- By Mike Eckel
U.S. Accuses Three FSB Officers, Russian Ministry Programmer Of Hacking Nuclear, Energy Firms
U.S. authorities have accused three Russian intelligence officers of hacking U.S. nuclear companies and others for nearly six years, charging them and another man employed by the Russian Defense Ministry of computer conspiracy and other crimes.
The federal indictments, issued in 2021 but only unsealed on March 24, were the latest in a series of accusations and revelations showing the scope and skill of Russia's state-sponsored spies and hackers and their efforts to penetrate U.S. computer systems, private and public.
Prosecutors said three men working for a unit called Center 16 of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's leading domestic intelligence agency, spent five years, 2012 to 2017, sending fake e-mails with infected attachments to energy companies in the United States.
Once opened or clicked on, the attachments, which sometimes were disguised as resumes from interested job seekers, would then allow the officers to insert harmful computer code, and then monitor internal computer systems.
"Russian state-sponsored hackers pose a serious and persistent threat to critical infrastructure both in the United States and around the world," Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement announcing the indictments.
It wasn't immediately clear why the indictments were unsealed on March 24.
But U.S. authorities for more than a decade have gone after Russian hackers -- both from the private sector and state-sponsored -- seeking arrests in countries across the globe and demanding their extradition to the United States to stand trial.
The efforts have infuriated Moscow, which accuses the United States of hunting down Russian citizens around the world.
The issue of hackers working for Russian intelligence agencies came into sharp focus after the 2016 U.S. election, when, according to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Russian agents hacked the computer systems of Democratic Party officials, stole e-mails, then leaked them in a bid to embarrass then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The agency named by Mueller was Russia's military intelligence agency, known as the GRU. Another intelligence agency, known as the SVR, has also been identified in several high-profile hacking incidents, as well.
In 2017, two FSB officers were implicated in the hack of Yahoo and theft of nearly 1 billion e-mail accounts, one of the largest-ever such computer thefts.
In the new indictments, U.S. authorities accuse the three officers from the FSB's Center 16 of hacking hundreds of computers system from energy companies in the United States and other countries. Center 16, which is also known as Military Unit 71330, was dubbed by the nicknames "Berzerk Bear," "Dragonfly," and "Energetic Bear" by cyber-researchers who have tracked it for years.
According to the indictment, the three used spearphishing attacks that targeted more than 3,300 users at more than 500 U.S. and international companies. They also targeted U.S. government agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A separate indictment targeted a programmer who worked for an institute under the Russian Defense Ministry. That man, Yevgeny Gladkikh, allegedly used a type of highly powerful malware known as Triton to hack a petrochemical plant in 2017.
The indictment does not identify the plant, but the details in the indictment suggest the facility was in Saudi Arabia.
Researchers who have studied Russia's hacking community have warned that Russian intelligence agencies routinely seek to hire, or coerce, capable private-sector hackers into working for the state. In another case, the FSB's cyberunit hired a former hacker and made him an officer.
The FSB's Center 16 gained publicity in 2019 when a hacker group purportedly breached a Moscow research institute and said it found files showing that the institute had been hired by Center 16 to work on a project to "de-anonymize" the Tor browser.
Tor is an Internet privacy tool, originally funded by the U.S. government, that bounces Internet users' traffic through "relays" around the world, making it extremely hard for anyone to identify the source of the information or users' locations.
