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1. Russia: Kyiv rebuffs bid to end fresh fighting in eastern Ukraine

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, has rejected a new cease-fire offered by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, amid signs of mounting violations of an earlier truce in eastern Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said 18 January that Putin’s proposal called for a withdrawal of heavy artillery by both sides, TASS reports.

“In recent days, Russia has consistently undertaken efforts as an intermediary in regulating the conflict,” Peskov said in comments quoted by the Russian news agency.

“In particular, on Thursday night a written address was sent by the president of Russia to the president of Ukraine, in which a concrete plan was proposed to both sides in the conflict to withdraw heavy artillery.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told the Kyiv Post that the aim of renewed fighting is part of a Russian-backed offensive “to definitely disrupt the Minsk agreement” and try to force renegotiation of the September truce to end the fighting.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which operates an observer mission in the disputed regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, has warned of a “severe” deterioration in the region. It called for renewed efforts to reach a truce in the 10-month conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government.

“This cycle of deadly violence and further escalation of hostilities cannot continue. All sides should refrain from belligerence, intimidation, and provocative actions,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in an 18 January statement. Serbia took over the chairmanship of the OSCE last week.

At least 12 civilians were killed and 17 wounded on 13 January in government-controlled Volnovakha, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) southwest of Donetsk, according to an OSCE report. Kyiv blamed rebel artillery for the attack.

More than 4,000 people have died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine since mid-April.

2. Putin apologizes for Armenia killings as survivor clings to life

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, to apologize for the killing of an Armenian family of six by an AWOL Russian soldier who has reportedly confessed to the attack.

The incident already shows signs of fuelling tensions between the otherwise close allies.

The only survivor of the attack, a 6-month-old boy identified as Seryozha Avetisyan, was fighting for his life in a Yerevan hospital a week after the killing rampage in the western city of Gyumri, ArmeniaNow reports.

The Russian leader has told Sargsyan that “he’s confident that the investigation will be completed as soon as possible and the perpetrator will be punished,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said according to Russia’s RT news.

Investigators say Valery Permyakov went AWOL from Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri on 12 January. He is believed to have sprayed two grandparents, their son and daughter, a daughter-in-law, and a 2-year-old granddaughter with bullets from his AK-74 rifle at their home. The attacker used a bayonet to try to kill the baby in his cradle, according to ArmeniaNow.

Permyakov reportedly confessed to the attack and is in Russian custody, triggering possible tensions between the two countries if he is not tried in a local court.

Thousands of Armenian angry over the attack took to the streets last week, demanding that Russian authorities hand over Permyakov to local authorities. In response, online activists have urged Putin to “send in the troops” to Armenia to protect all Russian-speakers in the South Caucasus nation from protesters, The Moscow Times reports.

Russia maintains a force of some 5,000 troops in Armenia under an agreement between the two countries. It maintains infantry, armor, and air defense systems at an ex-Soviet base in Gyumri, located near the Armenian-Turkish border, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

3. Jihadists believed to be expanding recruitment drive in Kyrgyzstan

Militant groups in Syria have reportedly expanded their search for recruits in Kyrgyzstan, reaching out to northern regions of the Central Asian country that include the capital, Bishkek.

Officials tell Radio Free Europe that the recruitment drive by members of the Islamic State has branched out beyond the southern regions, such as the city of Osh, the focal point of past violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

One analyst told RFE that the security forces have been powerless to prevent the recruitment. “They do not have the technology to continually monitor the actions of the radicals. It’s all about money. It would be good if the state could pay more attention to this issue,” said Esen Usubaliev, director of the Prudent Solutions think tank.

The government has estimated that 150 Kyrgyzstan citizens have gone to Syria alone to fight for IS and other groups, Central Asia Online reported in October. However, a graphic compiled by RFE puts the number in Iraq and Syria at 30, joining jihadist recruits from other majority-Muslim Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan (150), Tajikistan (200), and Uzbekistan (31).

In October, a UN report obtained by the Guardian warned that foreign jihadists were fighting in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale,” with an estimated 15,000 fighting alongside the Islamic State and other militant groups. They come from more than 80 countries, the report says.

Belgium and France – where massive security clampdowns have been underway against alleged jihadists – have among the highest numbers of mercenaries fighting in the Middle East conflicts.

4. Rights watchdogs condemn imprisonment of Macedonian reporter

Media freedom watchdogs have condemned the imprisonment of a Macedonian journalist who was sentenced in 2013 for publishing the name of a murder witness five years earlier.

Investigative reporter Tomislav Kezarovski on 16 January was taken from his home – where he was already under house arrest – and transferred to prison to serve a two-year sentence. The sentence was handed down a day earlier by the Skopje Court of Appeal, which reduced a lower court’s 54-month sentence, the International Federation of Journalists reports.

Kezarovksi, who now works for the daily Nova Makedonija, has spent most of his time in detention or under house arrest since he was nabbed by police on 28 May 2013 for an article he wrote in 2008 for Reporter 92 magazine.

The article cited an internal police report leaked to him in which a witness admitted giving false testimony under pressure from investigators, according to Reuters.

Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, president of the European Federation of Journalists, said in a statement that the verdict “sends a message of censorship to other journalists in the country.”

Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s representative on media freedom, also condemned the action, saying, “Imprisonment of journalists for what they say or write is unacceptable in a democracy. The ruling to imprison Kezarovski sets a dangerous precedent for free media and investigative journalism.”

5. Bottom’s up: Pilsen begins year as a European culture capital

Known globally for its eponymous beer, the Czech town of Pilsen has just added a more refined claim to fame – European Capital of Culture 2015.

Weekend events to launch the recognition of the western Czech city included a performance by the Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra that incorporated the ringing of new bells from St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral.

Citizens donated some 10 million Czech crowns ($414,000) to recast bells melted by the Nazis during World War II.

“We couldn’t wish for anything more beautiful and moving than to start the project ‘Pilsen – European Capital of Culture 2015’ by ringing these bells,” Deputy Mayor Martin Baxa said, according to Deutsche Welle.

The picturesque town of 168,000 people dates to the 1200s and became a key industrial center under the Austro-Hungarian empire. The town is home to the Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus beers, and hosts a brewery museum along with a number of cultural and religious attractions, according to the town’s website.

Pilsen shares the 2015 honor with the Belgian city of Mons.

The European Union program has designated the Polish town of Wroclaw and Donostia-San Sebastian in Spain as next year’s cultural capitals, while Latvian capital Riga and Umea, Sweden, held the honor in 2014.

Timothy Spence is TOL’s former managing editor and a freelance writer, editor, and journalism trainer in Vienna.