Live updates | Mayor: Some 1,500 killed in Sievierodonetsk

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KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk is the center of fierce fighting in the east. Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk says it’s holding out even though a Russian reconnaissance and sabotage group went into a city hotel.

Stryuk said at least 1,500 people have been killed in Sievierodonetsk and about 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, where he said 60% of residential buildings have been destroyed.

Sievierodonetsk is the only part of the Luhansk region in the Donbas under Ukrainian government control, and Russian forces have been trying to cut it off from the rest of Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Stryuk said the main road between the neighboring town of Lysychansk and Bakhmut to the southwest remains open, but travel is dangerous.

He said only 12 people were able to be evacuated Thursday.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

Russia slams sanctions, seeks to blame West for food crisis

— ‘This tears my soul apart’: A Ukrainian boy and a killing

— West mulls having Russian oligarchs buy way out of sanctions

US aims to leverage Russia-Ukraine bloc against China

Russia takes steps to bolster army, offer some Ukrainians citizenship

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Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with the West on Thursday to send multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine as soon as possible to give it a chance against the Russian offensive in the eastern Donbas.

“We are fighting for Ukraine to be provided with all the weapons needed to change the nature of the fighting and start moving faster and more confidently toward the expulsion of the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation.

He said Russian forces are wiping some eastern towns from the face of the Earth and the region could end up “uninhabited.”

“They want to turn Popasna, Bakhmut, Lyman, Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk into ashes as they did with Volnovakha and Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said.

In the shelling Thursday of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Zelenskyy said at least nine people were killed and 19 wounded. Among those killed was a five-month-old baby and the infant’s father with the child’s mother seriously injured.

Zelenskyy also had harsh words for members of the European Union who are resisting imposing even tougher sanctions on Russia including a ban on the import of Russian oil and gas, the major source of revenue for Moscow.

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WASHINGTON — The move to reopen the U.S. embassy in Ukraine has brought one American military officer back into the country as part of the diplomatic team. But the Pentagon said Thursday that no other troops are going into Ukraine at this point.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the defense attache, a colonel, has gone back to Kyiv with other embassy staff. The defense attache, while a military officer, reports to the chief of mission and is there for diplomatic work, not security.

There have been ongoing questions about whether the U.S. will send a Marine security detachment back to the embassy. Kirby said that so far, the State Department is handling embassy protection with diplomatic security personnel and has not asked for Marines.

“Nothing has changed about the president’s direction that US troops will not be fighting in this war in Ukraine,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. He said active discussions about security are ongoing with the State Department.

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KOTELVA, Ukraine — Two Russian soldiers accused of war crimes in Ukraine appeared at a second trial hearing in the northeastern town of Kotelva.

The Russian servicemen, Alexander Alexeevich Ivanov and Alexander Vladimirovich Bobykin, are charged with shelling civilian infrastructure with a multiple rocket launcher. Both soldiers pleaded guilty at the hearing held at the Kotelevsky District Court.

If convicted, the servicemen could face up to 12 years in prison.

Their defense attorney asked for eight years, saying the two were only following their officers’ orders.

Asked if they wanted to make any declarations at the end of the hearing, Bobykin said: “I admit what I did, I regret the actions our troops committed, I believe that in the future the war will end and the peace we are all waiting for will come.”

Ivanov made no comment.

The trial is adjourned to May 31.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday he was forming a southern military command and sending battalion tactical groups to the area that borders Ukraine.

Lukashenko did not give details, but battalion tactical groups typically consist of mechanized infantry including tanks. The territory of Belarus was used for rocket attacks on Ukraine, but the military of Belarus did not take part in the Russian ground operation.

Ukrainian authorities have expressed concern that Belarus may agree to a wider participation in the war.

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BERLIN — Western allies are considering whether to allow Russian oligarchs to buy their way out of sanctions and using the money to rebuild Ukraine, according to government officials familiar with the matter.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland proposed the idea at a G-7 finance ministers’ meeting in Germany last week.

Freeland raised the issue after oligarchs spoke to her about it, one official said. The Canadian minister knows some Russian oligarchs from her time as a journalist in Moscow.

The official said the Ukrainians were aware of the discussions. The official said it’s also in the West’s interests to have prominent oligarchs dissociate themselves with Russian President Vladimir Putin while at the same time providing funding for Ukraine.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal G-7 discussions.

— By Rob Gillies and Frank Jordans

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KYIV — Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has become the latest European leader to visit Ukraine.

Marin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday in Kyiv.

Finnish public broadcaster YLE says she also visited the towns of Bucha and Irpin where Russian soldiers are alleged to have killed civilians.

Zelenskyy thanked Marin for Finland’s weapons deliveries and its support for sanctions against Russia.

