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Live updates: Rescue of civilians from bombed theatre begins

Associated Press Thursday, 17 March 2022, 05:54 Last update: about 7 months ago

PARIS — Europe won’t be attempting to send its first rover to Mars this year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,

The European Space Agency confirmed Thursday that it is indefinitely suspending its ExoMars rover mission with partner Roscosmos, Russia’s state space corporation. The ESA had previously said that the mission was “very unlikely” because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The rover’s primary mission was to determine whether Mars ever hosted life. The decision to suspend cooperation with Roscosmos was taken by ESA’s ruling council, at a meeting this week in Paris.

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Because of their respective orbits around the Sun, Mars is readily reachable from Earth only every two years. The next launch window for Mars would be 2024. The mission has already been pushed back from 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for more tests on the spacecraft.

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — The Lithuanian parliament has voted to boost defense spending by 0.50% following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 2022 defense spending was increased from 2.02% to 2.52% of the gross domestic product. The amendment of nearly 300 million euros ($330 million) in additional funding was passed in the 141-seat parliament with 123 votes in favor, with no one against and no abstentions.

The amendment has to be signed by the Baltic nation’s president.

Defense minister Arvydas Anusauskas said it “will allow us to speed up previously planned acquisitions of armaments needed to strengthen the defense capability of the armed forces as well as to host additional NATO troops coming to our country.”

Lithuania, a nation of less than 3 million people, shares a land border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, a Moscow ally.

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LVIV, Ukraine - Ukraine’s ombudswoman Ludmyla Denisova says a theater in the besieged city of Mariupol has withstood the impact of an airstrike, and that the rescue of civilians from under the rubble of the destroyed building has begun.

“The building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter," she said on the messaging service Telegram on Thursday.

“Work is underway to unlock the basement” and surviving adults and children are coming out, she wrote. She said there is no information on casualties so far.

Hundreds of men, women and children had taken shelter in the basement of the theater. Russia has denied attacking the theater on Wednesday evening.

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LVIV, Ukraine -- The northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv has experienced “colossal losses and destruction” amid heavy bombardment from Russian artillery and air strikes, governor Viacheslav Chaus said Thursday.

Chaus told Ukrainian TV that the bodies of 53 people “killed by the Russian aggressor from the ground or from the air” had been delivered to city morgues over the past 24 hours.

The Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said Wednesday 10 people were killed in Chernihiv while standing in line for bread. Russia has denied involvement.

Chaus said civilians were hiding in basements and shelters without access to utilities in the city of 280,000 people.

“The city has never known such nightmarish, colossal losses and destruction,” he said.

Chernihiv, which is close to the borders with Belarus and Russia, was among the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack from Russian forces when the invasion began three weeks ago.

 

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LONDON — A Ukrainian lawmaker says there are reports of injuries but not deaths in a strike on a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter.

Lesia Vasylenko said between 1,000 and 1,500 people were sheltering at the theater when it was hit by an airstrike, and called the attack the deliberate “destruction of a refuge.”

Vayslenko, an opposition lawmaker who is part of a delegation visiting the British Parliament, said local officials report that 80-90% of all structures in Mariupol have been damaged in the relentless Russian assault.

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PRAGUE — Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Petr Fiala says his country is struggling to help more than 200,000 refugees arriving from Ukraine.

Fiala said Thursday some 270,000 refugees, most of them children and women, have arrived in the Czech Republic, an EU and NATO member that doesn’t border Ukraine, in the past three weeks. “We have to admit that we’re at the very edge of what we can absorb without major problems,” he said.

The government is taking steps such as helping refugees gain long term residency and access to health care and education for children. Its parliament is debating a plan for the refugees to be able to get a job without needing any work permit.

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WARSAW, Poland -- Britain’s defense secretary says his country will deploy a missile defense system to NATO ally Poland in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

During a visit to the Polish capital, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the United Kingdom is sending the Sky Sabre medium-range anti-air missile system to Poland with about 100 personnel. He said the move is “to make sure that we stand alongside Poland in protecting her airspace from any further aggression from Russia.”

The decision comes days after Russian missiles struck a military base in Yavoriv, Ukraine, just a few miles from the border with Poland.

The British promise of military support also comes as nearly 2 million of the more than 3 million refugees to flee Ukraine have arrived in Poland.

“As a NATO ally and a very old ally, it is very right that Britain stands by Poland as Poland carries much of the burden of the consequence of this war and stands tall and brave to stand up to the threats from Russia,” Wallace said.

