U.S. Commander: Syria Pullout Likely To Begin Within Weeks
The Pentagon commander in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East says the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will likely begin within “weeks.”
General Joseph Votel, chief of the U.S. Central Command, tempered his comments on February 10 by saying the exact timing would depend on the situation in the country, where some 2,000 U.S. troops have been assisting a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against the remnants of Islamic State (IS) insurgents.
When asked if the pullout would occur within days or weeks, Votel said, "Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground."
There has been conflicting information regarding the pullout, with some reports stating that the withdrawal has already begun.
Votel, speaking to reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft during a trip to the Middle East, said that "in terms of the withdrawal...I think we're right on track with where we wanted to be."
"Moving people is easier than moving equipment, and so what we're trying to do right now is again [to] kind of clear out those materials, that equipment, that we do not need."
The general did not speculate on how long it would take to complete the pullout.
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 IS insurgents had been defeated.
Trump has 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.
Votel caused a stir in the United States on February 5 when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had not been consulted before the announcement of the U.S. pullout from Syria.
Votel also told reporters during his trip he did not believe the United States would significantly increase force numbers in neighboring Iraq, where there are some 5,000 troops helping Baghdad in its fight against IS and its efforts to prevent the terror group's resurgence.
"I think it's going to remain more or less steady," he said of troop levels in Iraq.
Those comments follow remarks by Trump on February 3 that it was important to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq so that Washington can keep a close eye on Iran "because Iran is a real problem."
Iraqi President Barham Salih on February 4 said that Trump did not ask Baghdad's permission for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq to "watch Iran."
The Iraqi president said that "it is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran" and other neighboring countries.
"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," Salih added.
Iraq has attempted to balance its relations with the United States, which provides financial and military support, and Iran, which carries significant influence with members of Iraq's Shi'ite population.
With reporting by Reuters, CNN, and CBS
Russia Defeats Iraq In First Home International Soccer Match Since Ukraine Invasion
Russia eased to a 2-0 win over Iraq in a friendly on March 26 as it played its first international match on home soil since November 2021, after being barred from global competitions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Official attendance at the 68,000-seat Gazprom Arena in St. Petersburg was 23,818. The stadium had been due to host last year's Champions League final before Russia was stripped of that honor. Both European soccer body UEFA and global governing body FIFA decided in February 2022 that all Russian teams would be suspended from their competitions following the invasion. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Claims Ukrainian Drone Downed In Tula Region, Three Injured
Russian air defenses halted a Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian town on March 26 in which three people were hurt and apartment blocks were damaged, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Kyiv did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously denied Russian assertions that its drones -- also known as unmanned aerial vehicles -- have flown into Russian territory and caused damage to civilian infrastructure. The Russian ministry said the attack on the town of Kireyevsk, in the Tula region 220 kilometers south of Moscow, involved a Ukrainian Tu-141 Strizh drone. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistani PM Accuses President Of Acting Like Opposition
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has accused the country's president, Arif Alvi, of abandoning neutrality to criticize his government as if he were part of the political opposition. In a five-page letter, Sharif said Alvi was failing in "certain legal duties." He suggested that Alvi was demanding similar actions as ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf party. Sharif's letter came in response to a letter from Alvi urging the prime minister to organize elections in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.
Pakistani Ex-PM Khan Sets Out Economic Rescue Plan At Rally
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan led a rally in the eastern city of Lahore in the early hours of March 26, setting out his ideas to revive the country's spiraling economy and accusing the government of lacking a rescue plan. Local authorities warned Khan not to hold a public rally in view of a possible terrorist attack. The 70-year-old politician, who was ousted as prime minister in a no-confidence motion in April 2022 and is campaigning for early elections, blames the government for being part of a "regime-change operation" against him. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Afghan Women's Protest For Education Halted In Kabul By Taliban
At least 20 Afghan women marched in the capital, Kabul, on March 26 to demand the right to education for women and girls before being rounded up by a Taliban patrol.
The demonstration comes amid UN and other international condemnation over ongoing strictures under the Taliban-led government to keep women and girls out of schools, jobs, media, and other aspects of life since the hard-line militant group took power after U.S.-led international forces left in 2021.
