Protesters Say Russian Ship Bound for Antarctica Unwelcome at South African Port  

Climate activists in South Africa are protesting a refueling stop by a Russian ship that they say is ignoring a ban on exploring oil and gas in Antarctica.

Protest organizers Greenpeace Africa and Extinction Rebellion say the seismic tests the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has been conducting in Antarctica for the past 25 years are harmful to marine life like dolphins and whales.

They also say that fossil fuels should stay in the ground if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming.

The ship’s operator, Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition, a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned mineral explorer RosGeo, insists it is not exploring for oil and gas in Antarctica but simply conducting research.

South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan isn’t convinced and says it’s vital everyone sees the importance of fighting global warming.

“It’s incredibly Important from a climate change perspective because the oceans there absorb a lot of the Co2 from the atmosphere but it’s also part of regulating the world’s climate and, also the currents and the weather system. But it’s also very much affected by climate change because the ice is melting,” he said.

Cormac says it’s problematic that there isn’t a government for Antarctica but instead an agreement signed in the 1950s, called the Antarctic Treaty System, where 29 countries have decision-making powers.

“Decisions are made by consensus and over the last years, when they tried to declare more marine protected areas, countries like Russia and China block them so it’s not really going anywhere,” he said.

He says terms of the treaty are only binding on the people who’ve signed up to them. And he says policing compliance is almost impossible because there’s no international police force dedicated to this task.

“If there is a big enough dispute, it could be referred to the International Court of Justice. But you know in a situation like this, often countries won’t take on another country like Russia because they think Russia may retaliate in other ways,” he said.

Cullinan is working on a Declaration for the Rights of Antarctica which environmentalists hope will be launched towards the end of this year or early in 2024. He says among other things, they hope it will make it possible for lawyers to represent Antarctica in courts of law.

“Certainly, if you think how important human rights are in the world. Even though you know governments violate rights all the time, just the fact that we’ve got agreed standards of behavior.”

He says a similar rights-of-nature declaration is being worked out for the Amazon rain forest which spreads across several countries.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, Greenpeace Africa volunteer Elaine Mills says her organization is working on a letter of demand to send to the government.

“The one is that Alexander Karpinsky and other vessels like it are not allowed into South Africa. The second is that the Alexander Karpinsky and vessels like it have to prove that they are engaged in genuine scientific research before they are allowed entry into our ports. The third one is that we want the parties to adopt a treaty that no hydrocarbon extraction will ever be allowed within the Antarctic region,” said Mills.

Contacted by VOA, the South African Ministry and Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment did not provide comment.

South Africa announced Tuesday that it will host representatives of its partners in the BRICS bloc, namely Russia, China, India and Brazil, in Limpopo province on Wednesday and Thursday.

Naval exercises with Russia and China are also planned in February, a few days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Nordic Unions to Quit Global Journalists’ Body IFJ, Citing ‘Corruptive Activity’

Finnish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic unions will quit a global media federation on Tuesday in protest at “corruptive activity,” including allowing Russian state media journalists in Ukraine to stay as members, the Finnish union said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents 600,000 journalists in 146 countries, denounced the accusations as “false, defamatory and damaging.”

The Nordic members accused the IFJ of longstanding undemocratic practices, unethical finances and of allowing the Russian state media representatives to continue as members.

“We call this corruptive activity,” Hanne Aho, the chair of the Union of Journalists in Finland, told Reuters, adding the four Nordic unions would resign from the IFJ on Tuesday.

The leader of the Norwegian Union of Journalists, Dag Idar Tryggestad, said the unions had fought for years to put in place democratic rules on IFJ elections as well as transparency around decisions and spending.

“..we believe this (resignation) is the only thing that can save IFJ. Changes must be forced,” he said.

Both Aho and Tryggestad said the Nordic unions’ latest disappointment resulted from the IFJ not taking action against the Russian Union of Journalists for setting up regional journalists’ associations in Ukrainian territories invaded by Russia.

“They have been able to do so in all tranquility without the international federation expelling the Russian union,” Aho said.

The IFJ said its executive committee had triggered a formal process for suspending and expelling the Russian Union of Journalists. It said expenditure was formally audited every year, adding that it had sought to answer all questions posed by the Nordic unions.

“We entirely reject what are false, defamatory and damaging allegations,” IFJ Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Dear told Reuters in an emailed response.

The Nordic unions also complained about what they said was the IFJ’s non-transparent use of finances, including its decision to hold its world congress last year in Oman, which has limited press freedom, Aho said.

The congress in Oman was organized at the end of May, at a time when journalists were widely accusing FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, of corruption and criticizing it for taking the World Cup to Qatar despite its poor track record on human rights.

“Trappings at the congress were extremely flamboyant so we began to wonder where the money had come from to pay for them,” Aho said, asking if it was appropriate for journalist unions to accept such lavish sponsoring.

Aho said the Union of Journalists in Finland had requested and received IFJ’s budget for the congress, which showed that up to 745,000 euros ($811,000) of the total of 778,000 euros ($844,675) came from Omani ministries and private companies as well as the Oman Journalists’ Association, while IFJ itself paid only 33,000 euros ($35,818) of the expenses.

The IFJ said the amounts included subsidies negotiated by the Oman Journalists’ Association.

“This has been normal procedure used in the hosting of successive IFJ congresses over decades,” it wrote in a statement shared with Reuters.

The IFJ, on its website, says it promotes collective action to defend human rights, democracy and media pluralism.

“IFJ policy is decided democratically at a Congress which meets every three years and work is carried out by the Secretariat under the direction of an elected executive committee,” it says.


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Australia and France to Supply Artillery Shells to Ukraine  

France and Australia have agreed to join forces to produce thousands of artillery shells to help Ukraine push Russian forces out of its country. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong are in Europe for talks with key allies.

French and Australian officials say several thousand 155 millimeter artillery shells will be manufactured jointly by French arms supplier Nexter, while Australia will supply the gunpowder. The first supplies are expected to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of April.

The announcement was made Monday at a joint news conference in Paris by French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles.

Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine’s war effort.

It has supplied missiles and Bushmaster armored personnel carriers. A group of up to 70 Australian defense force personnel has also been stationed in Britain to help train Ukrainian troops.

Australia also has sweeping sanctions on Russia — the most severe Canberra has ever imposed on a foreign government.

Marles told reporters Paris and Canberra are standing in solidarity with Ukraine.

“We wanted to act together as a statement about how importantly Australia and France regard the support of Ukraine in the current conflict,” he said. “Both of us have supported Ukraine separately in other ways, but we wanted to make it really clear that Australia and France do stand together in support of Ukraine in the face of this Russian aggression.”

Also attending the media briefing in Paris were French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.

While support for Ukraine’s effort to repel the Russian invasion have dominated bilateral talks, Paris and Canberra have also sought to ease diplomatic tensions.

Ties between the countries took a serious hit in 2021 when Canberra abandoned a French submarine contract in favor of American nuclear submarines, as well as joining the trilateral security alliance with the United States and Britain known as AUKUS.

