‘Hitting Rock Bottom’ – Drought, Heat Drain Spanish Reservoirs

A flock of sheep shelter from the midday sun under the gothic arches of a medieval bridge flooded in 1956 to create the Cijara reservoir in central Spain, but now fully exposed as the reservoir is 84% empty after a severe drought.

In Andalusia, one of Europe’s hottest and driest regions, paddle-boats and waterslides lie abandoned on the cracked bed of Vinuela reservoir, remnants of a rental business gone with the water, now at a critical level of 13%.

A nearby restaurant fears a similar fate.

“The situation is quite dramatic in the sense that it’s been several years without rain and we’re hitting rock bottom,” said owner Francisco Bazaga, 52. “If it doesn’t rain, unless they find some alternative water supply, the future is very, very dark.”

A prolonged dry spell and extreme heat made July the hottest month in Spain since at least 1961. Spanish reservoirs are at just 40% of capacity on average in early August, well below the ten-year average of around 60%, official data shows.

“We are in a particularly dry year, a very difficult year that confirms what climate change scenarios have been highlighting,” Energy Minister Teresa Ribera told a news conference on Monday, also highlighting that the drought was leading to devastating wildfires.

Climate change has left parts of the Iberian peninsula at their driest in 1,200 years, and winter rains are expected to diminish further, a study published last month by the Nature Geoscience journal showed.

The dry, hot weather is likely to continue into the autumn, Spain’s meteorological service AEMET said in a recent report, putting further strain on Europe’s largest network of dammed reservoirs with a holding capacity of 5.6 billion cubic meters.

At the Buendia reservoir east of Madrid, the ruins of a village and bathhouses have reappeared, caked in dried mud, Reuters drone footage showed, while at another dam near Barcelona a ninth-century Romanesque church has reemerged still intact, attracting visitors.

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VOA Interview: Lithuania President Gitanas Nauseda

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda discussed the challenges for his country caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year with VOA’s Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze on Tuesday in Vilnius.

“Nothing less than democracy and the world order is at stake in that war,” Nauseda told VOA. “There is no limit for the appetite of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know who will be the next target, the Baltic countries, Poland, maybe Romania.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Thank you very much for making time to talk to us. You had been to Ukraine on February 23rd, just before the war. At that moment, did you grasp the risk that Ukrainians are in? And did you expect that war would happen so soon?

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda: You know, this threat was in the air. And [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said that they expect[ed] that the war will, uh, break up in the next 24 to 48 hours. And it happened, let’s say, after eight or 10 hours, we left Ukrainian soil. Yes, the war was terrible, and probably our Ukrainian partners just could not imagine that this war will be organized, if I can express it like this, on such broad scale, broad, broad efforts of Russian troops to try to, first of all, to attack Kyiv, and also the war broke up in other parts of Ukraine, and now we see that this war is much longer than Russia could expect, fortunately. Yes, of course, I understand that it brings a lot of casualties, human lives are [at] stake, and of course, destroyed civil infrastructure. But this is also the fight for not only Ukrainian democracy and Ukrainian territorial integrity, but also the fight for democratic values at all. And this is very important to mention, that Ukraine is fighting very bravely, not only for its freedom but for our freedom, too.

VOA: What do you think Russia is doing? What is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s goal?

Nauseda: I think Putin miscalculated the scenario of this war, the expectations were totally different. Putin expected that they will take over Ukrainian capital Kyiv in a few days, and this war will not bring any huge political and economic consequences on Russia. But we see that it turned out to be totally different. And what is very important to mention that, until the war, the reaction of European politicians, and other countries, too, was, how to say, subdued, if I could express it like this, because nobody expected that this war and the real attempts of Russia are so terrible, and they are ambitions to conquer Ukraine. And afterwards, in the first days of the war, I saw a big commitment and a totally different attitude of my colleagues in [the] European Union to act, to do something, in order first of all to stop the war. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but then we realized that if we had to do more in order to, first of all, to bring war to, yes, to bring on the table very clear consequences on Russia, and Russia must see what will be the consequences. So the first package of sanctions, second, third, fifth. And now we see that European politicians and the countries of European Union understand very well what are the threats posed by Russian authorities. It was not the case, because I remember our discussions in European Council, bilateral meetings. We try to convince our partners. …

VOA: Who is we? When you said we, who is we? Because I understand that your country, Poland, other countries. …

Nauseda: … Poland, Romania, all Eastern European countries, which are exposed to these threats very directly, and we hear very well and really, we listen what Putin is saying, because some. …

VOA: And Western European countries didn’t really realize and underestimated. …

Nauseda: Theoretically, maybe, but the real reactions, they’re not adequate to the rhetoric Putin allowed him to express all this time. And this is the reason why I think it’s very important to understand that Europe is different. Europe understands the threats much better. Of course, Europe is still dependent in many areas, for example, energy dependence. Still, this is a very hot issue. This is not the issue in my country. Lithuania implemented all necessary changes, spent a lot of money in order to change the infrastructure, to create the infrastructure, to be independent in energy field, and we did it. And now we can probably say that Lithuania is not dependent, and Lithuania stopped to buy Russian oil, Russian gas, Russian electricity, so they cannot do anything to us in this regard.

VOA: This dependency on energy resources built up in the last 20 years, specifically with Germany, with France, with other countries. Why do you think that such an underestimation of Russian threats was built and kind of persuaded in the minds of politicians in Western Europe?

Nauseda: I cannot reject the assumption that economic interests, first of all, are there. Money, profit, cheaper energy resources and possibilities to do business with. But another reason was assumptions that we have to deal with totally different kind of policy or politicians in Moscow. Because sometimes I think my colleagues thought that probably Putin is a little bit different, but okay, we can do business with him because we can negotiate. We can talk. We can try to convince, to bring our arguments. And he could not understand that the arguments do not play any role to him, because the main ideology with this regime is to conquer as much as possible, to expand, to find the neighbors we could attack, and this is very clear if you read what they are saying in Moscow, they try to rebuild their empire. They try to restore the Soviet Union in one or another shape. And as you mentioned, as you remember that Putin mentioned that the collapse of Soviet Union was the largest disaster of 20th century. And now they consequently and very logically try to reestablish Soviet Union, and this means not only the risk and threats to Ukraine. This means huge threats to all of us and this time maybe even to those countries which were not a part of former Soviet Union, the countries of Western Europe, too.

VOA: Your country was part of Soviet Union. Does your country feel safe in this environment? And do you think that NATO, your allies in NATO would come to defend you, fully? What is your readiness for the threats?

