while countries including Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Poland also swiftly condemned Moscow's action. Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Moscow's "full-scale, unlawful invasion of Ukraine."

Late on September 30, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia issued a joint statement endorsing Kyiv's request that Ukraine be granted expedited membership in NATO.

"Ukraine's Baltic friends fully support welcoming Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible," the statement said. "Ukraine's inspirational bravery can only strengthen our alliance."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that Kyiv would seek to join the alliance immediately after Moscow's attempt to seize the four Ukrainian regions. However, the statement met a cautious response from Washington and NATO headquarters.

"Right now, our view is that the best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical, on-the-ground support in Ukraine, and that the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time," U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

Analysts said it was unlikely NATO would admit a country that was at war.

Russia launched its mass military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, setting off the largest war in Europe since World War II. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced.

With reporting by dpa, AP, and Reuters
Updated

Ukraine Says Head Of Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant Detained By Russian Forces

Ukrainian staff continue operating the power plant. Its last reactor was shut down in September because of shelling near the plant.

KYIV -- The director of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant has been detained by a Russian military patrol, Enerhoatom, the state firm that runs the plant, has said.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has monitors at the plant, told Reuters it had contacted the Russian side and was "requesting clarification."

Plant Director Ihor Murashov was detained in the afternoon on September 30 while travelling between the plant and the town of Enerhodar.Enerhoatom said.

Murashov "was taken out of the car, and with his eyes blindfolded, he was driven in an unknown direction," the Enerhoatom statement said.

The nuclear power plant and the surrounding area have been controlled by Russian occupation forces since March. Kyiv and the IAEA have been warning of the possibility of an environmental catastrophe at the plant because of ongoing fighting in the vicinity.

Russia has rejected calls to create a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhya plant.

Last month the IAEA's board of governors passed a resolution calling on Russia to end its occupation of the plant and to "immediately cease all actions" against it and "any other nuclear facility in Ukraine." Russia and China voted against the resolution.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of shelling the plant.

Ukrainian staff continue operating the plant. Its last reactor was shut down in September because of shelling near the plant.

Murashov's "detention...jeopardizes the safety of Ukraine and Europe's largest nuclear power plant," Enerhoatom President Petro Kotin was quoted as saying.

Writing on Telegram, Kotin called on Russia to "stop immediately its acts of nuclear terrorism toward the management and personnel" of the plant and to release Murashov.

Russia did not immediately respond to the statement. The IAEA, which has monitors working at the plant, also did not respond.

Protests In Iran Continue Despite Violent Government Crackdown

Protesters in Sanandaj, the capital of Mahsa Amini's native Kurdistan Province, take to the streets for the 10th night in a row on September 26.

Iranians are continuing to protest the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody two weeks ago despite government warnings that a harsh crackdown will continue.

Videos posted on social media showed demonstrations taking place in several cities across the country on the evening of September 29 and the morning of September 30.

The latest wave of protests in Iran was sparked by the death Mahsa Amini on September 16 after she was detained by the morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab, or headscarf.

Activists and relatives say Amini was killed as a result of blows to the head by police, while the authorities claim she died of a heart attack, a rare event for someone her age.

News of her death struck a nerve in a country already wracked by social unrest over poor living conditions and economic hardships exacerbated by crippling U.S. economic sanctions in response to Iran's nuclear program.

Protests have erupted in more than 80 cities to denounce state violence against women and demand greater rights, freedom, and justice for women. Many of the protesters have also called for an end to the Islamic republic.

Police have responded harshly. Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based rights organization, said 83 people, including children, have been killed during the two-weeks of protest.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said on September 30 that nine foreigners had been arrested in connection with the protests.

Those arrested include citizens of Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, state news agency IRNA reported. It was not immediately clear if they held dual citizenship.

The violent response, however, has not stopped Iranians, including popular figures, from taking to the streets in protest or voicing their anger on social media.

On the evening of September 29, protesters gathered in the northeastern city of Mashhad, according to posts on social media. An officer can be seen firing at least twice at the demonstrators, thought it did not appear that anyone was hurt.

The same evening, young people in the northern city of Rasht gathered to chant anti-government slogans, according to another video.

Meanwhile, protesters can be seen running in the central city of Kerman on the evening of September 29 as gunshots ring out.

Security forces reportedly tried to prevent protesters from gathering in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz on September 30. In videos published online, women in Ahvaz can be seen chanting slogans against the government without headscarves.

Iranian media reported on September 29 that Hossein Mahini, the retired captain of Iranian soccer giant Persepolis FC, has been arrested on charges of "encouraging riots and sympathizing with the enemy" after he posted content on social media in support of the protesters.

Actress Katayon Riahi, one of the first Iranian celebrities to have removed her hijab in protest of Amini's death, reportedly fled before police showed up at her home to arrest her.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda. With reporting by AP

World Bank Approves $530 Million In New Recovery Aid For Ukraine

The World Bank estimates Ukraine's total need over the next three years at well over $100 billion.

The World Bank has approved an additional $530 million in reconstruction and recovery assistance to Ukraine as the country fends off a massive military invasion by neighboring Russia.

The bank on September 30 said the new assistance brought the total aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 to $13 billion, of which $11 billion has already been disbursed.

World Bank Regional Country Director for Eastern Europe Arup Banerji said the bank estimates Ukraine's total need over the next three years at well over $100 billion.

