LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russian forces are blockading Ukraine’s largest cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” with the aim of persuading Ukrainians to cooperate with them.
He says Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in the center and southeast of the country.
“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation, filmed outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office in the lamplight behind him.
He said more than 9,000 people were able to leave besieged Mariupol in the past day, and in all more than 180,000 people have been able to flee to safety through humanitarian corridors.
He again appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold talks with him directly. “It’s time to meet, time to speak,” he said. “I want to be heard by everyone, especially in Moscow.”
He noted that the 200,000 people Putin gathered in and around a Moscow stadium on Friday for a flag-waving rally was about the same number of Russian troops sent into Ukraine three weeks ago.
Zelenskyy then asked his audience to picture the stadium filled with the thousands of Russians who have been killed, wounded or maimed in the fighting.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Russia has attacked the outskirts of the western city of Lviv, a crossroads for people fleeing the war and for others entering to deliver aid or fight.
— President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally in Moscow and praised the Russian military
— President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke as the White House looks to deter Beijing from providing assistance to Russia.
— Rescuers search for survivors at a Mariupol theater hit by Russian airstrike; 130 rescued, hundreds still missing
— An estimated 6.5 million people have been displaced inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million who have already fled the country
— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TODAY:
NEW YORK — Three Russian cosmonauts have arrived at the International Space Station wearing flight suits in yellow and blue colors that match the Ukrainian flag.
The men were the first new arrivals on the space station since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine last month.
Video of one of the cosmonauts taken as the capsule prepared to dock with the space station showed him wearing a blue flight suit. It was unclear what, if any, message the yellow uniforms they changed into were intended to send.
Oleg Artemyev was asked about the yellow flight suits when the newly arrived cosmonauts were able to talk to family back on Earth.
He said every crew chooses its own flight suits, so that they are not all the same.
“It became our turn to pick a color. But in fact, we had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it. So that’s why we had to wear yellow,” he said.
Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergey Korsakov blasted off successfully from the Russia-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan in their Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft at 8:55 p.m. Friday (11:55 a.m. EDT). They smoothly docked at the station just over three hours later, joining two Russians, four Americans and a German on the orbiting outpost.
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukraine lost access to the Azov Sea during Russia’s siege of the southern port city of Mariupol, the Ukrainian General Staff said late Friday.
Mariupol is the key commercial port on the Azov Sea, which is connected to the much larger Black Sea by a narrow strait.
The General Staff said the Russian forces were still trying to storm Mariupol and the fighting was ongoing. It was unclear from its statement whether the Russians have seized the city.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s interior minister said Friday that it will take years to defuse unexploded ordnances after the Russian invasion.
Speaking to The Associated Press in the besieged Ukrainian capital, Denys Monastyrsky said that the country will need Western assistance to cope with the massive task once the war is over.
“A huge number of shells and mines have been fired at Ukraine and a large part haven’t exploded, they remain under the rubble and pose a real threat,” Monastyrsky said. “It will take years, not months, to defuse them.”
In addition to the unexploded Russian ordnances, the Ukrainian troops also have planted land mines at bridges, airports and other key infrastructure to prevent Russians from using them.
“We won’t be able to remove the mines from all that territory, so I asked our international partners and colleagues from the European Union and the United States to prepare groups of experts to demine the areas of combat and facilities that came under shelling,” Monastyrsky told the AP.
He noted that another top challenge is dealing with fires caused by the relentless Russian barrages. He said there’s a desperate shortage of personnel and equipment to deal with the fires amid the constant shelling.
UNITED NATIONS — Russia’s first deputy U.N. ambassador says Twitter has blocked his account, accusing him of “abuse and harassment,” due to a tweet about the maternity hospital in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“This is very deplorable,” Dmitry Polyansky told reporters after a U.N. Security Council meeting Friday, “and this clearly illustrates how much alternative view and free press, and free information is valued by Twitter and in this country.”
