The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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Live updates: Macron asks Putin to lift siege of Mariupol

Associated Press Friday, 18 March 2022, 06:21 Last update: about 7 months ago

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to lift the siege of Mariupol, allow humanitarian access and order an immediate cease-fire, Macron's office said.

Macron spoke with the Russian leader on the phone for 70 minutes. Earlier in the day, Putin had a conversation with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who also pressed for an immediate cease-fire.

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Macron, who has spoken numerous times with Putin, revisited complaints over repeated attacks on civilians and Russia’s failure to respect human rights in Ukraine, the presidential Elysee Palace said.

It said that Putin, in turn, laid the blame for the war on Ukraine.

Macron, who is campaigning to renew his mandate in April elections, said during a town hall-style meeting shortly before the call that he talks to Putin because he believes there is a way toward peace, between the Ukrainian resistance, tough Western sanctions and diplomatic pressure. “We must do everything to find it,” he said.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian officer in charge of defending the region around the country’s capital says his forces are well positioned to defend the city.

Maj. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk said in an interview with The Associated Press that “the enemy is halted,” adding that “we are improving this system of defensive lines” to make Kyiv “inapproachable for the enemy.”

Despite three weeks of Russian bombardment, Ukraine has kept up a stiff defense of its cities. Fighting continued in Kyiv’s suburbs, depriving thousands of heat and clean water.

“From time to time, the enemy tests our defenses,” said Pavlyuk, a battle-hardened officer who earned his rank by leading Ukrainian troops in the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that erupted in 2014. “But our boys are strong in their positions and also play an active role in preventing the enemy to fulfill their plans.”

Pavlyuk, who has been put in charge of Kyiv’s defenses earlier this week, said that the Russians are using the same tactics as they used in the east to target civilian structures to try to break Ukraine’s resistance.

“That’s why now that war has been transformed into killing civilians, destroying civilian infrastructure, to frighten our people to the maximum,” he said. “But we will never give up. We will fight until the end. To the last breath and to the last bullet.”

 

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UNITED NATIONS — Six Western nations have accused Russia of using the U.N. Security Council to launder disinformation, spread propaganda, and justify its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And the U.S. is again warning that Moscow’s claim that the U.S. has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine “is really a potential false flag effort in action.”

Friday’s council meeting was supposed to be for a vote on Russia’s draft resolution on humanitarian relief for Ukraine which has been widely criticized for making no mention of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor. Russia instead raised allegations again of U.S. involvement in biological warfare activities, which have been repeatedly denied by both the United States and Ukraine.

The six Western nations — U.S., U.K., France, Albania, Ireland and Norway — delivered a joint statement just before the council session, saying: “This meeting and these lies are designed for one purpose, to deflect responsibility for Russia’s war of choice and the humanitarian catastrophe it has caused.”

They stressed that Russia has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law and has a well-documented history of using chemical weapons — not Ukraine.

“There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories — not near Russia’s border, not anywhere,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

Reiterating the Biden administration’s serious concern of a potential false flag effort, the U.S. envoy said, “We continue to believe it is possible that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people.”

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MOSCOW — The head of the Russian delegation in talks with Ukrainian officials says the parties have come closer to an agreement on a neutral status for Ukraine.

Vladimir Medinsky, who led the Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, including this week, said Friday that the sides have narrowed their differences on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status.

“The issue of neutral status and no NATO membership for Ukraine is one of the key issues in talks, and that is the issue where the parties have made their positions maximally close,” Medinsky said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

He added that the sides are now “half-way” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine. Medinsky noted that while Kyiv insists that Russia-backed separatist regions in Ukraine’s east must be brought back into the fold, Russia believes that people of the regions must be allowed to determine their fate themselves.

Medinsky noted that a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is possible after the negotiators finalize a draft treaty to end the hostilities and it receives a preliminary approval by the countries’ governments.

