The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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Live updates: Ukraine says talks focusing on security guarantees

Associated Press Tuesday, 29 March 2022, 06:55 Last update: about 7 months ago

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says seven people were killed in a missile strike on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolayiv.

Zelenskyy, who spoke to the Danish parliament through a translator, said Tuesday’s strike also left 22 people injured. The Telegram channel of regional governor Vitaliy Kim showed a gaping hole in the center of the nine-story building.

Kim accused Russian forces of waiting until people had arrived for work in the building before striking it and said he had a lucky escape because he had overslept.

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Zelenskyy has made online speeches to lawmakers in several countries, including the United States, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Israel, Japan and the European Union.

He is set to address Norway’s parliament on Wednesday. He told the Danish parliament that “the brutality is more violent than what we have seen during World War II.”

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MOSCOW -- Russia has expelled a total of 10 diplomats from the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in retaliation for those countries expelling Russian diplomats earlier this month.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was cancelling the accreditation of four Lithuanian diplomats, three Latvians and three Estonians and they would be required to leave the country. That corresponds to the number of Russian diplomats each country previously expelled.

On March 18, the three Baltic countries ordered the expulsion of 10 Russian embassy staff members in a coordinated action taken in solidarity with Ukraine.

Russia said Tuesday that move was “provocative and entirely baseless” and that it had summoned the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ambassadors in Moscow for an official protest.

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NEW YORK -- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has rejected reports that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich may have been poisoned as part of an “information war.”

The investigative news outlet Bellingcat reported Monday that Abramovich and two Ukrainian delegates suffered symptoms of poisoning after attending talks between Russia and Ukraine on March 3.

Peskov said Tuesday that Abramovich has been “ensuring certain contacts between the Russian and Ukrainian sides” but is not an official member of the Russian delegation. He said that Abramovich’s role has been approved by both sides.

He said of the reports that Abramovich may have been poisoned: “It’s part of the information war. These reports obviously do not correspond to reality.”

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BUDAPEST, Hungary -- A planned meeting in Hungary of central European defense ministers has been cancelled amid regional disagreements over the response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The meeting was due to be held Wednesday. Hungary’s defense ministry said Tuesday that the meeting of ministers from the Visegrad alliance of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland would “be held at a later date.”

The cancellation came after the defense ministers of both the Czech Republic and Poland indicated they wouldn't attend.

Leaders from both countries have criticized Hungary’s response to the war in Ukraine, pointing out that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government has refused to supply its embattled neighbor with weapons and lobbied against sanctions on Russian energy imports.

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MOSCOW -- Russia’s defense minister says that “liberating” the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine is the main goal of Moscow’s military operation, underlining a possible shift in strategy announced last week by another Russian military official.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose few public appearances this month raised questions about his health and whereabouts, held a meeting with top military officials on Tuesday and said that “overall, the main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been completed.”

He said that “the combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus the main attention and main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas.”

The minister stressed that the Russian military will continue the operation until “the set goals are achieved.”

Shoigu also offered an assurance that Russia will not send conscripts recruited in the upcoming April draft to Ukraine. Earlier this month, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were even captured there.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The International Monetary Fund’s chief says the global lender “has no problems with Russia” and that its board can only suspend the country if the fund’s membership says it no longer recognizes the government.

“That is a very tall order,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Tuesday in response to a question about consequences against Russia over its war in Ukraine.

She added that “we all know for this war to end there has to be dialogue.” Georgieva spoke at the World Government Summit in Dubai.

The fund approved emergency financing of $1.4 billion for Ukraine on March 10. That’s in addition to a disbursement of $700 million to the country before the war, which was launched by Russia on Feb. 24.

The IMF has said it expects “a bad recession in Russia” and spillover impact on neighboring countries. The IMF says its Moscow office is not actively operating.

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ISTANBUL -- An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says the talks under way with Russia in Istanbul are focusing on security guarantees for Ukraine and hopes of a cease-fire.

Mykhailo Podolyak told Ukrainian media on Tuesday that there are “intensive consultations going on regarding several important issues, the key among those is an agreement on international security guarantees for Ukraine." He said that "only with this agreement can we end the war in a way that Ukraine needs.”

He adds that “the second block of issues is a cease-fire so that we could resolve all the humanitarian problems which have piled up and which require urgent resolutions.”

Podolyak added the two sides were also discussing breaches of the rules of war.

