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Uyghur Scholar Goes On Trial In China

Ilham Tohti

A scholar from China's Uyghur minority who often criticized the country's ethnic policies has pleaded not guilty at his trial on separatism charges.

Ilham Tohti, a former economics professor in Beijing, entered his plea at the trial that began in the provincial capital Urumqi on September 17.

Tohti is accused of activities aimed at overthrowing Chinese rule in the restive Xinjiang region, which is home to some 8 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs.

The trial is expected to last two days, but it is unclear when a verdict will be announced.

Foreign journalists were not allowed inside the courthouse and court officials announced no details at the end of the business day.

Police marked a several-block perimeter around the venue with tape, keeping away journalists, bystanders, and several Western diplomats who traveled to Urumqi in an attempt to observe the trial.

Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping, said during a trial break that his client had never called for separatism and was against any breakup of China.

At least four of Tohti's relatives -- including his wife, Guzel Nur -- were allowed to attend the proceedings.

"He's never done anything illegal," Nur said during the afternoon break. "He's never talked about separating the country. He's never opposed the government. He's never opposed the people. He's a scholar."

European Union diplomat Raphael Droszewski said the EU had expressed its deep concern over the indictment of Tohti and that the bloc had "urged China's government to release him and offer health care," noting that he had worked "peacefully within China's laws."

Predicted Chinese Overreaction

Tohti has long been a critic of what he has called the systematic exclusion of Uyghurs from the economic benefits brought to Xinjiang by incoming members of China's Han majority, and has sought to prevent the Turkic Uyghur language and culture from being marginalized.

He was arrested in Beijing earlier this year amid violence in Xinjiang linked to separatist militants, and the authorities have blamed him for fomenting some of the unrest.

More than 300 people have been killed over the past 18 months, nearly half of them suspects shot dead by police in a "strike-hard" campaign launched by the government to fight what it calls terrorist cells in the region.

Tohti had in the past warned that Chinese authorities might overdo their antiterrorism measures to conceal the incompetence of local governments in Xinjiang.

Last October, when three Uyghurs killed six people, including themselves, in a fiery car crash at central Beijing's Tiananmen Gate, Tohti urged the authorities to make public their evidence corroborating findings that it was a terrorist attack, and he voiced concerns that a crackdown on Uyghurs would become overly harsh.

The trial will continue on September 18.

With reporting by, AFP, and AP

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U.S. Charges Iranian Operative With Plotting To Kill Ex-National-Security Adviser Bolton

Former U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton speaks during a lecture in 2020.

The U.S. Justice Department has charged a member of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in connection with an alleged plot to kill former White House national-security adviser John Bolton.

The Justice Department announced the charges against Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, 45, of Tehran in a news release on August 10. The charging documents identify Poursafi as a member of the IRGC.

The department said Poursafi "attempted to pay individuals in the United States $300,000 to carry out the murder" in either Washington or the neighboring U.S. state of Maryland.

Prosecutors said the plot was likely in retaliation for the January 2020 drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, who was the head of the IRGC's elite Quds Force.

The allegation came as Iran weighs a proposed agreement to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement under which Tehran had curbed its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.

Tehran held up negotiations on reviving the deal for months, demanding that the United States remove its official designation of the IRGC as a sponsor of terrorism. Washington rejected that demand.

A U.S. official quoted by Reuters said the United States did not believe the charges against Poursafi should affect the diplomatic efforts.

According to the Justice Department, Poursafi began communicating with a confidential source in October 2021 over an encrypted messaging application and directed the individual to hire someone to "eliminate" Bolton for $300,000 and set up a cryptocurrency account to facilitate payment.

Poursafi allegedly told the confidential source, who is not identified by the Justice Department, that it did not matter how the killing was carried out.

The Justice Department said that in December 2021, Poursafi sent a photograph of two plastic bags that appeared to contain stacks of dollars and a handwritten note with the confidential source's name.

On January 3, the anniversary of the killing of Soleimani, Poursafi expressed regret that the killing would not be conducted by the anniversary. He also told the source that he was under pressure to complete the killing.

Poursafi also allegedly told the source he had another assassination job for which he would pay $1 million. The target of that alleged plot was not revealed by the Justice Department.

The source months later declined to continue to work without being paid. Poursafi agreed on April 28 to send the source $100 in cryptocurrency to prove payment could be made. Later that day, the cryptocurrency wallet received two payments totaling $100, according to the Justice Department.

If convicted, Poursafi faces up to 10 years in prison for the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, and up to 15 years in prison for providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot. The potential sentences also carry fines of up to $250,000 each.

Poursafi remains at large abroad, the Justice Department said.

Bolton, who served as national-security adviser to then-President Donald Trump from 2018-19 and also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005-06 under then-president George W. Bush, thanked the FBI and Justice Department for their work in developing the case.

"While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran's rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States," he said in a statement.

Current national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that the charging document outlines allegations of Iran's continued attempts to carry out an assassination on U.S. soil and warned Iran against carrying out any such plots.

"Should Iran attack any of our citizens, to include those who continue to serve the United States or those who formerly served, Iran will face severe consequences," he said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

U.S.-Sponsored Regional Military Drills Kick Off In Tajikistan

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan John Pommersheim (center) welcomed participants of the Regional Cooperation 22 military maneuvers.

A U.S. Central Command-sponsored military exercise has kicked off in Tajikistan, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe says.

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan John Pommersheim welcomed participants of the Regional Cooperation 22 military maneuvers, which will be conducted from August 10 to August 20.

"As the largest U.S. military-to-military exercise involving Central and South Asian nations, Regional Cooperation 22 is an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen relationships with our partners in that region. The exercise serves as a forum for addressing relevant regional issues including peaceful responses to global challenges, information exchange, and security cooperation,” Pommersheim said.