Nauseda: My response will be very simple. We feel safer as we are [from] 2004, because in 2004, Lithuania became the member of two very important organizations, European Union and NATO. I like to say this sentence and I repeated this sentence many times, European Union was for a better life, NATO was for life. And this is still valid, and this is very important. Yes, we strongly believe in Article 5, we strongly believe in the reassurances of our partners to defend each inch of our soil. But this does not mean that we cannot put additional efforts in order to improve our security, too. We did a lot in this country in order to modernize our army, modernize our military forces, to create better infrastructure to be able to accommodate additional troops from our NATO allies. And we increased our military spending up to 2.5 % of our GDP. And we are ready to provide even more financial resources in order to fulfill all the requirements, which could be adequate to the current situation, the geopolitical situation. And this is very important to mention that Lithuania feels safe, but we have to be aware of these risks because we have to deal with a very dangerous neighbor and the best proof is the situation in Ukraine.

VOA: What is at stake in Ukraine today?

Nauseda: Democracy, the world order… international security situation is [at] stake, and of course [it’s] very important to mention that there’s no limit for the appetite of Vladimir Putin. If they will be successful in Ukraine, they will be at our doors, too. And I don’t know who will be their next target, Baltic countries, maybe Poland, maybe Romania, but this is not the most important question. The most important issue is, we have to do or in the NATO format, in European Union format in order to prevent, to stop Putin. Putin has to finalize his operation, as he calls it, in Ukraine. And I hope very much that Ukraine will be successful, and we will stand together with Ukraine until the victory, of course until the victory of Ukraine. And nowadays we see a lot of assurances coming from Western European leaders, and also other leaders in the world that they are ready to provide military assistance to Ukraine. European Union is strongly committed to impose sanctions and to continue sanctions policy in the future. This is very important because so far, we did a lot, but this is not enough to stop Putin. And we have to realize it and to understand it, that we have to do more, especially military assistance, in the short-term military assistance probably this is the most important problem. In the longer run, there will be very important issues related to humanitarian aid, macroeconomic assistance and so on. But now we understand very well that their conflict will be solved, not sitting at the negotiation table. The conflict will be solved in the battlefield.

VOA: I want to ask you about the role of the United States, because they basically pushed this international coalition and they were warning Ukraine about the possible threats from Russia for a couple of months prior to the war. Do you think the United States is doing enough in this fight? And who do you think should be a leader of this push to stop Putin in the region?

Nauseda: I would expect United States should be the leader, but I would say that actually the United States is a leader in providing military assistance, political support, and this is very important. This is very important, but, of course, I would expect that the speed of the decision making, commitment to provide more assistance and … speed is probably the most important issue right now. Yes, we are talking about additional military equipment, lethal weapons and other equipment. But this is very important that Ukrainians need it today not tomorrow or after tomorrow. And each day brings a lot of casualties, as I mentioned, and people are suffering, destroyed cities and so on, and of course we have to stop it as soon as possible, and the United States’ role in this is crucial. The European Union plays also very important role, but I think we have to deal in solidarity, and we have to be solider and they see the solidarity right now, the United States, the European Union, also like-minded countries in Asia. I see this solidarity and they saw their solidarity in NATO summit in Madrid, where we took very important decisions, bold decisions on the NATO strengthening. Defining Russia as a long-term threat, also very important element of our conclusions in the Madrid summit, and for my country and for Eastern European region, there are very important decisions to mention, for example, forward defense status in [the] Eastern European region. Also brigade-size, -level support and military presence in my country. As you’ll know Germany is a leading country of EFP [Enhanced Forward Protection]. And this is very important to our people, especially probably to our people, to hear that our allies are ready to provide additional support to Lithuania, because security right now is even outpacing the importance of economic and social issues.

VOA: We established already that Russia broke international law and they’re trying to push all the boundaries and rules. However, Russia is still a member of the Security Council of the U.N. Russia has a veto position in the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] organization and many other organizations. Do you think something has to be done with it?

Nauseda: Unfortunately, this is the reason why we have to find additional formats or maybe alternative formats to deal with Russia, because, yes, you mentioned that United Nations’ Security Council … Russia can create a lot of obstacles [there]. … And this is the reason why we have to find some other formats. I still believe the importance in the United Nations in other fields, for example, providing the channels or trying to solve the issue of grain export to the third countries and secretary-general [Antonio Guterres] put a lot of effort in order to solve this issue and probably in such formats, United Nations would be quite effective instrument to provide additional support to Ukraine. But we have to find also other formats, bilateral formats are important, too. I mentioned the European Union and I mentioned NATO, but bilateral support: Germany, France, the United States and even smaller-sized countries. This bilateral support is very important and I heard it from President Zelenskyy during my last visit in Kyiv, which was organized on the statehood day, as you know, Ukraine is celebrating the first time the statehood day. And it was very important to me to attend this event in Kyiv. I held the speech in Verkhovna Rada [parliament] and President Zelensky said to me, Lithuania did a lot and probably it is a good example to other countries. They can provide and they can be even more effective by providing needed support to Ukraine. But we are strongly committed, and this is not only the opinion or commitment of our political elite, this is a commitment of all people of Lithuania or almost all.

VOA: You are committed, Poland is committed. Germany is reluctant. How do you try and do you feel you are successful in persuading other countries to do more?

Nauseda: Maybe someone could be skeptical about the attitude or the German position in the last months, but I see huge progress. Because I couldn’t, I can compare the situation with the situation, let’s say, a few months ago as Germany was reluctant, really reluctant to provide any kind of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Now it’s not the case. Now we are talking about the speed of decision making and this is huge progress. And I think in the thinking we see this shift. The shift of thinking is also evident, and I think this is our contribution, too. We try to talk, we try to establish the needed dialogue with our colleagues in Germany and I think they react also to the public opinion, too, because public opinion is very clear, too. I remember my visit in Berlin at the end of February and I had the possibility to attend the meeting against the war in Ukraine on [February 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine]. I returned home and the next day, I heard that there was a meeting on [February 27], 100,000 people [in Germany were protesting], and on Saturday, maybe 500. So you see the dynamic in the public opinion in Germany and this is very important that people understand that they have to do this. Germany is not, how to say, free of threats imposed or posed by Russia. Germany is also the target. Like Lithuania, Romania or other countries of Eastern Europe.

VOA: How do you see this war end?

Nauseda: I do not see any other alternative, and we have to put all efforts in order to achieve the victory of Ukraine in this war, because all other scenarios would be very dark for Ukraine itself, for Lithuania and for the whole democratic world.

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WMO: July Is One of Warmest Months on Record

The World Meteorological Organization or WMO reports the month of July was one of the three warmest on record globally. This, despite a weak La Nina event, which is supposed to have a cooling influence.

Meteorologists warn the heatwave that swept through large parts of Europe last month is set to continue in August. They note July was drier than average in much of Europe, badly affecting local economies and agriculture, as well as increasing the risk of wildfires.

WMO Spokeswoman Clare Nullis says Britain’s Met Office has issued another advisory warning of a heat buildup throughout this week. However, she says temperatures are not expected to reach the extreme, record-setting temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius seen in July.

