Belarusian President Arrives in Zimbabwe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish Migrant Death in Greece Prompts Accusations of Torture

The death of a Turkish migrant after he traveled to a Greek island has prompted demands for Ankara to take up the case with Athens, amid accusations of torture and the illegal “push-back” of migrant boats.

Barış Büyüksu

Despite graduating from university, 30-year-old Barış Büyüksu was struggling to find a well-paid job. At the end of September, he left his home in the Turkish city of Izmir for what he hoped would be a new life in western Europe. It was the last time his family would see him alive.

Büyüksu paid people smugglers for a place on a migrant boat, which took him from the Turkish coastline around Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos, a journey of just a few kilometers.

The smuggling gang gave him a fake Bulgarian identity card. Büyüksu planned to reach Athens and then travel to France, a journey several of his friends had already successfully made. He hoped to find a job and save money before returning to Turkey.

Detention

On October 21, as he was waiting on the dockside in Kos to board a ferry to Athens, a friend told the family he witnessed Büyüksu being detained by police and then bundled into an unmarked black van. VOA has not been able to verify this account.

The following day, back in Büyüksu’s hometown of Izmir, his family received a call from Turkish police, who told them their son was dead – and that his body bore signs of torture.

The Turkish coast guard says it found Büyüksu, badly injured but still alive, in an inflatable boat that had been pushed back into Turkish waters by Greece. The police report says 15 Palestinian asylum-seekers were also on board, including three women and three children. Turkish authorities say Büyüksu died before a medical team could reach him.

Baris’ father, Reyis Büyüksu, spoke to VOA at the family home in Izmir.

“A policeman from Bodrum central police station … said your son has been killed by Greeks and said that I need to be at the police station at 8:00 in the morning. We picked up the body from the forensic medicine institute and brought it here and buried him,” he said.

“My son being killed is not only a problem of Turkey, but it is also a problem for humanity, this is a crime against humanity. We don’t want any other family to experience this,” Reyis Büyüksu told VOA.

Baris’ mother, Saime Büyüksu, said her son’s death has devastated the family.

“He wanted to marry, he had a girlfriend, he had dreams, and he was saying ‘Mother, we should build a house, I will buy gold and I will have a wedding when I come back.’ He went with his dreams to work there. But his dead body came back to me,” she said.

Torture

A full autopsy is being carried out in Istanbul and the family is yet to receive the results. The initial autopsy, carried out immediately after Büyüksu’s death and seen by VOA, recorded injuries consistent with torture: cuts and bruises covering his face and body, and internal bleeding.

Büyüksu’s injuries included cuts across his face and neck, together with bruising (ecchymosis) around his eyes and mouth; large bruises across his chest some 25 centimeters wide; and several cuts across his back, including some half-a-meter across.

VOA also obtained copies of statements given to Turkish police by some of the other refugees on the boat, who say they were detained in Greece alongside Büyüksu. The refugees say they were stripped naked and beaten. They claim they heard Büyüksu being tortured in an adjacent room, including by what they believed to be electrocution. It is impossible for VOA to verify these claims.

Witnesses

Abdurrahman Zekud, a Palestinian asylum-seeker, gave the following account to Turkish police:

“We could hear the sound of that person in pain. As we could understand they were torturing him with electricity. I could hear sound of a machine that I thought it was electrical torture machine. The torture took all night long, and at around 5:00 a.m. they took us out of the room. They took that Turkish citizen out too and brought him next to us. They put all of us in a vehicle and took us next to the sea. First, they opened the handcuffs on our hands and then the blindfolds on our eyes,” Zekud said.

“The Turkish citizen was half unconscious because of the torture. They laid him face down by the sea. Then they put us in a Greek coast guard boat, and they did not return anything they took from us,” he said “After travelling out to sea for a while, they threw a life raft into the ocean from the coast guard boat and they threw us into that raft one by one, and they threw the Turkish citizen too into that raft. Because the Turkish citizen was half unconscious, he was almost falling into the sea, and I held him and made him sleep on the floor.”

