ZAPORIZHZHIA: Russian-announced cease-fire was due to begin Thursday at the besieged steel plant in the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol, to allow civilians to flee even as its defenders vowed to fight to the end. The three-day halt in Russia’s attack on the Azovstal steelworks was announced as EU member states debated a proposed ban on Russian oil, the bloc’s toughest move yet over Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor. The EU also pledged to “significantly increase” support for Ukrainian neighbor Moldova, where a series of attacks in a Russia-backed separatist region has sparked fears a war that has killed thousands could spread more than two months after it began. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said the bloc would “phase out Russian supply of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year,” a move that would still not touch its huge gas exports. But within hours, Hungary — whose populist leader Viktor Orban is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s few EU partners — said it could not support the plan “in this form,” as it would “completely destroy” the security of its energy supply. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hit back that EU countries blocking an oil embargo would be “complicit” in Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. Ukraine’s allies have sent money and, increasingly, heavy weapons to Kyiv to help it defend itself in a war US President Joe Biden has framed as a historic battle for democracy. Biden said Wednesday he was “open” to imposing more sanctions on Russia and would be discussing measures with allies from the Group of Seven democracies in the coming days. But despite severe blows to its economy and the thwarting of its early war goals, Russia continues to steadily pound away at Ukraine’s embattled eastern defenses. After failing to capture Kyiv, Russia’s military campaign is now focused on uniting separatist pro-Russian areas in the east with Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014. The strategic southern port of Mariupol has become an emblem of the suffering of the war, with an untold number of dead and basic supplies cut off as Moscow carried out a scorched-earth campaign to wrest control. The last Ukrainian soldiers are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks, where Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said there was heavy fighting Wednesday. Russia was attacking with heavy artillery, tanks, planes and ships off the coast, he told Ukrainian television. “There are local residents there, civilians — hundreds of them there,” he added. “There are children waiting for rescue. There are more than 30 kids.” Russia’s defense ministry announced a daytime cease-fire for three days beginning Thursday to evacuate civilians from the plant. “The Russian armed forces will open a humanitarian corridor from 08:00 to 18:00 Moscow time (0500 to 1500 GMT) on May 5, 6 and 7 from the site of the Azovstal metallurgical plant to evacuate civilians,” the ministry said. In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price voiced skepticism about the cease-fire, saying Moscow had repeatedly resumed shelling after announcing pauses. Denys Prokopenko, commander of the nationalist Azov regiment, meanwhile, vowed to never surrender the plant. “The situation is extremely hard. However, we will continue carrying out the order to keep up our defenses no matter what,” he said in a video. The second stage of Mariupol evacuation operations had brought 344 newly freed people to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday. “They will all receive the necessary help, they will all receive the most attentive care from the government,” Zelensky said in a video address, adding the looming Azovstal cease-fire was desperately needed to free trapped civilians. “It takes time to just lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters,” he said. “In the current conditions, we cannot use special equipment to clear the debris. Everything is done manually.” Ukraine’s military intelligence has accused Russia of planning to hold a parade in Mariupol on May 9 to celebrate victory over the Nazis in World War II. But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made no mention of a celebratory march in the city in a briefing on the army’s plan for May 9. As the focus of Russia’s invasion has moved to Ukraine’s east, there is a steady build-up of tension, with lower-intensity but explosive strikes in some areas and increased fighting in others. In a no-man’s-land near the southeastern town of Pokrovska, the two sides are only a few kilometers apart — so close that Ukrainian troops with binoculars can see the Russians digging at their positions. The deep thump of artillery exchanges comes on top of the odd rocket salvo, yet Ukrainian soldiers told AFP during a visit Wednesday that there was almost no face-to-face fighting. “As for now, they never come on foot, only artillery,” said soldier Dmytro Sirenko, 40, as he peered in the Russians’ direction across a broad, green expanse of farms, fields and the occasional house. “We have time to entrench ourselves, hide and wait for the possible advance of the enemy,” he said, a rifle in one hand as he stood in a recently dug foxhole. Russian attacks are also periodically straying close to Ukraine’s western border with the EU. Both sides on Wednesday reported Russian strikes on infrastructure around the western city of Lviv, near Poland, and Transcarpathia, a region bordering Hungary. Russia’s defense ministry said that its air and sea-based weapons had destroyed six electrical substations near railways including around Lviv, near Odessa to the south and near Dnipropetrovsk to the southeast. It said Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region had used the railway stations to transport weapons and ammunition from the West. In Ukraine’s western neighbor Moldova, there are fears the conflict will spill over the border. Visiting the tiny ex-Soviet republic Wednesday, European Council President Charles Michel offered the EU’s “full solidarity” and support, including logistics, cyber defense and military equipment. Ukraine has accused Russia of wanting to destabilize Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria to create a pretext for a military intervention. Moscow on Wednesday said its forces had practiced simulated nuclear-capable missile strikes in the Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, located between EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania. The announcement came on the 70th day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has displaced more than 13 million people in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. During the Kaliningrad war games, Russia practiced simulated “electronic launches” of nuclear-capable Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems, the defense ministry said in a statement. Russian President Putin has made thinly veiled threats hinting at a willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons since the invasion of Ukraine and warned of a “lightning-fast” retaliation should the West intervene directly.
