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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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New Caledonia airport to stay closed to commercial flights until Tuesday

Noumea, New Caledonia — The international airport in the New Caledonian capital, Noumea, will remain closed to commercial flights until at least 9 a.m. Tuesday (2200 GMT Monday), Charles Roger, director of the body that operates the facility, told AFP.

That would extend the shutdown to nearly two weeks in total, after flights were halted on May 15 in the face of deadly rioting that broke out in the French Pacific territory.

The news on Friday came as French President Emmanuel Macron warned the archipelago must not become “the Wild West” during a television interview with local media.

France has dispatched about 3,000 security personnel to the territory in a bid to restore order after more than a week of rioting that has left at least six people dead.

Macron justified the measure as necessary for a “return to calm,” because “it’s not the Wild West.”

“The republic must regain authority on all points. In France, not everyone defends themselves,” he added, reference to local groups who have organized the defense of their neighborhoods amid the unrest.

“There is a republican order, it is the security forces who ensure it,” he added.

Since Tuesday, New Zealand and Australia have been carrying out special evacuation flights to bring home hundreds of tourists stranded by the unrest, which was sparked by opposition to controversial electoral reforms.

The Australian evacuation flights were set to continue Friday, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on social media platform X Thursday evening.

Military aircraft from both countries were expected to pass through Noumea on Friday, according to flight tracker site Flightradar24.

Since May 13, hundreds have been injured amid looting, arson and clashes triggered by the French voting reform plan.

New Caledonia has been ruled from Paris since the 1800s, but many Indigenous Kanaks still resent France’s power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.

France had planned to give voting rights to thousands of non-Indigenous long-term residents, something Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their votes.

Separatists have thrown up barricades that have cut off whole neighborhoods, as well as the main route to the international airport.

Macron on Thursday conceded more talks were needed on the voting changes, and pledged they would “not be forced through in the current context.”

“We will allow some weeks to allow a calming of tensions and resumption of dialogue to find a broad accord” among all parties, he added, saying he would review the situation again within a month.

Caledonians would be asked to vote on their future if leaders can reach an over-arching agreement, Macron said. The French parliament’s lower house had approved the voting reform, but final ratification was still needed.

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Sweden trains to defend itself and its new NATO partners

Sweden, NATO’s newest member, this week announced a three-year plan to provide additional support for Ukraine totaling more than $7 billion. The move comes amid concerns about Russia’s growing aggression. Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze reports. Camera: Daniil Batushchak.

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UN designates annual day to commemorate Srebrenica genocide

United Nations — The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday to designate July 11 annually as an international day of reflection and commemoration of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men by Bosnian Serb forces. Serbia and Bosnian Serbs strongly opposed its adoption.

“Perpetrated amidst the Bosnian War, this act of genocide led to the tragic death of the victims and to unimaginable suffering for survivors and their families,” German Ambassador Antje Leendertse said, introducing the resolution. “Our initiative is about honoring the memory of the victims and supporting the survivors who continue to live with the scars of that fateful time.”

Germany and Rwanda co-led the negotiations on the resolution’s text over more than a month.

The resolution received 84 votes in favor, 19 against and 68 abstentions. Only a simple majority of those countries present and voting “yes” or “no” was needed for the motion to pass. It was co-sponsored by more than 40 countries, including the western Balkan nations of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia and Slovenia, along with the United States.

Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Denis Becirovic welcomed the resolution, saying it is an important step for the promotion of peace and reconciliation in the region and beyond.

“Truth and justice won today in the U.N. General Assembly,” he told VOA after the vote.

In addition to designating the annual international day of reflection and commemoration, which would start next year on the 30th anniversary of the massacres, the resolution also condemns genocide denial and the glorification of perpetrators.

The U.N.-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia concluded in 2004 that genocide had been committed in the small mountain town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 1995. In 2007, the International Court of Justice also ruled that the massacres constituted genocide.

Regional opposition

The president of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has threatened to secede from the country if the resolution is adopted.

Serbia’s government has also vigorously campaigned against the resolution, urging its co-sponsors to withdraw it, saying it unfairly targets Serbia and attributes moral responsibility for genocide collectively to its people and will hurt the fragile reconciliation process, a claim the authors deny.

Montenegro suggested language that was added to the final text, clarifying that “criminal accountability under international law for the crime of genocide is individualized and cannot be attributed to any ethnic, religious, or other group or community as a whole.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic traveled to New York for the vote. He urged the General Assembly to vote against the resolution, saying it was highly politicized and would only sow deeper divisions in the region.

“This is not about reconciliation; this is not about memories,” he said. “This is something that will just open an old wound and that will create a complete political havoc — and not only in our region, but here in this hall.”

On July 11, 1995, the U.N.-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces. Over the next several days, at least 8,372 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were separated from their families, put on buses and taken to several locations including warehouses, schools and fields, where they were executed.

Their bodies were dumped in several mass graves. Investigators said their remains were later exhumed and moved to secondary graves in an extensive cover up. Experts used DNA samples from relatives to identify thousands of the murdered men.

The Hague-based tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted 16 people for crimes committed in Srebrenica, including eight men for the crime of genocide.

The General Assembly resolution adopted Thursday is partly modeled on a 2003 resolution that established the international day of reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It has been observed at the United Nations every April 7 since 2004.

Some countries that abstained or voted against Thursday’s Srebrenica resolution noted that there is also a day of remembrance for all victims of genocide, which the United Nations marks every December 9.

Others noted that there was no consensus in the region on the resolution and that they did not want to contribute to tensions.