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MOSCOW -- The Russian Foreign Ministry says the United States and its allies are involved in hacking Russian data and infrastructure.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that “the U.S. and its satellites are undertaking a massive cyber-operation against our country.” It also said the U.S. and other NATO members had trained Ukrainian hackers and blamed what it said was an effort by Ukraine to recruit international hackers.

The ministry said that the attacks include stealing Russians’ personal data, putting pressure on the economy and spreading “fake information” about the Russian military.

Russia says it is strengthening its own cyber-security and will seek to bring hackers to justice.

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LONDON — Britain’s Foreign Office says it is concerned about reports that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich may have been poisoned as he participated in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

The investigative news outlet Bellingcat reported Monday that Abramovich and two Ukrainian delegates suffered symptoms of nerve agent poisoning after attending peace talks on March 3. Abramovich, whose exact role in the talks hasn’t been confirmed, has now recovered.

The Foreign Office said in a statement Tuesday that “the allegations are very concerning.”

A Bellingcat investigator said the dosage wasn’t lethal and the “most plausible” explanation for the alleged attack is that it was a warning to Abramovich and any other wealthy Russians who might seek to intervene in the negotiations.

“He volunteered to play … this role of (an) honest broker, but other oligarchs had … declared certain independence from the Kremlin position and criticize the war,” Christo Grozev told Times Radio. “So it could well be seen as a warning sign to them to not join the ranks of those who dissent, and to not be too much of an honest broker.”

Abramovich, owner of London soccer club Chelsea, had his British assets frozen by the U.K. government earlier this month as authorities targeted wealthy Russians with close ties to the Kremlin. Those sanctions also cover Chelsea, limiting ticket sales and spending by the club.

Asked about the alleged poisoning and Abramovich’s role in the negotations, a spokesperson for him declined to comment.

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lawmakers in Lithuania are debating a ban on using the ‘Z’ symbol to show support for Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Russian troops in Ukraine have painted the letter Z on the side of vehicles and it has been adopted by some in Russia as a symbol of support for what the Kremlin describes as a “special military operation.”

Lithuania, which already has outlawed Soviet and Nazi symbols, also wants to ban the black-and-orange ribbon that was originally a military decoration is now used as a of remembrance of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

Lawmaker Monika Osmianskiene said the symbols “are becoming a symbol not only of propaganda but also of aggression.

A vote in Lithuania’s parliament is expected this week. If it passes, people who violate a ban could face a fine of up to 500 euros ($550).

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HELSINKI — Finland’s main intelligence agency warns that Russia is likely to carry out cyber and information operations against the Nordic country in the coming months as the government and lawmakers debate possible NATO membership.

The Finnish Security and Intelligence Service said in its annual report published Tuesday that it considers “unlawful intelligence operations of Russia” to be among the main current threats to Finland’s national security.

Director Antti Pelttari said that “Finnish society as a whole should be prepared for various measures from Russia seeking to influence policymaking in Finland on the NATO issue.”

Several polls in recent weeks have shown a majority of Finns now supporting NATO membership, up from 25% at most before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland shares the longest border of any European Union member with Russia.

Moscow has said it would consider Finland and neighboring Sweden joining NATO a hostile move that would have serious military and political repercussions.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s defense minister says the country is “on alert” against naval mines after authorities detected and deactivated two explosive devices floating in the Black Sea.

Hulusi Akar told journalists late Monday that authorities were still trying to determine whether the mines had drifted from Ukrainian waters. He had no information on the number of anti-ship devices that may be floating in the sea.

Akar said in comments released by his ministry Tuesday: “Whether the mines that were laid in Ukraine have arrived, or whether other mines were activated -- it would not be right to say anything without being certain about it.”

“Our mine-sweeping vessels and maritime patrol planes are on alert,” he said. “Detected mines are immediately destroyed in a safe manner.”

Akar added that Turkey was cooperating with Romania and Bulgaria to detect mines.

Turkish military teams disabled two naval mines in the past four days, including one on Saturday that forced the temporary closure of the Bosporus Strait. The sighting followed warnings that mines laid at the entrances to Ukrainian ports could break free in heavy weather and cross the Black Sea.

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BERLIN -- The U.N. nuclear watchdog says its director-general has arrived in Ukraine for talks with senior government officials on delivering “urgent technical assistance” to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Tuesday that Rafael Mariano Grossi’s aim is to “to initiate prompt safety and security support” for Ukraine’s nuclear sites. That will include sending IAEA experts to “prioritized facilities” and sending “vital safety and security supplies” including monitoring and emergency equipment.