Marles and Wong are also due to hold talks this week with British government ministers.

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New Round of Strikes as French Workers Protest Pension Reforms

Tuesday brought a new round of strikes in France as citizens protest proposed pension reforms. 

Worker strikes severely limited Paris metro and other rail services, while Air France canceled some of its short and medium flights. 

Half of the primary school teachers planned to strike, their union said, while power supplies were down with workers in the electrical sector also going on strike. 

Tuesday’s round of protests follows an initial round on January 19 in which more than a million people participated. 

President Emmanuel Macron’s government is proposing raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 years of age. 

Macron said Monday the change is necessary to keep the pension system working. 

Unions have said the government could instead tax the super rich. 

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

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Belarusian President Arrives in Zimbabwe

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrived in Zimbabwe on Monday for talks with his counterpart, Emmerson Mnangagwa, aimed at boosting “strong cooperation” in several areas between the two countries.    

Lukashenko landed in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, for a two-day visit and was greeted by Mnangagwa and thousands of ruling party supporters.    

The two countries are close allies of Russia. Belarus has backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, while Zimbabwe has claimed neutrality and refused to condemn Moscow. 

The two leaders plan to meet on Tuesday. The talks are aimed at strengthening “existing excellent relations” in areas such as politics, mining and agriculture, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

“The visit is historic, as it is the first such undertaking to a sub-Saharan African nation, by President Lukashenko,” the ministry said, according to Agence France-Presse.    

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He was reelected in 2020 in a highly contested vote that was widely denounced as a sham, resulting in mass protests. Lukashenko’s government cracked down violently on demonstrators, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands, according to The Associated Press.    

Mnangagwa’s reign has been shorter, coming into power in 2017 after the leader of the previous 37 years, Robert Mugabe, was forced to resign because of numerous human rights violations. Mnangagwa has faced similar controversies.    

Both leaders have been accused by rivals and the West of being corrupt and limiting free speech by stifling dissent, accusations that Lukashenko and Mnangagwa have denied.    

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

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New Czech President Vows to Boost Ties with Taiwan

Czech President-elect Petr Pavel vowed Monday to boost his country’s ties with Taiwan after holding a phone call with the island’s president and foreign minister. 

President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Pavel on his win in Saturday’s presidential run-off over the populist billionaire Andrej Babis. 

“I thanked her for her congratulations, and I assured her that Taiwan and the Czech Republic share the values of freedom, democracy, and human rights,” Pavel said on Twitter. 

“We agreed on strengthening our partnership,” added the former general, who served as head of NATO’s military committee in 2015-2018. 

He said he “expressed hope to have the opportunity to meet President Tsai in person in the future.” 

The call is likely to anger China, which is trying to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and prevents any sign of international legitimacy for the island. 

Beijing claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary. 

The Taiwanese presidential office said the call, which Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also joined, lasted almost 15 minutes. 

“The president… acknowledged that President-elect Pavel carries on the spirit of former Czech President (Vaclav) Havel who respected democracy, freedom and human rights, under which the republic was founded, and is like-minded with Taiwan,” Tsai’s office said in a statement. 

Havel was the Czech Republic’s first president in 1993-2003. 

Before Havel became head of state, the anti-communist dissident playwright had in 1989 led the so-called Velvet Revolution, which toppled communism in former Czechoslovakia. 

As the Czech Republic’s fourth president, Pavel will replace pro-Chinese and pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman, whose final term expires in March.  

Zeman is currently visiting Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, which has not joined Western sanctions against Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. 

In a sign that his foreign policy would vastly differ from Zeman’s, Pavel spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the phone Sunday.  

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Azerbaijan Embassy in Iran Suspends Work After Deadly Attack

Azerbaijan said on Monday it was suspending work at its embassy in Iran, days after a gunman stormed the mission, killing one guard and wounding two others. 

Iran has said the attack on Friday was motivated by personal reasons, but Baku labeled it an act of terrorism. 

“The operation of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Iran has been temporarily suspended following the evacuation of its staff and their family members from Iran,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada told Agence France-Presse.

“That doesn’t mean that diplomatic ties had been severed,” he said, adding that Baku’s consulate general in the Iranian city of Tabriz was “up and running.” 

In a phone call on Saturday with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he hoped “this violent act of terror would be thoroughly investigated.”

Tehran’s police said the attacker, who was arrested, was an Iranian man married to an Azerbaijani woman. 

The United States condemned the “unacceptable violence” and urged a prompt investigation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow was “shocked” by the attack. 

Iran is home to millions of Turkic-speaking, ethnic Azeris, and it has long accused Azerbaijan of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory.

Relations between the two countries have traditionally been sour, with the former Soviet republic a close ally of Iran’s historical rival Turkey.

Tehran also fears that Azerbaijani territory could be used for a possible offensive against Iran by Israel, a major supplier of arms to Baku. 

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With Media on Trial or in Exile, Belarusian Journalists Strive to Keep Reporting

In a little over two years, the team at have seen their news outlet go from being one of the most read in Belarus to being labeled an “extremist” organization whose staff are equated with criminals.

Currently five of the media outlet’s journalists are standing trial in a case that many analysts see as a somber reminder of President Alexander Lukashenko’s war on the press.

Those closely following charges filed against the Belarusian media have grim predictions for how the trial will play out. In the past two years, Minsk has sentenced several journalists to lengthy prison terms.

But even after authorities forced the closure of, members of its surviving team are reconvening in exile and under a new name to ensure audiences still have access to news. drew the government’s ire for its coverage of the August 2020 contested presidential elections, when Lukashenko claimed victory and opposition candidates were detained or forced to flee. When demonstrations broke out across the country, authorities arrested scores of protesters and journalists.

The government later branded and other independent outlets as “extremist.” In May 2021, officials raided the newsroom, blocked access to its website and detained staff, including the editor-in chief Marina Zolatova and general director Lyudmila Chekina. A few months later, was declared “extremist” and banned.

A closed-door trial for Zolatova and Chekina on charges including tax evasion, “inciting hatred,” and endangering the country’s national security, started in the capital, Minsk, on January 9.

Their colleagues Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsyaryna Tkachenka, are being tried in absentia. All three had left the country earlier, according to the Belarusian human rights group Viasna.

For co-founder Kirill Voloshin, there is no question that the trial is a sham.

“I don’t think that there is any significance to this trial because it’s just a show for Lukashenko and his authority,” Voloshin told VOA from his new home in Lithuania. “It’s just a showcase that you should keep your mouth shut.”

“There’s no justice,” Voloshin added. “It’s just some imitation of a court.”

He believes the government came down hard on because it had such wide readership and influence in Belarus. At its height, around 70% of internet users in Belarus read, Voloshin estimated.

The Belarus embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

‘Harsh conditions’

The journalists will almost certainly be sentenced to lengthy prison terms, according to Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“It is very clear that the Lukashenko regime is prosecuting every single journalist, every single critic, everybody who expresses or expressed in the past any dissenting views,” Said told VOA. “The difference between Lukashenko now and Lukashenko in the past is that now there is no pretext. The masks are off.”

