Puigdemont Says Can Govern Catalonia from Belgium

Catalonia's sacked former leader Carles Puigdemont. AFP file photo
Catalonia's sacked former leader Carles Puigdemont. AFP file photo
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Puigdemont Says Can Govern Catalonia from Belgium

Catalonia's sacked former leader Carles Puigdemont. AFP file photo
Catalonia's sacked former leader Carles Puigdemont. AFP file photo

Catalonia's sacked former leader Carles Puigdemont said Friday he can govern the region from Belgium where he is in self-imposed exile.

"There are only two options: in prison I would not be able to address people, write, meet people," Puigdemont, who risks arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds if he returns to Spain, told Catalunya Radio.

"The only way is to continue doing it freely and safely."

"Nowadays big business, academic and research projects are essentially managed using new technology," he added.

His comments came as Catalonia's new parliamentary speaker, Roger Torrent from the pro-independence ERC party, held talks with party representatives to pick a candidate for the regional presidency.

Puigdemont, who was sacked along with his cabinet on October 27 by Madrid after the regional parliament declared independence, is the only candidate from Catalonia's separatist grouping to lead the region.

And given pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in elections on December 21, he in theory stands a good chance to be voted in at a parliamentary session due by the end of the month.

Puigdemont would not clarify in Friday's radio interview whether he would continue with plans to unilaterally construct an independent republic if elected regional president. But he said he planned to restore the previous administration.

"There is no plan B: plan A is restoration because that iswhat the people have entrusted us with."



CIA Director Burns Met Chinese Leaders in Beijing as Washington Tries to Thaw Tensions

William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
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CIA Director Burns Met Chinese Leaders in Beijing as Washington Tries to Thaw Tensions

William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)
William Burns, center, enters a car after arriving at Capital International Airport in Beijing, May 1, 2012. (AP)

CIA Director William Burns went to Beijing in May to meet with Chinese counterparts, a US official said on Friday, in what is the highest level visit by a Biden administration official since a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by American forces.

Burns' visit, first reported by The Financial Times, comes as Washington tries to cool tensions with Beijing over the balloon and other recent conflicts between the world's two largest economies and geopolitical rivals.

US officials have long warned that China rejects their efforts at outreach. That raises the possibility of miscommunication spiraling into conflict, they say.

“Last month, Director Burns traveled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Burns' schedule, which is classified.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke “briefly” Friday with Li Shangfu, China's minister of national defense, at the opening dinner of a security forum in Singapore. China had earlier rejected Austin's request for a meeting on the sidelines of the forum.

President Joe Biden has often sent Burns on sensitive trips to meet US adversaries. Burns went to Moscow in late 2021 to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about indications that Russia was gearing up to launch a new invasion of Ukraine.


Russia: Chechen Special Forces Waging Offensive in East Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
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Russia: Chechen Special Forces Waging Offensive in East Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions on the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, May 28, 2023. (AP)

Russia's Defense Ministry said on Friday that the "Akhmat" group of Chechen special forces were waging an offensive near the town of Mariinka, in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.

Together with the Wagner mercenary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, troops from Russia's Chechen Republic have been one of the main driving forces behind Moscow's offensive in Ukraine.

Akhmat commander Apti Alaudinov said on Thursday that his forces were being moved to "another area" in preparation for a counter-offensive, but did not say where the troops were or where they were going.

Unlike Prigozhin, who has repeatedly lambasted Russia's military leadership, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has recently refrained from echoing criticism of the defense ministry.

Members of the two groups have since openly sparred, with one of Kadyrov's close allies on Thursday casting Prigozhin as a blogger who yells all the time about problems.


Iran Releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian Citizens in Operation Involving Oman, Belgium

The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
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Iran Releases 1 Danish, 2 Austrian Citizens in Operation Involving Oman, Belgium

The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)
The Iranian flag flutters outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, March 6, 2023. (Reuters)

Iran has released one Danish and two Austrian citizens, the European countries said Friday, thanking Oman and Belgium for their help in getting the trio freed.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he was “very relieved” that Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb were being brought home after “years of arduous imprisonment in Iran."