Jolted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland recently broke with its policy of non-alignment and applied for membership in NATO, together with neighboring Sweden.

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MOSCOW — The head of the Russia-backed separatist region in eastern Ukraine says that there may be more Ukrainian fighters hiding at the sprawling Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, even after Moscow officially declared the operation of taking control over it successful and completed.

Denis Pushilin of the Donetsk People’s Republic said of the Ukrainian fighters on Thursday: “They could be hiding....They could be lost somewhere, lagged behind” the ones who surrendered and were captured.

The Russian military declared Azovstal and all of Mariupol “completely liberated” on May 20 and reported that a total of 2,439 fighters had come out of the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the besieged city.

Pushilin says any Ukrainians left behind at the plant don’t pose a threat to the Russian forces.

Russian officials have said the vast territory of the steel mill is being demined. Pushilin said it will be possible to say there is no one left there only after that process is completed, the rubble is cleared and the plant is thoroughly inspected,

“Unfortunately, we already have wounded sapper,” he said. “There are a lot of traps, booby traps. Technically, they had everything for this. Therefore, mine clearance is very thorough.”

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic’s ambassador to Ukraine has returned to Kyiv as his country seeks to reinforce its embassy before it takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said Thursday that the work should help fulfill the priorities of the Czech presidency, which include supporting Ukraine with financial, humanitarian and political aid.

The Czech Republic is among the European nations that support a plan for Ukraine to quickly receive the status of a candidate for EU membership.

The government in Prague closed its embassy in Kyiv on Feb 24 after Russia invaded Ukraine. The embassy, which reopened in the middle of April, currently has five diplomats.

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Russia has started broadcasting its state television news in the ravaged port city of Mariupol and other locations it controls in eastern Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian officials said Thursday.

Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations, or MChS, said it has launched “three mobile complexes for informing and alerting the population” that will be “broadcasting news for two hours in different parts of Mariupol.”

Such mobile units also operate in the city of Volnovakha and the Lyman district of Ukraine's Donetsk province, broadcasting state news shows, “practical information” and cartoons for children, Russian state news agency Tass reported Thursday.

Petro Adnryushchenko, an advisor to Mariupol's Ukrainian mayor, posted on his Telegram channel footage of MChS trucks with TV screens broadcasting Russian news shows to crowds of people in the Russian-occupied city.

“Yesterday, the occupiers launched three mobile propaganda cars and additionally installed 12 75-inch TVs in places of mass gathering — humanitarian aid distribution points, paperwork points and water access points,” he wrote. “The practice of ‘nothing to feed, feed lies’ is gaining momentum.”

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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says the West will fail in its attempts to isolate Russia and face growing economic problems.

Speaking Thursday via video link to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum, Putin said Russia wasn’t going to shut itself off from international cooperation. The forum includes several ex-Soviet nations.

Putin said that trying to isolate Russia is “impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world” and “those who try to do it primarily hurt themselves.”

The Russian leader cited growing economic challenges in the West, including “inflation unseen in 40 years, growing unemployment, rupture of supply chains and the worsening of global crises in such sensitive spheres as food.”

“This is not a joke,” he said. “This is a serious thing that will have an impact on the entire system of economic and political relations.”

He lambasted the West for seizing Russian reserves, saying that “the theft of others’ assets never brought any good.”

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KYIV, Ukraine — A regional governor in eastern Ukraine says shelling of the city of Kharkiv killed at least four civilians.

Kharkiv Gov. Oleg Synyehubov said that another seven residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city were wounded in Thursday’s shelling.

He urged people to stay in shelters, warning that the barrage might continue.

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KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian governor of the eastern Luhansk region says Russian bombardments killed three people in and around the city of Lysychansk, which is a key focus of fighting.

Serhiy Haidai said Thursday that one person was killed in Lysychansk and two in the nearby village of Ustynivka amid a Russian artillery bombardment on Wednesday. He said strikes in the region had hit various targets including private houses and a humanitarian aid center, without specifying how the people died.

Haidai is the Kyiv-backed governor of the Luhansk region, where the Ukrainian government is holding onto a small area around Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in the face of a focused push by Russian forces.

In the northern Kharkiv region, governor Oleh Synehubov said two men ages 64 and 82 had been killed in shelling of the town of Balakliya and 10 other people were injured, including a 9-year-old girl.

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DAVOS, Switzerland — Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov says that not enough strategic steps have been taken in recent years to prevent Europe’s growing dependence on Russian gas and to counter hybrid attacks.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, Petkov said that the war in Ukraine “caused many crises to us because we had allowed ourselves to be dependent on Russia”.

Petkov said that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Europe criticized Moscow but did nothing to reduce its dependence on it.

“While we linked the price of electricity to that of gas, Russia now can not only reduce gas supplies, but also regulate electricity prices in Europe,” he said.