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MOSCOW -- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Moscow rejects the ruling of the International Court of Justice that ordered Russia to halt its operation in Ukraine.

During his daily conference call with reporters, Peskov noted that both sides need to agree on implementing the ruling, and on Russia’s side “there can be no consent.”

Peskov also said that talks between Russia and Ukraine will continue on Thursday in some form. “I don’t know if they are already underway or not, but they should be today, in one direction or another," Peskov said.

The Kremlin spokesman stressed that the Russian delegation is ready to work 24/7 and claimed that “unfortunately, we don’t see the same zeal on Ukrainian side.”

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania's parliament has unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, joining countries including Estonia and Slovenia in the appeal.

The resolution said a no-fly zone would allow United Nations peacekeepers to ensure the security of humanitarian corridors and the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities.

NATO has categorically ruled out any role for the military alliance in setting up and policing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect against Russian airstrikes on Ukraine. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “this can become even worse if NATO (takes) actions that actually turned this into a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia.”

Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia has publicly called for a no-fly zone and Estonia’s Parliament also has urged its 29 NATO partners to consider the same.

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BEIJING — A Chinese Commerce Ministry official says Beijing will take “necessary measures” to protect Chinese companies from actions by other governments related to sanctions against Russia.

The comment was in response to questions about a U.S. warning of “consequences” for any moves by Chinese companies to skirt such sanctions.

Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said China opposes any form of unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” without a basis in international law.

“The imposition of economic sanctions will not only fail to solve security problems, but will also harm the normal lives of the people in the relevant countries, disrupt the global market, and make the already slowing world economy even worse,” Gao said Thursday.

He said China will take necessary measures to safeguard the normal trade interests and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies. He gave no details.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Ukrainian refugees arriving in Sweden will be offered COVID-19 shots, the Swedish government said Thursday.

Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said just over a third of Ukraine's population has received two doses of the vaccine. "It is of the utmost importance that as many as possible who come as refugees to Sweden get vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.

“It is about protecting oneself but also about strengthening Sweden,” she added.

Earlier this month, Swedish authorities estimated that about 4,000 Ukrainian refugees arrive in Sweden every day.

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LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office says Russia carried out further airstrikes on the besieged port city of Mariupol early on Thursday morning.

Zelenskyy’s office did not report casualties for the latest strikes. They come amid rescue efforts in the city after a theater where hundreds had been sheltering was destroyed Wednesday in what Ukrainian authorities say was a Russian air strike.

“People are escaping from Mariupol by themselves using their own transport,” Zelenskyy’s office said, adding the “risk of death remains high” because of Russian forces previously firing on civilians.

The presidential office also reported artillery and air strikes around the country overnight, including in the Kalynivka and Brovary suburbs of the capital, Kyiv. It said fighting continues as Russian forces try to enter the Ukraine-held city of Mykolaiv in the south and that there was an artillery barrage through the night in the eastern town of Avdiivka.

Ukraine says Russian forces are increasingly resorting to artillery and air strikes as their advance stalls.

The Ukrainian General Staff says “the enemy, without success in its ground operation, continues to carry out rocket and bomb attacks on infrastructure and highly populated areas of Ukrainian cities.”

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BANGKOK — A U.N. agency is warning that the conflict in Ukraine is likely to hinder access to food and fuel for many of the world’s most vulnerable people.

A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development notes that Russia accounted for nearly a third of wheat imports for Africa, or $3.7 billion, in 2018-2020, while 12%, worth $1.4 billion, came from Ukraine.

The report said initial assessments point to a “substantive reduction” in access to food and fuel despite efforts to prevent disruptions of supplies of key commodities such as wheat. Meanwhile, rising costs for shipping and for grains and other staple foods is pushing prices higher, hitting poorest people the hardest, the report says.

The report said up to 25 African countries, especially the least developed economies, relied on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The lack of spare capacity in Africa limits the ability of those countries to offset any lost supplies, while surging costs for fertilizer will be an extra burden for farmers.

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BERLIN — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Germany of putting its economy before his country’s security in the run-up to the Russian invasion.

In an address to Germany’s parliament Thursday, Zelenskyy criticized the German government’s support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project meant to bring natural gas from Russia. Ukraine and others had opposed the project, warning that it endangered Ukrainian and European security.

