A sprawling disinformation network originating in Russia sought to use hundreds of fake social media accounts and dozens of sham news websites to spread Kremlin talking points about the invasion of Ukraine, Meta revealed Tuesday.
The company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it identified and disabled the operation before it was able to gain a large audience. Nonetheless, Facebook said it was the largest and most complex Russian propaganda effort that it has found since the invasion began.
The operation involved more than 60 websites created to mimic legitimate news sites including The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Instead of the actual news reported by those outlets, however, the fake sites contained links to Russian propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine. More than 1,600 fake Facebook accounts were used to spread the propaganda to audiences in Germany, Italy, France, the U.K. and Ukraine.
The findings highlighted both the promise of social media companies to police their sites and the peril that disinformation continues to pose.
“Video: False Staging in Bucha Revealed!” claimed one of the fake news stories, which blamed Ukraine for the slaughter of hundreds of Ukrainians in a town occupied by the Russians.
The fake social media accounts were then used to spread links to the fake news stories and other pro-Russian posts and videos on Facebook and Instagram, as well as platforms including Telegram and Twitter. The network was active throughout the summer.
“On a few occasions, the operation’s content was amplified by the official Facebook pages of Russian embassies in Europe and Asia,” said David Agranovich, Meta’s director of threat disruption. “I think this is probably the largest and most complex Russian-origin operation that we’ve disrupted since the beginning of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.”
The network’s activities were first noticed by investigative reporters in Germany. When Meta began its investigation it found that many of the fake accounts had already been removed by Facebook’s automated systems. Thousands of people were following the network’s Facebook pages when they were deactivated earlier this year.
Researchers said they couldn’t directly attribute the network to the Russian government. But Agranovich noted the role played by Russian diplomats and said the operation relied on some sophisticated tactics, including the use of multiple languages and carefully constructed imposter websites.
Since the war began in February, the Kremlin has used online disinformation and conspiracy theories in an effort to weaken international support for Ukraine. Groups linked to the Russian government have accused Ukraine of staging attacks, blamed the war on baseless allegations of U.S. bioweapon development and portrayed Ukrainian refugees as criminals and rapists.
Social media platforms and European governments have tried to stifle the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation, only to see Russia shift tactics.
A message sent to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for a response to Meta’s recent actions was not immediately returned.
Researchers at Meta Platforms Inc., which is based in Menlo Park, California, also exposed a much smaller network that originated in China and attempted to spread divisive political content in the U.S.
The operation reached only a tiny U.S. audience, with some posts receiving just a single engagement. The posts also made some amateurish moves that showed they weren’t American, including some clumsy English language mistakes and a habit of posting during Chinese working hours.
Despite its ineffectiveness, the network is notable because it’s the first identified by Meta that targeted Americans with political messages ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The Chinese posts didn’t support one party or the other but seemed intent on stirring up polarization.
“While it failed, it’s important because it’s a new direction” for Chinese disinformation operations, said Ben Nimmo, who directs global threat intelligence for Meta.
A Spanish court on Tuesday formally ordered Colombian superstar Shakira to stand trial on accusations that she failed to pay $14.31 million in income taxes, a court document released on Tuesday showed.
The ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ singer, 45, whose full name is Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll, rejected in July a deal to settle the case, which meant she would have to stand trial in a case that could see her sent to prison for eight years.
The Esplugues de Llobregat court on Tuesday confirmed the trial will go ahead on a date still to be announced.
The prosecutor is seeking an eight-year prison term for the singer, who is accused of failing to pay taxes between 2012 and 2014, a period in which she said she was leading a “nomadic life” because of her work.
“The order to send Shakira to trial is just another step in any proceedings of this kind. The situation has not changed and everything continues as normal. Shakira’s legal defense will do its job by presenting its written arguments at the appropriate time,” a statement from her lawyers said.
Shakira vowed last week to fight what she claimed were “false” accusations by Spanish authorities and added that she had already paid what the Spanish tax office said she owed before they filed a lawsuit.
Ukrainian female fighters who recently met with U.S. State Department officials and members of Congress said they witnessed war crimes committed by Russia during its war on Ukraine. During an interview with VOA, two Ukrainian warriors detailed personal stories and firsthand information on atrocities committed by Russian troops.
United Nations investigators have said there is evidence that Russian forces who invaded Ukraine in February 2022 committed war crimes. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine presented its findings on Friday, September 23, to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“They [Russian troops] use forbidden ammunitions like cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs that burn everything to the ground. It’s prohibited by all the civilized world,” Daria Zubenko, a senior sergeant in the Ukrainian armed forces, told VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching on Friday. “We know the facts of women being raped and even children.”
Russia has repeatedly dismissed accusations of abuses during its war on Ukraine.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to boost troop levels, recruiting civilians of fighting age into the military at a time when Russian armed forces are suffering significant losses.
Despite the buildup, “we don’t fear,” Yaryna Chornoguz, a Ukrainian combat medic and drone operator, told VOA. She added that Ukraine’s counteroffensive, with the new security assistance from the United States, has been making progress. “We believe we win them because of our new weaponry.”
Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an additional $457.5 million in civilian security assistance to boost capacity of Ukrainian law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. A portion of this new assistance will continue U.S. support for the Ukrainian government’s efforts to “document, investigate and prosecute atrocities perpetrated by Russia’s forces,” according to the State Department.
The following includes excerpts from the interviews, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Interview with Daria Zubenko
VOA: Can you please tell our audience your name?
Daria Zubenko: My name is Daria Zubenko. I’m a a senior sergeant of Ukrainian armed forces.
VOA: Which area in Ukraine are you from?
Zubenko: I was born in Chernihiv. It’s the north part of Ukraine. Mostly I lived in Kyiv, studied there and worked there.
VOA: What have you seen during the war?
Zubenko: I was in the armed forces officially since 2018. Before, I was a volunteer paramedic in 2015. I spent some time on the front line in 2015 around Mariupol region near Donetsk. I gave first aid. And then, after a break, I joined the official armed forces and became an instructor of sniper school.
With the full-scale invasion in the end of February, I took part in operations around Kyiv when there was war and combat battles around Kyiv region and also in Chernihiv region. I was in Irpin, I was in the village Moshchun that is north from Kyiv, where Russians were stopped. And then we had operations in Chernihiv region, going into the villages that have just been left by Russians.
