Live updates: US officers to help screen refugees in Europe The Denver Post

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. refugee officers have been sent to Europe to help screen Ukrainian refugees who might want to come to the U.S. But American officials expect the vast majority will want to return to their homeland.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas also said that Customs and Border Protection agents along the U.S.-Mexico border have been instructed to allow Ukrainians to enter the country to seek asylum even as most people are turned back under a public health order instituted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. More than half have gone to Poland. Most of the rest are in the surrounding countries of Eastern Europe, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mayorkas told reporters Thursday that U.S. refugee officers have been sent to the region to work with the U.N. and determine whether some Ukrainians may seek to come to the U.S. through the refugee program. But he and other administration officials are not expecting many will want to come.

“The vast majority of Ukrainians are displaced in the countries in that region, with the hope, understandably, of being able to return to their country,” the secretary said.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

— Some survivors emerge from Mariupol theater hit by Russian airstrike; casualties unclear

— Twenty-one people were killed in a Russian attack on a school and community center in northeast Ukraine

— U.N. Security Council to meet ahead of vote on Russian humanitarian resolution

— Biden flatly calls Putin a war criminal, but investigations for determining that have only begun

— Cheap but lethal Turkish drones bolster Ukraine’s defenses

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

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TODAY:

KYIV, Ukraine — A girl in a Kyiv hospital bed appeared stunned and cried during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday.

The unidentified patient told of people offering their support on TikTok.

“We have occupied TikTok,” Zelenskyy quipped.

He presented the girl with a large bouquet of pink and white flowers as soldiers stood guard.

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MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Row upon row of windowless shells of burned and shrapnel-scarred apartment buildings loomed in Mariupol as snow flurries fell Thursday.

One resident told of having nothing to eat and no way to contact her mother in Makiivka, a city 50 miles (80 kilometers) north, to tell her she was alive.

“We are trying to survive somehow,” said the resident, Elena, who didn’t provide her last name. “There is no connection, just nothing. It is cruel. My child is hungry. I don’t know what to give him to eat.”

Cars, some with the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion force in their windows, drove past stacks of ammunition boxes and artillery shells. Others waited in long lines of traffic or got around on foot, pushing carts and baby carriages.

A land mine could be seen on the ground. Smoke rose from the city’s skyline.

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PRISTINA, Kosovo — Kosovo’s president on Thursday asked U.S. President Joe Biden to help Kosovo become a NATO member at a time that Russia is making efforts to destabilize the Balkans.

President Vjosa Osmani sent a letter to Biden saying that “Kosovo’s membership in NATO has become an imperative.”

Kosovo, “the most pro-American and pro-NATO country in the world,” is excluded from NATO enlargement processes, she said in a letter made available to The Associated Press.

Osmani urged Biden to use the U.S. “leadership and influence to actively support and advance the complex process of NATO membership for Kosovo.”

While the world’s eyes are focused on the devastating war in Ukraine, Osmani said that “we must not lose sight of the fragile situation we face in the Balkans.”

“We are exposed to persistent efforts by Russia to undermine Kosovo and destabilize the entire Western Balkans,” she wrote.

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LONDON — Britain’s defense secretary has accused Russia of “dirty tricks” after he was called by an imposter posing as the prime minister of Ukraine.

Ben Wallace said he had ordered an investigation into how the hoax caller was able to speak to him on a video call Thursday.

Wallace said on Twitter that he became suspicious and hung up after the caller “posed several misleading questions.” The call is believed to have lasted about 10 minutes.

Wallace called it a desperate attempt” but said “no amount of Russian disinformation, distortion and dirty tricks can distract from Russia’s human rights abuses and illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

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WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s foreign minister, who is also head of Europe’s security organization, said Thursday that no concessions to aggressor Russia could possibly be made that would undermine Ukraine’s independence or territorial integrity.

“Poland believes it to be unacceptable to offer any kind of concessions to Russia that would undermine the territorial integrity and independence of the Ukrainian state,” minister Zbigniew Rau said following talks with his Spanish counterpart, Jose Manuel Albares Bueno.

Rau, the current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also said that the international community has the right to offer technical as well as military support to Ukraine, in its defensive struggle against Russia’s assault.