The assistance comes one day after Russia moved to formally seize four additional Ukrainian regions that are partially occupied by Russian troops, drawing widespread condemnation from the United States and European countries.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed never to accept Moscow's illegal annexations and urged the West to accept Ukraine's bid to join the NATO defense alliance.

Russia Vetoes Resolution In UN Security Council On Moscow's Latest Actions In Ukraine

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya attends a UN Security Council meeting in New York. (file photo)

Russia has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backed by the United States condemning referendums in four Ukrainian regions as illegal and demanding an immediate halt to Russia's "full-scale, unlawful invasion of Ukraine."

The vote on September 30 in the 15-member Security Council was 10-1.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya cast the only vote against the resolution. China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstained. The single vote from Russia, one of five permanent members of the council, was enough to block the resolution's passage.

The vote came after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees at a Kremlin ceremony to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield argued that the attempted annexation of a sovereign nation's territory went against the founding principles of the United Nations.

"All of us understand the implications for our own borders, our own economies, and our own countries if these principles are tossed aside," Thomas-Greenfield said.

The resolution also would have called on member states not to recognize any change in the status of Ukraine's borders and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine.

Nebenzya argued the regions where Moscow has seized territory chose to be part of Russia, a reference to the hastily held referendums on whether the regions wanted to join Russia that Kyiv and Western countries have denounced as a sham.

"The results of the referendums speak for themselves," Nebenzya said. "The residents of these regions do not want to return to Ukraine. They have made a an informed and free choice in favor of our country."

"There will be no turning back, as today's draft resolution would try to impose," Nebenzya added.

Thomas-Greenfield said the results of the referendums were "predetermined in Moscow, and everybody knows it," adding that they "were held behind the barrel of Russian guns."

Putin miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainians, she added.

"The Ukrainian people have demonstrated loud and clear: They will never accept being subjugated to Russian rule," Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council.

China walked a fine line in justifying its decision to abstain.

Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun said that while "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be safeguarded," countries' "legitimate security concerns" should also be taken seriously.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if the resolution failed, Washington would turn to the UN General Assembly "where every country has a vote."

The General Assembly has already voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

NATO Chief Says Putin's Recent Actions Are 'Serious Escalation' Of War

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the Russian "land grab" of four Ukrainian provinces in decrees signed by Putin earlier at a Kremlin ceremony.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Russia's recent actions on the war in Ukraine represent "the most serious escalation" since Moscow launched its invasion in February.

Stoltenberg cited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial military mobilization, his "irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling," and decrees signed on September 30 illegally annexing more Ukrainian territory.

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, Stoltenberg condemned the Russian "land grab" of four Ukrainian provinces in decrees signed by Putin earlier at a Kremlin ceremony. He said the move was "illegal and illegitimate," calling it the "largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since World War II."

NATO allies "do not, and will not, recognize any of this territory as part of Russia," he said.

Putin's move is a sign of weakness, Stoltenberg said, adding that the Russian leader has "utterly failed" in his strategic objectives.

He also said that Russia faces "severe consequences" if it uses nuclear arms in Ukraine, and reaffirmed NATO's "unwavering support" for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

He said Ukraine has the right to retake Ukrainian territory, and NATO allies support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path.

If Russia were to win in Ukraine, he said it would be catastrophic for the country and dangerous for NATO.

But he remained noncommittal on Ukrainian membership in NATO, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine will immediately seek on an expedited basis. Stoltenberg said it is a decision that requires a consensus of all 30 allies, and the focus should remain on helping Kyiv's war effort.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

U.S. Responds To Putin's Seizure Of Ukrainian Regions By Piling On Sanctions

"We will not stand by as Putin fraudulently attempts to annex parts of Ukraine," said Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a news release on September 30. (file photo)

The United States slapped more sanctions on individual Russians on September 30 after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed what Russia called "accession treaties" to formally seize occupied regions of Ukraine.

The Treasury Department said it designated hundreds of members of Russia's legislature, leaders of the country's financial and military infrastructure, and suppliers supporting Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The department described the sanctions as "swift and severe" in response to Putin's "purported annexation" of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"We will not stand by as Putin fraudulently attempts to annex parts of Ukraine," Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a news release. "The Treasury Department and U.S. government are taking sweeping action today to further weaken Russia's already degraded military industrial complex and undermine its ability to wage its illegal war."

Yellen said the Treasury Department was also targeting leaders of Russia's financial architecture "as part of our aggressive and coordinated effort to hold Putin and his enablers accountable for his unprovoked invasion, and limit their ability to prop up their economy."

The Treasury Department's announcement was coordinated with the Commerce Department, which added 57 companies to its list of export control violators.

In addition, the U.S. State Department imposed visa restrictions on 910 people, including members of the Russian military, Belarusian military officials, and Russian proxies acting in Russia-held portions of Ukraine, the department said.

The State Department is imposing sanctions on family members of the mayor of Moscow, who is also a member of Russia's Security Council, and visa restrictions on Russian national Ochur-Suge Mongush, who is accused by the United States of torturing a Ukrainian prisoner of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States "unequivocally rejects Russia's fraudulent attempt to change Ukraine's internationally recognized borders."

The United States is issuing a clear warning supported by leaders of the Group of Seven that the countries will "hold to account any individual, entity, or country that provides political or economic support for Russia's illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory," Blinken said.

