Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, July 6, 2017

Saturday, 08 July 2017 13:50

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Germany

On July 13, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be in Berlin on a working visit, where, together with German Vice Chancellor, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, he will attend the closing ceremony of the Russian-German Year of Youth Exchanges in 2016-2017.

Mr Lavrov will also speak at the Kurt A. Körber Foundation and have talks with Mr Gabriel, in the course of which the two ministers will continue to exchange views on current issues on the bilateral and international agenda.

The situation in Syria

Since the memorandum setting up de-escalation zones, designed to consolidate the ceasefire regime, was signed in Astana on May 4 and came into force, the situation in Syria has been characterised by some positive trends.

Over the past two months, Russian, Turkish and Iranian representatives have been working hard to coordinate de-escalation zones and develop monitoring and verification mechanisms. In this context, the fifth high-level international meeting on Syria, which ended in Astana yesterday, has made it possible to take another step in this direction.

Moscow is satisfied with the progress of the Astana process. In addition to the improvement of the situation on the ground, a stable ceasefire, the provision of essential conditions for normalising the humanitarian situation and ensuring the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, it also fosters the progress of intra-Syrian consultations in Geneva under the auspices of the UN. As is known, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura plans to call the next round of these talks on July 10. We hope that healthy opposition forces, which are seeking, in deed, not in word, to restore peace and order in Syria and ensure its revival, will productively participate in talks with the Syrian government delegation. We urge international and regional partners to provide support to the parties involved in the search for compromise solutions to break the impasse of armed confrontation.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, we have to note the attempts by certain unscrupulous “newsmakers” to denigrate the efforts to achieve a settlement in Syria. This is the only way we can characterise the attempts by certain media outlets, which cite the Feilaq al-Rahman group, affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), to provoke yet another controversy, blaming the July 1 attack involving the use of toxic agents in Eastern Ghouta on Syrian government forces. In this context, we can only advise the media not to succumb to the provocations of extremist forces and treat the sources of such so-called sensations more responsibly and verify all facts more thoroughly.

At the same time we would like to draw attention to the fact that the Syrian Foreign Ministry has harshly criticised the June 29 report by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on the investigation of the so-called sarin incident in Khan Sheikhoun. In a corresponding statement, the ministry described the mission’s findings as a “figment of a sick imagination.” The ministry asserts that they are based on fabricated eyewitness testimony. For our part, we note that independent international experts have not yet visited either the place of the supposed chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun or the Shairat military airfield from which the attack was purportedly launched.

Over the past weekend, the Syrian Army, in response to the continuing mortar shelling of residential districts in the Damascus suburbs of Adra and Jaramana, launched attacks against the positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Feilaq al-Rahman in Eastern Ghouta and the adjacent Jobar district.

As a result of a successful operation near the Itriyah-Rusafa highway east of the town of Khanasir, government troops completely sealed off ISIS forces and then mopped up the Khanasir Cauldron [Trap], pushing the terrorists into open desert terrain under the strikes of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force. The Aleppo province has been fully cleared of ISIS. About 1,500 sq km of territory has been freed.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Germany

On July 13, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be in Berlin on a working visit, where, together with German Vice Chancellor, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, he will attend the closing ceremony of the Russian-German Year of Youth Exchanges in 2016-2017.

Mr Lavrov will also speak at the Kurt A. Körber Foundation and have talks with Mr Gabriel, in the course of which the two ministers will continue to exchange views on current issues on the bilateral and international agenda.

The situation in Syria

Since the memorandum setting up de-escalation zones, designed to consolidate the ceasefire regime, was signed in Astana on May 4 and came into force, the situation in Syria has been characterised by some positive trends.

Over the past two months, Russian, Turkish and Iranian representatives have been working hard to coordinate de-escalation zones and develop monitoring and verification mechanisms. In this context, the fifth high-level international meeting on Syria, which ended in Astana yesterday, has made it possible to take another step in this direction.

Moscow is satisfied with the progress of the Astana process. In addition to the improvement of the situation on the ground, a stable ceasefire, the provision of essential conditions for normalising the humanitarian situation and ensuring the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, it also fosters the progress of intra-Syrian consultations in Geneva under the auspices of the UN. As is known, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura plans to call the next round of these talks on July 10. We hope that healthy opposition forces, which are seeking, in deed, not in word, to restore peace and order in Syria and ensure its revival, will productively participate in talks with the Syrian government delegation. We urge international and regional partners to provide support to the parties involved in the search for compromise solutions to break the impasse of armed confrontation.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, we have to note the attempts by certain unscrupulous “newsmakers” to denigrate the efforts to achieve a settlement in Syria. This is the only way we can characterise the attempts by certain media outlets, which cite the Feilaq al-Rahman group, affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), to provoke yet another controversy, blaming the July 1 attack involving the use of toxic agents in Eastern Ghouta on Syrian government forces. In this context, we can only advise the media not to succumb to the provocations of extremist forces and treat the sources of such so-called sensations more responsibly and verify all facts more thoroughly.

