This is how long it takes to get to the International Space Station

A Russian-American crew of three has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), marking success in the second attempt to reach the craft after an aborted launch in October 2018.

The Russian Soyuz rocket carrying U.S. astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch along with Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin arrived at 0101 GMT/UTC on March 15, 2019, a few minutes ahead of schedule after a six-hour flight.

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US-Taliban peace talks end with 'real strides made' but no deal

The longest round of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban has ended with "real strides" being made but without an agreement on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on March 12, 2019.

"The conditions for peace have improved. It's clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides," Khalilzad said on Twitter, adding that another round is possible later this month after the 16 days of negotiations in Qatar's capital, Doha.

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U.S. and Taliban negotiators have been attempting to hammer out the details of the framework agreement reached in January 2019.

The main disagreements are over four interconnected issues, including the Taliban breaking off ties with groups designated as terrorists by Washington; the timetable of a U.S. military withdrawal; a cease-fire in Afghanistan; and an intra-Afghan dialogue that would include the Taliban and government representatives.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said negotiators made "meaningful progress" during the talks.

The spokesman said the Taliban agreed that peace will require agreement on counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, and a cease-fire.

"Progress was achieved regarding both these issues," said a Taliban spokesman, referring to the U.S. troop withdrawal and assurances that foreign militants would not use Afghanistan's territory to stage future terrorist attacks.

Neither side mentioned any progress made on reversing the Taliban's refusal to negotiate with the government in Kabul. The militant group says the Western-backed government is a U.S. "puppet" that must be toppled.

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The Afghan government has been angered and frustrated at being sidelined at the peace talks.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told RFE/RL that he was skeptical of the Taliban's motives and urged Washington to keep troops in the country until a formal settlement that includes the Kabul has been signed with the militants.

Abdullah also said Afghans were "concerned" that the Kabul government has been sidelined from the talks in Qatar but insisted it had not caused a rift with Washington.

"Unless the Afghan government has direct negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan people have the right to be concerned," Abdullah, who is the de facto prime minister in the national unity government, said in an interview in Kabul on March 12, 2019.

"The Taliban wants to use these peace talks for political and propaganda purposes instead of using this as a step towards peace," he added.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to pull out the roughly 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan and has tasked U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with reaching a settlement with the militants.

During a round of talks in Doha in January 2019, U.S. and Taliban negotiators reached the basic framework of a potential peace deal in which the militants would prevent international terrorist groups from basing themselves in Afghanistan in exchange of a withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.

But Abdullah urged Washington to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan until a comprehensive peace settlement is reached between the United States, the Taliban, and Kabul.

"The Taliban wants foreign troops to leave Afghanistan," he said. "It's also the demand of the Afghan people. But our opinion, and that of the Afghan people, is that until the war is over and peace is restored, there is a need for the presence of these troops."

U.S. and other foreign troops have been in Afghanistan since an October 2001 invasion that brought down the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, who launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

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US calls on Russia to allow access to Marine charged with espionage

The United States has called on Russia to permit increased access to ex-Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held in Moscow on an espionage charge his supporters say is unfounded.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan said on March 11, 2019, that officials would visit the 49-year-old "later this week."

Whelan — who holds U.S., Irish, Canadian, and British citizenship — was arrested on Dec. 28, 2019, in Moscow and charged with spying. His pretrial detention runs until May 28, 2019.

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Kalan said in February 2019 that the U.S. Embassy had been unable to release any information regarding the case because Russian authorities had not allowed Whelan to give a signed Privacy Act Waiver to the embassy.

If convicted, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison. His family has said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Russian officials have not released details of the allegations against Whelan, who they assert was caught red-handed in an act of espionage.

Defense lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov has suggested his client was set up, saying he was handed a flash drive that he believed contained harmless personal material such as photographs but actually contained classified information.

Whelan, 49, was working as a global security director for a U.S. auto-parts manufacturer at the time of his arrest.

Relations between Russia and the United States have been strained over Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and its support for separatist militants in eastern Ukraine.

Whelan's detainment came weeks after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

In the past, Russia has arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.

Zherebenkov has also said that his client is innocent and suggested that Russian officials may be trying to use him in an exchange for Butina.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has rejected that scenario.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

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Russia's new battle tank is getting...a toilet?

War is hell — but for Russian tank crews, it's about to get a bit more comfortable.

The designer of a new battle tank that is under development says the latest plans for the armored vehicle include a built-in toilet for its three-person crew.

Ilya Baranov, an official at the Ural Design Bureau of Transport Machine-Building in Yekaterinburg, announced the unusual feature of the T-14 Armata tank on March 7, 2019, during an interview with Russia's TASS news agency.

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Pilot shot down by Pakistan returns to India

An Indian pilot captured by Pakistani forces on Feb. 27, 2019, after his warplane was shot down in the disputed region of Kashmir has returned to India after being freed by Islamabad in a "peace gesture."

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman crossed into India at the Wagah crossing point on March 1, 2019, hours later than expected and sporting a black eye.

Varthaman's release came a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made the announcement in a speech to Pakistan's parliament on Feb. 28, 2019.

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Russian military tells soldiers 'no more smartphones on duty'

Russian lawmakers have approved a bill banning the armed forces from carrying smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets capable of recording and keeping information while on duty.

According to the bill, approved in its third and final reading in the lower house on Feb. 19, 2019, only regular phones with no cameras and without an Internet connection are now allowed in the Russian armed forces.

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US expects to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan

The U.S. military is expected to trim troop levels in Afghanistan by more than 1,000 soldiers, a U.S. general told Reuters on Feb.15, 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump told Congress in February 2019 he intended to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan as negotiators make progress in talks with Taliban insurgents.

However, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, said the decision to reduce some of the 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan was not linked to those negotiations.

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Case remains open in death of US Ambassador to Afghanistan

On Feb. 14, 1979, Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was kidnapped at gunpoint, held hostage in a Kabul hotel, and killed in a botched rescue attempt.

Forty years on, the precise circumstances surrounding the death of the 58-year-old diplomat remain shrouded in mystery. Several questions remain unanswered, including who was behind Dubs' kidnapping, who fired the fatal shots, and whether the Soviet Union was involved.

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Former Air Force Officer accused of spying for Iran

The U.S. Justice Department has indicted a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer for aiding Iran in what Washington says was a cyberespionage operation targeting U.S. intelligence officers.

The indictment said Monica Witt exposed a U.S. agent and helped Iran's Revolutionary Guards develop cybertargets in the U.S. military after defecting to Iran in 2013.

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