The G7 industrialized nations on September 23 issued guidance that designated several international suppliers and associated individuals that have supported Russia's defense sector. The Treasury Department said it was immediately implementing the guidance.

"Through its historically unprecedented campaign of sanctions and export controls, the United States and an international coalition of allies and partners have devastated Russia's ability to access foreign components and technology," the department said.

As a result of the sanctions, Russia's defense-industrial base "is desperate to provision its war efforts and has resorted to third-country intermediaries and suppliers," the Treasury Department said.

The additional sanctions announced on September 30 follow significant financial penalties imposed on Russia, its leadership, and oligarchs tied to Putin by the United States and European nations since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As the war grinds on, its devastating impact on the global economy has become more pronounced in disruptions to supplies of energy and food throughout the world.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week said the global economy is set to lose $2.8 trillion in output in 2023 because of the war.

With reporting by AP

Putin Signs Decree To Fast-Track Naturalization For Foreigners Joining Armed Forces

A Russian soldier addresses reservists during the partial mobilization of troops in the town of Volzhsky in Russia's Volgograd region on September 28.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree creating a simplified naturalization process for foreigners who join the Russian armed forces on a contractual basis.

The decree that came into force immediately after it was signed on September 30 appeared on the website for Russian legislative documents.

Putin signed the decree on the same day he signed other decrees to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow as he escalates his failing seven-month invasion.

According to the decree to simplify the naturalization process, foreigners who sign contracts on military service in the Russian armed forces for at least one year and then spend at least six months in military operations in armed conflict zones during which they are seriously wounded will be eligible to obtain Russian citizenship in a simplified and expedited way.

Spouses, children, and parents of such foreigners are also eligible to be fast-tracked for Russian citizenship. In addition, close relatives of foreigners who die while serving in the ranks of the Russian armed forces can also apply for Russian citizenship and receive it through a simplified procedure.

The decree says the naturalization process requires the registration of fingerprints, and the applications for obtaining citizenship must be processed in three months.

The decree came as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and less than two weeks after Putin announced partial military mobilization to the war in Ukraine amid serious setbacks on the ground.

Many reports in Ukraine have said there were citizens of Central Asian countries among Russian troops captured by Ukrainian armed forces since Russia started it full-scale aggression against Ukraine in late February.

Ukraine Applies For Accelerated Accession To NATO

Commenting on Putin's statements about occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine "joining Russia," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia is "trying to steal what does not belong to it."

Ukraine has submitted an application for accession to NATO under an accelerated procedure, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an address on September 30.

The announcement came after meetings of Ukraine's top military and security councils and after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow.

Commenting on Putin's statements about occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine "joining Russia," Zelenskiy said Russia is "trying to steal what does not belong to it."

"We have a solution. First, only the path of strengthening Ukraine and expelling the occupiers from our entire territory will restore peace. We will go this way," he said.

Updated

Biden Says Explosions On Nord Stream Pipelines Were Sabotage

A gas leak from Nord Stream 1 is seen in the Swedish economic zone of the Baltic Sea on September 28.

U.S. President Joe Biden said for the first time on September 30 that the explosions that rocked the Nord Stream pipelines under the Baltic Sea were the result of sabotage.

Biden also said the Russians have been "pumping out disinformation and lies" and the United States will work with its allies to investigate the explosions. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he added that "when things calm down, we're going to be sending divers down to find out exactly what happened."

The United States is already working with allies to "enhance the protection of this critical infrastructure," he added.

The German Interior Ministry said police were patrolling the North and Baltic Seas with "all available forces."

The explosions that occurred ahead of huge gas leaks from the pipelines "probably corresponded to an explosive load of several hundred kilos," Denmark and Sweden wrote earlier on September 30 in a letter to the United Nations.

The blasts resulted in four leaks and the venting of methane gas into the sea. Two of the leaks are in Danish territory; the other two are in Swedish territory.

In the letter to the UN Security Council, the two countries noted that the gas plumes are disrupting air and sea vessels and could be dangerous to marine life. Additionally, a greenhouse gas is being released into the environment. The leaks could continue through at least October 2.

Norwegian researchers on September 30 published a map projecting a huge plume of methane released by the damaged Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines that will travel over large swaths of the Nordic region.

Moscow has requested an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council to discuss the pipelines and called for a thorough international probe to assess the damage to the pipelines.

Russia cut natural gas supplies to Europe after Western sanctions were imposed over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February. The pipelines were not operating at the time of the blasts, but they contained methane gas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 30 accused the West of orchestrating the blasts.

"By organizing explosions on the Nord Stream international gas pipelines that run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea they actually started destroying European energy infrastructure," Putin said during a televised speech at a Kremlin ceremony at which he signed decrees that the Kremlin calls "accession treaties" to formally seize four Ukrainian territories.

Putin claimed that the "Anglo-Saxons" in the West have turned from sanctions on Russia to "terror attacks," sabotaging the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in what he described as an attempt to "destroy the European energy infrastructure."

He added that "those who profit from it have done it" without naming a specific country.

European nations, which are already reeling from soaring energy prices caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have noted that it is Russia that benefits from chaos on energy markets and spiking prices.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price strongly rejected any claims that the United States might have sabotaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

"The idea that the United States was in any way involved in the apparent sabotage of these pipelines is preposterous. It is nothing more than a function of Russian disinformation and should be treated as such," Price said on September 28.

The European Union and NATO have said the leaks are the result of sabotage but have stopped short of pointing fingers.

