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Facebook's Zuckerberg Says 'Sorry' To EU Deputies

Zuckerberg: 'We Have Made Significant Investments To Protect The Integrity Of Elections'
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized to the European Parliament for causing "harm" by failing to prevent "fake news" and allowing users' data to be stolen.

Zuckerberg said in Brussels on May 22 that while Facebook has brought in new features to connect people, it had become clear in the last two years that they "haven't done enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm."

Zuckerberg appeared before parliamentary political group leaders after Facebook admitted last month it had improperly shared the personal data of 87 million users with British firm Cambridge Analytica, including that of up to 2.7 million EU users.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told Zuckerberg that his appearance was "an important mark of respect towards the European Parliament and the European citizens that are represented here."

"Of course, Mr Zuckerberg's apologies are not enough. We are looking for further commitment and we will be following this up to make sure that these commitments are respected," Tajani said.

While Zuckerberg ducked some of the tough questions posed by the lawmakers, he did apologize for Facebook policies that allowed the spread of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the British "Brexit" referendum.

"And that goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, or developers misusing people's information. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility," he said in his opening statement.

Zuckerberg said he was "committed" to making sweeping changes to the platform to make it safer and more reliable.

"I'm committed to getting this right and to making the significant investments that are necessary to keep people safe," he said.

Zuckerberg noted that Facebook had already been better prepared to identify and delete misinformation in elections around the world since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

"We were too slow to identify Russian interference on Facebook in the U.S. presidential election at the time," he said.

"I have more confidence that we're going to get this right going forward because we've already done a better job in several important elections since 2016, including the French presidential election, the German elections, and the Alabama special election in the U.S. last year."

Facebook will also be "fully compliant" with the new European data protection standards, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), when the new regulation comes into effect on May 25, Zuckerberg noted.

Based on reporting by dpa and AFP

Ex-Trump Adviser Bannon: Europe Should 'Pay Up' On Defense If It Fears Russia

Bannon: 'If Europe Is So Worried About Russia, Pay Up'
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PRAGUE -- A former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, said that NATO countries need to start paying more to protect themselves against Russia, though he added that China is the biggest threat.

Bannon said at an event held in Prague on May 22 that if European countries are "so worried about Russia, pay up." He added that Russia is not the greatest threat to Europe and is "not even in the top 5."

Bannon, who was Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor for seven months last year, said that although Russia is a "kleptocracy" run by "bad guys who do bad things.... There are a lot of places like that." He added that the biggest geostrategic threat to the world is China.

"The hate against Russia is 10 times what it was then [during the Cold War]," Bannon said. "It is going to take wisdom, and courage, and tenacity, but somehow...we're going to have to end the Cold War. Russia's economy today is the size of Italy's. It's smaller than [the economy of] New York state. We've made [the Russians] 10 feet tall. They're not 10 feet tall."

Bannon said Europe should stop being a "protectorate" of the United States and said it is "demeaning" for the United States, considering the United States' participation in the two world wars -- to come with "a cup in the hand and ask Germany: 'Would you pay your 2 percent [of GDP for NATO]?'"

He was especially critical of Germany, calling the country a "deadbeat" when it comes to the military and adding that German Chancellor Angela Merkel "will go down as the single-worst political figure in the 21st century" because of her immigration policies that allowed some 1 million refugees to enter the country in the past three years.

Bannon appeared at the Prague forum with former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser Lanny Davis. It was sponsored by a Czech defense contractor.

RFE/RL's John Mastrini contributed to this report

Ukraine Showcases Javelin Firepower From United States

A Javelin antitank missile systems (file photo)

KYIV -- Ukraine has showcased the firepower of the Javelin antitank missile systems given to it by the United States last month in a performance President Petro Poroshenko called "a dream come true."

"Finally, this day has come -- and today, on May 22, for the first time in Ukraine, a test of the third-generation Javelin antitank complex took place," a grinning Poroshenko told his soldiers in a video of the closed test published on his Facebook page. "Thanks to them, the combat capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have increased significantly."

RFE/RL was first to report the delivery of 37 Javelin launchers, including two spares, and 210 missiles to Kyiv in April.

The U.S. State Department approved the sale of the Javelin systems to Ukraine at an estimated cost of $47 million in March.

Poroshenko on May 22 personally thanked U.S. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the U.S. Congress "for supporting Ukraine and adopting a decision to provide Javelin antitank missile systems."

Kyiv and Washington have said that the Javelins will help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity and keep Russian aggression at bay.

Russia's Foreign Ministry warned that the weapons may further inflame tensions between Moscow and Washington and push Ukraine "toward reckless new military decisions."

"Of course this is a defensive weapon and will be used only when there is an attack by the Russian Federation on positions of Ukrainian forces,' Poroshenko said at the test.

The special U.S. envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has said that the Javelins are being stored in a secure facility far from the front line of the conflict in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where government forces continue to fight Russia-backed separatists.

