The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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Live updates: EU shuts airspace to Russian airlines; Embattled Ukraine capital is encircled

Associated Press Sunday, 27 February 2022, 06:51 Last update: about 8 months ago

KYIV, Ukraine — As Russian troops draw closer to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv’s mayor is both filled with pride over his citizens’ spirit and anxious about how long they can hold out.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, after a grueling night of Russian attacks on the outskirts of the city, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said there were no plans to evacuate civilians if Russian troops managed to take Kyiv.

“We can’t do that, because all ways are blocked,” he said. “Right now we are encircled.”

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When Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Thursday, the city of 2.8 million people initially reacted with concern but also a measure of self-possession. However, nerves started fraying when grocery stores began closing and the city’s famously deep subway system turned its stations into bomb shelters.

The mayor confirmed to the AP that nine civilians in Kyiv had been killed so far, including one child.

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NEW YORK — Some early signs are emerging of significant economic consequences to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine three days ago. While official quotes for the Russian ruble were unchanged at roughly 84 rubles to the dollar, one online Russian bank, Tinkoff, was giving an unofficial exchange rate of 152 rubles over the weekend.

Videos from Russia showed long lines of Russians trying to withdraw cash from ATMs, while the Russian Central Bank issued a statement calling for calm, in an effort to avoid bank runs. Reports also showed that Visa and Mastercard were no longer being accepted for those with international bank accounts.

“Banks and credit card companies dealing with Russia are going into lock down mode given the fast pace and increasing bite of the sanctions,” said Amanda DeBusk, a partner with Dechert LLP.

Russia may have to temporarily close bank branches or declare a national bank holiday to protect its financial system, analysts said.

“If there’s a full-scale banking panic, that’s a driver of crisis in its own right,” said Adam Tooze, a professor of history at Columbia University and Director of the European Institute. “A rush into dollars by the Russian general population moves things into an entirely new domain of financial warfare.”

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MOSCOW — The Russian military said Sunday that some of its troops were killed and some were wounded in Ukraine -- admitting for the first time that it had suffered casualties since the Russian invasion.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Sunday “there are dead and wounded among our comrades,” without offering any numbers, but adding that Russia’s losses were “many times” fewer than those of Ukraine’s forces.

It was the first time Russian military officials mentioned casualties on their side. Ukraine has claimed that its forces killed 3,500 Russian troops. Konashenkov also said that since the start of the attack Thursday, the Russian military have hit 1,067 Ukrainian military facilities, including 27 command posts and communication centers, 38 air defense missile system and 56 radar stations.

Konashenkov’s claims and Ukraine’s allegations that its forces killed thousands of Russian troops can’t be independently verified.

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PARIS — Hundreds of people protested on Sunday in Paris and in the Riviera city of Nice against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Ukrainian flags and those of other eastern European nations hoisted high.

Some Russians opposed to the war were in the Paris crowd.

It was the second day of protests directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin around France, among a string of weekend rallies across Europe. On the famed Promenade des Anglais in Nice, a hub for Ukrainians, hundreds of people chanted slogans against the war Putin is waging and urged NATO nations to protect them from Russian bombs.

Protesters carried Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian and Chechen flags and banners denouncing Putin.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of people protested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Belarus on Sunday. The protests came despite the fact that the authoritarian Belarusian government has sided with Moscow.

The anti-war rallies spanned at least 12 Belarusian cities, and human rights advocates reported that more than 170 people have been arrested. In the capital of Minsk, demonstrators marched in different parts of the city carrying Ukrainian flags. A large pile of flowers kept growing at the building of Ukraine’s Embassy.

Pavel Latushko, Belarusian top opposition figure in exile in Poland, condemned Belarus’ role in the Russian attack on Ukraine.

“The illegitimate regime in Belarus, headed by the usurper of power (President Alexander) Lukashenko, has made our country an accomplice in the aggression against the brotherly Ukrainian people,” Latushko said. “We consider aggression against Ukraine an international crime on the part of the Russian and Belarusian regimes.”