Polyansky, who had more than 22,000 followers and was a prolific Twitter user, said he received a message earlier Friday from Twitter’s cloud service saying he was violating Twitter’s rules and was “engaged in abuse and harassment.”
He said Twitter referred to his warning in a tweet on March 7 “that the hospital in Mariupol had been turned into a military object by radicals. Very disturbing that UN spreads disinformation without verification.”
Associated Press journalists, who have been reporting from inside blockaded Mariupol since early in the war, documented the March 10 attack on the maternity hospital and saw the victims and damage firsthand. They shot video and photos of several bloodstained, pregnant mothers fleeing the blown-out maternity ward as medical workers shouted and children cried.
PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to lift the siege of Mariupol, allow humanitarian access and order an immediate cease-fire, Macron’s office said.
Macron spoke with the Russian leader on the phone for 70 minutes. Earlier in the day, Putin had a conversation with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who also pressed for an immediate cease-fire.
Macron, who has spoken numerous times with Putin, revisited complaints over repeated attacks on civilians and Russia’s failure to respect human rights in Ukraine, the presidential Elysee Palace said.
It said that Putin, in turn, laid the blame for the war on Ukraine.
Macron, who is campaigning to renew his mandate in April elections, said during a town hall-style meeting shortly before the call that he talks to Putin because he believes there is a way toward peace, between the Ukrainian resistance, tough Western sanctions and diplomatic pressure. “We must do everything to find it,” he said.
KYIV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian officer in charge of defending the region around the country’s capital says his forces are well positioned to defend the city.
Maj. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk said in an interview with The Associated Press that “the enemy is halted,” adding that “we are improving this system of defensive lines” to make Kyiv “inapproachable for the enemy.”
Despite three weeks of Russian bombardment, Ukraine has kept up a stiff defense of its cities. Fighting continued in Kyiv’s suburbs, depriving thousands of heat and clean water.
“From time to time, the enemy tests our defenses,” said Pavlyuk, a battle-hardened officer who earned his rank by leading Ukrainian troops in the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that erupted in 2014. “But our boys are strong in their positions and also play an active role in preventing the enemy to fulfill their plans.”
Pavlyuk, who has been put in charge of Kyiv’s defenses earlier this week, said that the Russians are using the same tactics as they used in the east to target civilian structures to try to break Ukraine’s resistance.
“That’s why now that war has been transformed into killing civilians, destroying civilian infrastructure, to frighten our people to the maximum,” he said. “But we will never give up. We will fight until the end. To the last breath and to the last bullet.”
UNITED NATIONS — Six Western nations have accused Russia of using the U.N. Security Council to launder disinformation, spread propaganda, and justify its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. And the U.S. is again warning that Moscow’s claim that the U.S. has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine “is really a potential false flag effort in action.”
Friday’s council meeting was supposed to be for a vote on Russia’s draft resolution on humanitarian relief for Ukraine which has been widely criticized for making no mention of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor. Russia instead raised allegations again of U.S. involvement in biological warfare activities, which have been repeatedly denied by both the United States and Ukraine.
The six Western nations — U.S., U.K., France, Albania, Ireland and Norway — delivered a joint statement just before the council session, saying: “This meeting and these lies are designed for one purpose, to deflect responsibility for Russia’s war of choice and the humanitarian catastrophe it has caused.”
They stressed that Russia has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law and has a well-documented history of using chemical weapons — not Ukraine.
“There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories — not near Russia’s border, not anywhere,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
Reiterating the Biden administration’s serious concern of a potential false flag effort, the U.S. envoy said, “We continue to believe it is possible that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people.”
MOSCOW — The head of the Russian delegation in talks with Ukrainian officials says the parties have come closer to an agreement on a neutral status for Ukraine.
Vladimir Medinsky, who led the Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, including this week, said Friday that the sides have narrowed their differences on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status.
“The issue of neutral status and no NATO membership for Ukraine is one of the key issues in talks, and that is the issue where the parties have made their positions maximally close,” Medinsky said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
He added that the sides are now “half-way” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine. Medinsky noted that while Kyiv insists that Russia-backed separatist regions in Ukraine’s east must be brought back into the fold, Russia believes that people of the regions must be allowed to determine their fate themselves.