However, Ukraine and Poland have accused Russia of being behind the ruptures.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Russians 'Anxious, Scared, Horrified' By Mobilization, Latest Poll Says

A Russian serviceman addresses reservists at a gathering point during an ongoing partial mobilization of troops, which was announced on September 21.

A new Russian opinion poll shows that President Vladimir Putin's popularity has plunged and Russians feel "anxious, scared, horrified" after a partial military mobilization was announced last week.

The Levada Center said in a survey released on September 29 that the number of Russians thinking that what the Kremlin calls a "special military operation in Ukraine" is going "according to the plan" decreased from 73 percent in May to 53 percent in September.

Some 1,631 respondents from Russia's 50 regions took part in the poll.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

A total of 47 percent of the respondents said they were anxious, scared, or horrified by the government's decision to decree the partial mobilization, while 23 percent said they were shocked by the move.

Another 13 percent said they are angry and exasperated by the mobilization. Some 23 percent said they feel proud of Russia.

A total of 66 percent said they expected that the partial mobilization will be followed by a full mobilization. At the beginning of Russia's invasion in late February, 28 percent of Russians said they expected a nationwide mobilization.

Almost one-third (31 percent) of Russians see the special military operation in Ukraine as unsuccessful.

The number of those who support the Russian armed forces decreased from 76 percent in August to 72 percent in September, while the percentage of those who do not support the war increased from 17 percent in August to 21 percent in September.

The majority of those who support the war in Ukraine -- 81 percent -- are men and women older than 55.

Putin's approval rate also went down from 83 percent in May-August to 77 percent in September, while the number of those who do not support his actions increased from 15 percent in August to 21 percent in September.

The mobilization announced by Putin last week has been met with countrywide protests and a mass exodus of men potentially eligible for military duty from Russia.

Police have detained protesters in Russian towns and cities who challenged the mobilization, while several military enlistment centers and other administrative buildings in the country have been targeted in arson attacks in recent days.

Iran 'Ruthlessly' Suppressing Protests, Amnesty Says

A woman holds up her headscarf as part of a protest in Tehran on September 27 against the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Iran is intentionally using lethal force to crack down on protests that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, Amnesty International said September 30, calling for international action to prevent the killing or detention of even more people.

The London-based rights group's warning came as another group, the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, said 83 people, including children, had been killed in two weeks of protests that started over Amini's death following her arrest by morality police, as Iran pressed ahead with more detentions of prominent figures.

"The Iranian authorities have mobilized their well-honed machinery of repression to ruthlessly crack down on nationwide protests in an attempt to thwart any challenge to their power," Amnesty said.

"Without concerted collective action by the international community that goes beyond statements of condemnation, countless more people risk being killed, maimed, tortured, sexually assaulted, and thrown behind bars."

It said its review of photos and videos showed "most victims were killed by security forces firing live ammunition."

Amnesty said it had obtained a leaked official document issued to the commanders of armed forces in all provinces on September 21 instructing them to "severely confront" protesters labeled “troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries."

Another leaked document showed that on September 23, the commander of the security forces in Mazandaran Province, where some of the deadliest clashes have occurred, ordered security forces to "confront mercilessly, going as far as causing deaths, any unrest by rioters and anti-revolutionaries."

Amnesty's warning comes as Iran presses ahead with an intensifying crackdown that has seen the arrest of many journalists, activists, and other prominent figures.

Iranian Protests Appear To Wane Amid Crackdown, Internet Restrictions
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Former Iranian international footballer Hossein Manahi was arrested on September 30 for backing the protests on his social media accounts, the state run IRNA news agency said.

Security forces also arrested singer Shervin Hajipur, whose song "Baraye" ("For") made up of tweets about the protests went viral on Instagram, according to Persian-language media based abroad.

His song, which racked up millions of views on Instagram and prompted many to comment that it moved them to tears, has now been removed from his account.

At least 29 journalists were also arrested since the start of the wave of repression, according to the Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Among them are two female reporters, Nilufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who helped expose the case of Amini to the world by reporting respectively from her hospital and her funeral.

With reporting by AFP

Ukraine Missile Attack Kills Another Russian-Appointed Official In Occupied Kherson

Alexei Katerinichev was killed in a missile strike, Russian-imposed authorities in Kherson said.

Another Russian-appointed official has been killed in Ukraine's Kherson region.

Russian-imposed authorities in Ukraine's Kherson region said on September 30 that the Moscow-appointed deputy governor of the partially occupied region, Aleksei Katerinichev, was killed in a Ukrainian missile strike.

Five days earlier, state media outlets in Russia reported that former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Zhuravko, who joined the Russian side after Moscow troops took some parts of the Kherson region in March, was killed in a Ukrainian missile attack in the regional capital, which is also called Kherson.

Since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February, there have been several attacks conducted against Russia-appointed officials in territories occupied by Moscow.

With reporting by RIA Novosti
Updated

Putin Signs Documents Seizing Parts Of Ukraine As He Lashes Out At West

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at the use of nuclear weapons to defend the four regions his forces are trying to hold, saying Russia would defend them "by all the means we possess."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed documents to formally seize four Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Moscow, escalating his failing seven-month-old invasion of the country.

Several European countries, including Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Britain, joined the United States in immediately condemning the move as illegal on September 30, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on the West to accept his country into NATO.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The lavish signing ceremony to incorporate the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions into the Russian Federation took place in the Kremlin's opulent white-and-gold St. George’s Hall before hundreds of members of the country's political elite.