Denmark’s foreign minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, said that he was “happy and relieved that a Danish citizen is on his way home to his family in Denmark after imprisonment in Iran." He didn't name the person, saying their identity was “a personal matter” and he couldn't go into details.”

Schallenberg thanked the foreign ministers of Belgium and Oman for providing “valuable support,” without elaborating on what form it took. Løkke Rasmussen also thanked Belgium and said that Oman “played an important role.”

There was no immediate word on what, if anything, Iran obtained in return for the prisoners’ release.

Last week, a prisoner exchange between Belgium and Iran returned to Tehran an Iranian diplomat convicted of attempting to bomb exiles in France, Assadollah Assadi. Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, looking visibly gaunt, headed back to Brussels as part of the swap.

On Friday, Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib tweeted that her country was “unwavering in our dedication to advocating for other Europeans who are being arbitrarily detained” and had “successfully secured the release of two Austrians and one Dane who were unjustly held in detention in Iran.”

Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge a release on Friday, which is part of the weekend in the country.

Oman often serves an interlocutor between Tehran and the West and brings released captives out of Iran. An Oman Royal Air Force Gulfstream IV, which had been on the ground in Tehran for several days, took off shortly before news of the European trio's releases came out.

The releases also come after Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq visited Iran on his first trip there since ascending the throne in 2020.

Ghaderi is an Iranian-Austrian businessman who was arrested in 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying for the US, charges strongly rejected by his supporters. His family had criticized Austria for being silent on his case in recent years.

Mossaheb, also an Iranian-Austrian businessman, was arrested in 2019 and received a 10-year prison sentence after what Amnesty International called “a grossly unfair trial for vague national security offenses.”

Amnesty had said Mossaheb suffered from heart failure and diabetes, making his imprisonment that much more dangerous for him.

Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses and sentencing them following secretive trials in which rights groups say they have been denied due process.

Critics have repeatedly accused Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips with the West.

Iran, facing Western sanctions over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, has experienced protests in recent months and economic strain. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency dropped two inquiries into the country's nuclear program.


White House Wants to Engage Russia on Nuclear Arms Control in Post-treaty World

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
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White House Wants to Engage Russia on Nuclear Arms Control in Post-treaty World

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, April 24, 2023. (AP)

The Biden administration is ready to talk to Russia without conditions about a future nuclear arms control framework even while taking countermeasures in response to the Kremlin's decision to suspend the last nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in February he was suspending Russia’s cooperation with the New START Treaty's provisions for nuclear warhead and missile inspections, a move that came as tensions worsened after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Russia did say it would respect the treaty's caps on nuclear weapons.

Sullivan said at the Arms Control Association's annual meeting said that the United States is committed to adhering to the treaty if Russia also does, and that Washington wants to open a dialogue on a new framework for managing nuclear risks once the treaty expires in February 2026.

"It is in neither of our countries’ interest to embark on opening the competition in the strategic nuclear forces," Sullivan said. "And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post 2026" agreement.

The US is willing to stick to the warhead caps until the treaty's end. Figuring out details about a post-2026 framework will be complicated by US-Russia tension and China's growing nuclear strength.

China now has about 410 nuclear warheads, according to an annual survey from the Federation of American Scientists. The Pentagon in November estimated China's warhead count could grow to 1,000 by the end of the decade and to 1,500 by around 2035.

The size of China's arsenal and whether Beijing is willing to engage in substantive dialogue will affect the future US force posture and Washington's ability to come to any agreement with the Russians, administration officials said.

US-Chinese relations have been strained by the shooting down a Chinese spy balloon this year after it crossed the continental United States; tensions about the status of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own; US export controls aimed at limiting China's advanced semiconductor equipment; and other issues.

"Simply put we have not yet seen the willingness from the PRC to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship," Sullivan said using he acronym for the People's Republic of China.