At the same time we would like to draw attention to the fact that the Syrian Foreign Ministry has harshly criticised the June 29 report by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on the investigation of the so-called sarin incident in Khan Sheikhoun. In a corresponding statement, the ministry described the mission’s findings as a “figment of a sick imagination.” The ministry asserts that they are based on fabricated eyewitness testimony. For our part, we note that independent international experts have not yet visited either the place of the supposed chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun or the Shairat military airfield from which the attack was purportedly launched.

Over the past weekend, the Syrian Army, in response to the continuing mortar shelling of residential districts in the Damascus suburbs of Adra and Jaramana, launched attacks against the positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Feilaq al-Rahman in Eastern Ghouta and the adjacent Jobar district.

As a result of a successful operation near the Itriyah-Rusafa highway east of the town of Khanasir, government troops completely sealed off ISIS forces and then mopped up the Khanasir Cauldron [Trap], pushing the terrorists into open desert terrain under the strikes of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force. The Aleppo province has been fully cleared of ISIS. About 1,500 sq km of territory has been freed.

The campaign of anti-Syria media provocations related to the use of chemical weapons

We have warned about imminent media provocations. We have already noticed the first signs, and we have assessed them in the context of media leaks and falsified reports concerning the alleged use of chemical weapons by Damascus once again. We were asked to provide more detailed and specific evidence in case we received such information. Today, I have this information, and I would like to share it with you.

According to available reports, Syrian terrorist groups are planning to stage provocations using poison gas in order to justify US strikes against the positions of Syrian government forces. Most likely, these attacks will be carried out in a residential area that cannot be accessed by Syrian authorities, one of which is the opposition’s enclave in Eastern Ghouta where chemical weapons had earlier been delivered. For example, paramilitary units of the Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman groups are known to have several rockets with chemical warheads in the towns of Ain Terma and Sabka. Each rocket weighs about 150 kilogrammes.

Similar provocations cannot be ruled out in southern Syria where armed groups controlled by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are operating, and also in eastern Syria. According to current reports, ISIS is redeploying workshops and ammunition-manufacturing equipment from Raqqa to areas of Deir ez-Zor province controlled by them. This equipment can also be used to manufacture ammunition with chemical warheads. Chemical weapons components have been delivered to the city of Abu-Kamal on the border with Iraq. Several chemists are accompanying this consignment, and they are currently stockpiling toxic agents.

Considering repeated statements of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition that they have completely blocked the city of Raqqa and that it will be seized completely quite soon, one is inclined to think that the removal of such bulky equipment virtually from under the nose of coalition forces may highlight a selective reluctance to see the facts and what is happening with regard to militants, to say the least. At most, I believe there is good cause to speak of aiding and abetting of militants. Quite possibly, there are also terrorists among these militants.

Publication of Scott Ritter's article on Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident

Against the background of another media campaign and provocations meant to prepare the ground for serious military actions and amid groundless accusations that Damascus used chemical weapons in the Syrian province of Idlib, the Western media more and more often publish articles claiming to be impartial and attempting to find out what is really happening around the topic of chemical weapons. I am referring to independent highly qualified specialists. The materials they present indicate an attempt at a professional and unbiased analysis of all the circumstances of this and other high-profile incidents.

I can cite the publications by Professor Theodore A. Postol of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Ferrada de Noli, the head of Swedish Doctors for Human Rights (SWEDHR), Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour Hersh and independent US disarmament expert Scott Ritter.

It would be too much to claim that they tell the ultimate truth, but at least they make an attempt to look at events from all sides. The body of evidence they present is subjected to scientific analysis and does not merely regurgitate reports in social media or cite obscure and unverified internet clips.

Scott Ritter published an article headlined “Trump’s Sarin Claims Built on Lie” on the American Conservative website which contains a thorough and critical analysis of the situation around the investigation into the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria and putting the blame on the Assad Government.

To begin with, the author quite reasonably notes that no one to date has complete credible information about what happened in Khan Seikhoun on April 4 to determine those responsible for the crime. This is the point we have repeatedly made to the media and of course to professionals from the relevant organisations.

No one has presented incontrovertible evidence as to who used chemical weapons there or how, all the “evidence” cited to this day is circumstantial and highly dubious.

Moreover, Scott Ritter notes that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the international watchdog over these matters, has concluded that sarin gas was used at Khan Sheikhoun based chiefly on material and other evidence obtained in violation of the bedrock principle of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons known as “chain of custody” concerning the sequence of actions and preservation of recovered evidence.

This time around one of the main sources of data were materials of the notorious White Helmets. I think that group has become a kind of by-word for describing the situation in the region and of the degree of cynicism people can stoop to in pursuit of their interests of the moment using human rights problems and exploiting the feelings and emotions of people with regard to dying civilians, wounded children and so on. This is an utterly odious group which has been repeatedly caught and publicly exposed. It has been involved in falsifications which posed extreme danger. The members of that organisation were also involved in pseudo-medical manipulations during numerous fake “rescue” operations. All this did indeed pose an immediate threat to the health and lives of people, including small children and even infants.

The opinions of many highly regarded experts whom we have quoted more than once and who had the courage to challenge the political officialdom, provide added proof to what we have said many times: it is too soon yet to say definitively who used sarin in Idlib province and how. Especially since no one has yet visited the spot of the tragedy, neither the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, not the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism for investigating such incidents. I would like to stress again that up until now, in spite of all the reports, briefings and statements by countries’ representatives, no experts have visited the site. This is an unprecedented situation. The very international structures that should have done it as a matter of priority in order to forestall any speculations on the topic, unfortunately have never visited the place.

