KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities say nearly 5,000 people were evacuated from combat areas Wednesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 1,171 people were evacuated from the besieged Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, and 2,515 more left the cities of Berdyansk and Melitopol and other areas in the south. She said an additional 1,206 people were evacuated from the eastern region of Luhansk.
Vereshchuk and other officials have been urging residents of eastern regions to evacuate in the face of an impending Russian offensive, saying that people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions should leave for safer regions.
Donetsk region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said at least five civilians were killed and eight others wounded by Russian shelling Wednesday.
Over 10 million people, about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, have been displaced by the war, and more than 4 million of them have fled the country.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Mariupol’s dead put at 5,000 as Ukraine braces in the east
— US targets Putin’s daughters, Russian banks in new sanctions
— Burned, piled bodies among latest horrors in Bucha, Ukraine
— Russia’s setback in Kyiv was memorable military failure
— Russian media campaign falsely claims Bucha deaths are fakes
— China calls for probe into Bucha killings, assigns no blame
— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage
UNITED NATIONS — The United States and United Kingdom have boycotted an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Russia to press its baseless claims that the U.S. has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine.
The move by Russia on Wednesday was the latest of several that have led Western countries to accuse Moscow of using the U.N. as a platform for “disinformation” to draw attention away from its war against its smaller neighbor.
U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told the council at two official Security Council meetings called by Russia on the issue last month that the United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons program in Ukraine.
“A smoke screen to draw attention away from the brutal warfare,” “irresponsible,” “dangerous” and “deplorable” were just a few of the responses by countries, including Norway, France, Ireland and Albania.
ROME — Italian Premier Mario Draghi says no embargo of Russian gas is up for consideration at this point as the European Union ponders its next package of sanctions over the war in Ukraine, adding: “I don’t know if it ever will be on the table.’’
Draghi told reporters Monday night that in case a gas embargo is proposed, Italy “will be very happy to follow it” if that would make peace possible.
Draghi added: “If the price of gas can be exchanged for peace … what do we choose? Peace? Or to have the air conditioning running in the summer? This is the question we must pose.”
KYIV, Ukraine — The mayor of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed during the monthlong Russian blockade, among them 210 children.
Mayor Vadym Boichenko said Wednesday that Russian forces have among other targets bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people burned to death.
Boichenko said that more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure has been destroyed by Russian shelling.
The Russian military is besieging the strategic Sea of Azov port, and has cut food, water and energy supplies and pummeled it with artillery and air raids. Capturing the city would allow Russia to secure a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is saluting the international community and some of the largest corporations in the U.S. for further increasing “Russia’s economic isolation.”
Addressing thousands at the North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference at a Washington hotel on Wednesday, Biden said of the Russia-Ukraine war, “There’s nothing less happening than credible war crimes.”
The president said “responsible nations have to come together to hold these perpetrators responsible,” and vowed that “we’re going to stifle Russia’s ability to grow for years to come.”
He said “corporate America’s stepping up for a chance,” noting that 600-plus firms have chosen to leave Russia.
MOSCOW – Russia’s Defense Ministry has accused Ukraine of sabotaging a pre-agreed prisoner swap.
Speaking at a briefing, Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev claimed that Kyiv had “for a long time” blocked prisoner exchanges, including a swap set to take place Wednesday involving 251 military personnel on each side.
He alleged that the delays gave Moscow “all the reasons to suspect that Russian servicemen held in captivity are not at all well.”
On April 1, representatives of the Ukrainian presidential office said Ukraine had secured the release of 86 soldiers, including 15 women, through a swap. This was confirmed by Russian officials on Wednesday.
BRUSSELS — A new U.S. commitment of Javelin missiles means the West soon will have provided Ukrainian fighters with 10 anti-tank weapons for every Russian tank in their country, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
Blinken spoke to U.S. news broadcaster MSNBC after the U.S. announced an additional $100 million for more Javelin missiles for Ukraine. The U.S. says it has provided $1.7 billion for Ukraine’s defense and aid since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pressing the West to provide more weapons, faster, and do more to cut off Russia from the global economy, to pressure Putin to make peace.
“In terms of what they need to act quickly and act effectively, to deal with the planes that are firing at them from the skies, the tanks that are trying to destroy … their cities from the ground, they have the tools that they need,” Blinken said of Ukraine’s forces. “They’re going to keep getting them, and we’re going to keep sustaining that.”
BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s prime minister has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to call an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine but says his country will comply with Russian demands to pay for natural gas imports in rubles.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he had spoken with Putin by phone and urged the Russian leader to end the military conflict in neighboring Ukraine. Orban said he also offered to host a conference in Hungary’s capital between the warring parties.
“I suggested that (Putin) … the Ukrainian president, the French president and the German chancellor hold a meeting here in Budapest, the sooner the better,” Orban said. “It should not be a peace negotiation and not a peace settlement, because that takes longer, but an immediate ceasefire agreement.”
Orban spoke days after his Fidesz party won a fourth consecutive term leading the Hungarian government.