The White House push on Moscow on nuclear arms control comes the day after the administration announced new steps in response to Russia suspending participation in the treaty.

The State Department said it no longer would notify Russia of any updates on the status or location of "treaty-accountable items" such as missiles and launchers, would revoke US visas issued to Russian treaty inspectors and aircrew members, and would cease providing telemetric information on test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The United States and Russia earlier this year stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data required by the treaty.

The treaty, which then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in 2010, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers and provides for on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The inspections have been dormant since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on resuming them were supposed to have taken place in November 2022, but Russia abruptly called them off, citing US support for Ukraine.


New US Sanctions Target Iran’s Internet Censorship

The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021. (AP)
The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021. (AP)
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New US Sanctions Target Iran’s Internet Censorship

The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021. (AP)
The Treasury Building is viewed in Washington, May 4, 2021. (AP)

The United States issued fresh Iran-related sanctions on Friday targeting technology company Arvan Cloud, two employees and an affiliated company for their roles in helping Tehran censor the Internet in the country, the Treasury Department said.

Arvan Cloud has a close relationship with Iran's intelligence services and its executives have ties to senior Iranian government officials, the department said.

"The Iranian government has regularly used Internet restrictions and the throttling of Internet speeds to suppress dissent, surveil and punish Iranians for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly both online and offline," the statement said.

The individuals targeted are Pouya Pirhosseinloo and Farhad Fatemi, co-founders of Arvan Cloud, the Treasury said.

The sanctions also targeted an affiliate, ArvanCloud Global Technologies L.L.C.


US Seeks ‘Just and Lasting Peace’ for Ukraine, Blinken Says 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech at the Helsinki City Hall, in Helsinki, Finland June 2, 2023. (Lehtikuva/via Reuters)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech at the Helsinki City Hall, in Helsinki, Finland June 2, 2023. (Lehtikuva/via Reuters)
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US Seeks ‘Just and Lasting Peace’ for Ukraine, Blinken Says 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech at the Helsinki City Hall, in Helsinki, Finland June 2, 2023. (Lehtikuva/via Reuters)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech at the Helsinki City Hall, in Helsinki, Finland June 2, 2023. (Lehtikuva/via Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday the United States was working with Ukraine and other allies to build consensus around the core elements of a "just and lasting peace" to end the war with Russia. 

Washington would also encourage initiatives by other countries to bring about an end to the conflict, as long as they uphold the United Nations Charter and Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. 

"We will support efforts – whether by Brazil, China, or any other nation – if they help find a way to a just and lasting peace," Blinken said in a speech. 

Still, Washington would continue to support Ukraine militarily as the prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy is that Kyiv is capable of deterring and defending against any future aggression. 

"Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine has been a strategic failure," Blinken said. 

Speaking in Finland, the NATO alliance's newest member, Blinken said the US would help build a "Ukrainian military of the future". 

That meant "a modern air force, integrated air and missile defense, advanced tanks and armored vehicles, the national capacity to produce ammunition, and the training and support to keep forces and equipment combat ready". 


US Retaliates for Russia's Suspension of New START Treaty by Revoking Visas of Nuclear Inspectors

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference following the NATO foreign ministers meeting n Oslo, Norway, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference following the NATO foreign ministers meeting n Oslo, Norway, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
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US Retaliates for Russia's Suspension of New START Treaty by Revoking Visas of Nuclear Inspectors

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference following the NATO foreign ministers meeting n Oslo, Norway, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference following the NATO foreign ministers meeting n Oslo, Norway, Thursday, June 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

The Biden administration is retaliating for Russia’s suspension of the New START nuclear treaty, announcing Thursday it is revoking the visas of Russian nuclear inspectors, denying pending applications for new monitors and canceling standard clearances for Russian aircraft to enter US airspace.