It said that Grossi will travel to one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants this week, but didn’t say which one. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors at four active power plants, and also is home to the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Russian forces have taken control of Chernobyl and of the largest active power plant, at Zaporizhzhia.

Grossi said in a statement that “the military conflict is putting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and other facilities with radioactive material in unprecedented danger.”

He added that “there have already been several close calls. We can’t afford to lose any more time.”

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s foreign minister, called on countries to ban the use of the letter “Z” as a symbol of the Russian war on Ukraine.

In a tweet Tuesday, Dmytro Kuleba said the letter in some contexts “means Russian war crimes, bombed out cities, thousands of murdered Ukrainians.”

Russian troops in Ukraine have painted the letter Z on the side of vehicles and it has been adopted by some in Russia as a symbol of support for what the Kremlin describes as a “special military operation” in the neighboring country.

A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry said Monday that security services are aware the symbol is also being used at rallies in Germany. He said the letter can under certain circumstances be considered a sign of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and could make people “criminally liable.” Several German states have said they will open investigations into the use of the symbol.

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BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister says her country is working toward a ‘de facto’ embargo of Russian oil because of the war in Ukraine.

Germany has long relied on fossil fuels from Russia and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned that suddenly halting imports could have severe economic consequences for his country.

But Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Tuesday that Germany is nevertheless aiming for a “complete national exit from Russian fossil fuel dependence.”

She cited recent efforts to diversify Germany’s imports that aim to end the use of Russian oil and coal this year, and natural gas by mid-2024.

“You can (...) call it a national, step-by-step, de facto embargo particularly of oil,” Baerbock said at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue conference.

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LVIV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian government says it is operating three humanitarian corridors Tuesday to move civilians out of the besieged port of Mariupol and two Russian-occupied cities in the south.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk says that besides Mariupol, evacuations will run from Enerhodar and Melitopol. Those cities have both been under Russian control for weeks and have seen protests and alleged kidnappings of pro-Ukraine local politicians.

The routes all converge in the Ukraine-controlled southern city of Zaporizhzhia.

Russia operates its own evacuation routes, which Ukraine has alleged are cover for forcibly deporting Ukrainian civilians to Russia. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of obstructing evacuations.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian official says an explosion struck a nine-story administration building in the strategic port city of Mykolaiv on Tuesday morning as talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Istanbul began.

The Telegram channel of the regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, showed a gaping hole in the center of the building. Kim said most people escaped the building and rescuers were searching for a handful of missing people.

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NEW YORK — Bloomberg News says it has suspended its operations in Russia and Belarus, citing international condemnation and sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

The financial news company said customers in both Russia and Belarus will be unable to access any of Bloomberg’s financial products including terminals, data licenses, data feeds and electronic trading platforms.

Trading functions for Russian securities were disabled in line with international sanctions, it said.

Earlier, Bloomberg suspended the work of its journalists in Russia and removed Russian stocks from its global equity indexes. Russian bonds will be removed with the month-end rebalancing, the company said in a statement.

It said Bloomberg Philanthropies had pledged $40 million to the International Rescue Committee and the World Central Kitchen to help Ukrainians and refugees in the region and elsewhere.

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ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a cease-fire as the Russian and Ukrainian delegations resumed their talks in Istanbul.

In a speech at the start Tuesday, Erdogan said progress in the talks could pave the way for a meeting between the two countries’ leaders.

“We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace. Prolonging the conflict is not in anyone’s interest,” Erdogan said. “As members of the delegations you have taken on a historic responsibility. The whole world is awaiting the good news that will come from you.”

The delegations are scheduled to hold two days of talks in a government building adjacent to the 19th-century Ottoman palace, Dolmabahce, on the shores of the Bosporus.

Earlier talks between the sides, held in person in Belarus or by video, failed to make progress on ending the monthlong war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.

Ahead of the talks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his country is prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and is open to compromise on the fate of the Donbas, the contested region in the country’s east.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s military says Russia has destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in just over a month of war.

In a post Tuesday, the military said the Orthodox church — the country’s majority religion — was the most affected but that mosques, synagogues, Protestant churches and religious schools were also destroyed.

In a map provided by the military, the destruction appears concentrated around Kyiv and in the country’s east.

