Belarus Labels RFE/RL’s Telegram, YouTube Channels ‘Extremist’

A Belarusian court has designated the official Telegram channel of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and some of the broadcaster’s social media accounts as extremist in a continued clampdown on independent media and civil society, 

The decision to label RFE/RL’s accounts “extremist” – including its YouTube channel – was made by the Central District Court on December 3 based on information provided by the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, known as GUBOPiK. 

In a statement, GUBOPiK said that anyone subscribing to channels or other media designated as “extremist” may face jail time or other penalties, such as fines. 

“RFE/RL adamantly rejects this ridiculous label,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in response to the news. 

“We are committed to continuing to provide objective news and information to the Belarusian people, who are in need of independent media more now than ever. The Lukashenko regime continues to make clear that their disregard for the truth and their efforts to restrict access to independent information know no bounds,” he added. 

Authorities in Belarus have declared hundreds of Telegram channels, blogs and chatrooms “extremist” after the country was engulfed in protests following the August 2020 presidential election, which authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won and that the opposition says was rigged. 

In response, the government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill treatment, and several people have died. 

Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus and independent media shuttered as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of the protests. 

Website blocked last year

The website of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service has been blocked within Belarus since August 21, 2020, while the accreditations of all locally based journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL, were annulled by Belarusian authorities in October 2020. 

Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any fraud in the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on a political transition and new elections. 

The West has refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and has imposed several waves of sanctions against the government and other officials accused of aiding and benefiting from the crackdown. 

On Thursday, the European Union, the United States and other key Western allies further tightened the sanctions in response to a crisis on the bloc’s eastern flank that the West accuses Lukashenko of fomenting by funneling thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants to the border region in retaliation against the sanctions. 

Belarusian national carrier Belavia said Friday that it had cut its fleet by about half because of the sanctions. The airline has been accused of flying the migrants to Minsk. 

The Belarus Foreign Ministry said Friday that the “unprecedented pressure” applied on it could prompt Minsk to retaliate. 

“We have repeatedly said that all unfriendly anti-Belarusian steps will be followed by appropriate measures of response. The new round of sanctions is no exception,” the ministry said in a statement. 

The isolation has made the Belarusian strongman more reliant than ever on Russia, which analysts say is using his weakened position to strengthen its hold over its smaller neighbor.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is part of the taxpayer-funded United States Agency for Global Media, which also includes Voice of America. 

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China Deepens Informal Alliance With Russia

China and Russia have strengthened their political, economic and military relations this year, despite their uneasy history in the past, as both countries say they resent what they call growing pressure from the West.

So far this year, the two have held a series of military exercises and issued joint diplomatic statements aimed at Western countries. On November 27, for example, an essay by both countries’ ambassadors to Washington protested the upcoming U.S.-led Summit for Democracy for creating divisions in the world. Neither Russia nor China appeared on the list of 110 invitees.

Russia depends on China’s massive industrial economy for oil and gas exports as environmental rules in the European Union complicate energy imports there, said Vassily Kashin, senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He said two-way relations were at their strongest since the 1950s.

“Most importantly, we have a common position concerning the global order, which is that we don’t like the U.S. global order, so this close partnership is based on common opposition to the U.S.-led global order,” Kashin said.

Western democracies from the United States to Australia and throughout Europe have strengthened their own ties this year at a time of concern about China’s policies. Western governments have signaled opposition to Beijing’s aggressive language on Taiwan, its crackdown on dissenters in Hong Kong and its policies targeting a Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region.

Countries, including the West and some in Southeast Asia, further resent China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” approach that has seen China’s Communist Party become more vocal about promoting its views among overseas audiences. In foreign relations, experts say Beijing has been using “increasingly assertive tactics” to “aggressively defend their home country,” often in the cyber world.

China and Russia in turn hope to stop a return to U.S.-driven soft power of the Barack Obama-George W. Bush presidencies, when smaller countries saw the United States as “more acceptable leaders” among great powers, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Chinese soft power, Chong said, “has taken a hit” because of President Xi Jinping’s comments that make him sound strong at home at the expense of solidarity and friendship overseas. China sees U.S. President Joe Biden as “a very tough opponent,” he added.