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JERUSALEM — Around 2,500 Ukrainian Jews have asked to immigrate to Israel and take citizenship since the onset of Russia’s invasion, a quasi-governmental organization says.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration matters, said that it has received over 5,000 inquiries about immigration to Israel. Around half have requested to immigrate immediately, the agency said.

Ukraine is home to a Jewish community of around 43,000. But approximately 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return, which extends the right to citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent.

Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry said it was making preparations for taking in around 10,000 new immigrants from Ukraine in the coming weeks, including providing housing and financial aid.

A total of around 3,100 Ukrainians immigrated to Israel in 2021, and a comparable number the year prior.

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s chief executive says the 27-nation bloc will close its airspace to Russian airlines, fund supplies of weapons to Ukraine and ban some pro-Kremlin media outlets in response to Russia’s invasion.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday that “for the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack.”

Von der Leyen added that “we are shutting down the EU airspace for Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian registered or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off or overfly the territory of the EU.”

She said also the EU will ban “the Kremlin’s media machine. The state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU will also target Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for supporting Russia’s widespread military campaign in Ukraine.

“We will hit Lukashenko’s regime with a new package of sanctions,” she said.

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TORONTO — Canada is joining many European countries in closing its airspace to all Russian aircraft as the West ramps up pressure on Russia for invading Ukraine.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Sunday that Canada will hold Russia accountable for its unprovoked attacks.

Most European countries have either announced they are closing their airspace or said they intend to do so. So far Spain, Greece, Serbia and Turkey are among the few left that haven't joined in the move against Russia.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top migration official says more than 300,000 Ukrainians fleeing war have entered the 27-nation bloc in recent days and is warning that Europe must be ready for millions to arrive.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is urging the bloc’s interior ministers meeting on Sunday to trigger a special protection mechanism set up 20 years ago to help deal with influxes of refugees.

“We have to prepare for even bigger numbers, and we have to prepare for the support that we need to give to the Ukrainians fleeing,” she told reporters at the EU meeting in Brussels. “I think we need to prepare for millions.”

The protection system was set up in the wake of the wars in former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, when thousands of people were forced to flee their homes. It has never been used. It provides residence permits for a fixed time, the possibility of jobs, accommodation, social welfare, medical treatment and education for children.

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ATHENS — Authorities say Greece is sending ammunition, assault rifles and missile launchers to Ukraine in response to a request by Ukraine's government.

The military aid was decided at a meeting Sunday morning between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and senior defense officials.

A C-130 plane with the equipment has arrived in Poland, and a second one will arrive later, a Defense Ministry official said.

Two more planes carrying humanitarian aid such as blankets and food have also left Athens International Airport for Poland, the spokesman said.

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GENEVA — The World Health Organization is warning that oxygen supplies – important for the fight against COVID-19 and other illnesses – are reaching a “very dangerous point” in Ukraine due to transportation difficulties in the wake of Russia’s military invasion, jeopardizing thousands of lives.

“The majority of hospitals could exhaust their oxygen reserves within the next 24 hours. Some have already run out. This puts thousands of lives at risk,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO Europe regional director Dr. Hans Kluge in a joint statement Sunday afternoon in Europe.

They said electricity and power shortages, and the danger of ambulances getting caught in the crossfire, were increasing the risks to patients.

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LONDON — Britain's foreign secretary has said she would “absolutely” support Britons who choose to go to Ukraine to help fight the Russian invasion.

“Absolutely, if people want to support that struggle I would support them in doing that," Liz Truss said Sunday when asked by the BBC whether she would back British people who want to answer the Ukrainian president's call for international volunteers to help defend his country.

“The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe," she added.

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TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says Japan has decided to join the United States and European nations in cutting key Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial messaging system to step up sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Japan will also freeze assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials, while sending $100 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Kishida told reporters.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a unilateral attempt to change the status quo and the act shakes the foundation of the international order. It’s an outright violation to international law and we strongly denounce the act,” Kishida said.

In a statement welcoming new sanctions from Japan, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US and its allies “will continue working closely together to impose further severe costs and make Putin’s war of choice a strategic failure.”