The annual exercise "focuses on enhancing multinational stability operations, counterterrorism, and promoting cooperation, and joint combined capabilities among U.S. Central and South Asia states, and other participating nations."

According to the statement, the United States, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan will take part in a six-day command-post exercise, while Tajikistan and the United States will conduct a five-day bilateral field-training component of the exercise at the Fakhrabad Training Center.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Regional Cooperation exercise series had been conducted annually since 2004 in one of the participant countries, including in the United States.

Lithuanian Figure Skaters Lose State Award After Taking Part In Event In Russia

Ice dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas perform during the Swan Lake ice show premiered by Tatyana Navka at in Moscow in December 2021.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has signed a decree stripping well-known figure skaters Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas over their participation in an event in Russia that was organized by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's wife, Tatyana Navka.

Nauseda wrote on Facebook after he signed the decree on August 10 that the figure skaters' achievements on Lithuania's behalf had been annulled by their "cynical" participation in the ice-dancing event in Sochi.

Nauseda also wrote that the Lithuanian government's decision to grant Moscow native Drobiazko Lithuanian citizenship in 1993 "looks like a miserable farce under the current circumstances," as Russia continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The day before, Lithuanian lawmakers proposed stripping Drobiazko of her Lithuanian citizenship.

Navka, an Olympic gold medalist and multiple world and European champion in ice dancing, called the Lithuanian parliament's plan to strip Drobiazko of her citizenship and state awards 'disgusting."

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Drobiazko began representing Lithuania in international figure-skating tournaments along with Vanagas. In 1993, she obtained Lithuanian citizenship, and seven years later the couple married. They have been living in Moscow for many years.

The couple earned bronze medals in the 2000 World Championship and in the European Championships in 2000 and 2006.

Last month, Ukraine's Olympic Committee fired Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko as vice president of the Figure Skating Federation and expelled him from the organization for taking part in Navka's event.

Iranian Activists Demand Immediate Release Of Hijab Protester

Sepideh Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist, was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.

Hundreds of civil activists in the western Lorestan Province have issued a statement calling on the Iranian authorities to release a woman who was arrested for protesting the mandatory head scarf and was apparently beaten to force a televised confession from her.

The signatories of this letter described Sepideh Rashno's "forced confessions" on state television as a "ridiculous display" and condemned the "producers" of the television program and their "insulting behavior" toward Rashno.

The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) said on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.

According to eyewitnesses the agency spoke to, Rashno had low blood pressure and had difficulty moving when she was transferred to the hospital. She returned to prison immediately after the examination.

Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist, was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.

The other woman threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without a hijab -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Rashno was subsequently detained and has been held since without access to a lawyer, nor have the charges against her been made public.

Amid growing concern over her whereabouts, a Twitter campaign started with the hashtag "Where is Sepideh?"

Iran's state television subsequently showed Rashno in a video report on July 30 where her eyes appeared darkened. Witnesses said she was listless and moved slowly.

During a one-sided narrative over the confrontation, Rashno was shown for a few seconds in what looked like a studio setting saying lines that appeared to have been written for her.

The signatories of the statement, who introduced themselves as "Lorestan men and women from different social classes," also demanded the immediate release of Sepideh Rashno and an official apology from state television.

They asked the head of Iran's judiciary to "take legal action against those who tortured and broadcast the forced confessions of Sepideh Rashno on TV."

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

Iran's Morality Police Warn Clothesmakers To Avoid 'Loud' Colors Or Face Closure

The news comes amid recent reports that Iranian authorities are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of the country's dress code.

Iranian authorities have warned manufacturers and sellers of women's clothing that they will shut down their businesses if they keep using "loud" colors in their products.

In a statement to the Roydad24 website, Majid Emami, who heads Iran's fashion and clothing organization, quoted the Ministry of Industry and Trade as saying that women's clothing manufacturers could lose the right to manufacture knee-length open cloaks -- the Iranian women's most common piece of clothing that is usually worn over a shirt and with long pants or jeans -- unless they stick with colors not deemed to be "loud."

"Regarding the color: the ministry emphasized that manufacturers should not use loud colors," Emami said.

However, he said that "there is no order or regulation to clarify which colors are deemed illegal."

Emami added that "society does not have a problem with this kind of clothing [knee-length open cloaks in bright colors]."

"If the relevant institutions want to create restrictions on the type of production, they should first change the taste of society," Emami added.

The news comes amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.

In recent weeks, women judged not to be in compliance have been barred from government offices, banks, and public transportation.

The notorious Guidance Patrols, or morality police, have become increasingly active and violent. Videos have emerged on social media appearing to show officers detaining women, forcing them into vans, and whisking them away.

The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

Rights Group Urges Kyrgyz Authorities To Drop 'Bogus' Charge Against Noted Activist

Kyrgyz rights activist Kamiljan Ruziev (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A human rights group in Kyrgyzstan has urged the Central Asian nation's authorities to drop a "bogus" forgery charge against human rights defender Kamiljan (Kamil) Ruziev and instead probe allegations that security services have threatened him.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) arrested Ruziev in May 2020 outside the Karakol City Courthouse in northeastern Kyrgyzstan while the court was considering a lawsuit Ruziev had filed against the UKMK and the prosecutor’s office for failing to investigate his complaint that law enforcement officers had threatened him.

Ruziev was charged with fraud and forgery at the time, but later the fraud charge was dropped.

In its August 10 statement, the Bishkek-based Equal Rights Coalition, which comprises several leading Kyrgyz human rights groups, said that, instead of trying Ruziev, who said earlier that his verdict was expected on August 12, the authorities "should thoroughly investigate Ruziev’s complaint" to find out if his claims about abuse of power by the security officials who arrested him really took place.

Ruziev, who heads the Karakol-based human rights organization Ventus, has said that he was arrested in retribution for his human rights activities.

For the past 20 years, Ruziev has been defending the rights of prisoners and others who have complained of torture and harassment at the hands of the police and government officials.