Western governments have called out China this year particularly over its perceived aggression toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing calls its own. A U.S. official also warned Russia last month about troop buildup near Ukraine.

Evidence of stronger Sino-Russian ties

With the world’s second-strongest military, after the United States, Russia holds occasional military exercises with China — five made public to date — while selling arms to its giant neighbor to the south.

In October, China and Russia held their 10th annual “Maritime Interaction” naval drills with the Russian Pacific Fleet’s anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, the Moscow-based Sputnik news service reported. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy sent several destroyers and a diesel submarine.

The two navies drill together to strengthen “combat capabilities” in case of “seaborne threats,” Sputnik said.

Russia and China held five days of military exercises in a remote region of central China in August, drawing more than 10,000 service personnel, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles.

China and Russia also began operating a space weather center this month in Beijing and Moscow, the Chinese state-run China Daily reported. In June, they agreed to extend their 20-year-old Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation to strengthen relations by respecting each other’s interests and sovereignty, the Daily said.

Russia looks to China for support of its goal in occupying parts of Ukraine, as well as a conduit to show Moscow can “still play a role” in Asia, in the region,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

China needs Russian weapons, energy and support against Western pressure, Yang said. Russia agreed in 2015 to sell China 24 combat aircraft and four S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about $7 billion. On the economic side, China became Russia’s No. 1 trading partner in 2017. Two years ago, Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to fuse each side’s efforts to open trade routes by building infrastructure in other countries.

“I think this is the traditional, old-fashioned balance of power,” Yang said. “They consider if China and Russia can join together, they can also regulate the regional security issues.”

Limits to Sino-Russian cooperation

Cold War-era distrust between China and Russia is likely to limit cooperation to broad or informal actions rather than a signed pact, analysts say. Sino-Russian relations faded in the 1960s when the two Communist parties split over ideology and border conflicts ensued.

The two sides could set up a military technology sharing deal like the AUKUS pact involving Australia, Britain and the United States, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, a faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam. Earlier goals haven’t been met, he told VOA.

“Over the last two years, China and Russia have signed a lot of agreements, but I don’t see a lot of concrete progress in their agreements,” Nguyen said.

Western allies need not worry about China-Russia cooperation unless the two powers sign a formal agreement, Chong said.

“If you see an MOU [memorandum of understanding] where they would state, explicitly, [that] they would stage X number of military exercises, they would establish some sort of integrated military command or something, then there’s cause for worry, but as they go at the moment, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” he said.

This week the Pentagon announced as part of a regular review of its forces around the world that it would reinforce deployments and bases directed at China and Russia, while still maintaining forces in the Middle East to deter terrorist groups and Iran.

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German Minister Warns Omicron Could Make Bad Situation Worse 

Top German health officials Friday warned that the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was likely to worsen the fourth wave of infections the nation is facing and was threatening to overwhelm the health care system. 

German Health Minister Jens Spahn and Lothar Wieler, president of the  Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, spoke with reporters in Berlin. 

Spahn said that at the current rate of infection, Germany will almost certainly have more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units in coming weeks, with the number likely to peak around Christmas.

The two health officials spoke a day after federal and state leaders announced tough new restrictions on unvaccinated people, preventing them from entering nonessential stores, restaurants, and sports and cultural venues. It was the same day Germany reported its first case involving the omicron variant. 

Wieler said the nation should be prepared for the possibility omicron could lead to even more cases than the delta variant in a shorter period of time. He said restrictions announced Thursday must also be implemented nationwide to prevent infections from collapsing the health system.

The German parliament is expected to consider a vaccine mandate. If approved, it would take effect in February. 

Spahn noted that the share of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

He said there was good news on the vaccination front: The nation is likely to meet its goal of administering 30 million booster doses before Christmas. He told reporters 10 million doses had already been injected, 10 million had been delivered and 10 million more were to be delivered next week.

Spahn said the important thing now was to vaccinate more people each week until the end of the year. 

The Koch Institute on Friday reported 74,352 new COVID-19 cases and 390 additional deaths. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Austria’s Ruling Party Names New Chancellor

Austria’s ruling party on Friday named Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to lead the conservative camp and the country after the shock resignation of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz as party head caused fresh political upheaval.

