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Ukraine Crisis: 21 killed In Pre-Dawn Russian Attack On School

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

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KHARKIV, 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.

KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

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

— 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

— Palestinians with Ukraine ties empathize with victims of war

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

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TODAY:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

LVIV, Ukraine -- The northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv has experienced “colossal losses and destruction” amid heavy bombardment from Russian artillery and air strikes, governor Viacheslav Chaus said Thursday.

Chaus told Ukrainian TV that the bodies of 53 people “killed by the Russian aggressor from the ground or from the air” had been delivered to city morgues over the past 24 hours.

The Ukrainian General Prosecutor's Office said Wednesday 10 people were killed in Chernihiv while standing in line for bread. Russia has denied involvement.

Chaus said civilians were hiding in basements and shelters without access to utilities in the city of 280,000 people.

“The city has never known such nightmarish, colossal losses and destruction,” he said.

Chernihiv, which is close to the borders with Belarus and Russia, was among the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack from Russian forces when the invasion began three weeks ago.

LONDON — A Ukrainian lawmaker says there are reports of injuries but not deaths in a strike on a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter.

Lesia Vasylenko said between 1,000 and 1,500 people were sheltering at the theater when it was hit by an airstrike, and called the attack the deliberate “destruction of a refuge.”

Vayslenko, an opposition lawmaker who is part of a delegation visiting the British Parliament, said local officials report that 80-90% of all structures in Mariupol have been damaged in the relentless Russian assault.

PRAGUE — Czech Republic's Prime Minister Petr Fiala says his country is struggling to help more than 200,000 refugees arriving from Ukraine.

Fiala said Thursday some 270,000 refugees, most of them children and women, have arrived in the Czech Republic, an EU and NATO member that doesn't border Ukraine, in the past three weeks. “We have to admit that we're at the very edge of what we can absorb without major problems,” he said.

The government is taking steps such as helping refugees gain long term residency and access to health care and education for children. Its parliament is debating a plan for the refugees to be able to get a job without needing any work permit.

WARSAW, Poland -- Britain's defense secretary says his country will deploy a missile defense system to NATO ally Poland in reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

During a visit to the Polish capital, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the United Kingdom is sending the Sky Sabre medium-range anti-air missile system to Poland with about 100 personnel. He said the move is “to make sure that we stand alongside Poland in protecting her airspace from any further aggression from Russia.”

The decision comes days after Russian missiles struck a military base in Yavoriv, Ukraine, just a few miles from the border with Poland.

The British promise of military support also comes as nearly 2 million of the more than 3 million refugees to flee Ukraine have arrived in Poland.

“As a NATO ally and a very old ally, it is very right that Britain stands by Poland as Poland carries much of the burden of the consequence of this war and stands tall and brave to stand up to the threats from Russia,” Wallace said.

MOSCOW -- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Moscow rejects the ruling of the International Court of Justice that ordered Russia to halt its operation in Ukraine.

During his daily conference call with reporters, Peskov noted that both sides need to agree on implementing the ruling, and on Russia's side “there can be no consent.”

Peskov also said that talks between Russia and Ukraine will continue on Thursday in some form. “I don't know if they are already underway or not, but they should be today, in one direction or another," Peskov said.

The Kremlin spokesman stressed that the Russian delegation is ready to work 24/7 and claimed that “unfortunately, we don't see the same zeal on Ukrainian side.”

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania's parliament has unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, joining countries including Estonia and Slovenia in the appeal.

The resolution said a no-fly zone would allow United Nations peacekeepers to ensure the security of humanitarian corridors and the safety of Ukraine's nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities.

NATO has categorically ruled out any role for the military alliance in setting up and policing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect against Russian airstrikes on Ukraine. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “this can become even worse if NATO (takes) actions that actually turned this into a full-fledged war between NATO and Russia.”

Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia has publicly called for a no-fly zone and Estonia's Parliament also has urged its 29 NATO partners to consider the same.

BEIJING — A Chinese Commerce Ministry official says Beijing will take “necessary measures” to protect Chinese companies from actions by other governments related to sanctions against Russia.

The comment was in response to questions about a U.S. warning of “consequences” for any moves by Chinese companies to skirt such sanctions.

Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said China opposes any form of unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” without a basis in international law.

“The imposition of economic sanctions will not only fail to solve security problems, but will also harm the normal lives of the people in the relevant countries, disrupt the global market, and make the already slowing world economy even worse,” Gao said Thursday.