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, have demanded that Kyrgyz authorities drop the charge against Ruziev and investigate his claims that he was threatened by law enforcement.


Druzhba Oil Flows To Resume After Weeklong Suspension Blamed On Russia Sanctions

The suspension of oil flows thought the Druzhba pipeline has affected countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. (file photo)

Russia's pipeline monopoly Transneft and Hungarian energy group MOL say oil flows are poised to resume through the Druzhba pipeline on August 10 after nearly a weeklong stoppage due to complications from sanctions.

The suspension has affected a number of countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Transneft said Ukraine suspended Russian oil flows to three European nations as of August 4 because its transit payment couldn't be processed due to sanctions stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On August 10, MOL said the transit fee for the use of the Ukrainian section of the pipeline had been paid and the flow could resume within days.

Russian media then quoted Transneft as saying that the flow would begin by 4 p.m. Moscow time on August 10.

Slovak Economy Minister Richard Sulik said onFacebook the oil flow had resumed but gave no further details.

However, no oil had reached the Czech Republic by the evening of August 10, the country's Mero pipeline operator said, and Hungary also was still to receive deliveries.

Czech Industry Minister Jozef Sikela said on Twitter the failure of supplies via the Druzhba pipeline "does not limit the performance of Czech refineries in any way."

The refineries are working full time and the state company Mero CR had oil reserves for several days, he said.

He also said the government is working with Poland to restore oil supplies through the pipeline to Polish-owned Czech refineries.

Transneft had said it made payments for August transits to Ukraine's pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta in July but the payment didn't go through.

Gazprombank, which handled the payment, said the money was returned because of EU restrictions, adding that oil deliveries to Poland and Germany via Belarus were under way "as usual."

Russia has already reduced gas pipeline flows to many EU member-states, citing problems with turbine maintenance on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline as well as sanctions against some buyers whom Moscow officially deemed to be "unfriendly."

Since the Kremlin launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, cutting the country off from international financial institutions.

The European Union has been looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Russian energy resources and has agreed to ban more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports.

An EU ban on the purchase of Russian coal kicks into effect after midnight on August 10.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

U.S. Defense Secretary Pledges Military Training, Support For Baltics

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks in Riga on August 10,

The United States will conduct more military exercises with Baltic nations such as Latvia, and look to provide increased training, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on August 10.

Speaking at a press conference with Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks in Riga, Austin said Washington may also bring in more U.S. troops if needed to bolster the region against any possible threat from Russia.

Austin, who is on a two-day visit to Latvia, said plans to do continuous rotations of forces into the Baltics will likely use troops from U.S. brigades in Romania and other parts of Europe, but “we can also bring in forces from the United States.”

During his visit, Austin repeatedly reemphasized the United States' commitment to helping the region defend itself.

Austin is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Latvia in nearly three decades, highlighting the increased importance of the Baltic nations, which sit at Russia’s western edge.

The Pentagon said the last defense chief to go to Latvia was William Perry in 1995.

Pabriks told reporters that his top priorities are to get more U.S. military enablers, adding that, in order to defend his country, his troops need “nitty gritty training” on a daily basis.

He added that Latvia also needs additional financial assistance from Washington in order to buy new military equipment and to beef up its air and coastal defenses.

Austin met with top Latvian leaders, including President Egils Levits at Riga Castle, pledging Washington’s steadfast commitment to standing with the Baltic region against any Russian aggression.

The three Baltic countries - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- are all former Soviet republics that were annexed during World War II . They gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004, putting themselves under the military protection of the Western allies.

With reporting by AP

Russia Seeks UN Security Council Meeting On Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

Zaporizhzhya is Europe's largest nuclear plant, and it houses six of Ukraine's 15 reactors.  (file photo)

A Russian envoy to the United Nations says Moscow has requested a meeting of the UN Security Council on August 11 to discuss issues concerning the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which its troops seized early in the five-month-old invasion of Ukraine.

First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyansky also confirmed on August 10 that Russia wanted the head of the UN's atomic energy agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, to brief attendees at the meeting.

It would follow increasingly urgent international safety concerns and with the Russian occupiers reportedly preparing to redirect its electricity production in a dangerous pivot that relies on diesel generators and other aging technology.

Desperate safety warnings from Ukrainian and UN atomic experts have been compounded in the past week by intensified shelling around Zaporizhzhya and accusations and counteraccusations of risky behavior by the warring sides.

Operator Enerhoatom and exhausted Ukrainian workers still manning the facility five months after its capture by Russian forces have repeatedly warned of the risks of a nuclear catastrophe.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zaporizhzhya is Europe's largest nuclear plant, and it houses six of Ukraine's 15 reactors.

On August 9, Enerhoatom also warned that the occupiers were preparing to redirect Zaporizhzhya's output to Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed from Ukraine eight years ago.

Enerhoatom President Petro Kotin told Ukrainian television that Russian energy agency Rosatom's plan was "aimed at connecting the [Zaporizhzhya] plant to the Crimean electricity grid."

He said doing that requires damaging power lines that lead to the Ukrainian grid and said at least three lines were already damaged, leaving Zaporizhzhya "operating with only one production line, which is an extremely dangerous way of working."

"When the last production line is disconnected," he said, "the plant will be powered by generators running on diesel. Everything will then depend on their reliability and fuel stocks."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 8 called any attack on a nuclear plant "suicidal" and demanded that UN inspectors be given access to Zaporizhzhya.

On August 9, the IAEA's Grossi said that based on the information provided by Ukraine, IAEA experts assessed that there was no immediate threat to nuclear safety as a result of recent shelling.

The same day, Yevhen Balytskiy, the head of the Russian military administration in the region around Zaporizhzhya, told Russian television that "the power plant's air-defense systems are being reinforced."