Zelenskyy also noted Germany’s hesitancy when it came to imposing some of the toughest sanctions on Russia for fear it could hurt the German economy.

The Ukrainian president called on Germany not to let a new wall divide Europe, urging support for his country’s membership of NATO and the European Union.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials say the status of people sheltering in a theater in Mariupol is still uncertain because the entrance was under the rubble caused by a Russian airstrike.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration, said on Telegram on Wednesday evening that “several hundred” residents of Mariupol were sheltering in the Drama Theater. He rejected the claims by the Russian military that the Azov battalion was headquartered in the theater, stressing that “only civilians” were in it when it was struck earlier Wednesday.

Kyrylenko said the airstrike also hit the Neptune swimming pool complex. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there. It’s pure terrorism!” the official said.

At least as recently as Monday, the pavement outside the once-elegant theater was marked with huge white letters spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian, according to images released by the Maxar space technology company.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces freed the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in exchange for nine of their captured conscripts, an official from Ukraine’s presidential office said Wednesday.

Kyiv accused the Russians of kidnapping Mayor Ivan Fedorov about a week ago. Surveillance video showed him being marched out of city hall apparently surrounded by Russian soldiers.

Residents of Melitopol, a city in southeast currently under Russian control, have been protesting to demand his release.

Daria Zarivna, spokeswoman of the head of Ukraine’s president’s office, said Wednesday that Fedorov has been released from captivity, and Russia “got nine of its captive soldiers, born in 2002-2003, practically children, conscripts Russia’s Defense Ministry said weren’t there.”

Moscow initially denied sending conscripts to fight in Ukraine, but later the Russian military admitted that some conscripts have been involved in the offensive and even got captured by Ukrainian forces.

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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council will meet Thursday at the request of six Western nations that sought an open session on Ukraine ahead of an expected vote on a Russian humanitarian resolution that they have sharply criticized for making no mention of Moscow’s war against its smaller neighbor.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians. Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine is a threat to us all,” tweeted the U.N. mission of the United Kingdom, one of the six countries that requested the meeting.

Russia circulated a proposed Security Council resolution Tuesday that would demand protection for civilians “in vulnerable situations” in Ukraine and safe passage for humanitarian aid and people seeking to leave the country but without mentioning the war or the parties concerned.

The resolution is expected to be voted on by the council Friday.

LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian and Russian delegations held talks again Wednesday by video.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's adviser Mikhailo Podolyak said Ukraine demanded a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and legal security guarantees for Ukraine from a number of countries.

“This is possible only through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said on Twitter.

An official in Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press the main subject under discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

Just before the war, Russia recognized the independence of two regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. It also extended the borders of those regions to areas Ukraine had continued to hold, including Mariupol, a port city now under siege.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on the signing of a legally binding document with security guarantees for Ukraine. In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral status.

Russia has demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there.

After Tuesday’s negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic.”

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PANAMA CITY — Three Panama-flagged ships have been hit by Russian missiles in the Black Sea since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and one sank, Panamanian authorities said Wednesday.

The crews of the ships “are safe,” said Panama Maritime Authority Director Noriel Araúz.

The ship that sank was the Helt, but Araúz did not provide details on when that occurred. The other two hit were the Lord Nelson and the Namura Queen. Panamanian officials had previously said the Namura Queen, owned by a Japanese company and operated by a firm in the Philippines, was hit in February.

Araúz said that there were 10 Panama-flagged ships in the Black Sea, including the three hit. Combined they have about 150 crew members of various nationalities who have not been allowed to leave, he said.

“We are in constant communication with the ships ... because we know that the Russian navy is not letting them leave the Black Sea,”Araúz said.

Home to the Panama canal, the country is the world leader in registered merchant ships. Since the start of the invasion, Panama has advised its merchant fleet to be on high alert in Ukrainian and Russian waters.

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LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian military forces have dealt a punishing blow to the airport in Kherson, which Russian troops had seized early in the war, the General Staff said late Wednesday. It said the Russians were trying to remove any surviving military equipment.

Ukraine’s military said it hit the airport on Tuesday. Satellite photos taken afterward by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press show helicopters and vehicles on fire at the air base.

Russia seized the southern port city without a fight in the first days of the war. Control over Kherson allows Russia to restore fresh water supplies to Crimea; Ukraine cut off the water after Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.

The General Staff said Russia’s ground offensive on major Ukrainian cities has largely stalled.