Participants in the demonstration told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that Taliban enforcers arrived shortly after they began their planned march from the Red Bridge area in western Kabul and corralled the protesters to prevent them from continuing.
Video footage shared on social media showed around two dozen veiled women marching with small signs with "education is our right" written on them.
The demonstration was organized by the Afghan Women's Political Participation Network.
Organizers reportedly planned to march toward the Asif Mayel Girls' School, one of dozens of schools violently attacked by Taliban fighters or sympathizers.
"For almost two years, the future and fate of Afghan women have been taken hostage and we have been completely removed from society," one of the protesters, Momine Eftekhari, told Radio Azadi.
"Education is a standard with an educational curriculum that is the right of everyone. Not only is it the right of boys but girls, but unfortunately we have been deprived of education, work, and sports for more than 19 months."
She said the situation was "no longer tolerable [and] that's why we took to the streets."
Putin Arrest Warrant Gives Russian Journalist Hope For Resistance
Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova said the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin has given her "some sort of hope" that resistance might be sparked within the country's elite. Ovsyannikova worked for the Russian state broadcaster Channel One for more than 10 years before she decided to stage a protest against the invasion of Ukraine. Ovsyannikova fled Russia and is now living in Paris. She made her comments to BBC One's Sunday program.
Taliban Claims Delegation Visited Afghan Consulate In Neighboring Tajikistan
The Taliban-led Afghan government's foreign office has claimed a delegation traveled to an Afghan consulate in Khorugh, the capital of Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, although no Tajik official sources confirmed any such visit on March 25. Relations are strained between the Taliban leadership in Kabul and Dushanbe, which has been outspoken in its demand that the unrecognized Afghan government boost inclusiveness since it took over after the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops in August 2021. The Taliban said its delegation was surveying repairs to the consulate following an avalanche that killed 16 people and buried dozens of buildings on February 15. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.
Kazakh Journalist Who Rejected Election Results Launches Hunger Strike In Jail
Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim has launched a hunger strike as he serves a 25-day jail term over his plan to hold a rally to protest the official results of this month's parliamentary and local elections, his lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeiisov, said on March 26. Mukhammedkarim was cleared as a candidate in the March 19 elections to the national parliament only after protesting his initial disqualification. He announced his refusal to recognize the results, which awarded a majority to the ruling Amanat party after a process that international observers said showed some progress over previous votes but the opposition said was undemocratic. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Pentagon: No Indication Russia Plans To Use Nuclear Weapons
The U.S. Department of Defense said on March 25 that there were no indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons after Moscow's announcement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. "We have seen reports of Russia's announcement and will continue to monitor this situation," it said. It added that "We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance." To read the original report by Reuters, click here.
U.K. Says Iran Resupplies To Russia Of Kamikaze Drones Fueling More March Attacks
The British Defense Ministry said on March 26 that Russia had "likely launched" at least 71 Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones against Ukraine after a two-week letup in late February. The resumption suggests that "Russia has started receiving regular resupplies of small numbers of Shahed" uncrewed aerial drones, the U.K. military added in its daily intelligence assessment. It said Russian forces were probably launching the Iranian drones from the Krasnodar region in the east and Bryansk region in the northeast, cutting down flight times in the north to further "stretch Ukrainian air defenses."
Putin: Russia, China Not Creating Military Alliance
Russia and China are not creating a military alliance and are hiding nothing in terms of their military cooperation, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with state television broadcast on March 26, news agencies reported. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping professed friendship and pledged closer ties at a summit in Moscow early this week, as Russia struggles to make gains in what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine. "We are not creating any military alliance with China," Interfax quoted Putin as saying, adding, "Yes, we have cooperation in the sphere of military-technical interaction."
- By AFP
Tehran Condemns U.S. Strikes On Iran-Linked Groups In Syria
Tehran has condemned U.S. air strikes on Iran-linked forces in Syria that reportedly killed 19 people, which Washington said it carried out following a deadly drone attack on U.S. forces. The Iranian Foreign Ministry late on March 25 condemned "the belligerent and terrorist attack of the American army on civilian targets" in the eastern Syrian region of Deir el-Zor. Washington said it launched the retaliatory raids after a U.S. contractor was killed -- and another contractor and five military personnel wounded -- by a drone "of Iranian origin" that struck a U.S.-led coalition base in Syria.