They stubbornly refuse to visit Syria’s Shayrat Airbase which, in the wake of the US air strike on April 7 in violation of the UN Charter and universally recognised norms of international law, Washington still groundlessly links to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Air Force.

Needless to say, this state of affairs does not suit the Russian side. We will continue consistent efforts to bring about a thorough investigation, professional and politically unbiased, of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident and other recurring “chemical” provocations against the legitimate Syrian authorities.

Developments in Iraq

The almost nine-months-long operation to liberate Iraq’s Mosul seems to be nearing its logical completion. Recently Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi congratulated the armed forces on successes in fighting ISIS terrorists.

Nevertheless, the end is not here yet. Fierce and bloody fighting continues in Mosul. ISIS fighters still occupy part of the Old City on an area of one square km. About 50,000 civilians detained by terrorists as a live shield are also blocked there. Attempts to flee from the besieged areas are crudely suppressed. It is enough to mention that recently Iraqi military discovered the bodies of 74 civilians, mostly women and children, in the liberated districts of the Old City. It was noted that they were shot when they attempted to escape from the hell ISIS has created.

The situation in the areas liberated from extremists remains tenuous despite all efforts of the Iraqi authorities to return life to normal there. Terrorists periodically conduct attacks using suicide bombers disguised as refugees. Recently two suicide bombers detonated near the destroyed historical al-Nouri Mosque in the Old City. On another occasion, a suicide bomber donned women’s clothing and committed an act of terror in a camp for displaced persons in the west of Anbar Province, killing about 15 people.

Apart from Mosul, the government forces continue ousting ISIS fighters from the occupied territories in the country’s west and north-west – in the provinces of Ninawa, Anbar and Diyala. We are resolutely supporting the efforts of the Iraqi authorities to eliminate the hotbed of international terrorism in Iraq and restore sovereignty over its entire territory.

The humanitarian situation continues to be a source of concern against the backdrop of continued armed clashes. According to the International Organisation for Migration, over 800,000 people fled Mosul alone. About 200,000 of them returned home or what was left of their home as a result of indiscriminate shelling and air strikes by the US-led Western anti-ISIS coalition. International humanitarian organisations report that the suffering of ordinary Iraqis is aggravated by lack of food, medicines and clean drinking water – a vital need. During the hot season the water shortage carries the risk of epidemics.

It is hard not to notice how creative the Western media are in their coverage of other events, and how they continue presenting an embellished picture of Iraq’s Mosul and sanitised coverage of actions of the anti-ISIS coalition. There continues to be no details or photos of suffering children, wounded оr killed. For some reason the CNN television channel does not show them, apparently for a reason.

Regarding Russian national Viktor Ageyev

We have seen many articles, both anonymous and on the record, citing various people who say that Russia, in particular the Foreign Ministry, does not care about the fate of Russian citizen Viktor Ageyev, who was detained in Ukraine.

I would like to emphasise once again that this is not true. It is nonsense and lies. Within its competence, the Russian Embassy in Kiev is actively working to protect the rights and legitimate interests of Mr Ageyev. The Consular Department of the Embassy was instructed to continually monitor this situation, to report on developments and take necessary steps.

We will keep informing you to the extent possible. As you understand, it is not always possible to provide complete information out of concern for the safety of the Russian citizen.

Work is ongoing, and it has not stooped even for a minute from the very first reports of the detention of Mr Ageyev. We would ask people to refrain from spreading speculation on this topic. We are ready to comment on this situation, as well as all the others any time, day or night.

Once again, statements made by anyone – political and public figures or political scientists – asserting that nobody in Russia cares about the fate of Mr Ageyev are lies. It is quite difficult to understand why they say so.

Mr Ageyev has close relatives who are deeply worried about him. Of course, I think they are in a very difficult emotional state. Therefore, I ask that no one play on the feelings of the family and friends and that they use only reliable information. I repeat, we are ready to comment on this situation any time, day or night, in order to avoid further such provocations in the media.

Anti-Russian insinuations in the US and American interference in Russia’s internal affairs

I would like to say a few words about Russia’s purported interference in US domestic politics because we are receiving questions on this subject and because it remains a front-page issue in newspapers and magazines and on websites and TV channels not only in the US but also in other countries.

We always comment on this, providing facts. However, this time, for the benefit of the US political establishment, among others, I would like to cite real, not mythical information of the sort they are using, regarding US interference in Russia’s domestic political life in recent years, just to recall what the US has done against Russia.

Three years ago, the Obama administration did not even try to conceal its intentions to create a crisis situation in the Russian economy, incite social discontent and provoke a change of government in Russia. Simply visit the US State Department’s website, read and remember the notorious comment to the effect that “the Russian economy is in tatters.” After this, will you still talk about Russia’s interference in some country’s internal politics? It was a call to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs to give the Russian people a sense of so-called isolation. This was stated in so many words in the spring and summer of 2014, when Washington initiated the introduction of sanctions against our country. It may be recalled that this happened after Washington backed the coup in Kiev and provoked a civil confrontation in Ukraine.