I saw people coming out of their houses. When they saw Ukrainian troops and Ukrainian flags, they started crying and saying, ‘Thank you, boys and girls, finally you came.’ Most of them asked ‘Please make sure that Russians never come back.’
What those people have experienced is really horrible. We saw pictures of Bucha, Irpin and recently liberated cities like Izium, Kupyansk, and all these mass graves, all this evidence of people being tortured, captured and killed.
In [a] small village of Yahidne near Chernihiv, people spent about a month locked in the basement. Russian troops didn’t let them go out — there were about 200 people there in one place, with small children. The youngest child was 3 months old.
And there were some older people — none of them unfortunately could survive all of this. Some men were taken out of this basement and convoyed by Russians to the forest and shot. I saw women who just received the news about their husbands being killed — I felt ashamed that we just let this happen.
Russian (troops) don’t have any principles or any rules of war when dealing with civilians. That’s why we hope to liberate our cities and towns as soon as possible.
VOA: Today, the U.N. investigators said they found evidence of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Do you think it’s a valid finding?
Zubenko: It’s good that these crimes are being investigated. The evidence is found, gathered, and we can finally get some punishment to those who are doing that. For Russia, no international law ever worked.
We know the facts of women being raped and even children. We know evidence of people being killed (while) trying to evacuate. They (Russian troops) were shooting civilian cars. We know people have been captured and held somewhere in the basement and tortured.
VOA: Do you agree with the finding that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine?
Zubenko: Absolutely. We know, for example, they use forbidden ammunitions like cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs that burn everything to the ground. It’s prohibited by all the civilized world. But for Russia, it’s OK. We saw it with our own eyes. We just need the world to react properly and for Russia to be completely isolated.
Interview with Yaryna Chornoguz
VOA: Can you please tell our audience your name, and where on the front line you were fighting?
Yaryna Chornoguz: My name is Yaryna Chornoguz. I’m a soldier of Reconnaissance Battalion of Ukraine Marine Corps which belongs to Ukraine Defense Forces. I’m here right from the front line from the Donetsk Region. My battalion has been on the front lines during 13 months. We have seen plenty of towns, Donetsk region, Mariupol, Bakhmut, Sloviansk, and the others.
VOA: What have you seen during the war?
Chornoguz: First, when the war started, our battalion had been eight months on the rotation in [the] Luhansk region. And then at the end of February we were relocated to the Mariupol direction in order to reinforce our embattled forces there.
But when we came to the outskirts of Mariupol, it was already in battle. We tried to restrain the breakthrough in the Mariupol city to the north of Ukraine. And there, my battalion, we had really hard battles. I was on the observation post on the fuel road when we see a big long Russian tank column that moved on us and on the Ukrainian village and we had hard battles. My commander was killed.
I saw with my own eyes how Russian tanks destroyed and ruined villages of Ukrainians. During the first month of [Russia’s] full-scale invasion, I had a quite hard experience to help not only wounded soldiers because I’m a combat medic, but also a civilian.
I already told that story to the American news [outlets] about rescuing the boy age 10 from the basement and his mother with a 10-month [old] child in her hands. I just had this picture before my eyes when we took the boy in a blanket … to our military car and evacuated that village. Every day, it was bombed by cluster munitions by Russians.
What I can say now is that [the] HIMARS system, and the Howitzers that we got from the U.S. changed everything. They [Russian troops] came with such big forces, with such long tank columns and we managed to stop them. And I believe that we’ve made counteroffensive.
VOA: Thousands of Russians, men of fighting age, are fleeing the country after the partial mobilization [of civilians into the military] order from the government. What does that tell you?
Chornoguz: I can tell you that Ukrainians are joking about this conscription of Russians that Putin has announced. Because you know, for artillery that we got from our allies, and with our experience — it doesn’t matter whether it’s 10 occupants per square meters or whether it’s 100. It doesn’t matter. We believe we win them because of our new weaponry. We don’t fear.
French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Washington in early December for the first state visit of President Joe Biden’s tenure, an occasion marked by pomp and pageantry that is designed to celebrate relations between the United States and its closest allies.
The December 1 visit, following the U.S. midterm elections and the Thanksgiving holiday, will be the second state visit for Macron, who was first elected to lead his country in May 2017 and won a second term earlier this year. Macron also had a state visit during the Trump years.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced the visit Monday, saying it will “underscore the deep and enduring relationship with France, our oldest ally.” It will be the first time the White House has hosted a world leader for a state visit since the coronavirus outbreak.
The invitation comes as a sign that relations between Biden and Macron have come full circle. The relationship tanked last year after the United States announced a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. The decision by the U.S. undermined a deal that had been in place for France to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia.
After the announcement of the deal, which was born out of a new security agreement between the U.S., Australia and Britain, France briefly recalled its ambassador to Washington, Philippe Etienne, to Paris. Biden also sought to patch thing up with France by eventually acknowledging to Macron that his administration had been “clumsy” in how it handled the issue.
The Biden administration since has heaped praise on Macron for being among the most vociferous Western allies in condemning Russia’s 7-month-old war in Ukraine and pressing broad sanctions on the Russian economy and officials close to President Vladimir Putin.
Central to Biden’s pitch for the presidency was a vow to restore America’s global leadership after four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” worldview. But Biden has acknowledged that Macron and other allies remain skeptical about whether he can make good on robust U.S. leadership worldwide.
Biden is fond of telling the story of how, at a world leader meeting he attended soon after taking office, he declared that “America is back.” He says his counterparts, starting with Macron, countered by asking, “For how long?”
Macron also was the first world leader to earn a state visit under Trump, though their relationship later became fractious.
The French leader had sought to cultivate a close partnership with Trump and hosted the Republican in 2017 for Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. Trump reciprocated with Macron’s state visit.
But the relationship soured after Trump pulled U.S. troops from Syria without coordinating with France and other NATO allies. Trump disparaged NATO.
In one of their last face-to-face encounters, at a gathering of NATO leaders in London in 2019, Trump and Macron hardly hid their frustration with each other.
Not long before that meeting, Macron had complained that the alliance was suffering “brain death” caused by diminished U.S. leadership under Trump. Trump snapped back after a meeting with Macron that the French leader had made “very, very nasty” and “disrespectful” comments.