“But it is well above average. Temperatures in France this week, well above average. In Switzerland, many parts of Switzerland well above average. And as I said, continuing the trend that we saw in July, Spain saw its hottest ever month in July. So, not just the hottest July but the hottest ever month on record.”

Nullis says Europe and other parts of the world will have to get used to and adapt to the kind of heatwaves WMO’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas calls “the new normal.”

While Europe was sweltering under extreme heat in July, WMO reports Antarctic Sea ice reached its lowest July level on record. This follows a record low Sea ice level in June. While Europe saw a lot of heat in July, Nullis notes big chunks of the Antarctic did as well.

“It is important to bear in mind there is quite a big sort of monthly and year-to-year variability in Antarctica. So, the fact that it was the lowest on record in June and in July does not mean necessarily that this is a long-term irreversible trend.”

WMO reports the long-lasting drought in parts of Europe also is set to continue. It warns below-normal precipitation in many parts of Europe will cause or worsen drought conditions and likely trigger more forest fires.

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Russia Launches Iranian Satellite Amid Ukraine War Concerns

An Iranian satellite launched by Russia blasted off from Kazakhstan on Tuesday and reached orbit amid controversy that Moscow might use it to boost its surveillance of military targets in Ukraine. 

As Russia’s international isolation grows following Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking to pivot Russia toward the Middle East, Asia and Africa and find new clients for the country’s space program. 

Speaking at the Moscow-controlled Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe, Russian space chief Yury Borisov hailed “an important milestone in Russian-Iranian bilateral cooperation, opening the way to the implementation of new and even larger projects.” 

Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Isa Zarepour, who also attended the launch of the Khayyam satellite, called the event historic and “a turning point for the start of a new interaction in the field of space between our two countries.” 

Nasser Kanani, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, said on Twitter that “the brilliant path of scientific and technological progress of the Islamic republic of Iran continues despite sanctions and the enemies’ maximum pressure.” 

Iran, which has maintained ties with Moscow and refrained from criticism of the Ukraine invasion, has sought to deflect suspicions that Moscow could use Khayyam to spy on Ukraine. 

Last week, The Washington Post quoted anonymous Western intelligence officials as saying that Russia “plans to use the satellite for several months or longer” to assist its war efforts before allowing Iran to take control. 

Less than two hours after the satellite was launched on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket, the Iran Space Agency (ISA) said “ground stations of the Iran Space Agency” had received “first telemetric data.”  

The space agency stressed on Sunday that the Islamic republic would control the satellite “from day one” in an apparent reaction to the Post’s report. 

“No third country is able to access the information” sent by the satellite because of its “encrypted algorithm,” it said. 

The purpose of Khayyam is to “monitor the country’s borders,” enhance agricultural productivity and monitor water resources and natural disasters, according to the space agency. 

Iran is negotiating with world powers, including Moscow, to salvage a 2015 deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. 

The United States quit the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran last month, one of his few trips abroad since Moscow’s February 24 invasion.  

Iran’s Khamenei called for “long-term cooperation” with Russia during their meeting, and Tehran has refused to join international condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbor. 

Iran insists its space program is for civilian and defense purposes only, and does not breach the 2015 nuclear deal, or any other international agreement.  

Borisov, who last month replaced bombastic nationalist Dmitry Rogozin as head of the Russian space agency, had acknowledged that the national space industry is in a “difficult situation” amid tensions with the West. 

Russia will continue its space program but end activities at the International Space Station, an outlier of cooperation between Moscow and the West, after 2024, he said. 


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American Motorcyclist Rides Deep Into Russia-Ukraine War’s Heart of Darkness

In what he calls his humanitarian voyage, American Neale Bayly has been riding his motorcycle around Ukraine — not only to see the sights, but also to bring attention to its war against Russia, and raise funds for the children he meets along the way. Omelyan Oshchudlyak has the story. VOA footage by Yuriy Dankevych.

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Kyiv Says Russians Trying to Dislodge Its Forces in Donetsk, As Nuclear Concerns Persist

A Russian offensive is continuing toward the hub cities of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in the eastern Donetsk region as the enemy tries to inflict “maximum losses” on Ukrainian forces, the Ukrainian Army’s General Staff said early on August 9.

It said the Russian Air Force was bombarding military facilities in the direction of Donetsk in support of artillery and other ground operations aimed at dislodging Ukrainian units from the front lines.

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

Battlefield reports from either side in the rapidly developing conflict are difficult to confirm.

But Kyiv’s military planners said their forces had repelled reconnaissance and offensive operations in a handful of settlements around Ivano-Daryivka, Bakhmut, and Zaitsevo.

They said Russian forces had withdrawn after unsuccessful pushes around Avdiyivka and Krasnohorivka.

Kyiv said two Russian warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles are poised for battle off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, international concern persisted over the weekend shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant over the potential for a disaster at Europe’s largest atomic facility.

The head of the Ukrainian nuclear power company Enerhoatom has urged that Zaporizhzhya be declared a military-free zone to avoid nuclear catastrophe.

Zaporizhzhya was seized early in the five-month-old invasion but continues to be manned by Ukrainian staff.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “any attack to a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing” in calling on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to Zaporizhzhya.

The Russian-installed head of the local administration was quoted by Interfax as saying on August 8 that the facility was operating “in normal mode.”

Washington and the World Bank announced more support for Ukraine on the heels of U.S. President Joe Biden’s committing this week to the single largest package of security assistance under his so-called drawdown authority with $1 billion in aid that includes long-range weapons and medical transport vehicles.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, said on August 8 that Washington would provide $4.5 billion more in economic funding, nearly doubling the budgetary support so far since Russia’s invasion began in February.

The World Bank said it will implement the U.S. grant, which it said is aimed at urgent needs including healthcare, pensions, and social payments.

Also, Reuters cited a document in which Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations pledged to ensure a 10-nautical-mile buffer zone for ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

The long-awaited procedures are part of intense international efforts to unblock millions of tons of grain stuck at Ukrainian ports since the invasion began.

Some information in this report came from Reuters and the Asssoiated Press.

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EU Lays Down ‘Final’ Text To Resurrect Iran Nuclear Deal

The European Union on Monday said it put forward a “final” text to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as four days of indirect talks between U.S. and Iranian officials wrapped up in Vienna.

“What can be negotiated has been negotiated, and it’s now in a final text. However, behind every technical issue and every paragraph lies a political decision that needs to be taken in the capitals,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

“If these answers are positive, then we can sign this deal,” he added as EU, Iranian and U.S. prepared to leave Vienna.

Earlier, a senior EU official told reporters that no more changes could be made to the text, which has been under negotiation for 15 months, and said he expected a final decision from the parties within a “very, very few weeks.”