Before that, the US Agency for International Development engaged in sponsoring all sorts of political activities aimed at destabilising the domestic situation in Russia. Perhaps not everyone in the US political establishment has heard about that. I will remind them: The grants that they handed out often went to people involved with illegally formed armed groups in the North Caucasus and through them, to outright terrorists.

When the agency was asked to get out of Russia in 2012, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, formally listed as NGOs, tried to pick up and continue its cause. In reality, of course, they are subsidised from the US [federal] budget and are nothing but a foreign policy tool of Washington.

I am saying all this so that the people and those political figures who are now seeking votes in support of some sanctions or other against Russia, engaging in political lobbying activities in Washington and trying to impair the development of bilateral relations refresh their memory and recall what Washington’s political beau monde has been doing with regard to Russia in recent years.

Over 20 years ago, Carl Gershman, the veteran leader of another such pseudo-NGO, the National Endowment for Democracy, acknowledged that his organisation, which also worked hard to gain a foothold in Russia, was originally conceived as a respectable façade for the distribution of CIA funds among opposition circles in other countries, no more, no less.

The Ukraine Freedom Support Act, signed by former President Barack Obama in December 2014, is also telling. It contains a direct, thinly veiled call for interference in our internal affairs. The US secretary of state was instructed in no uncertain terms, both directly and through NGOs and international organisations, to “improve democratic governance in Russia,” naturally, according to the American understanding of the concept, including the abandonment of an independent foreign policy and a country’s own national interests, and following the lead from Washington, which, of course, knows better than us how we should live.

After that, our American partners were asked what the response from their official and public circles would be if some other country set the legal goal to “improve democratic governance” in the US or in some other Western country. Nobody could answer that question. They simply shrugged their shoulders and looked away. It never occurred to them that somebody else could teach them how to live, but they evidently can teach others.

I would also like to draw attention to the fact that this 2014 law openly talks about using NGOs to influence the situation in Russia. It authorised $20 million to be appropriated each year through 2018 to carry out those activities. It also talked about the intention to strengthen political organisations in Russia, that is, presumably, to create their own, pro-US political forces.

This information is available in the public domain. This is not some fabrication, retweet or video footage. It is a US law regarding the US establishment’s concept of its interference in Russia’s internal affairs. And after this, many of those who have initiated this entire anti-Russian hysteria say that it is unacceptable to interfere in the internal affairs of other states!

It is also important to note the enhanced activity of US Embassy and General Consulate staff members in Russia, who constantly travel to Russian regions. We wish they studied the host country to foster bilateral relations, establish ties and useful contacts to improve Russian-US cooperation. However, in recent years the lop-sided focus of their meetings has become obvious. They are interested not so much in prospects for the development of bilateral ties as in the impact of Western sanctions on the economic and social situation in the Russian regions, for example, the level of public trust in the local authorities, the extent of the opposition’s influence and problems in relations between the Federation members and the federal centre. What is more, US diplomats have repeatedly been spotted at various protest rallies, as evidenced by open sources. Can anybody imagine Russian diplomats attending protest rallies somewhere in New York or Washington?

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. If anyone among the US political beau monde, those who pronounce the words “Russia,” “sanctions” and “ramping up pressure on Moscow,” are interested, we could provide more detailed materials on the issue at hand. Please ask for them through your embassies or directly through us. We can tell them how [the US] has interfered in Russia’s internal affairs in recent years on a daily basis. This reads like a thriller. Russia has done nothing close to what I have described with regard to the US. There are simply no such examples. Whatever is being said now is groundless. There are no such facts. All of these are pseudo-expert evaluations and statements by some pseudo-specialists on Russia.

Inquiries into mass murder of Afghan citizens by British military

We noted reports in the British media about inquiry by the British police into war crimes in Afghanistan, tentatively ascribed to British special forces, including the notorious SAS, in 2010̶ 2013.

Sources close to the investigation maintain there is solid evidence that during night raids British military preferred to kill rather than detain unarmed Afghans who they viewed as potential commandoes of the Taliban. The media report that this became widespread practice during the late stage of the war in Afghanistan.

According to the media, later on Brits falsified their reports on such incidents, laying the blame on Afghan military.

We are surprised at the British Government’s reaction to these monstrous exposures. According to Sunday Times sources, country’s military leaders consider “credible and very serious” the facts mentioned in the inquiry. The British Ministry of Defence is seeking to avoid publicity and wants to keep the situation under control by influencing the course of the inquiry. According to sources, this is being done with particular cynicism. It is reported that initially inquiries were made into 659 cases of the abusive treatment of Afghans, including 52 cases of alleged murders of civilians and the investigation was supposed to continue until 2021. However, in October 2016 the chiefs of the Defence Ministry instructed the investigators to complete the inquiry this summer. As a result over 90 percent of cases were simply closed.

Indicatively, former Director of the UK’s Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald called for an independent investigation into potential interference by the Government and the Defence Ministry in the course of the inquiry. He believes confirmation of this information will lead to an unprecedented scandal. It is difficult to disagree.

Conflict in Nagorny Karabakh

According to the information from the sides of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, the ceasefire was again violated on the contact line in the late hours of July 4, which led to human casualties, including civilian adults and children.