At Least One Dead In Fresh Wave Of Air Strikes On Kyiv, Says Klitschko
At least one person was killed in a new wave of Russian strikes on Kyiv early on May 30, the mayor of the Ukrainian capital, Vitali Klitschko, said on Telegram. Fires broke out in several districts. Falling debris set a high-rise building on fire in Kyiv's Holosiyivskiy district, and 20 people were evacuated, he said. "One person died. In total, four victims were hospitalized in the Holosiyivskiy district. Medics provided help on the spot," Klitschko wrote. The capital's military administration said only Iranian-made drones were involved in the attack -- the 17th on Kyiv in May. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Drone Attack Causes 'Minor Damage' In Moscow, Says Mayor
A drone attack took place in Moscow on the morning of May 30, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on his Telegram channel. As a result of the attack, "several buildings suffered minor damage," Sobyanin said. "At the moment, no one has been seriously wounded," Sobyanin added. Telegram channels report that more than ten drones were shot down in the Moscow region on the morning of May 30. An emergency services representative told RIA Novosti that drones hit two residential buildings in Moscow. According to him, there were no casualties. The information could not be independently verified. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Belarus Has No Immediate Plans To Adopt Russian Currency, Lukashenka Says
Belarus and Russia have no plans to adopt a joint currency in the near future, Belarus's strongman leader announced on May 29. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, speaking at a meeting with the head of Russia's central bank, said that introducing the Russian ruble in Belarus would not be "an easy process," and that the authorities in Minsk had no intentions so far of doing so. "When it comes to creating a single currency and so on, this is not an easy process and, probably, not [one] for today," Lukashenka said during talks with Bank of Russia chief Elvira Nabiullina. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Zelenskiy Pays Tribute To Americans Who Fought For Ukraine In Memorial Day Message
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 29 thanked U.S. citizens who have fought for Kyiv following Russia's full-scale invasion of February 2022. Speaking in English in a video address marking the U.S. Memorial Day holiday, Zelenskiy said it was important to remember the price paid by many to "give light to freedom." "We Ukrainians will always be grateful to the U.S. and every American for extraordinary support which helps us [fight] Russian tyranny." An unknown number of Americans have volunteered along with other foreign nationals to fight alongside Ukrainian soldiers. Casualty figures are not known.
Kosovo Ex-President Thaci, On Trial For War Crimes, Allowed To Visit Sick Mother
Former Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, who is on trial in The Hague on 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, was in Kosovo on May 29 to visit his sick mother, the court said. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers said that "due to compelling humanitarian grounds...the Trial Panel has instructed the Registry to manage a custodial visit to Kosovo for Hashim Thaci to meet family." Thaci remained in the custody of the Specialist Chambers, it added. Local media reported that Thaci, 55, who has been in custody since November 2020, was in the village of Buroje at his mother's house. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Ukrainian Lawmakers Approve Sanctions On Iran For 50 Years
Ukrainian lawmakers on May 29 approved a bill proposed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to impose sanctions on Iran for 50 years. The sanctions, among other restrictions, include a complete ban on trade with Iran, investments, and transferring technologies. The restrictions also forbid Iranian transit across Ukrainian territory as well as the use of its airspace and prevents the withdrawal of Iranian assets from Ukraine. The bill has already been approved by the National Security and Defense Council. Kyiv has accused Tehran of providing Moscow with military drones for use in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Iran has vehemently denied. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Iran Wants To Upgrade Syria's Air Defense
Iran wants to boost Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military by upgrading the country's air-defense system, the Fars news agency reported on May 29. In an interview with the news agency, Iranian General Said Hamzah Kalandari said that although Syria had its air-defense capabilities, the "Syrian brothers" will be supported with equipment and tactical upgrades. The general, who is active in the Defense Ministry, said the aim was to contain Israeli attacks. Along with Russia, Iran is Assad's most important ally. Iran has been expanding its political and military relations in the region since the 1990s.
House Arrest Of Orthodox Metropolitan Pavlo Extended In Kyiv
A court in Kyiv on May 29 extended until at least July 1 the pretrial house arrest of Metropolitan Pavlo of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), a former abbot at the famed Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery. Pavlo, who is accused of inciting religious enmity and denying Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, was sent to house arrest for at least two months on April 1 after Ukraine's Security Service searched his residence. Although the UOC officially cut its traditional ties with the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow, it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Ukrainian Lawmakers Move Victory Day From May 9 To May 8
In another move to distance their country from Russia, Ukrainian lawmakers on May 29 approved a bill proposed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to set May 8 as the Day of Remembrance and Victory over Nazism in World War II, instead of the Soviet-inherited celebrations of Victory Day on May 9. Most European countries celebrate Victory in Europe Day on May 8 to mark the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in 1945. May 9 will be a working day in Ukraine but marked as the Day of Europe. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Poland Puts Sanctions On 365 Belarusians Over Journalist's Jailing
Poland has imposed sanctions on a further 365 Belarusian citizens over the imprisonment of a journalist of Polish origin in Belarus, the Interior Ministry said on May 29, amid rising tensions between Warsaw and Minsk. Poland has been an important refuge for opponents of authoritarian Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On May 26, a Belarusian court upheld an earlier decision to sentence journalist Andrzej Poczobut to eight years in prison. Poczobut was jailed on charges of encouraging actions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus, trying to rehabilitate Nazism, and inciting ethnic hostility. Poland says the charges are unjust and politically motivated. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranian Women Reveal Degrading Tactics Employed By Security Authorities
Several female Iranian activists are following the lead of women's rights leader Mojgan Keshavarz by speaking out about degrading and dehumanizing methods -- including sexual harassment -- being employed by staff at the country's prisons.
