An Azerbaijani student studying in Germany has disappeared after traveling to Iran to meet his girlfriend, according to his family.

Farid Safarli’s mother, who is currently in Iran searching for him, told VOA that Iranian law enforcement agencies have not given her any information about him.

“There was no information about Farid in the system of law enforcement agencies. Some agencies even refused to check the system,” Dilara Asgarova told VOA.

“They said that if Farid had committed a misdemeanor, there would have been information about him in the system. But information about felonies does not appear in the system. I asked what constitutes a felony? And they said espionage and other crimes. So, we have not been able to get any information about Farid so far.”

Asgarova said she has hired a lawyer in Iran to help her search.

According to the press service of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ministry was notified on March 9 that Farid Safarli, a citizen of Azerbaijan and a student at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, went to Iran on February 20 but his family has not heard from him since March 4.

Safarli’s mother said she knows her son’s phone was active on March 6 and 10.

“Farid’s phone was turned on at one point in time. His Telegram account showed that he was active. I called immediately, but no one picked up,” Asgarova told VOA.

Safarli met his girlfriend, who is an Iranian citizen, in Jena, Germany, where she was participating in a medical training program at a local university. She left for Iran after her training ended, his mother told VOA.

“After the training, she returned to Iran. Nevertheless, they maintained connection via phone calls. They decided to meet in Istanbul. Farid went to Istanbul, but she could not get her visa at the time. So, Farid went to Iran from Istanbul,” she said.

Asgarova, who earlier had traveled to Germany in her search for her son, said German police were able to get access to the information on Safarli’s laptop that she found in his apartment.

“They recovered phone numbers, photos, names, part of [the girlfriend’s] surname, workplace, just a lot of information about Farid’s girlfriend,” she said.

German police also confirmed with Pegasus Airlines that Safarli had not flown anywhere since arriving in Tehran last month.

“The police said that they received information from the airline company that Farid Safarli had not taken any flights out of Tehran. They sent a letter to the Iranian Embassy in Germany, inquiring about Farid. But the Iranian Embassy has not yet responded to the police.”

Asgarova, who then left for Iran, said she has received conflicting information from the staff of the hospital in Iran, where her son’s girlfriend was said to be working as an intern.

“First when I called them, they told me she had taken leave and had not gone to work for 20 days. Those 20 days coincide with the time my son went missing. But when I got to the hospital, the situation changed. They said she never worked there,” Asgarova told VOA.

The spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan, Aykhan Hajizada, told VOA that the ministry has sent a diplomatic note to the Iranian Embassy requesting information about the matter. But the embassy has not responded yet.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent a note to the Iranian Embassy in our country in order to clarify the mentioned information and is currently waiting for a response from the other side,” he said.

Asgarova said she has appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, asking them to take more measures to ensure that İran responds to their diplomatic note.

“Maybe they can use the mediation of other countries. They should apply to international organizations. What if Iran stays silent forever? Are we going to sit and wait for their answer forever?” she asked.

“As a mother, I am very worried about the fate of my son. I am extremely worried. Maybe my son is in prison here in Tehran, a hundred meters away from me. But I can’t get any information from him. No one is giving me any information.”

International human rights groups for years have cataloged the Iranian government’s systematic use of enforced disappearances against thousands of people, often women, ethnic and religious minorities and others seen as a threat by the state. Some are freed after years of detention but others have been executed following sham trials.

This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service, with Parvana Bayramova contributing.

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Belgian authorities have charged seven people over “possible terrorist attacks,” federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The announcement came the day after prosecutors said they had detained eight people following raids on suspicion of planning an Islamist attack in Belgium.

In their latest statement, the prosecutors said four people had been charged with taking part in the activities of a terrorist group, preparing a terrorist offense, attempted assassination and intending to spread a message to incite the commission of a terrorist offense.

The four — three Belgians and one Turk — were all linked to a case in the city of Antwerp, the prosecutors said. They would appear before a court there on April 3, the statement said.

A further three people — two Belgians and one Bulgarian — were charged in a case in Brussels.

Two of them have been charged with taking part in the activities of a terrorist group.

The third person has been charged with taking part in the activities of a terrorist group, preparing a terrorist offense and spreading a message with the intention of inciting the commission of a terrorist offense, prosecutors said.

All three people charged in the Brussels case will appear before a court in the Belgian capital on April 3.

In their previous statement, prosecutors said police carried out raids late on Monday at five addresses in Brussels, Antwerp and in Eupen, a city near the German border, and detained five men, at least two of them suspected of planning an attack.