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UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council has scheduled a meeting on Ukraine on Thursday afternoon, one day before an expected vote Friday on a Russian humanitarian resolution that makes no mention of its responsibility for the war against its smaller neighbor.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians. Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine is a threat to us all,” tweeted the U.N. mission of the United Kingdom, one of the six countries that asked for the meeting of the U.N's most powerful body.

The tweet said the U.S., France, Ireland, Norway and Albania also requested the meeting. All six countries are Security Council members.

Russia circulated a proposed Security Council resolution Tuesday demanding protection for civilians “in vulnerable situations” in Ukraine and safe passage for humanitarian aid and people seeking to leave the country but never mentioning the war. The draft resolution underscores the need for “the parties concerned” to agree on humanitarian pauses to rapidly evacuate “all civilians” but never identifies the parties.

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LVIV, Ukraine -- Residents in at least seven cities in Belarus just north of Ukraine said they heard explosions late Wednesday. They reported the explosions at about the same time on social media.

One city is Hantsavichy, where Russia has an early warning radar station capable of detecting launches of ballistic missiles from Europe.

There was no comment from the government of Belarus, a Russian ally. Belarus has allowed Russia to use its territory for staging its invasion of Ukraine and for shelling Ukraine, but Belarusian troops have not taken part in the ground offensive.

The head of the Brest region in southwest Belarus, Alexander Rogachuk, had earlier announced that several Belarusian army units were holding exercises on Wednesday with live fire.

The independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva suggested the explosions could have been related to shelling by Russian forces of an important Ukrainian railway junction at Sarny along the border with Belarus. The mayor of Sarny reported that Russian missiles destroyed a military facility in the town late Wednesday.

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WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the Russians continue to make little tangible progress across most of Ukraine. The official said Russian forces are still stalled outside Kyiv while continuing to bombard the capital city with missiles.

One key development, said the official, has been increased Russian naval activity in the northern Black Sea, where ships were shelling suburbs of Odesa. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. military assessments, said it’s not clear what the Russians intend to do, but the shelling could be the start of preparations to launch a ground assault on Odesa. Russia has warships and landing ships that carry troops and tanks in the Black Sea.

The official said the Russians have launched more than 980 missiles in Ukraine, and they are still flying around 200 sorties per day, although the total goes up and down. Ukrainians are still flying between five and 10 sorties a day.

The official said Ukraine continues to control Brovary and Mykolaiv, but the Russians have largely isolated Chernihiv and Mariupol. Roughly 75% of all of Russia’s battalion tactical groups – which make up their ground forces – are committed to the fight in Ukraine, the official said.

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MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials say Russian forces destroyed a theater in the city of Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering.

There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries in what the Mariupol city council said was an airstrike on the theater Wednesday.

The Maxar satellite imagery firm said images from Monday showed the word “children” had been written in large white letters in Russian in front of and behind the building.

The Russian defense ministry denied bombing the theater, or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

Nowhere has suffered more than the encircled city of Mariupol, where local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people. The southern seaport of 430,000 has been under attack for almost all of the three-week war in a siege that has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

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MADRID — The Spanish Football Association and a firefighters’ union welcomed a group of Ukrainian refugees they helped bring to Madrid from Kracow, Poland.

The group of 45 refugees, including 22 children, first stopped at a pandemic hospital on Wednesday where they were greeted warmly. They’ll be living with foster families and relatives in Spain.

Sandra Martin is providing a place to stay for Natalie Usova and her daughter at a rural hotel owned by Martin’s family in southwest Spain.

“I’m an empathetic person, and I can’t help but see myself sitting there in each of these chairs,” Martin said. “I’m glad I did this, and hopefully it will do some good, and hopefully a lot of people will get involved and help, but real help.”

Usova, a beautician from a town near Odesa, said in English: “I left my parents, I left my whole life, my quiet normal life, my house, you know all my life. I don’t know what will be here, what will wait for me and my daughter, but people here in Spain and the family that has invited us are so warm and they are so friendly and so, you know, with a big big heart.”

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to discuss a possible transfer of Soviet-era S-300 air defense systems to Ukraine this week when he visits Bulgaria and Slovakia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mentioned the S-300s by name when he spoke to U.S. lawmakers by video Wednesday, appealing for anti-air systems that would allow Ukraine to “close the skies” to Russian warplanes and missiles.