Kyiv and some Western leaders have accused Russia of "nuclear blackmail" through its army's actions with respect to Zaporizhzhya and other Ukrainian nuclear facilities and Moscow's repeated hints that it might deploy its nuclear arsenal in response to Western actions stemming from the Ukraine conflict.

Ukrainian officials have blamed shelling that killed at least 13 civilians overnight on August 9-10 on Russian forces operating in or around Zaporizhzhya.

On August 10, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized countries demanded that Russia return control of the Zaporizhzhya plant to Ukraine.

"Ukrainian personnel responsible for the operation of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant must be able to carry out their duties without threats or pressure," a statement from the G7 foreign ministers said on August 10. "It is Russia's continued domination of the nuclear power plant that endangers the region."

The ministers said they remain "profoundly concerned" by the threat that the seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities poses to the safety and security of the facilities, which they said significantly raises the risk of a nuclear accident.

With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and TASS

Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' Handed Prison Terms

Russia has used Belarus's railway system to transport troops and equipment to Ukraine. (file photo)

BABRUYSK, Belarus --Five Belarusian activists who were arrested for allegedly damaging railways in the country to disrupt the transportation of Russian arms and troops to war-torn Ukraine have been sentenced on terrorism charges.

A court in the eastern city of Babruysk sentenced Kanstantsin Yermalovich on August 10 to 16 years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 9,600 rubles ($3,800).

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Vital Mankevich was handed a 15-year prison term, and Ihar Kazlou was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

There were two women in the case, Nadzeya Polkina and Natallya Ked. Polkina was sentenced to two years in prison, while Ked was handed a parole-like two-year sentence.

The five activists were charged with carrying out a terrorist act, threatening to conduct a terrorist act, creating a terrorist group, and insulting the country's president.

They were among some 60 men and women arrested for their alleged involvement into the damaging of Belarus's railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and arms being sent into Ukraine since the start of the invasion. The other cases are still being investigated.

The campaign called "Railways War" was initiated in Belarus by a group called BYPOL. Those involved in the campaign have been nicknamed "railway guerrillas."

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia for the invasion by allowing Russian forces to enter Ukraine via Belarusian territory.

Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, and for Belarus’s efforts to aid the Russian invasion.

In May, the country's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allowed the use of the capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."

Iran Commander Says Naval Attack Repulsed In Red Sea

Dangerous naval encounters involving Western and Iranian militaries or commercial shippers have eased in recent years despite persistent tensions. (file photo)

A senior commander says Iran's navy repelled an attack on an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea overnight on August 9-10, but he didn't identify the type of ship or its attackers.

Rear Admiral Mustafa Tajeddini said a destroyer-led flotilla responded to a distress call "and engaged with the attacking boats."

He said the attackers "made off." The resulting damage was unclear.

Piracy and other minor incidents are not unusual in the oil-rich region, but while seizures and other more serious confrontations are less frequent they can threaten shipping on one of the world's busiest commercial cargo routes.

Dangerous naval encounters involving Western and Iranian militaries or commercial shippers have eased in recent years despite persistent tensions over sanctions-busting and influence in the region.

Tensions are still high between Iran and the United States over a hobbled nuclear deal and what Washington regards as malign activities by Tehran in the region.

Iran boosted its naval presence in the nearby Gulf of Aden after a rash of attacks by Somalia-based pirates that eased about a decade ago.

But Iranian media reported two attacks on Iranian oil tankers in the nearby Gulf of Aden late last year.

Based on reporting by AFP

Uzbekistan Warns Its Citizens Of Repercussions If They Join Russian Military In War-Torn Ukraine

According to Russian media, more than 40 military units of volunteers have been created in Russian regions and ethnic republics. (file photo)

The Uzbek Embassy in Moscow has warned the Central Asian nation's citizens residing in Russia of serious repercussions for joining Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement issued on August 10, the Embassy of Uzbekistan in the Russian Federation said any form of participation in military activities on the territory of foreign countries is considered to be mercenary activity and will be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

"The embassy calls on all our compatriots to stay away from provocations," the statement says.

The statement comes a day after the BETTA television channel in Russia's Perm region broadcast a report in which the leader of the Uzbek diaspora in the region, Jahongir Jalolov, called on Uzbeks residing in Perm to create an Uzbek battalion named after the 14th century Turkic ruler Amir Timur. Jalolov said the proposed Uzbek battalion must join Russian military forces to fight against Ukrainians.

Russian media reported earlier this week that more than 40 military units of volunteers have been created in Russian regions and ethnic republics.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. After facing firm resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces, Moscow changed its goal in Ukraine in late March, withdrawing troops from the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and northern Ukraine, and focusing on Ukraine’s east and southeast.

EU Ban On Russian Coal Set To Go Into Effect Overnight

EU countries imported nearly 52 million tons of coal from Russia in 2021. (file photo)

An EU embargo on the import of Russian coal goes into effect on August 11 after a midnight deadline for the transition period agreed by bloc members four months ago.

The ban is part of the fifth package of EU sanctions to punish the Russian economy since President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine in late February.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The coal embargo is the first measure among the seven rounds of EU sanctions so far to hit energy supplies, which have been particularly hard-hit along with grain exports by the Ukraine conflict.

The 120-day grace period for compliance since the approval of the coal ban in April expires at midnight on August 10.

The European Commission estimates that the coal cutoff could cost Russia around $8 billion a year.

EU countries imported nearly 52 million tons of coal from Russia in 2021, up from 41 million tons the previous year.

But overall coal imports to the EU fell by almost half from 2014 to 2020 under pressure from climate-change targets and efforts to find cleaner energy alternatives.

The EU's subsequent ban on Russian oil is slated to come into effect at the end of the year.

The EU sanctions are part of an unprecedented international response to the biggest military invasion in Europe since World War II, targeting oil and gas, SWIFT payments, overflights and travel, broadcasting, and a range of other areas.