In its fifth year, the fighting has killed more than 10,300 people.

The Javelin test came amid what international observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE-SMM) in Ukraine said on May 21 has been the deadliest week of the year in the conflict zone, with heavy weapons banned by a tenuous peace accord agreed in February 2015 used against populated areas.

In the test video, Poroshenko appears pleased with the performance of the missile, which is seen hitting a tank in a sprawling field. The president is shown smiling while lauding the "extremely high efficiency" of the weapon.

"You saw the happy faces of soldiers," the president said. "Today, their dream has come true."

"It has a very symbolic meaning," he added, "because it is a symbol of cooperation with our American partners."

U.S. Sanctions Five Iranians For Assisting Yemen's Huthis

A Huthi rebel fighter (file photo)

The United States has announced sanctions on five Iranians it said provided Yemen's Huthi rebel group with expertise and weaponry used to launch missiles at Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement that Mehdi Azarpisheh, Mohammad Jafari, Mahmud Kazemabad, Javad Shir Amin, and Sayyed Mohammad Tehrani are the people being sanctioned.

It said the first four men worked with the Huthis through Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) by providing the rebel group with ballistic-missile related expertise and transferring "weapons not seen in Yemen prior to the current conflict."

Tehrani was sanctioned for allegedly aiding in the financing of the IRGC.

The fresh sanctions are part of the Trump administration's pledge to place tough new economic sanctions on Iran.

The Treasury Department announcement comes one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would soon crack down on Iran's support for the Huthis.

Yemen's government has been fighting against the Iran-backed Huthi movement since 2015 in a war that has caused thousands of deaths and put the country on the verge of famine.

Saudi Arabia blames the Huthi rebels for firing a string of missiles at its cities and oil infrastructure, most recently on May 9.

With reporting by Reuters

Ukraine Accuses 35 Football Clubs, Hundreds Of Players, Officials Of Match Fixing

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov

Ukraine has accused 35 football clubs of involvement in a match-fixing operation that allegedly earned millions of dollars a year for the organizers.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said a special operation had uncovered that two-thirds of all the teams in top divisions of Ukrainian soccer took part in fixing the outcome of games.

"Club presidents, former and current players, referees, trainers, and commercial organizations were involved," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook.

He said the ministry has documented 320 people involved in 57 "proven cases" of match fixing, adding that five criminal groups organized the fixing of games.

Avakov said the organizers had earned up to $5 million a year by betting in Asia on Ukrainian football matches in which the result was already predetermined.

"Any methods were used to get the 'right' score in the match -- from the bribing of players, referees, club owners, to intimidation and threats," said Avakov. "The amount of 'reward' for the desired result -- a victory or a draw -- ranged from 30,000 ($1,150) to 100,000 hryvnias ($3,840)."

Ukrainian Deputy Police Chief Ihor Kupranets told reporters, however, that no arrests had been made.

Kupranets added that prosecutors would decide whether and when to bring charges against the suspects.

Neither the names of the football clubs involved in the fixing nor the names of the people who allegedly took part were disclosed.

Ukraine's Football 24 online sports site reported that teams and players from the Premier League, First and Second Leagues, as well as the junior teams were suspected of being involved.

The announcement comes four days before Kyiv hosts the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

Allegations of soccer match fixing in Eastern Europe have been prevalent for many years.

"Today is a historic day for Ukrainian football," said Ukrainian Football Federation head Andriy Pavelko. "This is the start of a systemic cleanup of Ukrainian football from a problem that was rooted in [it] for years."

Based on reporting by AFP and Interfax-Ukraine

Amnesty International Visits Uzbekistan, First Time In 14 Years

Protesters take part in a demonstration near the Uzbek Embassy in Berlin organized by Amnesty International against torture in Uzbek prisons in 2014.

An Amnesty International delegation will be in Uzbekistan this week in what the human rights watchdog describes as the first such visit to the country in 14 years.

A May 22 statement said that Marie Struthers, director of Amnesty's Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional office, and her deputy Denis Krivosheyev are traveling to Uzbekistan at short notice on May 22-25.

The two are scheduled to meet with government officials and civil society representatives, the statement said.

Struthers said the watchdog had prepared a list of recommendations for officials in Tashkent. The list includes establishing "mechanisms for the rehabilitation of all those prosecuted on politically motivated charges" and "impartial and effective investigations of previous human rights abuses."

The last visit by an Amnesty International delegation to Uzbekistan took place in 2004, when delegates of the group attended an international conference on the abolition of the death penalty.

In September 2017, a Human Rights Watch delegation visited Uzbekistan, seven years after its representatives were banned from working inside the country.

Both international organizations have been denied permission to open representative offices in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has taken steps to implement reforms at home and improve ties with the outside world following more than a quarter-century of iron-fisted rule under his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Prime minister for 13 years, Mirziyoev became interim president after Karimov's death was announced in September 2016. He was then elected president in a tightly controlled vote in December 2016.

