Georgian PM, president trade criticism over media freedom law

Tbilisi, Georgia — The president and prime minister of Georgia on Sunday lashed out at each other at a ceremony marking the country’s independence day as strong tensions persist over a law that critics say will obstruct media freedom and damage Georgia’s bid to join the European Union.

The measure would require media and nongovernmental organizations to register as “carrying out the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their budget from abroad. Opponents denounce it as “the Russian law” because of similar regulations there.

Large protests have repeatedly been held in the capital Tbilisi as the measure made its way through parliament. After the legislature passed the bill, President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed it on May 18, but the Georgian Dream party of Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and its backers have enough votes in parliament to override the veto.

“As the specter of Russia looms over us, partnership and rapprochement with Europe are the true path to preserving and strengthening our independence and peace. Those who sabotage and undermine this path trample upon and damage the peaceful and secure future of our country, hindering the path towards becoming a full member of the free and democratic world,” Zourabichvili said at the ceremony celebrating the 106th anniversary of Georgia’s declaration of independence from Russia.

At the same ceremony, Kobakhidze lauded Georgia’s development and sharply criticized Zourabichvili.

“It was the unity and reasonable steps of the people and their elected government that gave us the opportunity to maintain peace in the country for the past two years despite existential threats and multiple betrayals, including the betrayal of the president of Georgia,” he said.

In the evening, thousands of opponents of the measure marched along one of the main avenues of the capital. Some previous demonstrations against the law have brought clashes between protesters and police.

The European Union’s foreign policy arm has said “the adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path.” Critics say it may have been driven by Russia to thwart Georgia’s chances of further integrating with the West.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Thursday that travel bans would be imposed on Georgian officials “who are responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Georgia” and “it remains our hope that Georgia’s leaders will reconsider the draft law and take steps to move forward with their nation’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”

Lithuania’s Nauseda calls victory in presidential election

Vilnius, Lithuania — Lithuania’s Gitanas Nauseda announced his reelection in a presidential ballot on Sunday, following a campaign dominated by security concerns in the European Union and NATO member next door to Russia.

The Baltic nation of 2.8 million people has been a staunch ally of Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion. Like other countries in the region, it worries it could be Moscow’s next target.

Ballots from nearly 90% of polling stations showed Nauseda, 60, winning roughly three quarters of the vote, followed by Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, 49, from the ruling center-right Homeland Union party.

If confirmed by final results, Nauseda’s backing in his bid for a second term will be highest in the country since it split from the Soviet Union in 1991.

A former senior economist with Swedish banking group SEB who is not affiliated with any party, Nauseda won the first round of the election on May 12 with 44% of the votes, short of the 50% he needed for an outright victory.

Just over half of Lithuanians believe a Russian attack is possible or even very likely, according to a ELTA/Baltijos Tyrimai poll conducted between February and March. Russia has regularly dismissed concerns that it might attack a NATO member.

Nauseda told jubilant supporters in the capital Vilnius that he will continue working on the country’s defense capabilities.

“Lithuanian independence and freedom is like a fragile vessel which we need to cherish and keep from cracking,” he said.

Both Nauseda and Simonyte support increasing defense spending to at least 3% of Lithuania’s gross domestic product, from the 2.75% planned for this year.

But Nauseda, who is a social conservative, has clashed with Simonyte on other issues, including whether to give a legal recognition to same-sex civil partnerships, which Nauseda opposes.

He has said it would make such unions too similar to marriage, which Lithuania’s constitution only allows between a man and a woman.

Simonyte, a former finance minister and a fiscal hawk, said on Thursday that if she won, “the direction for the country – pro-European, pro-Western – would not change.”

“But I would like quicker progress, more openness and understanding, larger tolerance to people who are different from us,” she said.

Lithuania’s president has a semi-executive role, which includes heading the armed forces, chairing the supreme defense and national security policy body and representing the country at EU and NATO summits.

The president sets foreign and security policy in tandem with the government, can veto laws and has a say in the appointment of key officials such as judges, the chief prosecutor, the chief of defense and the head of the central bank.

Macron begins first state visit to Germany by a French president in 24 years

Berlin — President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Germany Sunday for the first state visit by a French head of state in 24 years, a three-day trip meant to underline the strong ties between the European Union’s traditional leading powers. 

The visit was originally meant to take place last July but was postponed at the last minute due to rioting in France following the killing of a 17-year-old by police. 

While Macron is a frequent visitor to Germany as Paris and Berlin try to coordinate their positions on EU and foreign policy, this is the first state visit with full pomp since Jacques Chirac came in 2000. Macron and his wife, Brigitte, are being hosted by Germany’s largely ceremonial president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The visit comes as Germany celebrates the 75th anniversary of its post-World War II constitution. 

Steinmeier is holding a state banquet for Macron at his Bellevue palace in Berlin on Sunday evening before the two presidents travel on Monday to the eastern city of Dresden, where Macron will make a speech, and on Tuesday to Muenster in western Germany. The state visit will be followed later Tuesday by a meeting between Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and ministers from both countries at a government guest house outside Berlin. 

