Belarus Targets Journalists, Activists with Mass Raids

Authorities in Belarus raided the homes of dozens of journalists and activists Wednesday, according to a human rights group, in what appeared to be the biggest one-day crackdown on dissent in the past three months.

Independent journalists, human rights advocates and activists in at least nine large Belarusian cities had phones and computers seized during the searches and were interrogated, the Viasna human rights center reported.

In the capital, Minsk, authorities targeted 10 people accused of funding anti-government protests and spreading information deemed extremist.

Some 300 chats on the popular messaging app Telegram have been designated extremist by authorities, and users of those chats can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison, if charged and convicted.

Freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova said she was brought in for questioning after an hours-long search of her home in Gomel, a city 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Minsk. Shchyrakova used to work with the Belsat TV channel, which authorities in Belarus have declared extremist.

“I was being pressured to confess to funding the protests, but I refused to incriminate myself,” Shchyrakova told The Associated Press by telephone. “They took my phone, audio and video equipment, which was still in my home after the two previous raids.”

Activists and journalists in Brest, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Grodno, Mazyr and other cities experienced similar raids and detentions on Wednesday. Leaders of regional branches of the United Civil Party, the oldest opposition party in Belarus, in Gomel and Rechytsa were targeted as well.

“The new wave of repressions shows that the authorities in Belarus don’t feel confident and are forced to tighten the screws because discontent in the country is growing,” party leader Anatoly Lebedko told the AP by phone from Vilnius.

“The situation with civic freedoms and human rights in Belarus is deteriorating rapidly, edging closer to the standards of North Korea,” Lebedko said.

The authoritarian leader of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, survived months of unprecedented mass protests prompted by his August 2020 reelection in a vote the opposition and Western countries denounced as a sham.

Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, with police arresting more than 35,000 and beating thousands.

Since last year’s election, Lukashenko’s government has shut down the majority of independent media outlets and rights groups.

According to human rights advocates, 889 political prisoners, including top opposition activists, remain behind bars in Belarus. 


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Blinken Warns Russia of ‘Serious Consequences’ if Russia Invades Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned his Russian counterpart Thursday of “serious consequences” if Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and appealed to him to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict between the Eastern European countries.

Blinken’s warning to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came before the two senior diplomats met in Stockholm and one day after Blinken declared the U.S. would “respond resolutely” to a Russian attack against Ukraine, “including with a range of high impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.”

“The best way to avert the crisis is through diplomacy, and that’s what I look forward to discussing with Sergei,” Blinken said during a media briefing before meeting with Lavrov.

Blinken said the U.S. would help Russia and Ukraine fulfill their obligations under a 2014 peace agreement aimed at ending the war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic. 

But “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” Blinken warned.

Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia was prepared for talks with Ukraine. “We, as President [Vladimir] Putin has stated, do not want any conflicts.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call in Moscow with reporters that Ukraine’s “aggressive and increasingly intensive provocative action” along the border with Russia raises concerns over a possible flare-up of hostilities.

“The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” Peskov said.

After Blinken’s meeting with Lavrov, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that Blinken “reiterated the United States’ call for Russia to pull back its forces and return to a peacetime posture and to adhere to the Minsk agreements and a ceasefire in the Donbas.”

A senior U.S. official told reporters the meeting was “serious, sober and business-like.” The official said no agreements were reached in the talks, but the two sides agreed to continue dialogue.

Blinken earlier expressed concern about what he called Russia’s “aggressive posture” toward Ukraine as he met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Kuleba said Ukraine would “continue to demonstrate restraint” while calling on allies to prepare potential actions that would make Russian President Putin “think twice before resorting to military force.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told members of the parliament Wednesday that direct negotiations with Russia were the only path to resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

Russia and Ukraine have each accused the other side of massing troops in the area along their shared border. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. 

Speaking Wednesday in Moscow, Putin said his government would seek guarantees against NATO’s further expansion to the east and precluding deployment of weapons systems near Russia’s borders.

Oleksandr Yanevskyy contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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US Calls on Russia to Cool Tensions with Ukraine 

A top U.S. defense official says Washington will not be alone if it needs to take action in response to Russia’s massive troop buildup along its border with Ukraine. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials, said Thursday that while he would not speculate on how Washington will respond to Russia’s provocations against Ukraine, Moscow should know the U.S. will not be alone. 

“Whatever we do will be done as a part of an international community,” Austin said during a news conference with his South Korean counterpart, further calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “lower the temperature in the region.” 

“The best case, though, is that we won’t see an incursion,” the U.S. defense secretary added, noting Russia’s “substantial” troop presence in the border areas is only part of the problem. 

“We also see troubling rhetoric, rhetoric in the info space,” Austin said. “We’ve heard President [Volodymyr]Zelenskiy expressed concern about efforts to undermine his administration.” 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with NATO counterparts in Latvia Wednesday, warned the U.S. was preparing to ratchet up economic sanctions against Moscow, if needed. 

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

Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later on Thursday in Stockholm. 

Ukrainian officials have said Russia has positioned at least 90,000 troops along the border and in Crimea, which Moscow seized illegally in 2014. 

But Russian officials have accused Ukraine of conducting its own military build up. 

Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin also repeated concerns about U.S. and NATO exercises in the Back Sea, and warned NATO against installing what he described as “strike systems” on Ukrainian soil. 

“What are we to do in such a scenario? We will have to then create something similar in relation to those who threaten us in that way,” he said at an investment forum in Moscow. “We can do that now.” 

Information from Reuters was used in this report. 

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Kurdish Family Laments Young Migrant Daughter Drowned in English Channel

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

Camera:  Ahmad Zebari 
Produced by:  Ahmad Zebari

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Blinken Warns Russia Invasion of Ukraine Will Have Consequences

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

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Putin Demands NATO Guarantees Not to Expand Eastward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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EU Leaders Consider Mandatory Vaccinations to Fight Omicron Variant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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