WASHINGTON — The Pentagon says U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will convene a meeting next week in Germany of defense officials and military leaders from more than 20 countries to discuss Ukraine’s immediate and long-term defense needs.
The Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, said Friday that about 40 nations, including NATO members, were invited and that responses are still arriving for the session to be held Tuesday at Ramstein air base. He did not identify the nations that have agreed to attend but said more details will be provided in coming days.
The meeting comes as Russia gears up for what is expected to be a major offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The agenda will include an updated assessment of the Ukraine battlefield as well as discussion of efforts to continue a steady flow of weapons and other military aid, Kirby said. It will include consultations on Ukraine’s post-war defense needs but is not expected to consider changes in the U.S. military posture in Europe, he said.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Possible mass gravesnear Mariupol shown in satellite images
— EXPLAINER: Why the battle for Mariupol’s steel mill matters
— EXPLAINER: Why Washington is boosting heavy arms for Ukraine
— UN rights chief sees ‘horror story’ of violations in Ukraine
— US to welcome Ukraine refugeesbut no longer through Mexico
— Follow all AP stories on Russia’s war on Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that one serviceman died, 27 more went missing and 396 were rescued after a fire on the flagship missile cruiser Moskva last week.
The statement comes a week after the vessel sunk.
Shortly after the incident, the ministry said the entire crew of the ship, which was presumed by the media to be about 500 people, had been rescued. The ministry did not offer an explanation for the contradicting reports.
Ukraine said it hit the cruiser with a missile strike.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s security chief said Friday that the main battles in the country are taking place in the Donbas, the industrial heartland in the east, with Russia deploying more and more troops every day.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press that over 100,000 Russian troops are currently fighting in Ukraine, including mercenaries from Syria and Libya.
Some of Russia’s elite military units have left the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which was declared “liberated” by the Kremlin on Thursday, and are now moving to the east of the country to participate in the fighting there, Danilov said.
Danilov said a nighttime helicopter delivery brought weapons to Mariupol’s steel mill, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in the city. He urged Ukraine’s Western partners to speed up the delivery of weapons to his country.
UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres plans to meet Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for fighting to stop in Ukraine.
The U.N. chief will travel to Moscow for conversations with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.N. spokesperson Eri Kaneko said Friday. She said discussions about a similar visit to Ukraine are under way.
“He wants to discuss with the leadership steps that can be taken right now in order to silence the guns, in order to help the people and in order to allow the people who need to get out” to do so safely, she said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Guterres is due to meet Tuesday with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and that Putin will also host the U.N. chief.
Guterres asked to meet with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in their respective capitals. Ukraine has welcomed the idea.
Guterres had appealed for a four-day “humanitarian pause” in fighting leading up to Sunday, when Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter.
BUCHAREST, Romania — The Moldovan government strongly criticized comments Friday by a Russian military official suggesting that Russia’s forces are aiming to take control of not just eastern Ukraine but southern Ukraine as well, creating “another way” to the region of Transnistria in Moldova.
Moldova’s government on Friday called Rustam Minnekayev’s comments “not only unacceptable but also unfounded.” The statement added that his words will “lead to increased tension and mistrust in society.”
Minnekayev said at a defense industry event earlier Friday that broader control of Ukraine would open the way to Moldova, where Russia backs the breakaway region of Transnistria.
Transnistria broke away after a short civil war in the early 1990s and is unrecognized by most countries. An estimated 1,500 Russian soldiers have been stationed there since the civil war.
Since Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine on Feb. 24, fears have grown that Moldova could be next in Russia’s crosshairs. Moldova is not a member of the European Union or NATO.
The war has prompted Moldovan officials to try to speed up the country’s bid to join the 27-nation EU, which it applied to do last month. The process, however, will likely take many years.
MOSCOW — Russia’s top diplomat says talks to end the fighting in Ukraine have “ground to a halt,” because Moscow hasn’t received any response from Kyiv to its most recent set of proposals.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference on Friday that “right now, they (talks) have ground to a halt, because another proposal we passed on to Ukrainian negotiators about five days ago, which was drawn up with their comments taken into account, it remains without a response.”
Lavrov also charged that recent statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his advisers suggest “they don’t at all need these talks, they have put up with their destiny.”
However, Vladimir Medinsky, President Vladimir Putin’s aide and Russia’s lead negotiator at the talks with Ukraine, confirmed reports that he held several lengthy conversations Friday with the head of the Ukrainian delegation.