Germany and France, which have the EU’s biggest economies, have long been viewed as the motor of European integration though there have often been differences in policy and emphasis between the two neighbors on a range of matters. 

That was evident earlier this year in different positions on whether Western countries should rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine. Both nations are strong backers of Kyiv.

Thousands rally in Armenia against Azerbaijan land transfer 

Yerevan — Thousands of Armenians staged an anti-government protest on Sunday, demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation over territorial concessions to arch foe neighbor Azerbaijan.

Protests erupted in the Caucasus nation last month after the government agreed to hand over to Baku territory it had controlled since the 1990s.

The ceded area is strategically important for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.

Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move cuts them off from the rest of the country and accuse Pashinyan of giving away territory without getting anything in return.

On Friday, in a key step toward normalizing ties between the rivals — who fought two wars over then-disputed Nagorno Karabakh region — Yerevan returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it seized decades ago.

An AFP reporter said several thousand people flooded Yerevan’s central Republic Square in a fresh protest spearheaded by charismatic archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, a church leader from the Tavush region, where villages were handed over to Azerbaijan.

“Our people want to change the bitter reality which was imposed on us,” Galstanyan told the crowd, adding that fixing the volatile border with Azerbaijan “must only be carried out after a peace treaty is signed” with Baku.

One of the demonstrators, 67-year-old Artur Sargsyan, said: “We demand an immediate resignation of Nikol [Pashinyan].”

“I had fought in two wars with Azerbaijan and will not let him give away our lands.”

Pashinyan defended the territorial concessions as aimed at securing peace with Baku. But they sparked weeks of protests and demonstrators blocked major roads in an attempt to force him to change course.

In a televised statement on Friday evening, he said resolving border disputes with Azerbaijan “is a sole guarantee for the very existence of the Armenian republic within its internationally recognized and legitimate frontier.”

Galstanyan is seeking to launch an impeachment process against Pashinyan, a former journalist who was propelled to power in the wake of peaceful street protests he led in 2018.

The archbishop said on Sunday that he would renounce his clerical office to run for prime ministerial post, and called for snap parliamentary elections.

“My spiritual service is above all possible posts, but I am ready to sacrifice it for the sake of change in this country,” he told the cheering crowd.

He then called on protesters to march toward Pashinyan’s residence.

Opposition parties would require the support of at least one independent or ruling party MP to launch the impeachment process and success would then hinge on at least 18 lawmakers from Pashinyan’s own party voting to unseat the leader.

Last year, Azerbaijan recaptured Karabakh in a lightning offensive against Armenian separatists who had held sway over the mountainous enclave for three decades.

The region’s entire Armenian population — more than 100,000 people — fled to Armenia in the aftermath.

Russian attack on Ukraine’s Kharkiv kills 14, injures dozens

KHARKIV, Ukraine — A Russian strike on a crowded DIY hardware store in Kharkiv killed 14 people and wounded dozens more, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday morning, the death toll rising as the country’s second-largest city reeled from two attacks a day earlier.

Two guided bombs hit the Epicentr DIY hypermarket in a residential area of the city on Saturday afternoon, Regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov said on national television.

The strikes caused a massive fire which sent a column of thick, black smoke billowing hundreds of meters into the air. Forty-three people were injured, the local prosecutors’ office said.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said about 120 people had been in the hardware store when the bombs struck.

“The attack targeted the shopping center, where there were many people – this is clearly terrorism,” Terekhov said.

In a post on the Telegram app, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said 16 people were still missing after the strike.

The past week has seen an uptick in strikes on the city after Russian troops stormed across the border, opening a new front north of the city.

Russia has bombarded Kharkiv, which lies less than 30 kilometers (20 miles) from its border, throughout the war, having reached its outskirts in a failed bid to capture it in 2022.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a plea to Ukraine’s Western allies to help boost air defenses to keep the country’s cities safe. French President Emmanuel Macron, writing on social media platform X, denounced the attack on the store as “unacceptable.”

A separate early evening missile strike hit a residential building in the center of the city of 1.3 million. The number of people wounded by that strike had climbed to 25 by Sunday morning.

The missile left a crater several meters deep in the pavement at the foot of the building, which also housed a post office, a beauty salon and a cafe.

Emergency workers ushered away residents of nearby apartment buildings. Some of the injured had blood on their faces.

Just over the border, in Russia’s Belgorod region, the regional governor said four residents died in Ukrainian attacks on Saturday.

Firefighters battle blaze

Andriy Kudinov, director of the suburban shopping center, told local media the hardware store was full of shoppers buying items for their summer cottages.

It took 16 hours to fully extinguish the fire at the center, which had raged over an area of 13,000 square meters (15,548 square yards), Interior Minister Klymenko said.

Rescuers, medics and journalists occasionally had to rush away from the scene of both strikes on the city and take cover on the ground, fearing another strike, as has occurred during several recent Russian attacks.

Dmytro Syrotenko, a 26-year-old employee of the DIY center, described panicked scenes.