When Macron visited in April 2018, Trump and his wife, Melania, planned a double date with Macron and his wife, Brigitte, at Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of George Washington, America’s founding president.
The couples helped plant a tree on the White House lawn before they departed on a helicopter tour of monuments built in a capital city designed by French-born Pierre L’Enfant as they flew south to Mount Vernon, situated along the Potomac River. Macron was welcomed at the White House the next day with a booming 21-gun salute, his first Oval Office meeting with Trump, a joint news conference with the president and a state dinner for 150 guests in the White House State Dining Room.
Scott Morrison, then the prime minister of Australia, also came on a state visit at Trump’s invitation in September 2019. Trump had announced a third state visit, by Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, but it was postponed due to the pandemic and could not be held before Trump lost reelection in 2020.
President Barack Obama also afforded France the honor of a state visit, in 2014.
Obama and French President Francois Hollande celebrated ties between their nations by touring Monticello, the sprawling Charlottesville, Virginia, estate owned by Thomas Jefferson, the former U.S. president and famed Francophile. Jefferson was an early U.S. envoy to France.
Hollande’s visit was the first such recognition for France in two decades.
Denmark’s maritime authority said Monday that a gas leak had been observed in a pipeline leading from Russia to Europe underneath the Baltic Sea and that there is a danger to ship traffic.
The operator of Nord Stream 2 confirmed that a leak in the pipeline had been detected southeast of the Danish island Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.
The pipeline runs 1,230 kilometers (764 miles) from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. It is completed and filled with gas, but gas has never been imported through it, dpa reported.
The cause of the detected leak wasn’t immediately clear.
The Danish energy agency said in a statement that the country’s maritime authority has issued a navigation warning and established a five-nautical mile prohibition zone around the pipeline “as it is dangerous for ship traffic.”
The relevant authorities are currently coordinating the effort, and the Danish energy agency added that “outside the exclusion zone, there are no security risks associated with the leak.”
The incident is not expected to have consequences for the security of the supply of Danish gas, the country’s energy agency said.
A spokesman for the operator of Nord Stream 2 said a loss of pressure was detected in a tube early Monday, and the responsible marine authorities in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Russia were immediately informed, dpa reported.
While the pressure inside the pipeline is normally 105 bar, it is now only 7 bar on the German side, spokesman Ulrich Lissek said.
He fears that the pipeline, filled with 177 million cubic meters of gas, could run dry in the coming days, dpa reported.
It wasn’t immediately clear what consequences would follow from that, but a German environmental group said that the leaking gas isn’t toxic.
Deutsche Umwelthilfe pointed out that natural gas is methane, which partially dissolves in water and is not toxic. The deeper the gas is released in the sea, the higher the proportion that dissolves in the water, the group said, according to dpa.
Even in the event of an underwater explosion, there would only be local effects, Deutsche Umwelthilfe said.
The German economy ministry said it had been informed about the suspected site in Danish territorial waters and was in touch with the authorities in Germany and Denmark.
The pipeline was already complete when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suspended the certification of Nord Stream 2 on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, after Russia formally recognized two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
Germany has been heavily reliant on natural gas supplies from Russia, but since Moscow launched its war in Ukraine on Feb. 24, Berlin has been trying to look for other sources of energy.
The leak comes a day before the inauguration of a new pipeline, Baltic Pipe, which will bring Norwegian gas through Denmark to Poland. The Norwegian gas is meant to have an important role in replacing Russian gas.
President Vladimir Putin has granted Russian citizenship to former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, according to a decree signed by the Russian leader on Monday.
Snowden is one of 75 foreign nationals listed by the decree as being granted Russian citizenship. The decree was published on an official government website.
Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, has been living in Russia since 2013 to escape prosecution in the U.S. after leaking classified documents detailing government surveillance programs.
He was granted permanent residency in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship, without renouncing his U.S. citizenship.your ad here
The British pound has resumed a slide against the U.S. dollar that picked up pace last week after the U.K.’s new government outlined plans to cut taxes and boost spending.
The pound dipped as low as $1.0349 per U.S. dollar early Monday but then rebounded to $1.0671, down 2.3%.
The tax-cut plan has sparked concerns that increased public borrowing will worsen the nation’s cost-of-living crisis.
The British currency plunged over 3% on Friday. It’s trading at levels last seen in the early 1980s.
Other currencies have also weakened against the dollar as the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates to combat inflation. Japan’s central bank intervened last week to support the yen, slowing its decline against the dollar.
Treasury chief Kwasi Kwarteng announced the sweeping tax cuts that he said would boost economic growth and generate increased revenue without introducing corresponding spending reductions. He also said previously announced plans to cap soaring energy bills for homes and businesses would be financed through borrowing.
Kwarteng offered few details on the costs of the program or its impact on the government’s own targets for reducing deficits and borrowing, but one independent analysis expected it to cost taxpayers 190 billion pounds ($207 billion) this fiscal year.
The news triggered the pound’s biggest drop against the U.S. dollar since March 18, 2020, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first nationwide lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19.
The British currency closed at $1.0822 in London on Friday, from $1.1255 on Thursday.
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who took office less than three weeks ago, is racing to combat inflation at a nearly 40-year high of 9.9% and head off a prolonged recession. Facing a general election in two years, she needs to deliver results quickly.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that he had founded the Wagner Group private military company in 2014, the first public confirmation of a link he has previously denied and sued journalists for reporting.
The Wagner Group, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.
The press service of Prigozhin’s Concord catering firm posted his comments on the social network VKontakte in response to a request for comment from a Russian news site on why he had stopped denying his links to Wagner.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this. From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be called the Wagner Battalion,” Prigozhin said.
“I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country,” he said in the statement.
Prigozhin’s Concord catering firm confirmed to Reuters that the statement was genuine.
Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” due to his company’s Kremlin catering contracts, has been sanctioned by the United States and European Union for his role in Wagner.
They also accuse him of funding a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency that Washington says tried to influence U.S. elections.
Prigozhin has previously sued outlets including investigative website Bellingcat, Russian news site Meduza and now-shuttered radio station Echo of Moscow for reporting his links to Wagner.
Wagner was founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and started providing support to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Italian voters rewarded Giorgia Meloni’s euroskeptic party with neo-fascist roots, propelling the country toward what likely would be its first far-right-led government since World War II, based on partial results Monday from the election for Parliament.