“It is a package proposal. … You cannot agree with page 20 and disagree with page 50. You have to say yes or no,” he said.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Washington was ready to quickly reach an agreement to revive the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on the basis of the EU proposals.

Iranian officials suggested that they did not regard the EU proposals as final, saying they would convey their “additional views and considerations” to the European Union, which coordinates the talks, after consultations in Tehran.

Iran has also made demands the United States and other Western powers view as outside the scope of reviving the deal.

For example, Iran has insisted the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, drop its claims Iran has failed to fully explain uranium traces at undeclared sites.

Each side sought to put the onus on the other to compromise.

“They (the Iranians) repeatedly say they are prepared for a return to mutual implementation of the JCPOA. Let’s see if their actions match their words,” the U.S. spokesperson said.

Iran and six major powers struck the original accord in 2015 under which it agreed to restrict its nuclear program to make it harder to use it to develop atomic weapons — an ambition it denies — in return for relief from U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions.

In 2018, then U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the deal and reimposed harsh U.S. sanctions designed to choke off Iran’s oil exports, its major source of export income and government revenue.

In response, Tehran — which says its nuclear program is for power generation and other peaceful purposes — began about a year later to breach the agreement in several ways, including rebuilding stocks of enriched uranium.

It has also enriched uranium to 60% purity — far above the 3.67% that is permitted under the deal but below the 90% that is regarded as weapons grade.

U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to revive the agreement since he took office in January 2021 and negotiations — indirect because Iran refuses to deal directly with the United States on the issue — began in Vienna in April 2021.

Iran has also sought to obtain guarantees that no future U.S. president would renege on the deal if it were revived, as Trump did in 2018. Washington cannot provide such ironclad assurances because the deal is a political understanding rather than a legally binding treaty.

Iranian state media hinted at this issue on Monday.

“The final agreement must ensure the rights and interests of the Iranian people and guarantee the effective and stable removal of sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told Borrell in a call, state media reported.

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Ukraine ‘Optimistic’ After Arrival of First Grain Shipment

The first cargo ship to reach its final destination after departing from Ukraine under a deal between Moscow and Kyiv docked in Turkey on Monday, Kyiv said, while a consignment due in Lebanon reported delays.

Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters, was forced to halt almost all deliveries after Russia’s invasion, but Black Sea exports recently restarted under a deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey.

The Turkish cargo ship — the Polarnet — that reached its final destination left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk last week carrying 12,000 metric tons of corn.

It arrived in Turkey as scheduled after being inspected by the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) established in Istanbul under the international agreement signed last month, Kyiv said.

“This first successful completion of the implementation of the ‘grain deal’ means it is possible to be optimistic about future transportation,” Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov was quoted as saying in a statement by the ministry.

The statement did not give the ship’s destination, but the website vesselfinder.com gave its location as the port of Derince, Turkey.

The deal brokered by Turkey and the U.N. lifted a Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports and set terms for millions of tons of wheat and other grain to start flowing from silos and ports.

The Razoni was the first ship to leave Ukraine under the deal.

It left the port of Odesa August 1 carrying 26,000 tons of corn and was expected in Tripoli in Lebanon this weekend but has yet to reach the destination.

The Ukrainian embassy in Lebanon explained on social media that the consignment was delayed after the original buyer refused delivery, citing a five-month delay in shipment.

“The sender is therefore looking for another recipient. This may be in Lebanon or in another country,” it added in a statement on Twitter.

Eight ships have left Ukrainian ports since the agreement was signed, Kyiv said Monday, and it hoped that between three and five ships would be able to depart daily within two weeks.

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UK Museum Agrees to Return Looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

A London museum agreed Sunday to return a collection of Benin Bronzes looted in the late 19th century from what is now Nigeria as cultural institutions throughout Britain come under pressure to repatriate artifacts acquired during the colonial era. 

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in southeast London said that it would transfer a collection of 72 items to the Nigerian government. The decision comes after Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments formally asked for the artifacts to be returned earlier this year and following a consultation with community members, artists and schoolchildren in Nigeria and the U.K., the museum said. 

“The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” Eve Salomon, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said in a statement. “The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step, and we look forward to working with the NCMM to secure longer term care for these precious artifacts.” 

The Horniman’s collection is a small part of the 3,000 to 5,000 artifacts taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 when British soldiers attacked and occupied Benin City as Britain expanded its political and commercial influence in West Africa. The British Museum alone holds more than 900 objects from Benin, and National Museums Scotland has another 74. Others were distributed to museums around the world. 

The artifacts include plaques, animal and human figures, and items of royal regalia made from brass and bronze by artists working for the royal court of Benin. The general term Benin Bronzes is sometimes applied to items made from ivory, coral, wood and other materials as well as the metal sculptures. 

Increasing demand for returns

Countries including Nigeria, Egypt and Greece, as well indigenous peoples from North America to Australia, are increasingly demanding the return of artifacts and human remains amid a global reassessment of colonialism and the exploitation of local populations. 

Nigeria and Germany recently signed a deal for the return of hundreds of Benin Bronzes. That followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision last year to sign over 26 pieces known as the Abomey Treasures, priceless artworks of the 19th century Dahomey kingdom in present-day Benin, a small country that sits just west of Nigeria. 

But British institutions have been slower to respond. 

Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and Culture formally asked the British Museum to return its Benin Bronzes in October of last year. 

The museum said Sunday that it is working with a number of partners in Nigeria and it is committed to a “thorough and open investigation” of the history of the Benin artifacts and the looting of Benin City. 

“The museum is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues,” the British Museum says on its website. 

BLM inspires museum to ‘reset’

The Horniman Museum also traces its roots to the Age of Empire. 

The museum opened in 1890, when tea merchant Frederick Horniman opened his collection of artifacts from around the world for public viewing. 

Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the museum embarked on a “reset agenda,” that sought to “address long-standing issues of racism and discrimination within our history and collections, and a determination to set ourselves on a more sustainable course for the future.” 

The museum’s website acknowledges that Frederick Horniman’s involvement in the Chinese tea trade meant he benefitted from low prices due to Britain’s sale of opium in China and the use of poorly compensated and sometimes forced labor. 

The Horniman also recognizes that it holds items “obtained through colonial violence.” 

These include the Horniman’s collection of Benin Bronzes, comprising 12 brass plaques, as well as a brass cockerel altar piece, ivory and brass ceremonial objects, brass bells and a key to the king’s palace. The bronzes are currently displayed along with information acknowledging their forced removal from Benin City and their contested status. 

“We recognize that we are at the beginning of a journey to be more inclusive in our stories and our practices, and there is much more we need to do,” the museum says on its website. “This includes reviewing the future of collections that were taken by force or in unequal transactions.” 

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Ukraine Grain Headed for Lebanon Under Wartime Deal Delayed

The scheduled arrival Sunday of the first grain ship to leave Ukraine and cross the Black Sea under a wartime deal has been delayed, a Lebanese Cabinet minister and the Ukrainian embassy said.