Medinsky also bristled at a recent statement by Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy, who called for disrupting railway links to supply Russian troops in Ukraine, saying it could undermine the talks.

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LVIV, Ukraine — The president of Belarus, who has allowed Russia to use his country's territory to invade Ukraine, says he has no intention to host Russian nuclear weapons.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has beefed up military ties with Moscow after Western sanctions over his crackdown on protests after his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West rejected as rigged. He has

Lukashenko had previously offered to host Russian nuclear weapons, but in an interview with Japanese broadcaster TBS released by his office on Friday, he said he has no such plans.

“I’m not planning to deploy nuclear weapons here, produce nuclear weapons here, create and use nuclear weapons against anyone,” he said, dismissing the allegations of such plans as an “invention by the West.”

Lukashenko said that he had made an earlier statement about a possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus in response to the talk in the West about a possible redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland.

The Belarusian leader noted that the constitutional amendments approved in a vote last month that shed Belarus’ neutral status has no relation to nuclear weapons.

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GENEVA — The U.N. migration agency estimates that nearly 6.5 million people have now been displaced inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country.

The estimates from the International Organization for Migration suggests Ukraine is fast on a course in just three weeks toward the levels of displacement from Syria’s devastating war – which has driven about 13 million people from their homes both in the country and abroad.

The findings come in a paper issued Friday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It cited the IOM figures as “a good representation of the scale of internal displacement in Ukraine — calculated to stand at 6.48 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine as of March 16.”

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WASHINGTON — There have been no indications that Russia is moving troops out of Syria to bolster its forces in Ukraine, or that any more than a few Syrian fighters have been recruited to join the war, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Friday.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters that he has seen little change in Russian military activities in Syria. And he added that the U.S. military still has and uses a deconfliction phone line with the Russians in Syria, in contrast to the mixed success the U.S. has had in maintaining such contact in connection with the Ukraine war.

“We can always contact them if we have a problem. They’ll always pick up the phone, and we feel that we respond in kind to them,” said McKenzie about the Russians, whose forces in Syria support the regime of President Bashar Assad. “That relationship has been very, very professional.”

McKenzie, who is retiring after three years at the head of U.S. Central Command, said he also has seen no indication that Russia is moving any troops or assets from Syria or central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, to Ukraine. And he said he also has seen no evidence that “the temperature is rising” between Russia and the U.S. in Syria as a result of the Ukraine war.

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LONDON — Britain’s defense intelligence chief says Russia is shifting to a ”strategy of attrition” after failing to reach its goals in the invasion of Ukraine.

Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull says Russian forces have changed their approach after failing to take major Ukrainian cities during the three-week invasion.

He said Friday that the battle of attrition “will involve the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis.”

Western officials say Russian forces have enough artillery ammunition to keep up the bombardments for weeks or even longer.

Despite the fact that there have been thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties, Russia denies targeting civilians during what it calls a special military operation in Ukraine.

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ROME — For the second time this week, Italy’s financial police have carried out measures to freeze luxurious assets of Russian magnates being sanctioned by the European Union for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The latest action on Friday involved the seaside villa, valued at some 105 million euros ($116 million) and located in the Sardinian town of Portisco, belonging to Alexei Mordaschov, a steel baron, the Italian government said.

Just a few days earlier, a sprawling real estate complex on Sardinia’s coast belonging to Petr Aven, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sequestered. A yacht moored off the Italian Riviera and belonging to Mordaschov was sequestered earlier this month by Italian authorities. That vessel is valued at 27 million euros ($30 million).

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ATLANTA — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Friday played down recent comments by the head of Russia’s space agency that the United States would have to use broomsticks to fly to space after Russia said it would stop supplying rocket engines to U.S. companies.

“That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us,” Nelson told The Associated Press. “The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control.”

The war has resulted in canceled spacecraft launches and broken contracts, and many worry Rogozin is putting decades of a peaceful off-planet partnership at risk, most notably at the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is due to leave the International Space Station with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on March 30.