The United Nations chief has launched an initiative to immediately explore possible arrangements for “a humanitarian cease-fire in Ukraine” in order to allow the delivery of desperately needed aid and pave the way for serious political negotiations to end the month-long war.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday he asked Undersecretary-General Martin Griffiths, the head of the U.N.’s worldwide humanitarian operations, to explore the possibility of a cease-fire with Russia and Ukraine. He said Griffiths has already made some contacts.

The 193-member U.N. General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority of about 140 nations, has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Ukraine twice -- on March 2 and on March 24 -- and Guterres told reporters he thinks “this is the moment” for the United Nations “to assume the initiative.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the secretary-general said there has been a “senseless loss of thousands of lives,” displacement of 10 million people, systematic destruction of homes, schools, hospitals and other essential infrastructure, “and skyrocketing food and energy prices worldwide.”

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LVIV, UKRAINE — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday that Russian forces are still attacking Kyiv, despite being driven out of Irpin, a suburb northwest of the capital that has seen heavy fighting.

He said the Russians remain in control of northern suburbs and are trying to regroup after losing Irpin on Monday. He urged Ukrainians not to let up in the war.

“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “We can’t express our emotions now. We can’t raise expectations, simply so that we don’t burn out.”

He said the situation remains tense in the northeast, around Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkhiv, and also in the eastern Donbas region and in the south around Mariupol, which remains blockaded by Russian troops.

The president said no humanitarian corridors could be opened Monday out of the besieged city.

Zelenskyy said he spoke Monday with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Britain, Canada and Germany, urging them to strengthen the sanctions against Russia.

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon may have to ask Congress for additional money to support Ukraine’s battle against Russia’s invasion, including to replenish America’s arsenal for weapons sent to Kyiv, officials said Monday.

Rolling out the Defense Department’s $773 billion request for fiscal 2023, Pentagon leaders said the budget was finalized before the invasion so it has no specific money for the war. Congress approved a $13.5 billion emergency funding package in early March.

The leaders said it was too early to predict how quickly Ukrainian forces will use up the weapons and ammunition already being provided, and how much the U.S. will need to replace what it sends to Ukraine, such as Stinger and Javelin missiles or body armor and other equipment.

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WASHINGTON — A private Russian military contractor that has been accused of human rights abuses has deployed to Eastern Ukraine, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry.

The ministry’s Defense Intelligence said the Wagner Group was expected to bring up to 1,000 mercenaries to take part in combat operations in Ukraine after the regular Russian military experienced heavy losses.

Air Vice-Marshal Mick Smeath, London’s defense attaché in Washington, said in a statement that Russia has likely been forced to reprioritize Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of its operations in Africa and Syria.

Smeath’s statement comes after Pentagon officials said recently that they expected Russia to look for ways to replace their combat losses with Russian troops based in other countries. Last Friday, the Pentagon said it appeared Moscow was drawing on Russian troops based in Georgia, but no details were available on their number or the timing of their expected deployment.

Thousands of mercenaries from Wagner Group have been deployed in Syria since 2015. The U.S. and EU consider the group to be a surrogate of the Russian military, but the Kremlin denies it even exists.

In December, the EU imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and its founder, Dmitry Utkin, for fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine.

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LVIV. Ukraine — A missile attack hit an oil depot in western Ukraine late Monday, Rivne’s regional governor said, marking the second attack on oil facilities in the region and the latest in a series of such attacks in recent days.

Western Ukraine has not seen ground combat, but missiles have struck oil depots and a military plant in Lviv, a major city close to Poland where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have gone to escape fighting elsewhere.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested in an interview with Russian journalists released on Sunday that the attacks on oil depots are intended to disrupt the planting season in Ukraine, which is a major grain producer.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden says he makes no apologies for calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ouster, but he says he was expressing his “moral outrage,” not a new U.S. government policy.

Biden’s comments on Monday come after he said of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Biden made the initial comment over the weekend while in Poland. His administration spent the next 48 hours saying the U.S. government policy was not to support regime change in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

“I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward this man,” Biden said Monday. “I wasn’t articulating a policy change.”

Biden added: “I’m not walking anything back.”

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A “massive” cyberattack knocked Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom almost completely offline Monday in what network monitors called its most severe outage since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

The chair of Ukraine’s state service for special communication, Yurii Shchyhol, blamed “the enemy” in a statement without specifically naming Russia. So that service could continue to Ukraine's military, most customers were cut off from service, he said.