Medinsky noted that a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is possible after the negotiators finalize a draft treaty to end the hostilities and it receives a preliminary approval by the countries’ governments.
Medinsky also bristled at a recent statement by Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy, who called for disrupting railway links to supply Russian troops in Ukraine, saying it could undermine the talks.
LVIV, Ukraine — The president of Belarus, who has allowed Russia to use his country’s territory to invade Ukraine, says he has no intention to host Russian nuclear weapons.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has beefed up military ties with Moscow after Western sanctions over his crackdown on protests after his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West rejected as rigged. He has
Lukashenko had previously offered to host Russian nuclear weapons, but in an interview with Japanese broadcaster TBS released by his office on Friday, he said he has no such plans.
“I’m not planning to deploy nuclear weapons here, produce nuclear weapons here, create and use nuclear weapons against anyone,” he said, dismissing the allegations of such plans as an “invention by the West.”
Lukashenko said that he had made an earlier statement about a possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus in response to the talk in the West about a possible redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland.
The Belarusian leader noted that the constitutional amendments approved in a vote last month that shed Belarus’ neutral status has no relation to nuclear weapons.
GENEVA — The U.N. migration agency estimates that nearly 6.5 million people have now been displaced inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country.
The estimates from the International Organization for Migration suggests Ukraine is fast on a course in just three weeks toward the levels of displacement from Syria’s devastating war – which has driven about 13 million people from their homes both in the country and abroad.
The findings come in a paper issued Friday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It cited the IOM figures as “a good representation of the scale of internal displacement in Ukraine — calculated to stand at 6.48 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine as of March 16.”
WASHINGTON — There have been no indications that Russia is moving troops out of Syria to bolster its forces in Ukraine, or that any more than a few Syrian fighters have been recruited to join the war, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Friday.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters that he has seen little change in Russian military activities in Syria. And he added that the U.S. military still has and uses a deconfliction phone line with the Russians in Syria, in contrast to the mixed success the U.S. has had in maintaining such contact in connection with the Ukraine war.
“We can always contact them if we have a problem. They’ll always pick up the phone, and we feel that we respond in kind to them,” said McKenzie about the Russians, whose forces in Syria support the regime of President Bashar Assad. “That relationship has been very, very professional.”
McKenzie, who is retiring after three years at the head of U.S. Central Command, said he also has seen no indication that Russia is moving any troops or assets from Syria or central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, to Ukraine. And he said he also has seen no evidence that “the temperature is rising” between Russia and the U.S. in Syria as a result of the Ukraine war.
LONDON — Britain’s defense intelligence chief says Russia is shifting to a ”strategy of attrition” after failing to reach its goals in the invasion of Ukraine.
Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull says Russian forces have changed their approach after failing to take major Ukrainian cities during the three-week invasion.
He said Friday that the battle of attrition “will involve the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis.”
Western officials say Russian forces have enough artillery ammunition to keep up the bombardments for weeks or even longer.
Despite the fact that there have been thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties, Russia denies targeting civilians during what it calls a special military operation in Ukraine.
ROME — For the second time this week, Italy’s financial police have carried out measures to freeze luxurious assets of Russian magnates being sanctioned by the European Union for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The latest action on Friday involved the seaside villa, valued at some 105 million euros ($116 million) and located in the Sardinian town of Portisco, belonging to Alexei Mordaschov, a steel baron, the Italian government said.
Just a few days earlier, a sprawling real estate complex on Sardinia’s coast belonging to Petr Aven, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sequestered. A yacht moored off the Italian Riviera and belonging to Mordaschov was sequestered earlier this month by Italian authorities. That vessel is valued at 27 million euros ($30 million).
ATLANTA — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Friday played down recent comments by the head of Russia’s space agency that the United States would have to use broomsticks to fly to space after Russia said it would stop supplying rocket engines to U.S. companies.