“I wanted to announce that today I was unanimously appointed by the OeVP (People’s Party) leadership as party head and at the same time as the chancellor candidate,” Nehammer told reporters.

The meeting of the party’s top brass came a day after Kurz, implicated in a corruption scandal, said he was quitting as party boss.

Alexander Schallenberg, who took over as chancellor in October, said on Thursday that he was ready to resign as “the posts of chancellor and head of the party… should quickly be taken on by the same person”.

It will now be up to Austria’s president to accept Nehammer’s nomination and swear him in, but this is mostly a formality.

Kurz’s announcement that he would quit politics to dedicate time to his family, especially his new-born son, came just two months after he resigned as national leader.

This followed his implication in a corruption scandal, bringing down a spectacular career, which saw him become the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government in 2017 at just 31.

Besides naming Nehammer, the conservative party also nominated fresh faces for several other portfolios, the interior minister said.

This includes a new finance minister after Kurz ally Gernot Bluemel also resigned on Thursday.

Former army officer

Born in Vienna in 1972, Nehammer worked in the army for several years before becoming a communications advisor.

He became a lawmaker in 2017 and interior minister in January 2020 and faced the first jihadist attack in Austria, which killed four people.

The interior ministry was strongly criticized for having failed to monitor the Austrian gunman responsible for the killings, even though they had been alerted to the danger.

The scandal bringing down Kurz erupted in early October when prosecutors ordered raids at the chancellery and the finance ministry.

They are probing allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls tailored to boost his image and ensure positive coverage in one of the country’s biggest tabloids.

Kurz has denied any wrongdoing, saying he hopes to have his day in court to prove his innocence.

Kurz, now 35, wrested control of the OeVP in 2017 and with his hard stance on immigration led it two to election victories.

The OeVP’s first coalition with the far-right collapsed in 2019 when its junior partner became engulfed in a corruption scandal, leading to fresh elections.

Those returned Kurz as chancellor, this time heading an administration with the Greens.

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Serbia Sentences 4 Former Intelligence Officers in Journalist’s 1999 Murder

A Serbian court Thursday jailed four former intelligence officers for up to 30 years over the brutal 1999 murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija, a fierce critic of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The special court sentenced Serbia’s former secret police chief, Radomir Markovic, and the head of Belgrade’s intelligence branch, Milan Radonjic, to 30 years in prison, the Beta news agency said.

Two other intelligence officers, Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak, were each given 20 years in prison. Kurak was sentenced in absentia.

According to Serbian media outlet Cenzolovka, the group was convicted of premeditated murder “for the purpose of protecting the regime.”

The four had been found guilty in 2019, but the decision was overturned and a retrial ordered.

Shot 13 times

Curuvija was one of the most critical voices in Serbia in the 1990s, attracting a wide readership as the owner and editor of two leading independent publications.

He was shot 13 times in front of his Belgrade home during the NATO bombing campaign that was a response to the Milosevic government’s brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

The journalist was killed just days after pro-government media outlets accused him of being a “traitor” and after he was accused on state media of calling on NATO to bomb.

Journalists have long been targeted in Serbia, where reporters and editors critical of authorities have been assaulted and intimidated.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who served as information minister under Milosevic, regularly berates reporters during his near-daily public addresses.

In 2020, 32 journalists were physically attacked and almost 100 reported threats, according to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia.

Press freedom groups called the sentences a victory, even though they remain subject to appeal.

“The verdict is an important step in the right direction by Serbian authorities in breaking the cycle of impunity in crimes committed against journalists,” Attila Mong, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA.

Pavol Szalai, the head of the European Union and Balkans desk for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said threats continue against journalists throughout the region.

“Before he was murdered, Slavko Curuvija was surveilled by the state, pressured by politicized judiciary, verbally attacked by politicians and subjected to a smear campaign in the pro-government media,” Szalai said.

“These are all issues which Serbian journalists are still threatened with,” he said. “If the Serbian authorities can definitively bring justice for Slavko Curuvija, there is a hope they can avoid another murder.”