The outage began Monday morning and persisted into the evening, when Shchyhol said services were being restored.

Alp Toker, director of the London-based monitor Netblocks, said connectivity for Ukrtelecom has collapsed to just 13 percent of pre-war levels.

Ukrtelecom is the seventh-largest provider in Ukraine in traffic moved but, as the pre-independence incumbent, is likely the lone provider in much of rural Ukraine, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the network management firm Kentik.

Urktelecom provides telephone, internet and mobile service.

Despite repeated and withering Russian attacks on its telecommunications and other infrastructure, Ukraine’s digital communications networks have proven remarkably resilient, in part due to risks crews have taken under fire to repair damaged fiber optic cables and toppled cell towers.

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BUCHAREST, Romania — Romanian naval forces say they successfully carried out a mission to destroy a mine that was found drifting in the Back Sea.

The mine, the origin of which was not stated, was discovered Monday morning about 72 kilometers (44 miles) from Romania’s coast. A naval ship was then deployed with a specialist team from a port in eastern Constanta County, authorities said.

The naval forces said in an online statement that the mine was detonated. Photos posted online showed a huge jet of water spurting up in the air as the mine was destroyed.

Romania’s Maritime Hydrographic Directorate had warned last week of the existence of mine danger in the northwestern Black Sea, after which the ministry of defense said the navy had “urgently ordered the intensification” of maritime surveillance.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet “briefly” with the Ukrainian and Russian delegations ahead of their talks on Tuesday.

In a televised address following a Cabinet meeting Monday, the Turkish leader also said that separate telephone calls he has been holding with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin were progressing in a “positive direction.” He did not elaborate.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are scheduled to begin two days of face-to-face talks in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Earlier talks between the sides, held both by video and in person, failed to make progress. Zelenskyy says Ukraine is prepared to declare its neutrality and consider a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east to secure peace — but he said only a face-to-face meeting with Putin can end the war. A meeting like that hasn’t happened yet.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Pentagon says it is deploying six Navy aircraft that specialize in electronic warfare and about 240 Navy personnel to bolster NATO defenses in Eastern Europe.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby says the EA-18G “Growler” aircraft based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state were scheduled to arrive Monday at Spangdahlem air base in Germany, where they will be stationed. They are not intended for use in Ukraine, he said.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. intelligence assessments, said there has been little change in the situation on the ground in Ukraine.

The senior defense official said Russian forces largely remain in defensive positions in the area of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and they are making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

The official said the U.S. believes Ukrainian troops have retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in eastern Ukraine.

The official said the U.S. continues to see Russia prioritizing operations in the Donbas region and de-emphasizing ground operations in the Kyiv area, but the Pentagon believes it’s too early to know whether this reflects a change in Moscow’s strategic goals.

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BRUSSELS — French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says that no suspected extremists or spies appear to be entering the European Union from Ukraine, but he is warning about the dangers posed to war refugees by human traffickers.

Asked whether extremists or other infiltrators who might pose a security risk are crossing into the 27-nation bloc, Darmanin conceded that “there could be attempts, but we are not seeing this today.”

Speaking after presiding over a meeting Monday of EU interior ministers, Darmanin warned of the dangers posed to the many women and children entering from Ukraine by traffickers in Europe.

Police agencies, he says, “are very alert to what we are starting to see, that is the presence of suspicious people near areas where refugees are gathering who could exploit women and, or, children.”

Around 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine to escape the conflict. About half are children. Even before the war started, Ukrainians ranked among the top five nationalities of people likely to be trafficked in the EU.

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MEDYKA, Poland — The number of refugees who have flooded out of Ukraine is nearing 4 million, but data shows fewer people have crossed the border in recent days.

Border guards, aid agencies and refugees say Russia’s unpredictable war on Ukraine offers few signs as to whether it’s just a pause or a permanent drop-off.

In the first two weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, about 2.5 million people in Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million left the country to avoid the bombs and bloodshed. In the second two weeks, the number of refugees was roughly half that.

The total exodus through Sunday now stands at 3.87 million, according to the latest tally announced Monday from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. In the previous 24 hours, only 45,000 people crossed Ukraine’s borders to seek safety, the slowest one-day count yet.

“People who were determined to leave when war breaks out fled in the first days,” said Anna Michalska, a spokeswoman for the Polish border guards.

UNHCR says the war has triggered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and the speed and breadth of refugees fleeing to countries including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia — as well as Russia — is unprecedented in recent times. Poland alone has taken in 2.3 million refugees and Romania nearly 600,000. The United States has vowed to take in 100,000.