“I was at my workplace. I heard the first hit and … with my colleague, we fell to the ground. There was the second hit and we were covered with debris. Then we started to crawl to the higher ground,” said Syrotenko, who had a large gash on his face.

Syrotenko told Reuters he was taken to safety by a rescue worker who helped him, several colleagues, and shoppers.

Zelenskiy, in his nightly video address, denounced the strike as “yet another example of Russian madness. There is no other way to describe it.”

“When we tell world leaders that Ukraine needs sufficient air defenses, when we say we need real decisive measures to enable us to protect our people, so that Russian terrorists cannot even approach our border, we are talking about not allowing strikes like this to happen,” he said.

Writing later on Telegram, Zelenskiy noted air raid alerts had been in effect in Kharkiv for more than 12 hours and 200 emergency workers and 400 policemen remained at the scene dealing with the aftermath of the attacks.

Moscow denies deliberately targeting civilians, but thousands have been killed and injured during its 27-month invasion of Ukraine.

Lithuanians vote in presidential election overshadowed by Russia

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania holds presidential elections Sunday, with incumbent Gitanas Nauseda expected to win after a campaign dominated by security concerns in the post-Soviet state.

The Baltic nation of 2.8 million people has been a staunch ally of Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion. Like other countries in the region, the NATO and EU member worries it could be Moscow’s next target.

Nauseda, 60, a former senior economist with Swedish banking group SEB who is not affiliated with any party, won the first round of the election on May 12 with 44% of the votes, short of the 50% he needed for an outright victory.

He is running against Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, 49, from the ruling center-right Homeland Union party that has been trailing in opinion polls. She was the only woman out of eight candidates in the first round and came second with 20%.

Just over half of Lithuanians believe a Russian attack is possible or even very likely, according to a ELTA/Baltijos Tyrimai poll conducted between February and March. Russia has regularly dismissed the idea that it might attack a NATO member.

Nauseda told a debate on Tuesday he sees Russia as an enemy. “Our enemies — who even call themselves our enemies, who are enemies of us and all the democratic world — are attempting to destablilize our politics, and we must do all to resist.”

Both Nauseda and Simonyte support increasing defense spending to at least 3% of Lithuania’s gross domestic product, from the 2.75% planned for this year.

But Nauseda, who is a social conservative, has clashed with Simonyte on other issues, including whether to give a legal recognition to same-sex civil partnerships, which Nauseda opposes.

He has said it would make such unions too similar to marriage, which Lithuania’s constitution only allows for a man and a woman.

Simonyte, a former finance minister and a fiscal hawk, said on Thursday that if she won, “the direction for the country — pro-European, pro-Western — would not change.”

“But I would like quicker progress, more openness and understanding, larger tolerance to people who are different from us,” she added.

Lithuania’s president has a semi-executive role, which includes heading the armed forces, chairing the supreme defense and national security policy body and representing the country at European Union and NATO summits.

The president sets foreign and security policy in tandem with the government, can veto laws and has a say in the appointment of key officials such as judges, the chief prosecutor, the chief of defense and the head of the central bank.

It will be the second time the two have competed in a presidential run-off. In 2019, Nauseda beat Simonyte with 66% of vote.

Top Russian military officials are being arrested. Why is it happening?

US rapper Nicki Minaj freed after Netherlands arrest

The Hague, Netherlands — U.S. rapper Nicki Minaj was detained at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on suspicion of possessing soft drugs before being released with a fine, Dutch media reported Saturday.

The singer was to perform a show in Britain later Saturday and posted images on social media of her being questioned by officials.

Police confirmed to AFP that they had detained a 41-year-old American woman but declined to confirm that it was Minaj, as per their usual policy.

“We never confirm the identity of a person in custody, but I can confirm we have arrested a 41-year-old woman suspected of trying to export soft drugs to another country,” Robert Kapel, a military police spokesman, told AFP.

Kapel later told AFP the suspect had been released after the payment of a “reasonable” fine.

“There’s no reason for us to keep her in custody any longer. We have all the information for our file. Case closed,” he told AFP.

The rapper posted on X that authorities told her they had found cannabis in her luggage, which she said belonged to her security personnel.

A common misconception outside the Netherlands is that marijuana is legal in the country, home to world-famous coffee shops (which actually sell pot) that are a huge draw for cannabis smokers.

The consumption of small quantities of cannabis is technically illegal but police choose not to enforce the law as part of a tolerance policy in place since the 1970s.

Transporting the drugs to another country is illegal.

Minaj was due to perform in Manchester on her Pink Friday 2 World Tour, and the hashtag #FREENICKI was trending on X.

The Manchester concert originally scheduled for Saturday night has now been postponed.

Promoter Live Nation said the performance will be rescheduled and tickets will be honored.

“Despite Nicki’s best efforts to explore every possible avenue to make tonight’s show happen, the events of today have made it impossible,” the promoter said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed by the inconvenience this has caused.”

G7 officials make progress on money for Ukraine from frozen Russian assets

FRANKFURT, Germany — Finance officials from the Group of Seven rich democracies said they had moved toward agreement on a U.S. proposal to squeeze more money for Ukraine from Russian assets frozen in their countries. But the ministers left a final deal to be worked out ahead of a June summit of national leaders. 