“That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us,” Nelson told The Associated Press. “The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control.”
The war has resulted in canceled spacecraft launches and broken contracts, and many worry Rogozin is putting decades of a peaceful off-planet partnership at risk, most notably at the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is due to leave the International Space Station with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on March 30.
NASA has said Vande Hei’s homecoming plans remain unchanged.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke Friday for nearly two hours via a video call as the White House looks to deter Beijing from providing military or economic assistance for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China’s Foreign Ministry was the first to issue a readout of the conversation, deploring “conflict and confrontation” as “not in anyone’s interest,” without assigning any blame to Russia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a Twitter message called the U.S. position “overbearing.”
Ahead of the call, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would question Xi about Beijing’s “rhetorical support” of Putin and an “absence of denunciation” of Russia’s invasion.
LVIV, Ukraine — Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show the Russian strike on the Lviv airport Friday destroyed the repair hangar just to the west of the north end of its runway. Firetrucks stood parked amid the rubble.
A row of fighter jets near the hangar appeared intact, though an apparent impact crater sat right in front of them. Two other buildings nearby the hangar also appear to have taken direct hits in the strike, with debris littered around them.
The early morning attack on Lviv’s edge was the closest strike yet to the center of the city, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or fight. The war has swelled Lviv’s population by some 200,000.
BERLIN — Switzerland is adopting the latest round of European Union sanctions against Russia targeting luxury goods and banning rating agencies from working with Russian clients.
The Swiss government said Friday that it will echo the EU’s fourth package of sanctions imposed on Russia following its attack on Ukraine.
It said that “the ban on the export of luxury goods contained in the new sanctions affects only a small portion of Switzerland’s global exports of such goods.”
However, it said that “specific companies could be seriously affected,” without naming them.
Unlike the EU and the United States, Switzerland has not yet decided whether to remove Russia from its list of “most favored” trading partners.
MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Officials say 130 people have been rescued from the ruins of a theater that served as a shelter when it was blasted by a Russian airstrike Wednesday in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday that 130 people had survived the theater bombing.
“As of now, we know that 130 people have been evacuated, but according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”
ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s prime minister is offering to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol that was bombed by Russian forces last week.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted Friday that “Greece is ready to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol, the center of the Greek minority in Ukraine.”
Some 100,000 people of Greek origin were living in the besieged city before the Russian invasion.
Mitsotakis called Mariupol “a city dear to our hearts and symbol of the barbarity of the war.”
Associated Press journalists documented the attack and saw the victims and damage firsthand. They shot video and photos of several bloodstained, pregnant mothers fleeing the blown-out maternity ward as medical workers shouted and children cried.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Finnish government has begun posting information in Russian about the invasion of Ukraine.
“We … want to provide Russian speakers with fact-based information from the authorities,” the Finnish government tweeted Friday.
The move comes in the face of a Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign that aims to strengthen domestic support for the invasion and undermine the resolve of Ukrainians.
The website of the Finnish government is available in Finnish and Swedish — the Nordic country’s two official languages — and in English.
President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally Friday at a Moscow stadium on the eighth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Putin, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people waving Russian flags at the Luzhniki Stadium, praised the Russian military for its actions in Ukraine.
“Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” Putin said in a rare public appearance. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
Before Putin spoke, bands played patriotic Soviet songs about national identity and speakers praised Putin as fighting “Nazism” in Ukraine, a claim flatly rejected by leaders across the globe.
Some people, including presenters at the event, wore T-shirts or jackets with a “Z” — a symbol seen on Russian tanks and military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by supporters of the war.
ROME — Pope Francis has denounced the “perverse abuse of power” on display in Russia’s war in Ukraine. He is calling for aid to Ukrainians who he said had been attacked in their “identity, history and tradition” and were “defending their land.”
Francis’ comments, in a message Friday to a gathering of European Catholic representatives, marked some of his strongest yet in asserting Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state and to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
It came just days after Francis told the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, that the concept of a “just war” was obsolete since wars are never justifiable and that pastors must preach peace, not politics.