Keshavarz revealed on social media on May 28 that she had been forced to undress completely after being arrested in 2019 and forced to spread her legs and sit and stand at the direction of guards under the pretense of ensuring she had not concealed a mobile phone inside her body. During the ordeal, she said she was photographed.
Keshavarz's narrative was echoed soon afterward on social media by other women who said they had been subjected to similar acts.
Zeynab Zaman, a civil activist who was recently detained, disclosed that she was forced to completely undress twice -- once at the detention center and once at the court -- to supposedly ensure she wasn't smuggling anything.
"The most ridiculous, illogical, and stupid reason for normalizing the suffering of others, is to say that it is the same everywhere! Wherever suffering is imposed on a human being, it's wrong, it's inhumane, it's filthy, it's a crime," she wrote of her experience.
Several political and civil prisoners have repeatedly reported inhumane and illegal behavior toward prisoners in Iran and have called for institutions and international organizations to devote attention to the situation in Iranian prisons.
The number of females detained in Iran has grown since the death of Mahsa Amini in September while in police custody for an alleged head scarf offense.
Women have been at the forefront of the unrest that Amini's death unlocked in Iran, posing one of the biggest challenges to authorities since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Gender equality activist Nasibeh Shamsaei described similar experiences, saying security officials forced her to undress at a time when she was menstruating, describing the tactics as "humiliation" and "psychological torture."
Prominent Iranian actress Mahnaz Afshar said the tactics are not new.
Afshar said that several years ago, she was summoned to an intelligence office following the release of a video featuring a "naked" girl, falsely identified as her. A female agent at the office forced Afshar to strip completely for photographs to prove it wasn't her. Afshar described the ordeal as a "violation of my spirit and psyche."
She added that she fears others will be like her, hiding the experience while feeling "shame" and being gripped by the fear that the pictures of her would be misused.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Families Of Executed Iranian Protesters Say The Government Continues To Pressure Them
The family of executed protester Majid Kazemi says Iranian authorities have launched a campaign against it, suspending Kazemi's father's retirement benefits and firing his sister from her job just 10 days after his death sentence was carried out.
Mohammad Hashemi, Kazemi's cousin, also revealed on Twitter on May 29 that Kazemi's brothers, Mehdi and Hossein, remain in the custody of the Islamic republic's security institutions after speaking out and pleading for a stay of the death penalty prior to his May 19 execution.
According to a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Amir Kazemi, another cousin of Majid, confirmed that the family remains in the dark about the whereabouts and condition of Majid's brothers. Amir Kazemi suggested that the arrest of these family members -- his sister was also detained but later released -- was an attempt to prevent a memorial service for Majid Kazemi.
Following the execution of Kazemi and two other young protesters, the government has ratcheted up pressure on their families. The executions sparked widespread public outrage, with rights groups and several governments criticizing the authorities for conducting hasty trials, forcing "confessions," and denying the accused due process.
Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirehashemi, and Saeed Yaqoubi were arrested for the alleged killing of two Basij paramilitary force members and a law enforcement officer during protests in November 2022.
However, based on a picture of the court verdict made public by the defendants' families, the death sentences for the three were not issued for murder, but instead for "waging war against God," a crime often applied to political dissidents.
The Basij members died at the height of widespread protests ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022 while she was in police custody for allegedly breaking rules concerning the Islamic head scarf, known as a hijab. All three said they were innocent of the charges and were being made scapegoats for the deaths.
Saleh Mirehashemi's mother released an audio file on social media three days after the executions saying her husband had been handcuffed by government forces and prevented from holding a ceremony honoring their son. Videos have also emerged showing security forces stationed around Saeed Yaqoubi's house in recent nights.