“After around 30 minutes, the Turkish coast guards rescued us. I helped the Turkish citizen to get into the Turkish coast guard boat. As I remember he asked the coast guard for water, but he could hardly talk, and he hardly could drink the water. And later on, we realized he had died,” Zekud told Turkish police.

Investigation

Turkish authorities told VOA that they are still investigating Büyüksu’s death and did not confirm whether the issue had been raised with Greece.

An official statement from the Turkish Interior Ministry, dated October 22, states that: “Fifteen irregular migrants in the life raft, which were detected by the assigned coast guard boat, were rescued alive. There was one unconscious person among the migrants. It was determined that there were signs of assault on the body of the person… Autopsy studies are continuing in order to determine the cause of death of the person in question. An investigation has been initiated by the Bodrum Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office regarding the incident.”

Opposition lawmakers and human rights groups are calling on Turkey and Greece to launch wider investigations into Büyüksu’s death. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an MP from the opposition HDP party, raised the incident in parliament last November.

“The Greek authorities committed murder. [The family] want this matter to be considered and followed up by the foreign ministry,” Gergerlioğlu said.

Greek response

Greek police have not responded to repeated VOA requests for comment.

VOA asked the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum what happened to Barış Büyüksu. The ministry gave the following statement to VOA:

“The ministry… and the Asylum Service has no such name recorded in their database. As a consequence, there can’t be any comment from our side. It is also noted again that there is no such name in the Police list either, although we are not fully competent to respond on behalf of the Hellenic Police… Therefore, we can make no further comment on the case,” the statement said.

Büyüksu’s family say he did not register for asylum as he wanted to leave Greece to reach France.

U.N. response

Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, told VOA it was “another worrying example not just of the fact that pushbacks, an illegal practice, were continuing, but that the violence and brutality linked to them is rising dramatically.”

“It is not the first death we have documented linked to pushbacks,” Nanou said. “But the brutality of the abuse, from beatings to chucking refugees into the sea without many of them knowing how to swim, is terribly concerning.”

The Greek coast guard denies pushing migrant boats back into Turkish waters, despite widespread evidence documented by non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. In the past, Greek authorities have told VOA that while they do not engage in pushbacks, they will continue to do whatever it takes to shield Greece’s frontiers, and the rest of Europe, from illegal entries of migrants.

Justice

Barış Büyüksu was the eldest of four children. His younger brother Umut Büyüksu told VOA he would not rest until he had discovered the truth.

“I want my brother’s killers prosecuted. I want to find out who they are. I don’t want this case to be covered up like this,” he said.

The Büyüksu family is left searching for answers: Who killed a beloved son and brother? Who will deliver justice?

His death also raises questions over the policing of Europe’s frontiers and the human rights of those seeking a better life.

Boris Johnson Says Putin Threatened Missile Strike in Call 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Avatar 2’ Tops Box Office for 7th Weekend

“Avatar: The Way of Water” claimed the No. 1 spot on the domestic box office charts for the seventh weekend in a row with an additional $15.7 million, according to studio estimates on Sunday. 

It was a quiet weekend overall, notable mostly for the Hindi language blockbuster “Pathaan” that broke into the top five and the post-Oscar nominations rereleases of films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “The Fabelmans.” 

“Avatar 2’s” first-place North American run has only been matched by the first “Avatar,” and, in the past 25 years, bested by “Titanic” (which stayed in first place for 15 weeks). All three were directed by James Cameron. 

Globally, “The Way of Water” has now grossed an estimated $2.1 billion, passing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” to become the fourth-highest grossing film of all time (of which Cameron has directed three). 

“James Cameron just keeps ticking off all the records and milestones,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore. “And it’s still got a wide-open marketplace.” 

Second place went to Universal and DreamWorks’ family-oriented offering “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish,” which made $10.6 million in its sixth weekend. The animated spinoff has earned over $140.8 million in North America and was recently made available to stream at home, too. 