Rau’s words seemed to back Poland’s recent proposal for a NATO or an international military peacekeeping mission in Ukraine.

NATO, a military security alliance of 30 nation, insists it cannot have any presence in Ukraine, which is not an alliance member, because that could potentially further aggravate the conflict with Russia.

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ROME — Even as rescuers searched through the wreckage of a theater devastated by Russian airstrikes in Mariupol, Ukraine, Italy has offered to provide the means and the funds to rebuild it when that becomes possible.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini tweeted on Thursday that the government at a Cabinet meeting approved his proposal to supply the assistance.

“The theaters of all countries belong to all of humanity,’ the minister said.

Rescue efforts were being conducted to find survivors in the wreckage. Hundreds of civilians in the besieged city had taken refuge in the theater basement and were trapped when the airstrikes collapsed the building onto their shelter. By late Thursday, it was still unknown if there were deaths or injuries.

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BERLIN — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading economies are calling on Russia to comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw its military forces.

In a joint statement, the G-7′s top diplomats condemned what they described as “indiscriminate attacks on civilians” by Russian forces including the siege of Mariupol and other cities.

They accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of conducting an “unprovoked and shameful war” that has forced millions to flee their homes and resulted in the destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, theatres and schools.

The G-7 said that “those responsible for war crimes, including indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians, will be held responsible” and welcomed work to investigate and gather evidence in this regard, including by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The group also said it stood ready to further increase the pressure of sanctions on Ukraine and provide further aid to those in need, including the small nation of Moldova. Moldova is offering shelter to the largest group of refugees from Ukraine per capita.

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GENEVA — The exiled opposition leader of Belarus is decrying a change in the country’s constitution under autocratic pro-Russian President Alexander Lukashenko, calling it “illegal” and expressing concerns that it could lift barriers on deploying nuclear weapons into Belarus.

Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya accused Lukashenko of going against the will of Belarussians who “want to maintain a non-nuclear status.”

The comments Thursday to the U.N. press association, ACANU, in Geneva came as concerns have mounted about that possibility that Russia’s war in Ukraine could involve the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Some Russian forces entered Ukraine through Belarus as the war began on Feb. 24.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said the constitutional change in Belarus could expedite the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. If it involved outfitting fighter planes, Fihn said, “it could happen within a couple of days.”

The new constitution, adopted last month with amendments that took effect on Tuesday, sheds Belarus’ neutral status and opens the way for even bigger military cooperation with Russia but doesn’t directly deal with the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons. Lukashenko has previously offered to host Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus.

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MADRID — Spanish authorities have ordered for a third luxury yacht believed to be owned by a Russian oligarch to not leave its ports.

Spain’s Civil Guard has acted on orders from maritime authorities to not let the “Crescent” super yacht leave the port of Tarragona, police told The Associated Press.

The 135-meter yacht is reportedly owned by Igor Sechin, the head of Russian oil company Rosneft. The European Union has placed sanctions on Sechin because he is “one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted and closest advisors, as well as his personal friend.”

This follows orders by Spanish authorities to hold the “Valerie” in Barcelona’s port and “Lady Anastasia” in Mallorca earlier this week, police said.

All three vessels are believed to be owned by Russian magnates with close ties to Putin.

The remain-in-port orders come after the superyacht “My Solaris” linked to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich left Barcelona’s port. It was later seen off Montenegro.

Authorities in Italy, France and other countries have impounded several luxury vessels as a global crackdown in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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HELSINKI — Estonia’s defense ministry says the United States has earmarked $180 million in military assistance to the Baltic NATO members of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania this year under a scheme entitled the Baltic Security Initiative.

The ministry said on Thursday that a budget package approved by the U.S. Congress represents an increase of more than $10 million from last year in security assistance to the three former Soviet republics which all border Russia and have assisted Ukraine with arms and material help after the start of Moscow’s invasion.

“The United States has demonstrated clear initiative in the current security crisis, both in supporting its NATO Allies in the East, as well as Ukraine, and in bringing the actions of Russia to the attention of the international community,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet said.

“The decision by Congress shows that the United States is committed to the defense of our region and clearly understands that the defense of their own country is connected with the Baltic countries,” Laanet said.