“We are making progress in our discussions on potential avenues to bring forward the extraordinary profits stemming from immobilized Russian sovereign assets to the benefit of Ukraine,” the draft statement said, without providing details. 

Despite the progress made at the meeting in Stresa, on the shores of Lago Maggiore in northern Italy, a final decision on how the assets will be used will rest with the G7 national leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, next month at their annual summit in Fasano, in southern Italy. 

Host Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said that “progress has been made so far” but that there were “legal and technical issues that have to be overcome.” 

“It is not an easy task, but we are working on it,” he said at a news conference following the end of the meeting. 

Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko joined the finance ministers and central bank heads at their concluding session on Saturday. “I am satisfied with the progress,” he told journalists afterward. He said the G7 ministers “are working very hard to find a reliable construction for Ukraine.” 

 

The U.S. Congress has passed legislation allowing the Biden administration to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets in the U.S., but European countries have a strong voice in the matter since most of the $260 billion in Russian central bank assets frozen after the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion are held in their jurisdictions. 

Citing legal concerns, European officials have balked at outright confiscating the money and handing it to Ukraine as compensation for the destruction caused by Russia. 

Instead, they plan use the interest accumulating on the assets, but that’s only around $3 billion a year — about one month’s financing needs for the Ukrainian government. 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is pushing for borrowing against the future interest income from the frozen assets. That would mean Ukraine could be given as much as $50 billion immediately. 

But the proposal has run into concerns from European members about the legal complexities, and about concerns that Russia could retaliate against the diminished number of Western companies and individuals who still have holdings in Russia, or against the Euroclear securities depository in Belgium where the bulk of the funds is held. 

Russia has published a decree from President Vladimir Putin allowing confiscation of assets of U.S. companies and individuals as compensation for any Russian assets seized in the United States. 

The ministers also discussed what to do about China’s outsized, state-backed production of green energy technology, which the U.S. considers a threat to the global economy. The U.S. has imposed major new tariffs on electric vehicles, semiconductors, solar equipment and medical supplies imported from China. Included is a 100% tariff on Chinese-made EVs, meant to protect the U.S. economy from cheap Chinese imports. 

The U.S. position has been that Chinese overcapacity is an issue not just for the U.S. but also for other G7 and developing countries. That’s because China’s selling of low-priced goods threatens the existence of competing companies around the world. 

The G7 is an informal forum that holds an annual summit to discuss economic policy and security issues. The member countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Representatives of the European Union also take part, but the EU does not serve as one of the rotating chairs. 

G7 ministers move closer to Russian assets deal to help Ukraine

Stresa, Italy — Finance ministers representing the G7 are expected Saturday to agree a broad plan to use interest from frozen Russian assets for Ukraine, paving the way for a potential agreement among leaders next month.

The challenge of finding more funds for Ukraine as it battles fresh territorial advances by Russia after more than two years of war has dominated a meeting of finance ministers from the world’s richest democracies in the northern Italian city of Stresa.

The meeting comes as Kyiv said it had “stopped” the Russian advance in the Kharkiv region. But Ukraine’s General Staff acknowledged Saturday “the enemy has partial success” and “the situation is tense” as fighting continued.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has increased appeals for help as his army has struggled.

Washington on Friday announced a new $275 million package of military aid for Kyiv.

Ukrainian Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko was to attend Saturday’s G7 meeting in Stresa seeking to tap interest from frozen Russian assets.

Any detailed agreement would require the approval of G7 leaders, who meet next month in Puglia, but observers have suggested that a deal “in principle” could be agreed on Saturday.

“We need to reach a declaration of principle that marks the overall agreement of the G7 countries to use revenues from Russian assets to finance Ukraine,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

He said ministers aim to “reach a political agreement in principle, not a turnkey solution.”

The European Union’s economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, also expressed cautious optimism, saying there was “a positive convergence” at the talks toward the concept of tapping profits from frozen Russian assets.

Calls have mounted this year in the West to set up a fund for Ukraine using billions of dollars in bank accounts, investments and other assets frozen since Russia’s 2022 invasion.

Many questions

Noting there remained “many details yet to be clarified,” Gentiloni said the discussions “may lead to an agreement” at the G7 summit in Puglia June 13-15.

Italian Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, too, said he and his counterparts were eyeing “the basis for a solution for the mid-June summit.”

The EU this week formally approved a plan to use interest from Russian assets frozen by the bloc in what it estimates could generate up to three billion euros a year for Ukraine.

But the United States has maintained that G7 countries can go further, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging ministers to consider “more ambitious options.”

The U.S. idea would involve the creation of a $50 billion loan facility for Ukraine backed by future interest generated by the frozen Russian assets.

While it would provide a bigger boost to Ukraine, the proposal has raised questions, including who would issue the debt, how risk would be shared between the United States and other G7 nations, and how interest rates could evolve.

“We’re not going to talk about amounts,” Le Maire said. “I think we need to talk about method first.”