In a separate but linked investigation, police raided three other addresses in and near Brussels and detained three people, also on suspicion of planning an attack.

Belgium was the home to a number of the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, and Brussels was itself the target of twin bomb attacks at its airport and on its metro in March 2016, when 32 people were killed.

Brussels is home to European Union institutions and NATO.

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Pope Francis was hospitalized with a lung infection Wednesday after experiencing difficulty breathing in recent days and will remain in the hospital for several days of treatment, the Vatican said.

The 86-year-old pope doesn’t have COVID-19, spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement late Wednesday.

The hospitalization was the first since Francis spent 10 days at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital in July 2021 to have 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his colon removed.

It immediately raised questions about Francis’ overall health and his ability to celebrate the busy Holy Week events that begin this weekend with Palm Sunday.

Bruni said Francis had been suffering breathing troubles in recent days and went to the Gemelli hospital for tests.

“The tests showed a respiratory infection (COVID-19 infection excluded) that will require some days of medical therapy,” Bruni’s statement said.

Francis appeared in relatively good form during his regularly scheduled general audience earlier Wednesday, though he grimaced strongly while getting in and out of the “popemobile.”

Francis had part of one lung removed when he was a young man because of a a respiratory infection, and he often speaks in a whisper. But he got through the worst phases of the COVID-19 pandemic without at least any public word of ever testing positive.

Francis had been set to celebrate Palm Sunday this weekend, kicking off the Vatican’s Holy Week observances: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and finally Easter Sunday on April 9. He has canceled all audiences through Friday, but it wasn’t clear whether he could keep the Holy Week plans.

Francis has used a wheelchair for more than a year because of strained ligaments in his right knee and a small knee fracture. He has said the injury was healing, and he has been walking more with a cane of late.

Francis also has said he resisted having surgery for the knee problems because he didn’t respond well to general anesthesia during the 2021 intestinal surgery.

He said soon after the surgery that he had recovered fully and could eat normally. But in a January 24 interview with The Associated Press, Francis said his diverticulosis, or bulges in the intestinal wall, had returned.

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U.S. officials said Tuesday they will await the findings of three independent European investigations into the September blasts that damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. 

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters President Joe Biden is confident the probes will be as thorough as possible, and that they should provide a better sense of what happened. 

Kirby said last week the United States believes the blasts were an act of sabotage and that the U.S. was not involved in any way. 

A Russian resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling for an international investigation into the blasts failed to win support, earning three votes in favor, short of the nine needed for approval. 

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the United States and its allies had done everything possible to thwart an investigation, while U.S. envoy Robert Wood said it is Russia that is not interested in an impartial investigation. 

Between September 26 and 29, 2022, explosions caused four leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which run along the floor of the Baltic Sea, and which Russia uses to supply Europe with gas. 

VOA United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer and VOA White House correspondent Paris Huang contributed to this report.  

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On board a Boeing 737 medevac plane, Poland, March 29, 2023 (AFP) –

You can see the pain held just in check in the faces of Ukraine’s war wounded as they are evacuated in a flying hospital.

“It’s the first time I’ve taken a plane,” says 22-year-old Mykola Fedirko, who was hit by a shell holding off Russian troops in a trench in the Donetsk region.

“I would have loved to be going to Denmark for a holiday and not to hospital because of my wound,” says the 22-year-old salesman-turned-soldier, whose lower leg is held in place by metal pins.

Fedirko is one of around 2,000 wounded who have been evacuated from Ukraine to hospitals across Europe since the war started more than a year ago.

Most have been injured in fighting, but some are critically ill civilians.

AFP is the first international media outlet allowed on one of the medical evacuation (medevac) flights carried out by Norway in collaboration with the European Union in a specially adapted Boeing 737.

“We established this scheme at the request of Ukraine… to alleviate the burden on the Ukrainian hospitals,” says Juan Escalante of the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre.

The project is “unprecedented at the continental level” and was set up “in record time”, he adds.

Some 859 health facilities in Ukraine have been attacked since the Russian invasion, according to the World Health Organization.

Bombings of hospitals, maternity wards and medical storage units mean almost half a million people a month are deprived of medical care, the Norwegian authorities estimate.

Wounded and weapons cross

The flying hospital, a transformed passenger plane owned by Scandinavian carrier SAS, lands at Rzeszow airport in southeastern Poland, 70 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, to pick up the injured before flying them over two days to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne and Oslo.

A hub for delivering arms to Ukraine, Rzeszow airport has dozens of anti-air missiles and several large cargo aircraft unloading pallets of ammunition just a few feet away from where the war wounded are loaded onto the medevac plane.