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DAVOS, Switzerland — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has reiterated his conviction that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t win the war in Ukraine.

“He has already failed to achieve all his strategic goals,” Scholz said Thursday in his speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The chancellor said that “a capture of all of Ukraine by Russia seems further away today than it did at the beginning of the war. More than ever, Ukraine is emphasizing its European future.”

In addition, Scholz said Thursday, the “brutality of the Russian war” has prompted two states to move closer to NATO.

“With Sweden and Finland, two close friends and partners want to join the North Atlantic alliance. They are most welcome!” the chancellor said.

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MILAN, Italy — The World Food Program has been pushing to get wheat out of Ukrainian ports to help feed the hungry elsewhere in the world and avert growing food insecurity in vulnerable regions, while also making room for the harvest of grain that has recently been planted.

“We are pushing 100% to get the food that is stuck in that port out. It needs to be a continuous flow, it cannot be a few ships full. We need to get what we can out of there, not just for the Ukrainian economy but to get to people who need it in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan,’’ said WFP spokesman John Dumont.

Dumont was in Odesa a couple of weeks ago, and says the grain silos are full. “They are planting now. Where are they going to put that wheat when it is harvest time at the end of June and July? There is no place for it to go.”

“It needs to get out in a continuous way. It cannot just be a little one-off humanitarian convoy. The Black Sea needs to open.”

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MOSCOW — The Kremlin says it expects Ukraine to see what is happening in the country and to accept Moscow’s demands

Asked Thursday if Russia expects Ukraine to make territorial concessions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied: “Moscow expects the acceptance of its demands and the understanding of the real situation that exists de-facto.”

Russia has previously demanded recognition of its sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. It also is seeking acknowledgement of the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials said in March that the status of Crimea and the separatist regions could be discussed later. In recent weeks, they have toughened their stand and said that Russian troops should pull back to where they were before Moscow launched a military action in Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Speaking in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Peskov said: “Kyiv must acknowledge the de-facto situation and just have a sober assessment of it.”

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says Russian President Vladimir Putin is “trying to hold the world to ransom” by demanding that some sanctions be lifted before Russia allowed Ukrainian grain shipments to resume.

“He’s essentially weaponized hunger and lack of food among the poorest people around the world,” Truss said during a visit Thursday to the Bosnia. “We simply cannot allow this to happen.”

Truss vows that “will do all, with our allies and partners, to get the grain out of Ukraine and supply the rest of the world. “

But she says that the sanctions must stay in place to cut off funding for the war in Ukraine.

“We need to ensure Putin loses in Ukraine,” Truss says.” What we cannot have is any lifting of sanctions, any appeasement, which will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term.”

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MOSCOW — The Kremlin says that the West needs to lift some of its sanctions against Russia for grain shipments from Ukraine to resume.

Western allies have accused Russia of blocking grain exports from Ukraine in a move that is exacerbating food shortages in Africa and other regions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that “we categorically reject the accusations and accuse Western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that has led to the blockade.”

Speaking in a conference call with reporters, he added that the West, in particular, “must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain.”

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MOSCOW — The Russian military says it has destroyed a large Ukrainian unit with equipment at a railway station in the east.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday that the Russian warplanes hit the railway station in Pokrovsk when an assault brigade that arrived to reinforce the Ukrainian forces in the region was unloading there.

Konashenkov also said that the Russian military destroyed Ukraine’s electronic intelligence center in Dniprovske in the southern Mykolaiv region, killing 11 Ukrainian soldiers and 15 foreign experts. His claims couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, the Russian artillery hit over 500 Ukrainian targets, including troops concentrations and artillery positions, he said.

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The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said Thursday that the Russian forces have continued attempts to press their offensive in several sections of the frontline in the east and also launched missile and air strikes at infrastructure facilities across the country.

Rodion Miroshnik, a representative of the separatist Luhansk region in Russia, said that about 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers are currently in captivity in the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions and their number is growing daily by the “hundreds.”

His claims couldn’t be independently verified.

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LONDON — Britain’s military says Russia has suffered substantial losses among its elite units because of “complacency” among commanders and failure to anticipate strong Ukrainian resistance.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense says the airborne VDV has been involved in “several notable tactical failures” since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the attempt to capture and hold Hostomel Airfield near Kyiv and failed attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in eastern Ukraine.

In its daily intelligence update, the defense ministry said the VDV had been sent on missions “better suited to heavier armoured infantry and has sustained heavy casualties during the campaign. Its mixed performance likely reflects a strategic mismanagement of this capability and Russia’s failure to secure air superiority.”

It said “the failure to anticipate Ukrainian resistance and the subsequent complacency of Russian commanders has led to significant losses across many of Russia’s more elite units.”

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