Based on reporting by dpa

Russian TV Journalist Who Protested Ukraine War On Air Could Face 10 Years In Prison

Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova has been charged with distributing false information about the Russian armed forces after her home was searched.

Ovsyannikova's lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said on August 10 that his client was detained, charged with "public distribution of false information about Russian armed forces," and may face 10 years in prison if convicted.

Zakhvatov said earlier on Telegram that police broke into his client's apartment in Moscow and searched it without his presence.

Ovsyannikova, known for delivering a live on-air anti-war protest in March, wrote on Telegram that the charge filed on August 10 stemmed from her one-person protest in front of the Kremlin in early July in which she held a poster saying "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a murderer, his soldiers are fascists" and displayed photos of children killed in Ukraine.

Last week, a court in Moscow fined Ovsyannikova 50,000 rubles ($820) for that protest.

Ovsyannikova gained international recognition on March 14 when she burst onto the set of Channel One's Vremya news program holding a poster reading: "Stop the war. Don't believe propaganda. They are lying to you" in Russian. She also shouted: "Stop the war. No to war."

Ovsyannikova was a producer with Channel One at the time of her protest. She was later detained and fined 30,000 rubles ($490) by a court for calling for illegal protests.

Ovsyannikova resigned from Channel One and spent several months abroad, including in Ukraine, repeatedly expressing her condemnation of the war.

For three months she trained at the German publication Die Welt. In early July, the journalist announced her return to Russia.

On August 8, a court in Moscow ordered Ovsyannikova to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles ($660) for her latest online posts protesting the war in Ukraine.

In March, Putin signed a law that provides for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a penalty possible of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia

U.K. Says It's Likely That Russia Has Established New Ground Corps That Leans Heavily On 'Volunteers'

Several hundred thousand Russian troops are participating in or supporting the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24. (file photo)

Britain says Russia has "almost certainly established a major new ground forces formation" that could include "volunteer" battalions to support its Ukrainian invasion.

The emergence of a significantly volunteer-style corps would underscore the challenges that face Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war planners as they try to subdue Russia's much smaller fellow post-Soviet republic.

British Defense Intelligence on August 10 described the new formation as the "3rd Army Corps" (3 AC) and said it was based out of Mulino, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast east of Moscow.

The assessment came in a tweet of the Defense Ministry's latest intelligence update.

"Russia likely plans to resource a large proportion of 3 AC from newly formed 'volunteer' battalions, which are being raised across the country, and which group together recruits from the same areas," the update said.

The ministry quoted Russian regional officials as saying potential 3 AC recruits were "being offered lucrative cash bonuses once they deploy to Ukraine."

Several hundred thousand Russian troops are participating in or supporting the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, following eight years of Russian support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Western military analysts have argued that Putin and his military and intelligence services expected a quick victory that has not materialized.

Since failing to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, early in the invasion, Russian commanders have suggested that they are concentrating their forces on territory in the east and south of Ukraine.

"Russian commanders highly likely continue to be faced with the competing operational priorities of reinforcing the Donbas offensive [in eastern Ukraine], and strengthening defenses against anticipated Ukrainian counterattacks in the south," the U.K. Defense Intelligence update said.

U.S. defense officials recently estimated that 70,000-80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the fighting.

The Ukrainian government has previously said that 100 to 200 of its troops are being killed daily.


Russian Shelling Said To Have Killed 13 Civilians in Dnipropetrovsk, Kilometers From Nuclear Plant

Dnipropetrovsk's State Administration head, Valentyn Reznichenko, described August 9-10 as a 'terrible night.'

The governor of Ukraine's central Dnipropetrovsk region says 13 civilians were killed by Russian shelling overnight in Nikopol and Marhanets, and 11 more people injured, five of them seriously.

Valentyn Reznichenko said two of the victims died at Marhanets Hospital despite efforts to save them.

Reznichenko described the scene of the attacks, on the Kakhovka Reservoir of the Dnieper River in south-central Ukraine, in a burst of Telegram posts early on August 10.

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"We had a terrible night.... We have 11 dead.... All peaceful people who had plans for life today," Reznichenko wrote. He later revised the death toll to 13.

"It is very difficult to get bodies from under the rubble," he added.

The areas that were reportedly struck are about 20 kilometers away and on the opposite side of the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, which was seized early in the five-month-old invasion and has been shelled several times in the past week, sparking intense international concern.

Marhanets was worst hit, the governor said, with 20 multiple-story buildings damaged including schools, a dormitory, and a cultural center.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhya plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the recent shelling of the facility.

"Any attack on a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing," Guterres said.

The Group of Seven (G7) condemned Russia's occupation and called on Moscow to immediately hand back full control of the plant.

Ukrainian staff operating the plant "must be able to carry out their duties without threats or pressure. It is Russia's continued control of the plant that endangers the region," the G7 foreign ministers said in a statement.

The ministers stressed the importance of allowing experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency to be sent to the power plant to address nuclear safety and security concerns.

They warned that Russia's actions significantly increase the risk of a nuclear incident and put the people of Ukraine, neighboring states, and the world at risk.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Armenian Readies Delayed Census For October

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's government announced that census-taking will take place from October 13 to October 22. (file photo)

Armenian authorities say that in October they will conduct the Caucasus nation's first census in more than a decade and only its third since post-Soviet independence, following two postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Questionnaires will be filled out electronically for the first time.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's government announced that census-taking will take place from October 13 to October 22, with its results to be summarized within a year.

Authorities plan to spend about 1.5 billion drams ($3.7 million) on the census, and the enumeration will include visits to households and other means of data collection.

Armenia took its previous two population censuses in 2001 and 2011. It planned to conduct its third population census in 2020, but had to postpone it first until 2021 and then until 2022 because of the pandemic.

“Electronic questionnaires will be filled in with the use of tablets. This is new for us," Vardan Gevorkian, the head of the population census department of Armenia’s Statistics Committee, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

Answering questions during a population census in Armenia is mandatory under the law.

