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3 Chinese Astronauts Return to Earth After 6-Month Mission

Three Chinese astronauts landed in a northern desert on Sunday after six months working to complete construction of the Tiangong station, a symbol of the country’s ambitious space program, state TV reported.

A capsule carrying commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down at a landing site in the Gobi Desert in northern China at approximately 8:10 p.m. (1210 GMT), China Central Television reported.

Prior to departure, they overlapped for almost five days with three colleagues who arrived Wednesday on the Shenzhou-15 mission for their own six-month stay, marking the first time China had six astronauts in space at the same time. The station’s third and final module docked with the station this month.

The astronauts were carried out of the capsule by medical workers about 40 minutes after touchdown. They were all smiles, and appeared to be in good condition, waving happily at workers at the landing site.

“I am very fortunate to have witnessed the completion of the basic structure of the Chinese space station after six busy and fulfilling months in space,” said Chen, who was the first to exit the capsule. “Like meteors, we returned to the embrace of the motherland.”

Liu, another of the astronauts, said that she was moved to see relatives and her fellow compatriots.

The three astronauts were part of the Shenzhou-14 mission, which launched in June. After their arrival at Tiangong, Chen, Liu and Cai oversaw five rendezvous and dockings with various spacecraft including one carrying the third of the station’s three modules.

They also performed three spacewalks, beamed down a live science lecture from the station, and conducted a range of experiments.

The Tiangong is part of official Chinese plans for a permanent human presence in orbit.

China built its own station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs’ close ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

With the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 mission, the station expanded to its maximum weight of 100 tons.

Without attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons — a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station retires by around the end of the decade as expected.

China in 2003 became the third government to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

China has also chalked up uncrewed mission successes: Its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon. Its Chang’e 5 probe also returned lunar rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

Officials are reported to be considering an eventual crewed mission to the moon, although no timeline has been offered.

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Russian Public Support Dropping for War on Ukraine – British Defense Ministry 

The British Defense Ministry says a recent poll shows Russian public support for the war on Ukraine is dropping.

In its Sunday morning intelligence update the ministry said an independent Russian media outlet has claimed access to data collected by Russia’s Federal Protective Service that indicates 55% of Russians favor peace talks with Ukraine, while only 25% say they support continuing the war. In April 2022 some 80% of Russians were reported as supporting the invasion of Ukraine.

 

The ministry says that, “With Russia unlikely to achieve major battlefield successes in the next several months, maintaining even tacit approval of the war amongst the population is likely to be increasingly difficult for the Kremlin.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said capping the price of Russian seaborne oil at $60 a barrel is not aggressive enough to squeeze the Russian economy that funds its invasion in Ukraine.

The price cap was agreed to by Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the European Union, but the Ukrainian leader called Saturday for a much lower one.

“The logic is obvious,” he said. “If the price limit for Russian oil is $60 instead of, for example, $30, which Poland and the Baltic countries talked about, then the Russian budget will receive about $100 billion a year.”

“This money,” he said, “will go not only to the war and not only to Russia’s further sponsoring of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will also be used to further destabilize precisely those countries that are now trying to avoid big decisions.”

The West believes such a significant reduction in price could undercut the cost of Russian oil production.

“We think the number at $60 a barrel is appropriate” to balance limiting Moscow’s ability to profit and ensuring supply meets demand, said John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, on Friday, adding that the cap can be adjusted.

The cap proposed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen aims to reduce Russia’s oil earnings, which support its military and the invasion of Ukraine.

The price cap takes effect on Monday, which coincides with the European Union’s embargo on most Russian oil shipments. It’s uncertain how all of this will affect oil markets, which are swinging between fears of lost Russian supply and weakening demand caused by the lagging global economy. Russia could retaliate by halting shipments, and Europe may struggle to replace imports of Russian diesel fuel.

OPEC+, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, meets Sunday to review its production targets. Reuters says four OPEC+ sources have told it there will be no change in planned oil supplies.