Third place went to Sony’s “A Man Called Otto” with $6.8 million from 3,957 locations. The meme-able horror “M3GAN,” a Universal release, snuck into fourth place with $6.4 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its domestic total to $82.3 million. 

The Indian film “Pathaan,” starring Shah Rukh Kha in his first role in five years, settled in fifth place with $5.9 million from only 695 screens. 

“A top five appearance is really impressive,” Dergarabedian said, noting that the marketplace over the past several years has presented opportunities for Indian films to break into the domestic top 10. 

Neon also launched the horror movie “Infinity Pool,” written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg and starring Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård, in 1,853 locations following its Sundance debut. It made an estimated $2.7 million. The romantic comedy “Maybe I Do,” with Diane Keaton, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandan, made $562,000 from 465 screens. And Lukas Dhont’s Cannes-winning boyhood drama “Close” opened on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, earning $68,143. 

Many studios boasting best picture nominees also chose to capitalize on the buzz of Tuesday’s Oscar nominations with sizable re-releases. “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which got a leading 11 nominations, came back to theaters in force playing on 1,400 screens where it earned another $1 million. The A24 release has made $71 million domestically to date. Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” nominated for seven Oscars, also expanded to 1,962 screens in North America and took in an additional $760,000, bringing its domestic total to $16 million. And Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” also added a few hundred screens, earning $1 million over the weekend. It’s made $2.4 million to date. The Oscar boosts could continue over the coming weeks, too — the show isn’t until March 12. 

“We are seeing in real time the halo effect of the Oscar nominations on these best picture nominees,” Dergarbedian said. “The Oscar bounce is back, something we haven’t seen over the past couple of years.” 

Several of the highest profile releases of the weekend were both star-driven comedies that went straight to streaming: Netflix had “You People,” with Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jonah Hill and Lauren London and Amazon Prime Video offered “Shotgun Wedding,” with Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Coolidge. 

Seven weekends into “Avatar 2,” theater owners are also likely looking for the next big blockbuster, which is still a ways off. “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania” doesn’t arrive in theaters until Feb. 17. 

But, as Dergarabedian said, “2023 is already looking more like 2019 rather than the last three years.” 

“This is great news for theaters,” he said. “You have the Oscar bounce in play, an Indian film in the top 5 and ‘Avatar’ breaking records left and right.” 

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore, with Wednesday through Sunday in parentheses. Final domestic figures will be released Monday. 

  1. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” $15.7 million. 

  2. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” $10.6 million. 

  3. “A Man Called Otto,” $6.8 million, 

  4. “M3GAN,” $6.4 million. 

  5. “Pathaan,” $5.9 million. 

  6. “Missing,” $3.8 million. 

  7. “Plane,” $3.8 million. 

  8. “Infinity Pool,” $2.7 million. 

  9. “Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist,” $2.4 million. 

  10. “The Wandering Earth 2,” $1.4 million. 

Barrett Strong, Motown Artist Known for ‘Money,’ Dies at 81

Barrett Strong, one of Motown’s founding artists and most gifted songwriters who sang lead on the company’s breakthrough single “Money (That’s What I Want)” and later collaborated with Norman Whitfield on such classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “War” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” has died. He was 81.     

His death was announced Sunday on social media by the Motown Museum, which did not immediately provide further details.     

“Barrett was not only a great singer and piano player, but he, along with his writing partner Norman Whitfield, created an incredible body of work,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement.     

Strong had yet to turn 20 when he agreed to let his friend Gordy, in the early days of building a recording empire in Detroit, manage him and release his music. Within a year, he was a part of history as the piano player and vocalist for “Money,” a million-seller released early in 1960 and Motown’s first major hit. Strong never again approached the success of “Money” on his own, and decades later fought for acknowledgement that he helped write it. But, with Whitfield, he formed a productive and eclectic songwriting team.     

While Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” was criticized for being too slick and repetitive, the Whitfield-Strong team turned out hard-hitting and topical works, along with such timeless ballads as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).” With “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” they provided an up-tempo, call-and-response hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and a dark, hypnotic ballad for Marvin Gaye, his 1968 version one of Motown’s all-time sellers.      

As Motown became more politically conscious late in the decade, Barrett-Whitfield turned out “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” for the Temptations and for Edwin Starr the protest anthem “War” and its widely quoted refrain, “War! What is it good for? Absolutely … nothing!”     

“With `War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam,” Strong told LA Weekly in 1999. “I also knew a guy who used to sing with (Motown songwriter) Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.”     

Whitfield-Strong’s other hits, mostly for the Temptations, included “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and the Grammy-winning chart-topper “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (Sometimes spelled “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”). Artists covering their songs ranged from the Rolling Stones (“Just My Imagination”) and Aretha Franklin (“I Wish It Would Rain”) to Bruce Springsteen (“War”) and Al Green (“I Can’t Get Next to You”).    

Strong spent part of the 1960s recording for other labels, left Motown again in the early 1970s and made a handful of solo albums, including “Stronghold” and “Love is You.” In 2004, he was voted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which cited him as “a pivotal figure in Motown’s formative years.”      

Whitfield died in 2008.     

The music of Strong and other Motown writers was later featured in the Broadway hit “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”    

Strong was born in West Point, Mississippi and moved to Detroit a few years later. He was a self-taught musician who learned piano without needing lessons and, with his sisters, formed a local gospel group, the Strong Singers. In his teens, he got to know such artists as Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Gordy, who was impressed with his writing and piano playing. “Money”’ with its opening shout, “The best things in life are free/But you can give them to the birds and bees,” would, ironically, lead to a fight — over money.      

Strong was initially listed among the writers and he often spoke of coming up with the pounding piano riff while jamming on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in the studio. But only decades later would he learn that Motown had since removed his name from the credits, costing him royalties for a popular standard covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many others and a keepsake on John Lennon’s home jukebox. Strong’s legal argument was weakened because he had taken so long to ask for his name to be reinstated. (Gordy is one of the song’s credited writers, and his lawyers contended Strong’s name only appeared because of a clerical error).      

“Songs outlive people,” Strong told The New York Times in 2013. “The real reason Motown worked was the publishing. The records were just a vehicle to get the songs out there to the public. The real money is in the publishing, and if you have publishing, then hang on to it. That’s what it’s all about. If you give it away, you’re giving away your life, your legacy. Once you’re gone, those songs will still be playing.” 

Russians Gone From Ukraine Village, Fear and Hardship Remain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shelling is constant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends Mourn Foreign Volunteers Killed Helping Civilians in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany Won’t Send Fighter Jets to Ukraine, Says Scholz

Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated Sunday that Germany will not send fighter jets to Ukraine, as Kyiv steps up calls for more advanced weapons from the West to help repel Russia’s invasion.

Scholz only just agreed on Wednesday to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to allow other European countries to send theirs, after weeks of intense debate and mounting pressure from allies.

“I can only advise against entering into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapons systems,” Scholz said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

“If, as soon as a decision (on tanks) has been made, the next debate starts in Germany, that doesn’t come across as serious and undermines citizens’ confidence in government decisions.”

Scholz’s decision to green-light the tanks was accompanied by a U.S. announcement that it would send 31 of its Abrams tanks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Berlin and Washington for the move, seen as a breakthrough in efforts to support the war-torn country.

But Zelenskyy immediately stressed that Ukraine needed more heavy weapons from NATO allies to fend off Russian troops, including fighter jets and long-range missiles.

Scholz in the interview warned against raising “the risk of escalation,” with Moscow already sharply condemning the tank pledges.

“There is no war between NATO and Russia. We will not allow such an escalation,” he said.

The chancellor added that it was “necessary” to continue speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The last phone call between the leaders was in early December.