NASA has said Vande Hei’s homecoming plans remain unchanged.

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke Friday for nearly two hours via a video call as the White House looks to deter Beijing from providing military or economic assistance for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

China’s Foreign Ministry was the first to issue a readout of the conversation, deploring “conflict and confrontation” as “not in anyone’s interest,” without assigning any blame to Russia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a Twitter message called the U.S. position “overbearing.”

Ahead of the call, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would question Xi about Beijing’s “rhetorical support” of Putin and an “absence of denunciation” of Russia’s invasion.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show the Russian strike on the Lviv airport Friday destroyed the repair hangar just to the west of the north end of its runway. Firetrucks stood parked amid the rubble.

A row of fighter jets near the hangar appeared intact, though an apparent impact crater sat right in front of them. Two other buildings nearby the hangar also appear to have taken direct hits in the strike, with debris littered around them.

The early morning attack on Lviv’s edge was the closest strike yet to the center of the city, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or fight. The war has swelled Lviv’s population by some 200,000.

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BERLIN — Switzerland is adopting the latest round of European Union sanctions against Russia targeting luxury goods and banning rating agencies from working with Russian clients.

The Swiss government said Friday that it will echo the EU’s fourth package of sanctions imposed on Russia following its attack on Ukraine.

It said that “the ban on the export of luxury goods contained in the new sanctions affects only a small portion of Switzerland’s global exports of such goods.”

However, it said that “specific companies could be seriously affected,” without naming them.

Unlike the EU and the United States, Switzerland has not yet decided whether to remove Russia from its list of “most favored” trading partners.

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MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Officials say 130 people have been rescued from the ruins of a theater that served as a shelter when it was blasted by a Russian airstrike Wednesday in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.

Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday that 130 people had survived the theater bombing.

“As of now, we know that 130 people have been evacuated, but according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s prime minister is offering to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol that was bombed by Russian forces last week.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted Friday that “Greece is ready to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol, the center of the Greek minority in Ukraine.”

Some 100,000 people of Greek origin were living in the besieged city before the Russian invasion.

Mitsotakis called Mariupol “a city dear to our hearts and symbol of the barbarity of the war.”

Associated Press journalists documented the attack and saw the victims and damage firsthand. They shot video and photos of several bloodstained, pregnant mothers fleeing the blown-out maternity ward as medical workers shouted and children cried.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Finnish government has begun posting information in Russian about the invasion of Ukraine.

“We ... want to provide Russian speakers with fact-based information from the authorities,” the Finnish government tweeted Friday.

The move comes in the face of a Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign that aims to strengthen domestic support for the invasion and undermine the resolve of Ukrainians.

The website of the Finnish government is available in Finnish and Swedish — the Nordic country’s two official languages — and in English.

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President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally Friday at a Moscow stadium on the eighth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Putin, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people waving Russian flags at the Luzhniki Stadium, praised the Russian military for its actions in Ukraine.

“Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” Putin said in a rare public appearance. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.

Before Putin spoke, bands played patriotic Soviet songs about national identity and speakers praised Putin as fighting “Nazism” in Ukraine, a claim flatly rejected by leaders across the globe.

Some people, including presenters at the event, wore T-shirts or jackets with a “Z” — a symbol seen on Russian tanks and military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by supporters of the war.

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ROME — Pope Francis has denounced the “perverse abuse of power” on display in Russia’s war in Ukraine. He is calling for aid to Ukrainians who he said had been attacked in their “identity, history and tradition” and were “defending their land.”

Francis’ comments, in a message Friday to a gathering of European Catholic representatives, marked some of his strongest yet in asserting Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state and to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

It came just days after Francis told the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, that the concept of a “just war” was obsolete since wars are never justifiable and that pastors must preach peace, not politics.

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WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s border agency says that the 2 million mark for the number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland was reached Friday morning.