“Officials are not even trying to pretend that the reasons behind this prosecution are not political,” she said.

The New York-based media advocate was especially concerned about the conditions journalists face in prison, noting that political detainees are often treated worse than criminals in Belarus.

If convicted, Zolatava and Chekina both face up to 12 years in prison.

“Belarusian prisons are notorious for really harsh conditions for all prisoners,” she said. “Many journalists, as well as political opponents of Lukashenko, are probably facing harsher conditions in prisons.”

More than 1,400 political prisoners are currently detained in Belarus, according to rights group Viasna.

The country is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with 33 reporters currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Two of those detained contributed to VOA’s sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“This is their sacrifice for freedom of speech,” said Volha Khvoin, who is on BAJ’s board.

Belarusian authorities are destroying independent media “to make sure that the residents of Belarus have no access or the most difficult access to non-state media,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA.

People in Belarus can use a VPN to access the websites that authorities blocked, she said, but that can bring its own risks, since police often check the phones of people they detain.

A lack of access to independent media affects people’s understanding of the world, including the war in Ukraine, according to Khvoin.

People who don’t read independent media are more likely to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, she said.

“Propaganda changes the consciousness of a person,” she said.

Media in exile

Due to the threat of imprisonment, few independent reporters still work inside Belarus. The BAJ estimates that around 400 reporters left the country since 2020, many of whom set up in Lithuania and Poland.

Voloshin, who helped found in 2000, is working with other exiled colleagues to found a successor to the media outlet.

Named Zerkalo — which means “mirror” in Russian — the website is working to replicate’s coverage of Belarus and reconnect with audiences in and outside the country.

Alongside its reporting on politics and human rights issues, Zerkalo is monitoring the case against’s team. When the trial began, it issued a statement saying the case “was fabricated from start to finish and appeared only because the regime is afraid of journalists.”

Zerkalo is part of a broader effort from exiled media to keep reporting on what’s happening inside Belarus.

The BAJ has coordinators in cities across Europe who are trying to help reestablish journalist networks from outside Belarus, said Khvoin, who is based in Warsaw.

“At the moment the ties between people from the Belarusian journalistic community have been preserved, and maybe they have become stronger in some way,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA. “Because in exile people need more support, contacts, maintaining life balance.”

To Voloshin, the spirit of lives on in Zerkalo, and that gives him some hope for the future of his country.

“’s mission was to report the truth on what’s happening in the country, highlighting the good and bad sides of what’s happening. That mission never disappeared,” Voloshin said. “This is one of the most important ways to demolish the dictatorship.”

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Boris Johnson Says Putin Threatened Missile Strike in Call 

In a new BBC documentary, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Britain with a missile strike. Johnson says the conversation took place during a phone call in the run up to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.

Johnson recalled the Russian leader saying, “It would only take a minute… Jolly.”

Johnson, however, said he did not take the threat seriously in their “extraordinary” call. “He was just playing along with my attempts to get him to negotiate,” Johnson said of Putin.

“It’s a lie,” a Kremlin spokesman told reporters about Johnson’s interpretation of the telephone conversation. “There were no threats of missiles.”

Johnson also told the BBC he tried to dissuade Putin from war, telling him Ukraine would not be joining NATO for the “foreseeable future.” Johnson also said he told the Russian leader that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to Western sanctions.

Johnson, who stepped down last year in the wake of a series of scandals, sought to position London as Ukraine’s top ally in the West.

While in office he visited Kyiv several times and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy frequently.

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Turkey Now Willing to Back Finland’s NATO Membership but Ruling Out Sweden 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday his country would consider evaluating Finland’s NATO membership bid separately from Sweden’s. Until now, Turkey threatened to veto both countries’ bids after the burning of a Quran in Stockholm sparked outrage in Ankara.

The Turkish foreign minister told reporters in Ankara that Turkey is ready to assess Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership individually.

Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey can evaluate the Finnish and Swedish NATO applications separately.

Cavusoglu added that such an approach made sense, given one country’s application was more problematic than the other. The Turkish foreign minister’s comments echo President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement on Sunday, suggesting Finland would face little difficulty joining.

Erdogan also repeated his demand that Stockholm extradite 120 people whom Turkey considers terrorists.

Erdogan accuses the Swedish government of allowing its country to become a sanctuary for terrorists’ organizations that are fighting Turkey. Swedish officials insist the extradition demands are a matter for the courts.

Turkish-Swedish relations deteriorated further in January after far-right protesters were allowed to burn a Quran in Stockholm, causing outrage in Ankara. But Finnish-Turkish relations got a boost this month, with Helsinki allowing the sale of specialized steel to Turkey’s defense industry, ending Finland’s military embargo on Ankara over human rights concerns.

Ilhan Uzgel, a political analyst at the Kisa Dalga news portal, says Erdogan is seeking to maximize the concessions from NATO to allow its enlargement, given the upcoming presidential elections expected to be held in May.

“It’s not like a strategic decision, but it’s more like leverage that Erdogan needs in domestic politics. But this can be solvable. Under pressure, Erdogan makes concessions, that’s for sure. But he has to get something. He has learned this over the years that anything can be turned into a bargaining chip. An issue of transnationalism that he is very good at it. So, he knows how to make bargains. I mean, he has learned it in 20 years [in power],” said Uzgel.

Until now, Finland and Sweden have been committed to joining NATO together. But earlier this month, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said Helsinki could review that stance if Sweden became permanently blocked from the military alliance.

Asli Aydintasbas of the Brookings Institution says Washington’s role may be critical to ending the impasse.

“The U.S. holds important cards. The question has been whether some of its policy goals can be achieved by actually keeping the relationship relatively frozen until the Turkish elections and then considering a reset. What we are seeing is that Turkey is frustrated, feeling it is not getting enough attention from Washington,” said Aydintasbas.

Ankara has numerous demands from Washington and ongoing disputes. Still, analysts suggest with only a few months until elections, which opinion polls indicate Erdogan is far from assured of winning, Sweden and Finland, along with NATO, will likely be closely following the forthcoming elections.

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Russians Gone From Ukraine Village, Fear and Hardship Remain

When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.

“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.

It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back her village in Kherson province from Russian occupation. But liberation has not diminished the hardship for residents of Kalynivske, both those returning home and the ones who never left. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.

Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River, which bisects the province, but remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometers away, and the danger of leftover mines leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out, has rendered normalcy an elusive dream and cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.

Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unlivable, they say.

“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated, some people hid in their houses.”

“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.

The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village on Saturday, when blankets, solar lamps, jerrycans, bed linens and warm clothes were delivered to the local warehouse of a distribution center.

Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too fragile or ill to leave, others did not have the means to escape.

Gennadiy Shaposhnikov lies on the sofa in a dark room, plates piled up beside him.

The 83-year old’s advanced cancer is so painful it is hard for him to speak. When a mortar destroyed the back of his house, neighbors rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day, to make sure he is fed and taken care of.