The right-wing nationalist leader, Putin’s closest ally in the European Union, has vehemently refused to supply weapons to Ukraine or allow their transport across the Hungary-Ukraine border. He also lobbied heavily against the EU imposing sanctions on Russian energy imports.
LARNACA, Cyprus — Russian “disinformation” about its war against Ukraine needs to be exposed, including on Russia’s “war crimes,” a U.S. State Department official said on a visit to Cyprus Wednesday.
Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said Russian “lies” have evolved to the point of blaming Ukrainians for actions by Russian forces, including “the war crimes we see on the ground.”
“So we all have an interest in exposing Russian disinformation, ensuring our citizens have the truth and ensuring that Russian citizens also (have the truth) … despite the Iron Curtain that Putin has put down over that,” Nuland said.
Nuland was in Cyprus as part of a five-nation tour aimed at strengthening bilateral ties and rallying support for Ukraine.
LONDON — Britain says it will end imports of Russian oil and coal by the end of the year and ban U.K. investment in Russia as part of a new set of sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
The British government also announced a freeze on the assets of Credit Bank of Moscow and Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and slapped travel bans and asset freezes on eight more wealthy Russians. They included Andrey Guryev, founder of the fertilizer company PhosAgro, and Sergey Sergeyevich Ivanov, president of diamond producer Alrosa.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the measures were coordinated with Britain’s allies. The U.S. also sanctioned SberBank on Wednesday, and the European Union plans to ban imports of Russian coal.
Truss said the sanctions were aimed at “decimating (President Vladimir) Putin’s war machine” and to show “the Russian elite that they cannot wash their hands of the atrocities committed on Putin’s orders.”
Britain had already announced a plan to phase out Russian oil, which accounts for 8% of the U.K. supply. Russia is the top supplier of imported coal to the U.K., though British demand for the polluting fuel has plummeted in the past decade. Britain has not ended imports of Russian natural gas, which accounts for 4% of its supply, saying only that it will do so “as soon as possible.”
UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly plans to vote Thursday on whether to suspend Russia from the U.N.’s premiere human rights body.
The United States initiated the move in response to the discovery of hundreds of bodies after Russian troops withdrew from towns near Ukraine’s capital. Videos and photos of corpses of people who appeared to be civilians have sparked calls for tougher sanctions and war crimes charges against Russia, which has vehemently denied responsibility.
General Assembly spokeswoman Paulina Kubiak said on Wednesday that an emergency special session on Ukraine will resume at 10 a.m. EDT on Thursday, when a resolution “to suspend the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation” will be put to a vote.
The brief resolution expresses “grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly at the reports of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation, including gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights.”
To be approved, the resolution requires a two-thirds majority of assembly members that vote “yes” or “no.” Abstentions don’t count.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department is working with European allies and prosecutors in Ukraine to investigate potential war crimes after Russia’s invasion.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that U.S. prosecutors across the world are working to collect evidence and to “collect the information on atrocities that we have all seen in both photographs and video footage.”
He pointed specifically to photos and videos from Bucha, where Associated Press journalists have witnessed evidence of killings and torture, including charred bodies.
But Garland stopped short of calling for a tribunal like the one set up to hold Nazi leaders to account after World War II. He said a U.S. prosecutors in Paris were meeting with the French war crimes prosecutor, and that other Justice Department lawyers had met with prosecutors in Europe “to work out a plan for gathering evidence with respect to Ukraine.”
WASHINGTON — The U.S. on Wednesday announced that it is sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two adult daughters as part of a new batch of penalties on the country’s political and economic system in retaliation for its “war crimes” in Ukraine.
The U.S. is also imposing toughened “full blocking sanctions” on Russia’s Sberbank and Alfa Bank, two of its largest financial institutions, as well as some Russian state-owned enterprises. President Joe Biden is also signing an executive order to ban new U.S. investment in Russia.
In addition to Putin’s adult daughters, the new sanctions also target the family of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
The U.S. actions are set to be imposed in concert with toughened sanctions by its European allies.
LONDON — A Western official says it will take Russia up to a month to regroup its forces for a major push on eastern Ukraine.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said Wednesday that a “reasonable estimate” would be of three to four weeks before troops that have pulled back from the area around Kyiv and northern Ukraine can be re-equipped and redeployed against the Donbas region in the east.
The official said the Russian units would “have to go through a pretty lengthy period of reconstitution and refurbishment” before they could rejoin the war.
The official said almost a quarter of the Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in Ukraine had been “rendered non-combat-effective” in the fighting and either withdrawn or merged with other units.
The losses and pullback of Russian troops mean “the threat posed to Kyiv is limited for the foreseeable future” from Russian ground troops, the official said.
— AP writer Jill Lawless contributed.
BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Finland and Sweden would be welcomed with open arms should they decide to join the world’s biggest security alliance, as Russia’s war on Ukraine spurs public support in the two Nordic countries for membership.
Russia has demanded that the 30-nation military organization stop expanding, so the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining could anger President Vladimir Putin.