In a victory speech, far-right Italian leader Giorgia Meloni struck a moderate tone after projections based on votes counted from some two-thirds of polling stations showed her Brothers of Italy party ahead of other contenders in Sunday’s balloting.
“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone, we will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people (of this country),” Meloni said at her party’s Rome headquarters.
“Italy chose us,” she said. “We will not betray (the country) as we never have.”
Meloni on track to be a first
The formation of a ruling coalition, with the help of Meloni’s right-wing and center-right allies, could take weeks. If Meloni, 45, succeeds, she would be the first woman to hold the country’s premiership.
The mandate to try to form a government is given by Italy’s president after consultations with party leaders.
Meanwhile, former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, whose government collapsed two months ago, stays on in a caretaker role.
Differences among Meloni’s potential coalition partners could loom.
She has solidly backed the supplying of Ukraine with arms to defend itself against Russia’s invasion. In contrast, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, who before the war was a staunch admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has voiced concern that Western sanctions could end up hurting Italy’s economic interests more than punishing Russia’s.
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, another long-time Putin admirer, has said that his inclusion in a center-right bloc’s coalition would guarantee that Italy stays firmly anchored in the European Union and one of its most reliable members.
With Italy’s households and businesses struggling with staggeringly high energy bills as winter approaches, Meloni has demurred from Salvini’s push to swell already-debt-laden Italy by tens of billions of euros for energy relief.
What kind of government the eurozone’s third-largest economy might be getting was being closely watched in Europe, given Meloni’s criticism of “Brussels bureaucrats” and her ties to other right-wing leaders. She recently defended Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.
After opinion polls in the run-up to the vote indicated she would be headed to victory, Meloni started moderating her message of “God, homeland and family” in an apparent attempt to reassure the European Union and other international partners, worried about euro-skepticism.
“This is the time for being responsible,” Meloni said, appearing live on television and describing the situation for Italy and the European Union is “particularly complex.”
She promised more detailed comments later on Monday. In her campaign, she criticized European Union officials as being overly bureaucratic and vowing to protect Italy’s national interests if they clash with EU policies.
Projections based on votes counted from nearly two-thirds of the polling stations in Sunday’s balloting indicated Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party would win some 25.7% of the vote.
That compared to some 19.3% by the closest challenger, the center-left Democratic Party of former Premier Enrico Letta. Salvini’s League was projected to win 8.6% of the ballots, roughly half of what he garnered in the last 2018 election. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, appeared headed to win 8%.
Meloni’s meteoric rise in the European Union’s third-largest economy comes at a critical time, as much of the continent reels under soaring energy bills, a repercussion of the war in Ukraine, and the West’s resolve to stand united against Russian aggression is being tested. In the last election, in 2018, Meloni’s party took 4.4%
A “lesson in humility”
Fellow euroskeptic politicians were among the first to celebrate. French politician Marine Le Pen’s party also hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” to the EU.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that “millions of Europeans are placing their hopes in Italy.” Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”
Nearly 64% of eligible voters deserted the balloting, according to the Interior Ministry. That is far lower than the previous record for low turnout, 73% in 2018.
Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office, and that appeared to have alienated many voters, pollsters had said.
Meloni’s party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly after the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign alliance. Meloni was buoyed by joining campaign forces with Salvini and Berlusconi.
The Democrats went into the vote at a steep disadvantage since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with the left-leaning populists of the 5-Star-Movement, the largest party in the just-ended legislature.
Headed by former Premier Giuseppe Conte, the 5-Stars appeared headed to a third-place finish, with some 16% of the vote. Had they joined forces in a campaign agreement with the Democrats, their coalition would have roughly taken the same percentage of Meloni’s alliance.
The election Sunday came six months early after Draghi’s pandemic unity government, which enjoyed wide citizen popularity, collapsed in late July after the parties of Salvini, Berlusconi and Conte withheld support in a confidence vote.
Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in the opposition, refusing to join Draghi’s unity government or the two previous coalitions led by Conte.
A billowing column of dark smoke towered over Paris Sunday from a warehouse blaze at a massive produce market that supplies the French capital and surrounding region with much of its fresh food and bills itself as the largest of its kind in the world.
Firefighters urged people to stay away from the area in Paris’ southern suburbs, as 100 officers and 30 fire engines battled the blaze at the Rungis International Market.
Capt. Marc Le Moine, a representative for the Paris fire service, said no one was injured. The fire was brought under control and there was no risk of it spreading from the soccer field-sized warehouse, covering an area of 7,000 square meters (1.7 acres), he said.
The cause of the blaze was unknown but will be investigated, he added.
The sprawling wholesale market is a veritable town unto itself, with more than 12,000 people working there and warehouses filled with fruit and vegetables, seafood, meats, dairy products and flowers from across France and around the world.
A right-wing alliance led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party looks set to win a clear majority in the next parliament, exit polls said Sunday after voting ended in an Italian national election.
An exit poll for state broadcaster RAI said the bloc of conservative parties, that also includes Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, won between 41% and 45% of the vote, enough to guarantee control of both houses of parliament.
Italy’s electoral law favors groups that manage to create pre-ballot pacts, giving them an outsized number of seats by comparison with their vote tally.
Full results are expected by early Monday.
If confirmed, the result would cap a remarkable rise for Meloni, whose party won only 4% of the vote in the last national election in 2018, but this time around was forecast to emerge as Italy’s largest group on 22.5%-26.5%.
As leader of the biggest party in the winning alliance, she is the obvious choice to become Italy’s first woman prime minister, but the transfer of power is traditionally slow, and it could take several weeks before the new government is sworn in.
Meloni, 45, plays down her party’s post-fascist roots and portrays it as a mainstream conservative group. She has pledged to support Western policy on Ukraine and not take undue risks with the third largest economy in the eurozone.
Italy’s first autumn national election in over a century was triggered by party infighting that brought down Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s broad national unity government in July.
Italy has a history of political instability, and the next prime minister will lead the country’s 68th government since 1946 and face a host of challenges, notably soaring energy costs and growing economic headwinds.
The outcome of the vote was also being watched nervously in European capitals and on financial markets, given the desire to preserve unity in dealings with Russia and concerns over Italy’s daunting debt mountain.
