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Ukraine calls for evacuation of wounded fighters as war rages on


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KYIV – Highly complex talks are underway to evacuate large numbers of wounded soldiers from a beleaguered steel mill in the strategic southeast port of Mariupol in exchange for the release of Russian prisoners of war, the president says Ukrainian.

Mariupol, which has seen the heaviest fighting in nearly three months of war, is now in Russian hands, but hundreds of Ukrainian defenders are still holding out at the Azovstal steelworks despite weeks of heavy Russian bombardment.

Fierce Ukrainian resistance, which analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals did not anticipate when they launched the invasion on February 24, has slowed and in some places also reversed Russian advances elsewhere. in Ukraine.

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In addition to losing a large number of men and a lot of military equipment, Russia is reeling from economic sanctions. The major Western economies of the Group of Seven pledged in a statement on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and supply more arms to Ukraine.

The war has also prompted Finland and most likely Sweden to abandon their long-cherished military neutrality and seek NATO membership, a move championed by Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in a phone call to Putin on Saturday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the plight of those stranded at the Azovstal site in a late-night speech.

“At the moment, very complex negotiations are going on on the next phase of the evacuation mission – the evacuation of the seriously injured, of the doctors,” he said, adding that “influential” international intermediaries were involved in the talks.

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Russia, which initially insisted that the defenders of the sprawling Soviet-era bunkers under the steelworks surrender, has said little publicly about the talks.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local television on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating around 60 people, including the most seriously injured as well as medical personnel.

DIPLOMATIC tremors

Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has shaken European security. Ukraine and its Western allies say the claim of fascism is a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.

Finn Niinisto told Putin that his country, which shares a 1,300 km (800 mile) border with Russia, wanted to join NATO to boost its security after the invasion of Ukraine, in what the office of the Finnish leader called it a “direct and straightforward” conversation. “without aggravation”.

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Putin told Niinisto it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality, the Kremlin said, adding that the move could damage bilateral relations.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, quoted by Russian news agencies, said Moscow had no hostile intentions towards Finland and Sweden, but would take “adequate precautionary measures” if NATO was deploying nuclear forces and infrastructure closer to the Russian border.

Russian Su-27 fighter jets took part in exercises to repel a simulated airstrike on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea that borders Poland and Lithuania, the Interfax news agency reported on Saturday, citing the Baltic Sea Fleet.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke to Putin by phone on Friday, said he detected no signs of a change in the Russian leader’s thinking on the conflict.

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In an interview for the t-online news site published on Saturday, Scholz also said Western sanctions against Russia would remain in place until it reaches an agreement with Ukraine, adding: “Our goal is that this invasion fails”.

Meeting in Germany, the foreign ministers of the group of rich countries of the G7 supported Friday the granting of aid and arms to Ukraine.

In their statement on Saturday, the G7 ministers – from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada – also pledged to “accelerate our efforts to reduce and end dependence on Russian energy supplies”.

HACKED BODIES

Despite Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have made steady progress in southern Ukraine and the eastern Donbass region.

“We are entering a new and long phase of the war,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a Facebook post, predicting extremely difficult weeks in which Ukraine would be largely alone against an “enraged aggressor “.

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In its latest bulletin, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces struck Ukrainian command posts, ammunition depots and other military equipment in several regions, including Donbass, killing at least 100 Ukrainian “nationalists”. .

Reuters could not independently verify the report.

In a grim illustration of the toll on Russian forces, Reuters footage on Friday showed the bodies of Russian soldiers being brought to a marshalling yard outside kyiv and piled with hundreds of others on a refrigerated train, awaiting the moment where they can be sent. back to their families.

“Most of them were brought from the Kyiv region, there are some from the Chernihiv region and some other regions as well,” Volodymyr Lyamzin, the chief civil-military liaison officer, told Reuters. as stretcher-bearers in white, from head to toe. protective suits lifted body bags into boxcars.

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He said refrigerated trains stationed in other parts of Ukraine were being used for the same sinister purpose.

Moscow has imposed a military-civilian administration in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, and plans to hold a referendum there on whether to join the Russian Federation, mirroring similar votes held in the adjacent peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and in two regions of Donbass.

Russia would almost certainly manipulate the results of such a vote, the UK Ministry of Defense said.

Ukrainian forces drove their enemies out of the second-largest city, Kharkiv, near the Russian border, but Moscow was still shelling nearby villages, including Dergachi, about 10 km (six miles) north of Kharkiv.

“I can’t call it anything other than a terrorist act,” Dergachi Mayor Vyacheslav Zadorenko told Reuters after missiles hit a building used to distribute aid.

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Tom Balmforth, Idrees Ali, David Ljunggren and Reuters bureaus; writing by Gareth Jones; editing by William Mallard and David Clarke)

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