In recent months, Mirziyoev has made changes in Uzbekistan's long-feared security services, while several activists and journalists have been freed after years in prison.

"While some positive steps taken by the authorities over the last 18 months are encouraging, especially the prohibition of the use of torture to force confessions, much remains to be done to fully address the grave human rights violations of the past," Struthers said.

'No Evidence' Detained Iranian Environmentalists Are Spies

Isa Kalantari said that those detained should be released "soon."

An Iranian government panel has concluded there is no evidence against environmental activists rounded up on spying charges in recent months, the country's environment chief says.

Isa Kalantari, head of Iran's department of environment, was quoted by state media as saying on May 22 that the conclusion had been reached by a panel set up to investigate the allegations against the activists.

The panel included the ministers of justice, interior, and intelligence, as well as the president's legal deputy, Kalantari said.

"This four-member group has come to the conclusion that these detained individuals are in custody without having done anything and naturally they must be freed soon," Kalantari said.

Iran detained several environmentalists and wildlife activists earlier this year on espionage charges. The total number of those arrested is not clear.

Judiciary officials claimed that the activists were gathering sensitive information for foreign governments under the guise of scientific and environmental activities.

Among those detained was Iranian-Canadian environmental activist and sociology professor Kavous Seyed Emami, who died in prison under disputed circumstances.

The judiciary said the 63-year-old managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which works to protect endangered animals and raise public awareness about the environment, had committed suicide in prison.

The claim has been questioned by his family and acquaintances.

Kalantari's deputy at the department of environment, Kaveh Madani, fled the country last month amid pressure from hard-liners.

Madani said last year he had returned to Iran "to create hope" and pave the way for the return of other expatriates.

Based on reporting by ISNA and AFP

Iranian Officials Call For Unblocking Twitter

Six Iranian ministers and two lawmakers, all members of the state committee in charge of blocking websites, have issued an open letter to the country's prosecutor calling for the unblocking of Twitter.

The letter was issued in response to "the growing public demands for unfiltering Twitter to allow the activity of the youth and media in [it]," the government website Dolat.ir reported.

The letter is signed by Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Education Minister Mohammad Bathaee, Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi, Justice Minister Alireza Avayi, Science Minister Mansur Gholami, and Culture Minister Abbas Salehi, as well lawmakers Ramezanali Sobhanifar and Mohammad Kazemi.

Twitter and Facebook are among the tens of thousands of social-media and news sites blocked by the Iranian establishment.

Despite the blocking, many Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, use Twitter to reach out to supporters and spread their messages.

Many Iranians also use Twitter to share news and information and express themselves.

Iran recently blocked the highly popular communications app Telegram, believed to be used by half of the country's population.

Yet, many Iranians are still accessing it through antiblocking tools.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Dolat.ir and ISNA

World Leaders Urged To Boycott World Cup Opening Ceremony Over Syria 'Atrocities'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center-right) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino (center-left) pose with their FAN IDs for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia at a distribution center in Sochi on May 3.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on world leaders to boycott next month's opening ceremony of the World Cup soccer competition in Russia unless Russian President Vladimir Putin takes steps to protect Syrian civilians.

Russia, which hosts the World Cup for the first time this year, is a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's seven-year war, and the New York-based watchdog argued that Moscow's responsibility in the suffering of Syrian civilians should not be overlooked.

"In hosting one of the most televised events in the world, Russia is courting world public opinion and looking for respect," HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in a May 22 statement.

Roth said that world leaders "should signal to President Putin that unless he changes track and acts to end atrocities by Russian and Syrian forces in Syria, they won't be in their seats in the VIP box with him on opening night."

The World Cup is expected to be watched on television by billions of people around the world.

Moscow has given Assad's government crucial support throughout the Syrian conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, allowing Damascus to make large territorial gains in recent months against rebels.

Roth said HRW had documented Russian and Syrian air strikes that he said "failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and that struck civilian objects, including schools, hospitals, and residential areas.

Russian-Syrian joint operations have caused "thousands of civilian casualties," he added.

"World leaders should not allow a sporting event to gloss over a pattern of atrocities in Syria that now looms over 2 million civilians," Roth said.

Earlier this month, the human rights watchdog said the monthlong World Cup tournament will take place amid "the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era."

In a report published on May 15, HRW said FIFA, world soccer's governing body, should use its influence and bring up with the Russian authorities issues such as labor rights abuses, restrictions on basic freedoms, and the current crackdown on human rights activists.

Kyrgyz Supreme Court Upholds Ex-Prosecutor Salyanova’s Sentence

Aida Salyanova speaks in court on May 22.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's highest court has upheld a suspended prison sentence against opposition politician and former Prosecutor-General Aida Salyanova.

The Supreme Court heard Salyanova’s appeal on May 22, after the Bishkek city court confirmed in February her suspended five-year prison sentence.