A European Union nation of some 38 million people, Poland has become the main destination for people fleeing war in neighboring, non-EU Ukraine, with which Poland shares almost 540 kilometers (335 miles) of border.

The first refugees came Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. They are chiefly women and children, because men aged 18-60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine to be available to fight in the country’s defense.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Friday that more than 3.27 million people have fled Ukraine, a nation of some 44 million, since Russia’s attack.

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GENEVA — The U.N. refugee agency says it’s noticing a slowdown in the number of people fleeing Ukraine, though its estimate of internally displaced people from the fighting has soared in the wake of evacuations from embattled cities like Mariupol and Sumy.

Speaking by video conference from Poland, UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh said the number of refugee arrivals, “particularly here in Poland, has been falling in recent days.” Some of those fleeing the violence may have been “recuperating” in the western city of Lviv and “waiting to see whether they should cross the border or not.”

Saltmarsh said UNHCR’s latest estimate of people internally displaced in Ukraine was now above 2 million. He said it was not possible to estimate how many of those might travel abroad. UNHCR has previously projected that 4 million people, or more, could flee Ukraine.

In Poland, which has taken about two-thirds of the some 3.2 million refugees from Ukraine, those arriving in recent days appear “more traumatized” and “in shock,” Saltmarsh said, and often come without a plan for where to go.

More than 93,000 people fled Ukraine on Thursday, according to UNCHR, the lowest single-day figure since fighting began on Feb. 24. That was down from peaks of more than 200,000 daily on two consecutive days in early March.

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BERLIN — German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has indicated that her country should consider imposing an oil embargo on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

In a security policy speech Friday, she said it was important to take a stance and not remain silent due to economic or energy dependency.

“Even if it’s difficult, including on questions now with regard to oil or other embargoes,” said Baerbock.

Germany receives about a third of its oil from Russia and half of its coal and natural gas.

Baerbock also warned against China’s growing influence over energy infrastructure in Africa and Asia, saying Germany will soon propose a new strategy on dealing with Beijing.

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BERLIN — A spokesman for Olaf Scholz says the German chancellor spoke Friday by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him to agree to an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine.

During the hour-long call, Scholz also called for an improvement to the humanitarian situation and progress in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre wants an extra allocation of 3.5 billion kroner ($400 million) for 2022 to strengthen NATO member Norway’s Armed Forces and civil preparedness.

Gahr Støre told Norway's parliament that the money will be used to “strengthen our ability to prevent, deter and deal with digital attacks.”

“These are necessary measures because we are facing a more unpredictable and aggressive Russian regime,” Gahr Støre said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has raised the alert of his nuclear weapons forces. It contributes to more uncertainty in an already tense situation.”

He said Norway “is NATO’s eyes in the north.”

In a speech to the Scandinavian country’s parliament about Ukraine, Gahr Støre said Norway was gearing up “to handle an extraordinary situation with up to 100,000 refugees.”

“We do not know how long the war will last, or how many will come here. But in any case, it will put us to a historical test,” he said.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said Friday on Telegram that several missiles hit a facility used to repair military aircraft and damaged a bus repair facility, though no casualties were immediately reported.

The plant had suspended work ahead of the attack, the mayor said.

The missiles that hit Lviv were launched from the Black Sea, but two of the six that were launched were shot down, Ukrainian air force’s western command said on Facebook.

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NEW DELHI — An Indian official says the state-run Indian Oil Corp. bought 3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia earlier this week to secure its energy needs, resisting Western pressure to avoid such purchases.

The official said India will be looking to purchase more oil from Russia despite calls not to from the U.S. and other countries due to the invasion of Ukraine. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter, said India has no such sanctions.

Imports make up nearly 85% of India’s oil needs. Its demand is projected to jump 8.2% this year to 5.15 million barrels per day as the economy recovers from the devastation caused by the pandemic.

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Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was thankful to U.S. President Joe Biden for the additional military aid but said he would not say specifically what the new package included because he didn't want to tip off Russia.