We are conveying condolences to the families and friends of the dead. We consider further bloodshed unacceptable and urged the sides to take all necessary measures for stabilising the situation.

We are supporting a statement by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which emphasises the need to stop violence and resume the talks.

The US State Department’s report on ‘labour camps’ in Russia

The allegations about North Korean “forced labour” in so-called “North Korean labour camps” on Russian soil are groundless. Frankly, when the first reports with quotes appeared, it was hard to believe. We realise that the US State Department is currently experiencing staffing and funding problems and that the internal political situation is near a crisis point (we hope our US colleagues overcome this situation as soon as possible), but this is over the top! There is no doubt that such materials, which the US State Department has once again copied from the template, have only one goal – to use human rights as an issue to exert one-sided pressure on North Korea, create artificial obstacles to cooperation between Russia and the DPRK and thereby damage bilateral relations. This is interesting. North Korea is now on the US agenda. This is obvious. A UN Security Council meeting was held and statements were made. The US permanent representative to the UN Security Council asked, Do you want to be friends with North Korea? They are pulling out all stops, pushing all buttons and inventing anything just to ratchet up confrontation with North Korea. So, there are labour camps. Right. This is not the last story. There will be more.

The most amazing thing is that we have to seriously comment on this and justify ourselves, as it were. In other words, they fabricate and publish rubbish and we have to ask experts who have to ask the relevant agencies that deal with labour migration, which analyse statistics, check the facts and get back to us. And each time we have to kind of justify ourselves for the fakes that are made up and published, and all of this is called a report on human trafficking!

Russia has for decades been cooperating with the DPRK in using labour in keeping with intergovernmental agreements, including within the framework of the Russian-North Korean agreement on temporary labour activity by citizens of one state on the territory of the other state, dated August 31, 2007. If our US colleagues really need this, we can brief them on the content of this document. After all, a decade has passed since 2007. August 31 will be the date and we could invite our US colleagues to mark the event and bring them up to date on its implementation.

The use of labour migrants from the DPRK is not in conflict with the bans or restrictions introduced under the UN Security Council’s relevant resolutions. It would be useful for those at the US State Department who prepare such reports to know this.

The conditions for the employment and presence of North Korean labour in our country are in keeping with Russian labour and migration laws. North Korean citizens who want to work in Russia undergo an organised competitive selection process in the course of which they confirm their skills, the required level of proficiency in Russian and their state of health. Employees work regular hours, have guaranteed days off and wages at a level not below the average in the host region and quite often even higher. In accordance with established practice, a portion of the earnings is wired to the account of the sponsoring company, which pays for the visas, fare, accommodation, food and taxes and covers administrative expenses. Importantly, each North Korean worker in Russia provides decent living standards for his family. The US also has this practice of using labour from neighbouring countries. Granted, the situation there is different: There are no health certificates, no checks. US President Donald Trump is now trying to straighten out the situation. We wish him success.

Russian authorities exercise the necessary oversight in this field.

To reiterate, the authors of the US State Department’s report should have studied the actual situation with Russian-North Korean labour cooperation before making such allegations. There is a legislative basis that directly regulates this area and there are statistics, data that are annually updated. Boring as this may be, we will provide relevant information on every such case on the US State Department’s website that comes to our notice.

Desecration of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia

Another act of desecration of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was committed on the night of June 30. The monument symbolises the gratitude of the Bulgarian people to Soviet soldiers for their decisive contribution to Europe’s liberation from the Nazis. This criminal behaviour speaks to the impoverished ethics and education of the culprits. We believe internal political differences between an EU country and NATO should be addressed in public debate rather than hooligan behaviour. I am saying this because the inscriptions made on the monument obviously suggest it is part of the internal political competition in that country. But what do monuments have to do with this? If you want to go out into the street with some posters, advocate on behalf of your party and lash out at its opponent, it is best to resort to legal means and leave monuments alone.

In connection with this incident our Embassy in Sofia sent a note to the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry demanding a thorough investigation of this case, punishment of the culprits and cleaning of the monument. We hope the Bulgarian authorities will take measures to prevent acts of vandalism against monuments of the shared history of Russia and Bulgaria.

Developments around the case of January 13, 1991

Another stage in the trial on the case of January 13, 1991, which has been going on for a year and a half, was completed in late June in Vilnius. The hearings are in recess till the middle of next September.

We would like to emphasise that this case has been highly politicised, which led to a warped judgment that was graphically revealed during the hearings.

We are seriously concerned over the position of one defendant in this case, notably Russian citizen Yury Mel who has been illegally detained on far-fetched charges for more than three years. We will continue to pay close attention to this situation. Diplomats of our Embassy in Lithuania regularly see their compatriot, provide him with the required legal assistance and carefully monitor his health. A change of the preventive measure to one that doesn’t involve detention is being sought.

We will continue working consistently to uphold the rights of Mr Mel and our other compatriots that undergo the same trial by using all legal methods envisaged by Russian legislation and international law.

Situation around CNN

The Foreign Ministry is trying to obtain at least some kind of explanation from CNN regarding an incident surrounding Christiane Amanpour, one of the network’s leading personalities, who used a photo of a Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, for propaganda purposes by showing it to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during an interview. This occurred in autumn 2016 in the run-up to the US presidential election.