Following that ruling, the Central Election Commission on March 3 deprived her of her legislative mandate.

Salyanova, a legislator from the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, was initially convicted and sentenced in October 2017 by Bishkek's Lenin district court, which also ordered the confiscation of her property. However, the court postponed her imprisonment until her 2-year-old daughter reaches the age of 14.

Salyanova was accused of illegally extending the license of a lawyer with links to then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev's son Maksim shortly before Bakiev's ouster in 2010. She was prosecutor-general at the time.

Salyanova has maintained her innocence, saying the case against her was politically motivated.

Her conviction came amid political tensions just five days before the October 2017 presidential election.

Authorities targeted Salyanova in an investigation in March 2017, just days after Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev was arrested on what his supporters say were trumped-up bribery charges.

Tekebaev, who was nominated as Ata-Meken's presidential candidate shortly after his arrest, was convicted in August 2017 and sentenced to eight years in prison.

His supporters say the conviction was aimed at preventing him from running in the election.

In November, several masked men shot Salyanova's brother dead in his home, according to the Interior Ministry, which at the time overruled a political motive for the shooting.

Deputy Interior Minister Kursan Asanov on May 18 said that two suspects in the killing of 42-year-old Ulan Salyanov had been detained in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. A third suspect, a Russian citizen, was still on the loose, Asanov said.

Navalny Press Secretary, TV Show Host 'Detained Again'

Kira Yarmysh (left) and Aleksei Navalny walk to a meeting in the Kostroma region in 2015.

The press secretary of jailed opposition politician and anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny and the host of Navalny's YouTube channel have been detained in Moscow, according to independent media reports.

Kira Yarmysh and Ruslan Shaveddinov were detained separately by police in Moscow on May 22 and were taken to the Tverskoye police station.

Shaveddinov was detained outside of his Moscow home, he wrote on Twitter.

Yarmysh arrived at the police station to represent Shaveddinov's interests, but was also detained, she tweeted.

According to a lawyer for Navalny's Anticorruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, the two are accused of being among the organizers of a May 5 rally against President Vladimir Putin's reelection.

Under the slogan "He's not our tsar," Navalny, 41, had called on his supporters to take to the streets nationwide ahead of Putin's May 7 inauguration.

According to the independent police-monitoring group OVD-Info, some 1,612 people, including Navalny himself, were detained in 26 cities in connection with the rally, some 7,000 of them just in Moscow.

Navalny was initially released, but a Moscow court on May 15 ordered him to be jailed for 30 days after finding him guilty of repeatedly violating regulations for organizing public gatherings.

Shaveddinov's detention is the second in less than a week, after police in Moscow arrested him for a short period of time over the same accusation of involvement in the May 5 protests.

In January, both Yarmysh and Shaveddinov were sentenced to several days in jail for broadcasting Navalny-organized rallies calling for a boycott of the March 18 presidential election.

Putin, 65, has president or prime minister since 1999. He was reelected by a landslide on March 18, in a vote that has called a demonstration of public trust but critics say was marred by fraud and what international observers said was the lack of a genuine choice.

With reporting by Meduza and Dozhd TV

State Duma Adopts Russian Countersanctions Bill

The lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, has approved in its third and final reading a bill that provides for countermeasures against the United States and other countries that imposed sanctions against Russia.

The bill is expected to be adopted by the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council, before going to President Vladimir Putin to be signed into law.

The proposed legislation would give the Russian government the authority to ban trade in certain items with countries that "implement unfriendly moves towards Russia."

Under the bill, the decision about what products or services would be affected by the restrictions would be made by the government following a decision by Putin to impose restrictions against a country.

The proposed legislation is seen as an effort by Moscow to respond to the asset freezes and financial restrictions on Russian officials, tycoons, and companies associated with Putin imposed by the U.S. government in April.

Those sanctions, the latest in a series of measures taken by the United States, the European Union, and other countries since Russia seized Crimea and began backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, were meant to punish Moscow for alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other "malign activity around the globe."

At Least 32 Killed, Dozens Wounded In Afghan Attacks

Afghan security officials inspect the scene of a bomb explosion in Kandahar on May 22.

At least 32 people have been reported killed in an explosion in southern Afghanistan and attacks in the country's east, as the Taliban pushed ahead with its annual spring offensive across the country.

In the southern city of Kandahar, officials said at least 16 people were killed and more than 30 wounded when explosives placed inside two containers blew up as security forces were trying to defuse them.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence service said the explosives were discovered in a large open yard of workshops.

It was initially reported that the explosives were packed in a minibus.

Authorities at Kandahar's Mirwais hospital said the dead and wounded included both civilians and members of the Afghan security forces.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Kandahar Province is a major center of opium cultivation and a stronghold of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, in the eastern province of Ghazni, officials said on May 22 that at least 14 police officers were killed in several attacks by the militants.