NATO members Bulgaria, Slovakia and Greece have the S-300s, which are able to fly hundreds of miles and knock out cruise missiles as well as warplanes.

Any such transfer could be a three-country swap, with the U.S. or other NATO country providing Patriots or other air defense systems to make up for any S-300s passed on to Ukraine.

Slovakia has no objections to providing its S-300s to Ukraine, Slovak Defense Ministry spokesperson Martina Koval Kakascikova told The Associated Press. “But we can’t get rid of a system that protects our airspace if we don’t have any replacement.”

The anti-air defense systems could be valuable in thwarting Russian air attacks. Ukraine already has a few S-300s, but wants more.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the U.S. would help provide long-range air defense systems to Ukraine, but gave no details. U.S. officials had no comment on any S-300 swap.

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BERLIN — A group representing dozens of European electricity grid operators says Ukraine and Moldova have been successfully synchronized with the transmission systems of continental Europe, allowing them to decouple from Russia.

Belgium-based ENTSO-E said Wednesday that the grids of Ukraine and Moldova were linked to the Continental European Power System on a trial basis following an emergency request by those countries last month.

ENTSO-E, whose 39 members operate the world’s largest interconnected electrical grid, said the move means it will be able to support the countries in maintaining the stability of the Ukrainian and Moldovan power systems.

The two countries were previously part of the Integrated Power System that also includes Russia and Belarus. This made Ukraine technically dependent on Russia’s grid operator despite there having been no electricity trade between the two countries even before the Russian military assault last month.

Experts say the switch will allow energy suppliers in continental Europe to supply electricity to the Ukrainian market.

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal as the atrocities in Ukraine mount and the president there begged the U.S. Congress for more help.

“He’s a war criminal,” the president said of Putin as he left an unrelated event. It’s the sharpest condemnation yet of Putin and Russian actions by a U.S. official since the invasion of Ukraine.

While other world leaders have used the words, the White House had been hesitant to declare Putin’s actions those of a war criminal, saying it was a legal term that required research.

But in a speech Wednesday, Biden said Russian troops had bombed hospitals and held doctors hostage. He pledged more aid to help Ukraine fight Russia.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko says Russian shelling damaged several residences in the city’s Podil neighborhood, just north of the city center and about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the so-called “government quarter” that holds the presidential palace, president’s office and other significant offices.

Officials did not immediately release additional details about the attack, including whether there were any casualties.

Kyiv residents have been huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russia shelled areas in and around the city. Earlier, a 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.

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KYIV, Ukraine — The mayor of the southeastern Ukrainian city of Melitopol has been freed after he was seized by Russian forces five days ago, a Ukrainian official said Wednesday.

Andriy Yermak, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, announced the news but did not share details about how Ivan Fedorov became free.

Surveillance video last week showed Fedorov being marched out of city hall apparently surrounded by Russian soldiers.

Prior to the start of the invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration had warned of Russian plans to detain and kill targeted people in Ukraine, with Zelenskyy himself likely top target.

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SIRET, Romania — Refugees fleeing the Russian invasion continued to arrive at the Romanian border town of Siret on Wednesday.

A nearby sports hall has been turned into a shelter for families that includes numerous children.

Mihaita Musteata, a social worker and volunteer at the center, said many of those arriving have been twice displaced.

“We’ve had some people who’ve lost their home a second time,” Musteata said. “They first lost their home in Donbas, then moved to Kyiv, and now they lost that home too.”

Musteata said most of the refugees are headed elsewhere, but more Ukrainians have decided to remain in Romania and plan to return to Ukraine “if the war ever stops.”

Alexandra Stoleriu, a 19-year-old volunteer, said the children at the shelter do not fully understand what has happened to their country.

“I think they are better here,” Stoleriu said. “We are trying to calm them, to play with them, to give them food or anything, if they want something. We are here to support them.”

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WINONA, Minn. — A Minnesota mother and father fear for the safety of their adult son in Ukraine who they say was taken by the Russian military.

Tina Hauser, of Winona, told KAAL-TV the last time she spoke with her son, Tyler Jacob, was Saturday when he told her he was being forced by the Russian military to board a bus out of Kherson and leave his Ukrainian wife and daughter behind.

“My worst nightmare is coming true, and I’m fearful that they are going to torture him and kill him and I’m not ever going to see my son again,” said Hauser through tears.

Hauser said she has called the U.S. Embassy but has not heard back. She has also reached out to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office for help.