Authorities warned for months after unrest broke out following Amini's death that they would react harshly to any dissent. Lawmakers have pushed the judiciary to render the death penalty in trials for those arrested during the protests, which are seen as one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since it took power in 1979.
So far, Iranian authorities have followed through with their threats by executing at least seven protesters, including the three on May 19.
Human rights activists say authorities in Iran are using the executions to try to instill fear in society rather than to combat crime.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Navalny Group's YouTube Anchor Says Barred From Entering Turkey
Irina Alleman, an anchor of the Popular Politics YouTube Channel of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team, was refused entry to Turkey. Alleman said on Telegram on May 29 that her trip to Turkey to cover the runoff presidential poll did not take place, as Turkish border guards informed her at the airport in Istanbul on May 25 that she had been barred from entering the country for five years due to "national security" issues. It remains unclear what prompted the decision. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Toqaev 'Appreciates' Lukashenka's 'Joke' Proposal For Kazakhstan To Join Russia-Belarus Union
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has called a proposal by the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for Kazakhstan to join the so-called Russia-Belarus Union State a "joke" that has no resonance in the Central Asian country, given its commitments to other international treaties.
Toqaev said on May 29 while meeting with farmers of the North Kazakhstan region that he "duly appreciated the joke" by Lukashenka that he expressed in a televised interview with a Russian journalist over the weekend that Kazakhstan should join the union, which was created on paper in the 1990s and has been negotiated off and on since, but "there is no need" to join.
"Because there are other integration groupings, first of all the Eurasian Economic Union," Toqaev said.
He also touched on Russia's controversial plans to place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.
"As for the nuclear weapons, we do not need them because we joined the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. We remain loyal to our obligations defined by these two international documents," Toqaev said.
Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons in the 1990s after they joined the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The three former Soviet republics also signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 -- as did Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom -- which barred the superpowers from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against the three.
However, Russian authorities have repeatedly raised the specter of the potential use of nuclear weapons since launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with the frequency of the warnings increasing as Moscow's aggression against Ukraine continues.
Last week, Toqaev said at a Eurasian Economic Union (EES) meeting in Moscow that integration within the group was different from the controversial Russia-Belarus Union State.
"I am sorry, even nuclear weapons are being shared by the two," Toqaev said as he tried to emphasize that other EES states such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan were attempting to stay away from getting involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In a televised interview aired on May 28, Lukashenka commented on Toqaev's statement at the EES session regarding the nuclear weapons "shared" by Belarus and Russia, saying that former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, longing to own nuclear weapons can join Russia-Belarus Union State as well.
With reporting by Tengrinews, Inbusiness.kz, and Rossia TV
Family Of Missing Pakistani Journalist Fears For His Life
The family of a prominent TV anchor and YouTuber who has gone missing amid political turmoil in Pakistan fears for his life as the authorities remain clueless about his whereabouts. "We are extremely worried and fear for his life," Usman Riaz Khan, brother of the missing journalist, told dpa on May 29. Riaz Khan, known for his support of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, was arrested on May 11 at Punjab's Sialkot Airport during a crackdown on Khan's party for violent protests over his arrest. Police told the family he was subsequently released.
Putin Signs Law Allowing Elections In Russian-Occupied Ukrainian Regions
Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 29 signed into law a bill legalizing elections planned for later this year on Ukrainian territories that Moscow took over during its ongoing invasion. Putin had announced martial law in parts of four regions of Ukraine that are under Russian control, but previously Russian law did not allow for holding elections during such conditions. The new law allows elections during martial law with the approval of defense and security organs.
Polish President To Sign Russian Influence Bill, Despite Opposition Protests
Poland's president said on May 29 that he would sign a bill authorizing a panel to investigate Russian influence, despite opposition criticism that it creates a witch hunt against government opponents in an election year. The ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party says the liberal opposition Civic Platform (PO) party allowed Poland to become dangerously dependent on Russian fossil fuels when it was in government from 2007 to 2015, raising questions about whether PO members were under Moscow's sway. Duda said he would ask the Constitutional Tribunal to look at the law after it takes force due to criticism it is unconstitutional. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
HRW Urges Vigilance On Cluster Munitions, Chides Russia For Usage In Ukraine
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for greater global efforts to ensure an international treaty banning cluster munitions achieves its goal of ending the usage of such weapons, which it says are being used "repeatedly" by Russia in its war against Ukraine.