Reporter Milan Nesic of VOA’s Serbian Service contributed to this report.

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Blinken Dismisses Russian Claims It Is Threatened by Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with both the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers in Stockholm on Thursday, amid concerns over troops amassed at their common border. Blinken stressed America’s strong commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on both sides to seek a diplomatic solution, as VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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US, EU, UK and Canada Announce New Belarus Sanctions

The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have announced a new round of sanctions against Belarus officials and entities, citing the government’s “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights, and international norms, and for their brutal repression of Belarusians both inside and outside the country,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The U.S. is targeting 32 officials and entities, including state-owned enterprises that support the government of President Alexander Lukashenko. Also sanctioned is Lukashenko’s son, Dmitry.

The U.S. also placed restrictions on the Belarus government’s ability to borrow money. 

Lukashenko has been cracking down on political dissent since the August 2020 elections, which the U.S. and EU called fraudulent. It is also accused of using migrants as political weapons against its neighbors, such as Poland.

“Today’s actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom. These sanctions are also in response to the Lukashenka regime’s callous exploitation of vulnerable migrants from other countries in order to orchestrate migrant smuggling along its border with EU states,” Blinken said.

The EU sanctions are against officials involved in the migrant crisis, as well as against two airlines — state airline Belavia and Syrian airline Cham Wings — which it says are bringing migrants to Belarus to make the crisis worse.

The U.K. announced it will freeze assets of state-owned OJSC Belaruskali, a large manufacturer of potash fertilizer. Canada said it would sanction the 32 individuals and entities named by the U.S.

“Our position is clear,” Blinken said. “The United States calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown on members of civil society, independent media, the political opposition, athletes, students, legal professionals and other Belarusians; to immediately release all political prisoners; to engage in a sincere dialogue with the democratic opposition and civil society; to fulfill its international human rights obligations; to stop its coercion of vulnerable people; and to hold free and fair elections under international observation.”

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Two South Sudanese Migrants Rescued at Sea Tell of Dreams, Hopes

The tale of two South Sudanese brothers recently rescued in the Mediterranean Sea is a common one among the many African migrants seeking better lives in Europe. The two men left Libya on a flimsy boat, but the engine broke down and they were eventually picked up by the Ocean Viking rescue ship. Reporter Ruud Elmendorp was on board the rescue vessel and has their story. 

Producer: Rob Raffaele. Camera: Ruud Elmendorp.

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Migrants Rescued on the Mediterranean Express Relief, Hope for the Future

Migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe make a dangerous journey in overloaded and flimsy boats. Nearly 1,600 have died this year, while the tens of thousands who make it to Europe have no guarantee of being granted asylum. Ruud Elmendorp reports their stories of desperation and hope on board a rescue vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Paris Archbishop Who Had ‘Ambiguous’ Relationship Resigns

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Paris after he admitted to an “ambiguous” relationship with a woman in 2012.

Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said in a statement Thursday that he offered to step down “to preserve the diocese from the division that suspicion and loss of trust are continuing to provoke.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the pope accepted Aupetit’s offer, and named Monsignor Georges Pontier to serve in the archbishop’s place.

The resignation comes amid great upheaval in the French Catholic Church. A shocking report in October found some 3,000 French priests had committed sexual abuse over the past 70 years, and last year, the pope accepted the resignation of a French cardinal in connection with the coverup of sexual abuse of dozens of boys by a predatory priest.

Aupetit wrote to Francis offering to resign following a report in Le Point magazine saying he had a consensual, intimate relationship with a woman. Aupetit told Le Point he didn’t have sexual relations with the woman.

The article in Le Point relied on several anonymous sources who said they had seen a 2012 e-mail Aupetit sent by mistake to his secretary. Aupetit denied being the author of the email.

Roman Catholic prelates take vows of chastity. At the time of the alleged relationship, Aupetit was a priest in the archdiocese of Paris. He became Paris archbishop in 2018.

“I ask forgiveness of those I could have hurt and assure you all of my deep friendship and my prayers,” Aupetit said in his statement. He said he was “greatly disturbed by the attacks against me.”