“I will talk to Putin by phone again,” Scholz said. “But, of course, it’s also clear that as long as Russia continues to wage war with unabated aggression, the current situation will not change.”

Gregory Allen Howard Who Wrote ‘Remember the Titans’ Dies 

Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard, who skillfully adapted stories of historical Black figures in “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington, “Ali” with Will Smith and “Harriet” with Cynthia Erivo, has died. He was 70.

Howard died Friday at his home in Miami after a brief illness, according to a statement from publicist Jeff Sanderson.

Howard was the first Black screenwriter to write a drama that made $100 million at the box office when “Titans” crossed that milestone in 2000. It was about a real-life Black coach coming into a newly integrated Virginia school and helping lead their football team to victory. It had the iconic line: “I don’t care if you like each other or not. But you will respect each other.”

Howard said he shopped the story around Hollywood with no success. So he took a chance and wrote the screenplay himself. ″They didn’t expect it to make much money, but it became a monster, making $100 million,” he said. “It made my career,” he told the Times-Herald of Vallejo, California, in 2009. The film made the Associated Press’ list of the best 25 sports movies ever made.

Howard followed up “Remember the Titans” with “Ali,” the 2002 Michael Mann-directed biopic of Muhammad Ali. Smith famously bulked up to play Ali and was nominated for a best actor Oscar.

Howard also produced and co-wrote 2019′s “Harriet,” about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Erivo lead a cast that included Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters and Joe Alwyn.

“I got into this business to write about the complexity of the Black man. I wanted to write about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Marcus Garvey. I think it takes a Black man to write about Black men,” he told the Times-Herald.

Born in Virginia, his family moved often due to his stepfather’s career in the Navy. After attending Princeton University, graduating with a degree in American history, Howard briefly worked at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street before moving to Los Angeles in his mid-20s to pursue a writing career.

He wrote for TV and penned the play “Tinseltown Trilogy,” which focused on three men in Los Angeles over Christmastime as their stories interconnect and inform each other.

Howard also wrote “The Harlem Renaissance,” a limited series for HBO, “Misty,” the story of prima ballerina Misty Copeland and “This Little Light,” the Fannie Lou Hamer story. Most recently, he wrote the civil rights project “Power to the People” for producer Ben Affleck and Paramount Pictures.

He is survived by a sister, Lynette Henley; a brother, Michael Henley; two nieces and a nephew.

Environmentalists Protest Airport Project Near Albanian Bird Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French PM Says No Dice on Pension Age as Strikes Loom 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Even more people’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 UK Prime Minister Fires Conservative Party Chair

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

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

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

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

Some information in this report came from Reuters.  

Church Helps Mining Community Evolve in Dark, Warming Arctic

The warm glow of Svalbard Kirke’s lights gleams on the snow-covered mountain slope from where the church stands like a beacon over this remote Norwegian Arctic village, cloaked in the polar night’s constant darkness.

A century after it was founded to minister to the coal miners who settled Longyearbyen, the Lutheran house of faith is open 24/7, serving as a crucial gathering point for a community navigating a drastic change in its identity.

The last Norwegian coal mine in Svalbard – an archipelago that’s one of the world’s fastest warming spots – was slated to close this year and only got a reprieve until 2025 because of the energy crisis driven by the war in Ukraine.

For the lone pastor in this fragile, starkly beautiful environment, the challenge is to fulfill the church’s historical mission of ministering to those in crisis while addressing a pressing and divisive contemporary challenge.

“We pray every Sunday for everyone who’s affected by climate change,” the Rev. Siv Limstrand said. “We also have a role to play as church when it comes to thinking theologically, about what are we doing to the creation.”

On treeless land hemmed by glaciers, mountains and deep fjords, Longyearbyen is a town of visible paradoxes.

The open water of the rapidly warming sea laps up against old coal mining conveyors. Tourists come by the environmentally unfriendly planeload to seek pristine wilderness they can only explore with guides armed against polar bears.