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KYIV, UKRAINE — The office of Ukraine’s president has confirmed that a delegation will meet with Russian officials as Moscow’s troops draw closer to Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy office said Sunday on the Telegram messaging app that the two sides would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border and did not give a precise time for the meeting.

The meeting news came shortly after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers.

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BERLIN — Approximately 100,000 people have turned out in Berlin to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Police said large crowds have filled the area originally planned for the demonstration, around the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin, and that they were allocating additional space to accommodate the protesters.

Sunday's protest was peaceful, including many families with children. People waved yellow and blue Ukrainian flags to show their support. Some carried placards with slogans such as “Hands off Ukraine" and “Putin, go to therapy and leave Ukraine and the world in peace.”

Beate Schmid, who works as a scientist in Berlin, said she works closely with academics in Ukraine. “Their sons and brothers and husbands are now being drafted to fight against the Russians,” she said. “It’s so sad. Simply unbelievable.”

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MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces put on high alert amid tensions with the West over his invasion of Ukraine.

Putin asserted at a meeting with his top officials on Sunday that leading NATO powers had made “aggressive statements” along with the West imposing hard-hitting financial sanctions against Russia, including the president himself.

The alert means Putin has ordered Russia’s nuclear weapons prepared for increased readiness to launch. He told the Russian defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime of combat duty.”

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BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers are holding emergency talks later Sunday to discuss ways to help Ukraine’s armed forces fight back against the Russian invasion.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will chair the videoconference, starting at 1700 GMT. Borrell says he will urge the ministers to endorse “a package of emergency assistance for the Ukrainian armed forces, to support them in their heroic fight.”

The 27-nation bloc has set up a European Peace Facility, a fund with a ceiling of around 5.7 billion euros ($6.4 billion), to bolster its military training and support missions around the world. Some of the money can be used to train and equip partner countries, including with lethal weapons.

The meeting comes a day after Germany announced a major shift in policy to send weapons and other supplies directly to Ukraine.

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WARSAW, Poland -- While countries like Poland and Hungary have welcomed fleeing Ukrainians, some foreign citizens seeking to leave Ukraine have reported difficulties at the Polish border.

An Indian volunteer in Poland said Sunday some Indian citizens seeking to flee Ukraine into Poland are stuck at the border leading into Medyka, Poland, and unable to cross.

The Indian Embassy in Kyiv said Sunday that Indian citizens are being evacuated from Ukraine to Romania and Hungary. But some have arrived at the border with Poland apparently unaware of this and are stuck.

Ruchir Kataria, the volunteer, told The Associated Press that the Indians seeking to cross at Medyka were told in broken English: “Go to Romania.” But they had already made long journeys on foot to the border, and have no way to reach the border with Romania hundreds of kilometers away.

Some other Indian citizens who managed to cross into Poland have been denied a place to stay in shelters set up by Polish authorities and charities, and were told that the help was reserved for Ukrainians, according to Kataria’s wife, Magdalena Barcik, who is working with him to help those fleeing.

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MOSCOW — The Kremlin says Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has offered to help broker an end to fighting in Ukraine.

The Kremlin said Bennett told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a call on Sunday that Israel is ready to play mediator. It didn’t say whether the Russian leader accepted the offer.

The Kremlin said Putin told Bennet that Russia has sent a delegation to Gomel in southern Belarus to conduct peace talks with Ukrainian officials, who have refused to come. Ukrainian officials described the Russian move as a “manipulation,” noting that Ukraine hasn’t agreed to hold talks in Belarus.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasized the country’s readiness for peace talks but said that they can’t be held in Moscow’s ally Belarus, which has allowed Russia to use its territory as a staging ground for the invasion that began Thursday.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has denounced the “diabolical and perverse logic” of launching a war in Ukraine in his strongest public comments yet.

Francis also called Sunday for humanitarian corridors to welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing the “tragic” invasion of their homeland.

Francis has refrained from calling out Russia by name as he seeks to mend ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, and he again omitted any reference to Moscow on Sunday. But he said: “Those who make war forget humanity," adding that warfare "relies on the diabolical and perverse logic of weapons, which is the farthest thing from God’s will.”