The new, slimmed-down parliament will not meet until Oct. 13, at which point the head of state will summon party leaders and decide on the shape of the new government.
Several thousand people protested in Moldova’s capital Sunday for the second straight weekend to demand the resignation of the country’s pro-Western government amid mounting anger over spiraling natural gas prices and inflation.
The small east European nation, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has seen political tensions rise in recent months as gas prices soar following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A Reuters reporter estimated the crowd at about 5,000 outside the official residence of President Maia Sandu — slightly smaller than last Sunday’s gathering.
Protesters chanted “Down with Maia Sandu,” and “Down with the government.”
The rallies are the largest since Sandu won a landslide election victory in 2020 on an anti-corruption platform but pose no immediate threat to the president and her administration.
Sandu has repeatedly condemned Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and is pushing for membership of the European Union, which has provided the ex-Soviet state with considerable assistance.
Her critics charge she should have negotiated a better gas deal with Russia, Moldova’s main supplier.
On Friday, Moldova’s gas regulator raised prices by 27% for households.
The protests have been organized by the opposition party of Ilan Shor, an exiled businessman convicted of fraud in connection with a $1 billion bank scandal. The chief suspect in that fraud, business magnate Vlad Plahotniuc, is also outside Moldova, his whereabouts unknown.
Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita said she was focused on helping those with low incomes.
“The problems of the country and its people will not be solved on the streets,” she wrote on the point.md news site. “We are trying to solve the problems of people most in need.” Protesters have vowed to hold weekly rallies until Sandu and her government leave office.
An encampment of about 100 tents remains around Moldova’s parliament and Sunday protesters set up another dozen tents outside the president’s residence.
Nearly 800 people have been detained in Russia as protests against the country’s partial military mobilization continue in cities across the country.
As of Sunday, at least 796 people had been detained in 33 cities, with almost half of the total reported in the capital, Moscow, according to OVD-Info.
The human rights group, which monitors political arrests and detentions in Russia, said that some of those detained in the crackdown on dissent following this week’s military call-up were minors.
The demonstrations erupted within hours after President Vladimir Putin on September 21 announced the partial military mobilization, which is intended to buttress Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine.
Russian police have been mobilized in cities where protests were called for by the opposition group Vesna and supporters of opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
Images on Russian media have shown scenes of police using force against demonstrators, and eyewitnesses have said that the number of protesters have diminished since the first rallies. Many young men detained during the protests have reportedly been summoned to register for military service.
The call-up came as Russian forces suffered significant losses of occupied territories in Ukraine’s east owing to a counteroffensive launched by the Ukrainian military.
Putin followed up on his mobilization order on September 24 by imposing harsher penalties against Russians who willingly surrendered to Ukrainian forces or refused orders to mobilize.
Russian officials have said that up to 300,000 reserve forces will be called up and that only those with relevant combat and service experience will be drafted to fight.
However, Russian media reports have surfaced that men who have never been in the military or who are past draft age are being called up, and foreign media have reported that the real goal is to mobilize more than 1 million soldiers, which the Kremlin denies.
Western officials say that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, accounting for both deaths and injuries, since it launched its unprovoked war in Ukraine in February.
The mobilization to replenish those losses has seen men across Russia sent to register, reports of Russian citizens attempting to flee the country, and even rare complaints by pro-Kremlin voices.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-backed media outlet RT, wrote on her Telegram channel on September 24 that while it had been announced that only people up to the age of 35 would be recruited, “summonses are going to 40-year-olds.”
“They’re infuriating people, as if on purpose, as if out of spite,” Simonyan said of the authorities behind the draft.
The same day, the head of the president’s Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, called on Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put a halt to the manner with which many draft boards in the country were proceeding.
On September 25, two of Russia’s most senior lawmakers weighed in on the growing controversy.
In a Telegram post, Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, said that she was aware of reports that men who should be ineligible for the draft are being called up.
“Such excesses are absolutely unacceptable. And, I consider it absolutely right that they are triggering a sharp reaction in society,” she wrote.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, wrote in a separate post that “complaints are being received.”
“If a mistake is made, it is necessary to correct it,” he said. “Authorities at every level should understand their responsibilities.”
Pope Francis traveled to southern Italy on Sunday to close out an Italian church congress that coincided with Italy’s national election, and delivered a message that hit on key domestic campaign issues including immigration.
Neither Francis nor his hosts referred to the vote during the open-air Mass, though Italy’s bishops conference had earlier urged Italians to cast ballots in the eagerly watched election that could bring Italy its first far-right government since World War II.
At the end of the outdoor Mass in Matera, Francis spoke off the cuff asking Italians to have more children. “I’d like to ask Italy: More births, more children,” Francis said.
Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and Francis has frequently lamented its “demographic winter.”
Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, who campaigned on a “God, family and homeland” mantra, has also called for Italy to reverse its demographic trends by proposing bigger financial incentives for couples to have children.
Francis also weighed in on a perennial issue in Italy, recalling that Sunday coincided with the Catholic Church’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Francis called for a future in which “God’s plan” is implemented, with migrants and victims of human trafficking living in peace and dignity, and for a more “inclusive and fraternal future.”
He added: “Immigrants are to be welcomed, accompanied, promoted and integrated.”
Meloni and her center-right alliance have vowed to resume a strict crackdown on migrants coming to Italy via Libyan-based smugglers. The center-left Democratic Party has among other things called for an easier path to citizenship for children of newcomers.
The Mass was celebrated by a protege of Francis, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who is head of the Italian bishops’ conference and has a long affiliation with the Sant’Egidio Community, a Rome-based charity known for its outreach to migrants and the poor.
The 85-year-old Francis appeared tired during the visit, which was scheduled before Italy’s snap elections were called and came a day after he made a separate day trip to the Umbrian hilltop town of Assisi. Francis has been using a cane and wheelchair this year, due to strained knee ligaments that make walking and standing difficult.
His trip to Matera, the southern Basilicata city known for its cave dwellings, underwent a slight, last-minute change due to storms that belted much of the Italian peninsula overnight: Originally scheduled to fly by helicopter Sunday morning from the Vatican’s helipad, Francis instead flew to Matera by jet from Rome’s Ciampino airport.