North Macedonia's Military Backs Sending Mi-24 Helicopters To Ukraine
The General Staff of North Macedonia has backed the transfer to Ukraine of 12 Mi-24 military helicopters that it purchased from Kyiv two decades ago, Macedonian Defense Minister Slavjanka Petrovska said on March 25. The transfer still must receive government approval. Petrovska said Skopje will procure eight new, Western-platform rotorcraft to replace the Mi-24s. She said the military equipment being supplied to Ukraine was "under our plans...reaching the end of its service life." Petrovska said that "the transfer of helicopters to Ukraine will not weaken Macedonia's defense capabilities, as some of the helicopters have not been used for some time." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
In Authoritarian Turkmenistan, Polls Close In Vote For Freshly Demoted Parliament
Polling stations have closed in Turkmenistan in a vote for all 125 members of a newly unicameral national legislature with diminished powers in the authoritarian Central Asian country.
The parliament is expected to mostly rubber-stamp moves initiated by "national leader" Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in an unelected Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) and his presidential successor and son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov.
The elections on March 26 also included local and provincial assemblies.
The country's Central Election Commission said after the polls closed that 91.1 percent of registered voters had cast ballots.
The elder Berdymukhammedov has spent years further quashing dissent and independent media in the gas-rich country of around 6 million people after taking over controversially following the death of the country's first post-independence dictator, "President-for-life" Saparmurat Niyazov.
For years, critics have warned that 65-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's moves were made to secure his lifetime leadership and the succession of presidency to his son and grandchildren.
None of Turkmenistan's elections has been regarded as free or fair since its exit from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has sent a small election-assessment mission for the March 26 balloting but said it "will not carry out systematic or comprehensive observation of the voting [or] counting and tabulation on election day."
Its members planned to "visit a small number of polling stations on the day," it said.
Turkmenistan's bicameral National Council voted in January to convert the upper house into a People's Council of appointees with the elder Berdymukhammedov in charge and broad prerogatives.
The reform was proposed by the elder Berdymukhammedov around 10 months after handing the presidency to his son and less than two years after he created the upper house.
Under the hastily imposed reforms, the People's Council is the "supreme power" with authority to change the constitution and is separate from the legislature.
Its powers extend to domestic and foreign policy.
Voting was also planned near Turkmenistan's diplomatic missions abroad.
Nearly 15,000 candidates were nominated and registered for the elections across the country.
Two hundred and fifty-eight were competing for the national parliament, or Mejlis.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has continued to meet with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, since passing the presidency to Serdar Berdymukhammedov.
The Turkmen economy is heavily dependent on China, Russia, and Iran.
Reporters Without Borders ranks only Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea worse than Turkmenistan on press freedoms.
With reporting by AFP
Fighting Rages Around Bakhmut As West Assails Kremlin Plan To Place Nukes In Belarus
International condemnation has intensified over Moscow's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, even as fighting raged in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, with the ruined city of Bakhmut continuing to be the focal point of Russia's struggling war effort.
The Ukrainian military said on March 26 that Russian offensives were centering on Bakhmut and a handful of other eastern areas, as Western analysts and others said Moscow's monthslong assault in the area -- led by the Wagner mercenary fighters -- was stalling, beset by heavy troop losses.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that a drone sent by Ukrainian forces was intercepted near the Russian city of Tula and crashed into the town of Kireyevsk, injuring three people.
Ukraine did not comment on the claim, and the report could not be independently verified.
The fighting comes amid international fallout over plans announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 25 that he had reached agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close ally that borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Kyiv condemned the plan and called for an urgent UN Security Council session and urged the international community to "take decisive measures" to prevent Moscow's possible use of nuclear weapons.
"Russia once again confirms its chronic inability to be a responsible steward of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and prevention of war, not as a tool of threats and intimidation," Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said.
The secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said that fellow post-Soviet republic Belarus was falling "hostage" to Moscow by allowing the stationing of nuclear weapons on its soil.