Provincial council member Hassan Reza Yusufi said that seven officers were killed in one attack in the Dih Yak district, among them the police chief of the district, Sayedullah Tofan, and a reserve police commander.

Arif Noori, a spokesman for Ghazni's governor, said another seven officers were killed in the Jaghatu district.

Yusufi said the attacks started late on May 21 and fighting was still under way on May 22 in the Dih Yak, Jaghatu, Ajristan, and Qarabagh districts.

Latifa Akbari, the head of the provincial council in Ghazni, confirmed that Taliban fighters attacked a number of checkpoints in Dih Yak and Jaghatu and there were more than 20 casualties among members of the security forces.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks. Zabihullah Mujahid claimed the Jaghatu district headquarters was captured as well as police checkpoints in Dih Yak.

In the province of Paktia, also in southern Afghanistan, at least two police officers were killed when their checkpoint came under attack by Taliban fighters, said General Gul Agha Rohani, the provincial police chief.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

Yekaterinburg Mayor Resigns Over Scrapping Of Direct Mayoral Elections

Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman is one of a very few regional or local officials who have openly criticized President Vladimir Putin and praised opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. (file photo)

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman has announced his resignation, saying he refused to take part in the process of abolishing the direct election of the mayor in Russia's fourth-largest city.

"Since I was elected by the city's residents, I defend the interests of the city's residents. We were put in a situation where we had to legitimize someone else's decision. I will not take part in this under any circumstances," Roizman said on May 22 during a meeting of the city council he chaired.

"Today's meeting is closed. I declare to you that I do not want to participate in this and resign."

Roizman made the announcement after refusing to put on the agenda of the meeting the introduction of amendments to the city's charter abolishing the election of the city's mayor.

Speaking to RFE/RL about his decision, Roizman described the amendments as "a direct cheat on the people of [Yekaterinburg]."

"This is Yekaterinburg -- people will understand me. It was the only way to come clean out of this situation," he added. "Step by step the local council is being stripped of everything -- authority, finance, direct elections."

Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the city's legislature, Viktor Testov, told reporters, "We need to gather and consult lawyers, so that we understand how to act further and whether a special session should be convened."

The move comes after lawmakers in the Sverdlovsk region on April 3 passed a bill under which the mayor in the regional capital, Yekaterinburg, will be chosen by the city council from a list of candidates prepared by a commission -- a move that has met resistance from Roizman and protests by residents of the Urals city.

Roizman has blasted the legislation, which was submitted by regional Governor Yevgeny Kuvaishev, saying the abolition of direct elections would deal a blow to democracy and hurt the city's interests.

He also said it will be used by the authorities loyal to the Kremlin to "appoint" a pliant mayor.

Critics say that President Vladimir Putin has rolled back democracy and tightened Kremlin control over electoral politics over about 18 years as president or prime minister.

Roizman, who was elected mayor in 2013, is one of a very few regional or local officials who have openly criticized Putin and praised opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

His position is already largely ceremonial, as most executive powers in Yekaterinburg belong to the head of the city administration, Aleksandr Yakob.

Roizman had called for a boycott of the March 18 presidential election, saying the polls were not free or fair.

Putin was reelected by a landslide in the vote that critics say was marred by fraud and what international observers said was the lack of a genuine choice.

With reporting by TASS and Znak.com

U.S., China Reported Near Deal To Lift Iran Sanctions Against Tech Giant

Washington and Beijing are reportedly close to a deal to lift a U.S. ban on American firms supplying Chinese technology giant ZTE Corp.,originally imposed over allegations that it violated U.S. sanctions against both Iran and North Korea.

Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed officials, reported early on May 22 that the deal might include China removing tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, as well as buying more U.S. farm goods.

ZTE, hit by a seven-year ban in April that effectively crippled its operations and was threatening to put the giant phone company out of business, would get a major reprieve under the deal.

The development also signaled that the world's two largest economies were stepping back from the brink of a threatened trade war after a round of high-level bargaining sessions.

ZTE did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

White House advisers have said publicly that the ban against ZTE is being reexamined, but they have insisted that the firm would still face "harsh" punishment, including enforced changes of management and board members.

One person told Reuters there was a "handshake deal" on ZTE between U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He during talks in Washington last week that would remove the U.S. Commerce Department's ban on American companies selling to ZTE in exchange for China's purchase of more U.S. agricultural products.

A second person told the news agency that China may also eliminate tariffs on U.S. agriculture products it imposed in response to U.S. steel duties as a part of the deal, and that ZTE could still be forced to replace its corporate leadership, among other penalties.

Both sources said that the deal, while not yet cemented, was likely to be finalized before or during a planned trip by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to Beijing next week to help finalize a broader trade agreement to avert a trade war.

ZTE, which is publicly traded but whose largest shareholder is a Chinese state-owned enterprise, had been hit with penalties for breaking a 2017 agreement after it was caught illegally shipping U.S. goods to Iran and North Korea.