But Stoltenberg says NATO members might be prepared to provide security guarantees for the period from when the two might announce any membership bid and when their applications are approved. He declined to say what kind of protection they might get.
Once members, the two neutral Nordic nations would benefit from NATO’s collective security guarantee, which obliges all members to come to the defense of any ally that comes under attack.
Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday that he is “certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application and the final ratification.”
A poll commissioned by Finnish broadcaster YLE last month showed that, for the first time, more than 50% of Finns support joining the Western military alliance. In neighboring Sweden, a similar poll showed that those in favor of NATO membership outnumber those against.
BERLIN — A German spokesman says the government has information which indicates that bodies found after Ukraine retook Bucha last week had been lying there since at least March 10, when Russian troops were in control of the town.
Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the information was based on non-commercial satellite images taken March 10-18 of Yablonska Street in Bucha.
“Credible information shows that from March 7 to March 30 Russian soldiers and security forces were deployed in this area,” he said. “They were also tasked with the interrogation of prisoners who were subsequently executed.”
Hebestreit said that “targeted killings by units of the Russian military and security forces are therefore proof that the Russian President and supreme commander has at least approvingly accepted human rights abuses and war crimes to achieve his goals.”
“The assertions made by the Russian side that these are staged scenes or they aren’t responsible for the murders are therefore not tenable,” he added.
Asked about the source of this information, Hebestreit said that images reviewed by Germany “were not commercial satellite images.” He declined to elaborate.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norway is following other European nations and expelling Russian diplomats.
Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said Wednesday that three Russian diplomats had carried out activities incompatible with their status.
The timing for the expulsions “was not accidental” and comes “at a time when the whole world is shaken by reports of Russian forces abusing civilians, especially in the city of Bucha,” Huitfeldt said in a statement.
In recent days, numerous European countries have expelled Russian diplomats and staff at Russian diplomatic missions.
GENEVA — The International Committee of the Red Cross says one of its teams in Ukraine has led some 500 people who fled Mariupol in a humanitarian convoy of buses and private cars to a safer location in the embattled country.
The ICRC says its team that has been trying to enter Mariupol since last Friday got within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the besieged city, but security conditions made it impossible to enter. The convoy escorted the civilians from coastal Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia, to the north.
“This convoy’s arrival to Zaporizhzhia is a huge relief for hundreds of people who have suffered immensely and are now in a safer location,” said Pascal Hundt, ICRC’s head of delegation in Ukraine. “It’s clear, though, that thousands more civilians trapped inside Mariupol need safe passage out and aid to come in.”
He said the Geneva-based organization remains available as “a neutral intermediary” to help escort civilians out of Mariupol “once concrete agreements and security conditions allow it.”
LONDON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of using hunger as a weapon of war by deliberately targeting Ukraine’s essential food supplies.
In an address to Irish lawmakers Wednesday, Zelenskyy said Russian forces “are destroying things that are sustaining livelihoods” including food storage depots, blocking ports so Ukraine could not export food and “putting mines into the fields.”
“For them hunger is also a weapon, a weapon against us ordinary people,” he said, accusing Russia of “deliberately provoking a food crisis” in Ukraine, a major global producer of staples including wheat and sunflower oil.
He said it would have international ramifications, because “there will be a shortage of food and the prices will go up, and this is reality for the millions of people who are hungry, and it will be more difficult for them to feed their families.”
Zelenskyy spoke by video to a joint session of Ireland’s two houses of parliament, the latest in a string of international addresses he has used to rally support for Ukraine.
BRUSSELS — A senior European Union official says the bloc’s member countries should think about ways of offering asylum to Russian soldiers willing to desert Ukraine battlefields.
European Council president Charles Michel on Wednesday expressed his “outrage at crimes against humanity, against innocent civilians in Bucha and in many other cities.”
He called on Russian soldiers to disobey orders.
“If you want no part in killing your Ukrainian brothers and sisters, if you don’t want to be a criminal, drop your weapons, stop fighting, leave the battlefield,” Michel, who represents the bloc’s governments, said in a speech to the European Parliament
Endorsing an idea previously circulated by some EU lawmakers, Michel added that granting asylum to Russian deserters is “a valuable idea that should be pursued.”
BEIJING — China says the reports and images of civilian deaths in the Ukrainian town of Bucha are “deeply disturbing” and it is calling for an investigation.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday that China supports all initiatives and measures “conducive to alleviating the humanitarian crisis” in the country and is “ready to continue to work together with the international community to prevent any harm to civilians.”
The killings in Bucha may serve to put further pressure on Beijing over its largely pro-Russian stance and attempts to guide public opinion over the war.
China has called for talks while refusing to criticize Russia over its invasion. It opposes economic sanctions on Moscow and blames Washington and NATO for provoking the war and fueling the conflict by sending arms to Ukraine.
Zhao’s remarks echo those the previous day of China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, who called for an investigation, describing the reports and images of civilian deaths in Bucha as “deeply disturbing.”