“Visit again, soon,” is all he can muster to say to them.

Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, moved in with a neighbor when the missiles devastated her small house near the village center. Her frail figure steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that cover her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what remains of the stairs, leading to her front door.

She came to the aid distribution center pulling her bicycle and left with a bag full of tinned food, her main source of sustenance these days.

But it’s the lack of electricity that is the major problem, Hryhoryna explains. “We are using handmade candles with oil and survive that way,” she says.

The main road that leads to her home is littered with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust away in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles gleam, embedded in grassy patches. Occasionally, there is the tail end of a cluster munition lodged into the earth.

Bright red signs emblazoned with a skull warn passersby not to get too close.

The Russians left empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and, some kilometers away, men’s underwear hangs on the bare branches. And with the Russians waging ongoing attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for terrorized residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.

“I’m very afraid,” says Trofimenko. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for (the fighting) to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”

The deprivation suffered in the village is mirrored all over Kherson, from the provincial capital of the same name to the constellation of villages divided by tracts of farmland that surround it. Ukrainian troops reclaimed the territory west of the Dnieper River in November after a major counteroffensive led to a Russian troop withdrawal, hailed as one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the war that’s now in its 12th month..

The U.N. ramped up assistance, supporting 133,000 individuals in Kherson with cash assistance, and 150,000 with food. Many villagers in Kalynivske say the food aid is the only reason they have something to eat.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are there are the most vulnerable. It’s mainly the elderly, many who have a certain kind of disability, people who could not leave the area, and are really reliant on aid organizations and local authorities who are working around the clock,” says Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The shelling is constant.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reports near daily incidents of shelling in Kherson city and surrounding villages, including rocket, artillery and mortar attacks. Most fall closer to the river banks nearer to the front line, but, that doesn’t mean those living further away feel any safer. On Friday, a missile fell in the village of Kochubeivka, north of Kalynivske, killing one person.

“Kherson managed to resume most of the essential services, but the problem is the hostilities keep creating challenges to ensure they are sustained,” Abreu says. “Since December, it’s getting worse and worse. The number of attacks and hostilities there is only increasing.”

Without electricity, there is no means to pump piped drinking water. Many line up to fetch well water, but a lot is needed to perform daily functions, residents complain.

To keep warm, many forage around the village for firewood, a task that presents danger post-occupation.

Everyone in Kalynivske knows the story of Nina Zvarech. She went looking for firewood in the nearby forest and was killed when she stepped on a mine.

Her body lay there for over a month because her relatives were too afraid to go and find her.

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Friends Mourn Foreign Volunteers Killed Helping Civilians in Ukraine

Friends and volunteers gathered Sunday at Kyiv’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral to say goodbye to Andrew Bagshaw, a New Zealand scientist who was killed in Ukraine with another volunteer while they were trying to evacuate people from a front-line town.

Bagshaw, 48, a dual New Zealand-British citizen, and British volunteer Christopher Parry, 28, went missing this month while heading to the town of Soledar, in the eastern Donetsk region, where heavy fighting was taking place.

Volunteers spoke of their memories of Bagshaw and read tributes from his family.

Nikolletta Stoyanova, a friend in Ukraine, shared memories of his bravery.

“Even if no one wanted to go to Soledar, they can do that. Because if he understood that someone needs help, they need to do this help for these people,” Stoyanova said, speaking in English.

Bagshaw’s father, Phil, told reporters in New Zealand that his son wanted to do something to help.

“He was a very intelligent man, and a very independent thinker,” he said. “And he thought a long time about the situation in Ukraine, and he believed it to be immoral. He felt the only thing he could do of a constructive nature was to go there and help people.”

Ukrainian police said Jan. 9 that they lost contact with Bagshaw and Parry after the two headed for Soledar. Their bodies were later recovered. A Ukrainian official reported Wednesday that the defending forces made an organized retreat from the salt-mining town.

In a Jan. 24 statement, Parry’s family said he was “drawn to Ukraine in March in its darkest hour.” They said he’d “helped those most in need, saving over 400 lives plus many abandoned animals.”

Friends said the men’s bodies would be handed over to relatives in the U.K.

In the south of Ukraine, Russian forces Sunday heavily shelled the city of Kherson, killing three people and wounding six others, the regional administration said. It said the shelling damaged a hospital, school, bus station, post office, bank and residential buildings.

Among those reported injured were two women in the hospital at the time: a nurse and a cafeteria worker. Russian forces retreated across the Dnieper River from Kherson in November, but still hold much of the province of the same name.

On Sunday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine and its Western allies of war crimes in connection with the shelling of two hospitals in Russian-held parts of Ukraine.

Russian officials said 14 people died Saturday when a hospital in the eastern Luhansk province settlement of Novoaidar was struck. They said shells also fell on the territory of a hospital in Nova Kakhovka, a Russian-occupied city in Kherson province where a strategically vital bridge across the lower reaches of the Dnieper is located.

“The deliberate shelling of active civilian medical facilities and the targeted killing of civilians are grave war crimes of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The lack of reaction from the United States and other NATO countries to this, yet another monstrous trampling of international humanitarian law by Kyiv, once again confirms their direct involvement in the conflict and involvement in the crimes being committed.”

Russian forces have shelled hundreds of hospitals and other medical facilities in Ukraine since the war began, reducing more than 100 of them to rubble, according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

Russian state TV aired footage of what it said was the damaged hospital in Novoaidar. It said rockets hit the pediatric department of the two-story building.

“There are no military factories here. There are no military vehicles, no tanks. Who did you shoot at?” Olga Ryasnaya said in an interview on Russian TV, which identified her as a pediatric nurse.

Luhansk province, where Novoaidar is located, is almost entirely under the control of Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Russian and separatist officials alleged the hospital was deliberately targeted. The movements of journalists are restricted in areas of Ukraine under Russian control.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukrainian forces were likely increasing strikes on Russian positions deep inside Luhansk province, closer to the Russian border, in an effort “to disrupt Russian logistics and ground lines of communication.” It said the strikes could be part of preparations for a future counteroffensive.

In another development, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Ukrainian tank crews have arrived in the U.K. to begin training on the Challenger 2 battle tank. The U.K. government has said it would send 14 of the tanks to Ukraine, which also was promised advanced battle tanks from the U.S., Germany and other European allies.

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Environmentalists Protest Airport Project Near Albanian Bird Sanctuary

Environmentalists protested over the weekend at the building site of a new airport in Albania’s south meant to boost tourism but which they say will endanger sanctuaries for some 200 bird species including flamingos and pelicans.

The picturesque Vjose-Narte lagoon close to Albania’s Adriatic seaside is a crucial stop for flocks of birds in their annual migration between Europe and Africa.

The government is building the airport just 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the Adriatic coast with pristine sandy beaches which the poor Balkan nation hopes will attract more foreign tourists.

