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Officials: U.S. To Sign Landmark Arms-Trade Treaty

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
U.S. officials say Secretary of State John Kerry will sign a landmark treaty regulating the $70 billion global conventional-weapons trade during the annual UN General Assembly meeting this week.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will sign the treaty on September 25.

The move would put President Barack Obama's administration at odds with the powerful U.S. gun lobby and some lawmakers who oppose it.

The United States is the world's largest arms exporter, and its accession is seen as critical to the treaty's success.

The treaty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in April, has been signed by 86 countries, but many major exporters of conventional weapons, including Russia and China, have not signed on.

U.S. accession to the treaty would require ratification by the Senate.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

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U.S.: 200 ‘Peacekeeping’ Troops To Stay In Syria After Pullout

The United States is set to leave behind a 'peacekeeping' force in Syria after the main force withdraws.

The United States says it will at least temporarily leave 200 “peacekeeping” troops in Syria after a planned pullout of the main U.S. force from the war-torn country.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a brief statement on February 21.

President Donald Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. The president said the troops were no longer needed, asserting that Islamic State (IS) insurgents had been defeated.

Trump received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.

Moscow and Tehran back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year civil war and have provided key military support to keep his government in power. The United States and Turkey back differing antigovernment forces.

The White House announcement came after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The statement said the two presidents agreed to "continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone" in Syria.

The United States and Turkey are NATO allies, but tensions have been raised in recent years over a number of issues, including Washington’s support of Kurdish forces in the region. Ankara considers Kurdish fighters to be terrorists with links to Kurdish separatists operating in Turkey.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish troops have been fighting to expel IS insurgents from their remaining small enclaves in Syria. Some military officials have expressed concerns that the militants could regroup if U.S. forces fully pull out.

The timeline for the U.S. pullout remains uncertain.

Trump on February 6 said he was close to declaring the total defeat of the IS "caliphate" in Syria, but he has not yet made the statement.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Moldova’s Dodon: EU Uncertainty Highlights Need To Keep Close Russia Ties

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says uncertainty within the EU means his country must maintain ties to Russia.

Moldovan President Igor Dodon says his country needs to maintain good relations with Russia amid uncertainty about the future of the European Union.

In an interview with the Associated Press published on February 21, Dodon said his country relies on Moscow for energy, exports, and for help to settle the longstanding conflict in its pro-Russia breakaway republic of Transdniester.

The interview comes ahead of the country’s February 24 parliamentary election, which has the potential to tilt the country either to the West or East.

The country’s leadership is split, with the ruling Democratic Party pursuing a pro-EU stance while the president has pressed for a policy more focused toward Russia.

Dodon was until assuming the presidency the leader of Moldova's Socialist Party, a splinter group from former President Vladimir Voronin's Communist Party. He also is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pro-Russia Socialist Party, the country’s leading opposition group, is expected to win the most votes in the February 24 vote.

However, it is not expected to receive a clear majority. Along with the Democratic Party and the Socialists, the ACUM (Now) bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption and is also considered pro-West, will be among competitors in the vote.

An Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU came into force in 2016, but the Socialists favor the country joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Chisinau’s unsteady record in fighting rampant corruption has angered many Moldovans, increased support for the Socialists, and brought complaints from the EU.

Dodon asserted in the AP interview that he sees the need to maintain ties with the EU, which accounts for 70 percent of Moldova’s exports -- much of it to neighboring Romania, with which Moldova shares a common language and history.

But he also said the EU’s development over the next 10-15 years is uncertain, making it important for Chisinau to keep friendly relations with Moscow.

Moldova's mainly Russian-speaking Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania. Most of Moldova was part of Romania in the interwar period.

Moldovan forces and Moscow-backed Transdniester fighters fought a short but bloody war in 1992.

The conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement after Russian troops in the region intervened on the side of the separatists. Some 1,400 Russian troops remain in Transdniester despite UN calls to remove them.

Dodon won the presidency in 2016 after an election campaign that capitalized on a wave of nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Dodon has been suspended at least five times Moldova's Constitutional Court, accused of failing to fulfill his constitutional obligations by refusing to sign into law bills passed by parliament and other matters.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Ahead Of General Election, Moldova Opposition Leaders Say They've Been Poisoned

Moldovan opposition leaders Andrei Nastase (left) and Maia Sandu (file photo)

CHISINAU -- Two Moldovan opposition leaders have accused the authorities of poisoning them, three days before parliamentary elections.

Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase of the pro-European ACUM (Now) bloc said on February 21 that doctors had discovered heavy metals in their blood.

"Suspicions arise, and against the background of the attitude of the current government to those who they think are dangerous, this case should be taken seriously," Sandu told a press conference in Chisinau.

Nastase added that the authorities "want our deaths."

Vitalie Gamurari, a spokesman for the pro-Western, ruling Democratic Party, rejected the allegation, saying: "Strange accusations have been heard in the last few days and are becoming more and more fantastic."

Besides the Democratic Party, groups competing in the February 24 vote include the Socialists, who favor closer ties to Russia, and the ACUM bloc, which accuses Moldova’s leadership of rampant corruption.

Opinion polls suggest none of them will win an outright majority.

With reporting by Reuters

IAAF Allows More Russian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals. (file photo)

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) says it had cleared 21 Russian athletes to compete in coming international competitions -- albeit not under their national flag.

The world governing body for track and field’s doping review board ruled that the 21 Russians have met "exceptional eligibility criteria" to compete as neutral athletes in 2019, a statement said on February 21.

In January, the IAAF had already approved 42 Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag this year.

Athletics' governing body banned Russia in November 2015 after a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency outlined evidence of systematic, state-backed doping in Russian athletics.

Another report a year later documented more than 1,000 doping cases across dozens of sports, most notably at the Winter Olympics that Russia hosted in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014.

Russian athletes have had to meet strict criteria such as undergoing regular doping tests outside Russia in order to be allowed compete as neutrals.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Iran To Hold Navy Drills In Strait of Hormuz

Iran regularly holds navy maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Iran will hold a three-day navy drill in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz this weekend, according to state media.

Officials were quoted as saying that the annual exercise, which will start on February 22, will extend as far as the Sea of Oman and the fringes of the Indian Ocean.

Iran regularly holds maneuvers in the strait, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.

Navy commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi told state television that submarines, warships, helicopters, and surveillance planes will participate in the drills.

The exercise, dubbed as Velayat-97, will include missile launches from the vessels, he added.

The exercise aims to evaluate the navy's equipment, practice launching weapons and "enable the troops to gain readiness for a real battle," the semiofficial Tasnim news agency cited the rear admiral as saying.

"The maneuver should prepare us for an emergency," Khazandi added.

The military exercises come at a time of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, which last May withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed tough sanctions on the Iranian economy.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States decides to block oil exports as part of its sanctions.

Iran is a major exporter of oil and a member of the OPEC oil cartel.

The United States has dismissed the threat, saying Iran does not control the Strait of Hormuz.

Based on reporting by Tasnim, dpa, AFP, and AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poisoned Bulgarian Arms Dealer Suggests Attackers Had Help Inside Bulgaria

Bulgarian businessman Emil Gebrev (file photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Close Partnership'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nazarbaev Sacks Kazakh Government Over Low Living Standards, Economic Failures

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

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

Environmental activist Vyacheslav Yegorov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baksheyeva went on trial in October.

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

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

Michael Calvey appears in court in Moscow on February 15.

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

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

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

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

BVCP said that the charges against Calvey and three other employees were connected to "a commercial conflict related to Bank Vostochny.”

The investment fund "once again states that it has full confidence in the legality of its employees’ actions, it does not agree with the charges and that BVCP has always acted in full compliance with the law," it said in a statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Turkmen, Afghan Presidents Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on reporting by TDH, Pajhwok, and Khaama Press

Flash Floods, Heavy Rains Kill 26 In Pakistan

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

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


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

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

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

Based on reporting by AP and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He denies any wrongdoing.

EU States Begin Selection Process For New European Prosecutor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Eugen Tomiuc, with reporting by,, and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by dpa, AP, and IBNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on reporting by the BBC, AP, and AFP

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

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tehran has rejected the accusation.

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

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

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

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

Iranian authorities have not publicly commented on the case.

With reporting by Reuters and Le Monde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AFP and AP

Kabul Rebukes Pakistan Envoy Over Remark About Peace Talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Reuters and TOLOnews

Afghan Loya Jirga To Convene Next Month To Discuss Peace Talks

Omar Daudzai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AP

EU Warns Romanian Government Against Gutting Anticorruption Legislation

Romanian Public Prosecutor Augustin Lazar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Koevesi
Laura Koevesi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by, AP, AFP, dpa, and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and

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