With reporting by Reuters and The Wall Street Journal

Russia Says Shoots Down Drone Near Main Syria Air Base

Russian troops march at the Hmeimim military base in Syria.

The Russian military says it has downed an unidentified drone approaching its Hmeimim air base in Syria.

The military said in a statement late on May 21 that the drone caused no casualties or physical damage before it was shot down near the base that serves as the main hub for Russian operations in Syria, Russian news agencies reported.

The British-based war monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said explosions were heard near the base and appeared to have come from Russian air defenses confronting the drone.

It apparently was only the latest attack by a drone on Russian military assets in Syria. In another attack on Hmeimim in January, the Russian military said it shot down seven of 13 drones involved and forced the others to land.

Russia has conducted a bombing campaign in Syria since September 2015, helping reverse the course of the nation's seven-year civil war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and TASS

Putin Offers Support For Venezuelan Leader Reelected In 'Sham' Vote

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the Kremlin in October 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered support for Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro after the United States, the European Union, and Latin American countries rejected his reelection as a "sham."

"The Russian president wished Maduro good health and success in resolving the social and economic issues facing the country," the Kremlin said on May 21, calling for "national dialogue in the interests of the entire Venezuelan people."

Russia came to Venezuela's rescue late last year with a debt-restructuring deal after it was driven to the verge of default by falling oil prices and tough U.S. sanctions -- sanctions that the United States ratcheted up further on May 21 to counter what Washington sees as Maduro's increasingly autocratic grip on his country.

Maduro won 68 percent of the vote in an election on May 20 that was boycotted by Venezuela's main opposition groups, which were not allowed to put up their most popular candidates and charged the election was rigged.

Even before the election, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and a dozen Latin American countries said they would not recognize the results.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called the election "a sham -- neither free nor fair."

The United States announced a new round of sanctions against Caracas on May 21, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling on Maduro to "restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and end the repression and economic deprivation of the Venezuelan people."

But while a senior U.S. official said the Trump administration had had "pointed discussions" with Russia and China, Venezuela's two biggest creditors, demanding that they not counteract the sanctions, the Kremlin indicated on May 21 that it will continue to provide Maduro with critical support.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the position taken by the United States and its allies in rejecting Maduro's reelection set a "dangerous precedent" in which "the electoral process does not depend on the position of international observers but on the points of view put forward ahead of time by certain states."

"It is clear that such an attitude will have grave long-term consequences," the ministry said.

Maduro in a Twitter post thanked Putin for "recognizing our triumph," and pledged to continue working with Russia to "build a multipolar world."

Also coming out in support of Maduro on May 21 despite criticism from most other states was Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who hailed the Venezuelan election as "true democracy."

Russia and China are the two main creditors and allies of Venezuela, which owes them an estimated $8 billion and $28 billion, respectively.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and Interfax

'Few Signs Of Progress' In Afghan War Under Trump Plan, U.S. Watchdogs Say

The site of a car-bomb attack claimed by the Taliban in Kabul

The Trump administration's new Afghanistan strategy has made little progress against the Taliban insurgency since August, and the country remains a "dangerous and volatile" place after 17 years of war, a government watchdog report says.

The conclusion by three U.S. agency watchdogs late on May 21 contrasted with assertions by the Pentagon that Afghan forces, with U.S. support, have "turned the corner" and captured momentum in the war against the Taliban.

The report to Congress by the inspectors-general of the Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development, in seeing "few signs of progress" in the three months ended on March 31, cited a series of deadly attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups.

"The Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan each launched high-profile attacks in Kabul that killed hundreds," the report noted.

"The Taliban continued to hold territory and launched devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and across the country," it said.

On May 21, the Taliban warned Kabul residents that it is planning more attacks in the Afghan capital and residents should avoid "military centers" to minimize civilian casualties.

The Trump administration, in launching a new war strategy in August, said it was stepping up the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in hopes that the increased use of force would convince the Taliban it cannot win the war and force it to join peace negotiations.

But the inspectors-general said that "there was little publicly available evidence that the actions to increase pressure on the Taliban were having a significant impact."

In February, the Afghan government offered to start a reconciliation process with the Taliban with no preconditions, but the militant group spurned the offer.

The report also found no "significant" gains in territory by U.S. and Afghan forces, despite the White House strategy's goal to increase the territory under government control to 80 percent from 64 percent through intensified air strikes and ground operations.

Beyond Afghanistan, the report said the White House's efforts to force Pakistan to take action against militants who launch attacks on Afghanistan from its territory also have not borne fruit.

"Despite suspending between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in planned security aid to Pakistan, that country did not take any significant action to eliminate terrorist safe havens," it said.

The report was also doubtful about progress being made through parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, which were originally scheduled for July and have been postponed until October.

It questioned the extent to which balloting amid Taliban resistance will promote peace.