“For those who think this airport will bring development, in reality this airport will bring only destruction,” tourist guide Alben Kola told Reuters on Saturday as he and more than 100 environmentalists and ornithologists held their protest.

The European Union, which Albania aims to join one day, has said the airport project, launched in December 2021 and due for completion at the end of 2024, was undertaken in contradiction with national and international laws on protecting biodiversity.

The committee of the Bern Convention that works to protect European wildlife and natural habitats has said Albania should suspend the construction of the airport.

“This shows that this nature wealth belongs not only to us but to the whole of Europe and foreign governments are doing more to protect it than we do,” said Joni Vorpsi, from the NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) that has been fighting for years to protect the lagoon.

In November an Albanian court rejected a lawsuit filed by local NGOs against the construction of the airport but they plan to appeal.

Vorpsi said the airport, which would serve the southern coastal city of Vlore, not only would destroy avian habitats but raise the risk of aircraft collisions with big birds.

The Swiss firm leading the project, Mabetex, has said the take-off and landing paths of planes there would not affect bird routes. It said the runway would be 3.5 kilometres from the bird sanctuary and 5 km away from major bird migration routes.

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French PM Says No Dice on Pension Age as Strikes Loom 

France’s prime minister on Sunday ruled out backtracking on a plan to raise the retirement age as unions prepared for another day of mass protests against the contested reform.

An increase in the minimum retirement age to 64 from the current 62 is part of a flagship reform package pushed by President Emmanuel Macron to ensure the future financing of France’s pensions system.

After union protests against the change brought out over a million people into the streets on January 19, the government signaled there was wiggle room on some measures, including the number of contributing years needed to qualify for a full pension, special deals for people who started working very young, and provisions for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children.

But the headline age limit of 64 was not up for discussion, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Sunday.

“This is now non-negotiable,” she told the FranceInfo broadcaster.

While unions have welcomed the government’s readiness for negotiation on parts of the plan, they say the proposed 64-year rule has to go.

Calling the reform “unfair” France’s eight major unions, in a rare show of unity, said they hoped to “mobilize even more massively” on Tuesday, their next scheduled protest day, than at the showing earlier this month.

‘Even more people’

“It’s looking like there will be even more people”, said Celine Verzeletti, member of the hard left union CGT’s confederation leadership.

Pointing to opinion polls, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said that “the people disagree strongly with the project, and that view is gaining ground.”

It would be “a mistake” for the government to ignore the mobilization, he warned.

Unions and the government both see Tuesday’s protests as a major test.

Some 200 protests are being organized countrywide, with a big march planned for Paris, culminating in a demonstration outside the National Assembly where parliamentary commissions are to start examining the draft law on Monday.

The leftwing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s allies are short of an absolute majority in parliament and will need votes from conservatives to approve the pensions plan.

The government has the option of forcing the bill through without a vote under special constitutional powers, but at the risk of triggering a vote of no confidence, and possibly new parliamentary elections.

In addition to protest marches, unions have called for widespread strike action for Tuesday, with railway services and public transport expected to be heavily affected.

Stoppages are also expected in schools and administrations, with some local authorities having already announced closures of public spaces such as sports stadiums.

Some unions have called for further strike action in February, including at commercial ports, refineries and power stations.

Some observers said the unions are playing for high stakes, and any slackening of support Tuesday could be fatal for their momentum.

“They have placed the bar high,” said Dominique Andolfatto, a professor of political science. “They can’t afford any missteps.”

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 UK Prime Minister Fires Conservative Party Chair

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has fired the chairman of the Conservative Party.

Sunak removed Nadhim Zahawi on Sunday, following an investigation into Zahawi’s personal taxes.

The prime minister said in a letter to Zahawi that “it is clear that there has been a serious breach of the Ministerial Code.”

Laurie Magnus, the independent adviser who conducted the investigation into Zahawi’s taxes, said in a letter to Sunak that Zahawi showed “insufficient regard” for the requirement “to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.  

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Burkina Rally Celebrate Word That French Troops Will Leave

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Saturday in support of the ruling junta, days after France confirmed its special forces there would withdraw, according to an AFP journalist at the rally.

Packing Nation Square in central Ouagadougou, protesters held signs bearing slogans including “Down with imperialism,” “Down with French policy in Africa” and “Forward for Burkina’s sovereignty.”

“We do not want any more foreign military bases on our soil,” Lazare Yameogo, spokesperson for the Inter-African Revolutionary Movement told the crowd. “We want respect and a win-win cooperation.

“We will remain on the lookout until Burkina Faso is liberated from Western imperialism,” he added.

Former colonial power France has special forces based in Ouagadougou, but its presence has come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows.

Paris confirmed this week that the troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadi insurgency, would leave within a month.

Anger within the military at the government’s failure to stem the insurgency, which has raged since 2015, fueled two coups in Burkina Faso last year.

Violence by insurgents linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group has killed thousands of people and forced around 2 million more to flee their homes.

Junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore was acting for the West African state’s sovereignty and “an army powerful enough to fight jihadists,” said Alassane Kouanda, head of an association backing the planned transition to civilian rule.

Some observers say the Burkinabe government’s request for France to withdraw its troops is reminiscent of the ideals of former president, left-wing anti-colonial hero Thomas Sankara.

A coalition of organizations supporting Sankara’s ideas welcomed “the complete liberation of our country from the yokes of Francafrique, imperialism and deadly capitalism,” using a term to describe French influence in its former African colonies.

Mahamadou Sawadogo, leader of the Burkina-Russia association, said during Saturday’s protest that there were “other opportunities for cooperation” in the fight against jihadis, notably from Moscow.

Some protesters on Saturday held Russian flags and giant posters of the leaders of Mali and Guinea, West African neighbors that, like Burkina Faso, are ruled by military juntas following coups.

Monique Yeli Kam, a former presidential candidate and a major figure in the anti-France movement, told AFP Burkina Faso’s turn toward Moscow and the Russian paramilitary group Wagner was “also a form of sovereignty.”

“The old powers tend to treat us like children by saying we don’t know how to choose,” but Burkina is now independent and able to act freely “according to our interests,” she said.

Turning away from France in favor of Russia in the anti-jihadi fight has not convinced all Burkinabe citizens.

“We demanded the French soldiers’ departure. Now that it’s done, we must not let in other imperialists,” said Ibrahim Sanou, a 28-year-old shop worker. “It’s up to us to take full responsibility because the fight for true independence in Burkina Faso begins now.”

Civil servant Desire Sanou added: “We must be ready to hold out to free the country from these hordes of terrorists. We don’t even need Wagner or other forces.”

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Paris Rallies Demand Freedom for Europeans in Iran

Families and friends of a growing number of Europeans imprisoned in Iran gathered in Paris Saturday to call for their release. 

The French government this week denounced the plight of seven French citizens held in Iranian prisons, calling the detentions “unjustifiable and unacceptable.” 

Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses. Many were convicted and sentenced after secretive trials in which rights groups said they were denied due process. 