In an interview last week with Catholic radio Notre Dame, Aupetit said “I poorly handled the situation with a person who was in contact many times with me.” Calling it a “mistake,” he said he decided no longer to see the woman after speaking with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the then-Paris archbishop, in 2012.

Only the pope can hire or fire bishops, or accept their resignations. At 70, Aupetit is five years shy of the normal retirement age for bishops.

The pope has refused to accept resignations from other prelates caught up in scandals that many would see as more egregious..

The former archbishop of the French city of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, offered to resign in 2019 after a French court convicted him of failing to report a pedophile priest. Francis initially refused Barbarin’s offer, but accepted it more than a year later.

More recently, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, offered to resign over the Catholic Church’s “catastrophic” mishandling of clergy sexual abuse cases. Francis refused to accept it and Marx remains in office.

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Kurdish Family Laments Young Migrant Daughter Drowned in English Channel

Last week, a small inflatable boat capsized in the English Channel killing 27 migrants who were attempting to cross from France to the United Kingdom. The family of one of the victims spoke to VOA’s Ahmad Zebari from Soran, Iraqi Kurdistan, about the tragedy’s impact. Rikar Hussein narrates the story.

Camera:  Ahmad Zebari 
Produced by:  Ahmad Zebari

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Blinken Warns Russia Invasion of Ukraine Will Have Consequences

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warns Russia Wednesday that any military action in Ukraine will have severe consequences. He plans to meet separately Thursday with both the Ukrainian and the Russian foreign ministers in Stockholm to discuss the heightened border tensions. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Putin Demands NATO Guarantees Not to Expand Eastward

President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Moscow would seek Western guarantees precluding any further NATO expansion and deployment of its weapons near his country’s borders, a stern demand that comes amid fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Ukrainian and Western officials have worried about a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, saying it could signal Moscow’s intention to attack. Russian diplomats countered those claims by expressing concern about Ukraine’s own military buildup near the area of the separatist conflict in the eastern part of the country. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, noting that Putin could quickly order an invasion of Ukraine, warned that Washington stands ready to inflict heavy sanctions on Russia if he does. 

Speaking at a Kremlin ceremony where he received credentials from foreign ambassadors, Putin emphasized that Russia will seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees.” 

“In a dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on working out specific agreements that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory,” Putin said. 

He charged that “the threats are mounting on our western border,” with NATO placing its military infrastructure closer to Russia and offered the West to engage in substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow would need not just verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees.” 

“We aren’t demanding any special conditions for ourselves and realize that any agreements must take interests of Russia and all Euro-Atlantic countries into account,” Putin said. “A calm and stable situation must be ensured for all and is needed for all without exclusion.” 

Putin’s statement came a day after he sternly warned NATO against deploying its troops and weapons to Ukraine, saying it represented a red line for Russia and would trigger a strong response. 

Tensions have been increasing in recent weeks over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, which worried Ukrainian and Western officials, who saw it as a possible sign of Moscow’s intention to invade its former Soviet neighbor. NATO foreign ministers warned Russia on Tuesday that any attempt to further destabilize Ukraine would be a costly mistake. 

The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the concentration of Ukrainian troops looks “alarming,” adding that he was going to raise the issue during a ministerial meeting in Stockholm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. 

Speaking Wednesday in Riga, Latvia, Blinken said that “we don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade.” 

“We do know that his is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide,” Blinken told reporters. “We must prepare for all contingencies.” 

The U.S. has “made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past,” he said. 

Blinken gave no details on what kind of sanctions were under consideration if Russia did invade Ukraine. 

In April, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution to cut off Russia from the so-called SWIFT system of international payments if its troops entered Ukraine. Such a move would go far toward blocking Russian businesses from the global financial system, even though Moscow has developed its own parallel system in preparation for such a move. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukraine has amassed about 125,000 troops — about half of the size of its military — near the conflict zone. She also pointed at an increasing number of violations of a cease-fire in the east. 

Amid the tensions, Moscow on Wednesday launched drills in southwestern Russia involving over 10,000 troops. A smaller exercise also began in Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad on the Baltic, involving 1,000 personnel from armored units. 

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Kremlin-friendly president was driven from power by mass protests. Moscow also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting. 