In February, the United States argued that G7 nations should seize the frozen assets outright, an idea it later backed away from due to the concern of allies that it could be a dangerous legal precedent and that Russia could retaliate. 

France’s secularism increasingly struggling with schools, integration

MARSEILLE, France — Brought into the international spotlight by the ban on hijabs for French athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics, France’s unique approach to “laïcité” — loosely translated as “secularism” — has been increasingly stirring controversy across the country.

The struggle cuts to the core of how France approaches not only the place of religion in public life, but also the integration of its mostly immigrant-origin Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest.

Perhaps the most contested ground is public schools, where visible signs of faith are barred under policies seeking to foster national unity. That includes the headscarves some Muslim women want to wear for piety and modesty, even as others fight them as a symbol of oppression.

“It has become a privilege to be allowed to practice our religion,” said Majda Ould Ibbat, who was considering leaving Marseille, France’s second-largest city, until she discovered a private Muslim school, Ibn Khaldoun, where her children could both freely live their faith and flourish academically.

“We wanted them to have a great education, and with our principles and our values,” added Ould Ibbat, who only started wearing a headscarf recently, while her teen daughter, Minane, hasn’t felt ready to.

For Minane, as for many French Muslim youth, navigating French culture and her spiritual identity is getting harder. The 19-year-old nursing student has heard people say even on the streets of multicultural Marseille that there’s no place for Muslims.

“I ask myself if Islam is accepted in France,” she said.

Minane also lives with the collective trauma that has scarred much of France in the aftermath of Islamist attacks, which have targeted schools and are seen by many as evidence that laïcité (pronounced lah-eee-see-tay) needs to be strictly enforced to prevent radicalization.

Minane vividly remembers observing a moment of silence at Ibn Khaldoun in honor of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher beheaded by a radicalized Islamist in 2020. A memorial to Paty as a defender of France’s values hangs in the entrance of the Education Ministry in Paris.

For its officials and most educators, secularism is essential. They say it encourages a sense of belonging to a united French identity and prevents those who are less or not religiously observant from feeling pressured.

For many French Muslims, however, laïcité is exerting precisely that kind of discriminatory pressure on already disadvantaged minorities.

Amid the tension, there’s broad agreement that polarization is skyrocketing, as crackdowns and challenges mount.

“Laws on laïcité protect and allow for coexistence — which is less and less easy,” said Isabelle Tretola, principal of the public primary school across from Ibn Khaldoun.

She addresses challenges to secularism daily — like children in choir class who put their hands on their ears “because their families told them singing variety songs isn’t good.”

“You can’t force them to sing, but teachers tell them they can’t cover their ears out of respect for the instructor and classmates,” Tretola said. “In school, you come to learn the values of the republic.”

Secularism is a fundamental value in France’s constitution. The state explicitly charges public schools with instilling those values in children, while allowing private schools to offer religious instruction as long as they also teach the general curriculum that the government establishes.

Government officials argue the prohibition against showcasing a particular faith is necessary to avoid threats to democracy. The government has made fighting radical Islam a priority, and secularism is seen as a bulwark against the feared growth of religious influence on daily life, down to beachwear.

“In a public school, the school for everyone, one behaves like everyone else, and should not make a display,” said Alain Seksig, secretary general of the Education Ministry’s council on secularism.

For many teachers and principals, having strict government rules is helping confront multiplying challenges.

Some 40% of teachers report self-censoring on subjects from evolution to sexual health after the attacks on Paty and another teacher, Dominique Bernard, slain last fall by a suspected Islamic extremist, said Didier Georges of SNPDEN-UNSA, a union representing more than half of France’s principals.

Like him, Laurent Le Drezen, a principal and a leader of another education workers union, SGEN-CFDT, sees a nefarious influence of social media in the growth of Muslim students challenging secularism at school.

His classroom experience in Marseille’s Quartiers Nord — often dilapidated suburbs with projects housing mostly families of North African origin — also taught him the importance of showing students that schools aren’t coming after them for being Muslim.

At Marseille’s Cedres Mosque, next to the projects, Salah Bariki said youth are struggling with exactly that sense of rejection from France.

“What do they want us to do, look at the Eiffel Tower instead of Mecca?” Bariki quipped. Nine of 10 young women in the neighborhood are now veiled, “for identity more than religion,” he added.

To avoid a vicious cycle, more — not less — discussion of religion should be happening in schools, argued Haïm Bendao, rabbi at a conservative synagogue in a nearby neighborhood.

“To establish peace, it’s a daily effort. It’s crazy important to speak in schools,” said Bendao, who has gone to both Ibn Khaldoun and the Catholic school across from it, Saint-Joseph, which also enrolls many Muslim students.

Several families at Ibn Khaldoun said they chose it because it can support both identities instead of exacerbating all-too-public doubts over whether being Muslim is compatible with being French.

“When I hear the debate over compatibility, that’s when I turn off the TV. Fear has invaded the world,” said Nancy Chihane, president of the parents’ association at Ibn Khaldoun.

At a recent spring recess where girls with hijabs, others with their hair flowing in the wind, and boys all mingled, one headscarf-wearing high-schooler said transferring to Ibn Khaldoun meant both freedom and community.