Supporters and family members of four of the current French prisoners — Louis Arnaud, Fariba Adelkhah, Benjamin Briere and Cecile Kohler — held a solemn, silent rally for their release Saturday on a plaza overlooking the Seine River. 

The supporters said all were wrongly accused and some were in fragile physical or psychological health, or placed in isolation. “They are deprived of the most basic rights,” unable to contact loved ones, the supporters said in a statement. 

Arnaud was arrested September 28 as he was traveling in Iran as a tourist, according to France’s Foreign Ministry. Another prisoner, Bernard Phelan, was detained last year and is in need of medical care that is not being provided, according to the ministry. 

Earlier Saturday, dozens of people gathered in a park beneath the Eiffel Tower to show support for detained Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele. Vandecasteele, who worked for many years for aid group Doctors of the World, was arrested in Tehran in February 2022. Doctors of the World said the conditions of his detention were putting Vandecasteele’s life at risk. 

Most of the European prisoners were detained before the protests that have shaken Iran since September over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. Concerns about the detentions have grown as Iranian authorities have cracked down on the protesters. 

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Italy, Libya Sign $8B Gas Deal as PM Meloni Visits Tripoli

Italy’s prime minister held talks in Libya Saturday with officials from the country’s west-based government focusing on energy and migration, top issues for Italy and the European Union. During the visit, the two countries’ oil companies signed a gas deal worth $8 billion — the largest single investment in Libya’s energy sector in more than two decades.

Libya is the second North African country that Premier Giorgia Meloni, three months in office, visited this week. She is seeking to secure new supplies of natural gas to replace Russian energy amid Moscow’s war on Ukraine. She previously visited Algeria, Italy’s main supplier of natural gas, where she signed several memorandums.

Meloni landed at the Mitiga airport, the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, amid tight security, accompanied by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, her office said. She met with Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, who heads one of Libya’s rival administrations, and held talks with Mohamed Younis Menfi, who chairs Libya’s ceremonial presidential council.

At a roundtable with Dbeibah, Meloni repeated her remarks from Algeria, saying that while Italy wants to increase its profile in the region, it doesn’t seek a “predatory” role but wants to help African nations “grow and become richer.”

During the visit, Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s state-run energy company, ENI, signed an $8 billion deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields. NOC’s chairman Farhat Bengdara also signed.

The agreement involves developing two offshore fields in Block NC-41, north of Libya, and ENI said they would start pumping gas in 2026, and estimated reaching 750 million cubic feet per day, the Italian firm said in a statement. 

Meloni, who attended the signing ceremony, called the deal “significant and historic” and said it will help Europe securing energy sources.

“Libya is clearly for us a strategic economic partner,” Meloni said.

Agreement could compound tension

Saturday’s deal is likely to deepen the rift between the rival Libyan administrations in the east and west, like previous oil and military deals between Tripoli and Ankara. It has already exposed fractions within the Dbeibah’s government.

Oil Minister Mohamed Aoun, who did not attend the signing, criticized the deal on a local TV, saying it was “illegal” and claiming that NOC did not consult with his ministry.

Bengdara did not address Aoun’s criticism during his conference but said those who reject the deal could challenge it in court.

ENI has continued to operate in Libya despite ongoing security issues, producing gas mostly for the domestic market. Last year, Libya delivered just 2.63 billion cubic meters to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline — well below the annual levels of 8 billion cubic meters before Libya’s decline in 2011.

Instability increased domestic demand and underinvestment has hampered Libya’s gas deliveries abroad, according to Matteo Villa of the Milan-based ISPI think tank. New deals “are important in terms of image,” Villa said.

Also, because of Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Italy has moved to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas. Last year, Italy reduced imports by two-thirds, to 11 billion cubic meters.

Meloni is the top European official to visit oil-rich Libya since the country failed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. That prompted Libya’s east-based parliament to appoint a rival government after Dbeibah refused to step down.

Libya has for most of the past decade been ruled by rival governments — one based in the country’s east, and the other in Tripoli, in the west. The country descended into chaos following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising turned civil war that toppled and later killed longtime autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Piantedosi’s presence during the visit signaled that migration was a top concern in Meloni’s trip. The interior minister has been spearheading the government’s crackdown on charity rescue boats operating off Libya, initially denying access to ports and more recently, assigning ports in northern Italy, requiring days of navigation.

Patrol boats for migrants

At a joint news conference with Meloni later Saturday, Dbeibah said that Italy would provide five “fully equipped” boats to Libya’s coast guard to help stem the flow of migrants to the European shores.

Alarm Phone, an activist network that helps bring rescuers to distressed migrants at sea, criticized Italy’s move to provide the patrol boats.

“While this is nothing new, it is worrying,” the group said in an email to The Associated Press. “This will inevitably lead to more people being abducted at sea and forced to return to places they had sought to escape from.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said that Meloni needs to show “some kind of a step-up, compared to her predecessor in terms of migration and energy policy in Libya.”

But “it will be difficult to improve upon Rome’s existing western Libya tactics, which have been chugging along,” he said.

The North African nation has also become a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking to travel to Europe. Italy receives tens of thousands every year.

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Former Bulgarian PM Shares Details of Secret Deliveries of Bulgarian Ammo to Ukraine

A secret supply of Bulgarian-made ammunition made its way to Ukraine as early as last April and continues to arrive today.

It is not widely known that in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the urgently needed military supplies from Bulgaria were arriving in a clandestine operation through a network of intermediaries, and in large quantities.

The Bulgarian arms shipments made up about 30% of all ammunition deliveries, according to the Die Welt newspaper, and there were doubts they would continue when the Bulgarian parliament dismissed the government of then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov after a vote of no confidence on June 22.

According to the information provided by the former prime minister to VOA and confirmed in Ukraine’s Embassy in Sofia, the government collapse didn’t stop the Bulgarian-made weapons from arriving in Ukraine.

Petkov says that taking on corrupt interests and Russian influence inside the country, rather than the support for Ukraine, cost him his job. He and his party, “We Continue the Change,” plan to run for office in the next parliamentary elections on April 2.

Last November, the Bulgarian National Assembly voted to send military and technical aid to Ukraine, and in a written response to VOA from the Embassy of Bulgaria in the United States, the continuous Bulgarian support to Ukraine was confirmed.

“Bulgaria is united with its allies and partners, including the U.S., in providing security assistance, as well as humanitarian and energy support to Ukraine,” it said.

The position of the government coalition partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was the primary reason why Bulgaria hasn’t exported weapons to Ukraine directly.

VOA asked Korneliya Ninova, the BSP leader, for comment but hasn’t received any.

“I insist that Bulgaria has not supplied a single cartridge to Ukraine and whoever claims the opposite must show documents to prove it,” she told Die Welt. “For tens of years, we have been exporting arms to over 60 countries, and Bulgaria cannot control what they do with their assets.”

Neither Ukrainian nor Bulgarian officials, nor the U.S. Defense Department would disclose to VOA what kind of Bulgarian-made weapons went to Ukraine.