The crew of the medevac flight are civilians, but the medical staff are from the Norwegian military.

In an odd semblance of normality, a stewardess hands out pizzas, snacks and soft drinks.

Oleksiy Radzyvil, 28, who has injuries to both legs, devours his Margherita pizza and washes it down with a Coke.

With his wild mane and perpetual smile, Radyzvil sticks out in the grim surroundings.

He was even smiling in December when he regained consciousness after a Russian shell destroyed his vehicle, sending him several meters into the air in Bakhmut, the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“I smiled because I was alive,” he recalls.

Since then, he’s been treated in six hospitals in Ukraine.

“I hope that I will get better… that European doctors in the Netherlands will help.”

‘Fight against Putin’

In Europe, the patient transfers are seen as a way of helping the war effort.

They are “another way to fight against Putin”, Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles said as she visited a military hospital in Zaragoza last year.

The modified Boeing is equipped with 20 hospital beds, monitors, ventilators, blood transfusion equipment and countless vials of antibiotics.

It’s “like a small intensive care unit in the air”, says Hakon Asak, a lieutenant-colonel from the Norwegian military’s medical service.

“We’ve had no deaths onboard so far. Thank God for that,” he adds, a blue-and-yellow “Free Ukraine” bracelet looped around his wrist.

Most of the patients may look well, he says, “but they are still in severe condition, and we know that some who have been medevacked to different countries have not survived.”

Suffering children

In the cockpit of the plane is Arve Thomassen, a seasoned veteran.

In his previous career at the twilight of the Cold War, Thomassen was a fighter pilot intercepting Soviet planes in the Arctic.

Now aged 60, this larger-than-life Norwegian says he was happy to wrap up his career with a good cause.

“When you fly passengers down to the Mediterranean for sunbathing that’s normal business. I wouldn’t say boring but it’s very common,” he says.

But with these flights, “we take pride in doing this and we do it with a very humble attitude,” he adds.

They will never forget some of the people they’ve transported: the severe burn victims; the man so disfigured he looked like he’d come from the World War I trenches, or the three-year-old suffering from leukemia.

“It’s one thing to have wounded soldiers but children who suffer… that always makes a strong impression on people,” Thomassen tells AFP.

For some passengers, a nap provides a few minutes of respite from the pain.

But Vladyslav Shakhov can’t sleep.

The 24-year-old was hit by shrapnel in the back of the neck and now suffers from quadriparesis — muscle weakness in all four limbs.

“I’m not happy about leaving my country,” says entrepreneur-turned-armored car driver, who is heading to Germany.

“I hope they will get me back on my feet quickly so I can get back.”

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Pirates boarded a Danish-owned Liberian-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf of Guinea over the weekend, the owner said Tuesday, adding that contact with the 16 crew members had been lost.

The 135-meter Monjasa Reformer “experienced an emergency situation” on Saturday around 260 kilometers west of Port Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, owner Monjasa said.

The ship owner said the crew had sought refuge in the tanker’s secure room when the pirates boarded, “in accordance with the onboard anti-piracy emergency protocol.”

“Onboard communications channels are currently down, and we are working with the local authorities to establish communication to understand the situation on board and provide all the support needed by the crew to overcome these dreadful events,” Monjasa said.

It said “the vessel was sitting idle” when the incident took place.

Monjasa declined to give information on the nationalities of the crew members when asked by AFP.

According to an official at the port of Pointe-Noire, the ship had arrived in Congolese waters on March 18 and left on March 22, and was in international waters when it was attacked.

“Three men took control of the ship and since then the crew can no longer be reached,” the official told AFP.

Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center told AFP a “missing vessel broadcast had been issued for passing ships to report to us if they come across it.”

Pirates have long been a risk in the Gulf of Guinea — a major shipping route stretching 5,700 kilometers from Senegal to Angola, with Nigerian gangs carrying out most attacks.

But since 2021, shippers say pirates have been raiding farther out in international waters.

Their violence and sophisticated tactics prompted pleas from shippers for a more robust foreign naval presence like the mission to curb attacks from Somali pirates a decade ago.

Many of the attacks in recent years have been carried out by Nigerian criminal gangs who strike out in speed boats from hideouts in the Delta region to raid vessels.

Some gangs have captured larger fishing vessels which they use as a “mothership” base to raid further out to sea.

Lull in attacks

But the region, which sees a lot of traffic from oil tankers, has also seen a lull in activity recently.

According to a report by The Maritime Information Cooperation and Awareness Center (MICA), three ships were attacked in the area in 2022 compared to 26 in 2019.