For its part, Russia rejected the price cap and threatened to turn off the oil spigot on the coalition of Western countries that endorsed the cap.

“We will not accept this ceiling,” Tass quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Saturday.

The Russian embassy in Washington said Saturday it will continue to find buyers for its oil, despite what it called “dangerous” attempts by the West to introduce a price cap on its oil exports.

“Steps like these will inevitably result in increasing uncertainty and imposing higher costs for raw materials to consumers,” it said.

Shelling resumes

Russia has resumed shelling the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. And officials warned of a tough winter as Russian strikes target energy infrastructure.

“Russian invaders shelled Kherson — damaged power grids. The city was left without electricity again,” Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Telegram, adding that technicians were already working to restore power to the recently liberated city on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

Officials in Kherson have announced they will help citizens evacuate parts of Russian-occupied territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River amid concerns of intensified fighting in the area.

Since Russia’s retreat from Kherson, Ukrainian forces could advance south through the fields of the Zaporizhzhia region to recapture occupied territory and repel the invaders, according to The Washington Post.

Their aim would be to control the land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea. Their counteroffensive must wait, though, until the cold sets in and the muddy ground freezes.

Meanwhile, the world should expect “the reduced tempo in fighting in Ukraine to continue in coming months,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, noting she sees no evidence of a reduced will to resist on the part of the Ukrainian forces.

Assessing Putin

In Kyiv Saturday, Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is not serious about peace talks with Ukraine at this time. She commented after meeting with Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials.

“Whether it’s the energy attacks, whether it’s the rhetoric out of the Kremlin and the general attitude, Putin is not sincere or ready for that,” she said.

Russia and the United States have both said this week they are open to talks in principle, though U.S. President Joe Biden said he would only talk to Putin if he showed true interest in ending the war.

Ukraine says negotiations are possible only if Russia stops attacking and pulls out its troops.

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

 

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UK Arrests Wealthy Russian as Police Target Putin Enablers

British authorities have arrested a wealthy Russian businessman on suspicion of money laundering, amid efforts to disrupt potential criminal activity by oligarchs and others linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The National Crime Agency said more than 50 officers from a specialized unit raided the suspect’s multimillion-pound home in London on Thursday, seizing several digital devices and a “significant” amount of cash. The man was not named.

“The NCA’s Combatting Kleptocracy Cell, only established this year, is having significant success investigating potential criminal activity by oligarchs, the professional service providers that support and enable them and those linked to the Russian regime,” agency director general Graeme Biggar said in a statement Saturday. “We will continue to use all the powers and tactics available to us to disrupt this threat.”

The arrest comes as Britain works with the United States, European Union and other countries to choke off the flow of money to Putin’s regime following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.K. has imposed sanctions on more than 1,300 individuals and entities, including 120 wealthy business leaders known as oligarchs, with worldwide assets estimated at more than $160 billion, according to the British government.

The businessman targeted in Thursday’s raid was arrested on suspicion of money laundering, conspiracy to commit perjury and conspiracy to defraud the Home Office, the government agency responsible for immigration and law enforcement.

A 35-year-old man who works at the suspect’s residence was also arrested after he was seen leaving the property with a bag containing thousands of dollars in cash, the agency said. A third man, 39, who is the former boyfriend of the businessman’s current partner, was arrested at his home in the Pimlico area of west London on suspicion of offenses including money laundering and conspiracy to defraud.

The NCA said the operation was part of its effort to disrupt the activities of corrupt international business figures and their enablers. Some 100 operations that remove or reduce a criminal threat have been carried out against elites linked to Putin, the agency said.

“The cell has also investigated and taken discreet action against a significant number of elites who impact directly on the U.K., as well as targeting less conventional routes used to disguise movements of significant wealth, such as high-value asset sales via auction houses,” the agency said.

In October, the NCA said it arrested another London-based businessman on suspicion of assisting a sanctioned Russian oligarch conceal his ownership of properties in the U.K.