 

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Russia Orders Some US Diplomatic Staff to Leave as Embassy Spat Expands

Russia said on Wednesday it was ordering U.S. Embassy staff who have been in Moscow for more than three years to fly home by January 31, a retaliatory move for a U.S. decision to limit the terms of Russian diplomats.

The step, the latest in an escalating diplomatic row, comes after Russia’s ambassador to the United States said last week that 27 Russian diplomats and their families were being expelled from the United States and would leave on January 30.

Washington says the diplomats were not expelled but had been in the country for longer than a new three-year limit.

“We … intend to respond in the corresponding way. U.S. Embassy employees who have been in Moscow for more than three years must leave Russia by January 31,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told a briefing.

The RIA news agency reported that Zakharova said the new U.S. rules meant Russian diplomats who had been forced to leave the United States were also banned from working as diplomats in the United States for three years.

“Before July 1 next year, unless Washington waives the three-year rule and compromises, more [U.S.] workers [in Russia] will leave in numbers commensurate with the number of Russians announced by the State Department,” she said.

Washington informed Russia over a year ago that its diplomats would be allowed to stay for only three years but could be replaced by other diplomats, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“I want to be clear, this is not an expulsion,” the spokesperson said, adding the rule change was designed to have Russia rotate its diplomats with similar frequency to that of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Further reductions in U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow would put pressure on an operation that Washington has already described as being close to a “caretaker presence” amid tit-for-tat expulsions and other restrictions.

The embassy is the last operational U.S. mission in the country after consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg were closed, and it has shrunk to 120 staff members from about 1,200 in early 2017, Washington says. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was not too late for Washington to stop Moscow from following through on the new expulsions if it abandoned its own plans to force out Russian diplomats. 

Ties between Washington and Moscow, at post-Cold War lows for years, are under pressure due to a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.

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French Military: Forces Did Not Fire into Crowd of Nigerien Protesters

A French military spokesperson has denied an accusation that French soldiers shot into a crowd of protesters in Niger late last month. The deteriorating security situation in Africa’s Sahel region has been accompanied by protests against the French forces sent to help African governments battle the Islamist militant groups who are increasingly active in the region. 

Demonstrations against the French are driven by misinformation spread online that French forces are arming groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaida — the same groups the French were deployed to fight in the Sahel nearly a decade ago.

On November 26, a French military convoy, which was stranded in Burkina Faso for more than a week as protesters blocked its progress, passed into Niger. The next day, as had happened in Burkina Faso, Nigerien protesters blocked the convoy, demanding to know what was being transported. 

Nigerien authorities say two protesters were killed and 16 injured on November 27, while eyewitnesses told the French TV station TV5 Monde that they saw French soldiers firing into the crowd.

In an interview with VOA, Colonel Pascal Ianni, the spokesman for the French Army Chief of Staff, was asked if the French troops had fired on protesters.

“I repeat what I just said, the French forces did not shoot at the crowd,” he said. “French forces fired above the crowd and fired in front of the crowd, at the feet of the crowd, to stop the most violent demonstrators.” 

Ianni said that the French troops and Nigerien military police needed to take action against the protesters, armed with stones and battens, to prevent the convoy being burned and looted. 

Regarding the deaths and injuries reported by the Nigerien authorities, he said, “I cannot confirm or affirm the results which were announced by the Nigerien authorities.” 

Asked if there would be an investigation, since it was unclear what had happened, the colonel said that would be up to authorities in Niger. 

“I think they will collect testimonies; they will recover all the videotapes or photos that were taken on this occasion, and they will try to determine exactly who is responsible,” Ianni said. 

Philippe M. Frowd, associate professor at Ottawa University and an expert on the Sahel, said anti-French sentiment has been growing in the Sahel for years.

“So, many of these fault lines and much of this sentiment, very sort of generic anti-French sentiment, has found a much clearer expression when it comes to blocking this convoy,” he said. 

Frowd also pointed out that the Nigerien president said last month that French military support is essential to state security. 

“The French presence is indispensable and if the French were to leave their base in Gao, in Mali, there would be chaos, so I think that this reflects some sense of the calculus of the Sahel states, looking at French intervention as something that’s actually primordial in terms of assuring the security of the state,” Frowd said. 