Francis repeated his call for the faithful to mark Ash Wednesday this week as a day of fasting and prayer to show solidarity with the “suffering people of Ukraine.”

Earlier Sunday, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople described Russia’s invasion as “beyond every sense of law and morality" and pleaded for an end to the war.

Patriarch Bartholomew is considered the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide. In 2019 he granted the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, severing it from the Russian church it had been tied to since 1686.

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GENEVA — The United Nations’ refugee agency says the latest count of Ukrainians arriving in neighboring countries stands at 368,000 and continues to rise.

The update from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Sunday more than doubles its estimate a day ago, when it said at least 150,000 have fled Ukraine into Poland and other countries including Hungary and Romania.

Spokesman Chris Meizer said on Twitter that the line of cars at the Poland-Ukraine crossing stood at 14 km long (8.7 miles), and those fleeing — mostly women and children — had to endure long waits in freezing temperatures overnight.

Poland’s government said Saturday that more than 100,000 Ukrainians had crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border in the past 48 hours alone.

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BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says Germany is committing 100 billion euros ($112.7 billion) to a special fund for its armed forces, raising its defense spending above 2% of its GDP.

Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag in Berlin on Sunday that it was clear “we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy.”

Germany had come under criticism for not investing adequately in its defense budget and not doing enough to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

On Saturday evening, the German government announced it would be sending weapons and other supplies directly to Ukraine to help troops against invading Russia forces.

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BRUSSELS — European Union interior ministers are gathering Sunday for emergency talks on how to cope with an influx of refugees from conflict-hit Ukraine as tens of thousands of people flee across the border into Poland, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere.

The U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates that more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting in Ukraine have fled the country, and that up to four million could flee if the fighting spreads.

At a meeting in Brussels, the ministers will look at ways to shelter people, how to manage the security challenges that the conflict poses to the EU’s external borders, and what kind of humanitarian support can be provided to Ukraine.

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LONDON — British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says Russian President Vladimir Putin could use “the most unsavory means,” including banned chemical or biological weapons, to defeat Ukraine.

“I urge the Russians not to escalate this conflict but we do need to be prepared for Russia to seek to use even worse weapons,” Truss told Sky News.

She said the International Criminal Court is watching events in Ukraine, and that Putin and the Russian government would face “serious consequences” if it committed war crimes.

Britain has slapped sanctions on Russian banks, companies and oligarchs in response to the invasion, and agreed with the European Union and the U.S. to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system.

Truss said tough sanctions will have an economic cost on Britain, including in higher energy costs. But she insisted it’s a price worth paying to stop Putin threatening more countries.

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BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — Russia's President Vladimir Putin has temporarily lost his most senior official position in world sports.

The International Judo Federation on Sunday cited “the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine” for suspending Putin’s honorary president status.

The Russian president is a keen judoka and attended the sport at the 2012 London Olympics.

The judo federation is rare among Olympic sports bodies for using the word “war” to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ordered by Putin since Thursday. Others have used phrases such as “escalation of conflict.”

A Kremlin-supporting oligarch and longtime friend of Putin, Arkady Rotenberg, remains on the IJF executive committee as development manager.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president says that Russia should be thrown out of the United Nations Security Council following its invasion of his country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message Sunday that the Russian invasion of Ukraine amounts to an act of genocide, saying that “Russia has taken the path of evil and the world should come to depriving it of its U.N. Security Council seat.”

Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, giving it veto power over resolutions.

Zelenskyy said that Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities should be investigated by an international war crimes tribunal and denounced the Russian invasion as “state terrorism.”

He dismissed as lies Russia’s claims that it wasn’t targeting civilian areas.

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s prime minister says the country is sending 100 tons of humanitarian aid to assist civilians caught up in the fighting in Ukraine.

Naftali Bennett told a meeting of his Cabinet Sunday that the aid includes medical equipment and medicine, tents, sleeping bags and blankets.

Bennett did not comment on a report by Israeli public broadcaster Kan which said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked the Israeli leader to mediate talks on ending the crisis with Russia. Bennett’s office confirmed there had been a call but declined to comment on the report. The Ukrainian embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bennett has treaded carefully in his public comments on Russia’s invasion. He has voiced support for Ukrainian civilians but has stopped short of condemning Russia. Israeli relies on Russia for security coordination in Syria, where Russia has a military presence and where Israel frequently strikes hostile targets.