The cause of the delay was not immediately clear and Marine Traffic, which monitors vessel traffic and the locations of ships at sea, showed the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni at anchor in the Mediterranean Sea near Turkey.

Lebanon’s transportation minister, Ali Hamie, tweeted the ship “that was supposed, according to what was rumored, to reach Tripoli port in Lebanon” changed its status. Hamie refused to comment further when contacted by The Associated Press.

The ship left Odesa last Monday carrying Ukrainian corn and later passed inspection in Turkey. It was supposed to arrive in the northern port of Tripoli at about 10 a.m. Sunday. According to Marine Traffic, the ship Saturday changed its status to “order” meaning the ship was waiting for someone to buy the corn.

The Ukrainian embassy in Beirut said the arrival of the ship has been postponed adding that an “update for the ceremony will be sent later when we get information about [the] exact day and time of the arrival of the ship.”

The shipment that was supposed to arrive in Lebanon comes at a time when the tiny Mediterranean nation is suffering from a food security crisis, with soaring food inflation, wheat shortages and bread lines. The ship is carrying some 26,000 tons of corn for chicken feed.

The passage of the vessel was the first under a breakthrough deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations with Russia and Ukraine. The four sides signed deals last month to create safe Black Sea shipping corridors to export Ukraine’s desperately needed agricultural products as Russia’s war upon its neighbor grinds on.

Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in its modern history that began in late 2019 has left three-quarters of its population living in poverty while the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value.

The economic meltdown rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement was made worse by a massive blast in August 2020 that destroyed Beirut’s port and the country’s main grain silos inside the sprawling facility. Large parts of the silos collapsed in recent days after fire caused by remnants of grain that started fermenting and ignited in the summer heat last month.

Lebanese officials said last week that the Razoni was supposed to leave Ukraine and head to Lebanon on Feb. 24 but the departure was delayed by the war that broke out days later.

On Friday, three more ships carrying thousands of tons of corn left Ukrainian ports and traveled through mined waters toward inspection of their delayed cargo, a sign that the international deal to export grain held up since Russia invaded Ukraine was slowly progressing.

Four more ships carrying agricultural cargo held up by the war in Ukraine received authorization Sunday to leave the country’s Black Sea ports.

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Temperatures Rise as France Tackles Worst Drought on Record

France on Sunday braced for a fourth heatwave this summer as its worst drought on record left parched villages without safe drinking water and farmers warned of a looming milk shortage in the winter.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s office has set up a crisis team to tackle a drought that has forced scores of villages to rely on water deliveries by truck, prompted state-run utility EDF to curb nuclear power output and stressed crops.

Temperatures were expected to hit 37 Celsius in the southwest Sunday before the baking hot air spreads north early in the week.

“This new heatwave is likely to set in,” La Chaine Meteo, similar to the U.S. cable service The Weather Channel, said.

National weather agency Meteo France said it was the worst drought since records began in 1958 and that the drought was expected to worsen until at least the middle of the month. On average, less than 1cm of rain fell across France in July.

The corn harvest is expected to be 18.5% lower this year compared with 2021, the agriculture ministry has said, just as Europeans contend with higher food prices as a result of lower-than-normal grain exports from Russia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a shortage of fodder because of the drought meant there could be a shortage of milk in the months ahead, the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions said.

Nuclear operator EDF last week reduced its power output at a plant in southwestern France due to high river temperatures on the Garonne, and it has issued rolling warnings for reactors along the Rhone river.

The hot weather has compounded the utility’s problems, with corrosion problems and extended maintenance at half of its 56 reactors reducing capacity as Europe faces an energy crunch.

Water restrictions are in place across almost all of mainland France to conserve water, including hosepipe and irrigation bans.

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Ukrainian Risks Her Life To Rescue Wild Animals From War

Natalia Popova has found a new purpose in life: Rescuing wild animals and pets from the devastation wrought by the war in Ukraine.

“They are my life,” says the 50-year-old, stroking a light-furred lioness like a kitten. From inside an enclosure, the animal rejoices at the attention, lying on her back and stretching her paws up toward her caretaker.

Popova, in cooperation with the animal protection group UA Animals, has already saved more than 300 animals from the war; 200 of them went abroad and 100 found new homes in western Ukraine, which is considered safer. Many of them were wild animals who were kept as pets at private homes before their owners fled Russian shelling and missiles.

Popova’s shelter in the Kyiv region village of Chubynske now houses 133 animals. It’s a broad menagerie, including 13 lions, a leopard, a tiger, three deer, wolves, foxes, raccoons and roe deer, as well as domesticated animals like horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats and birds.

The animals awaiting evacuation to Poland were rescued from hot spots such as eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, which see daily bombardments and active fighting. The Ukrainian soldiers who let Popova know when animals near the front lines need help joke that she has many lives, like a cat.

“No one wants to go there. Everyone is afraid. I am also scared, but I go anyway,” she said.

Often, she is trembling in the car on her way to rescue another wild animal.

“I feel very sorry for them. I can imagine the stress animals are under because of the war, and no one can help them,” Popova said.

In most cases, she knows nothing about the animals she rescues, neither their names and ages nor their owners.

“Animals don’t introduce themselves when they come to us,” she joked.

For the first months of the war, Popova drove to war hot spots alone, but a couple from UA Animals recently offered to transport and help her.

“Our record is an evacuation in 16 minutes, when we saved a lion between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” Popova said. An economist by education with no formal veterinary experience, she administered anesthesia on the lion because the animal had to be put to sleep before it could be transported.

Popova says she has always been very attached to animals. In kindergarten, she built houses for worms and talked to birds. In 1999, she opened the first private horse club in Ukraine. But it wasn’t until four years ago that she saved her first lion.

An organization against slaughterhouses approached her with a request for help saving a lion with a broken spine. She did not know how she could help because her expertise was in horses. But when she saw a photo of the big cat, Popova could not resist.

She built an enclosure and took in the lion the next morning, paying the owner. Later, Popova created a social media page titled “Help the Lioness,” and people began to write asking for help saving other wild animals.

Yana, the first lioness she rescued, has become a family member since she could not find a new home due to a disability. Popova took care of her until she died two weeks ago.

The shelter is just a temporary stop for the animals. Popova rehabilitates them and then looks for new homes for them. She feels a special connection with each big cat but says she does not mind letting them go.

“I love them, and I understand that I do not have the resources to provide them with the comfortable life they deserve,” says Popova.

At first, she bankrolled the shelter with her own funds from the horse business. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the horse business has not been profitable. With more than $14,000 a month needed to keep animals healthy and fed, she has turned to borrowing, and seen her debt grow to $200,000.

She gets some money from UA Animals and from donations but worries about how to keep everything together have kept her up at night.