HRW said in a report released on May 29 that the Convention On Cluster Munitions, adopted on May 30, 2008, in Dublin, "is being tested as never before.”
The report details how cluster munitions are being used in several conflict areas of the world, including by Russia, which HRW says has "repeatedly" used them since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, causing hundreds of civilian casualties and damaging civilian objects, including homes, hospitals, and schools.
"A single Russian cluster munition attack on a train station in Kramatorsk on April 8, 2022, killed at least 58 civilians and wounded 100 others. The stigma created by the convention has led to widespread international condemnation of these attacks," the report says, noting Ukrainian forces have also used cluster munitions on several occasions.
Russia and Ukraine are not signatories of the treaty.
WATCH: Award-winning Ukrainian journalist Andriy Dubchak barely escaped with his life as he and his son came under cluster-bomb attack. The weapons are widely banned, but both Russia and Ukraine are accused of using them. The attack blew out his car's windows, ripped through the vehicle, and fragments even tore through his trousers.
HRW also said that the Syrian-Russian military alliance used cluster munition rockets in attacks on camps for internally displaced people in Syria's Idlib Province in November, killing and wounding civilians.
Cluster munitions are launched by artillery, rockets, missiles, and aircraft. The weapons open in midair and disperse dozens or hundreds of submunitions, also called bomblets, over a wide area.
Many submunitions fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that can indiscriminately wound and kill, like land mines, for years until they are cleared and destroyed.
The Convention On Cluster Munitions bans the use, production, acquisition, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions and requires the destruction of stockpiles.
HRW said there have been no reports of new use, production, or transfers of cluster munitions by the 123 nations that have signed or ratified the convention.
However, a handful of countries outside the treated have produced or used cluster munitions, the group said.
Former Chief Of Navalny's Team In Bashkortostan Calls Her Trial Politically Motivated
UFA, Russia -- Lilia Chanysheva, the former leader of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in the Republic of Bashkortostan, has told a court that her trial on charges of extremism is politically motivated.
In her final statement, published online by Navalny's team on May 29, Chanysheva said that she does not consider herself a defendant because she is a politician and the case against her is political.
"I am a politician, a woman who is being persecuted by male opponents, whose names are [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Head of Bashkortostan] Radiy Khabirov. Politics is a profession as well. Therefore to plead guilty for me is the same as for a teacher to plead guilty to being a teacher or for a physician to plead guilty to being a physician," Chanysheva said.
"Putin has been eradicating dissent for a long time, creating hatred among people and the government with a single goal -- to stay in power after the 2024 [presidential election]. But Putin means corruption, low salaries, and pensions, a falling economy and price hikes. Putin means war! It has affected each and every one now," Chanysheva stated, adding that many opposition politicians and rights defenders have been jailed since her arrest.
Chanysheva, 41, was arrested in November 2021 and later charged with the organization of an extremist community, public calls for extremist activities, and propagating the activities of a noncommercial organization that encroaches on citizens' privacy and rights.
Chanysheva's trial, which started on March 1, is being held behind closed doors.
She headed the local unit of Navalny's network of regional campaign groups until his team disbanded them after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have them branded "extremist."
The request was accepted, effectively outlawing the group.
Chanysheva's defense team said at the time that her arrest was the first since the movement was banned. The charges appear to be retroactive since the organization she worked for disbanded before it had been legally classified as extremist.
Amnesty International has urged Russian authorities to release Chanysheva "immediately," insisting that the extremism charges are "false" and should be dropped.
Navalny himself has been in prison since February 2021, after he was arrested the month prior upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been undergoing treatment for a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent that he says was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny's poisoning.
Several of the opposition leader and Kremlin critic's allies have been charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of Navalny's close associates have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.