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LONDON — Britain’s defense ministry says overnight fighting in Kyiv was less intense than the night before, but battles are raging in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

The U.K.’s Ministry of Defense has been posting intelligence updates on social media since Russia invaded.

It said Sunday that “Ukrainian forces have engaged the remnants of Russian irregular forces within the city of Kyiv for the second night in a row, fighting has been at a lower intensity than the previous evening.

“After encountering strong resistance in Chernihiv, Russian forces are bypassing the area in order to prioritise the encirclement and isolation of Kyiv," it said. “Intensive exchanges of rocket artillery overnight have been followed by heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv.”

The ministry said Russian forces are continuing to advance into Ukraine from multiple axis but they are encountering stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.

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GENEVA — The United Nations’ refugee agency says the latest count of Ukrainians arriving in neighboring countries now exceeds 200,000.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Twitter that the numbers of those fleeing invading Russian troops are constantly changing and another update would be issued later Sunday.

The agency’s estimate on Saturday was that at least 150,000 have fled Ukraine into Poland and other countries including Hungary and Romania.

Poland’s government said Saturday that more than 100,000 Ukrainians had crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border in the past 48 hours alone.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president says his country is ready for peace talks with Russia but not in Belarus, which was a staging ground for Moscow’s 3-day-old invasion.

Speaking in a video message Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy named Warsaw, Bratislava, Istanbul, Budapest or Baku as alternative venues. He said other locations are also possible but made clear that Ukraine doesn’t accept Russia’s selection of Belarus.

The Kremlin said Sunday that a Russian delegation had arrived in the Belarusian city of Homel for talks with Ukrainian officials. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the delegation includes military officials and diplomats.

“The Russian delegation is ready for talks, and we are now waiting for the Ukrainians,” Peskov said.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, with troops moving from Moscow’s ally Belarus in the north, and also from the east and south.

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MOSCOW — The Kremlin says a Russian delegation has arrived in the Belarusian city of Homel for talks with Ukrainian officials.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the delegation includes military officials and diplomats. “The Russian delegation is ready for talks, and we are now waiting for the Ukrainians,” Peskov said.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials, who previously expressed their own readiness for peace talks with Russia but haven’t mentioned any specific details on their location and timing.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, and its troops are closing in on the capital, Kyiv, and making significant gains along the country’s coast.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities say that Russian troops have entered Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv and fighting is underway in the streets.

Oleh Sinehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said Sunday that Ukrainian forces were fighting Russian troops in the city and asked civilians not to leave their homes.

Russian troops approached Kharkiv, which is located about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) south of the border with Russia, shortly after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on Thursday. But until Sunday, they remained on its outskirts without trying to enter the city while other forces rolled past, pressing their offensive deeper into Ukraine.

Videos on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and a light vehicle burning on the street.

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TEL AVIV, Israel — An organization that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel says it is ramping up its efforts along Ukrainian border crossings to absorb what it expects to be a wave of new immigrants fleeing the Russian invasion.

The Jewish Agency for Israel said late Saturday it plans to open six processing facilities along Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. The organization said in a statement it also plans to assist Ukrainian Jews with temporary housing in bordering countries until they can leave to Israel.

The agency said it assisted a group of new immigrants to cross into Poland on Saturday where they are awaiting a flight to Israel.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry estimates there are at least 120,000 Jews in Ukraine. Israel also has a sizeable population of Ukrainian emigres.

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LOS ANGELES — Elon Musk says his SpaceX company’s Starlink satellite internet service is now “active” in Ukraine.

The tech billionaire made the announcement on Twitter in response to a tweet by Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation saying that while Musk tries to “colonize Mars,” Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine. The minister called on Musk to provide his country with Starlink stations.

In his response Saturday, Musk said: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”

Starlink is a satellite-based internet system that SpaceX has been building for years to bring internet access to underserved areas of the world. It markets itself as “ideally suited” for areas where internet service is unreliable or unavailable.