He didn’t offer any details as to what was discussed or if any progress was made.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Russia gave Ukrainian forces inside a Mariupol steel plant the option to surrender, with guarantees to keep them alive.
The comments came during a phone call between Putin and European Council President Charles Michel, according to a readout of the call provided by the Kremlin. Putin also said the Ukrainian forces were offered “decent treatment and medical care.”
“But the Kyiv regime does not allow them to take this opportunity,” Putin charged, according to the Kremlin.
LVIV, Ukraine — A city official in besieged Mariupol says Russian forces are continuing to bomb a massive steel mill where Ukrainian fighters are holed up.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, told The Associated Press on Friday that “every day they drop several bombs on Azovstal, despite false promises not to touch the defenders.” Andryushchenko added that “fighting, shelling, bombing do not stop.”
The Azovstal plant is the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, which the Russians has blocked for nearly two weeks and declared victory over this week. Ukrainian authorities have estimated that 1,000 civilians are inside the plant along with the fighters.
A day after satellite images came to light that indicated mass graves outside the port city in southeastern Ukraine, Andryushchenko said local residents reported that Russian forces were using mobile crematoria at two locations.
Initial estimates said the apparent mass graves could hold up to 9,000 bodies, but Andryuschenko said there could be more.
BERLIN — The International Atomic Energy Agency says its director general will visit the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant next week, on the anniversary of the 1986 disaster there.
The Vienna-based IAEA said Friday that Rafael Mariano Grossi will head a team of experts from the U.N. nuclear watchdog that will be at Chernobyl on April 26, which is 36 years since the day a reactor at the plant exploded.
The IAEA says the team will deliver “vital equipment” and conduct radiological and other assessments at the site, which Russian forces held for five weeks until they withdrew on March 31.
The experts will repair remote monitoring systems that stopped transmitting data to the IAEA’s headquarters at the start of the war.
Grossi said in a statement that the Chernobyl visit “will be followed by more IAEA missions to this and other nuclear facilities in Ukraine in the coming weeks.”
WASHINGTON — Pentagon press secretary John Kirby says assessments show Ukrainian troops are still contesting the southern city of Mariupol despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim of victory in the battle for the city in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, home to coal mines, metal plants and heavy-equipment factories.
Putin on Thursday ordered his troops not to storm a giant Mariupol steel mill where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainians remain holed up but to seal it off — in an apparent bid to free up his troops for the broader campaign in the east.
Kirby said it was “unclear” why Putin did that and Putin’s words need to be viewed with skepticism.
“They made this big show yesterday of him saying he wasn’t gonna go into that plant and try to eradicate the people that are there,” Kirby told CNN on Friday. “I think we have to watch and see what the Russians actually do here. What we would tell you this morning is that we still assess that Mariupol is contested, that it hasn’t been taken by the Russians and that there’s still an active Ukrainian resistance. So they continue to fight for that city.”
SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea’s Foreign Ministry says it’s trying to confirm intelligence that a South Korean citizen who had come to Ukraine as a volunteer fighter to defend the country against the Russian attack has been killed.
The ministry said Friday it received the information from an unspecified foreign government but didn’t immediately provide more details.
The ministry said there were at least four South Koreans who went into Ukraine without government authorization. It pleaded them to quickly return home as the war escalates with Russia’s new offensive in eastern Ukraine.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The three Baltic prime ministers want more sanctions against Russia.
Latvian Prime Minister – Krisjanis Karins pointed out Friday that it is necessary to lessen Russia’s ability to finance its war in Ukraine, and this includes sanctions at the European Union level on all Russian banks and all energy resources, including natural gas and oil.
His Lithuanian counterpart Ingrida Simonyte stressed the importance of continuing to put pressure on the Kremlin by strengthening sanctions. Kaja Kallas of Estonia agreed. They spoke after a meeting of the Baltic Council of Ministers, the Baltic News Service said.
The parliaments of Latvia and Estonia on Thursday adopted a statement on Russia’s war crimes and genocide in Ukraine.
BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is defending his center-left party’s record on relations with Russia against criticism following the war in Ukraine.
Scholz’s Social Democrats have long been proud of the legacy of Cold War rapprochement pursued by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. But critics accuse it of having clung too much to close relations with Russia, particularly over recent years.
Scholz made clear in an interview with weekly Der Spiegel published Friday that he sees no need for the party to chew over its stance, and said that it “doesn’t have to accept” the criticism. He argued that its policies of détente set the ground for overcoming Europe’s Cold War-era division, and said it always backed a strong German military and integration with the West.