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WASHINGTON — President Biden denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brutality” during a Thursday meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin.

“Putin’s brutality and what his troops are doing in Ukraine is just inhumane,” Biden said.

The meeting on St. Patrick’s Day was supposed to be held in person in the Oval Office, but it occurred virtually because Martin tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday evening. The positive result forced him to leave early from a gala where he had already interacted with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Biden said Martin was “looking good, feeling good.” Martin was staying across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House, the customary guest quarters for visiting foreign leaders.

During their conversation, Martin thanked Biden for “your capacity to marshal like-minded democracies,” which he said are “coming together to respond in an unprecedented way.”

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The defense minister of NATO member Slovakia says his country would be willing to provide S-300 long-range air defense missile systems to Ukraine under certain conditions.

Defense Minister Jaroslav Naj’ said at a news conference in Bratislava with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the matter is still under discussion.

The Soviet-era anti-air defense systems use long-range missiles that are capable of flying hundreds of miles and knocking down cruise missiles as well as warplanes. They could be valuable in thwarting Russian air attacks on Ukraine.

Naj’ said such a transfer would be possible if his country received a “proper replacement” for its S-300s or if Slovakia received a “capability guaranteed for a certain period of time.”

He stressed that he could not responsibly transfer the S-300s to Ukraine in a manner that left a gap in his country’s defenses. He said Slovakia is open to making an arrangement that preserved its defenses against air threats.

Austin declined to say whether the Pentagon was in a position to provide Slovakia with a replacement for its S-300s. “These are things that we will continue to work with all of our allies on, and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue, it’s a NATO issue.”

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RENA, Norway — The head of NATO’s military committee said that western Alliance soldiers know well that they are attending a vast exercise in southern Norway opposite their Russian colleagues who thought they were attending a drill but participated in the invasion of Ukraine.

“If you ask the soldiers here what they are here to defend, I think you will get a different answer than from the Russian soldiers in Ukraine,” Adm. Rob Bauer told reporters. “They were thinking they were participating in an exercise, and they are now killing Ukrainians.”

The NATO exercise, Cold Response, includes about 30,000 troops from over 25 countries from Europe and North America in NATO-member Norway that shares a nearly 200-kilometer (124-mile) land border with Russia.

The drill was not linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but “takes place against a dark backdrop,” Bauer said. “It has been 22 days since Russia has again invaded Ukraine, and again, in breaking international law. Therefore, for us, it is even more important to prepare for the worst and expect the unexpected.”

Russia has declined to be an observer at the exercise that aims at having Alliance members and partners practicing working together on land, in the air and at sea, said the armed forces.

The drill, which is held every two years, is due to end April 1.

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TOKYO — Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi held talks Thursday with ambassadors from Visegrad Group of four European nations in Tokyo, pledging to step up Japan’s cooperation in support of Ukraine.

Hayashi praised ambassadors from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Slovakia for their countries’ support for Ukrainian refugees, and pledged to provide $100 million in humanitarian aid. He repeated Japan’s condemnation against Russian invasion as a serious violation to international law and promised to impose tough sanctions against Moscow.

Visegrad Group, launched in 1991 as a regional framework, is increasingly cooperating with Japan as “V4 plus Japan” through meetings of leaders, foreign ministers and working level dialogue, according to the foreign ministry.

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MEREFA, Ukraine — Twenty-one people have been killed by Russian artillery that destroyed a school and a community center in Merefa, near the northeast city of Kharkiv, officials said.

Merefa Mayor Veniamin Sitov said the attack occurred just before dawn on Thursday.

The Kharkiv region has seen heavy bombardment as stalled Russian forces try to advance in the area.

In the city of Chernihiv, northeast of Kyiv, Ukraine’s emergency service says a hostel was shelled, killing a mother, father and three of their children, including 3-year-old twins.

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TEL AVIV, Israel – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech to members of Israeli’s parliament will be shown on national television and aired live in downtown Tel Aviv.

The address Sunday is part of his drive to rally popular and official support for Ukraine against Russia’s three-week invasion.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai tweeted that he offered to link the speech to Habima Square in the heart of Tel Aviv “so that the entire public can listen to the president’s words live.”