In a speech preceding the signing ceremony, Putin claimed the people of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya had "made their choice" to join Russia earlier this month during so-called referendums widely seen as having been conducted at the barrel of a gun.

He claimed they were now "citizens of Russia...forever."

However, the signing ceremony does not change anything. Russia has no way of enforcing the annexations unless it can win on the battlefield.

Putin hinted at the use of nuclear weapons to hold on to the four regions -- which appear to be slowly slipping out of his hands amid a successful counteroffensive by Ukraine -- claiming Russia would defend them "by all the means we possess."

U.S. President Joe Biden called the signing ceremony a "fraudulent attempt" to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory, which he said was a flagrant violation of international law.

He said in a statement that the United States will impose sanctions on those individuals and entities who provided political or economic support to the annexation drive.

"Make no mistake: These actions have no legitimacy. The United States will always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders," Biden said.

Washington immediately imposed sanctions on hundreds of members of Russia's legislature, leaders of the country's financial and military infrastructure, and suppliers supporting Russia's military-industrial complex.

Putin claimed he was "ready" for peace talks with Ukraine but said the annexation of the four regions would not be on the table, a proposition unacceptable to Kyiv.

The four regions together with Crimea make up around 20 percent of Ukraine, including some of its most industrialized territory.

Following the signing ceremony, Zelenskiy announced that Ukraine had applied for accession to NATO under an accelerated procedure.

Zelenskiy said Putin's statements about occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine "joining Russia" were an attempt to steal what does not belong to Russia.

Ukraine's Counteroffensive

Putin rushed to hold the "sham" referendums and annexation ceremony to raise the stakes for the West amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has driven Moscow's forces back and raised the specter of a Russian defeat.

The West has been arming Ukraine with powerful weapons that have decimated Russian forces, forcing Putin to take the unpopular step of a partial mobilization.

By claiming to have annexed Ukrainian territory, Putin can try to justify his nuclear saber-rattling on the grounds that he is now defending "Russian land," experts have said.

Putin's threats may be "designed to make sure that the United States does not supply the more advanced weapons that Ukraine has persistently requested to conduct a strong, successful counteroffensive this fall," John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-2006 and an analyst at the Atlantic Council, said in a statement.

Putin's September 21 decision to call up 300,000 reservists has sparked protests across the country and driven hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee to neighboring countries.

WATCH: The seizure of the Ukrainian territories has been condemned around the world. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the treaties had "no legal value."

Putin Signs 'Treaties' Formalizing Ukraine Land Grab Amid Global Condemnation
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Putin tried to vindicate the mobilization and his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by claiming that Russia was effectively at war with a West that is seeking to "destroy" the country and its culture.

Addressing mobilized citizens and their families, Putin claimed the West had and continued to look for "new opportunities to pounce" on Russia and had "always dreamed" of breaking the country up driving its citizens into "poverty and extinction."

He claimed the West was now waging a "hybrid war" against Russia to maintain its global dominance and rob it of its wealth, equating it to an attempted colonization.

Analysts called Putin's speech "absurd," noting with irony that he was condemning colonization while committing an act of imperial aggression on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II.

They also pointed out that Putin's policies, rather than protecting citizens from poverty, have put Russia on a path of economic stagnation for years to come.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Jailed Political Activist In Kazakhstan Gets Additional Seven Years In Prison

Erzhan Elshibayev (right) in court earlier this month

QYZYLORDA, Kazakhstan -- Jailed Kazakh activist Erzhan Elshibaev, recognized by rights groups as a political prisoner, has been handed an additional seven years in prison for "violating the penitentiary’s internal regulations and calls for disobedience to prison guards."

Elshibaev said the September 29 ruling by a court in the southern city of Qyzylorda was "lawless."

Elshibaev was expected to be released in October next year. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 after a court in his native cityof Zhanaozen in the country's southwest found him guilty of hooliganism.

Elshibaev and his supporters have rejected the charges, saying they were politically motivated and aimed at ensuring he wouldn't lead any protests in the restive town.

Elshibaev was one of the leaders of several protest rallies in Zhanaozen in 2018 during which residents in the oil town demanded jobs.

Kazakh authorities have been very sensitive to any dissent or protests in the volatile city, where police fatally shot at least 16 people while repressing protests by oil workers in December 2011.

In January this year, a rally in Zhanaozen against abrupt fuel price hikes led to unprecedented anti-government protests across the nation that ended with violent dispersals in which at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers were killed.

The European Parliament has urged Kazakh authorities to release Elshibaev and other political prisoners.

Kazakhstan’s government has denied that there are political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Women's Rights Group Urges FIFA To Expel Iran From World Cup

The Open Stadiums group has campaigned over the last decade for women to be allowed to attend football matches in Iran, but with only limited success. (file photo)

Rights group Open Stadiums have called on world football's governing body to kick Iran out of the World Cup finals in Qatar in November because of the Islamic Republic's discrimination against women.

In an open letter sent to FIFA President Gianni Infantino on September 29, the group said Iranian authorities continued to refuse to allow female fans access to games inside the country.

"The Iranian FA is not only an accomplice of the crimes of the regime. It is a direct threat to the security of female fans in Iran and wherever our national team plays in the world. Football should be a safe space for us all," the letter said.