The Italians voted Sunday in an election that could move the country’s politics sharply toward the right during a critical time for Europe, with war in Ukraine fueling skyrocketing energy bills and testing the West’s resolve to stand united against Russian aggression.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500GMT) and by noon turnout was equal to or slightly less than at the same time during Italy’s last general election in 2018. The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after they close at 11 p.m. (2100 GMT), with projections based on partial results coming early Monday morning.
Publication of opinion polls is banned in the two weeks leading up to the election, but polls before that showed far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, with its neo-fascist roots, the most popular. That suggested Italians were poised to vote their first far-right government into power since World War II. Close behind was former Premier Enrico Letta and his center-left Democratic Party.
“Today you can help write history,” Meloni tweeted Sunday morning.
Letta, for his part, tweeted a photo of himself at the ballot box. “Have a good vote!” he wrote.
Meloni is part of a right-wing alliance with anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time premier who heads the Forza Italia party he created three decades ago. Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign coalitions, meaning the Democrats are disadvantaged since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.
If Meloni becomes premier, she will be the first woman in Italy to hold the office. But assembling a viable, ruling coalition could take weeks.
Nearly 51 million Italians were eligible to vote. Pollsters, though, predicted turnout could be even lower than the record-setting low of 73% in the last general election in 2018. They say despite Europe’s many crises, many voters feel alienated from politics, since Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office.
Early voters in Rome expressed concerns about Italian politics as a whole.
“I hope we’ll see honest people, and this is very difficult nowadays,” said Adriana Gherdo, at a polling station in the city.
In Milan, voter Alberto Veltroni said he thought the outcome was still anyone’s guess.
“I expect that these will be difficult elections to read, to understand, with unexpected votes as opposed to the polls ahead of elections,” he said.
The election in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is being closely watched in Europe, given Meloni’s criticism of “Brussels bureaucrats” and her ties to other right-wing leaders — she recently defended Hungary’s Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.
Elections are being held six months early after Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government collapsed in late July. Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, saw no alternative but to have voters elect a new Parliament.
Opinion polls found Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, hugely popular. But the three populist parties in the coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure. Their leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing Parliament, saw Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs slipped.
Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy in the opposition, refusing to join Draghi’s unity government or Conte’s two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote.
She further distanced herself from Salvini and Berlusconi with unflagging support for Ukraine, including sending weapons so Kyiv could defend itself against Russia. Her nationalist party champions sovereignty.
Before Russia’s invasion, Salvini and Berlusconi had gushed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the final days of the election campaign, Salvini criticized Russian atrocities in Ukraine but Berlusconi raised eyebrows by saying Putin merely wanted to put “decent” people in government in Kyiv after pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas complained they were being harmed by Ukraine.
Many factories in Italy face cutbacks — some already have reduced production — and other business might close as they struggle with gas and electricity bills reaching 10 times higher than a year ago. The major candidates, despite their political leanings, agreed on the urgency for a EU-wide price cap on energy prices, or failing that, a national one.
Draghi, who remains in a caretaker role until a new government is sworn in, had for months already pressed EU authorities in Brussels for the same remedy.
Haitian Italian designer Stella Jean returned to the Milan runway after a two-year hiatus with a tour de force that highlighted the talents of 10 new designers of color whose design history is tied to Italy.
Jean pledged in 2020 not to return to Milan Fashion Week, which opened Wednesday, until she was not the only Black designer. The We Are Made in Italy movement she founded with Black American designer Edward Buchanan and Afro Fashion Week Milano founder Michelle Ngomno ensured she would not be.
Maximilian Davis, a 27-year-old British fashion designer with Afro-Caribbean roots, is making his debut as the creative director for Salvatore Ferragamo. Filipino American designer Rhuigi Villasenor is bringing Bally back to the runway for the first time in 20 years. Tokyo James, founded by British Nigerian designer Iniye Tokyo James, is presenting a women’s-only collection.
Jean is headlining a runway show with Buchanan and five new We Are Made in Italy designers, including a Vietnamese apparel designer, an Italian Indian accessory designer and an African American bag designer. It is the third WAMI group to present their collections in Milan.
“We are making ourselves felt,” Jean told The Associated Press. “We invited all these young people. We created the space. There have been gains.”
Buchanan opened the show with jersey knitwear with a denim feel from his Sansonvino 6 line, followed by capsule collections by the latest group of Fabulous Five WAMI designers, and Jean’s creations combining Italian tailoring with artisanal references she sources around the globe.
Each of the new WAMI designers share a connection with Italy, either through family or by relocating to study or work here.
Italian Indian designer Eileen Claudia Akbaraly showed her Made for a Woman brand that makes ethically sourced raffia garments and accessories from Madagascar. New York-based designer Akila Stewart founded the FATRA bag brand that works with reused plastic waste. India-born Neha Poorswani designs shoes under the name “Runway Reinvented.” Vietnamese designer Phang Dang Hoang’s apparel line mixes Asian and Western cultures, and Korean designer Kim Gaeun’s Villain brand combines elements of traditional Korean costumes mixed with modern hip-hop culture.
“There are so many Italians who are not Italians, who are immigrants who feel Italian. I think that is so beautiful,” Stewart said.
The show closed on a celebratory note, with the models, designers and activists gathered on the runway, clapping and swaying to Cynthia Erivo’s song Stand Up.
Both Trussardi and Vogue Italia have used WAMI’s database of fashion professionals of color who are based in Italy, although the listings have not been employed as industrywide as the founders hoped. One of the designers from the first WAMI class, Gisele Claudia Ntsama, has worked in the design office at Valentino.
Giorgio Armani, who helped launch Stella Jean in 2013, pitched in with textiles for the new WAMI capsule collections to be displayed here. Conde Nast and European fashion magazine nss are helping to fund their production. The three WAMI founders are covering the rest from their own pockets after the fashion council offered a venue for the show but limited funding compared with previous seasons.
Ngonmo said Italian fashion houses too often confuse diversity — such as showcasing Black models — with true inclusivity, which would involve employing professionals in the creative process.
“I have a feeling they don’t understand at all what diversity means. They tend to confuse diversity with inclusion,” she said.
Buchanan said he holds on to his optimism but acknowledged that the post-pandemic market is difficult as stores are not investing in collections by new designers.
“We knew going into this that this was going to be a slow grow,” Buchanan said. “Working with the designers, we have to be transparent about what is ahead of them. … They are not going to be Gianni Versace tomorrow.”