The State Department said it was taking those steps and others in response to Russia’s “ongoing violations” of New START, the last arms control treaty remaining between the two countries, which are currently at severe odds over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“The United States is committed to full and mutual implementation of the New START treaty,” it said. “Consistent with that commitment, the United States has adopted lawful countermeasures in response to the Russian Federation’s ongoing violations of the New START treaty.”

The department said the visa revocations and application denials, as well as a US decision to stop sharing information on the status or locations of missiles and telemetry data on test launches with Russia, were consistent with international law because of Russia’s actions.

The US will, however, continue to notify Russia when it conducts test launches, it said, adding that the steps it was taking were reversible provided Moscow returns to compliance with the treaty.

Russia suspended its participation in New START in February in a move that the US said was “legally invalid.” Immediately afterward Moscow curtailed its adherence to the accord.

Allowing inspections of weapons sites and providing information on the placement of intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles and their test launches are critical components of New START, which then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed in 2010.

In March, the US announced that it and Russia had stopped sharing biannual nuclear weapons data. The US had said it wanted to continuing such sharing but stopped after Moscow informed Washington that it would not share its data.

Despite being extended shortly after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, New START has been severely tested by Russia’s war in Ukraine and has been on life support for since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would no longer comply with its requirements.

The treaty limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers. The agreement envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The inspections went dormant in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions on resuming them were supposed to have taken place in November 2022, but Russia abruptly called them off, citing US support for Ukraine.

The State Department said Russia had been told of the countermeasures ahead of time and also advised that Washington is still interested in keeping the treaty alive.

“The United States remains ready to work constructively with Russia on resuming implementation of the New START Treaty,” it said.


Iranian Judiciary Announces Visit of Foreign Diplomats to Women’s Prison

Gharibabadi visiting a children’s prison in Tehran (Mizan)
Gharibabadi visiting a children’s prison in Tehran (Mizan)
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Iranian Judiciary Announces Visit of Foreign Diplomats to Women’s Prison

Gharibabadi visiting a children’s prison in Tehran (Mizan)
Gharibabadi visiting a children’s prison in Tehran (Mizan)

The Mizan news agency of the Iranian judiciary reported that a delegation of 36 ambassadors, diplomats and representatives from 28 countries and international organizations visited the Qarchak women’s prison in the south of the capital, on Wednesday.

The visit comes a month after the sudden transfer of female prisoners on political charges to other prisons.

Accompanied by a number of Iranian judicial officials and Kazem Gharibabadi Secretary General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, the envoys made a tour of the prison which lasted three hours.

Gharibabadi said the women’s penitentiary was chosen to enable the foreign diplomats to see the unique and diverse services and facilities for female prisoners and get a correct understanding of the principles of prisons.

In recent months, women’s rights activists have called for the closure of Qarchak prison, which is described as the largest prison for women in Iran. There is no official data on the number of female prisoners in Iran, especially after the recent arrest campaign launched by the authorities against participants in the protests that have swept the country following the death of Mahsa Amini.

The agency did not reveal the names of the countries and international organizations whose members visited the controversial prison.

The announcement of the visit comes days after the first trial of the two journalists, Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, following their coverage of the case of Mahsa Amini.

The two women are tried on charges of “conspiracy and rebellion against national security” and “anti-state propaganda”.

The US State Department had said that Iran’s “sham” trial of Hamedi and Mohammadi, was a “mockery of justice” and shows Iran’s fear of journalists.

The US State Department also pledged to continue supporting freedom of expression and the press in Iran. The statement called on the Iranian authorities to release hundreds of political prisoners and dozens of journalists from Iranian prisons.