"Given that the Taliban views the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet, it is unclear how U.S.-supported elections would increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the Taliban and would pressure the militants to reconcile," the report said.

The watchdog report also cast doubt on a decision to send a new set of military advisers this year to work with Afghan forces closer to the front lines.

It said this move, combined with stepped-up Afghan offensives against the Taliban, "further raises the risk of civilian casualties, insider attacks, U.S. casualties, and other conflict-related violence."

The United States has about 15,000 support troops in Afghanistan who provide military assistance but are not involved directly in combat.

Asked about the report's grim assessment, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Colonel Rob Manning, said officials believed "chaos and progress can coexist" in Afghanistan. "That's exactly what we feel is happening in Afghanistan," he said.

Manning said the Afghan armed forces are making important strides. He cited as an example the support that the Afghan air force provided in an offensive undertaken in Farah province in recent days to defeat Taliban forces that had attacked the provincial capital near Iran and overrun several security checkpoints.

Manning also said additional U.S. military advisory units had arrived in Farah to assist Afghan forces. He said the Afghan government was now in full control of Farah.

The inspectors'-general report agreed that Afghan security forces were improving, but found they had made minimal progress toward securing the population.

It also said the number of Afghan fighting forces had continued to decline, raising concerns about their effectiveness. The number of active-duty Afghan troops stood at 313,728 at the end of January, it said, down from 331,708 a year earlier.

The actual number of troops is 11 percent below the target level of 352,000, a gap that reflects difficulties in keeping Afghan soldiers in uniform as well as high Afghan casualty rates, the report said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Dozens Killed In Heat Wave In Karachi, Edhi Foundation Says

People cool off in spray from a leaking pipe during Karachi's 2015 heat wave.

A heat wave has killed 65 people in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi over the past three days, a social welfare group said.

The heat wave has coincided with power outages and the holy month of Ramadan, when most Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. Temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius on May 21, the weather service said.

Faisal Edhi, who runs the Edhi Foundation that operates morgues and an ambulance service, said the deaths occurred mostly in the poor areas of Karachi, which is home to more than 15 million people.

"Sixty-five people have died over the last three days," Edhi told Reuters. "Neighborhood doctors have said they died of heatstroke."

Sindh Province Health Secretary Fazlullah Pechuho denied that anyone had died, however, telling the Dawn newspaper that "I categorically reject that people have died due to heatstroke in Karachi."

A heat wave in 2015 left morgues and hospitals overwhelmed and killed at least 1,200 mostly elderly, sick, and homeless people.

In 2015, the Edhi morgue ran out of freezer space after about 650 bodies were brought in the space of a few days. Ambulances left decaying corpses outside in the sweltering heat.

The provincial government has assured residents that there would be no repeat of 2015 and was working on ensuring those in need of care receive rapid treatment.

Edhi told Reuters that most of the dead brought to the morgue were working-class factory workers who came from the low-income Landhi and Korangi areas of Karachi.

"They work around heaters and boilers in textile factories and there is eight to nine hours of [scheduled power outages] in these areas," he said.

Temperatures are expected to stay above 40 degrees until May 24, according to weather forecasters.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Deadly Spike In Fighting Reported In Eastern Ukraine

Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Ukraine

Monitoring officials say clashes between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine have escalated in recent days to some of the fiercest fighting of 2018.

Alexander Hug, the deputy chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission in Ukraine (OSCE-SMM), said it had confirmed that two civilians were killed and another three were injured last week, adding that "we have many more cases pending."

"Last week was in many ways the worst we have seen so far this year," Hug said at a briefing in Kyiv on May 21. "In total, we recorded 7,700 cease-fire violations."

Ukrainian officials said two soldiers were killed and another four were wounded in fighting near the village of Yuzhnoye early on May 21.

The separatists in the Donetsk region accused Ukraine of using heavy artillery and tanks to shell residential areas. They said four civilians were killed and another four were wounded in Ukrainian shelling last week.

The four-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted after Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and has killed more than 10,300 people and caused hundreds of thousands to be displaced.

A 2015 peace agreement was signed in Minsk but daily clashes continue unabated.

Based on reporting by AP and Interfax-Ukraine

Macedonian Climber Dies Attempting To Scale Mount Everest

Mount Everest

A Macedonian mountain climber has died while making a final push for the summit of Mount Everest, according to Nepalese mountaineering officials.

Gjeorgi Petkov, 63, collapsed above Camp 3 at 7,200 meters on May 20, they said.

Local media reported that the climber died of cardiac arrest. It was the fourth death of the current spring climbing season in the Nepali Himalayas.

Last week a solo Russian climber died of altitude problems just below the summit of Lhotse, the world's fourth-highest peak that borders Everest.

A sherpa guide is presumed dead after he disappeared on his descent from the summit of Everest.

An Italian climber died last month on Mount Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh-highest peak.

Around 400 people have so far reached the summit of Everest in the busy spring climbing season -- which runs during April and May -- gets into full swing.