NATO assailed Putin for "dangerous and irresponsible" nuclear rhetoric, while Germany condemned the move, saying it served to bring nuclear arms closer to the European Union.
"NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia's nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own," a NATO spokesperson said.
An official in Berlin told AFP that it was "another attempt at nuclear intimidation by Russia."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted: "Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions."
Despite Putin's comments, the White House said it did not see any indications that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons. It said, though, that "Russia's reference to NATO's nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments," including the decades-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Putin likened his move to station nuclear weapons in Belarus to Washington's policy of placing such weapons with NATO allies and claimed that it did not violate terms of the NPT.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Ukraine's General Staff said its forces continued to hold positions in Bakhmut, where a Russian encirclement effort continues, but Ukraine's top commander said this week the situation was being "stabilized."
It cited Russian attacks in the Donetsk areas of Lyman, Maryinka, and Avdiyivka and said Ukrainian forces had repelled 85 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours.
In its daily update, the British Defense Ministry said Russia "most likely wanted to stabilize its front lines and would adopt a more defensive operational stance."
Kyiv also said Russian forces were conducting "defensive actions" in the areas around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, where shelling has raised fears over a captured nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said its director-general, Rafael Grossi, will make his second visit of the war next week to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, where he and other nuclear experts have repeatedly warned of the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
The Kherson city council on March 24 advised residents living close to the Dnieper River to leave for "safer areas."
The Ukrainian Army said the occupiers in the city of Berdyansk, in the Zaporizhzhya region, issued a decree forcing local residents to seek passes to move freely in the area pending background checks.
Russian forces and their separatist allies have conducted wide-scale "filtration" operations to vet civilians in occupied territory since early in the full-scale invasion that began in February 2022.
Ukraine's General Staff also claimed that the Russian side had suffered 170,000 casualties so far in the all-out invasion that began in February 22.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm casualty claims by either side or battlefield developments in areas of intense fighting.
In his regular video address late on March 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised a decision on "new packages of defense support" from Finland, Germany, Lithuania, and the United States, as well as a similar Swedish vote.
He also cited "a security package and strong agreements with Japan" following Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit earlier this week.
Zelenskiy said Croatia's government backed a program to treat and rehabilitate Ukrainian war casualties and that Greece joined a group "working on the creation of a special tribunal" for war crimes.
Zelenskiy said the commitments allowed Ukraine to become stronger while "the enemy has become even more isolated, even more hopeless."
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Ukraine's Top Central Banker Vows To Tighten 'Dangerous' Monetary Approach
Ukrainian National Bank Governor Andriy Pyshniy says the bank has settled its "open conflict" with the government and will avoid the "very dangerous" practice of printing new money to fund the war effort.
Pyshniy told the Financial Times in an interview published on March 26 that the loose monetary policy had "created huge risks for macroeconomic stability" and the national currency, the hryvnya.
"It was a quick remedy, but very dangerous," he told the newspaper.
Experts have expressed fear of hyperinflation to compound woes in Ukraine amid the year-old war, particularly as the National Bank printed money as EU aid was delayed and the Finance Ministry opposed domestic paths to raise revenues.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Ukrainian government agreed on a nearly $16 billion loan that still requires IMF board approval.
Pyshniy took over Ukraine's National Bank in October after Kyrylo Shevchenko resigned abruptly amid suspicions of millions of dollars of embezzlement.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said after meetings with IMF Director-General Kristalina Georgieva in February that the sides had reached a preliminary agreement on a program that would include immediate financial help and support for longer-term structural reforms to aid rebuilding after the war.
Armenia, Turkey To Partially Reopen Land Border
Armenia and Turkey plan to permanently open border crossings between the two countries for the first time in three decades, Armenian officials announced on March 24. The land border will initially open only for diplomats and citizens of third countries until the beginning of the tourist season, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said. There is already direct air traffic between Armenia and Turkey. Turkey unilaterally closed the land border in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan. The border closure has caused serious economic problems for Armenia, which continues to fight a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia Claims Azerbaijan Violated Cease-Fire With Armenia
The Russian Defense Ministry accused Azerbaijan of violating a Moscow-brokered cease-fire agreement by allowing its troops to cross over a set demarcation line. Presidents of the three countries in November 2020 signed a cease-fire agreement to end a war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku and Yerevan have for decades been locked in conflict over the region. On March 25, Azerbaijan stated it had taken control of some roads in the region to prevent Armenian forces from digging a trench. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.
UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief To Visit Ukraine's Russian-Held Zaporizhzhya Plant
KYIV – The United Nations nuclear watchdog has said Director-General Rafael Grossi will travel next week to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which was seized by Russian forces shortly after they invaded Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement on March 25 that Grossi will "assess firsthand the serious nuclear safety and security situation at the facility and underline the urgent need to protect it during the ongoing military conflict in the country."
Grossi in the past has expressed concerns that the world was becoming complacent about the dangers posed at the Zaporizhzhya site, which has been the scene of heavy fighting and shelling since the Russian takeover last year.
Next week's visit will be the second for Grossi, who will cross the front lines of the war into Russian-held territory to reach the plant. He first traveled there in September 2022.
IAEA inspectors have been stationed at the plant in cooperation with Russian and Ukrainian forces.
"I've decided to travel again to the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant to see for myself how the situation has evolved since September and to talk to those operating the facility in these unprecedented and very difficult circumstances," Grossi said.
"I remain determined to continue doing everything in my power to help reduce the risk of a nuclear accident during the tragic war in Ukraine,” Grossi added, noting that the situation at the site "is still precarious" despite the IAEA presence.
He said his visit to Ukraine was also aimed at ensuring that the regular rotation of IAEA experts to and from the site is maintained and improved, "following the very challenging circumstances faced by the experts during the previous rotation in February which had been delayed by almost a month."
The IAEA said Grossi will be accompanied by a group of IAEA experts, the seventh such rotating team to visit the site.
Grossi is also leading negotiations with Iran concerning details of Tehran's promise to allow additional monitoring and provide further information on its nuclear program, which it claims is for civilian purposes.
Hungary: Criticism Makes It Hard To Cooperate With West
The West's steady criticism of Hungary on democratic and cultural issues makes the country's right-wing government reluctant to offer support on practical matters, specifically NATO's buildup against Russia, Hungary’s foreign minister said. In an AP interview, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto also said his country had not voted on whether to allow Finland and Sweden to join NATO because Hungarian lawmakers are sick of those countries' critiques of Hungarian domestic affairs. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Putin Says Russia Will Station Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow has reached agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of close ally Belarus, which borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Russia's state-run TASS news agency on March 25 quoted Putin as claiming there was "nothing unusual" about the move and that it did not violate existing nuclear nonproliferation treaties.
"We agreed with [Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr] Lukashenka that we would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus without violating the nonproliferation regime," TASS quoted the Russian leader as saying.
"There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries," he said. "We agreed that we will do the same.”
Putin added that Russia was building a storage facility in Belarus and that Moscow would not be transferring control of the weapons to Minsk authorities.
The White House later said it was aware of Putin’s announcement and was monitoring the situation. It said it did not see any immediate reason to adjust its nuclear stance nor any indications Russia is preparing to use such weapons.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is a landmark pact aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, signed by more than 190 countries and entered into force in 1970.
Putin on March 25 also threatened to deploy depleted uranium ammunition to its military fighting in Ukraine if the West sent such munitions to Kyiv. A British official recently suggested London might do so.
"Russia, of course, has what it needs to answer. Without exaggeration, we have hundreds of thousands of such shells. We have not used them yet," Putin told Russian television.
Militaries use depleted uranium munitions for their armor-piercing capability in battles against tanks and armored vehicles.