Israel’s ties with both Russia and Ukraine run deep. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has managed to leverage Israel’s good relations with both countries and his personal rapport with their leaders to turn himself into an unexpected mediator, one of the few world leaders to speak regularly to both sides.

And Zelenskyy, who is Jewish and has tailored his speeches to various audiences, appears to have an affinity for Israel. Both countries have large Jewish communities.

More than 1 million Jews from the region have moved to Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. The Israeli and Russian militaries have maintained close communications in recent years to prevent clashes in the sky over Syria.

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BERLIN — A bear evacuated from an animal rescue center near Kyiv has arrived safely at a sanctuary in northern Germany.

The Animal Protection Association of Schleswig-Holstein state said Thursday that Malvina, an Asian black bear, was among several bears evacuated from Ukraine to Germany in recent days.

The 7-year-old bear had lived for years in a private zoo in eastern Ukraine before local animals rights activists managed to get her transferred to the White Rock Bear Shelter outside Kyiv run by the group Safe Wild.

Keepers plan to let Malvina join two other Asian black bears, also known as moon bears, already housed at the shelter in Weidefeld near Germany’s Baltic Sea coast.

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LONDON — A group of Ukrainian lawmakers says Britain should press allies including France and Germany to do more to help Ukraine defeat Russian invasion.

Four female Ukrainian parliament members, who are meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London on Thursday, urged the U.K. to step up military support to Ukraine and increase economic pressure on Russia.

“We wish that you could also pressure France and Germany to do more,” said Alona Shkrum of the Batkivshchyna Party.

Shkrum, who spent two and a half days traveling from Kyiv to the U.K., including a 12-hour journey by back roads to western Ukraine, also called for more public pressure on companies still operating in Russia to leave.

“Every dollar, every ruble they make right now goes just to the army and to the Russian soldiers killing Ukrainian kids,” she said.

Ukrainian lawmakers are currently barred from leaving the country, but the women were given permission by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the trip.

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russia’s Vladimir Putin about the latest developments of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Erdogan stressed that some issues could be resolved through a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and repeated his offer to host them in Istanbul or Ankara, according to a read-out released by the Turkish presidency’s communications directorate.

Erdogan added his hopes that a lasting cease-fire “would open the path to a long-term solution” and emphasized the importance of diplomacy. He also added humanitarian corridors should function in both directions effectively and without issues, according to the statement.

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PARIS — Europe won’t be attempting to send its first rover to Mars this year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,

The European Space Agency confirmed Thursday that it is indefinitely suspending its ExoMars rover mission with partner Roscosmos, Russia’s state space corporation. The ESA had previously said that the mission was “very unlikely” because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The rover’s primary mission was to determine whether Mars ever hosted life. The decision to suspend cooperation with Roscosmos was taken by ESA’s ruling council, at a meeting this week in Paris.

Because of their respective orbits around the Sun, Mars is readily reachable from Earth only every two years. The next launch window for Mars would be 2024. The mission has already been pushed back from 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for more tests on the spacecraft.

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — The Lithuanian parliament has voted to boost defense spending by 0.50% following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 2022 defense spending was increased from 2.02% to 2.52% of the gross domestic product. The amendment of nearly 300 million euros ($330 million) in additional funding was passed in the 141-seat parliament with 123 votes in favor, with no one against and no abstentions.

The amendment has to be signed by the Baltic nation’s president.

Defense minister Arvydas Anusauskas said it “will allow us to speed up previously planned acquisitions of armaments needed to strengthen the defense capability of the armed forces as well as to host additional NATO troops coming to our country.”

Lithuania, a nation of less than 3 million people, shares a land border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, a Moscow ally.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s ombudswoman Ludmyla Denisova says a theater in the besieged city of Mariupol has withstood the impact of an airstrike, and that the rescue of civilians from under the rubble of the destroyed building has begun.

“The building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter,” she said on the messaging service Telegram on Thursday.

“Work is underway to unlock the basement” and surviving adults and children are coming out, she wrote. She said there is no information on casualties so far.

Hundreds of men, women and children had taken shelter in the basement of the theater. Russia has denied attacking the theater on Wednesday evening.

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