The sharp decline in Gulf of Guinea attacks contributed to 2022 recording the lowest number of incidents of piracy and armed robbery worldwide with 132 cases, according to the annual report from the International Maritime Bureau.

Two other attacks were recorded in the region in 2023 so far.

Denmark, home to shipping giant Maersk, sent a naval frigate in 2021 to patrol the waters, after the country had pushed for a stronger international naval presence.

The Absalon-class Danish frigate Esbern Snare — equipped with a helicopter and around 175 marines onboard — was sent to patrol the waters between November 2021 and March 2022, a period when the risk of attacks was higher.

Skirmishes and solutions

The Danish Shipping association said the latest incident shows “problems with piracy off the west coast of Africa are far from solved.”

With the war in Ukraine, “We fully understand… Denmark’s naval military capacity is needed elsewhere,” the group said.

But it suggested “navy vessels from several countries in the area… particularly the EU countries should coordinate their presence” to provide the best cover.

The gulf has periods of calmer seas when it is easier for pirates to race out from hidden bases on the Nigeria coast to raid commercial vessels offshore and kidnap crew.

In November 2021, sailors from the frigate were involved in a firefight resulting in the deaths of five suspected pirates.

A suspected Nigerian pirate was transferred to Denmark to receive medical care after the skirmish.

After needing to have his leg amputated the man, who has also applied for asylum in Denmark, was put on trial for and convicted of endangering the lives of the Danish sailors.

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При цьому Ллойд Остін вірить, що українці можуть отримати винищувачі у майбутньому – це можуть бути або F16, або інші літаки четвертого покоління

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Black-clad groups set fire to garbage cans and threw projectiles at police in Paris, who charged at them and threw tear gas in confrontations on the fringes of a march against President Emmanuel Macron and his deeply unpopular pension bill. 

Clashes also erupted on Tuesday at similar rallies in other cities including Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse, with a bank branch and cars set ablaze in Nantes.  

However, while public frustration has evolved into broader anti-Macron sentiment, there was less violence than last week and rallies were otherwise largely peaceful. 

Earlier in the day, the government rejected unions’ demand to suspend and rethink the pension bill, which raises retirement age by two years to 64, infuriating labor leaders who said the government must find a way out of the crisis. 

The government said it was more than willing to talk to unions, but on other topics, and repeated it would stand firm on pensions. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has offered to meet unions on Monday and Tuesday next week. 

Millions of people have been demonstrating and joining strike action since mid-January to show their opposition to the bill. Unions said the next nationwide day of protests would be on April 6. 

The protests have intensified since the government used special powers to push the bill through parliament without a vote.  

One protester in Paris captured the mood, brandishing a banner that read: “France is angry.” 

“The bill has acted as a catalyst for anger over Macron’s policies,” said Fanny Charier, 31, who works for the Pole Emploi office for job seekers. 

Macron, who promised pension reform in both of his presidential campaigns, says change is needed to keep the country’s finances in balance. Unions and opposition parties say there are other ways to do that. 

“We have proposed a way out … and it’s intolerable that we are being stonewalled again,” the head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, told reporters at the Paris rally. 

Car fires 

In the previous big day of protests on Thursday, “Black Bloc” anarchists smashed shop windows, demolished bus stops and ransacked a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris, with similar acts in other cities. 

That was some of the worst street violence in years in France, reminiscent of protests of the yellow-vest movement during Macron’s first term. 

On Tuesday, rallies were more peaceful, despite some clashes. 

In the western city of Nantes, the boarded-up front of a BNP Paribas bank branch was set on fire. A car was set on fire in the margins of the rally, while some shot fireworks at police. 

Also in western France, protesters blocked the Rennes ring road and set an abandoned car on fire. In Paris and in Marseille, protesters blocked train tracks for a while. 

Rolling strikes in the transport, aviation and energy sectors continued to disrupt travel. 

However, in a move bringing some relief for Parisians and tourists alike, city garbage collectors said they were suspending a weeks-long strike that has left the roads around famous landmarks strewn with piles of trash. 

There were also fewer teachers on strike than on previous days. Union leaders said high inflation made it harder for workers to sacrifice a day’s pay on the picket line. 

The Interior Ministry said 740,000 people had protested across the country on Tuesday, well below the record 1.09 million seen at the March 23 rally. The numbers in Paris were also below last week’s record but higher or equal to earlier demonstrations since January. 

Nonetheless, about 17% of all fuel stations in France were missing at least one product as of Monday night, France’s petroleum association UFIP said, citing energy ministry data. 