“This is our defense,” he said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “When the enemy doesn’t know what to expect from us. As they didn’t know what awaited them after Feb. 24,” the day Russia invaded. “They didn’t know what we had for defense or how we prepared to meet the blow.”

Zelenskyy said Russia expected to find Ukraine much as it did in 2014, when it seized Crimea without a fight and backed separatists as they took control of the eastern Donbas region. But Ukraine is now a different country, with much stronger defenses, he said.

He said it also was not the time to reveal Ukraine’s tactics in the ongoing negotiations with Russia. “Working more in silence than on television, radio or on Facebook,” Zelenskyy said. “I consider it the right way.”

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UNITED NATIONS — Russia’s U.N. ambassador says he is not asking for a vote Friday on its resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which has been sharply criticized by Western countries for making no mention of Russia’s responsibility for the war against its smaller neighbor.

Vassily Nebenzia told the U.N. Security Council Thursday that Russia decided at this stage not to seek a vote because of pressure from the United States and Albania on U.N. members to oppose it, but he stressed that Moscow is not withdrawing the resolution.

Nebenzia said Russia plans to go ahead with a council meeting Friday to discuss again its allegations of U.S. “biological laboratories” in Ukraine with claiming new documents. His initial charge was made without any evidence and repeatedly denied by U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield responded to Nebenzia’s announcement by saying “their farcical humanitarian resolution ... was doomed to fail.”

“We know if Russia really cared about humanitarian crises, the one that it created, it could simply stop its attacks on the people of Ukraine,” she said. “But instead, they want to call for another Security Council meeting to use this council as a venue for its disinformation and for promoting its propaganda.”

At last Friday’s council meeting on Russia’s initial allegations of U.S. “biological activities,” Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia of using the Security Council for “lying and spreading disinformation” as part of a potential false-flag operation by Moscow for the use of chemical or biological agents in Ukraine.

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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. health chief decried the devastating consequences of war on the Ukrainian people who are facing severe disruption to services and medication and stressed that “the life-saving medicine we need right now is peace.”

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the U.N. Security Council Thursday that WHO has verified 43 attacks on hospitals and health facilities with 12 people killed and 34 injured.

In a virtual briefing, Tedros said “the disruption to services and supplies is posing an extreme risk to people with cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV and TB, which are among the leading causes of mortality in Ukraine.”

The WHO chief said displacement and overcrowding caused by people fleeing fighting are likely to increase the risks of diseases such as COVID-19, measles, pneumonia and polio.

In addition, more than 35,000 mental health patients in Ukrainian psychiatric hospitals and long-term care facilities face severe shortages of medicine, food, health and blankets, he said.

So far, WHO has sent about 100 metric tonnes (110 tons) of medical supplies, enough for 4,500 trauma patients and 450,000 primary health care patients for a month, to Ukraine along with other equipment. Tedros said the agency is preparing a further 108 metric tonnes (119 tons) for delivery.

Tedros urged donors to support the immense and escalating humanitarian needs in Ukraine and fully fund the U.N.’s $1.1 billion humanitarian appeal.

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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. political chief is calling for an investigation of massive civilian casualties and the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, and for those responsible to be held accountable.

Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo told the U.N. Security Council Thursday that “international humanitarian law is crystal clear” in prohibiting direct attacks on civilians in military operations and ensuring their protection. Yet, she said, many of the daily attacks that are battering Ukrainian cities “are reportedly indiscriminate, resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.”

DiCarlo cited the U.N. human rights office’s latest statistics: 1,900 civilian casualties from the start of the war on Feb. 24 to March 15, comprising 726 people killed, including 52 children, and 1,174 injured — with the actual number likely much higher.

“Most of these casualties were caused by the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” she said.

The U.N. development agency, UNDP, projects that if the war continues, 90% of Ukraine’s population could be facing poverty and extreme economic vulnerability, “setting the country — and the region — back decades, and leaving deep social and economic scars,” she said.

