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Zelenskyy: Russia trying to hide war crime evidence

The Ukrainian leader also said thousands of people are now missing, either dead or deported to Russia.

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia is trying to hide evidence of war crimes to interfere with the international investigation.

“We have information that the Russian troops have changed tactics and are trying to remove the dead people, the dead Ukrainians, from the streets and cellars of territory they occupied,” Zelenskyy said in his daily nighttime video address to the nation late Wednesday. “This is only an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more.”

Zelenskyy added that “it seems that the Russian leadership was really afraid that the global anger over what was seen in Bucha would be repeated after what was seen in other cities.”

The Ukrainian leader also said thousands of people are now missing, either dead or deported to Russia.

Zelenskyy is urging Russian citizens not to be afraid to protest the war.

“If you have even a little shame about what the Russian military is doing in Ukraine, then for such Russian citizens this is a key moment: You have to demand – just demand – an end to the war,” Zelenskyy said.

Russian oligarch hit with charges for sanction violations

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

— Mariupol’s dead put at 5,000 as Ukraine braces in the east

— US targets Putin’s daughters, Russian banks in new sanctions

— Burned, piled bodies among latest horrors in Bucha, Ukraine

— Russia's setback in Kyiv was memorable military failure

— Russian media campaign falsely claims Bucha deaths are fakes

— China calls for probe into Bucha killings, assigns no blame

— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities are urging residents of eastern regions to evacuate in the face of an impending Russian offensive.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on Wednesday called on people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to leave now “when there is still such a possibility.”

Donetsk region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said that at least five civilians were killed and another eight wounded by Russian shelling Wednesday. He also urged civilians to leave for safer regions.

Over 10 million people, about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, have been displaced by the war, and more than 4 million of them have fled the country.

Join our hosts as they take you in and out of courtrooms in the U.S. and beyond.

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WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden is saluting the international community and some of the largest corporations in the U.S. for further increasing “Russia’s economic isolation.”

Addressing thousands at North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference at a Washington hotel on Wednesday, Biden said of the Russia-Ukraine war, “There’s nothing less happening than credible war crimes.”

The president said “responsible nations have to come together to hold these perpetrators responsible,” and vowed that “we’re going to stifle Russia’s ability to grow for years to come.”

He said “corporate America’s stepping up for a chance,” noting that 600-plus firms have chosen to leave Russia.

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MOSCOW – Russia’s Defense Ministry has accused Ukraine of sabotaging a pre-agreed prisoner swap.

Speaking at a briefing, Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev claimed that Kyiv had “for a long time” blocked prisoner exchanges, including a swap set to take place Wednesday involving 251 military personnel on each side.

He alleged that the delays gave Moscow “all the reasons to suspect that Russian servicemen held in captivity are not at all well.

On April 1, representatives of the Ukrainian presidential office said Ukraine had secured the release of 86 soldiers, including 15 women, through a swap. This was confirmed by Russian officials on Wednesday.

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BRUSSELS — A new U.S. commitment of Javelin missiles means the West soon will have provided Ukrainian fighters with 10 anti-tank weapons for every Russian tank in their country, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

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Blinken spoke to U.S. news broadcaster MSNBC after the U.S. announced an additional $100 million for more Javelin missiles for Ukraine. The U.S. says it has provided $1.7 billion for Ukraine’s defense and aid since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pressing the West to provide more weapons, faster, and do more to cut off Russia from the global economy, to pressure Putin to make peace.

“In terms of what they need to act quickly and act effectively, to deal with the planes that are firing at them from the skies, the tanks that are trying to destroy … their cities from the ground, they have the tools that they need,” Blinken said of Ukraine’s forces. “They’re going to keep getting them, and we’re going to keep sustaining that.”

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s prime minister has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to call an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine but says his country will comply with Russian demands to pay for natural gas imports in rubles.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he had spoken with Putin by phone and urged the Russian leader to end the military conflict in neighboring Ukraine. Orban said he also offered to host a conference in Hungary’s capital between the warring parties.