"Therefore, we ask FIFA, based on Articles 3 and 4 of its statutes, to immediately expel Iran from the World Cup 2022 in Qatar."

The articles mentioned refer to issues of human rights and nondiscrimination based on gender, race, religion and other matters, with breaches punishable by suspension or expulsion from the global body.

Open Stadiums has campaigned over the last decade for women to be allowed to attend football matches in Iran, but with only limited success.

The call comes as protests continued in several cities across Iran against the death of young woman in police custody, state and social media reported, as a human rights group said at least 83 people had been killed in nearly two weeks of demonstrations.

Iran is due to attend its sixth World Cup finals in Qatar and has been drawn to face England, Wales, and the United States in the group stage.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Russian Strike Kills At Least 30 People, Wounds 88 In Zaporizhzhya

Counselors aid victims of a convoy of civilian vehicles that was hit by a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on September 30.

Ukrainian officials now say at least 30 people were killed and 88 wounded in a Russian missile attack that hit a convoy of civilian vehicles near the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya on September 30.

Ukrainian police chief Ihor Klymenko reported the new death toll on social media.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, Russian protests, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"30 dead and 88 wounded as a result of another Russian war crime in Zaporizhzhya," he wrote. "Among the dead are two children: an 11-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. A [3-year-old] girl was also injured."

Klymenko added that among the dead was a policeman -- a 36-year-old employee of the local Strategic Investigations Department. Another 27 police officers of the Berdyansk district administration were injured, and four of them were in serious condition, he said.

Zaporizhzhya is one of the four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Moscow that were officially seized when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees in a ceremony on September 30 after a referendum rejected as a sham by Ukraine, the United States, and the United Nations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia of terrorism.

"Only complete terrorists could do this," Zelenskiy said in reaction to the strike. "Bloodthirsty scum! You will definitely answer," he added.

Zaporizhzhya Governor Oleksandr Starukh said the rockets were launched at a civilian convoy leaving the city center.

The attack occurred as people were waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could retrieve family members and bring them back across the front lines, said the deputy head of Ukraine's presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko.

But Kremlin-backed regional chief Vladimir Rogov blamed the attack on Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of carrying out a "terrorist act."

"The regime in Kyiv is trying to portray what happened as shelling by Russian troops, resorting to a heinous provocation," he said on social media.

Ukraine's air force said Mykolayiv and the Black Sea port city of Odesa were also targeted again with Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed in recent weeks, seemingly to avoid losing more pilots who don't have control of Ukraine's skies.

In Mykolayiv, a Russian missile struck a high-rise building and wounded eight people, said the regional head, Vitaliy Kim.

Meanwhile, the Moscow-backed head of the separatist administration in the eastern Donetsk region said on September 30 that the Russian stronghold of Lyman, in the region's north, was "semi-encircled" by the Ukrainian Army and that news from the front was "alarming."

In a message posted on Telegram, Denis Pushilin, administrator of the territory that calls itself the Donetsk People's Republic, said the villages of Yampil and Drobysheve near Lyman "are no longer fully controlled by us."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Six Russian Diplomats Expelled From Montenegro Amid Espionage Probe

The Russian Embassy in Podgorica said that its consular department had been "suspended indefinitely" in reaction to the expulsions. (file photo)

Montenegro on September 29 ordered the expulsion of six Russian diplomats who worked for the Russian Embassy in Podgorica amid an investigation into alleged spying.

The six were declared personae non gratae due to "activities that are contrary to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," the Foreign Ministry tweeted.

Moscow retaliated by closing its consulate in Montenegro "indefinitely," Russia's Embassy said in a statement.

The embassy said in a statement that due to "hostile actions by Montenegrin authorities toward the Russian embassy in Montenegro," the work of the consular department in Podgorica has been "suspended indefinitely."

Authorities earlier searched several homes and other locations as part of an investigation into suspected espionage, state prosecutors said.

At the request of the special prosecutor’s office for the criminal offense of espionage, searches were conducted at several locations in Podgorica, a spokesman for the special prosecutor, Vukas Radonjic, told RFE/RL on September 29.

Individuals are suspected of "creating a criminal organization and espionage," Radonjic said, adding that there were no arrests.

Local media reported that police detained six Russian diplomats and up to 30 Russian citizens with temporary residency permits, alongside two Montenegrin citizens, on suspicion of working for Russian intelligence.

Outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said the operation was undertaken alongside Montenegro's international partners in order to "preserve national interests."

Abazovic told reporters he hoped it would diminish "malign influences" in Montenegro.

Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and adopted Western sanctions against the Kremlin following Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has been cited as the source of a cyberattack that disabled state IT infrastructure beginning at the end of August and whose consequences are still being felt. Experts from the FBI assisted Montenegro in the investigation of the cyberattack.

With reporting by AFP

Finland Joins Baltics, Poland In Shutting Border To Russian Tourists

The Finnish government said its decision would lead to a significant drop in cross-border traffic after almost 17,000 Russians crossed the border during the weekend.

Finland will ban Russian citizens with tourist visas from entering the country starting on September 30, shutting off a route to the European Union for Russians trying to flee a military mobilization announced last week by President Vladimir Putin.

The move means Finland joins Poland and the Baltic states in barring tourists crossing their shared land borders with Russia. The bans were part of a series of sanctions and other steps taken against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine launched in February.

“The decision in principle aims to completely prevent Russian tourism to Finland and the related transit through Finland,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said during a news conference.