“But I will still borrow money, go to hot spots and save animals. I can’t say no to them,” she said.

Popova sends all her animals to the Poznań Zoo in Poland, which helps her evacuate them and find them new homes. Some animals have already been transported to Spain, France and South Africa. Her next project is sending 12 lions to Poland this week.

With no end to the fighting in sight, Popova knows she will still be needed.

“My mission in this war is to save wild animals,” she says.

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Tons of Grain Leaving Ukraine

Four grain ships sailed from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports Sunday.

The Joint Coordination Center, the body set up under the Black Sea Grain Initiative to monitor its implementation, authorized the departures through the maritime humanitarian corridor.

The ships moving out of Ukrainian ports are headed to China, Italy and two locations in Turkey.

A fifth ship has been authorized to sail to Ukraine to pick up cargo.

Ukraine is one of the world’s breadbaskets and the blockage of its ports has resulted in rising global food prices and the threat of famine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his daily address Saturday denounced Amnesty International for its “eloquent silence” in failing to address the Russian shelling of Zaporizhzhia NPP, the Ukrainian power plant that is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. The silence, Zelenskyy said, “indicates the manipulative selectivity of this organization.”

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency addressed the nuclear power plant situation in a statement Saturday, saying, “Military action jeopardizing the safety and security of the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant is completely unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs.”

Amnesty International released a report last week saying that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February.”

In response, Zelenskyy said then, “There cannot be, even hypothetically, any condition under which any Russian attack on Ukraine becomes justified. Aggression against our state is unprovoked, invasive and openly terroristic.”

Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty International Ukraine, also took issue with the global organization’s report and has resigned from her post in protest.

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Amnesty International Ukraine Report Sparks Furor, Resignation

The head of Amnesty International’s Ukraine chapter has resigned, saying the human rights organization shot down her opposition to publishing a report that said Ukrainian forces had exposed civilians to Russian attacks by basing themselves in populated areas.

In a statement posted Friday night on Facebook, Oksana Pokalchuk accused her former employer of disregarding Ukraine’s wartime realities and the concerns of local staff members who had pushed for the report to be reworked.

The report, released Thursday, drew angry denouncements from top Ukrainian officials and criticism from Western diplomats, who accused the authors of making vague claims that appeared to equate the Ukrainian military’s defensive actions to the tactics of the invading Russians.

“It is painful to admit, but I and the leadership of Amnesty International have split over values,” Pokalchuk wrote. “I believe that any work done for the good of society should take into account the local context and think through consequences.”

Russia has repeatedly justified attacks on civilian areas by alleging that Ukrainian fighters had set up firing positions at the targeted locations.

Pokalchuk said her office had asked the organization’s leadership to give the Ukrainian Defense Ministry adequate time to respond to the report’s findings and argued that its failure to do so would further Kremlin misinformation and propaganda efforts.

“I am convinced that our surveys should be done thoroughly, bearing in mind the people whose lives often depend directly on the words and actions of international organizations,” she said.

In a news release that accompanied the report’s publication, Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said the organization had “documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas.

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” she said Thursday.

Russian state-sponsored media quoted the report to support Moscow’s claim that Russia has only launched strikes on military targets during the war. The spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry cited the Amnesty International assertions as proof that Ukraine was using civilians as human shields.

Multiple Western scholars of international and military law went on social media to reject the human shield claim. They said the report contained poor phrasing that muddied legal distinctions and ignored the combat conditions in Ukraine.

United Nations war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco, tweeting in a personal capacity Friday, accused Amnesty International of “getting the law wrong” and said Ukraine was taking steps to protect civilians, such as helping them relocate.

Ukrainian authorities at the national and regional level have repeatedly urged residents of front-line areas to evacuate, although tens of thousands of people who left their homes since Russia’s invasion have returned after running out of support or feeling unwelcome.

Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s foreign and defense ministers, have been scathing in their condemnation of the report, which they said failed to provide context on Russia’s bombardments of populated areas and documented attacks on civilians.

Callamard posted a tweet Friday that defended the organization’s work and took aim at its critics. 

“Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls: they are all at it today attacking Amnesty investigations. This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation. This won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts,” she wrote.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba issued an angry response to Callamard in which he accused her organization of “fake neutrality” and playing into the Kremlin’s hands.

“Apparently, Amnesty’s Secretary General calls me a ‘mob’ and a ‘troll’, but this won’t stop me from saying that its report distorts reality, draws false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the victim, and boosts Russia’s disinformation effort. This is fake ‘neutrality’, not truthfulness,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

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Beluga Whale Caught in France’s Seine Not Accepting Food

French environmentalists are working around the clock to try and feed a dangerously thin Beluga whale that has strayed into the Seine River. So far, they have been unsuccessful.

Marine conservation group Sea Shepherd France tweeted Saturday that “our teams took turns with the Beluga all night long. It always ignores the fish offered to him.”

The lost Beluga was first seen in France’s river, far from its Arctic habitat, earlier this week. Drone footage subsequently shot by French fire services showed the whale gently meandering in a stretch of the river’s light green waters between Paris and the Normandy city of Rouen, many dozens of kilometers (miles) inland from the sea.

Conservationists have tried since Friday to feed a catch of herring to the ethereal white mammal. Calling it “a race against the clock,” Sea Shepherd fears the whale is slowly starving in the waterway and could die.

Authorities in the l’Eure region said in a Friday night statement that the wild animal has a “fleeing behavior vis-a-vis the boats” and has not responded to attempts to guide it to safer waters.

The people trying to help the whale are being as unobtrusive as possible to “avoid stress that could aggravate his state of health,” according to the statement.

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12 Poles Killed in Croatia Bus Crash

A bus with Polish license plates skidded off a highway in northern Croatia early Saturday, killing at least 12 people, according to authorities.  

Officials say at least 30 people were injured. 

The bus was filled with religious pilgrims traveling to a Catholic shrine in Medjugorje, a town in southern Bosnia. 

Reuters reports that all the victims are Polish citizens.  


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Spain Leads Europe in Monkeypox, Struggles to Check Spread 

As a sex worker and adult film actor, Roc was relieved when he was among the first Spaniards to get a monkeypox vaccine. He knew of several cases among men who have sex with men, which is the leading demographic for the disease, and feared he could be next. 

“I went home and thought, ‘Phew, my God, I’m saved,’ ” the 29-year-old told The Associated Press. 

But it was already too late. Roc, the name he uses for work, had been infected by a client a few days before. He joined Spain’s steadily increasing count of monkeypox infections that has become the highest in Europe since the disease spread beyond Africa, where it has been endemic for years. 

He began showing symptoms: pustules, fever, conjunctivitis and tiredness. Roc was hospitalized for treatment before getting well enough to be released. 

Spanish health authorities and community groups are struggling to check an outbreak that has killed two young men. They reportedly died of encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, that can be caused by some viruses. Most monkeypox cases cause only mild symptoms. 