“I suggested that (Putin) … the Ukrainian president, the French president and the German chancellor hold a meeting here in Budapest, the sooner the better,” Orban said. “It should not be a peace negotiation and not a peace settlement, because that takes longer, but an immediate ceasefire agreement.”

Orban spoke days after his Fidesz party won a fourth consecutive term leading the Hungarian government.

The right-wing nationalist leader, Putin’s closest ally in the European Union, has vehemently refused to supply weapons to Ukraine or allow their transport across the Hungary-Ukraine border. He also lobbied heavily against the EU imposing sanctions on Russian energy imports.

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LARNACA, Cyprus — Russian “disinformation” about its war against Ukraine needs to be exposed, including on Russia’s “war crimes,” a U.S. State Department official said on a visit to Cyprus Wednesday.

Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said Russian “lies” have evolved to the point of blaming Ukrainians for actions by Russian forces, including “the war crimes we see on the ground.”

“So we all have an interest in exposing Russian disinformation, ensuring our citizens have the truth and ensuring that Russian citizens also (have the truth) ... despite the Iron Curtain that Putin has put down over that,” Nuland said.

Nuland was in Cyprus as part of a five-nation tour aimed at strengthening bilateral ties and rallying support for Ukraine.

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WASHINGTON — A small number of Ukrainian troops in the United States since last fall for military schooling have been trained on new drones the U.S. is sending to the country for the war with Russia, a senior defense official said Wednesday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a military assessment, said under a dozen Ukraine service members were in the U.S., and that they were taken aside for a couple days for “rudimentary” training on the Switchblade drone. The official said they may get some other basic training while in the U.S. and will be returning to Ukraine relatively soon, as initially planned.

The official also said that over the last 24 hours the U.S. has assessed that all Russian troops have now left Kyiv and Chernihiv, and gone into Belarus or Russia to resupply and reorganize. The estimate is that there were a total of about 40 Russian battalion tactical groups around those two cities.

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The Russians continue to refocus their efforts on the east and the Donbas region, and have at least 30 battalion groups there, the official said. A battalion tactical group usually included 800-1,000 troops, and western officials have estimated that Russia dedicated up to 130 of the battalions to the Ukraine war.

As of Wednesday, the official said that the U.S. has not seen a large influx of additional Russian troops into the east yet, but added that already Ukrainian forces are also moving and adjusting to increased Russian effort in the Donbas.

— AP writer Lolita Baldor contributed.

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LONDON — Britain says it will end imports of Russian oil and coal by the end of the year and ban U.K. investment in Russia as part of a new set of sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The British government also announced a freeze on the assets of Credit Bank of Moscow and Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, and slapped travel bans and asset freezes on eight more wealthy Russians. They included Andrey Guryev, founder of the fertilizer company PhosAgro, and Sergey Sergeyevich Ivanov, president of diamond producer Alrosa.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the measures were coordinated with Britain’s allies. The U.S. also sanctioned SberBank on Wednesday, and the European Union plans to ban imports of Russian coal.

Truss said the sanctions were aimed at “decimating (President Vladimir) Putin’s war machine” and to show “the Russian elite that they cannot wash their hands of the atrocities committed on Putin’s orders.”

Britain had already announced a plan to phase out Russian oil, which accounts for 8% of the U.K. supply. Russia is the top supplier of imported coal to the U.K., though British demand for the polluting fuel has plummeted in the past decade. Britain has not ended imports of Russian natural gas, which accounts for 4% of its supply, saying only that it will do so “as soon as possible.”

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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly plans to vote Thursday on whether to suspend Russia from the U.N.’s premiere human rights body.

The United States initiated the move in response to the discovery of hundreds of bodies after Russian troops withdrew from towns near Ukraine's capital. Videos and photos of corpses of people who appeared to be civilians have sparked calls for tougher sanctions and war crimes charges against Russia, which has vehemently denied responsibility.