Additionally, as Die Welt uncovered, diesel fuel — refined from the oil supplied to Bulgaria from Russia and processed at the refinery owned by the Russian company Lukoil — went to Ukraine in massive quantities: up to 40% of all of the army’s diesel needs.

According to a Russian media report, Lukoil said it hadn’t supplied fuel from its plant in Burgas, Bulgaria, to Ukraine. However, it also reported that the company sold its products to about 500 wholesale buyers.

In early June, Bulgaria received an exemption from a European Union embargo on imports of Russian crude oil until the end of 2024 to allow the country’s processing facilities to adapt to alternative supplies. Currently, Bulgaria is the world’s third-largest purchaser of Russian oil, after China and India.

At the same time, Petkov’s government ended his country’s dependency on Russian gas, which had reached 95% of all gas supplies by early 2022.

While Bulgaria was the source of a critical number of weapons and diesel supplies to Ukraine, it was considered to be one of the most pro-Russian countries in the region. In April 2022, 44% of Bulgarians believed that NATO was responsible for the war in Ukraine, the highest among 16 European countries and Britain surveyed by YouGov, an international data research and analytics group.

This interview with Petkov has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: You attended the EU Council meeting in Brussels on February 25, and your minister attended an EU finance ministers meeting in Paris the next day. Can you provide details of what happened at these meetings?

Petkov: What was happening — rockets flying to Kyiv — nobody expected this to happen. Everybody was thinking maybe there was going to be a regional invasion in the East. We realized quickly that this would not be a minor conflict, not a regional one. It was a war that started in full force. We understood the more we in Europe act in a coordinated and swift manner, the more significant impact it would have.

Moreover, we realized — and President Zelenskyy spoke extremely well — how scary the situation was. The idea of de-Nazification that Russia used is extremely scary, and Bulgaria knows what it means. In 1944, they de-Nazified Bulgaria. It meant going and killing all the healthy forces in society.

Then, we had an initial idea of the sanctions: travel bans on [Vladimir] Putin, [and Sergey] Lavrov — more surface-type bans. At that point, we realized that one of the first things we could do together as Europeans was to freeze Putin’s war chest. We realized that some of his Central Bank reserves were in euro and U.S. bonds, and if we make them frozen and untradeable, they can’t use them to wage war in the full-fledged style as they saw it.

I went around the table and spoke to many of my colleagues, prime ministers and presidents, and said, ‘Listen, the first thing we can do is freeze the Central Bank reserves to the level we can.’ Some people were too scared because we are talking about hundreds of billions in reserves. I had a very positive reaction from the European Commission that evening, and from a few of the leaders I would not mention. But a few others said that’s a scary big thing; we need to assess how much it counts. One prime minister said, “Kiril, this evening, you spoke with more European leaders than your predecessor had spoken in 12 years.”

The next day the finance ministers’ meeting took place. Assen [Vasilev, Bulgarian finance minister at the time] made a passionate speech and said we have no time to waste. If President Zelenskyy is the first on the de-Nazification list, I’m sure the second on the list will certainly be his family. The third would be prominent members of society. He also compared these developments with similar ones in the history of Bulgaria. A few days later, the implementation of what was called colloquially in Brussels, the Bulgarian proposal, was announced.

VOA: How did the weapons deliveries begin?

Petkov: We were in a very delicate situation because, for the first time in Bulgaria, we had a four-party coalition that needed unprecedented coordination among parties with different ideologies. On one side, we had the right-wing Democratic Party. They would send everything to Ukraine immediately if it were up to them. They have very anti-Russian views because many of those people, their parents, were victims of the 1944 events. On the other side, we had the former Communist Party that had strong ties to Russia and wanted to ensure that we were not leading in this because we were too close to the war, which was too scary for Bulgaria. They said not a single bullet could go to Ukraine; otherwise, we would come out of the coalition, and the government would collapse.

I’m very fortunate and thankful that other NATO and EU countries decided we had these ammunitions. Of course, it fits with our understanding that they would buy directly from Bulgaria and give it free of charge to the Ukrainian army. It was the best of all worlds because, on one side, we could significantly contribute to helping the Ukrainian army. On the other side, the Ukrainian nation was not paying as much or at all. Thirdly, there were no direct exports from Bulgaria to Ukraine, which satisfied our coalition partner. I am sure she would have taken her support, and the government would fall that very second. That was the power of partnership, the power of NATO.

VOA: You are talking about Korneliya Ninova, a leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Did she know about that and support how the weapons were delivered?

Petkov: She had formal documents that indicated where the goods went. I don’t know what she knew and what she did not. However, she followed the formal procedure, saying that she would not sign a document that says “Ukraine.” Suddenly, the documents came to her that named the U.S. government, the U.K. government, Polish firms, and Romanian firms. We entirely fulfilled these criteria. I’m sure that she was not lying to her supporters; that if even a single document said “Ukraine,” she would have pulled her support.

We are proud that we met her criteria, were swift enough, and the Bulgarian industry worked hard to produce the volumes our NATO partners needed. Ukraine’s foreign minister came to Bulgaria; he was in dire need because there were not so many producers of Russian ammunition. As you know, much of the equipment of the Ukrainian army was based on this technology.

VOA: How long did it last? Your government collapsed in late June and stayed until early August.

Petkov: I think the Bulgarian government, even the interim government, continued with sales to Poland, the U.S., and so on. Now, in November, we made a parliamentary decision that we can officially send weapons directly to Ukraine. By then, everybody saw that the risk was low and other countries were doing this.

VOA: The weapons were delivered to Poland by cargo planes, which, I assume, was fine. Also, the trucks full of armaments were going through Romania and Hungary. Was the Hungarian government fine with that, and how much did they know?

Petkov: We should leave this to the history books because some of these politicians are still in power. Some people were helpful, and some people were not. We were working with the people who were helpful. The last thing I want to do is point fingers, especially now, because we need as much support and unity in Europe. After all, unfortunately, the war is continuing in a big way. One day when the war is over, we can write about it in our memoirs.

VOA: For this program to become operational quickly, Bulgaria would have already had a network of intermediaries?

Petkov: Yes. The U.S. government and the U.K. government were a major part of it. Some people in Bulgaria say we were using middlemen; people were making money out of it. I said if you call the Pentagon the middleman, we had a middleman. What made me happy was that later I learned from my Ukrainian colleagues that they received many of these items for free. It wasn’t like Bulgaria was making money out of Ukraine’s troubles. But we did make money. Two thousand Bulgarians worked at 100 percent capacity, these funds went for the local cities and made a big contribution to the economy.

VOA: Up to 40% of all the diesel Ukraine received in the early months of the invasion came from Bulgaria. Did Russians know and were OK with that?

Petkov: Yes, that’s pretty amazing to buy Russian oil, to refine it in Bulgaria, and send it north [to Ukraine]. That was a private business. I guess oil traders were buying from Lukoil and delivering to Ukraine. I don’t know how much Lukoil knew, but I know that the U.S. government knew what was happening and was in full support. Interestingly, we also asked for the sanctions exemption to continue buying Russian oil. Many of our critics said that this was pro-Russian policy to continue to buy oil from them. In reality, the refinery was working at full capacity during these months, and the local market was only 40 percent. So, 60 percent of it went for export. Is it a pro-Russian policy to use Russian oil to support Ukraine? I don’t think so.