 


Dead Mossad Agent Was Reportedly on Critical Mission in Italy

A handout photo made available by the press office of Vigili del Fuoco (VVF), the Italian National Fire Brigade, shows divers of the fire brigade during a search and rescue operation in Lake Maggiore after a tourist boat capsized near Lisanza (Varese), northern Italy, 29 May 2023. EPA/VIGILI DEL FUOCO
A handout photo made available by the press office of Vigili del Fuoco (VVF), the Italian National Fire Brigade, shows divers of the fire brigade during a search and rescue operation in Lake Maggiore after a tourist boat capsized near Lisanza (Varese), northern Italy, 29 May 2023. EPA/VIGILI DEL FUOCO
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Dead Mossad Agent Was Reportedly on Critical Mission in Italy

A handout photo made available by the press office of Vigili del Fuoco (VVF), the Italian National Fire Brigade, shows divers of the fire brigade during a search and rescue operation in Lake Maggiore after a tourist boat capsized near Lisanza (Varese), northern Italy, 29 May 2023. EPA/VIGILI DEL FUOCO
A handout photo made available by the press office of Vigili del Fuoco (VVF), the Italian National Fire Brigade, shows divers of the fire brigade during a search and rescue operation in Lake Maggiore after a tourist boat capsized near Lisanza (Varese), northern Italy, 29 May 2023. EPA/VIGILI DEL FUOCO

Israel's intelligence agency has defended itself against a widescale criticism in Israel regarding officers venturing into a trip that was described as a “recreation trip in an Italian lake”.

Mossad said Wednesday that a retired agent was among four people killed in northern Italy when a sudden storm sank a houseboat hired for a weekend pleasure cruise on a lake.

The former agent was on the vessel with 22 other people on a lake near the town of Lisanza. Two Italian intelligence agents and a Russian woman — part of the two-person crew — also died.

"It was not an operational mission, but it was related to his work," hinted Israeli lawmaker, and former deputy head of the Mossad, Ram Ben Barak.

Mossad Director David Barnea attended the official funeral which was discreetly held for Officer Erez Shimoni.

Corriere della Sera newspaper said on Thursday that the purpose behind the gathering of the Italian intelligence members and the Israeli Mossad officer on a boat that capsized in Italy’s Lake Maggiore was to coordinate the monitoring of “Russian oligarchs” involved in transporting Iranian drones to Moscow.

The Italian newspaper added that area where the lake is located is an active spot for Russian oligarchs.

Italian media reported that the Mossad members didn’t plan the trip ahead of time, but the decision was taken on the spot. Their meeting with their Italian counterparts lasted longer than expected and they missed their flight to Israel.

The captain, identified by Italian media as Carlo Carminati, survived the mishap and was questioned by prosecutors. Media reports also said the boat, which capsized before sinking, only had a capacity of 15 passengers and two crew members.

Corriere della Sera quoted Carminati as saying, “It was 30 seconds, then the apocalypse came, the boat immediately capsized, and we fell into the water.”

Eyewitnesses said that the boat quickly capsized and four of the passengers sank. The rest of the passengers swam about 150 meters to the shore.

According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, ten Israelis survived the accident and were rushed back to Israel on a military plane. In parallel, Italian intelligence agents were also quickly evacuated from the emergency rooms "so as not to leave a trace."


Ukraine Says it Downed More Than 30 Missiles, Drones

People take cover at a metro station during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
People take cover at a metro station during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
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Ukraine Says it Downed More Than 30 Missiles, Drones

People take cover at a metro station during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
People take cover at a metro station during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Ukrainian forces in the capital, Kyiv, said on Friday they shot down more than 30 Russian missiles and drones overnight and two people were injured by falling debris, before authorities lifted air raid alerts across most of the country.

Russia has launched about 20 separate missiles and drone strikes against Ukrainian cities since the beginning of May.

Kyiv military authorities, writing on Telegram, said Russia had launched drones and cruise missiles at the same time.

"According to preliminary information, more than 30 air targets of various types were detected and destroyed in the airspace over and around Kyiv by air defense forces," they said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who earlier reported two separate waves of attacks, wrote on Telegram that there had been no calls for rescue services.

Ukraine's military said Russia had launched 15 missiles and 18 drones.

Kyiv region authorities said two people were injured as a result of falling debris, including a child.

"In addition, the falling debris damaged five private houses," the state administration said on the Telegram messaging service.