Back then, CNN was very much concerned with the fate of this Syrian boy. As we all remember, during the interview with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Christiane Amanpour appealed to the conscience of the Russian government, when she showed the Foreign Minister a photograph of Omran Daqneesh. She stressed that the boy was a victim in a ‘besieged, bombarded Aleppo.’ In fact, Ms Amanpour accused the Syrian Air Force of ‘war crimes,’ while also chastising those who supported the counter-terrorist operation in Aleppo. However, CNN did not tell the true story.

Let me remind you that the truth about this incident came to light following a series of media reports. It turned out that the child did not suffer in a bombardment, but in an explosion, as his father said. After the explosion, unknown people emerged out of nowhere and started taking photos of the child without asking his parents for permission or even thinking to administer first aid. Thanks to the interview with Omran’s father, we learned that his family, including the boy, was used as pawns in the hands of those playing propaganda games and who presented this incident in a totally distorted way.

The Foreign Ministry offered CNN a chance to use these facts to show the true story. We even offered to arrange a trip to Syria, since Russia has this possibility, in order to meet with Omran Daqneesh’s family and confirm that the situation was different from what was shown by CNN. However, there was no response to this proposal.

We raised this issue again by sending a letter to CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Yelena Berezovskaya. Unfortunately, the reply we received lacked substance, simply repeating quotes from the interview that we know all too well.

The fact that CNN failed to provide a clear response suggests that CNN reporters intentionally distorted reality. Before that we could have assumed that maybe CNN journalists were not aware of what was actually happening on the ground, as often happens. Now, however, taking into account that the network is seeking to hush up the entire situation, we have reason to believe that the situation could have moved in a different direction. Maybe the reporters knew that the boy suffered in an explosion, not a bombardment, and was a victim of terrorists. It is quite possible that they knew this in the autumn of 2016.

It is obvious that this photograph and the rhetoric Christiane Amanpour used targeted the US audience as the US headed into the presidential race. She asked Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov what he had to say about it, and talked about what had happened to this boy. Had the network or the reporter taken any genuine interest in the child, they would have kept track of him, would not have dropped his case, and instead would have followed it all the way through. This was the only way the global audience could have learned the whole truth about the boy. Thank God the boy is alive. People can now talk to him and his parents.

I have a question for CNN: why are you concealing the truth? Why are you lying? Since that is what you are doing. You should be ashamed. You manipulated a photograph of a child and misled the international community, thereby manipulating public opinion inside your country, and now you are doing everything you can to forget this shameful story. There were many stories of this kind in mainstream Western media. Let this one be the last. However, in order to make it the last story like this, they have to acknowledge that they either committed an error or intentionally manipulated public opinion.

Once again, the Foreign Ministry has to repeat that professional journalism should be based on reliable information, facts and evidence. If new circumstances emerge, they have to be communicated to the audience, even if they contradict initial erroneous statements. Statements by Christiane Amanpour about the child being a victim of an aerial bombing were contested by the very people who suffered in this incident, and to whom CNN referred. Unlike CNN reporters, they were present during the incident. Let me repeat that thankfully the boy is alive, even though the would-be rescuers started taking pictures of him without even thinking to provide first aid, so the images could be shown in international organisations as some kind of evidence. To prove what? That there were would-be rescuers who failed to administer first aid? Or that Western journalists were eager to use the images to promote their agenda aimed at creating a pretext for active military action?

We are still waiting for CNN to respond, and we call on journalists to recognise that they were wrong and show the true story. Trust me, we will not leave this alone. I think providing an explanation to the global audience would be in the best interests of CNN and its journalists. They have to be held accountable for their words.

Inquiry into the murder of journalists in Ukraine

The civil armed conflict in Ukraine is in its fourth year. During this entire period, many Russian and foreign journalists have been reporting from the scene of events to spread s the word of truth about the tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes in Donbass. They are doing this in spite of the Kiev authorities’ every effort to restrict media access to the zone of hostilities, including intimidate journalists by using armed units. Kiev has gone as far as launching a veritable hunt for correspondents and using violence against them. These are not isolated cases. We have spoken about them.

Russia has repeatedly called on its foreign partners to bring due influence to bear on Kiev to have it conduct a thorough inquiry into all cases of journalists dying a violent death in Ukraine and bring all persons accessory to such crimes to account. Regrettably, nothing has been done towards this. We hear time and again that Moscow is to blame for everything, including for journalists’ violent deaths in Ukraine. The press, unfortunately, are not protected by any laws while covering events in Donbass.

We have received reports from Italy saying, with reference to the Prosecutor’s Office of the city of Pavia, Lombardy, that the Italian law enforcers have strong reasons to suspect that the death of Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli and his interpreter, Russian citizen Andrey Mironov, near Slavyansk in May 2014 was caused by a “purposeful, massed mortar fire attack” launched by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Italian and Ukrainian national Vitaly Markiv, deputy platoon commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in this crime at the Bologna airport on June 30.

We would like to hope that the inquiry into this high-profile case will pave the way to a search for those guilty of other similar crimes and will help to shed the light on other terrible pages in the chronicle of the civil war in Ukraine, whose innocent victims are journalists, including Russian journalists, who honestly performed their professional duty.

Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina) awards Vitaly Churkin posthumously the Order of the Flag with Silver Wreath

On June 27, the leadership of the Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina) held a ceremony at the Narodna Skupstina (Parliament) in memory of the Russian Federation’s Permanent Representative to the UN in new York Vitaly Churkin. During the ceremony, President of the Republika Srpska Miroslav Dodik handed to the Russian Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Pyotr Ivantsov, the highest national decoration, the Order of the Flag of the Republika Srpska with Silver Wreath, which Vitaly Churkin had been awarded posthumously.

We are grateful to the leaders of the Republika Srpska for their appreciation of Vitaly Churkin’s contribution to stability in the Balkan Peninsula during the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We note that the principles of dialogue-assisted peaceful settlement of crises, which he consistently upheld, remain highly relevant against the background of current turbulence in the international arena.

Answers to media questions:

Question: A two-year-old child has died in the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Is this evidence of the conflict becoming more dangerous? Should the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group redouble their efforts to prevent this?

Maria Zakharova: This is exactly what I have said in my comment today. I spoke about the actions the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group should take and the unacceptable escalation of tensions. This is exactly what I said.

Question: Will Russia propose any new initiatives on a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh at the upcoming OSCE Informal Ministerial Meeting?

Maria Zakharova: Russia is keeping an eye on this issue. Everything possible is being done to return the process to the settlement track in case of the aggravation of tensions. Russia will continue to act in this vein.

Question: Are there plans for a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Meeting?

Maria Zakharova: The minister’s schedule is being updated now. As soon as we know, we will inform you about his upcoming meetings.

Question: The next round of the intra-Syrian talks has ended in Astana. However, no agreement on de-escalation zones has been reached because of the Turkish delegation’s stance.

Maria Zakharova: It was not the last meeting planned in the framework of the Astana process. There will be more meetings. Everything possible will be done to build on the previous achievements to prevent the situation on the ground from deteriorating and to facilitate its improvement.

Question: The leaders of two great powers, Russia and the United States, will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. What does Russia expect from this meeting? Could it help improve cooperation on the Middle East and Ukraine?

Maria Zakharova: Comments on the summits in which President Vladimir Putin takes part are traditionally provided by the Presidential Executive Office and Press Service. Such comments have been issued. I think that the Presidential Executive Office will make additional comments on the eve of the G20 summit and the President’s bilateral meetings. There is a clear division of responsibilities between us.

Question: Turkey has announced its plans to launch an operation in the Kurdish-held district of Afrin in northern Syria. What is Russia’s position regarding the announced military operation against the Kurdish self-defence forces?

Maria Zakharova: We have said more than once that the Kurdish units that are fighting terrorists in Syria should be involved in both the counterterrorism operation and the political process. You know about our position of principle on this matter. We are against any moves that could contradict the Syrian law and undermine Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Every move in that country should be taken in the interests of the multinational and multiconfessional Syrian people. You know our position on the future of Syria, which must be decided by the Syrian people themselves by adopting a new constitution and defining the framework of their future life. You know that we stand for a secular, integral, united and, of course, sovereign Syria, where people of all nationalities and confessions would feel at ease. We believe that all actions taken in and around Syria must pursue these goals.

Question: Will you comment, please, on the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council [on North Korea] held yesterday? The Russian representative pointed out that new sanctions would not resolve this problem and called for acting expeditiously to find a political solution. Does this mean that Russia could block the adoption of new sanctions by the UN Security Council?

Maria Zakharova: The Russian representative put forth our position at the above meeting. His statement was not at all ambiguous. Also, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained our position on this matter at a news conference with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit following their talks. I would also like to remind you about the Joint Russian-Chinese Statement on a settlement in the Korean Peninsula. Several documents, speeches and statements have been made public over the past few days that confirm Russia’s position on this matter. All of them are based on the principle of a peaceful settlement. There are some nuances, of course. We stand exclusively for a constructive movement forward and the use of various mechanisms for achieving this goal. A peaceful settlement is an umbrella for various activities. Their formats may differ, but their fundamental principle is a peaceful settlement. This is our firm stand.

As for the vote on the resolution, the document has not been provided yet. The American representatives said they would submit a draft. We will discuss it when we see it. So far, there is no draft.

Question: Can you comment on President Trump's visit to Poland today and his participation in the Three Seas Initiative summit? Analysts say the US President is going to promote the sale of American gas to the region, especially Poland, to make the region less dependent on Russian gas and tie it to America politically.

Maria Zakharova: As for visits by presidents of third countries to fourth countries, you know full well that we respect all our partners, neighbours, countries with which we have common borders, their right to pursue their own foreign policies and develop bilateral relations with whomever.

As regards our relations with Poland and the US we believe there is every chance to develop these relations in many formats and on a bilateral basis. We do not see any need to develop these relations while looking over our shoulder at anyone. With Poland, we have natural historical and economic interests and connections. There are some issues, and I am ready to comment on bilateral relations with Poland and bilateral relations with the US. But others should comment on bilateral relations between Poland and the United States.

Energy dependence on Russia is a cliché. Let us take a close look at "dependence on Russia" in the energy field. Can you remind me of anytime Europe has had a problem with Russia energy-wise? Has Western Europe ever had problems with the USSR? Has the European continent ever had problems with Russia? Maybe Russia failed to deliver just one time? Has Russia ever put politics above economic interaction? Has Russia ever failed to meet its commitments? Give me such an example.