Citizens will be asked a total of 39 questions, including about their marital status, education, occupation, health, housing conditions, their main sources of income, and so on.

The census will also include questions about the availability of a second citizenship and the place of permanent residence of absent family members.

According to the 2011 population census, Armenia had a population of a little more than 3 million people, down by around 200,000 people from the results of 10 years previously.

Crimea In Spotlight After Airfield Blasts, As Russians Focus On South And Ukrainians On Northeast

Smoke rises after explosions were heard at an air base near Novofedorivka in Crimea on August 9.

Speculation continued over the cause of major explosions at a Russian airfield in Crimea, while reports overnight on August 9-10 suggested Russian troops were concentrating on a southern region and Ukrainians reported minor successes around Kharkiv, in the northeast.

Meanwhile assessments of the fighting from Ukrainian and Western military sources indicate that battle lines have become increasingly entrenched as the five-month-old conflict grinds on, with advances mostly limited on either side.

Speaking in his nightly video address on August 9, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy avoided any specific reference to the dozen or so blasts that reportedly killed one person at the military airport in Crimea.

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But he vowed to reverse Moscow's 2014 annexation of the peninsula and to retake the it from Russia by the end of the war.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation,” Zelenskiy said. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”

Crimea has so far escaped heavy fighting, and officials in Moscow have warned Ukraine that any attack there would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centers” in Kyiv.

The Russian Defense Ministry indicated in a statement that the Saky airfield was not targeted in an attack and that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions, which reportedly killed one person, without clarifying who or what triggered the blasts.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said it "cannot establish the cause of the fire, but once again reminds about the rules of fire safety and the prohibition of smoking in unspecified places," hinting at an accident at the facility.

But The New York Times quoted an unnamed "senior Ukrainian military official with knowledge of the situation" as saying that Ukrainian forces were behind the Crimea explosions.

It said the official declined to specify what type of weapon caused them but said "a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used."

The source also suggested that the Saky air base, on Crimea's western coast, was routinely used to launch air attacks on Ukrainian forces.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the Times' reporting.

A Ukrainian military expert told Current Time that Kyiv "theoretically" has weapons that could have reached Saky.

Reports of fighting suggest that Russia is concentrating its main troop activities in the southern Kherson region, while the Ukrainians claimed to be making minor gains in the Kharkiv region.

Russian forces were said to have shelled the northeastern city of Kharkiv overnight on August 9-10, damaging infrastructure but causing no casualties.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said that at least four explosions had sounded through the night, including one near a building that "has nothing to do with military infrastructure."

The Ukrainian Army's General Staff said late on August 9 that "Russians continue to attempt to attack in different parts of the hundred-kilometer front in eastern Ukraine, from the outskirts of Seversk to the outskirts of Donetsk."

It cited Russian tactical offensives in Yakovlevka, Bakhmut, and Zaitsev, and said Ukrainian defenders had beat back an enemy offensive in Spornoye, near Seversk.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Current Time, and The New York Times

U.S. Pledges $89 Million To Help Ukraine Clear Land Mines Left By Russian Forces

The money will support 100 demining teams and also help provide training and equipment necessary to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance for a year. (file photo)

The United States says it will provide $89 million to Ukraine for removing land mines put in place by Russian forces.

The money will support 100 demining teams and also help provide training and equipment necessary to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance for a year.

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"Russia's unlawful and unprovoked further invasion of Ukraine has littered massive swaths of the country with land mines, unexploded ordnance, and improvised explosive devices," the U.S. State Department said on August 9 in a statement.

The “grotesque” use of improvised explosive devices by the Russians in Ukraine was previously only associated with Islamic State in Syria, the statement said.

"These explosive hazards block access to fertile farmland, delay reconstruction efforts, prevent displaced communities from returning to their homes, and continue to kill and maim innocent Ukrainian civilians," it said.

The Russians left a large number of mines and other explosive devices behind when they were forced to withdraw from northern Ukraine after the failure of the initial thrust of the invasion to seize Kyiv.

Since late March Kyiv has defused around 160,000 mines, but some 5 million Ukrainians still live in areas threatened by bombs planted by the Russians, according to the State Department.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Two More Cargo Ships Carrying Grain Leave Ukrainian Port Near Odesa

The Ocean Lion cargo ship makes its way from port near Odesa on August 9.

Two more cargo ships carrying grain have left Ukraine, the Infrastructure Ministry announced on August 9.

The ships were to travel across the Black Sea in a convoy headed toward the Bosphorus under a deal with Russia to ease agricultural exports from Ukrainian ports.

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The ministry said on Facebook that the two ships departed from Chornomorsk, south of Odesa, carrying a total of 70,000 tons of grain and food. It said that one of the ships, the Rahmi Yaggi, was bound for Turkey with 5,300 tons of products, while the other, the Ocean Lion, was carrying some 65,000 tons of corn to South Korea.

With the departures a total of 12 ships have left three different Ukrainian Black Sea ports under the deal between Russia and Ukraine brokered late last month by the United Nations and Turkey.

Exports from Ukraine -- one of the world's biggest grain producers -- had been halted by a Russian naval blockade and the Ukrainian mining of the ports.

The halt of grain shipments from Ukraine contributed to a spike in global food prices and caused concern about countries in the Middle East and Africa receiving enough grain and other commodities to feed their populations.

The resumption of grain exports is being overseen by a Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Istanbul where Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN personnel are working.

The first ship to depart Ukraine under the deal brokered by the UN and Turkey reached its destination, Lebanon, on August 7, but the buyer refused the shipment citing a five-month delay, the Ukrainian Embassy in Lebanon said.

The ship was looking for another consignee to unload its cargo in Lebanon or any other country or port. It was off the coast of Turkey on August 9, according to the website MarineTraffic.