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More than 6.5 million people have fled abroad, uncounted thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble. KYIV/SLOVYANSK, Ukraine: Russian forces sought to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin eastern cities straddling a river as President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Moscow was seeking to destroy the industrial Donbas region where it has focused…
More than 6.5 million people have fled abroad, uncounted thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble. KYIV/SLOVYANSK, Ukraine: Russian forces sought to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin eastern cities straddling a river as President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Moscow was seeking to destroy the industrial Donbas region where it has focused its attacks. Russia is attempting to seize the separatist-claimed Donbas’ two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front. Russian forces took control of three towns in the Donetsk region including Svitlodarsk, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told an affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The situation in Donbas is extremely difficult. All the remaining strength of the Russian army is now concentrated on this region,” Zelensky said in a late Tuesday address. “The occupiers want to destroy everything there.” Russia’s defense ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment out-of-hours. The easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle them. “The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, where the two cities are among the last territory held by Ukraine. Ukraine’s military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas where Moscow’s troops had killed at least 14 civilians, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles. Reuters could not immediately verify the information. In a sign of Ukrainian success elsewhere, authorities in its second-largest city, Kharkiv, re-opened the underground metro, where thousands of civilians had sheltered for months under relentless bombardment. The re-opening came after Ukraine pushed Russian forces largely out of artillery range of the northern city, as they did from the capital, Kyiv, in March. WORLD WAR THREE? Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945. More than 6.5 million people have fled abroad, uncounted thousands have been killed and cities have been reduced to rubble. The war has also caused growing food shortages and soaring prices due to sanctions and disruption of supply chains. Both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and other commodities. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen accused Russia of using food as a weapon. Billionaire financier George Soros, also speaking in Davos, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have marked the start of World War III. “The best and perhaps only way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin as soon as possible,” he said. Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday lambasted President Vladimir Putin, casting the Kremlin chief as a doomed madman who was butchering the people of both Ukraine and Russia. “This is a stupid war which your Putin started,” Navalny told an appeals court in Moscow via video link from a corrective penal colony. “This war was built on lies.” Underlining the global tensions unleashed by the war, major US ally Japan scrambled jets on Tuesday after Russian and Chinese warplanes neared its airspace as US President Joe Biden visited Tokyo. Meanwhile, in a decision that could push Russia closer to the brink of default, the Biden administration announced it would not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enabled Russia to pay US bondholders. Russia had been allowed to keep paying interest and principal and avert default on its government debt. Russian lawmakers gave the first stamp of approval to a bill that would allow Russian entities to take over foreign companies that have left the country in opposition to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, a government online portal showed. On Monday, Starbucks Corp. became the latest Western brand to announce it was pulling out of Russia, following a similar decision by McDonald’s. The hamburger chain’s trademark “Golden Arches” were lowered near Moscow on Monday. DRAWN OUT CONFLICT Senior Russian officials suggested in comments on Tuesday the war, which Russia calls a “special operation,” may be drawn-out. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Putin’s security council, said Russia would fight as long as necessary to eradicate “Nazism” in Ukraine, a justification for the war that the West calls baseless. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was deliberately advancing slowly to avoid civilian casualties. Zelensky dismissed such statements as “absolutely unreal.” In Kharkiv, hundreds of people were living underground in trains and stations when the authorities asked them to make way on Tuesday. “Everyone is crazily scared, because there is still shelling,” said Nataliia Lopanska, who had lived in a metro train for most of the war. Russian shelling continued in the city and wider area, regional governor Oleh Sinehubov said. The Donbas fighting follows Russia’s biggest victory in months: the surrender last week of Ukraine’s garrison in the port of Mariupol after a siege in which Kyiv believes tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor now operating outside the city, said the dead were being found in the rubble. About 200 decomposing bodies were buried in debris in a basement of one high-rise building, he said. Residents had refused to collect them and Russian authorities had abandoned the site.