Charles de Courson, from the opposition Liot party, said French authorities should learn from the situation in Israel, where the government just hit pause on a controversial justice overhaul. 

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The global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should act as a blueprint for addressing mass human rights violations, according to Amnesty International in its annual report released Tuesday. However, the organization accuses the West of ignoring other human rights violations.   

Ukraine invasion 

Amnesty International says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 unleashed “military destruction on a people and country at peace.” 

“Within months, civilian infrastructure had been destroyed, thousands killed and many more injured,” the report says. “Russia’s action accelerated a global energy crisis and helped weaken food production and distribution systems, leading to a global food crisis that continues to affect poorer nations and racialized people disproportionately.”

A strong global response began within days of the invasion, according to Philip Luther, a research and advocacy director for Amnesty International, in an interview with VOA this week.

“We saw the U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion. That was good. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into war crimes and Western countries opened up their borders to Ukrainian refugees. For us, these measures were really a blueprint you could say for how to address mass human rights violations,” Luther noted.

Russia denies committing atrocities or targeting civilians in Ukraine, despite widespread evidence documented by United Nations investigators and other human rights groups. 

Amnesty criticism 

Amnesty International was widely criticized last year when it accused Ukrainian forces of endangering civilians by stationing its military in residential areas. Amnesty’s director in Ukraine quit her post, accusing the organization of parroting Kremlin propaganda, while Ukraine’s president said the group had tried to “shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.” 

Amnesty said Tuesday it would continue to highlight human rights abuses by all sides.

“It is extremely clear to all of us that the violations committed by the Russian forces are far more important and lethal than anything else that the Ukrainian militaries may do. That being said, our mandate, our mission is to protect civilians. And for that reason, we will continue to expose violations committed by the Ukrainian military forces,” Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard told a press conference Tuesday in Paris. 

‘Double standards’

Amnesty says the strong international response to Moscow’s invasion exposes the double standards of many countries, which condemned Russia but fail to act on other human rights crises. 

“Solidarity is owed to the Ukrainian people, but it is also owed to the people of Palestine, to the people of Eritrea, to the people of Myanmar. And that did not happen in 2022,” Callamard told The Associated Press on Tuesday. 

European nations have taken in about 8 million Ukrainian refugees since the invasion. Amnesty says policies toward other nationalities seeking asylum have hardened. 

“They didn’t exhibit the same or show the same treatment to those fleeing war and aggression in other places — war in Syria or in Afghanistan, or violence in Haiti when it came to the U.S.,” Amnesty’s Philip Luther told VOA.

Deadly conflicts 

2022 saw the outbreak of new wars, while existing conflicts became deadlier, according to the Amnesty report. 

It highlights the war in Ethiopia, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people according to some estimates. “Much of this carnage was hidden from view, meted out in a largely invisible campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans in western Tigray,” the report says. 

Amnesty says 2022 was the deadliest year in a decade for Palestinians in the West Bank, with at least 151 people, including dozens of children, killed by Israeli forces. Israel claims it is targeting terrorists and says 23 of its citizens were killed in terror attacks last year. 

Amnesty also highlights Myanmar’s continuing oppression of the Karen and Karenni minorities, with hundreds killed and at least 150,000 displaced. 

“The people of Haiti, Mali, Venezuela, Yemen, and many other places too, were plagued by armed conflicts or systemic violence and associated human rights violations,” the report adds.

In Iran, anti-government protests erupted in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Amnesty says security forces fired live ammunition to crush the demonstrations, killing hundreds of men, women and children and injuring thousands more.

China’s coercion

Amnesty accuses China of using coercion to silence international criticism of its human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded in August that China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities, accusations Beijing denies.

“The U.N. Human Rights Council failed to order follow-up action because essentially China was allowed to use its strong-arm tactics to prevent further scrutiny or accountability,” said Amnesty’s Luther.

The report says human rights protections have advanced in some countries, in areas such as women’s rights and the abolition of the death penalty. “The Central African Republic, Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone all fully abolished the death penalty last year,” Luther said.

Turning point 

2023 is the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the United Nations in the wake of World War II. In its report, Amnesty says this year must be a turning point for upholding human rights.

“We’ve witnessed iconic acts of defiance, including Afghan women taking to the streets to protest Taliban rule and Iranian women posting videos of themselves cutting their hair in protest against the country’s abusive and forced veiling laws,” the report says.

“We can take some comfort in knowing that in the face of such repression, thousands of people still came together to write letters, sign petitions, and take to the streets. It should be a reminder to those in power that our rights to demand change, and to come together freely and collectively, cannot be taken away,” it states. 

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