Nepal is home to eight of the world's 14 highest peaks and foreign climbers who flock to its mountains are a major source of revenue.

Based on reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

Pompeo Calls For Russian Troop Pullout From Georgia

Pompeo Calls For Russian Withdrawal From Georgia's Breakaway Regions
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for Russia to withdraw its troops from breakaway regions in Georgia while also pledging deeper security and economic support for Tbilisi.

"The United States unequivocally condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgian soil," Pompeo said in opening remarks to the annual U.S.-Georgian Strategic Partnership in Washington on May 21. "Russia's forcible invasion of Georgia is a clear violation of international peace and security."

Russia has troops stationed in Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions that remained after a 2008 war in South Ossetia between Russian and Georgian troops.

Moscow and a few other nations have recognized the two separatist regions as independent countries.

Pompeo also repeated U.S. policy that Washington supports Georgia's eventual membership in NATO.

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said after a meeting with Pompeo that U.S. support for a peaceful resolution to Russian troops in Georgia "is of highest importance to our country and regional stability."

Kvirikashvili added that Georgia's membership in the military alliance would be a "clear added value for Euro-Atlantic security."

NATO promised Georgia eventual membership in 2008.

Kvirikashvili said U.S. involvement in infrastructure projects in Georgia, like the Anaklia deep-sea port on the Black Sea coast, would help attract economic interest to the area.

Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax

Syria Declares Damascus Fully Under Government Control

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on May 14 shows government forces head towards militant positions in the Hajar al-Aswad district on the southern outskirts of Damascus.

The Syrian military said it has taken an enclave in Damascus from Islamic State (IS) militants that gives it full control of the capital for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.

The recapture of IS-held pockets in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk and the nearby Hajar al-Aswad district in southern Damascus on May 21 came after a massive bombing campaign that decimated the remains of the residential area where about 200,000 Palestinian refugees used to live.

The camp has been largely deserted following years of attacks and the last push on the Yarmuk camp came after civilians were evacuated overnight.

State TV showed troops waving the Syrian flag atop wrecked buildings in a destroyed neighborhood.

The gains by President Bashar al-Assad's forces also allowed allied militia groups to secure areas outside the city near the border with Israel.

The Iranian-backed militias, including the Lebanese group Hizballah, have been key -- along with Russian air power -- in aiding Syrian government forces to recapture huge areas around Damascus and in the country's northern and central areas.

Iranian officials have pledged to remain in Syria despite calls by the United States, Israel, and others for it to remove its fighters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Assad at a meeting in Sochi last week that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops from Syria.

Putin's envoy to Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, said Putin was referring to, among others, Iranian forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened Iran on May 21 with the "strongest sanctions in history" if Tehran doesn't change course and end its military involvement in other Middle East countries.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters shortly before Pompeo spoke that Iran's presence "in Syria has been based on a request by the Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants."

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Eleven Killed, Hundreds Sick In Iran After Mushroom Poisoning

The deadly poisonous mushroom Amanita phalloides -- also known as the "death cap" -- is found in Iran, although it's not known if this was the type responsible for the deaths.

More than 800 people have been poisoned after eating toxic wild mushrooms across western Iran, local media report.

A Health Ministry official said on May 21 that that the effects of the fungi had killed 11 people so far, Tasnim news agency reported.

More than 200 people have been hospitalized, the official added, noting that there is no effective treatment for this kind of poisoning.

The deadly fungi look very similar to edible ones, according to Iranian officials.

Tasnim reported that the mushrooms concerned grow wild in mountainous regions of Iran's west after spring showers.

The BBC said people had been urged to only purchase mushrooms packed and sealed in shops.

Based on reporting by Tasnim and the BBC

Jailed British-Iranian Facing New Charge Of 'Spreading Propaganda'

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who has been jailed in Tehran for two years, is facing a new charge against her in Iran, her husband says.

A May 21 statement from Richard Ratcliffe said his wife learned of the new allegation of "spreading propaganda against the regime" at a hearing before a judge of Tehran's hard-line Revolutionary Court two days earlier.

He said the judge told her to expect that “there will likely be another conviction and sentence against her." The 39-year-old denied the new accusation.

Following her court appearance, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was able to speak to the British ambassador to Tehran for the first time in more than two years, her campaign said.

It added that she discussed with both the judge and the ambassador a request for her to be let out on temporary release for her daughter's fourth birthday next month.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the parent company of Reuters, is serving a five-year jail sentence in Iran after being convicted of plotting against the government, which she denied.

Her employer and the British government say she was in Iran visiting relatives when she was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 while traveling home with her daughter.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the government was committed “to doing everything possible to help secure Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release and alleviate her suffering."

In a telephone call earlier this month, May asked Iranian President Hassan Rohani for Zaghari-Ratcliffe other British prisoners held in the country to be released on "humanitarian grounds."

With reporting by AP, AFP, and the BBC

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