The agency said that it has worked with law enforcement agencies around the world to “target illicit wealth held abroad,” helping them freeze assets including numerous properties, eight yachts and four aircraft. 

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Fighting Slows, Ukrainian Will to Resist Does Not, US Intelligence Chief Says

U.S. intelligence expects the reduced tempo in fighting in Ukraine to continue in the next several months and sees no evidence of a reduced Ukrainian will to resist, despite attacks on its power grid and other critical winter infrastructure, the director of national intelligence said Saturday.

“We’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict … and we expect that’s likely to be what we see in the coming months,” Avril Haines told the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California.

She said both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries would be looking to try to refit and resupply to prepare for a counteroffensive in after the winter, but there was a question as to what that would look like, and added:

“We actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that. I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”

Asked about the effects of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and other civilian infrastructure, Haines said Moscow’s aim was partly to undermine the will of Ukrainians to resist and added: “I think we’re not seeing any evidence of that being undermined right now at this point.”

She said Russia was also looking to affect Ukraine’s capacity to prosecute conflict and added that Kyiv’s economy had been suffering very badly.

“It can over time, obviously, have an impact. How much of an impact will be dependent on how much they go after, what they’re capable of doing, the resilience of that critical infrastructure, our capacity to help them defend it,” she said.

“Ukraine’s economy is suffering very badly. It’s been devastating, and … obviously taking down the grid will have an impact on that as well,” she added.

Haines said she thought Russian President Vladimir Putin had been surprised that his military had not accomplished more.

“I do think he is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia. But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture at this stage of just how challenged they are … we see shortages of ammunition, for morale, supply issues, logistics, a whole series of concerns that they’re facing.”

Haines said Putin’s political objectives in Ukraine did not appear to have changed, but U.S. intelligence analysts thought he may be willing to scale back his near-term military objectives “on a temporary basis with the idea that he might then come back at this issue at a later time.”

She said Russia appeared to be using up its military stockpiles “quite quickly.”

“It’s really pretty extraordinary, and our own sense is that they are not capable of indigenously producing what they are expending at this stage,” she said.

“That’s why you see them going to other countries effectively to try to get ammunition … and we’ve indicated that their precision munitions are running out much faster in many respects,” she added.

Haines said the United States had “seen some movement” in supplies of munitions from North Korea, “but it’s not been a lot at this stage.”

She said Iran had supplied Russia with drones and Moscow was looking for other types of precision munitions from Tehran, something that would be “very concerning in terms of their capacity.”

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Estonia to Buy US Rocket Artillery System in $200M Deal 

NATO member and Russia’s neighbor Estonia is boosting its defense capabilities by acquiring an advanced U.S. rocket artillery system in the Baltic country’s largest arms procurement project ever, defense officials said Saturday.

The deal signed Friday for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is worth more than $200 million and includes equipment such as ammunition and rockets, as well as training.

The package includes HIMARS rockets with ranges of 70-300 kilometers (43-186 miles), the Estonian Center for Defense Investment said in a statement. Lockheed Martin Corp. is expected to make the first deliveries in 2024. Estonian officials didn’t disclose the number of rocket launchers, but local media outlets said the purchase consists of six HIMARS.

“The HIMARS multiple rocket launchers are a new important step in the development of Estonia’s defense capabilities,” Lt. Col. Kaarel Mäesalu, head of the capability development department at the Estonian Defense Forces said in a statement. “This makes it possible to decisively influence the enemy even before coming into contact with our infantry units.”

Estonia’s Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania either have or are currently in the process of acquiring their own HIMARS.

Washington has provided Ukraine with the rocket launchers during Russia’s invasion of the country. The Estonian Defense Ministry said the HIMARS systems “have helped to destroy Russian military ammunition warehouses, transport nodes, and command and control centers with pinpoint accuracy beyond the range of the howitzers Ukraine has been using.”