With reporting by TASS, Reuters, and AFP
Rain, Floods Kill At Least Three In Afghanistan
The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan say rain and floods over the past two days have killed at least three people and injured at least seven. Spokesman Shafiullah Rahimi said in a video message on March 25 that the floods destroyed 756 houses in Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Balkh, Farah, Zabul, Faryab, Uruzgan, and Nuristan provinces. The Taliban rulers have been struggling to deal with natural disasters, including earthquakes, along with a deadly Islamic State insurgency since seizing power in August 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
Iran-Backed Fighters On Alert In East Syria After U.S. Strikes, Activists Say
Iran-backed fighters were on alert in eastern Syria on March 25, a day after U.S. forces launched retaliatory air strikes on sites in the war-torn country, opposition activists said. The air strikes came after a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded six other Americans on March 23. The situation was calm following a day in which rockets were fired at bases housing U.S. troops in eastern Syria. The rockets came after U.S. air strikes on three different areas in Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, opposition activists said. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Defiant Belarusian Opposition Marks Freedom Day As Western Leaders Vow Continued Support
The Belarusian opposition -- bolstered by vows of support from Western leaders -- marked the country's Freedom Day on March 25 by declaring continued resistance to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with one exiled leader saying that citizens had not "given up on the dream" of a free country.
The day marks the 105th anniversary of the 1918 declaration of an independent Belarus and is traditionally celebrated by the Belarusian opposition, many of whom have fled into exile or been imprisoned by Lukashenka's regime, which the West has condemned for its ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement and civil society.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who now lives in Lithuania, issued a video statement noting that Belarusians had not "given up on the dream" of "a free Belarus."
"The trials of the past years have shown how intertwined our past is with the present and the future," she said. “This is the holiday of our will to freedom and independence, dear Belarusians.”
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
A court in Minsk on March 6 sentenced Tsikhanouskaya in absentia to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, creating and leading an extremist group, inciting hatred, and harming national security -- allegations widely considered in the West to be politically motivated.
Events marking Belarusian Freedom Day were planned in several countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reasserted the bloc's "commitment to support the Belarusian people," adding that "under extreme circumstances," Belarusians were standing up for their "rights and freedoms."
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that "Despite the Lukashenka regime's complicity in Russia's war against Ukraine, brave Belarusians continue to stand up for an independent, stable, and democratic future for Belarus."
"In the face of the Lukashenka regime's brutal and systemic crackdown on all sectors of Belarusian society, the Belarusian democratic movement and civil society still courageously push forward for a free Belarus."
The comments came a day after the U.S. Treasury Department issued new Belarus-related sanctions against nine individuals and three entities in response to the crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement.
The sanctions announcement by the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified as being blocked a Boeing 737 that the Treasury Department said had been used by Lukashenka and his family for official business and personal trips, including to international locations.
Tension and protests intensified in Belarus following the 2020 presidential election.
Syarhey Tsikhanouski -- the husband of Tsikhanouskaya and a popular video blogger -- announced his candidacy in the election to challenge Lukashenka.
However, he was disqualified by the authorities, arrested, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Tsikhanouskaya then mounted her own campaign.
Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in a vote that has not been recognized by the opposition and Western countries, who say he had the results rigged in his favor and that the real winner was Tsikhanouskaya.
Recruiting Convicts For Ukraine War Has 'Reduced Crime In Russia'
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessman who controls the Wagner mercenary group, has defended the firm’s practice of recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine. In a statement published by Prigozhin's press service, he said more than 5,000 convicts had been pardoned and returned to civilian life after serving six months in combat. According to Prigozhin, less than 1 percent committed another crime within one month of returning to Russia, which he claimed was significantly lower than the typical recidivism rate. "We reduced crime in Russia by a factor of 10," Prigozhin claimed. None of Prigozhin's claims could be independently verified. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
'Don't Go To The Enlistment Office': Wave Of Military Summonses Raises Fears Of Another Russian Mobilization Drive2
'How Did He Turn Into What He Is Now?' Former Putin Speechwriter Reflects3
Graveyard War: Why Prigozhin Is Picking A Fight Over Burials And What It Means For His Own Future4
As Fighting Rages On At The Front, Thousands Join Ukraine's Offensive Guard5
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Pleads With Europe For More Sophisticated Military Equipment6
Battle For Bakhmut Rages On As Russia's Wagner Claims More Territory7
Bulgaria's Pro-Kremlin Leader Refuses To Send Soviet-Era Fighter Jets And Tanks To Ukraine8
Court In Italy Approves Decision To Extradite Son Of Russian Region's Governor To U.S.9
Ukraine Says No Letup On Bakhmut Front Despite Claims Russian Offensive Stalling10
Explainer: What Did The Xi-Putin Meeting In Moscow Achieve?