Jean noted that the new designers for major fashion brands did not come up through the Italian system but from abroad. Despite the progress, she and her collaborators still see some resistance to hiring people of color in creative roles and to the idea that “Made in Italy” can involve homegrown Black talent.
“It is more glamorous to have someone from the outside,” she said.
Jean said she is also waiting for the Italian fashion council to follow through on an invitation to create a multicultural board within its structure. She said she feels the initial industry embrace of the diversity project has cooled.
“None of us believed the totality of the promises. Now we are entering a territory that we know well, when people feel free and comfortable not to maintain promises. It is obvious,” Jean said.
As for her future: “I am at a crossroads,” the designer said. “My traveling companions are outside the door that I was allowed to enter. For a while, being the only one in the room, you feel special. But when you see that many of those who are still outside the door are better than you, you understand that you were not special. You were very lucky.”
Russia’s foreign minister has dismissed Ukrainian and Western condemnation of what they say are sham referenda in four regions of Ukraine.
“The hysteria which we have seen is very telling,” Sergey Lavrov told a news conference at the United Nations on Saturday, after he addressed the General Assembly’s annual meeting.
Voting began Friday and will run through Tuesday in the provinces of Luhansk, Kherson and the partially Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions. Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those areas could vote.
In Ukraine, some local officials said voters were being intimidated and threatened.
Kyiv and Western nations warn that the referenda are aimed at annexing the occupied areas and denounce them as a violation of international law.
“As was said by President Putin, we will unconditionally respect the results of these democratic processes,” Lavrov said.
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and has requested that the U.N. Security Council meet Tuesday to discuss the escalation.
The referenda were quickly organized after Ukraine recaptured large swaths of the northeastern part of the country in a counteroffensive earlier this month.
By annexing the four areas into Russia, Western officials fear Moscow could portray Ukrainian military operations to retake them as an attack on Russia itself, potentially even using that to justify a nuclear response.
Calls for peace
At the United Nations, Russia’s strategic partners urged an end to the conflict, which has exacerbated global food, fuel and financial crises.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said Beijing does not want to see the crisis “spilling over” and called for talks.
“The fundamental solution is to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture,” he said.
India’s foreign minister said his country respects the U.N. Charter and sees dialogue and diplomacy as the “only way out.”
“It is therefore in our collective interest to work constructively, both within the United Nations and outside, in finding an early resolution to this conflict,” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.
Asked about engaging with the U.S. or Europeans, Russia’s Lavrov says his government is not opposed to it.
“We aren’t saying no to contacts,” he said, adding that “it is always better to talk than not to talk.” But he emphasized that in the present situation, Russia would not take the first step.
The head of a U.N. commission of inquiry said Friday that war crimes including rape, torture and the confinement of children have been committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
“Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” commission head Erik Mose told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He did not specify who was to blame, but the commission has focused on areas previously occupied by Russian forces, such as Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.
Investigators from the commission, created by the rights council in March, visited 27 places and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses.
In New York, the Russian foreign minister has said mass graves at Bucha were staged and claimed Saturday that Kyiv had denied access to foreign reporters to alleged new graves found in the city of Izium.
But VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze is in Izium, where she reported from a mass graveyard that more than 400 bodies were unearthed, many found with their hands tied behind their backs, ropes around their necks, broken bones and gunshot wounds.
Meanwhile, an independent Russian human rights group says more than 1,000 people were detained across the country at demonstrations Saturday for protesting President Vladimir Putin’s order calling up 300,000 military reservists to fight in Ukraine. It is Russia’s first military call-up since World War II.
The independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group said it was aware of detentions in 32 different cities, from St. Petersburg to Siberia. Unsanctioned rallies are illegal under Russian law, which also forbids any activity considered to defame the armed forces.
Footage from the some of the protests showed Russian officers carrying men and leading women to police vans.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed information to this report.
What had been a lightning push by Ukraine to drive Moscow’s forces from the eastern Kharkiv region slowed to a brutal slog Saturday, stalled by heavy rain and Russian resistance.
In the frontline town of Kupiansk against a background of constant shelling noise a column of dark smoke rose across the Oskil River, which separates the Ukrainian-held west bank from the east, still disputed by Russian forces.
“For now, the rain is making it difficult to use heavy weapons everywhere. We can only use paved roads,” Ukrainian army sergeant Roman Malyna told AFP, as tanks and APCs maneuvered under the downpour.
“For now, because it’s hard to move forward due to the weather, we are targeting their armored vehicles, ammunition depots and groups of soldiers,” he said.
On Friday, Kupiansk’s military administrator Andriy Kanashevych told AFP that it might take Ukrainian forces 10 days to fully secure the area.
Most of the shellfire on Saturday was outgoing — Ukrainian artillery targeting Russian positions in the woods beyond the east of the town — but with a Russian drone spotted overhead tension prevailed.
A few refugees were walking toward Ukrainian territory across the damaged bridge, its handrails still painted in the red, white and blue colors of Kupiansk’s former Russian occupiers.
Two Ukrainian soldiers, well-equipped with U.S.-style assault rifles and body armor, and in good spirits despite fatigue and concern over the Russian drone buzzing above the debris-strewn road, also crossed back.
One of them, using the nom de guerre “Mario,” said it was too soon to say when the east bank would come completely under Ukrainian control but was confident the Russians were in retreat.
“Only their bodies will be left behind,” he said.
“In general, it’s all good, taking into account the scale of the operation, we’ve had almost no losses,” he told AFP.
Most of Kupiansk, a key rail hub once used by Russia to supply its forces further south on the Donetsk battlefront, fell to Ukraine in this month’s counterattack against the invader.
But a narrow strip of the Kharkiv region on the east side of the Oskil River remains in Russian hands and prevents Ukraine from pushing on into the Lugansk region, which Moscow holds and is seeking to annex.
“Yes, we have enough weapons and men, but it depends on what happens on the other side,” Sergeant Malyna said, referring to the Russian forces.
“They are trying to find the weak points in our defensive line. So, they try to attack us from time to time using tanks and marines.
“Our morale is good. We are ready to fight, but we need more heavy weapons and more precision weapons,” he said, repeating a common Ukrainian appeal for more advanced arms from Kyiv’s Western allies.
While the fighting continues, many civilians have fled a town that is without electricity and running water, and where shells whistle overhead.