Information from Politico, RIA Novosti, Bulgarian News Agency, See News,, and You.Gov was used in this report.

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Sweden Tells Citizens: Avoid Crowds in Turkey After Quran Burning

Sweden’s foreign ministry Saturday warned Swedes in Turkey to avoid crowds and demonstrations following protests there over the burning of the Quran by a far-right politician in Stockholm last week.

Turkey has suspended talks with Sweden and Finland on their applications to join NATO after the protest at which Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

Paludan’s actions have led to demonstrations in several Muslim countries as well as in Turkey.

“Swedes in Turkey are asked to stay updated on the development of events and to avoid large gatherings and demonstrations,” the foreign ministry said on its advice page for Swedes abroad.

“Continued demonstrations can be expected outside the embassy in Ankara and the consulate general in Istanbul in the coming days.”

After Paludan’s protest, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he supported freedom of speech.

“But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act,” Kristersson said on Twitter.

Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They need support from all 30 members of the Alliance. Turkey has said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt, in order for it to back NATO membership for the two Nordic countries. 

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Ex-General Wins Czech Presidential Election

ormer army chief Petr Pavel won the Czech Republic’s presidential election on Saturday after a campaign featuring strong backing for NATO and the European Union and support for aid to Ukraine.

Pavel, a 61-year-old retired general running for office for the first time, was set to win more than 58% of the vote with nearly all voting districts having reported, defeating billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis, a dominant but polarizing force in Czech politics for a decade.

Pavel, who had campaigned as an independent and gained the backing of the center-right government, conveyed a message of unity and calm in society when addressing his election headquarters at a Prague concert venue Saturday as results showed he had won.  

“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” Pavel told supporters and journalists. “I am convinced that these values are shared by the vast majority of us, it is worth us trying make them part of our lives and also return them to the Prague Castle and our politics.”

Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties, but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.

Pavel will take office in March, replacing outgoing Milos Zeman, a divisive figure himself over his two terms in office over the past decade who had backed Babis as his successor.

Zeman had pushed for closer ties with Beijing and with Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine, and Pavel’s election will mark a sharp shift.

Babis, 68, a combative business magnate who heads the biggest opposition party in parliament, had attacked Pavel as the government’s candidate. He sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government to do more to help them.

Babis and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory Saturday.

Clear outcome

The result of the election will only become official when published in a legal journal Tuesday, but the outcome of the poll was already clear Saturday.

Pavel has backed keeping the central European country of 10.5 million firmly in the European Union and NATO military alliance— and supports the government’s continued aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.

He is a backer of adopting the euro, a topic that successive governments have kept on the back burner, and supports gay marriage and other progressive policies.

A career soldier, Pavel joined the army in Communist times, was decorated with a French military cross for valor during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and later rose to lead the Czech general staff and become chairman of NATO’s military committee for three years before retiring in 2018.

“I voted for Mr. Pavel because he is a decent and reasonable man and I think that the young generation has a future with him,” said Abdulai Diop, 60, after voting in Prague Saturday.

Babis had campaigned on fears of the war in Ukraine spreading. He offered to broker peace talks while suggesting Pavel, as a former soldier, could drag the Czechs into a war, a claim Pavel rejected.

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UN Weekly Roundup: Jan. 21-27, 2023 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this week, as seen from the United Nations’ perch.

UN deputy chief says Taliban’s desire for recognition is bargaining chip on rights

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said Wednesday that the international community’s best leverage to persuade the Taliban to reverse restrictions on Afghan women’s rights is the group’s desire for international recognition. She told reporters that the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are discussing holding a conference in March in the region on women in the Muslim world. Mohammed led a high-level U.N. delegation to Afghanistan this past week.

Nuclear watchdog warns Iran has enough material for several nuclear bombs

International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Rafael Grossi warned Tuesday that Iran has accumulated “enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.” Grossi told the European Parliament’s security and defense subcommittee in Brussels that his agency is no longer monitoring Iran’s nuclear program because the regime has disconnected 27 of the agency’s cameras installed at its declared nuclear sites. Grossi said he plans to travel to Tehran, Iran, next month.

No progress on international force for Haiti

The U.N. and the government of Haiti reiterated their appeal Tuesday for an international force to quickly deploy to the island nation to help subdue an unprecedented level of gang violence that has terrorized the population. In early October, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed a request from the Haitian government to send a force to address escalating insecurity and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

2023 global economic forecast looks gloomy

U.N. economists forecast a gloomy and uncertain outlook this year, with the global economy projected to grow at a very sluggish rate. The 2023 World Economic Situation and Prospects report, issued Wednesday, says a series of severe shocks have reduced global economic output to its lowest level in years, leaving many economies at risk of falling into recession. In good news, the authors say inflation appears to have peaked in some of the more advanced economies, and East and South Asia emerged as the report’s bright spots for growth.

Myanmar poppy production grows since military coup

A report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says Myanmar’s farmers are flocking back to opium poppy cultivation amid rising prices for the contraband crop and an economic decline that is wiping out jobs, reversing nearly a decade of poppy decreases. Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, and the main source for most of East and Southeast Asia. UNODC says many people have resorted to poppy cultivation because jobs and investment have dried up following the military coup two years ago.

In brief

— U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is on a mission to Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya this week to advance joint priorities following December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Her tour is focused on regional security issues, food insecurity, humanitarian issues, and supporting African efforts to mitigate climate change, a senior administration official said.

— This week, World Food Program Chief David Beasley is in Syria, where he raised the alarm on unprecedented levels of hunger. He said 12 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from, while an additional 2.9 million are at risk of sliding into hunger. Overall, due to conflict, COVID-19 and an economic crisis, 70% of the population might soon be unable to feed their families.

— The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a report released Friday that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria’s Air Forces perpetrated a chemical weapons attack on April 7, 2018, in Douma, Syria. The OPCW said at least one helicopter of the Syrian “Tiger Forces” elite unit dropped two yellow cylinders containing toxic chlorine gas on two apartment buildings in a residential area of Douma, killing at least 43 people and affecting dozens more. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric condemned the use of chemical weapons and said, “it is imperative that those who use chemical weapons are identified and held accountable.”

Quote of note

“You have to remember that what happened before the Taliban came back was a huge amount of hope, and an expression of that hope with many women who got an education, who were in decision-making roles, who were leaders in Afghanistan, and now that’s dashed. And when that happens, the anxiety and the level of fear amongst women and their future is huge, it’s palpable.”

— U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to reporters on the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban​

What we are watching next week

February 1 marks two years since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, leading to protests and a crackdown on human rights. Since the coup, leaders and thousands of pro-democracy protesters have died or been jailed, and the humanitarian situation has worsened.

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