General Assembly spokeswoman Paulina Kubiak said on Wednesday that an emergency special session on Ukraine will resume at 10 a.m. EDT on Thursday, when a resolution “to suspend the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation” will be put to a vote.

The brief resolution expresses “grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, particularly at the reports of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation, including gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights.”

To be approved, the resolution requires a two-thirds majority of assembly members that vote “yes” or “no.” Abstentions don’t count.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department is working with European allies and prosecutors in Ukraine to investigate potential war crimes after Russia’s invasion.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday that U.S. prosecutors across the world are working to collect evidence and to “collect the information on atrocities that we have all seen in both photographs and video footage.”

He pointed specifically to photos and videos from Bucha, where Associated Press journalists have witnessed evidence of killings and torture, including charred bodies.

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But Garland stopped short of calling for a tribunal like the one set up to hold Nazi leaders to account after World War II. He said a U.S. prosecutors in Paris were meeting with the French war crimes prosecutor, and that other Justice Department lawyers had met with prosecutors in Europe “to work out a plan for gathering evidence with respect to Ukraine.”

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. on Wednesday announced that it is sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two adult daughters as part of a new batch of penalties on the country’s political and economic system in retaliation for its “war crimes” in Ukraine.

The U.S. is also imposing toughened “full blocking sanctions” on Russia’s Sberbank and Alfa Bank, two of its largest financial institutions, as well as some Russian state-owned enterprises. President Joe Biden is also signing an executive order to ban new U.S. investment in Russia.

In addition to Putin’s adult daughters, the new sanctions also target the family of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

The U.S. actions are set to be imposed in concert with toughened sanctions by its European allies.

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LONDON — A Western official says it will take Russia up to a month to regroup its forces for a major push on eastern Ukraine.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said Wednesday that a “reasonable estimate” would be of three to four weeks before troops that have pulled back from the area around Kyiv and northern Ukraine can be re-equipped and redeployed against the Donbas region in the east.

The official said the Russian units would “have to go through a pretty lengthy period of reconstitution and refurbishment” before they could rejoin the war.

The official said almost a quarter of the Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in Ukraine had been “rendered non-combat-effective” in the fighting and either withdrawn or merged with other units.

The losses and pullback of Russian troops mean “the threat posed to Kyiv is limited for the foreseeable future” from Russian ground troops, the official said.

— AP writer Jill Lawless contributed.

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BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Finland and Sweden would be welcomed with open arms should they decide to join the world’s biggest security alliance, as Russia’s war on Ukraine spurs public support in the two Nordic countries for membership.

Russia has demanded that the 30-nation military organization stop expanding, so the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining could anger President Vladimir Putin.

But Stoltenberg says NATO members might be prepared to provide security guarantees for the period from when the two might announce any membership bid and when their applications are approved. He declined to say what kind of protection they might get.

Once members, the two neutral Nordic nations would benefit from NATO’s collective security guarantee, which obliges all members to come to the defense of any ally that comes under attack.

Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday that he is “certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application and the final ratification.”

A poll commissioned by Finnish broadcaster YLE last month showed that, for the first time, more than 50% of Finns support joining the Western military alliance. In neighboring Sweden, a similar poll showed that those in favor of NATO membership outnumber those against.

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BERLIN — A German spokesman says the government has information which indicates that bodies found after Ukraine retook Bucha last week had been lying there since at least March 10, when Russian troops were in control of the town.

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Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that the information was based on non-commercial satellite images taken March 10-18 of Yablonska Street in Bucha.

“Credible information shows that from March 7 to March 30 Russian soldiers and security forces were deployed in this area,” he said. “They were also tasked with the interrogation of prisoners who were subsequently executed.”