Some, however, have nowhere to go and are reliant on food aid deliveries.
Civilians still cluster around portable generators in the doorways of five-story concrete apartment blocks as the rain courses down, charging tablets, flashlights and razors.
Most say they are glad that Ukrainian forces returned to free the town from Russian occupation, but the ongoing fighting has taken a toll.
Retired trapeze artist Lyudmila Belukha, 74, once performed for the Soviet-era Moscow Circus.
“I traveled across the entire Soviet Union and abroad, too,” she said.
A widow — her late husband was a fellow circus performer — she lives alone in a Kupiansk housing estate.
Her sister has moved to Greece, while she has been without news of her nephew, who lives on the eastern bank of the river, for months.
“I’m at home alone, with my cats. Absolutely alone. My kitchen and balcony windows are broken. I need plastic wrap to fix them because it will be getting cold. I’m freezing,” she said.
She was picking up a food parcel from humanitarian volunteers and said she was not starving, but: “We have no water, no gas, and no electricity. Nothing. There’s no way to even boil water for tea.”
The United Nations reports the human rights situation in Belarus has seriously deteriorated as the government seeks to maintain control over its people, stripping them of their civil and political rights.
The report, submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, finds the climate of repression continues throughout Belarus two years after Alexander Lukashenko was reelected for a sixth term as president in a vote considered rigged by the country’s opposition. The anger over the election’s outcome that sparked large-scale protests at that time has not subsided.
Since her office’s last update in March, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif said there has been a massive crackdown on civil society in Belarus. She said the media, political opponents, trade unions and other perceived dissidents have been prevented from exercising their democratic and human rights.
She said more than 1,300 political prisoners currently are behind bars. She noted that authorities continue imprisoning and torturing people for exercising their human rights, including their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“No genuine and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and cases of deaths are being conducted,” Al-Nashif said. “On the contrary, we continue to receive credible reports of authorities harassing and intimidating those seeking justice in relation to such allegations, including relatives of victims, further undermining the rule of law and the judicial system.”
Al-Nashif expressed particular concern about amendments to Belarus’ Criminal Code. She said they extend the death penalty to people attempting to carry out so-called acts of terrorism and murders of government officials or public figures. She noted that dozens of political activists already have been charged with such crimes.
“Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee to neighboring countries,” she said. “The crackdown’s human rights impacts, particularly on women, children, and persons with disabilities, are of specific concern. There are also reports of seizures of assets, and unlawful evictions of relatives of those who left the country.”
In response, Belarus Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Larysa Belskaya, said the report was far removed from reality, and deliberately distorts the situation in her country.
She accused the document’s authors of applying double standards. Instead of vilifying the elections in her country, she said the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should investigate the presidential elections that took place in the United States and issue similar reports.
Almost 2,000 innocent people have been killed by Russian forces in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Ukraine – some just for speaking Ukrainian or having Ukrainian symbols. VOA’s Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze was granted exclusive access to the scene of a mass graveyard in Izium in the Kharkiv region that contains more than 400 bodies.
Most of them apparently died particularly violent deaths, with many victims found with their hands tied behind their backs, ropes around their necks, broken bones, and gunshot wounds.
United Nations experts and Ukrainian officials have pointed to new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.
The head of a U.N.-mandated investigation body said Friday war crimes including rape, torture and the confinement of children have been committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
“Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” Erik Mose, who heads the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He did not specify who was to blame, but the commission has focused on areas previously occupied by Russian forces, such as Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.
Investigators from the commission, created by the rights council in March, visited 27 places and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses
A U.S. envoy told the council, “Numerous sources indicate that Russian authorities have interrogated, detained and forcible deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens.”
U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor, U.S. permanent representative to the council, added, “We urge the commissioners to continue to examine the growing evidence of Russia’s filtration operations, forced deportations and disappearances.”
Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians.
Russia was called on to respond to the allegations at the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting, but its seat was left empty. There was no immediate official reaction from Moscow.
In the meantime, more than 730 people were detained across Russia at protests Saturday against a mobilization order of 300,000 military reservists, a rights group said, three days after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s first military call-up since World War II for the conflict in Ukraine.
The independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group said it was aware of detentions in 32 different cities, from St. Petersburg to Siberia. Unsanctioned rallies are illegal under Russian law, which also forbids any activity considered to defame the armed forces.
Footage from the same protest showed Russian officers carrying men and leading women to police vans.
Russia’s first public mobilization since World War II—to shore up its faltering invasion of Ukraine—also has triggered a rush for the border by eligible men.
Western nations and Ukraine have labeled a “sham” the voting on referendums in Russian-held regions of Ukraine asking residents if they want their regions to be part of Russia. Voting began Friday on Russian referendums aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine. Some local officials said voters were being intimidated and threatened.
In the balloting, scheduled to run from Friday to Tuesday in the provinces of Luhansk, Kherson and the partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, voters are being asked if they want their areas to become part of Russia.
Polls also opened in Russia, where refugees and other residents from those areas could vote.
The West and Ukraine said the voting is illegal under international law.
“Any elections or referenda on the territory of Ukraine can only be announced and conducted by legitimate authorities in compliance with national legislation and international standards,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement. “Therefore, the planned ‘referenda’ will be illegal.”
Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the vote was over, armed groups were going to homes to force people to cast ballots, and employees were told they could be fired if they did not participate.
Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s Luhansk governor, said in the town of Starobilsk, the population was banned from leaving and people were being forced out of their homes to vote.
“Today, the best thing for the people of Kherson would be not to open their doors,” said Yuriy Sobolevsky, the displaced first deputy council chairman of Kherson region.
The results of the referendums, expected soon after the voting, are almost certain to support joining Russia.
“We are returning home,” said the Russian-backed leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin. “Donbas is Russia.”
“All of us have been waiting for a referendum on joining Russia for eight long years,” said Leonid Pasechnik, the Russian-backed leader of Luhansk. “We have already become part of Russia. There remains only a small matter – to win [the war].”
Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory.
The referendums were quickly organized after Ukraine earlier this month recaptured large swaths of the northeast in a counteroffensive.
By incorporating the four areas, Moscow could portray attacks to retake them as an attack on Russia itself – potentially even using that to justify a nuclear response.
In a televised address this week, Putin said the West is trying to weaken and destroy Russia and that his country will “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.