“Here we all understand each other, we’re not marginalized,” said Asmaa Abdelah, 17.

Nouali Yacine, her history and geography teacher, was born in Algeria — which was under French colonial rule until it won independence in 1962 after a violent struggle — and raised in France since he was 7 months old.

“We are within the citizenry. We don’t pose that question, but they pose it to us,” Yacine says.

The school’s founding director, Mohsen Ngazou, is equally adamant about respecting religious and education obligations.

He recalls once “making a scene” when he saw a student wearing an abaya over pajamas — the student code prohibits the latter alongside shorts and revealing necklines.

“I told her she wasn’t ready for class,” Ngazou said. “The abaya doesn’t make a woman religious. The important thing is to feel good about who you are.”

Italian museum recreates Tanzanian butterfly forest

TRENTO, Italy — In a lush greenhouse high in the Alps, butterflies of various species and colors flutter freely while butterfly pupae are suspended in a structure as they grow into adult insects.

This is the Butterfly Forest in the tropical mountain greenhouse in Trento, Italy, a project by the Museo delle Scienze (MUSE), an Italian science museum. It’s modeled on Udzungwa Mountains, a mountain range and rainforest area in south-central Tanzania that’s one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The Butterfly Forest features plant species endemic to the region, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates from different parts of the world, all inside 600 square meters of forest with cliffs, inclinations and a waterfall.

The Butterfly Forest was created this spring to create public awareness on some of the research that MUSE is doing in Udzungwa Mountains to study and protect the world’s biodiversity against threats such as deforestation and climate change.

Deforestation leads to habitat loss, which causes declines in nectar sources for butterflies, changing the functioning of the ecosystem. It can also limit the movements of the insects causing a decline in biodiversity and potential extinction of vulnerable butterfly species. Changes to soil and air temperatures are altering the life cycles of the insects, impacting their development rates, mating behaviors, and migration patterns. Butterfly populations are declining in many areas, especially in places under intensive land use.

“Our aim is that of being able to study better, to understand better what is happening,” said Lisa Angelini, a botanist and director of the MUSE greenhouse. “Our work consists of monitoring and trying to develop projects in order to bring attention to biodiversity-related issues.”

Butterflies are pollinators that enable plants to reproduce and therefore facilitate food production and supply. They are also food for birds and other animals.

Because of the multiple roles of butterflies in the ecosystem and their high sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists use them as indicators of biodiversity and a way to study the impact of habitat loss and other threats. “Insects in general play a fundamental role in the proper functioning of ecosystems,” said Mauro Gobbi, an entomologist and researcher at MUSE.

Through a partnership with the Tanzania National Parks Authority, MUSE established the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center in 2006 to support research as well as in development of environmental education programs for schools.

“Research on butterflies is essential for informing conservation efforts and ensuring the long-term survival of the insects,” said Arafat Mtui, research coordinator at Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre. Conservation efforts such as habitat restoration and good land management practices, which address climate change impacts, are essential for protecting butterfly populations, he added.

With at least 2,500 plant species, more than 120 mammals, and thousands of invertebrate species, Udzungwa Mountains is rich in biological diversity. It’s part of the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania that are a proposed UNESCO Heritage site. It has more than 40 endemic species of butterflies.

MUSE’s work here is vital because of this variety, said Sevgan Subramanian, principal scientist and head of environmental health at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

“If you want to have a monitoring of the health of the ecosystem, monitoring such indigenous or endemic insect population diversity is very critical, so that we have an idea whether the ecosystem is still healthy or not,” he said.

Gobbi, the entomologist, said high-altitude environments like Udzungwa Mountains National Park are suitable for studying the effects of climate change because they usually have no direct human impact.

He and other scientists have warned that failure to protect insects from climate change effects will drastically reduce the planet’s ability to build a sustainable future.

Scientists at MUSE said the main challenge in butterfly conservation is changing the current farming policies to increase the amount of low-intensity farmland, and promote diverse landscapes preserving the remaining patches of natural habitats.

“Often our grandparents used to say ‘there are no longer as many butterflies as there used to be,'” he said. This is “absolutely supported by scientific research, which confirms that butterflies, like other insects, are in crisis. We are losing species, we’re losing them forever, and this is going to break the balance of ecosystems.”

Allies prepare to mark D-Day’s 80th anniversary in shadow of Ukraine war  

Carentan-les-Marais, France — Agnes Scelle grew up listening to her parents’ stories about life in occupied France, living near the Normandy town of Carentan-les-Marais. She heard of the knife pushed up against her father’s throat for trying to block a strategic river, of how German soldiers held her mother at gunpoint.

“They were very afraid,” said Scelle, a former postal worker and village mayor, who still lives in her family’s ancestral home. “Even when the American soldiers had landed, they didn’t know what was going on because there were bombings.”

As Normandy prepares for the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings on June 6, locals like Scelle are focusing on another war, as Russia gains ground in Ukraine.

“The war is at Europe’s doorstep, so of course we’re afraid,” Scelle said. “We need to stick together, the Americans and the European Union, in case we see another conflict on our soil.”