Right below where the first mine was built, Svalbard Kirke beckons to its fireplace-warmed lounge that opens into the sanctuary. A cup of coffee or hymnbooks in multiple languages are always available – as long as visitors first remove their shoes in the entryway, as miners used to do with soot-covered boots.

“You don’t have to be very religious. They have room for everybody,” said Leonard Snoeks, whose daughter sings in Polargospel, the church’s children’s choir, and whose wife is working on the city’s transition to renewable energy.

The switch this year from coal-fired to diesel-powered energy production at the plant – which prompted the mine’s original decision to shut down – is expected to halve carbon dioxide emissions even as the search for long-term, cleaner alternatives continues, said Torbjørn Grøtte, Longyearbyen’s energy transition project leader.

As change swirls faster than the snowdrifts covering Longyearbyen’s few miles of paved roads, the church’s anchoring role seems poised to remain the only constant.

It attracts miners who have attended funerals for colleagues who died on the job over the decades, as well as newly arrived scientists and tourism workers seeking to integrate in the increasingly diverse community where people now tend to stay only a couple of years.

Store Norske, the Norwegian company still operating the remaining mine, built the first church in 1921 in Longyearbyen – which translates as “the town of Longyear,” the surname of the American who established the first mining operation here.

For decades, the town’s two supreme authorities were the mine’s executive and the church’s pastor, old-timers say.

The first pastor was also the teacher in the company town that for most of the 20th century was inhabited by single miners and the mining executives’ families. Outside town limits, a few trappers continued to hunt, a long tradition in these glacier-covered islands.

Miners and their families also made up the Russian towns in Svalbard. At the surviving one, Barentsburg, coal is still extracted under a century-old international treaty that grants rights to all signatory countries. Relations with Longyearbyen, which had normalized after the end of the Cold War as miners traded visits by boat and snowmobile, have been strained again by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago.

Trond Johansen was 17 when he arrived in Longyearbyen in 1971 on a plane chartered by the mining company that landed on an ice field – the airport would be built a few years later.

Sipping black coffee on a mid-January morning in the town’s sleek café that offers knitted wear and artisanal chocolates, the retired miner recalled when the main entertainment was at the church.

Before TVs, let alone anything like the plush cinema soon to open in the town’s new art gallery, Johansen and fellow miners gathered on Wednesdays to watch four-week-old videocassettes of news broadcasts from the mainland – though they skipped over the weather forecast, Johansen added with a chuckle.

“It was a fantastic place to grow up, more free probably than many places, and you had the wild and the excitement with polar bears lurking around,” said Bent Jakobsen, who was born on Svalbard and works at the Norwegian coal mine like his father and brothers before him.

But today he jokes the mine’s closing will turn him into an endangered species just like the iconic Arctic predator.

“I can be stuffed and put in the museum, me and the polar bear,” Jakobsen said.

Svalbard’s natural environment has been changing fast, too. There’s no more ice on Isfjorden, which translates as “ice fjord” and whose feet-thick ice cover used to be traversed by polar bears in winter until a dozen years ago.

“Everything except the darkness has changed,” said Kim Holmén, a special advisor to the Norwegian Polar Institute who has researched climate in Svalbard for decades. At this latitude, only the January moon glows around the clock.

Swept by the Gulf Stream ocean current and increasingly surrounded by open water, which accelerates heating, Svalbard is warming even faster than the rest of the Arctic, according to both Holmén and data from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

Compared to the 1961-1990 normal, winter temperatures of the last decade averaged 7.3 degrees Celsius (13.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer. It’s been a dozen years since Svalbard hit -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit), which used to happen regularly decades ago.

“Plants, animals, birds, the whole ecosystem is changing,” Holmén added, as cold-adjusted species struggle and new ones arrive.

Unusual winter rains unsettle the snowpack, which has led to more avalanches, including a deadly one a few days before Christmas in 2015 that ripped through town, killing two people.

One of them was a friend of Svalbard Kirke’s then-pastor, the Rev. Leif Magne Helgesen, who had already been working on raising awareness of the changes he was observing on the island.