“My heart goes out to Tyler’s family and we will do everything we can to locate him. My office is working with the State Department and the embassy to find him and resolve this situation as quickly as possible,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Jacob, 28, was teaching English in Kherson when Russian troops invaded the country, according to his father, John Quinn, of Cannon Falls.

He said Jacob got on an evacuation bus for foreigners headed to Turkey on Saturday. But at a checkpoint in Crimea, the bus was stopped by Russian soldiers and Jacob was detained, WCCO-TV reported.

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Russian law enforcement has announced the first known criminal cases against people posting what is deemed to be “false information” about the war in Ukraine.

The Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, listed three suspects, including Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who is a Russian-language cookbook author and popular blogger living abroad.

It said Belotserkovskaya made posts on Instagram containing “deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to destroy cities and the civilian population of Ukraine, including children.”

Belotserkovskaya, whose Instagram profile says she was born in Ukraine, responded to the announcement by writing that “I have been officially declared to be a decent person!”

The other suspects were identified only as a man and a woman in the Tomsk Region of Siberia. The Investigative Committee said they had posted false messages about Russian military operations and casualties and that their homes had been searched.

The invasion of Ukraine is being characterized in Russia as a “special military operation,” not a war. President Vladimir Putin on March 4 signed legislation allowing for jail terms of up to 15 years for posting false information about the military.

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BRUSSELS – Poland’s defense minister says that at Wednesday's NATO meeting he presented his country's proposal to have the alliance establish a humanitarian and peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, similar to the one in Kosovo.

Minister Mariusz Blaszczak spoke in Brussels following talks among the 30-member alliance’s defense ministers regarding the war in Ukraine.

Blaszczak said he presented a peace mission proposal that Poland’s deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, made Tuesday in Kyiv. The proposal will be discussed further, he said.

NATO has been leading a peace-support operation in Kosovo since June 1999 in support of wider international efforts to build peace and stability in the area.

During a visit of support to Kyiv, along with Poland’s, Czech and Slovenian prime ministers, Kaczynski said he thinks a NATO peacekeeping mission is needed in Ukraine, or “possibly some wider international structure, but a mission that will also be able to defend itself and that will operate in Ukraine.”

He maintained it would be in line with international law and would not have any hostile character.

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — Kosovo president awarded a medal to the Ukrainian contingent, part of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, or KFOR, before they left to join fighting in their homeland.

President Vjosa Osmani awarded the Presidential Military Medal to the Ukrainian contingent who have sent 1,400 troops on a rotational basis in the last three years.

“Today’s Medal is an embodiment of our gratitude to your army, and our way of paying respect to the professionalism they have displayed in Kosovo, and the bravery they are displaying during this dark time for the Ukrainian nation,” said Osmani.

The last contingent of 40 Ukrainian officers of the Armed Forces Engineering Regiments will return to Ukraine.

Kosovo has condemned Ukraine’s invasion by Russia and has joined the European Union and the U.S. with sanctions on Russia “over the unjustified and unprovoked aggression toward Ukraine.”

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TIRANA, Albania — Albania has sheltered the first group of Ukrainians who have left the country after Russia's invasion.

Interior Minister Bledi Cuci said 351 Ukrainians are being housed in Albania.

Albania has offered to shelter thousands of Ukrainians. The country housed Afghans last year and Kosovar brethren in their 1999 war.

Ukrainians may enter Albania without visas and stay for a year without being issued a residents’ permission, the ministry said.

Albania has joined the European Union in the hard-hitting sanctions against Russian top officials and institutions.

Tirana also joined the U.S. as a “co-pen holder” in initiating resolutions at the United Nations Security Council against Ukraine’s Russian invasion.

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BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has categorically ruled out any role for the military organization in setting up and policing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect against Russian airstrikes.

Stoltenberg says “NATO should not deploy forces on the ground or in the air space over Ukraine because we have a responsibility to ensure that this conflict, this war, doesn’t escalate beyond Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly appealed for NATO to set up a no-fly zone given Russia’s air superiority, as civilian casualties mount three weeks into the war.

Speaking Wednesday after chairing a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Stoltenberg conceded that “we see human suffering in Ukraine, but this can become even worse if NATO (takes) actions that actually turned this into a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia.”

He says the decision not to send air or ground forces into Ukraine is “the united position from NATO allies.” Earlier Wednesday, Estonia urged its 29 NATO partners to consider setting up a no-fly zone.

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