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UNITED NATIONS -- The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is aware of requests by Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador and others to repatriate the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in action in Ukraine but has no numbers.

Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya tweeted Saturday that Ukraine has appealed to the ICRC “to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers” killed during its invasion of Ukraine. An accompanying chart claimed 3,500 Russian troops have been killed.

Kyslytsya tweeted that parents in Russia should have a chance “to bury them with dignity.” “Don’t let (Russian President Vladimir) Putin hide scale of tragedy,” he urged.

Laetitia Courtois, ICRC’s permanent observer to the United Nations told The Associated Press Saturday night that the current security situation “is a primary concern and a limitation for our teams on the ground” and “we therefore cannot confirm numbers or other details.”

She said “the ICRC can act as a neutral intermediary” on the return of bodies and other humanitarian issues in conflict, including clarifying the fate of missing persons, reuniting families, and advocating for the protection of detainees “within its possibilities.”

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KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian president’s office said Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city.

The State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection warned that the explosion, which it said looked like a mushroom cloud, could cause an “environmental catastrophe” and advised residents to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze and to drink plenty of fluids.

Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said the Russian forces have been unable to take Kharkiv, where a fierce battle is underway.

The city of 1.5 million is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border.

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GENEVA — The United Nations says it has confirmed at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 people killed, in the fighting in Ukraine that erupted since Russia’s invasion on Thursday — though it believed the “real figures are considerably higher” because many reports of casualties remain to be confirmed.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs relayed the count late Saturday from the U.N. human rights office, which has strict methodologies and verification procedures about the toll from conflict.

OCHA also said damage to civilian infrastructure has deprived hundreds of thousands of people of access to electricity or water, and produced a map of “humanitarian situations” in Ukraine — mostly in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine.

The human rights office had reported early Friday an initial count by its staffers of at least 127 civilian casualties – 25 people killed and 102 injured – mostly from shelling and airstrikes.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has asked his Belarus counterpart to demand that the country, Ukraine’s neighbor, quickly order Russian troops to leave.

In a phone conversation Saturday, Macron denounced “the gravity of a decision that would authorize Russia to deploy nuclear arms on Belarus soil,” a statement by the presidential palace said.

Macron told Alexander Lukashenko that fraternity between the people of Belarus and Ukraine should lead Belarus to “refuse to be a vassal and an accomplice to Russia in the war against Ukraine,” the statement said.

Belarus was one one of several axes used by Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine, with Belarus the point to move toward the capital Kyiv, a senior U.S. defense official has said.

Macron has pushed persistently to try to claw out a ceasefire amid the war, using the telephone to talk to all sides, diplomacy and sanctions by the European Union.

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MOSCOW -- Russia is closing its airspace to planes from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia, a move that comes as Moscow’s ties with the West plunge to new lows over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s state aviation agency, Rosaviatsiya, announced early Sunday that the measure was taken in retaliation for the four nations closing their airspace for Russian planes.

On Saturday, the agency also reported closing the Russian airspace for planes from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic in response to them doing the same.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S., European Union, and United Kingdom on Saturday agreed to block “selected” Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system and to impose ”restrictive measures” on its central bank in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.

The measures were announced jointly as part of a new round of financial sanctions meant to impose a severe cost on Russia for the invasion.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she would push the bloc also to “paralyze the assets of Russia’s Central bank” so that its transactions would be frozen.

Cutting several commercial banks from SWIFT “will ensure that these banks are disconnected from the international financial system and harm their ability to operate globally,” she said.

As a third measure, she said the EU would “commit to taking measures to limit the sale of citizenship—so called golden passports—that let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens of our countries and gain access to our financial systems.”

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COPENHAGEN— Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet says two freelancers working for the paper were injured when the car they were traveling in was hit by gunfire near the village of Ohtyrka in eastern Ukraine.

The reporter and photographer were taken to a local hospital, Ekstra Bladet said, adding their injuries were not life-threatening. The paper was working with a security firm to have the two journalists evacuated.

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BERLIN — Germany officials said Saturday that the country is preparing to close its airspace to Russian planes.