That message is expected to resonate next month, as onetime D-Day allies gather to mark the 80th anniversary of landings on Omaha Beach, roughly 30 km from Carentan-les-Marais. But the celebrations come as some Europeans worry that decades-old transatlantic ties may unravel, along with a U.S. commitment to Kyiv.

The war in Ukraine is shaping this latest D-Day commemoration in other ways. Host France has invited Russia to the official ceremonies, but not Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even including Moscow has reportedly sparked tensions on the part of other WWII allies.

“I can’t say what the solution is for this commemoration,” said Denis Peschanski, a World War II historian at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “What’s certain is we refuse to deny the fundamental contribution of the Soviet army in the liberation. We would never have had a successful landing in Normandy if there hadn’t been 180 German divisions that were blocked on the eastern front’’ by Soviet soldiers.

Like other towns across Normandy, Carentan-les-Marais — known to locals as Carentan — has a full schedule of D-Day events running before and well after official ceremonies. Among them: a parachute drop in period clothes, a parade of World War II military vehicles, and an opportunity to meet Ukrainian war veterans and view a phalanx of donated ambulances bound for Ukraine’s battlefields.

There’s also the wedding of 100-year-old U.S. World War II veteran Harold Terens to 94-year-old Jeanne Swerlin. Carentan’s mayor, Jean-Pierre Lhonneur, will officiate at the ceremony.

“If you come here for the 80th anniversary, you’ll see we almost live in an American state,” said Carentan’s deputy mayor, Sebastien Lesne. “There will be many American flags flying from windows here to celebrate the peace we got back — and especially to say thank you to the veterans who are coming back this year, and who return every year.”

Price of freedom

A strategic crossroad, cut through by highways, waterways and a railway, Carentan saw a pitched six-day battle before American forces defeated the town’s German occupiers on June 12, 1944.

Scelle still remembers her parents’ accounts of German occupation. Troops lived in her home in the village of Baupte, a few kilometers from Carentan. “It was a regular army,” as opposed to Nazi troops, she said. “If you were nice to them, things went well.”

But when her father threw stones into the village river to try to block German passage, the soldiers threatened him with a knife. After the D-Day landings, they demanded of her mother at gunpoint that she disclose the location of arriving U.S. soldiers. Her family fled their home under falling bombs and found it ransacked when they finally returned.

Roughly 20,000 French civilians died during the nearly three-month Battle of Normandy — along with about 73,000 Allied forces and up to 9,000 or so Germans. Overall, Normandy lost many more of its citizens during its liberation than during the entire German occupation.

“My village didn’t have a lot of deaths, but people wouldn’t have been bitter anyway,” Scelle said. “For them, it was the price to pay for freedom.”

Today, Scelle is helping out other war survivors. Since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, dozens of Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Carentan and surrounding villages. Many have since returned to their homeland. But Ukrainian student Kateryna Vorontsova, 19, and her family remain and count among those Scelle has helped to settle in and learn French.

“I would like to stay in France,” said Vorontsova, although she wants to eventually return to her homeland in peace. “I like the weather, the landscape, the culture.”

Of D-Day, she added, “it’s important to remember the landings. They’re our common history.”

Ukraine ties

Carentan has other ties to Ukraine. Donated ambulances line a field next to the D-Day Experience Museum, just outside Carentan. Some are funded by U.S. donors, others by European entities like the government of Madrid. Just after the D-Day anniversary, volunteers will drive them more than 2,000 km to Ukraine.

“According to doctors I’ve talked to in Ukraine, every ambulance saves an average of 250 lives a month,” said Brock Bierman, president of Ukraine Focus, a nongovernmental group based in Washington and Ukraine, which is spearheading the effort. He is in Carentan organizing the convoy’s departure.

“Our volunteer drivers have delivered them literally to the front lines … in Bakhmut and Kherson, in Odesa and Mykolaiv,” he added, naming towns in Ukraine. “There’s a lot of work to get this done, and we couldn’t do it without an alliance of people from all over Europe and the United States.”

A former senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, Bierman strongly backs U.S. aid for Ukraine, including the $60 billion finally passed by Congress in April. Uncertainty about whether those funds would be approved lingers and is among issues feeding doubts in Europe about long-term U.S. commitment to Ukraine and — if Donald Trump returns to office — to the NATO transatlantic alliance.

Bierman believes the costs will be high if Washington does not stand by Kyiv.

“If we fail to support Ukraine’s independence, what we could be looking at is a longer-term conflict in the next decade — which could involve boots on the ground and possible American lives lost,” he said.

At Carentan’s town hall, Deputy Mayor Lesne believes the Normandy landings offer lessons for today.

“I think the most important message is in two words: to remember,” he said. “Not to forget what happened, so it won’t be repeated. Millions of people died in the Second World War — we can’t have that happen again.”

Allies prepare to mark D-Day’s 80th anniversary in shadow of Ukraine war 

Some of the last surviving World War Two veterans gather in Normandy, France, next month to mark the 1944 allied landings that began the country’s liberation from Nazi German control. But another war on Europe’s doorstep — in Ukraine — casts a dark shadow on this 80th anniversary of D-Day. Lisa Bryant reports from the Normandy town of Carentan-les-Marais.