Spain has confirmed 4,942 cases in the three months since the start of the outbreak, which has been linked to two raves in Europe, where experts say the virus was likely spread through sex. 

The only country with more infections than Spain is the much larger United States, which has reported 7,100 cases. 

Global count

In all, the global monkeypox outbreak has seen more than 26,000 cases in nearly 90 countries since May. There have been 103 suspected deaths in Africa, mostly in Nigeria and Congo, where a more lethal form of monkeypox is spreading than in the West. 

Health experts stress that this is not technically a sexually transmitted disease, even though it has been mainly spreading via sex among gay and bisexual men, who account for 98% of cases beyond Africa. The virus can be spread to anyone who has close, physical contact with an infected person, their clothing or bed sheets. 

Part of the complexity of fighting monkeypox is striking a balance between not stigmatizing men who have sex with men, while also ensuring that both vaccines and pleas for greater caution reach those currently in the greatest danger. 

Spain has distributed 5,000 shots of the two-shot vaccine to health clinics and expects to receive 7,000 more from the European Union in the coming days, its health ministry said. The EU has bought 160,000 doses and is donating them to member states based on need. The bloc is expecting another 70,000 shots to be available next week. 

To ensure that those shots get administered wisely, community groups and sexual health associations are targeting gay men, bisexuals and transgender women. 

In Barcelona, BCN Checkpoint, which focuses on AIDS/HIV prevention in gay and trans communities, is now contacting at-risk people to offer them one of the precious vaccines. 

Pep Coll, medical director of BCN Checkpoint, said the vaccine rollout is focused on people who are already at risk of contracting HIV and are on preemptive treatment, men with a high number of sexual partners and those who participate in sex with the use of drugs, as well as people with suppressed immune responses. 

But there are many more people who fit those categories than doses, about 15,000 people just in Barcelona, Coll said. 

The lack of vaccines, which is far more severe in Africa than in Europe and the U.S., makes social public health policies key, experts say. 

Contact tracing more difficult

As with the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing to identify people who could have been infected is critical. But, while COVID-19 could spread to anyone simply through the air, the close bodily contact that serves as the leading vehicle for monkeypox makes some people hesitant to share information. 

“We are having a steady stream of new cases, and it is possible that we will have more deaths. Why? Because contact tracing is very complicated because it can be a very sensitive issue for someone to identify their sexual partners,” said Amós García, epidemiologist and president of the Spanish Association of Vaccinology. 

Spain says that 80% of its cases are among men who have sex with men and only 1.5% are women. But García insisted that will change unless the entire public, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, grasps that having various sexual partners creates greater risk. 

Given the dearth of vaccines and the trouble with contact tracing, more pressure is being put on encouraging prevention. 

From the start, government officials ceded the leading role in the get-out-the-word campaign to community groups. 

Sebastian Meyer, president of the STOP SIDA association dedicated to AIDS/HIV care in Barcelona’s LGBTQ community, said the logic was that his group and others like it would be trusted message-bearers with person-by-person knowledge of how to drive the health warning home. 

Community associations that represent gay and bisexual men have bombarded social media, websites and blogs with information on monkeypox safety. Officials in Catalonia, the region including Barcelona that has over 1,500 cases, are pushing public service announcements on dating apps Tinder and Grindr warning about the disease. 

But Meyer believes fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic has played a part. Doctors advise people with monkeypox lesions to isolate until they have fully healed, which can take up to three weeks. 

“When people read that they must self-isolate, they close the webpage and forget what they have read,” Meyer said. “We are just coming out of COVID, when you couldn’t do this or that, and now, here we go again. … People just hate it and put their heads in the sand.”

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Ukraine, Russia Trade Blame Over Damage to Nuclear Plant

Three more ships carrying thousands of tons of corn left Ukrainian ports Friday, part of a grain deal between Kyiv and Moscow, as the two countries accused each other of damaging a major Ukrainian nuclear power plant.

Ukraine’s state nuclear power company Energoatom said Russian shelling had hit the Zaporizhzhia power station, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

“Three strikes were recorded on the site of the plant, near one of the power blocks where the nuclear reactor is located,” Energoatom said in a statement.

It said there were no signs that the damage had caused a radioactive leak.


Three strikes

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces were responsible for damaging the plant.

“Ukrainian armed units carried out three artillery strikes on the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and the city of Enerhodar,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Fortunately, the Ukrainian shells did not hit the oil and fuel facility and the oxygen plant nearby, thus avoiding a larger fire and a possible radiation accident,” it said.

Russian troops have occupied the plant in southern Ukraine since March.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia on Monday of using the plant as a shield for its forces.

An official with the Russian-backed administration in Enerhodar said earlier this week that Ukrainian forces had repeatedly attacked the plant, according to Reuters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily video address on Friday that Russia was committing acts of “nuclear terrorism.”

“Russia must take responsibility for the very fact of creating a threat to a nuclear plant,” he said.

Corn shipments

Three more ships carrying thousands of metric tons of corn left Ukrainian ports Friday in a sign that a deal to allow exports of Ukrainian grain, held up since Russia’s invasion of its neighbor in February, is starting to work.

The ships departed for Ireland, the United Kingdom and Turkey. Another ship, the Razoni, left Ukraine on Monday for Lebanon, carrying the first grain shipment through the Black Sea since the start of the war.

In New York on Friday, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said another ship was headed toward the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk to pick up a grain shipment.

The U.N. and Turkey recently brokered a deal, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, aimed at enabling Ukraine to export about 22 million metric tons of grain currently stuck in silos and port storage facilities. The deal is meant to ease a global food crisis marked by soaring prices and food shortages in some regions.

Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of the wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil that millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia rely on for survival.

In another hopeful sign, Taras Vysotsky, Ukraine’s first deputy minister of agriculture, said the country could start exporting wheat from this year’s harvest through its seaports as early as next month. According to Reuters, Vysotsky said Ukraine hoped in several months to increase shipments of grain through the route from 1 million metric tons expected this month to between 3 million and 3.5 million metric tons per month.

The initiative will run for a 120 day-period that ends in late November.

A backlog of nearly 30 ships that have been stranded in Ukraine’s southern ports because of the war has entered its sixth month. The Joint Coordination Center, or JCC, a body set up under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, says the ships need to move out so other ships can enter the ports and collect food for transport to world markets.

The crews and cargo of the vessels that set sail Friday will undergo checks at the JCC inspection area in Turkey’s territorial waters before moving on toward their destinations.

The JCC says that based on its experience with the first ship that sailed Monday, it is now testing moving multiple ships in the safe corridor, both outbound and inbound.