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BEIJING: Uyghurs have urged UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to avoid falling victim to a public relations stunt as her trip to China enters a delicate new phase on Tuesday with a visit to the remote Xinjiang region. The ruling Communist Party is accused of detaining over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities…
BEIJING: Uyghurs have urged UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to avoid falling victim to a public relations stunt as her trip to China enters a delicate new phase on Tuesday with a visit to the remote Xinjiang region. The ruling Communist Party is accused of detaining over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region as part of a years-long security crackdown the United States has labelled a “genocide.” China vehemently denies the allegations, calling them the “lie of the century.” Bachelet is expected to visit the Xinjiang cities Urumqi and Kashgar on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a six-day tour. “I hope she can also ask the Chinese government for the whereabouts of my mother,” said Jevlan Shirememet, adding that he had not been able to contact her in four years. The Turkey-based 31-year-old — from the province’s northern reaches near the border with Kazakhstan — also said he hoped Bachelet would venture further than her itinerary. “I don’t know why she can’t visit these places,” he told AFP. Nursimangul Abdureshid — another Uyghur living in Turkey — was “not very hopeful that her trip can bring any change.” “I request them to visit victims like my family members, not the pre-prepared scenes by the Chinese government,” she told AFP. “If the UN team cannot have unlimited access in Xinjiang, I will not accept their so-called reports.” Regional capital Urumqi — population four million — houses major government bodies believed to have orchestrated the province-wide campaign China described as a crackdown on religious extremism. It is home to a sizeable Uyghur community and was the site of deadly ethnic clashes in 2009 as well as two terrorist attacks in 2014. Meanwhile, Kashgar — home to 700,000 people — lies in the Uyghur heartland of southern Xinjiang. An ancient Silk Road city, it has been a major target of Beijing’s crackdown, researchers and activists say, with authorities accused of smothering the cultural hub in a high-tech security blanket while bulldozing Uyghur homes and religious sites. The outskirts of both cities are pockmarked with what are believed to be detention camps, part of a sprawling network of recently built facilities stretching across the remote province. Campaigners have voiced concern that Chinese authorities will prevent Bachelet from conducting a thorough probe into alleged rights abuses and instead give her a stage-managed tour with limited access. The US has said it is “deeply concerned” that she had not secured guarantees on what she will see, adding that she was unlikely to get an “unmanipulated” picture of China’s rights situation. Speaking in Guangzhou where she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday, Bachelet said she would be “discussing some very important issues and sensitive issues.” “I hope this will help us build confidence, and enable us to work together,” she added. Bachelet also gave assurances on her access to detention centers and rights defenders during a Monday virtual meeting with the heads of dozens of diplomatic missions in China, according to diplomatic sources in Beijing. Caroline Wilson, the UK’s Ambassador to China, was on the call and said she stressed “the importance of unfettered access to Xinjiang and private conversations with its people.” “There is no excuse for preventing UN representatives from completing their investigations,” Wilson wrote on Twitter. Bachelet’s office has also said she will meet with civil society organizations, business representatives and academics. In addition to mass detentions, Chinese authorities have waged a campaign of forced labor, coerced sterilization and the destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage in Xinjiang, researchers and campaigners say. Uyghurs overseas have staged rallies in recent weeks pressing Bachelet to visit relatives believed to be detained in Xinjiang.
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Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy MANILA: Philippines president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday he discussed the extension of a joint military agreement with an envoy of defense ally the United States, after meetings with senior diplomats of four countries. Ambassadors of Japan, India and South Korea and…
Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy MANILA: Philippines president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday he discussed the extension of a joint military agreement with an envoy of defense ally the United States, after meetings with senior diplomats of four countries. Ambassadors of Japan, India and South Korea and the US Chargé d’Affaires made courtesy calls on Monday to Marcos, the son and namesake of the notorious late dictator, following his landslide election victory this month. Marcos, 64, who take office late in June, said he discussed with the US envoy the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and how it would be redefined amid a changing regional landscape, plus funding for climate change mitigation. “We would welcome any assistance for the economy that we can get from the United States,” Marcos told a news conference. “Trade, not aid.” The VFA, which provides a legal framework by which US troops can operate on Philippine soil, was a bone of contention for incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to scrap it. “Security concerns of course has always been a big part of our relationship with the United States,” Marcos said. India’s envoy to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office) Analysts expect Marcos to pursue close China ties, which could complicate relations with former colonial power Washington, his military, and the Philippine public, with which the United States is popular. He last week spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said he wanted bilateral ties to “shift to a higher gear.” Marcos said he discussed aid projects with Japan’s ambassador, microfinance with India and with South Korea, information technology, regional security and the possible reactivation of a disused nuclear plant. South Korea ambassador Kim Inchul during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office) The plant was intended by his late father to be part of his economic modernization legacy, but was mothballed after his overthrow in a 1986 “people power” uprising, two years after completion. Marcos said he asked Arsenio Balisacan, the national anti-trust agency chief, to be economic planning minister, a role he held from 2012 to 2016 under an administration that was a rival to the influential Marcos family.