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Live updates: Zelenskyy mum on specifics of new US aid

March 18, 2022 GMT
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
1 of 19
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

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

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

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

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

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

Rescuers search for survivors at Mariupol theater hit by Russian airstrike; casualties unclear

An American man was among many killed in a Russian attack on the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv

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— Biden flatly calls Putin a war criminal, but investigations for determining that have only begun

— Cheap but lethal Turkish drones bolster Ukraine’s defenses

— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TODAY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have occupied TikTok,” Zelenskyy quipped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The defense minister of NATO member Slovakia says his country would be willing to provide S-300 long-range air defense missile systems to Ukraine under certain conditions.

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

The Soviet-era anti-air defense 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 defenses. He said Slovakia is open to making an arrangement that preserved its defenses 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.”