With reporting by AFP

Ukrainian Military Reports Heavy Fighting Along Front Line In Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers jump from a pickup truck to take up positions at the front line in the Mykolayiv region.

Heavy fighting was reported on August 9 in frontline towns of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region as Russian troops launched waves of attacks to try to expand their control of the Donbas.

Kyiv said its troops were putting up fierce resistance and largely holding the line.

Russian troops tried to storm in several directions in the Donetsk region, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in a battlefield assessment issued on the evening of August 9.

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"In the Donetsk direction, the enemy, with the support of aviation, is trying to conduct assault actions in the Bakhmut and Avdiyiv directions,” the General Staff report said.

Russian forces were continuing with the "systematic shelling of positions along the contact line” to constrain the actions of Ukrainian units and prevent them from regrouping, it said.

Shelling was reported in the direction of Kramatorsk and Bakhmut, cities north of Donetsk city, while the General Staff said there was an unsuccessful attempt to storm Russian troops in the Spirniy region of Donetsk, one of the two eastern regions where Russia-backed separatists have held large swaths of territory for the past eight years.

Russian troops tried to involve intelligence groups in several districts north of Donetsk city but retreated after being hit by fire from Ukrainian defenders, the report said.

They were also unsuccessful in carrying out combat reconnaissance in the areas of Pidgorodne north of Dnipro and Bakhmut, the report says.

According to the General Staff, Russian units had "partial success" in the direction of the village of Vershina, but have not been able to improve the tactical position in the directions of Bakhmut and other cities north of Donetsk city.

Russia said its forces had captured a factory for Moscow on the edge of the eastern town of Soledar.

Other Russian-backed forces said they were in the process of "clearing out" the heavily fortified village of Pisky. And Russian media reported that a group of mercenaries from the Vagner Group had dug in near Bakhmut.

It was not possible to verify either side's battlefield accounts.

Russia has been "reinforcing defenses" in southern Ukraine while keeping up attacks on Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donetsk region, but has only managed to advance about 10 kilometers in the past month on its "most successful axis" there, according to U.K. military intelligence.

In its regular assessment earlier on August 9, British Defense Intelligence said Russian forces had not advanced more than three kilometers elsewhere in Donetsk.

Such a pace is "almost certainly significantly less than planned," Defense Intelligence added.

"Despite its continued heavy use of artillery in these areas, Russia has not been able to generate capable combat infantry in sufficient numbers to secure more substantial advances," it said.

British intelligence previously warned on August 8 that Russia was using anti-personnel mines in an effort to defend and hold its defense lines, with resulting risks to both the military and local civilian populations.

In Crimea, Moscow-imposed authorities said explosions hit a military airport near the village of Novofedorivka, killing one person and injuring several others.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions without clarifying who or what triggered the blasts.

The ministry's statement implied the airfield was not targeted in an attack and said that no one was injured.

Meanwhile, the United States said it would provide $89 million to Ukraine for removing land mines put in place by Russian forces. The money will support 100 demining teams as well as training and equipment necessary to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance for a year.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Biden Signs U.S. Ratification Document On NATO Membership For Sweden, Finland

U.S. President Joe Biden -- alongside Vice President Kamala Harris (left), Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter (second from right), and Finnish Ambassador to Washington Mikko Hautala -- signs ratification documents for the Nordic countries to join NATO in Washington on August 9.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed ratification documents endorsing bids by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Biden said the two Nordic countries’ expected entry into the alliance once they receive the backing of all 30 members will be “a watershed moment” for NATO and “for the greater security and stability not only of Europe and the United States but of the world."

Biden signed the documents -- formally called the instrument of ratification -- in a ceremony at the White House on August 9.

Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They completed accession talks with the alliance just last month.

The U.S. Senate backed the expansion by a vote of 95-1 last week. Both Democrats and Republicans strongly approved the measure, describing Sweden and Finland as important allies whose modern militaries already worked closely with NATO.

Biden said the two countries would become "strong, reliable highly capable new allies" by making the "sacred commitment" to mutual defense in the transatlantic alliance.

Biden handed the pens he used to sign the documents to Sweden's ambassador to the U.S., Karin Olofsdotter, and Finland's ambassador to the U.S., Mikko Hautala, who witnessed the signing along with members of Congress and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden said Finland and Sweden both have "strong democratic institutions, strong militaries, and strong and transparent economies" that would now bolster NATO.

He also praised NATO as "the foundation of American security" and said the United States is committed to it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Russia on the other hand "shattered peace and security in Europe" by invading Ukraine. "Putin thought he could break us apart…Instead, he is getting exactly what he did not want."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States appreciates the swift action of the NATO allies that have already ratified the accession protocols "and encourages all to complete the process soon."

As of last week seven member countries -- the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Turkey -- had yet to formally agree to the entry of the two countries. Only Turkey has formally raised a challenge, demanding certain concessions from Finland and Sweden to back their memberships.

Blinken also said the commitment among NATO members to Article 5 of the organization's founding treaty remains "ironclad."

Article 5 says NATO members must consider an attack on one member of the alliance as an attack on all, committing each member to defend all others in what NATO calls a spirit of solidarity within the alliance.

"Allies are united in their shared mission to defend the Euro-Atlantic community, deter aggression, project stability, and uphold NATO’s values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law," Blinken said. "We also remain firmly committed to NATO’s Open Door policy and to further strengthening our bilateral defense and security cooperation."

Russia cited Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war in February. Putin said in May that, while Russia does not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, deployment of military infrastructure in the countries may trigger a response from Moscow.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. Calls For 'Immediate Steps' To Reduce Tensions In Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian (file photo)

Washington is closely following the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and urges immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation, the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on August 9.

In a statement delivered to the OSCE Special Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. mission Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian also said that “the United States expresses its deep concern over the reports of intensive fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, including casualties and the loss of life.”