The government said the move would lead to a significant drop in cross-border traffic after almost 17,000 Russians crossed the border during the weekend.

The government justified its decision by citing security concerns related to Russia's war in Ukraine, “illegal” referendums arranged by Russia in parts of Ukraine, and what it said was sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines from Russia under the Baltic Sea.

Finland had already slashed the number of visas issued to Russian citizens to one-tenth of the typical number in a show of solidarity with Ukraine. But until the decision on September 29 it had provided one of the last easily accessible land routes to Europe for Russian holders of European Schengen-zone visas.

Russian citizens can still enter Finland for family reasons, to study, or work. Also, Russian political dissidents may seek to enter for humanitarian purposes.

The EU has banned all flights from Russia, leaving only rail and road transport links available, and this month it agreed to limit issuing free-travel Schengen zone visas to Russians.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Washington Indicts Russian Billionaire For Sanctions Violations Related To The Birth Of His Child In The U.S.

Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has charged Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska with violating sanctions by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrange to have his partner flown to the United States twice to give birth to his children.

The acts violated U.S. sanctions that were imposed in 2018 against Deripaska, 52, because of his close ties to the Russian government and its seizure of the Crimea region of Ukraine, the Justice Department said in a news release.

The Justice Department unsealed the charges on September 29 following at least a yearlong investigation into the tycoon’s business dealings in the United States that included a raid on his home in Washington in October 2021.

The department said that Natalia Bardakova, 45, a Russian citizen based in Russia and U.S.-based Olga Shriki, 42, a naturalized U.S. citizen, helped Deripaska arrange for Yekaterina Voronina, 33, to travel to the U.S. by private jet on a tourism visa in 2020 for the birth of their first child and again for the birth of their second in 2022.

The first effort was successful and the child was born in the United States and automatically received U.S. citizenship. But in June 2022 Voronina was refused entry after concealing the tycoon was funding her trip.

Authorities said Deripaska spent at least $300,000 on medical care, housing, childcare, and other logistics to support Voronina when she traveled to the U.S. in 2020.

Following the birth, Deripaska's three co-defendants conspired to conceal that the Russian tycoon was the child's father by slightly misspelling the child's last name, the indictment said.

Bardakova and Shriki also worked to manage Deripaska's properties in the United States and to launder some $3 million from the sale of one of his businesses, a music studio in California, according to the Justice Department.

Only one of the four people charged -- Shriki -- is in custody. She was arrested on September 29 and released on a $2 million bond after an appearance in federal court. She did not enter a plea.

Prosecutors said in the news release that Deripaska lied and evaded U.S. sanctions as he sought to benefit from life in America “despite his cozy ties with the Kremlin and his vast wealth acquired through ties to a corrupt regime.”

Erich Ferrari, a lawyer for Deripaska, declined to comment, according to Reuters.

Deripaska, Bardakova, and Shriki, are charged with one count of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Shriki is further charged in one count of destruction of records, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Bardakova and Voronina are each further charged with one count of making false statements to federal agents, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Deripaska and Bardakova reside in Russia. The Justice Department could request their extradition should they travel to any of the dozens of countries that have such treaties with the United States.

The United States sanctioned Deripaska in April 2018 as part of a sweeping package of asset freezes and financial restrictions slapped on more than two dozen Russian political and business elites thought to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Washington sought to punish the Kremlin for “malign activity around the globe,” including aggression against Ukraine.

Deripaska is one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, owning stakes in a wide range of businesses including aluminum, power, and auto production. He acquired his initial wealth during the chaotic privatizations of the 1990s when he scooped up stakes on the cheap in aluminum smelters.

His business empire flourished during Putin’s first two terms in office from 2000 to 2008 when he snapped up businesses in various industries and, at one point, became the nation’s wealthiest man. According to Forbes magazine, he is worth $2.8 billion.

In targeting Deripaska with sanctions, the United States claimed he acted or purported to act for senior Russian government officials as well as for operating in Russia’s energy sector.

Evidence of Deripaska’s close ties to the Russian government surfaced when a video was published online showing him vacationing in 2016 on a yacht near Norway with Sergei Prikhodko, who at the time was a deputy prime minister and top foreign policy adviser.

The sanctions put a freeze on any assets belonging to Deripaska in the United States, including bank accounts and property.

However, Deripaska continued to “maintain and retain” the three luxury properties, including the one in Washington and two in New York, with the help of his associates and shell companies.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP

U.S. Charges Former Army Officer, Wife With Conspiracy Over Medical Data Leaks

A former U.S. Army officer and his wife have been criminally charged by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly plotting to leak sensitive health-care data about military patients to Russia.

Jamie Lee Henry, a former major, and his wife, Dr. Anna Gabrielian, an anesthesiologist, have been charged in connection with a plot that the Justice Department says started in August and was linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Justice Department on September 29 unsealed the indictment charging them with conspiracy and the wrongful disclosure of health information about patients at a U.S. Army base in the state of North Carolina.

The couple allegedly told an undercover agent they were motivated by an allegiance to Russia and a belief that U.S. actions in Ukraine were an expression of U.S. hatred toward Russia.

The couple were scheduled for their initial court appearance on September 29.

Prosecutors said the pair wanted to try to help the Russian government by providing data to "gain insights into the medical conditions of individuals associated with the U.S. government and military."

The two met on August 17 with an individual whom they believed was a Russian official, but who in fact was an FBI undercover agent, the Justice Department said.