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CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — An American man was killed in a Russian attack on the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, where he was seeking medical treatment for his partner. The death of Jim Hill, of Diggs, Idaho, was reported Thursday by his sister.

“My brother Jimmy Hill was killed yesterday in Chernihiv, Ukraine. He was waiting in a bread line with several other people when they were gunned down by Russian military snippers,” his sister, Cheryl Hill Gordon, wrote on Facebook. “His body was found in the street by the local police.”

Ukrainian officials reported that 10 people were killed Wednesday in Chernihiv while standing in the bread line.

Chernihiv police and the U.S. State Department confirmed the death of an American but did not identify him. Hill was at least the second U.S. citizen to be killed in the conflict, after the killing of journalist and filmmaker Brent Renaud last week.

In poignant posts on Facebook in the weeks before his death, Hill described “indiscriminate bombing” in a city under siege.

Hill, who identified himself as a lecturer at universities in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Warsaw, Poland, said he was in Chernihiv with his partner for her to receive medical treatment.

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken says U.S. officials are in the process of evaluating and documenting potential war crimes committed by Russia in its war against Ukraine.

The statement to reporters on Thursday came one day after President Joe Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

Blinken says he believes the intentional targeting of civilians in Ukraine would amount to a war crime, and that there will be accountability and “massive consequences” for any war crimes determined to have occurred.

The U.S. and 44 other countries are working together to investigate possible violations and abuses, after the passage of a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry. There is another probe by the International Criminal Court, an independent body based in the Netherlands.

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NEW YORK — PayPal users will now be able to send money to Ukrainians, both in the war-ravaged country as well as those now refugees across Europe, the company said Thursday.

Previously, people in Ukraine were only able to use the payments platform to send money out of the country. They will now be able to receive funds, as well as make transfers within Ukraine and abroad.

It’s the latest measure by banks and other financial services companies looking for ways to help Ukrainians impacted by Russia’s invasion. PayPal cut off Russia from its services last week.

Since the war began, Americans and other supporters of Ukraine have been looking for ways to financially support Ukrainian refugees as well as those still in the country. Money transfer companies like MoneyGram and Western Union have seen surges in demand as people look for ways to send money to friends and family in the region.

PayPal said it will waive fees on transfers of funds to Ukrainian accounts, or for anyone receiving funds in Ukrainian accounts until June 30.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria — Ahead of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to NATO member Bulgaria, where he is expected to discuss with government officials possible military aid for Ukraine, Russia’s ambassador to Sofia called on Bulgaria to abstain from supplying arms to Kyiv.

“I would like to warn the official Bulgarian authorities that the supply of weapons, including of Soviet origin, and ammunition to the Ukrainian nationalists is unlikely to add optimism to the bilateral dialogue, which for now is already deteriorated,” Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova said in a Facebook post on Thursday.

According to local media, Bulgaria’s government is hesitant to send arms to Ukraine. The government itself has so far declined to comment on the matter.

Many in the Balkan country, once one of the closest Soviet allies, still harbor pro-Russian sentiments which have historic cultural and religious roots.

Now, the country is providing humanitarian assistance and sheltering Ukrainian refugees, some of which are of Bulgarian origin.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. refugee officers have been sent to Europe to help screen Ukrainian refugees who might want to come to the U.S. But American officials expect the vast majority will want to return to their homeland.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas also said that Customs and Border Protection agents along the U.S.-Mexico border have been instructed to allow Ukrainians to enter the country to seek asylum even as most people are turned back under a public health order instituted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. More than half have gone to Poland. Most of the rest are in the surrounding countries of Eastern Europe, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mayorkas told reporters Thursday that U.S. refugee officers have been sent to the region to work with the U.N. and determine whether some Ukrainians may seek to come to the U.S. through the refugee program. But he and other administration officials are not expecting many will want to come.