“We are closely following the situation [in Nagorno-Karabakh] and urge immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation,” Austrian said.

“As we have said many times at the Permanent Council, the United States emphasizes the importance of a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” she added.

The diplomat noted that last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally engaged Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “to urge de-escalation and direct contacts to reduce tensions.”

“The United States is ready to engage bilaterally, with like-minded partners, and through our role as an OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair to facilitate dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and help achieve a long-term political settlement to the conflict,” Austrian said.

At least one Azerbaijani and two ethnic Armenian soldiers were killed during the most recent escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, which took place on August 1-3. The two sides blame each other for the violence.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

The mostly Armenian-populated region, which had the status of an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, declared its independence from Baku amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, triggering a 1992-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The war ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians in control of most of the region as well as several adjacent districts of Azerbaijan proper.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE Minsk Group -- co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France -- failed to result in a resolution before another large-scale war broke out in September 2020.

The 44-day conflict, which killed more than 6,500 people, ended in a Moscow-brokered cease-fire with Azerbaijan regaining control of all districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as large swaths of territory inside the former autonomous oblast itself.

Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the region to oversee the truce.

With reporting by By Heghine Buniatyan

Russian Border Guards Set Up Road Checkpoints In Southern Armenia

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the Russian Federal Security Service's Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Yerevan to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses. (file photo)

Citing increased drug trafficking and other illegal cross-border activities, Russian border guards controlling Armenia’s frontier with Iran have set up checkpoints along several roads in the country’s southern Syunik Province.

Images of the checkpoints along the road linking Meghri to other towns appeared on the Internet earlier this week, raising speculation about possible preparations for the opening of transit routes for Azerbaijan via the strategic mountainous region.

Syunik is the Armenian province through which Azerbaijan expects to get a highway and railroad connection with its western exclave of Nakhichevan under the terms of the Russia-brokered 2020 cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the terms of that arrangement, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is to ensure the security of traffic along transport routes in Armenia for Azerbaijan.

Yerevan insists that it should maintain sovereignty over the roads, while Baku is seeking an extraterritorial status for them amounting to a corridor similar to the Russian-controlled Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

At a government session on August 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian again implicitly rejected the corridor logic for the unblocking of regional transport routes, saying that Azerbaijan even today can use all parts of Armenia, not only Syunik, for transit purposes in accordance with Armenian legislation.

“We have been saying all the while that we are ready to provide this connection between the western districts of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. We are ready to ensure this connection even today, but it is Azerbaijan that does not use these opportunities offered by us,” Pashinian said.

Pashinian spoke after the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in which at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier were killed in fresh fighting near the Lachin corridor where Russian peacekeepers are deployed under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.

Amid the escalation, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that several Armenian villages along the current corridor would be evacuated until September when Armenians are to start using an alternative road connecting Armenia and the Armenian-populated region.

Bagrat Zakarian, the mayor of Meghri, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on August 9 that the Russian checkpoints recently spotted in Syunik were actually set up several months ago. In total, he said, five such checkpoints were placed at roads leading from Meghri to several towns and villages in Syunik.

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the FSB Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Armenian authorities to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses.

According to the FSB, a tense situation has been observed recently at the Meghri section of the Armenian-Iranian state border due to increased attempts to smuggle drugs from Iran to Armenia. Violations of the border by representatives of extremist and terrorist groups were also recorded.

Armenian government officials have not yet commented on the presence of Russian checkpoints along the roads in Syunik.

Meghri’s mayor acknowledged that the checkpoints create certain problems for local tourism.

“Tourists have to go through passport control procedures before they can visit several rural areas here,” Zakarian said.

With reporting by Artak Khulian

On Second Anniversary Of Disputed Belarusian Presidential Poll, Tsikhanouskaya Names 'Interim Cabinet'

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (center) and her "transitional cabinet" Valer Sakhashchyk (left), Alyaksandr Azarau (second from left), Paval Latushka (second from right) and Valer Kavaleuski (composite file photo)

VILNIUS -- On the second anniversary of the disputed presidential election in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom many consider the winner of the August 2020 vote, has named an interim government of the country.

Tsikhanouskaya said on August 9, the final day of a two-day conference of Belarusian democratic movements and groups held in Vilnius, Lithuania, that many opposition figures had demanded that she create "a united interim government" and she said she has now established one.

The interim government consists of Paval Latushka, who is responsible for the transition of power, Alyaksandr Azarau, who will take care of the restoration of law and order, Valer Kavaleuski, who will focus on foreign affairs, and Valer Sakhashchyk who will represent the interim government on issues related to defense and national security, Tsikhanouskaya said. She also called on all Belarusians who want to contribute to the transition of Belarus to a democratic country to join her team.

After the presidential election on August 9, 2020, Belarus was hit by a wave of protests against the results of the poll, which handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.

Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or have been forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with opponents of his regime.

Security officials have cracked down hard on any dissent against Lukashenka's rule, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists, some of whom are RFE/RL correspondents.

Several protesters have been killed, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture by security officials against some of those detained.

Belarusian authorities have also shuttered several media outlets, including the Polish-funded Belsat television channel, the popular Nasha Niva newspaper, the Minsk office of RFE/RL, and dozens of regional publications for their independent coverage of Lukashenka's regime.

On August 9, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly again condemned the imprisonment of RFE/RL correspondents in Belarus who were arrested over their coverage of the disputed poll and its aftermath.

“Two years ago, Alyaksandr Lukashenka stole not only an election, but the futures of our colleagues Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk,” Fly said in a statement.

“We condemn the Belarusian government’s relentless campaign to criminalize independent media, and demand the immediate release of our journalists imprisoned for reporting the truth.”

The European Union, the United States, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and a brutal police crackdown.

Tsikhanouskaya, 39, emerged as the face of the opposition to Lukashenka after facing off against the strongman because her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, had been detained to prevent him from running. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence.

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