“As a pastor on Svalbard, you’re the northernmost religious leader in the world. That gives you a pulpit,” Helgesen said.

“There are three main ethical challenges we need to deal with and have a prophetic voice in the church: Poverty, conflict, and climate,” he added. “It’s hypocritical to only talk about life after death. We also strongly believe in life on earth and life today.”

He started including prayers about climate in regular worship services. He also worked with the church’s then music director, Espen Rotevatn, to create vocals and instrumentals for a climate change Mass – including a rite of penance for piano with deep, haunting notes and upbeat, Blues-inspired passages.

“Some lyrics are dark, but much of it is filled with hope,” said Rotevatn. He has been lobbying for the mine to close, which he said was a very unpopular cause just a few years ago.

From a Christian perspective, some might argue that God can fix everything – but Rotevatn shares a different view he believes is more common in the Norway’s churches.

“We have a responsibility for the earth that is given to us, to (not) destroy it, which is what we may be doing now,” he said.

Rotevatn is now the principal of Svalbard Folkehøgskole, an alternative higher-ed institution in Longyearbyen that he hopes to run as “green” as possible, including with solar panels. For several months in the spring and summer, the sun never sets in Svalbard, just like it never rises in winter.

In that constant darkness, keeping a light burning becomes more than a metaphor for Svalbard Kirke.

“Physical openness and accessibility to me not only symbolizes, but it is also … an ideal for what a church should be,” said Limstrand, who became pastor here in 2019, nearly thirty years after her ordination. “People can come in totally on their own terms.”

Among a couple dozen congregants at a mid-January Sunday afternoon Mass was a Hindu family from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh – two scientists and their 18-month-old daughter, whom they named Svalbie after the archipelago.

“God is God, it doesn’t matter which religion. We feel good, peaceful and calm, similar to how we feel when we go to temple,” said environmental chemist Neelu Singh.

She and Svalbie started coming to church for the weekly “baby song hour.” To the church piano’s accompaniment, new parents sing to their babies in a circle before sharing lunch with the pastor and church staff.

“You feel connected with the community and get a chance to be social,” said Singh, who believes hers was the only Indian family in Longyearbyen when they moved here four years ago.

What Limstrand calls “spiritual hospitality” also extends outwards from the red-slatted church.

Before the pandemic, she hosted regular visits by Catholic and Orthodox priests to minister to their congregations – including Poles at remote research stations, Russians and Ukrainians in Barentsburg, and a few Filipino workers at the town’s only supermarket who happily reminisced recently about those moments.

The pastor herself travels to celebrate services beyond the church – including once at Green Dog, a dogsledding outfit half a dozen miles from Longyearbyen in a broad valley.

“How many priests can you ask to come to a dog yard in -11 (degrees Celsius, 12 degrees Fahrenheit) to baptize two kids?” said their mother, Karina Bernlow, who runs Green Dog with her husband and arrived in Svalbard 11 years ago after a stint in Greenland.

In this time, Bernlow has already seen Longyearbyen transform from a community where mining families lived for generations and extended a warm welcome to outsiders, to a mix of short-term workers who hardly ever meet outside their jobs.

“A place without history, that’s what it’s turning into. I can see how it’s disappearing,” she said as the wind, and the dogs, howled outside a log cabin near her yard. Bright lights marked the entrance to the last Norway-operated mine on the opposite mountainside.

“The church is a bridge-builder. A place like this, with so many nationalities, it’s really important to have,” she added. “I don’t go to church very often, but I know it’s there if I need it.”

That is exactly the kind of church Limstrand wants to foster in order to serve this changing community.

Here, people feel at home when they come to worship by the rose-filled altar, because they have already attended a concert, or a community gathering, or the Tuesday night coffee hour, when hot-off-the-griddle waffles are smothered in brunost, Norway’s traditional caramel-tasting cheese.