Ukrainian Forces Shell Settlements In Russia's Belgorod Border Region, Says Governor
The governor of Russia's Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, said on May 29 that several frontier settlements were being shelled simultaneously by Ukrainian forces. In a statement published on the Telegram messaging app, Vyacheslav Gladkov said two industrial facilities in the border town of Shebekino had been shelled and four employees had been wounded. Several settlements were left without electricity, he added. Belgorod, which borders Ukraine's Kharkiv region, has repeatedly come under attack from Kyiv's forces since the beginning of the full-scale conflict in Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Kazakh Journalist Launches Hunger Strike Protesting Second 25-Day Jail Term
Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim has launched a hunger strike to protest against a 25-day jail term he was handed on May 28, two days after he had finished serving a similar sentence. Mukhammedkarim’s lawyer told RFE/RL that a court in the southern town of Qonaev sentenced his client on a charge of violating regulations for public gatherings because of a video on Mukhammedkarim's YouTube channel that called on Kazakhs to defend their rights. His previous 25-day sentence was on the same charge over his online calls for Almaty residents to rally against the government's move to introduce visa-free entry to Kazakhstan for Chinese citizens. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Russia Puts U.S. Senator Graham On Wanted List; Remarks Taken Out Of Context
Russia's Interior Ministry has put U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) on a wanted list, Russian media reported on May 29. In an edited video released by the Ukrainian president's office of Graham's meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 26, Graham was shown saying "the Russians are dying" and then saying U.S. support was the "best money we've ever spent." After Russia criticized the remarks, Ukraine released a full video of the meeting that showed the two remarks were not linked. Graham disputed Russian criticism of his support for Ukraine, saying he had simply praised the spirit of Ukrainians in resisting a Russian invasion with assistance provided by Washington. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Dozens Of KFOR Troops, Protesters Injured As Clashes Break Out In Serb-Majority Towns In Northern Kosovo
ZVECAN, Kosovo -- NATO-led KFOR troops on May 29 moved to disperse Serbian demonstrators who had ignored warnings to move away from the municipal headquarters in Zvecan as violent clashes broke out in the standoff between local ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanian authorities, leading to dozens of injuries among troops and protesters.
"You are causing unrest. You are putting yourself and your community at risk. Leave the area and go home -- otherwise KFOR will be forced to intervene," an audio warning from the KFOR contingent blared out to protesters before plumes of smoke engulfed the area.
RFE/RL journalists on the scene reported that many in the crowd sat down as KFOR troops moved to push them away. Tear gas was spotted and shock bombs exploded, although video showed that at least some of them came from the demonstrators.
Protesters were also seen throwing stones and bottles at KFOR troops. NATO officials said about two dozen KFOR soldiers were injured in the unrest.
"While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices," KFOR said.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Twitter that 11 Italian soldiers were injured, three seriously, and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned the attacks on KFOR troops.
Hungary's Defense Minister said that more than 20 Hungarian soldiers were injured.
Zvecan, a town of some 16,500 people, is one of three hotspots in northern Kosovo where authorities from Pristina have attempted to install ethnic-Albanian mayors following boycotted elections that raised the ire of the local ethnic-Serb communities and neighboring Serbia.
Crowds of several hundred people had gathered outside municipal headquarters in Zvecan, Leposavic, and Zubin Potok, with alarm sirens sounding and pepper spray and bottles flying, as local and international pressure mounted for Kosovar officials to de-escalate the situation.
A powerful Serbian party leader demanded that the “illegal” Kosovar forces leave the municipal buildings to be replaced by troops from NATO's KFOR peacekeeping mission.
KFOR soldiers attempting to maintain cordons to keep the two sides apart in the three municipalities and to prevent the crowds from overrunning the buildings where the so-called "parallel" administrations backed by neighboring Serbia operate.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti called on May 29 for calm and suggested that both Pristina and Belgrade need to get back to their commitments expressed in a three-month-old verbal agreement to travel on a "path to normalization" between the Balkan neighbors that reportedly included refraining from threats or the use of force.
Kurti tweeted that he and Italian Foreign Minister Tajani had agreed in a phone conversation "that the current time calls for the implementation of the Basic Agreement and the situation in the north to be calmed down."
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose country doesn't recognize Kosovo and who has put Serbia’s military on high alert, said in a national address late on May 29 that he would hold a meeting with representatives of the so-called Quint group early on May 30.
Vucic, who said that 41 protesters were injured in the clashes, complained that "despite the guarantees, KFOR troops failed to defend Serbs and failed to prevent the seizure of municipalities and violence."