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UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations chief says he is launching an immediate effort to explore possible arrangements for “a humanitarian cease-fire in Ukraine.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday he used his “good offices” to ask Martin Griffiths, the head of the U.N.’s worldwide humanitarian operations, to explore the possibility of a cease-fire with Russia and Ukraine.

He told reporters he is appealing for “an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to allow for progress in serious political negotiations, aimed at reaching a peace agreement.”

Guterres said that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, there has been a “senseless loss of thousands of lives,” displacement of 10 million people, systematic destruction homes, schools and hospitals and other essential infrastructure, “and skyrocketing food and energy prices worldwide.”

A cessation of hostilities will allow humanitarian aid to be delivered and people to move safely, the secretary-general said, and “it will save lives, prevent suffering, and protect civilians.”

“I strongly appeal to the parties to this conflict, and to the international community as a whole, to work with us for peace in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and across the world,” the U.N. chief said.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has donated personal protective equipment to Ukraine to be used in the case of a chemical attack by the invading Russian troops.

The Czech move announced on Monday came after Ukraine asked the member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for such help.

The Biden administration publicly warned earlier in March that Russia might seek to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine as the White House rejected Russian claims of illegal chemical weapons development in the country it has invaded.

The warning came after Russia, without evidence, accused Ukraine of running chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support.

The White House rejected that, saying it could be part of an attempt by Russia to lay the groundwork for its own use of such weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine.

The Czech Republic’s Office for Nuclear Safety said it joined forces with the National Institute for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Protection to hand over protective masks, chemical suits, detection and decontamination systems and other materials to the Ukrainian authorities.

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BERLIN — Sweden’s prime minister says her country will help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine but won’t take in the kind of share it did during the influx of 2015.

Magdalena Andersson told reporters in Berlin on Monday that “we will do our part in helping Ukrainian refugees, but we cannot come back to the situation we had in 2015 when Sweden took a disproportionate part of the asylum seekers.”

Andersson, a member of the Social Democratic Party, said Sweden accepted about 12% of the total number of refugees coming to the European Union in 2015, despite having only 2% of the bloc’s population.

“We cannot come back to that kind of solution, but of course we will do our part and we are right now , of course, also welcoming Ukrainians that are coming to Sweden today, yesterday and during the last weeks,” she said after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Since the war began on Feb. 24, more than 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

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ROME — The Italian premier’s office says that in a phone conversation on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “lamented the blocking of humanitarian corridors” by Russians.

Premier Mario Draghi’s office says Zelenskyy also expressed sorrow over the continued siege and “bombings of cities, including schools, with the resulting loss of civilian lives, among them, children.’’

In a statement, Draghi’s office says he reiterated the Italian government’s staunch support for Ukrainian authorities and people as well as “the full availability of Italy to contribute to the international action to put an end to the war and to promote a lasting solution to the crisis in Ukraine.”

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has praised Serbia for refusing to impose sanctions against Moscow over its aggression in Ukraine, saying the Balkan ally has made “a smart choice.”

“We deeply respect the Serbian people, Serbian culture, Serbian history and commitment to traditional friends,” Lavrov told a group of Serbian journalists in a video conference. “We are sure that they will continue to make smart choices in this situation.”

Although Serbia voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, Belgrade has refused to join the United States and the European Union in imposing wide ranging sanctions against Moscow.

Lavrov said the sanctions are “an attempt by the United States to impose its hegemony” in the Balkans and added that the West “is trying to isolate Russia” in the region that has seen a devastating war in the 1990s.

Although formally seeking EU membership, Serbia has been forging close political, economic and military ties to Russia.

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ANKARA, Turkey —A plane carrying members of a Russian delegation has landed in Istanbul ahead of talks with Ukrainian negotiators aimed at ending the month-long war.

Turkey’s private DHA news agency said the Russian government plane landed at Istanbul Airport on Monday. The face-to-face talks between the two sides are scheduled to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine could declare neutrality, potentially accept a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east, and offer security guarantees to Russia to secure peace “without delay.” He said only a face-to-face meeting with Russia’s leader could end the war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that the two presidents could meet, but only after the key elements of a potential deal are negotiated.

Earlier talks have failed to make progress on ending the war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.

NATO-member Turkey has close relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Earlier this month, it hosted a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers.

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