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Russia Rejects G7 Oil Price Cap

Russia is rejecting a price cap of $60 a barrel on Russian oil imposed by the Group of Seven and its allies, TASS quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Saturday. “We will not accept this ceiling.”

Russia threatened to turn off the oil spigot on the coalition of Western countries that endorsed the cap.

Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the United States and the 27-nation European Union agreed Friday to set the price for Russian oil at $60-per-barrel. The limit will take effect Monday.

The Russian Embassy in Washington said Saturday it will continue to find buyers for its oil, despite what is called “dangerous” attempts by the West to introduce a price cap on its oil exports.

“Steps like these will inevitably result in increasing uncertainty and imposing higher costs for raw materials to consumers,” it said.

The cap proposed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen aims to reduce Russia’s oil earnings that support its military and the invasion of Ukraine. But there are questions about how effective the cap will be.

The Monday start date coincides with the European Union’s embargo on most Russian oil shipments. There’s uncertainty about how all this will affect oil markets, which are swinging between fears of lost Russian supply and weakening demand caused by the lagging global economy. Russia could retaliate by halting shipments, and Europe may struggle to replace imports of Russian diesel fuel.

Ukraine calls for lower price cap

The office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, called Saturday for an even lower price cap.

“It would be necessary to lower it to $30 [per barrel] in order to destroy the enemy’s economy faster,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelenskyy’s office, wrote on Telegram, staking out a position also favored by Poland — a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The West feels that such a reduction in price could undercut the cost of Russian oil production.

“We think the number at $60 a barrel is appropriate” to balance limiting Moscow’s ability to profit and ensuring supply meets demand, John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said Friday, adding that the cap can be adjusted going forward.

Russia has resumed shelling the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. Officials warned that Ukraine faces a tough winter because of the Russian strikes on its energy infrastructure.

“Russian invaders shelled Kherson — damaged power grids. The city was left without electricity again,” Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Telegram, adding that technicians were already working to restore power to the recently liberated city on the right bank of the Dnipro River.

Officials in Kherson announced they will help citizens evacuate parts of Russian-occupied territory on the east bank of the Dnipro River amid concerns of intensified fighting in the area.

After Russia’s retreat from Kherson, Ukrainian forces may consider advancing south through the fields of the Zaporizhzhia region to recapture occupied territory and repel the invaders, according to The Washington Post.

Their aim would be to control the land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea. Their counteroffensive must wait, though, until the cold sets in and the muddy ground freezes.

A hardened ground would allow their military vehicles to gain more traction. It’s common for some heavy artillery vehicles to get stuck in mud during warmer weather.

Russia prioritizes Bakhmut

Meanwhile, Russia is investing a large amount of its “over all military effort and firepower,” the British Defense Ministry said Saturday, along a “15-kilometer sector of entrenched front line around the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut” in Ukraine.

“Russia has prioritized Bakhmut as its main offensive effort since early August 2022,” the ministry said in its daily update posted on Twitter. “The capture of the town would have limited operational value although it would potentially allow Russia to threaten the larger urban areas of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk,” according to the report.

However, the defense ministry said, “The campaign has been disproportionately costly” and “Bakhmut’s capture has become a symbolic, political objective for Russia.”

Zelenskyy said in his daily address Friday he and his staff have been working all week “at various levels in European capitals in order to gain a critical mass of support for the launch of a special tribunal – a tribunal on Russian aggression … I am sure that there will be a tribunal, there will be justice” for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden has “no intentions” at present of holding negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ending the war in Ukraine, a day after Biden appeared to make a conditional offer to talk to his Russian counterpart.

“We’re just not at a point now where talks seem to be a fruitful avenue to approach right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Friday.

When asked about those comments Friday, Kirby noted that Biden said Putin has yet to show any interest in talking.

“Putin has shown absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind. In fact, quite the contrary,” Kirby said.