Hungary to seek to opt out of NATO efforts to support Ukraine, Orban says

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary will seek to opt out of any NATO operations aimed at supporting Ukraine, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Friday, suggesting that the military alliance and the European Union were moving toward a more direct conflict with Russia. 

Orban told state radio that Hungary opposes a plan NATO is weighing to provide more predictable military support to Ukraine in coming years to repel Moscow’s full-scale invasion, as better armed Russian troops assert control on the battlefield. 

“We do not approve of this, nor do we want to participate in financial or arms support (for Ukraine), even within the framework of NATO,” Orban said, adding that Hungary has taken a position as a “nonparticipant” in any potential NATO operations to assist Kyiv. 

“We’ve got to redefine our position within the military alliance, and our lawyers and officers are working on … how Hungary can exist as a NATO member while not participating in NATO actions outside of its territory,” he said. 

Orban, considered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest partner in the EU, emphasized NATO’s role as a defensive alliance, and said he doesn’t share the concerns of some other Central and Eastern European countries that Russia’s military wouldn’t cease its aggression if it wins the war in Ukraine. 

“NATO’s strength cannot be compared to that of Ukraine,” he said. “I don’t consider it a logical proposition that Russia, which cannot even deal with Ukraine, will come all of a sudden and swallow up the whole Western world.” 

Hungary has refused to supply neighboring Ukraine with military aid in contrast to most other countries in the EU, and Orban has vigorously opposed the bloc’s sanctions on Moscow though has ultimately always voted for them. 

The nationalist leader is preparing for the European Parliament election on June 6-9 and has cast his party as a guarantor of peace in the region. He has characterized the United States and other EU countries that urge greater support for Ukraine as “pro-war” and acting in preparation for a global conflict.

Mali, Russia start work on major solar plant 

Dakar, Senegal — Mali and Russia on Friday launched the construction of the largest solar power plant in West Africa, Malian Energy Minister Bintou Camara said on national television. 

It comes as the country continues to be plagued by electricity supply problems, with only half of the population having access to electricity. 

The power station, “the first [in terms of size] in the country and even in the subregion … will greatly reduce the electricity shortage currently affecting our country,” Camara told Malian TV station ORTM. 

Grigory Nazarov, director of NovaWind, the Russian company in charge of the construction, said it is expected to increase Mali’s electricity production by 10%. 

NovaWind is a subsidiary of Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom. 

The 200-megawatt solar station will cover 314 hectares in Sanankoroba, in southwestern Mali, close to the capital, Bamako. 

The work, which is costing over 200 million euros ($217 million), will take a year to complete, Nazarov said. 

The solar power plant is designed for “stable operation for 20 years” and will come “under full control of the Malian Ministry of Energy” after 10 years, he added. 

Malian electricity production is 70% thermal, which is extremely costly, Finance Minister Alousseni Sanou said in March when the deal with NovaWind was signed. 

Burdened with a debt of more than $330 million, Mali’s national energy company is no longer able to supply electricity to the capital and other towns around the country. 

Construction of two other solar plants near Bamako is scheduled to start on May 28 and June 1 and be built by Chinese and Emirati companies. 

Moscow has steadily gained influence in Mali through the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries, unofficially serving the Kremlin’s aims in resource-rich Africa since the 2010s. 

During a call in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Malian junta leader Colonel Assimi Goita discussed strengthening “cooperation in energy, agricultural and mining projects,” the Kremlin said. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy marks 5 years as president of Ukraine

May 20 marked Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s fifth anniversary as Ukraine’s president. By law, the president serves five years, but elections have been postponed while the country remains under martial law. Katerina Besedina examines Zelenskyy’s challenging term so far. Anna Rice narrates. VOA footage by Elena Matusovky.

Russian prison population fell by 50,000 last year, media report

LONDON — The number of people held in Russian prisons dropped by 58,000 last year, Russian independent media reported on Friday, continuing a steady fall spurred in part by the recruitment of convicts to fight in Ukraine.

In total, some 105,000 prisoners were released between 2022-2023, media reported, citing data published in the official journal of Russia’s prison service.

Russia has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and a vast network of prisons and labour camps stretching across its 11 time zones.

Russia has recruited prisoners to fight in Ukraine since 2022, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late head of the Wagner mercenary group, began touring penal colonies, offering prisoners a pardon if they survived six months at the front.

Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash last year two months after leading a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military leaders, said he had recruited 50,000 prisoners for Wagner.

Russia’s Defence Ministry has since continued recruiting convicts from prisons for its own Storm-Z formations.

Regional authorities in Siberia have said they plan to close several prisons this year amid a decline in inmate numbers driven by the recruitment of convicts for the war.

The latest drop in the prison population is part of a longer-term downward trend. Since 2009, the number of convicts has decreased threefold, from about 730,000 to roughly 250,000, according to calculations by independent media, as Russia has softened penalties for some financial crimes.