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Live updates: Zelensky mum on specifics of new U.S. aid

The latest updates on the war in Ukraine:

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.”

Zelensky 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,” Zelensky said. “I consider it the right way.”

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UNITED NATIONS — Russia’s UN 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 neighbour.

Vassily Nebenzia told the UN Security Council Thursday that Russia decided at this stage not to seek a vote because of pressure from the United States and Albania on UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 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 for delivery.

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

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UNITED NATIONS — The UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 U.S. 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 — The U.S. State Department confirmed Thursday that an American citizen was killed in a Russian attack on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.

The department did not immediately confirm the identity of the American, who 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.

Chernihiv police said on Facebook there was a heavy artillery attack on the city and a U.S. citizen was among the civilians killed.

In Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, at least 53 people had been brought to morgues over the past 24 hours, killed during heavy Russian air attacks and ground fire, the local governor, Viacheslav Chaus, told Ukrainian TV on Thursday.

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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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mayorkas told reporters Thursday that U.S. refugee officers have been sent to the region to work with the UN 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 Zelensky on Thursday.

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

“We have occupied TikTok,” Zelensky 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 kilometres) 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 defence 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 UN 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-metre 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 defence 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 Defence Minister Kalle Laanet said.

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

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region and assured the three Baltic states of NATO protection and American support as they are increasingly on edge as Russia presses ahead with its invasion of Ukraine.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Biden denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brutality” during a Thursday meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheal 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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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The defence minister of NATO member Slovakia says his country would be willing to provide S-300 long-range air defence missile systems to Ukraine under certain conditions.

Defence Minister Jaroslav Naj’ said at a news conference in Bratislava with visiting U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that the matter is still under discussion.

The Soviet-era anti-air defence systems use long-range missiles that are capable of flying hundreds of miles and knocking down cruise missiles as well as warplanes. They could be valuable in thwarting Russian air attacks on Ukraine.

Naj’ said such a transfer would be possible if his country received a “proper replacement” for its S-300s or if Slovakia received a “capability guaranteed for a certain period of time.”

He stressed that he could not responsibly transfer the S-300s to Ukraine in a manner that left a gap in his country’s defences. He said Slovakia is open to making an arrangement that preserved its defences against air threats.

Austin declined to say whether the Pentagon was in a position to provide Slovakia with a replacement for its S-300s. “These are things that we will continue to work with all of our allies on, and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue, it’s a NATO issue.”

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RENA, Norway — The head of NATO’s military committee said that western Alliance soldiers know well that they are attending a vast exercise in southern Norway opposite their Russian colleagues who thought they were attending a drill but participated in the invasion of Ukraine.

“If you ask the soldiers here what they are here to defend, I think you will get a different answer than from the Russian soldiers in Ukraine,” Adm. Rob Bauer told reporters. “They were thinking they were participating in an exercise, and they are now killing Ukrainians.”

The NATO exercise, Cold Response, includes about 30,000 troops from over 25 countries from Europe and North America in NATO-member Norway that shares a nearly 200-kilometre (124-mile) land border with Russia.

The drill was not linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but “takes place against a dark backdrop,” Bauer said. “It has been 22 days since Russia has again invaded Ukraine, and again, in breaking international law. Therefore, for us, it is even more important to prepare for the worst and expect the unexpected.”

Russia has declined to be an observer at the exercise that aims at having Alliance members and partners practicing working together on land, in the air and at sea, said the armed forces.

The drill, which is held every two years, is due to end April 1.

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TOKYO — Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi held talks Thursday with ambassadors from Visegrad Group of four European nations in Tokyo, pledging to step up Japan’s cooperation in support of Ukraine.

Hayashi praised ambassadors from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Slovakia for their countries’ support for Ukrainian refugees, and pledged to provide US$100 million in humanitarian aid. He repeated Japan’s condemnation against Russian invasion as a serious violation to international law and promised to impose tough sanctions against Moscow.

Visegrad Group, launched in 1991 as a regional framework, is increasingly cooperating with Japan as “V4 plus Japan” through meetings of leaders, foreign ministers and working level dialogue, according to the foreign ministry.

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MEREFA, Ukraine – Twenty-one people have been killed by Russian artillery that destroyed a school and a community center in Merefa, near the northeast city of Kharkiv, officials said.

Merefa Mayor Veniamin Sitov said the attack occurred just before dawn on Thursday.

The Kharkiv region has seen heavy bombardment as stalled Russian forces try to advance in the area.

In the city of Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, Ukraine’s emergency service says a hostel was shelled, killing a mother, father and three of their children, including 3-year-old twins.

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TEL AVIV, Israel – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to members of Israeli’s parliament will be shown on national television and aired live in downtown Tel Aviv.

The address Sunday is part of his drive to rally popular and official support for Ukraine against Russia’s three-week invasion.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai tweeted that he offered to link the speech to Habima Square in the heart of Tel Aviv “so that the entire public can listen to the president’s words live.”