“The vast majority of Ukrainians are displaced in the countries in that region, with the hope, understandably, of being able to return to their country,” the secretary said.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A girl in a Kyiv hospital bed appeared stunned and cried during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday.

The unidentified patient told of people offering their support on TikTok.

“We have occupied TikTok,” Zelenskyy quipped.

He presented the girl with a large bouquet of pink and white flowers as soldiers stood guard.

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MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Row upon row of windowless shells of burned and shrapnel-scarred apartment buildings loomed in Mariupol as snow flurries fell Thursday.

One resident told of having nothing to eat and no way to contact her mother in Makiivka, a city 50 miles (80 kilometers) north, to tell her she was alive.

“We are trying to survive somehow,” said the resident, Elena, who didn’t provide her last name. “There is no connection, just nothing. It is cruel. My child is hungry. I don’t know what to give him to eat.”

Cars, some with the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion force in their windows, drove past stacks of ammunition boxes and artillery shells. Others waited in long lines of traffic or got around on foot, pushing carts and baby carriages.

A land mine could be seen on the ground. Smoke rose from the city’s skyline.

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — Kosovo’s president on Thursday asked U.S. President Joe Biden to help Kosovo become a NATO member at a time that Russia is making efforts to destabilize the Balkans.

President Vjosa Osmani sent a letter to Biden saying that “Kosovo’s membership in NATO has become an imperative.”

Kosovo, “the most pro-American and pro-NATO country in the world,” is excluded from NATO enlargement processes, she said in a letter made available to The Associated Press.

Osmani urged Biden to use the U.S. “leadership and influence to actively support and advance the complex process of NATO membership for Kosovo.”

While the world’s eyes are focused on the devastating war in Ukraine, Osmani said that “we must not lose sight of the fragile situation we face in the Balkans.”

“We are exposed to persistent efforts by Russia to undermine Kosovo and destabilize the entire Western Balkans,” she wrote.

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LONDON — Britain’s defense secretary has accused Russia of “dirty tricks” after he was called by an imposter posing as the prime minister of Ukraine.

Ben Wallace said he had ordered an investigation into how the hoax caller was able to speak to him on a video call Thursday.

Wallace said on Twitter that he became suspicious and hung up after the caller “posed several misleading questions.” The call is believed to have lasted about 10 minutes.

Wallace called it a desperate attempt” but said “no amount of Russian disinformation, distortion and dirty tricks can distract from Russia’s human rights abuses and illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

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WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s foreign minister, who is also head of Europe’s security organization, said Thursday that no concessions to aggressor Russia could possibly be made that would undermine Ukraine’s independence or territorial integrity.

“Poland believes it to be unacceptable to offer any kind of concessions to Russia that would undermine the territorial integrity and independence of the Ukrainian state,” minister Zbigniew Rau said following talks with his Spanish counterpart, Jose Manuel Albares Bueno.

Rau, the current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also said that the international community has the right to offer technical as well as military support to Ukraine, in its defensive struggle against Russia’s assault.

Rau’s words seemed to back Poland’s recent proposal for a NATO or an international military peacekeeping mission in Ukraine.

NATO, a military security alliance of 30 nation, insists it cannot have any presence in Ukraine, which is not an alliance member, because that could potentially further aggravate the conflict with Russia.

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ROME — Even as rescuers searched through the wreckage of a theater devastated by Russian airstrikes in Mariupol, Ukraine, Italy has offered to provide the means and the funds to rebuild it when that becomes possible.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini tweeted on Thursday that the government at a Cabinet meeting approved his proposal to supply the assistance.

“The theaters of all countries belong to all of humanity,’’ the minister said.

Rescue efforts were being conducted to find survivors in the wreckage. Hundreds of civilians in the besieged city had taken refuge in the theater basement and were trapped when the airstrikes collapsed the building onto their shelter. By late Thursday, it was still unknown if there were deaths or injuries.