Both the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and the special adviser on the prevention of genocide welcomed the resolution.

“This resolution is further recognition of the victims and survivors and their pursuit of justice, truth and guarantees of non-recurrence,” human rights chief Volker Türk said in a statement.

Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Nderitu said the resolution is important in light of the trend toward genocide denial in the region.

“Questioning the tragic reality of what happened in Srebrenica is not acceptable,” she said, adding it would only hurt peace and reconciliation efforts.

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Putin signs decree allowing seizure of Americans’ assets if US confiscates Russian holdings

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Norway, Spain and Ireland to recognize Palestinian statehood, prompting Israeli fury

Three European nations announced Wednesday that they intend to officially recognize Palestinian statehood, prompting a furious response from Israel, which is at war with Hamas militants in Gaza. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Pentagon says Russia launched space weapon in path of US satellite 

Washington — Russia has launched a likely space weapon and deployed it in the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite, the Pentagon said.

“Russia launched a satellite into low Earth orbit that we assess is likely a counter-space weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Major General Pat Ryder told a press briefing late Tuesday.

The Russian “counter-space weapon” launched on May 16 was deployed “into the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite,” he said.

Ryder added that Washington would continue to monitor the situation and was ready to protect its interests.

“We have a responsibility to be ready to protect and defend the domain, the space domain, and ensure continuous and uninterrupted support to the Joint and Combined Force,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, Moscow accused the United States of seeking to place weapons in space after Washington vetoed a Russian non-proliferation motion at the United Nations.

“They have once again demonstrated that their true priorities in the area of outer space are aimed not at keeping space free from weapons of any kind, but at placing weapons in space and turning it into an arena for military confrontation,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

The world powers have traded multiple accusations of seeking to weaponize space in recent months.

They have proposed rival non-proliferation motions at the United Nations as part of the spat.

Russia vetoed the U.S. initiative last month, while Moscow’s proposal was blocked by the United States, Britain and France in a vote on Monday.

U.S. envoy Robert Wood said Russia’s proposal, which called on all countries to “take urgent measures to prevent for all time the placement of weapons in outer space,” was a distraction and accused Moscow of “diplomatic gaslighting.”

He said that Russia’s “likely” counter-space weapon was “presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit.”

“Russia deployed this new counter-space weapon into the same orbit as a US government satellite,” he said in remarks ahead of Monday’s vote.

“Russia’s May 16 launch follows prior Russian satellite launches likely of counter-space systems to low Earth orbit in 2019 and 2022.”

In February, the White House said Russia was developing an anti-satellite weapon, the existence of which was confirmed after lawmakers warned of an unspecified but serious threat to national security.

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Blinken: Gaza cease-fire still possible, but ICC move complicates efforts  

state department — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas militants in return for the release of hostages remains possible, but the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for Israeli leaders hindered ongoing efforts.  

“There’s been an extensive effort made in recent months to get that agreement. I think we came very, very close on a couple of occasions. Qatar, Egypt, others participating in the efforts to do this — we remain at it every single day. I think that there’s still a possibility,” Blinken told lawmakers during a hearing at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.    

But Blinken said the “extremely wrongheaded decision” by the ICC prosecutor to seek arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and three Hamas leaders in Gaza for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the Israel-Hamas war complicated the prospects of reaching such a deal.    

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the ICC prosecutor’s decision to equate Hamas terror attacks and civilian abductions in southern Israel with Israel’s military practices in Gaza, calling the ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants “outrageous.”  

Blinken said he will be happy to work with the Congress “on an appropriate response.”    

Some lawmakers are considering legislation to sanction ICC officials for prosecuting U.S. citizens or allies, including Israel.  

The top U.S. diplomat began two days of congressional testimonies, which were immediately interrupted by protesters holding signs that read “war criminal.” They were escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police.  

Military operation in Rafah   

In the nearly three-hour hearing, Blinken also said the Biden administration remains “very concerned” about a major military operation by Israel in Rafah.  

The U.S. has opposed a full-scale military assault by Israel in Rafah, situated in the southern part of Gaza. Such an operation would endanger the lives of 1.3 million civilians who evacuated from the northern and central areas of the territory to seek safety from Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.  

Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and wounded nearly 80,000, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The offensive was launched following a Hamas terror attack into Israel that killed 1,200 people.  

US-Saudi defense pact     

U.S. officials said the United States and Saudi Arabia are nearing a final agreement on a bilateral defense pact.   

Once complete, it will be part of a broader deal presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who must decide whether to make concessions to his opposition regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state to secure normalization with Saudi Arabia.  

On Tuesday, Blinken admitted that Israel might be reluctant to accept a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia if it requires them to agree to a Palestinian state.    

In his testimony before the U.S. Congress, Blinken told Democratic Senator Chris Murphy “the overall package could not go forward, absent other things that have to happen for normalization to proceed.”

“And in particular,” he said, “the Saudis have been very clear that would require calm in Gaza. And it would require a credible pathway to a Palestinian state. And it may well be, as you said, that in this moment, Israel is not able or willing to proceed down that pathway.”    

Blinken added that Israel must “decide whether it wants to proceed and take advantage of the opportunity” to achieve something that it has sought since its founding: normal relations with the countries in the region.  

Netanyahu has rejected the two-state solution and the return of the Palestinian Authority controlling Gaza, demands that are widely supported by the international community.  

The Saudis have demanded, as a prerequisite to normalizing ties with Israel, to see an Israeli commitment to the two-state solution. 

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