Transport Minister Volker Wissing backs such a measure and has ordered all preparations for this to be undertaken, his ministry said on Twitter.

Hours earlier, a German-registered DHL cargo plane made a sharp turn back out of Russian airspace, according to air traffic monitoring website FlightAware.com.

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GENEVA — A respected Swiss newspaper is reporting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked his Swiss counterpart on Saturday to act as a neutral mediator between Ukraine and Russia, and help work toward a ceasefire between the two countries.

Daily Tages Angeizer said the request of Swiss President Ignazio Cassis came in the context of the upcoming Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva starting on Monday, at which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to attend on Tuesday.

The report, which was not immediately confirmed by the Swiss Foreign Ministry that Cassis also leads, cited Swiss experience with such issues — notably a mediation effort carried out by Switzerland after Russian forces seized control of Crimea in 2014.

Ministry spokesman Andreas Heller told The Associated Press late Saturday that he could not immediately confirm whether any such communication had taken place between the two presidents, but said Switzerland was ready to offer its “good offices” for any such initiative.

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MOSCOW — More and more Russians spoke out Saturday against the invasion of Ukraine, even as their government’s official rhetoric grew increasingly harsher.

Street protests, albeit small, resumed in the Russian capital of Moscow, the second-largest city of St. Petersburg and other Russian cities for the third straight day, with people taking to the streets despite mass detentions on Thursday and Friday. According to OVD-Info, rights group that tracks political arrests, at least 460 people in 34 cities were detained over anti-war protests on Saturday, including over 200 in Moscow.

Open letters condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine kept pouring, too. More than 6,000 medical workers put their names under one on Saturday; over 3,400 architects and engineers endorsed another while 500 teachers signed a third one. Similar letters by journalists, municipal council members, cultural figures and other professional groups have been making the rounds since Thursday.

A prominent contemporary art museum in Moscow called Garage announced Saturday it was halting its work on exhibitions and postponing them “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased.”

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UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council will meet Sunday afternoon to hold a procedural vote on a request by Ukraine for an emergency session of the 193-member General Assembly in light of Russia’s invasion of its country.

There are no vetoes on a procedural vote in the council, unlike on resolutions. A procedural vote requires approval from nine of the 15 council members.

Council diplomats said approval is virtually certain, and the emergency meeting of the General Assembly is expected to be held on Monday.

Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya tweeted Thursday that he asked General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid to prepare for an emergency meeting in the coming days.

He said the meeting should be held under the so-called “Uniting for Peace” resolution, initiated by the United States and adopted in November 1950 to circumvent vetoes by the Soviet Union during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The resolution gives the General Assembly the power to call emergency meetings to consider matters of international peace and security when the Security Council is unable to act because of the lack of unanimity among its five veto-wielding permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution Friday demanding that Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top diplomat says he’s calling an urgent meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Sunday to weigh yet more measures against Russia as it wages its military campaign in Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted Saturday that “I am convening a virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers tomorrow at 18.00 (Central European Time, 1700 GMT) to adopt further measures in support of Ukraine, against aggression by Russia.”

Borrell says he will propose to the ministers that they endorse “a package of emergency assistance for the Ukrainian armed forces, to support them in their heroic fight.”

It will be third time the ministers have met in a week. Previously they have endorsed two packages of sanctions; one raft targeting Russians involved in the recognition of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, and another hitting Russia’s economy, and freezing the assets of the president and foreign minister.

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BERLIN — Russia’s space agency said Saturday that it is suspending cooperation with its European partners in response to EU sanctions.

In a Twitter post, Roscosmos said it would withdraw its personnel from the European space port in Kourou, French Guiana.

Several European satellites have been launched with Soyuz rockets from Kourou, and more were scheduled over the coming year.

Thierry Breton, a senior EU official who oversees the 27-nation bloc’s space policy, said Roscosmos’ decision would have “no consequence on the continuity and quality” of its flagship Galileo global positioning system or the Copernicus program of Earth observation satellites.

Breton said the EU would strive to develop the Ariane 6 and VegaC launchers “to ensure Europe’s strategic autonomy.”

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