Perhaps it is great to be dependent on equal, full-fledged and mutually beneficial cooperation. Perhaps it is great to be part of a partnership tested not only by time but by serious geopolitical trials and upheavals? Countries have changed, fallen apart, reunited, but energy cooperation between Russia and Europe has remained unchanged. The change of the political system in Russia, the USSR, the break-up of the union, elections of presidents, parties, the advent of more liberal or conservative-leaning political forces has never put into question our country's commitment to energy cooperation. When someone suggests withdrawing from a relationship that has been tested over decades, it is worth asking what they will lose by withdrawing ̶ consider the pros and cons.

Remind me, and even more so, yourselves, of any occasion when Russia failed to meet its obligations and most importantly, has it ever made them dependent on political expediency? This has never happened. I am citing now not my own materials or materials prepared by analysts, but European businesspeople who openly expressed this during the traditional meeting between Sergey Lavrov and the European Business Association (October 25, 2016). I don't remember exactly if it was a French or an Italian businessman (the video is on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website) who said that over many decades the country that used to be called the USSR and today is called the Russian Federation never let Europe down in the energy sphere. This is not to say that Poland cannot develop energy cooperation with someone else. Why not? But no one should be taken in by another “fake” analysis of alleged dependence or unequal partnership. Decades of energy cooperation is a fact.

You know as well as I do that we have had some difficult years in our relations with Poland. Did anyone question energy cooperation when tensions in bilateral relations provoked by various political forces reached their peak? In other words, could it be that the numerous political crises that unfolded, often egged on by non-European countries (and they definitely provoke them), were meant to test this energy cooperation and make the “hand reach for the tap” to switch off supplies to two, three or more countries? Our country has not even considered an option like this.

Draw your own conclusions, but not based on what somebody tells you, but based on your own agenda and the facts. I think you have more than enough relevant facts.

Question: Russia yesterday renewed its call on the countries to re-launch the six-party talks on the Korean issue in which Washington is one of the participants. It looks as if Russia and the US are not effectively coordinating their efforts in resolving the Korean issue. In their joint statement the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries took a tough stand concerning the actions of the US and South Korea. What prevents Russia and the US from pooling their efforts?

Maria Zakharova: Nothing, as far as we are concerned.

Question: Why, then, don't things work out?

Maria Zakharova: Why are you asking us?

Ask the US. There is nothing that stands in our way. And most interestingly, the same is true of China. Russia and the PRC are doing fine in that respect: they exchange information, assessments, make joint statements and hold consultations. Why is there something that prevents Washington from sitting down at the negotiating table, resuming the negotiating process, and perhaps proposing their own formats is a question to be directed to them, not us. Nothing is holding back Russia.

You know how our Western colleagues launch media campaigns: if they declare a “crusade” on some region, it is hard to stop. There are certain laws in the internal political genre; unfortunately, it may be related to internal politics. You know that measures are being taken in this respect.

Question: President of China Xi Jinping has visited Russia. Many Russian media outlets say the relations between the two countries are at their peak and that the two states have aligned their positions and strategy ahead of the G20 summit. What exactly has been agreed? On what issues do Russia and China see eye to eye?

Maria Zakharova: It's a long story, I can give you additional materials on that score, for example by publishing them on the Foreign Ministry website. There will be extensive coverage on the Russian President's website as well.

One instance of coordinated Russian and Chinese approaches has just been mentioned: it's the settlement of the North Korea issue. There are many more such examples.

Answering your question about the G20, I would like to remind you that the Russian President's Representative, G20 sherpa Svetlana Lukash, will give a briefing on the results of the G20 Hamburg summit at the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Centre on July 10.

Question: Latvia has recently extradited to the US Russian national Yury Martyshev, who is suspected of cybercrime. The Russian Embassy in Washington has already described the act not as extradition, but another kidnaping. Could you explain whether it can be considered a kidnaping and why?

Maria Zakharova: Unfortunately, this is not the first and we are afraid not the last such case. The website for Russian citizens traveling abroad has corresponding material, and we advise you to take note of it, which says that this is a potential danger. Of late there have been many such instances, but unfortunately, we suspect that there may be more.

There are certain legal procedures according to which the civilised world should live, when someone belonging to one country commits an offence and is wanted by another country. These are legal procedures and politics should not prevail over law, international law and corresponding bilateral agreements and treaties. The law should prevail over everything else.

Question: The media has reported, citing a State Duma Committee, that the Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan is to be replaced. Is that true?

Maria Zakharova: I would like to repeat and bring it to your attention that in the case of our ambassador to Azerbaijan and Russian ambassadors to the US and other countries rotation takes place according to plan. There is nothing extraordinary here; everything is going to plan. Such cases happen due to relevant reasons. In this case and at this stage there is no unscheduled rotation, it is taking place on a planned basis. The President decides to send a new ambassador, so the current ambassador is recalled. This is the President's prerogative. This is always preceded by inter-agency approvals. Under the law and in accordance with the relevant regulations in the Russian Federation, we do not comment on this process. The announcement to the effect will not be made until the corresponding presidential executive orders are published.

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