Asked if the next French military supply convoy headed for Niger and Mali via Burkina Faso would take a different route, Ianni said officials were “studying different options.” 

 

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EU Leaders Consider Mandatory Vaccinations to Fight Omicron Variant

European Union leaders said Wednesday they are considering a number of public health options, including vaccine mandates, to address the growing threat posed by the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said little is currently known about the variant, but enough is known to be concerned. She said they expect scientists to have a handle on the nature of the variant in about two to three weeks, but in the meantime are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. 

Von der Leyen said the best use of that time is to get more people vaccinated, and those who are inoculated should get booster shots. She said more than one-third of the European population — 150 million people — are not vaccinated.

The European Commission president said that while not everyone can be vaccinated, the majority of people can.

“This needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be had,” she said. 

Von der Leyen said Pfizer-BioNTech has indicated it can accelerate the production and distribution of its children’s vaccine, which will be available to European children beginning December 13.

She also said Pfizer and Moderna are set to deliver 360 million more doses of their vaccines by the end of March 2022, and that boosters are available to those who received their initial shots. 

The commission also urged EU members to commit to a day-by-day review of travel restrictions and a readiness to impose all necessary controls, including decisive action, if clusters of the omicron variant are found. 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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Belarus Exiles Find Themselves at the Heart of Poland’s Migrant Crisis

The border between Belarus and Poland drew global media attention after thousands of migrants tried to enter the EU encouraged by the government of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The root of this crisis is the dispute between Warsaw and Minsk, over Poland’s practice of providing refuge to Belarusian political exiles. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina in Warsaw.

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Greece Orders Seniors to Vaccinate or Pay Fines

Greece Is introducing steep fines for unvaccinated people aged 60 and over as infections surge, straining the Greek state healthcare system. The decision is generating debate about civil liberties and freedom in the land that gave birth to western-style democracy.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared visibly concerned as he announced the mandate after an urgent cabinet meeting.

Mitsotakis said he could not hide that he was – in his words – personally troubled in taking the decision. But, he explained, he was ultimately compelled to do so in order to protect the most vulnerable – even if that means upsetting them.

Under the new rules, Greeks over the age of 60 will have to be vaccinated or face a fine of 113 dollars which the country’s tax authorities have been authorized to impose and collect beginning next month.

As of early Wednesday, Greece had yet to record a case of the Omicron variant, but COVID-19 infections have surged to record highs despite recent measures that include banning unvaccinated people from entering indoor restaurants, gyms and theaters.

As upsetting as the new mandate may be for some Greeks, Mitsotakis said it does not amount to punishment. The Greek leader said the decision aims to mobilize senior citizens to get the jab.

He said he has no doubt that this will help save many lives.

About 63 percent of Greece’s population of eleven million are fully vaccinated, well below the EU average of about 66 percent.

With the Omicron variant sweeping across the continent, government officials tell VOA, Mitsotakis’ decision was part of a last-ditch effort to avoid another nationwide lockdown — a move that could damage the country’s already weak economy.

Political analyst Vassilis Chiotis explains.

Chiotis says it is a message to key sectors of the Greek economy and society, from tourism to the Orthodox church and its millions of followers, to conform to the government’s call for vaccination to avert the potential of a lockdown.

Austria last week became the first Western democracy to make vaccinations mandatory for all those who are eligible. Those who do not get the shot by a February deadline face fines as high as four thousand dollars and possible prison time.

Opposition parties have criticized Greece’s decision to fine violators. They say the government should have exhausted other options before threatening to fine senior citizens on meager pensions.

Vaccine opponents say the move is a breach of their civil liberties. Others, including this unidentified middle-aged Athens resident speaking on Greek television, say the new mandate was long overdue

She says this is a health crisis and upholding democratic values does not mean that people should behave recklessly, at the expense of others. She says that would be a wrong interpretation of democracy.

It is unclear whether the vaccine mandate will be effective, but officials see reason for optimism. Within hours of the Greek leader’s announcement of the fines, health officials said vaccination requests tripled to six thousand. 

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