“The president wasn’t at all indicating that now is the time for talks,” said Kirby. “In fact, he has been consistent that only [Ukrainian] President Zelenskyy can determine if and when there’s going to be a negotiated settlement and what the circumstances around that settlement would look like.”

The Kremlin said Friday that Putin is ready for negotiations with the West — provided the West recognizes Russia’s “new territories” taken from Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests.”

Also Friday, Putin spoke on the phone with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Scholz is quoted as telling Putin “there must be a diplomatic solution as quickly as possible, which includes a withdrawal of Russian troops.”

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

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White House Says Biden Not Intending to Talk to Putin

The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden has “no intentions” at present of holding negotiations with President Vladimir Putin about ending the war in Ukraine, a day after Biden appeared to make a conditional offer to talk to his Russian counterpart.

“We’re just not at a point now where talks seem to be a fruitful avenue to approach right now,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Friday.

At a news conference Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden said, “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. He hasn’t done that yet.”

Biden’s comments appeared to be a cautious diplomatic overture from the White House.

When asked about those comments Friday, Kirby noted that Biden said Putin has yet to show any interest in talking.

“Putin has shown absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind. In fact, quite the contrary,” Kirby said.

“The president wasn’t at all indicating that now is the time for talks. In fact, he has been consistent that only (Ukrainian) President Zelenskyy can determine if and when there’s going to be a negotiated settlement and what the circumstances around that settlement would look like,” Kirby said.

The Kremlin said Friday that Putin is ready for negotiations with the West — provided the West recognizes Russia’s “new territories” taken from Ukraine.

In a statement, the Kremlin said the West must accept Putin’s proclamation that the southern region of Kherson and three other partly occupied regions of Ukraine now belong to Russia, before any talks can take place. Russia’s invasion has been condemned as illegal by most countries.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests.”

Also Friday, Putin spoke on the phone with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Scholz is quoted as telling Putin “there must be a diplomatic solution as quickly as possible, which includes a withdrawal of Russian troops.”

For his part, Putin accused “Western states, including Germany,” of making it possible for Kyiv to refuse to negotiate with Russia.

“Attention was drawn to the destructive line of Western states, including Germany, which are pumping the Kyiv regime with weapons and training the Ukrainian military,” the Kremlin said.

In a written statement, Scholz’s spokesperson said, “the chancellor condemned in particular the Russian airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed Germany’s determination to support Ukraine ensuring its defense capability against Russian aggression.”

Speculation about negotiations to end the war has increased as Moscow’s military advances in Ukraine have stalled and in some cases been turned back. Russia’s missile strikes against Ukraine’s power infrastructure have left millions of Ukrainians without power, heat and water as winter sets in.

President Biden has not spoken with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine. Last March, Biden called Putin “a war criminal.”

On Thursday, France announced its support for creating a special tribunal to try those accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Russia’s foreign ministry said Friday it was “outraged” by France’s position.

“We demand that French diplomats, who are so attentive to human rights issues, not divide people into ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘ours’ and ‘not ours,'” the foreign ministry said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the EU would try to set up a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute possible war crimes committed by Russia during its invasion.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and other war crimes.

U.N.-appointed investigators are examining whether Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, leaving millions without heating as temperatures plummet, amount to war crimes, a member of the inspection team said Friday.

Fierce fighting continued Friday in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Ukraine’s military said it fought off wave after wave of Russian attacks.

Kyiv said Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements, while carrying out 30 airstrikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian areas.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.”

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.”

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions [exacerbated by these logistics challenges] is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.”

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

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US Designates Iran, China as Countries of Concern Over Religious Freedom

The United States on Friday designated China, Iran and Russia, among others, as countries of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act over severe violations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

In a statement, Blinken said those designated as countries of particular concern, which also include North Korea and Myanmar, engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam were placed on the watch list.

Several groups, including the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization that is active in Syria, Africa and Ukraine, also were designated as entities of particular concern. The Wagner Group was designated over its activities in the Central African Republic, Blinken said.