Hebestreit said that “targeted killings by units of the Russian military and security forces are therefore proof that the Russian President and supreme commander has at least approvingly accepted human rights abuses and war crimes to achieve his goals.”

“The assertions made by the Russian side that these are staged scenes or they aren’t responsible for the murders are therefore not tenable,” he added.

Asked about the source of this information, Hebestreit said that images reviewed by Germany “were not commercial satellite images.” He declined to elaborate.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norway is following other European nations and expelling Russian diplomats.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said Wednesday that three Russian diplomats had carried out activities incompatible with their status.

The timing for the expulsions “was not accidental” and comes “at a time when the whole world is shaken by reports of Russian forces abusing civilians, especially in the city of Bucha,” Huitfeldt said in a statement.

In recent days, numerous European countries have expelled Russian diplomats and staff at Russian diplomatic missions.

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GENEVA — The International Committee of the Red Cross says one of its teams in Ukraine has led some 500 people who fled Mariupol in a humanitarian convoy of buses and private cars to a safer location in the embattled country.

The ICRC says its team that has been trying to enter Mariupol since last Friday got within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the besieged city, but security conditions made it impossible to enter. The convoy escorted the civilians from coastal Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia, to the north.

“This convoy’s arrival to Zaporizhzhia is a huge relief for hundreds of people who have suffered immensely and are now in a safer location,” said Pascal Hundt, ICRC’s head of delegation in Ukraine. “It’s clear, though, that thousands more civilians trapped inside Mariupol need safe passage out and aid to come in.”

He said the Geneva-based organization remains available as “a neutral intermediary” to help escort civilians out of Mariupol “once concrete agreements and security conditions allow it.”

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LONDON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of using hunger as a weapon of war by deliberately targeting Ukraine’s essential food supplies.

In an address to Irish lawmakers Wednesday, Zelenskyy said Russian forces “are destroying things that are sustaining livelihoods” including food storage depots, blocking ports so Ukraine could not export food and “putting mines into the fields.”

“For them hunger is also a weapon, a weapon against us ordinary people,” he said, accusing Russia of “deliberately provoking a food crisis” in Ukraine, a major global producer of staples including wheat and sunflower oil.

He said it would have international ramifications, because “there will be a shortage of food and the prices will go up, and this is reality for the millions of people who are hungry, and it will be more difficult for them to feed their families.”

Zelenskyy spoke by video to a joint session of Ireland’s two houses of parliament, the latest in a string of international addresses he has used to rally support for Ukraine.

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BRUSSELS — A senior European Union official says the bloc’s member countries should think about ways of offering asylum to Russian soldiers willing to desert Ukraine battlefields.

European Council president Charles Michel on Wednesday expressed his “outrage at crimes against humanity, against innocent civilians in Bucha and in many other cities.”

He called on Russian soldiers to disobey orders.

“If you want no part in killing your Ukrainian brothers and sisters, if you don’t want to be a criminal, drop your weapons, stop fighting, leave the battlefield,” Michel, who represents the bloc’s governments, said in a speech to the European Parliament

Endorsing an idea previously circulated by some EU lawmakers, Michel added that granting asylum to Russian deserters is “a valuable idea that should be pursued.”

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BEIJING — China says the reports and images of civilian deaths in the Ukrainian town of Bucha are “deeply disturbing” and it is calling for an investigation.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday that China supports all initiatives and measures “conducive to alleviating the humanitarian crisis” in the country and is “ready to continue to work together with the international community to prevent any harm to civilians.”

The killings in Bucha may serve to put further pressure on Beijing over its largely pro-Russian stance and attempts to guide public opinion over the war.

China has called for talks while refusing to criticize Russia over its invasion. It opposes economic sanctions on Moscow and blames Washington and NATO for provoking the war and fueling the conflict by sending arms to Ukraine.

Zhao’s remarks echo those the previous day of China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, who called for an investigation, describing the reports and images of civilian deaths in Bucha as “deeply disturbing.”

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