Gabrielian told the undercover agent she was motivated by "patriotism toward Russia" to provide any assistance she could, even if it meant "being fired or going to jail," the indictment says.

In the meeting, which took place in a hotel in Baltimore, she volunteered to recruit her husband, saying he had information about prior military training the United States provided to Ukraine, among other things.

Henry later told the undercover agent he was committed to Russia and claimed he had contemplated volunteering to join the Russian Army.

"The way I am viewing what is going on in Ukraine now, is that the United States is using Ukrainians as a proxy for their own hatred toward Russia," he allegedly told the agent.

In a subsequent meeting, Gabrielian pledged to provide Russia with access to patients at the U.S. Army base in North Carolina and later in August handed over information on current and former military officials and their spouses, the department said.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of five years for conspiracy, and a maximum of 10 years in federal prison for each count of disclosing health-care information.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Says Sanctions Prevent It From Maintaining Gas Pipeline To Turkey, Balkans

Russian President Vladimir Putin launching TurkStream pipeline in 2020 with his counterparts from Bulgaria, Turkey, and Serbia.

The Russian operator of a pipeline that supplies Turkey and the Balkans with natural gas said it would suspend some maintenance and repair work, citing European Union sanctions, a move that threatens to deepen Europe’s energy crisis.

Oleg Aksyutin , the director of South Stream Transport B.V., sent a note earlier this month to division managers informing them that Netherland’s import and export authority would be revoking its export license as of September 17.

South Stream Transport is the Dutch-unit of the Kremlin-controlled natural gas giant, Gazprom, which manages the TurkStream pipeline running under the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and on to the Balkans and Central Europe.

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL, Aksyutin ordered them to “suspend the execution of all contracts related to the technical support of the gas pipeline, including design, manufacture, assembly, testing, repair, maintenance and training.”

He said gas exports should continue but only with emergency support in order to prevent damage to the environment.

Deyan Kalaydzhiyev, the head of contracts, told employees in a letter that was also obtained by RFE/RL to inform Western suppliers of goods and services -- such as control valves, technical support, telecommunications for pipeline maintenance, and pipeline repair – that purchase agreements were to be suspended as of September 16.

South Stream Transport has applied for a new license but it doesn’t know if it will receive it, a company source told RFE/RL.

Dutch and Turkish officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

TurkStream has the capacity to deliver 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas a year with half of it destined for Turkey and the other half for the Balkans and Central Europe.

Serbia and Hungary are the main European consumers.

TurkStream lies three kilometers below the sea in waters with high seismic activity. Specialized ships regularly monitor the pipeline for damage in order to quickly make repairs. The equipment needed to monitor and repair the pipeline is largely imported from the West.

South Stream Transport’s suspension of contracts means that “no one will be able to carry out repairs if a pipe is damaged, gas leaks, or if a part of the pipeline comes apart due to an earthquake. In fact, the company has lost operational control over the pipeline, the Russian branch has lost contact with the corporate center," a company source told RFE/RL.

Russia earlier this year slashed exports through Nord Stream 1, its main natural gas export pipeline to Europe, claiming Western sanctions on equipment and services impaired its ability to maintain the underwater pipeline in the Baltic Sea.

The move drove EU gas prices to record highs. Last month, Russia completely cut exports along Nord Stream 1, citing continued maintenance issues.

Western leaders accused Russia of using the sanctions as an excuse to cut natural gas exports to Europe in an attempt to inflict severe economic pain on the bloc , weaken EU support for Ukraine, and reverse sanctions.

The EU last year received 40 percent of its natural gas needs from Russia, giving the Kremlin massive influence over the bloc’s energy industry, including the ability to manipulate prices.

In imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU made carve outs for the gas industry to ensure continued deliveries.

Benjamin Schmitt, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Europe needs to brace for Russia replicating in the Black Sea the strategy it used to halt exports along the Baltic Sea.

"For months, Gazprom has been citing false technical and sanctions claims to justify its significant gas cuts and resultant energy weaponization along the Nord Stream pipeline routes against the EU,” said Schmitt, a former European energy security advisor at the State Department.

Continuing that same playbook along the TurkStream pipeline route is something the European Union must be prepared for, and the arguments that Gazprom is making for potential cuts along this Black Sea line is consistent with this very approach that has been taken by the Kremlin for months," he said.

Earlier this week, explosions damaged the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, meaning they will be out of operation indefinitely.

The EU and NATO called it “sabotage” with some EU officials accusing Russia of being behind the attack. The Kremlin has denied any involvement and pointed the finger at the United States, an accusation that Washington immediately dismissed.

Russia now has only two out of five natural gas export pipelines to Europe in operation, including TurkStream and one running through Ukraine.

A cut in flows or a complete shutdown of TurkStream would especially hurt Hungary, one of the EU countries most dependent on Russian gas imports.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the most vocal opponent of EU sanctions on Russia, undermining the bloc’s united front against the Kremlin.

His government earlier this month called for holding a non-binding, popular vote to determine if Hungarians want the EU to end sanctions on Russia.

Russia’s halt to maintenance and repairs on TurkStream comes just as Europe rushes to fill its natural gas storage ahead of the winter heating season.

Natural gas is used to heat homes and buildings throughout Europe with demand surging during the winter. It is also used to fire power plants to generate electricity.

Europe could suffer from rolling blackouts this winter if it is unable to secure enough gas, experts say.

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