“It’s not the pastor’s church, it’s not the Church’s church, it’s not the church council’s church, but it’s our church,” Limstrand said. “It’s something that is shared, it’s not something that is guarded.”

Burkina Rally Celebrate Word That French Troops Will Leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Rallies Demand Freedom for Europeans in Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Strike Kills 3; Zelenskyy Seeks Long-Range Missiles

A Russian missile strike on a city in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least three people Saturday as Ukrainian forces engaged Russian troops in ferocious battles in several hot spots in the east, where Moscow has been pressing its offensive with increased urgency amid Western pledges of modern tank deliveries for Kyiv. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used the occasion to press Western partners to supply his nation with long-range precision missiles, known as ATACMS, to reduce Russia’s ability to target cities.   

“It would be possible to stop this Russian terror if we could source the appropriate missiles for our military forces,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Saturday. 

Earlier, Zelenskyy had said major battles were underway for Vuhledar and Bakhmut, a town that has been virtually razed by repeated Russian artillery bombardments. 

In the Donetsk city of Kostyantynivka, a Russian strike on a residential neighborhood killed three people and wounded at least 14 others, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram. 

Factory worker Iryna Maltseva, 42, said she was watching television when the explosion violently rattled her living room.   

“I opened my eyes, and everything was blown out,” she said. “I was covered in blood. Mom was sitting in the bedroom, also covered in blood.” 

Kyrylenko said four apartment buildings and a hotel had been damaged and that rescuers and police officials were at the site to “carefully document yet another crime by the Russian occupiers.” 

“Kostyantynivka is a city relatively far from the front line, but still, it constantly suffers from enemy attacks. Everyone who remains in the city exposes themselves to mortal danger,” Kyrylenko said, according to The Associated Press. “The Russians target civilians because they are not able to fight the Ukrainian army.” 

Earlier Saturday, Kyrylenko said four people had been killed and at least seven wounded by Russian strikes in the last 24 hours. 

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its daily report early Saturday that Russian troops continued to press on with a multipronged offensive in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

“The enemy continues to conduct offensive actions in the Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Novopavlivka directions,” the General Staff said. “In the Kupyansk, Lyman, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson directions, the enemy is on the defensive.” 

Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy told local media that “there is fierce combat” in Vuhledar. 

“For many months, the military of the Russian Federation … has been trying to achieve significant success there,” he said.   

Vuhledar, a town with a pre-invasion population of around 15,000 people, has strategic significance as a communications node in southern Donetsk. 

Ukraine’s National Security Council chief, Oleksiy Danilov, told RFE/RL that Moscow was preparing for a new offensive on February 24, the anniversary of the Russian invasion.   

“Now they are preparing for maximum activation … and they believe that by the anniversary they should have some achievements,” Danilov said. “There is no secret that they are preparing for a new wave by February 24, as they themselves say.” 

Ukraine’s Western allies continue to pledge military equipment and aid to shore up Kyiv’s defenses.   

U.S. National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said Washington anticipates an “intense period of fighting in the coming months,” adding that there is “no sign” of the war stopping. 

Zelenskyy said Friday that Ukraine needs up to 500 tanks.   

“We need 300 or 500 tanks now. We need tanks to protect our territory, our land. We need armored vehicles to protect our people, that’s all,” he said in an interview with Sky News. 

So far, a total of 321 heavy tanks have been promised to Ukraine by several countries, Ukraine’s ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko, said on BFM television on January 27.   

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also reassured Ukraine of the bloc’s unconditional support.    

Speaking Saturday in Duesseldorf, Germany, von der Leyen said, “We stand by Ukraine’s side without any ifs and buts.”   

Von der Leyen and her fellow EU commissioners plan an EU-Ukraine summit on February 3.   

The Kremlin has reacted with fury to the latest gestures of Western solidarity with Ukraine and said it saw the promised delivery of advanced tanks as evidence of escalating “direct involvement” of the United States and NATO in Russia’s war of aggression, something both deny.   

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and Agence France-Presse.