Israel’s ties with both Russia and Ukraine run deep. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has managed to leverage Israel’s good relations with both countries and his personal rapport with their leaders to turn himself into an unexpected mediator, one of the few world leaders to speak regularly to both sides.

And Zelensky, who is Jewish and has tailored his speeches to various audiences, appears to have an affinity for Israel. Both countries have large Jewish communities.

More than 1 million Jews from the region have moved to Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. The Israeli and Russian militaries have maintained close communications in recent years to prevent clashes in the sky over Syria.

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BERLIN – A bear evacuated from an animal rescue center near Kyiv has arrived safely at a sanctuary in northern Germany.

The Animal Protection Association of Schleswig-Holstein state said Thursday that Malvina, an Asian black bear, was among several bears evacuated from Ukraine to Germany in recent days.

The 7-year-old bear had lived for years in a private zoo in eastern Ukraine before local animals rights activists managed to get her transferred to the White Rock Bear Shelter outside Kyiv run by the group Safe Wild.

Keepers plan to let Malvina join two other Asian black bears, also known as moon bears, already housed at the shelter in Weidefeld near Germany’s Baltic Sea coast.

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LONDON — A group of Ukrainian lawmakers says Britain should press allies including France and Germany to do more to help Ukraine defeat Russian invasion.

Four female Ukrainian parliament members, who are meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London on Thursday, urged the U.K. to step up military support to Ukraine and increase economic pressure on Russia.

“We wish that you could also pressure France and Germany to do more,” said Alona Shkrum of the Batkivshchyna Party.

Shkrum, who spent two and a half days traveling from Kyiv to the U.K., including a 12-hour journey by back roads to western Ukraine, also called for more public pressure on companies still operating in Russia to leave.

“Every dollar, every ruble they make right now goes just to the army and to the Russian soldiers killing Ukrainian kids,” she said.

Ukrainian lawmakers are currently barred from leaving the country, but the women were given permission by President Volodymyr Zelensky for the trip.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin about the latest developments of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Erdogan stressed that some issues could be resolved through a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and repeated his offer to host them in Istanbul or Ankara, according to a read-out released by the Turkish presidency’s communications directorate.

Erdogan added his hopes that a lasting cease-fire “would open the path to a long-term solution” and emphasized the importance of diplomacy. He also added humanitarian corridors should function in both directions effectively and without issues, according to the statement.

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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.

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 defence spending by 0.50% following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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

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

Defence minister Arvydas Anusauskas said it “will allow us to speed up previously planned acquisitions of armaments needed to strengthen the defence 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 theatre 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 theatre. Russia has denied attacking the theatre 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 theatre in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter.

Lesia Vasylenko said between 1,000 and 1,500 people were sheltering at the theatre 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 defence secretary says his country will deploy a missile defence system to NATO ally Poland in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

During a visit to the Polish capital, Defence 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 “can’t take into account” 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 Zelensky’s office says Russia carried out further airstrikes on the besieged port city of Mariupol early on Thursday morning.

Zelensky’s office did not report casualties for the latest strikes. They come amid rescue efforts in the city after a theatre 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,” Zelensky’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 UN 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 US$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 Zelensky 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, Zelensky 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.

Zelensky 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.

He also called for more help for his country, saying thousands of people have been killed in the war that started almost a month ago, including 108 children.

Referring to the dire situation in the besieged city of Mariupol, he said: “Everything is a target for them,” including “a theatre where hundreds of people found shelter that was flattened yesterday.”

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LONDON — Britain’s defence ministry says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has largely stalled on all fronts” amid stiff Ukrainian resistance.

The Ministry of Defence says Russian forces have made “minimal progress” on land, sea or air in recent days, and are suffering heavy losses.

In an intelligence update on social media. It says Ukrainian resistance remains “staunch and well-coordinated.” It says most of Ukraine’s territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukraine’s hands.

Earlier, U.K. defence officials said Russia had probably used up “far more stand-off air launched weapons than originally planned” during its three-week invasion, and was resorting to older, less precise weapons more likely to cause civilian casualties.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials say the status of people sheltering in a theatre 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 Theatre. He rejected the claims by the Russian military that the Azov battalion was headquartered in the theatre, 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 theatre 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 Defence 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 UN 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 neighbour.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians. Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine is a threat to us all,” tweeted the UN 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.

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser Mikhailo Podolyak said Ukraine demanded a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and legal security guarantees for Ukraine from a number of countries.

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

An official in Zelensky’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.

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Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv contributed to this report.

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

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

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

Araúz said 10 Panama-flagged ships were 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.

Panama leads the world in registered merchant ships and has advised its merchant fleet to be on high alert in Ukrainian and Russian waters.

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Pioneer Jury is a qualified writer and a blogger, who loves to dabble with and write about technology. While focusing on and writing on tech topics, his varied skills and experience enable him to write on any topic related to tech which may interest him. [email protected]

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