Erdogan in Russia

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia on Friday for talks with President Vladimir Putin that included the grain deal, prospects for talks on ending hostilities in Ukraine, and the situation in Syria.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of the talks in Sochi, which lasted four hours, Putin and Erdogan emphasized “the necessity of a complete fulfillment” of the grain deal.

They also said that “sincere, frank and trusting ties between Russia and Turkey” are important to global stability.

In other developments Friday, the Biden administration prepared its next security assistance package for Ukraine. Reuters reported that the package was expected to be worth $1 billion, one of the largest U.S. military aid packages to Ukraine to date.

On Thursday, Zelenskyy blasted human rights group Amnesty International for a report that said Ukrainian forces had put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas.

The report “unfortunately tries to amnesty the terrorist state and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim,” Zelenskyy said. “There cannot be, even hypothetically, any condition under which any Russian attack on Ukraine becomes justified. Aggression against our state is unprovoked, invasive and openly terroristic.”

The head of Amnesty International’s Ukrainian office, Oksana Pokalchuk, also took issue with the report. In posts on Facebook on Thursday, she said the Ukrainian office “was not involved in the preparation or writing” of the report and tried to prevent the material from being published.

Pokalchuk on Friday announced her resignation from Amnesty International in a Facebook post.

Amnesty International said its researchers investigated Russian strikes in Ukraine between April and July in the Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolaiv regions. The organization said its “researchers found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages in the regions.”

Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Threats Cast Chill Over Serbia’s Media 

Seated at a table with his wife and a colleague in the small town of Leskovac, Dragan Marinovic was looking forward to a meal at his favorite restaurant.

Then a stranger approached and started to threaten Marinovic, who is executive editor of the Serbian news website Resetka.

The reason, Marinovic told VOA’s Serbian Service: a story Resetka had published about the death of a bodyguard who was assigned to a city official.

Threats are not uncommon for journalists in Serbia.

“Anyone can come to you on a street, or wherever, slap you a couple of times, and get away with it [even] while you are accompanied with friends or family,” said Marinovic.

The Council of Europe (COE) platform to promote the protection of journalism has cited Marinovic’s case and those of two other Serbian journalists threatened in recent months.

Dragojlo Blagojević, the editor of the magazine DrvoTehnika, received death threats in an anonymous call in July after reporting on the logging industry; and hooligans threatened Brankica Stankovic, of Insajder TV, during a basketball game in May.

Free expression and media rights groups have also separately pointed to a deteriorating climate for journalism in the country.

In Marinovic’s case from March, the journalist says the man verbally assaulted him and made death threats.

At first, Marinovic tried to reason with the stranger.

“We tried to talk to [the] person who approached. He started threatening and mentioning an influential local politician,” Marinovic said, declining to name the politician. “I telephoned the local politician to ask why a man was bothering us.”

At that point, Marinovic said, the assailant grabbed the journalist’s phone and left the restaurant.

“He came back after several minutes, continued with threats, so we left,” Marinovic said.

Marinovic was able to retrieve his phone, and he later wrote an editorial about the encounter.

That resulted in the police and a local prosecutor’s office investigating. But so far, he said, there have been no updates.

Threats are a regular challenge for local journalists in Serbia, Marinovic said. He has experienced three similar incidents.

In nearly all cases, he said, authorities are not able to identify the suspects “so the investigation goes blunt.”

A database by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia has recorded 60 cases of attacks, threats or intimidation since the start of the year.

And while Serbia improved its ranking in the 2022 Press Freedom Index and is noted for its award-winning investigative journalism, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders cited challenges including political pressure and impunity in attacks on media.

The Ministry of Culture and Information told VOA that it is dedicated to the integrity of journalism, and it cited platforms and services set up to assist those under attack.

As part of its “dedicated, transparent work on improving the environment,” the government established a working group focused on media safety and protection, which meets monthly, the ministry said. The president, vice president and other representatives attend those meetings.

Subtle warning

Jelena Zoric, an award-winning investigative reporter who contributes to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the weekly Vreme, has received threats against her family.

It started when Zoric reported on the alleged connections of state security officials to what’s known as the Jovanjica case, in which an organic farm apparently was used as a front for a marijuana operation.

A high-ranking official, who is facing accusations in an unrelated case, made claims in a TV interview about Zoric’s sources and falsely attributed statements from her brother about Zoric’s work.

“Mentioning my brother’s name in public, via television broadcast, I see as a threat,” said Zoric.

The journalist also received disturbing notes from people she believes are connected to the case.

But, she said, “I am not comfortable to describe my feelings while threatened and what affects me the most, because I do not want them to know how they can get to me.”

Zoric reported the threats to authorities and described the reaction from officials as encouraging.

But she does not believe that authorities always take all the necessary steps in dealing with cases of attacked or threatened journalists.

And sometimes, she said, the threats are less direct.

“The most dangerous threats are the ones that are most difficult to prove,” she said. “Getting messages on your doorstep falsely showing concern on your behalf or wishing you and your family good health.

“I am aware of an old traditional criminal saying: The mob usually blows a kiss before shooting.”

‘Hostile and dangerous environment’

Serbia is among the European countries where journalists are under frequent threat, the Vienna-based International Press Institute says.

“There is a constant increase of attacks, death threats and defamatory campaigns against journalists,” the IPI’s Jamie Wiseman told VOA earlier this year. “Failure to solve those cases boosts a hostile and dangerous environment for journalists.”

Wiseman, who worked on Defending Press Freedom in Times of Tension and Conflict — a report produced by COE partner organizations including the IPI — was part of a delegation to Serbia in 2021.

“We saw an instance of political will, but also ambivalence shown by different bodies on how thorough the threats and intimidations should be investigated,” Wiseman said.

Teresa Ribeiro, the representative on freedom of the media at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, believes the key to improving the situation is the full implementation of a Media Strategy and Action Plan that Serbian authorities adopted in 2020.

The document, developed in cooperation with the European Union, OSCE, the Norwegian Embassy and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation — a German political party foundation — aimed to safeguard Serbia`s press freedom and regulate the development of media markets until 2025.

Ribeiro visited Serbia in July and spoke with representatives of the government, media and civil sector.

“There are challenges and gaps that need to be overcome,” she told VOA.

Riberio praised some government initiatives, including the working group for the safety of journalists and a 24-hour telephone line offering access to free legal advice for media workers who are attacked.

But, she said, “There is a need for more action and political commitment to create a safer, more free, functional and pluralistic media environment.”

The Ministry of Culture and Information also cited the working group and the helpline. In addition, the ministry said, the public prosecutor’s office is under orders to “act immediately” on reports of criminal acts directed at journalists.

Marinovic, of Resetka, believes Serbia’s journalists must “put more courage in what we do,” telling VOA, “Journalism, freedom and democracy are under threat in this country.”

The country’s media should stand up against efforts to intimidate or interfere with their work, Marinovic said, adding that journalists “should defend the public interest and not report in favor of local politicians and powerful people.”

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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