Kosovar police last week escorted newly inaugurated mayors into those buildings despite objections from locals and warnings from Vucic, who has put Serbia's military on high alert.
Even though they pushed for the elections to be held, U.S. and EU envoys have condemned Kosovo's decision to forcibly install the mayors in northern Kosovo to try to calm the situation to avoid further turbulence in Europe at a time when Russia is waging war against Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier emerged from a meeting on May 29 with Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani citing a "shared concern of the prospect of violence and the need to de-escalate."
He said that "we're deeply concerned" and expressed a willingness to meet with Kurti "at his convenience."
Earlier, Hovenier met with two of the installed mayors -- Izmir Zeqiri of Zubin Potok and Ilir Peci of Zvecan, both from the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo -- at the EU offices in the Kosovar capital before going to the building of the Kosovar Assembly, the national parliament.
The mayors of Leposavic, Lulzim Hetemi, and of North Mitrovica, Erden Atiq, who are both from Kurti's Vetevendosje party, reportedly were not at the meeting.
The mayors were all sworn in despite a turnout of under 3.5 percent in the April 23 by-elections in those four areas amid a boycott by ethnic Serbs.
The special elections were sparked by mass resignations by Kosovar Serb mayors, police, and judges in November as a cross-border dispute raged over vehicle registrations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Ethnic Serbs compose around 5 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million residents but are a majority in the four northern regions.
Goran Rakic, the chairman of the dominant Serbian political party in northern Kosovo, the Belgrade-backed Serbian List (Srpska Lista), had warned against the new mayors turning up for work after the weekend.
Rakic was in Zvecan on May 29, where he spoke with international troops and local Serbs.
Riot police formed a security cordon while blue armored vehicles of special units of the Kosovar Police were positioned around the "parallel" administrative building in Zvecan.
Rakic said he had forwarded two demands to KFOR representatives and to foreign representatives in Pristina before the Serbian protesters would withdraw.
One is for the Kosovar "sheriffs," whom he described as "illegal," to return to their homes. The second condition, he said, was for "all the special units in the municipality building and around the municipality, withdraw to the south, because this is not a police station, it is the city hall."
At one point, Rakic was shouted down when he asked the crowd to allow two Kosovar police vehicles to pass. Shouts of "treason!" rang out and bottles landed nearby, according to an RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondent at the scene.
Kosovar police at one point used chemical spray to repel the Serb crowd.
Rakic later added a demand that Kosovo police at the Zvecan town hall be replaced by KFOR troops.
In Leposavic, KFOR troops laid out metal barricades reinforced with concertina wire to keep a crowd of several hundred people away from the municipal headquarters.
Armored vehicles topped with guns and other KFOR-marked vehicles stood on guard outside the municipal building in Zubin Potok, where a crowd of several hundred people gathered and Serbian flags and political party messages hung from nearby homes.
The embassies in Pristina of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union on May 28 -- the so-called QUINT governments -- reiterated an earlier statement "condemning Kosovo's decision to force access into municipal buildings in the north of Kosovo despite our repeated calls for restraint."
They said they expected "no new measures to force access to the municipal buildings in Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan" by Kosovo's government.
The town hall in North Mitrovica has its own building, rather than one controlled under the "parallel system" that is backed by Belgrade to administer to ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.
Moscow, which heavily backs heavily Orthodox Serbia defense and other ties, including its refusal to recognize Kosovo, ratcheted up the pressure on Pristina on May 29 while stoking anti-Western sentiment over NATO's 1999 intervention on behalf of ethnic Albanians against Serb forces, which effectively ended that conflict.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Kenya that "Serbs are fighting for their rights in northern Kosovo," according to AFP.
"A big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an aggression against Yugoslavia," he said.
Officials in neighboring Serbia have demanded as part of EU- and U.S.-mediated talks over the past decade that Pristina fulfill an agreement in 2013 to establish an association of Serbian municipalities to represent the Serb-majority communities.
Kurti came to power in 2020 and again in 2021 pledging to impose greater "reciprocal" measures on Serbia and accelerate efforts to achieve full international recognition for his country. He has resisted forming the association.
Kurti said via Facebook on May 27 that his country was "aware and understands the concerns" of Kosovo's international partners but the municipal buildings "belong to the Kosovar state and therefore were not taken yesterday and will not be taken any other day."