Scholz decried what he called “distorting and defamatory portrayals” of the Social Democrats’ policies toward Europe and Russia going back to West Germany’s early post-World War II years.
He did not, however, mention ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s ties with the Russian energy industry, which Scholz has urged Schroeder to end.
KYIV, Ukraine — A top Ukrainian official says no humanitarian corridors for civilian evacuations will be open in Ukraine on Friday because it is unsafe.
In a post on the messaging app Telegram, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk asked people awaiting evacuation from war zones to “be patient” and “hang in there.”
Vereshchuk said Russian forces offered to open a corridor for military surrender but not for an estimated 1,000 civilians sheltering at a steel mill that is the last Ukrainian stronghold in besieged southern city of Mariupol.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday said Moscow was ready at any moment to introduce a “regime of silence” for both the troops and civilians at Azovstal. But Ukrainian troops must raise white flags in determined areas around the plant before evacuations can begin, the ministry said.
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. is looking at sending tanks to Poland to replace the Soviet-era T-72 tanks the Poles are shipping to Ukraine.
Johnson made the comments Friday during a news conference in New Delhi, where he held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I think perhaps what I haven’t said publicly before is we’re also looking more at what we can do to backfill in countries such as Poland who may want to send heavier weaponry to help defend the Ukrainians,” Johnson said. “So we’re looking at sending tanks to Poland to help them as they sending some of their T-72s to Ukraine.”
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the U.K. plans to reopen its embassy in Ukraine’s capital next week.
Johnson announced the planned action on Friday during a trip to India. Diplomats from other European nations have returned to Kyiv since Russian troops withdrew from the capital region to focus on eastern Ukraine.
Johnson made a surprise visit to Kyiv this month to show solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. At the time, the prime minister detailed a new package of financial and military aid, and Zelenskyy said the U.K. had pledged to help rebuild the city after the war.
BERLIN — The U.N. human rights chief says that international humanitarian law appears to have been “tossed aside” in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Geneva-based human rights office said in a statement Friday that “Russian armed forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure — actions that may amount to war crimes.”
The office said its mission in Ukraine so far has verified 5,264 civilian casualties, including 2,345 deaths, since the war began on Feb. 24. It said that 92.3% of those were recorded in Ukrainian government-controlled territory.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet added that “the actual numbers are going to be much higher as the horrors inflicted in these areas of intense fighting such as Mariupol come to light.”
She said that “over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside.”
PRAGUE — The Russian embassy in the Czech capital has a new address after Prague authorities renamed a section of the street where it is located.
Friday’s official ceremony comes after the decision to change the name to “Ukrainian Heroes” was approved by the City Hall at the request of the Prague 6 district where the embassy is located.
Prague’s mayor Zdenek Hrib unveiled the new street sign in the presence of Ukrainian ambassador to Prague, Yevhen Perebyinis, and the ambassadors of several European Union countries.
Hrib previously said the move honors the “unbelievable bravery of Ukrainian fighters.”
Neither the Russian government nor the embassy made any immediate comment on the modification.
Two years ago, Prague renamed a square in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, honoring the slain Russian opposition leader. That modification prompted the embassy to change its address, using the name of the street that has now been renamed.
Russian authorities have opened a criminal case against prominent opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr for allegedly spreading “false information” about the country’s armed forces, his lawyer said Friday.
Russia adopted a law criminalizing spreading false information about its military shortly after its troops rolled into Ukraine in late February, in an attempt to control the narrative around the invasion.
The offense is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Human rights advocates have counted 32 cases under the new law by late April, targeting those critical of the invasion.
Kara-Murza was detained earlier this month and jailed for 15 days for disobeying a police officer. Lawyer Vadim Prokhorov says Kara-Murza was due to appear in court Friday.
Kara-Murza was hospitalized with poisoning symptoms twice, in 2015 and 2017. He is a a journalist and associate of late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
MOSCOW — A Russian military official says a “second phase” of the operation in Ukraine has begun with an aim to establish full control over the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas and southern Ukraine.
Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, on Friday told a defense industry event that the second phase started “just two days ago.” Minnekayev says control over eastern and southern Ukraine “will provide a land corridor to Crimea, as well as influence (over) the vital objects of the Ukrainian economy.”
Russia had previously said it had full control over Ukraine’s southern region of Kherson on the coast of the Azov Sea and partial control over the neighboring southern region of Zaporizhzhia.