“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” Blinken said in the statement. “The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”

He added that Washington would welcome the opportunity to meet with all governments to outline concrete steps for removal from the lists.

Washington has increased pressure on Iran over the brutal crackdown on protesters. Women have waved and burned headscarves, which are mandatory under Iran’s conservative dress codes, during the demonstrations that mark one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

The United Nations says more than 300 people have been killed so far and 14,000 arrested in protests that began after the September 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini after she was detained for “inappropriate attire.”

U.N. experts also have called on majority Shiite Muslim Iran to stop persecution and harassment of religious minorities and to end the use of religion to curtail the exercise of fundamental rights.

The Baha’i community is among the most severely persecuted religious minorities in Iran, with a marked increase in arrests and targeting this year, part of what U.N. experts called a broader policy of targeting dissenting beliefs or religious practices, including Christian converts and atheists.

The United States has expressed grave concerns about human rights in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is home to 10 million Uyghurs.

Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps.

The United States has accused China of genocide. Beijing vigorously denies any abuses.

The other countries designated as countries of particular concern were Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The U.S. Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president, who assigns the function to the secretary of state, to designate as countries of particular concern states that are deemed to violate religious freedom on a systematic and ongoing basis.

The act gives Blinken a range of policy responses, including sanctions or waivers, but they are not automatic.

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European Security Organization Faces Existential Crisis at Meeting

A security organization born in the Cold War to maintain peace in Europe ended a high-level meeting Friday without a final resolution, underlining the existential crisis it is facing amid Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The war launched by one member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe against another has created hurdles for the 57-nation group. It makes decisions based on the consensus of all members, which rendered it impossible for the vast majority that condemn the war to get through a final resolution opposing Russia’s aggression.

Running through the two-day meeting of foreign ministers and other representatives, the OSCE’s first such high-level meeting since the Feb. 24 invasion, was the question of how it can continue to function without consensus from Russia and its ally Belarus, which say they have been unfairly isolated.

“I have no doubts that in the next few years it will be extremely difficult for this organization to deliver on its mandate,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said at a concluding news conference. Poland currently holds the organization’s rotating chair.

The problems facing the organization predate the war. Russia has hampered decisions on budgets, senior appointments and other critical work for years.

The Vienna-based OSCE has a wide-ranging mission to protect peace, with a strong emphasis placed on human rights in addition to arms control and other military security issues. The organization is best known to the public for its role in monitoring elections.

But it has struggled amid a real war. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the organization evacuated its staff members working on a peace mission in Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists in the east had fought Ukrainian forces for the previous eight years.

Three Ukrainian employees remain “unlawfully detained” by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine since April, OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid said Friday.

Still, Schmid argued that the organization was “not paralyzed” and said it was finding ways to work around Russia’s obstruction, for instance by using a donor-funded program to do demining work and to help survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine.

Notably absent from the conference was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was banned from entering Poland because he is on a European Union sanctions list. Lavrov spent 40 minutes of a news conference in Moscow on Thursday complaining about his exclusion as the meeting opened in Lodz, Poland.

North Macedonia is set to take over chairing the OSCE in 2023. Bujar Osmani, the country’s foreign minister, said that despite all the obstacles he would not declare this week’s meeting a failure.

It “took place against the backdrop of an all-out war in Europe, unprecedented circumstances since this organization has been established,” Osmani said, adding that many participants agreed the OSCE was needed, especially now.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the OSCE’s recent meeting had been vital for showing a united front against Russia, and that the organization was finding “creative ways” to get around Russian vetoes.

“Of course, this has been the most difficult year for the OSCE since it was founded, but in my view, it was also the most important year,” she told reporters in Berlin Friday, after returning from Poland.

The OSCE was established in 1975 and became a platform for dialogue during the Cold War.

Some members were critical of Poland for banning Lavrov from the meeting in Lodz and voiced hope that North Macedonia’s chairmanship next year will create new openings for dialogue in the organization.

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