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BERLIN — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading economies are calling on Russia to comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw its military forces.

In a joint statement, the G-7′s top diplomats condemned what they described as “indiscriminate attacks on civilians” by Russian forces including the siege of Mariupol and other cities.

They accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of conducting an “unprovoked and shameful war” that has forced millions to flee their homes and resulted in the destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, theatres and schools.

The G-7 said that “those responsible for war crimes, including indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians, will be held responsible” and welcomed work to investigate and gather evidence in this regard, including by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The group also said it stood ready to further increase the pressure of sanctions on Ukraine and provide further aid to those in need, including the small nation of Moldova. Moldova is offering shelter to the largest group of refugees from Ukraine per capita.

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GENEVA — The exiled opposition leader of Belarus is decrying a change in the country’s constitution under autocratic pro-Russian President Alexander Lukashenko, calling it “illegal” and expressing concerns that it could lift barriers on deploying nuclear weapons into Belarus.

Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya accused Lukashenko of going against the will of Belarussians who “want to maintain a non-nuclear status.”

The comments Thursday to the U.N. press association, ACANU, in Geneva came as concerns have mounted about that possibility that Russia’s war in Ukraine could involve the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Some Russian forces entered Ukraine through Belarus as the war began on Feb. 24.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said the constitutional change in Belarus could expedite the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. If it involved outfitting fighter planes, Fihn said, “it could happen within a couple of days.”

The new constitution, adopted last month with amendments that took effect on Tuesday, sheds Belarus’ neutral status and opens the way for even bigger military cooperation with Russia but doesn’t directly deal with the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons. Lukashenko has previously offered to host Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus.

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MADRID — Spanish authorities have ordered for a third luxury yacht believed to be owned by a Russian oligarch to not leave its ports.

Spain’s Civil Guard has acted on orders from maritime authorities to not let the “Crescent” super yacht leave the port of Tarragona, police told The Associated Press.

The 135-meter yacht is reportedly owned by Igor Sechin, the head of Russian oil company Rosneft. The European Union has placed sanctions on Sechin because he is “one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted and closest advisors, as well as his personal friend.”

This follows orders by Spanish authorities to hold the “Valerie” in Barcelona’s port and “Lady Anastasia” in Mallorca earlier this week, police said.

All three vessels are believed to be owned by Russian magnates with close ties to Putin.

The remain-in-port orders come after the superyacht “My Solaris” linked to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich left Barcelona’s port. It was later seen off Montenegro.

Authorities in Italy, France and other countries have impounded several luxury vessels as a global crackdown in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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HELSINKI — Estonia’s defense ministry says the United States has earmarked $180 million in military assistance to the Baltic NATO members of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania this year under a scheme entitled the Baltic Security Initiative.

The ministry said on Thursday that a budget package approved by the U.S. Congress represents an increase of more than $10 million from last year in security assistance to the three former Soviet republics which all border Russia and have assisted Ukraine with arms and material help after the start of Moscow’s invasion.

“The United States has demonstrated clear initiative in the current security crisis, both in supporting its NATO Allies in the East, as well as Ukraine, and in bringing the actions of Russia to the attention of the international community,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said.

“The decision by Congress shows that the United States is committed to the defense of our region and clearly understands that the defense of their own country is connected with the Baltic countries,” Laanet said.

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WASHINGTON — President Biden denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brutality” during a Thursday meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin.

“Putin’s brutality and what his troops are doing in Ukraine is just inhumane,” Biden said.

The meeting on St. Patrick’s Day was supposed to be held in person in the Oval Office, but it occurred virtually because Martin tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday evening. The positive result forced him to leave early from a gala where he had already interacted with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Biden said Martin was “looking good, feeling good.” Martin was staying across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House, the customary guest quarters for visiting foreign leaders.

During their conversation, Martin thanked Biden for “your capacity to marshal like-minded democracies,” which he said are “coming together to respond in an unprecedented way.

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