He urged "everyone, especially Serb citizens of Kosovo, to cooperate with the new mayors and their cabinets."
He defended the installation of the mayors and suggested that "any other option would be failure to meet our government's constitutional obligations to the new mayors; would be failure to fulfill the obligations and obligations of the new mayors to the citizens of the Republic; and would make it impossible to provide basic communal services to the citizens."
Local critics have also questioned Kurti's rush to use Kosovo's police forces to install the ethnic Albanian mayors in the mostly Serbian areas.
"This inspired Vucic, [Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica] Dacic, and Serbian List even more to continue their opposition, to remove the mayors and the presence of Kosovo Police at all costs," former Kosovar lawmaker Nuredinn Ibishi said.
Ibishi said the Serbs' response could have been expected, given Serbian List's warnings in the days before the swearing-in of the mayors.
With reporting by AFP
Belarus's Lukashenka Says There Can Be 'Nuclear Weapons For Everyone'
Belarus’s authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that if any other country wanted to join a Russia-Belarus union there could be "nuclear weapons for everyone." Russia moved ahead last week with a plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, in the Kremlin's first deployment of such warheads outside Russia since 1991, spurring concerns in the West. In an interview published on Russia's state television late on May 28, Lukashenka, President Vladimir Putin's staunchest ally among Russia's neighbors, said that it must be "strategically understood" that Minsk and Moscow have a unique chance to unite.
Russia Launches Rare Daytime Air Strikes On Ukrainian Capital
KYIV -- Explosions rocked the skies above Kyiv as Russian forces carried out rare daytime air strikes on the Ukrainian capital hours after bombarding it overnight with missile and drone attacks.
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The drama, visible in the skies over the city, started soon after air-raid sirens wailed at 11 a.m. in Kyiv on May 29, prompting many to seek shelter in subway stations and basements, an RFE/RL correspondent in the city reported.
“Blasts could be seen in the sky from several places in the city, including downtown Kyiv,” the correspondent said. “The explosions set off car alarms across the city, and loud booms could be heard, [possibly] from rockets being shot down by air defenses,” he added.
Eyewitnesses said they heard at least 10 explosions in Kyiv, as the sky above the city filled with blast clouds and smoke trails.
Speaking to RFE/RL near a subway station in Kyiv's Podil district, several locals said air raids had become the reality of their everyday lives since the war began.
"These attacks are yet another problem we have to deal with because of this war," pensioner Ivan Chihir said.
Another resident, Karyna Lypytska, said she takes shelter in the corridors of her home when air raid sirens go off. Lypytska said she fears that the air strikes will likely continnue for some time.
A military officer who didn’t want to give his name told RFE/RL that the latest Russian attack on Kyiv was a "failure" because Ukraine's defense system managed to repel it completely.
"It's Russia's last breath," he said.
The city's military administration said that air defenses shot down all 11 Iskander missiles launched by Russia at Kyiv in the daytime attack. The claim could not be independently verified.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said emergency services had been dispatched to "respond to a call near the center of the city." He urged residents to shelter in place, saying that "the attack on Kyiv continues."
"The enemy used missiles of a ballistic trajectory -- preliminarily Iskanders. There is a possibility that S-300 and S-400 missiles were also used," Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat told Ukrainian media.
Bolstered by sophisticated Western-supplied equipment, Ukrainian air defenses have been adept at thwarting Russian air attacks -- both drones and aircraft missiles.
Russia has intensified missile and drone strikes on Ukraine after a lull of nearly two months, targeting military facilities and supplies with waves of attacks several times a week.
On May 28, Kyiv came under what Ukrainian officials described as the “largest” drone attack on the city since the start of the war. That attack was “carried out in several waves, and the air alert lasted more than five hours,” according to Serhiy Popko, the head of Kyiv's military administration.
Elsewhere, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region that borders Ukraine’s Kharkiv region said on May 29 that Ukrainian forces were shelling several border settlements.
Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that two industrial facilities in the border town of Shebekino had been shelled and four employees had been wounded.
Several villages were left without electricity in the aftermath of the shelling, he added.
Belgorod has repeatedly come under attacks from Ukrainian forces since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.
With reporting by Aleksander Palikot in Kyiv, Reuters, and AFP
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