He said China will take necessary measures to safeguard the normal trade interests and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies. He gave no details.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Ukrainian refugees arriving in Sweden will be offered COVID-19 shots, the Swedish government said Thursday.

Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said just over a third of Ukraine's population has received two doses of the vaccine. "It is of the utmost importance that as many as possible who come as refugees to Sweden get vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.

“It is about protecting oneself but also about strengthening Sweden,” she added.

Earlier this month, Swedish authorities estimated that about 4,000 Ukrainian refugees arrive in Sweden every day.

LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office says Russia carried out further airstrikes on the besieged port city of Mariupol early on Thursday morning.

Zelenskyy's office did not report casualties for the latest strikes. They come amid rescue efforts in the city after a theater where hundreds had been sheltering was destroyed Wednesday in what Ukrainian authorities say was a Russian air strike.

“People are escaping from Mariupol by themselves using their own transport,” Zelenskyy's office said, adding the “risk of death remains high” because of Russian forces previously firing on civilians.

The presidential office also reported artillery and air strikes around the country overnight, including in the Kalynivka and Brovary suburbs of the capital, Kyiv. It said fighting continues as Russian forces try to enter the Ukraine-held city of Mykolaiv in the south and that there was an artillery barrage through the night in the eastern town of Avdiivka.

The Ukrainian General Staff says “the enemy, without success in its ground operation, continues to carry out rocket and bomb attacks on infrastructure and highly populated areas of Ukrainian cities.”

BANGKOK — A U.N. agency is warning that the conflict in Ukraine is likely to hinder access to food and fuel for many of the world's most vulnerable people.

A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development notes that Russia accounted for nearly a third of wheat imports for Africa, or $3.7 billion, in 2018-2020, while 12%, worth $1.4 billion, came from Ukraine.

The report said initial assessments point to a “substantive reduction” in access to food and fuel despite efforts to prevent disruptions of supplies of key commodities such as wheat. Meanwhile, rising costs for shipping and for grains and other staple foods is pushing prices higher, hitting poorest people the hardest, the report says.

The report said up to 25 African countries, especially the least developed economies, relied on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The lack of spare capacity in Africa limits the ability of those countries to offset any lost supplies, while surging costs for fertilizer will be an extra burden for farmers.

BERLIN — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Germany of putting its economy before his country's security in the run-up to the Russian invasion.

In an address to Germany's parliament Thursday, Zelenskyy criticized the German government's support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project meant to bring natural gas from Russia. Ukraine and others had opposed the project, warning that it endangered Ukrainian and European security.

Zelenskyy also noted Germany's hesitancy when it came to imposing some of the toughest sanctions on Russia for fear it could hurt the German economy.

The Ukrainian president called on Germany not to let a new wall divide Europe, urging support for his country's membership of NATO and the European Union.

He also called for more help for his country, saying thousands of people have been killed in the war that started almost a month ago, including 108 children.

Referring to the dire situation in the besieged city of Mariupol, he said: “Everything is a target for them,” including “a theater where hundreds of people found shelter that was flattened yesterday.”

LONDON — Britain's defense ministry says Russia's invasion of Ukraine “has largely stalled on all fronts” amid stiff Ukrainian resistance.

The Ministry of Defence says Russian forces have made “minimal progress” on land, sea or air in recent days, and are suffering heavy losses.

In an intelligence update on social media. It says Ukrainian resistance remains “staunch and well-coordinated.” It says most of Ukraine's territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukraine's hands.

Earlier, U.K. defense officials said Russia had probably used up “far more stand-off air launched weapons than originally planned” during its three-week invasion, and was resorting to older, less precise weapons more likely to cause civilian casualties.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials say the status of people sheltering in a theater in Mariupol is still uncertain because the entrance was under the rubble caused by a Russian airstrike.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration, said on Telegram on Wednesday evening that “several hundred” residents of Mariupol were sheltering in the Drama Theater. He rejected the claims by the Russian military that the Azov battalion was headquartered in the theater, stressing that “only civilians” were in it when it was struck earlier Wednesday.

Kyrylenko said the airstrike also hit the Neptune swimming pool complex. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there. It's pure terrorism!” the official said.

At least as recently as Monday, the pavement outside the once-elegant theater was marked with huge white letters spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian, according to images released by the Maxar space technology company.

LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces freed the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in exchange for nine of their captured conscripts, an official from Ukraine's presidential office said Wednesday.

Kyiv accused the Russians of kidnapping Mayor Ivan Fedorov about a week ago. Surveillance video showed him being marched out of city hall apparently surrounded by Russian soldiers.

Residents of Melitopol, a city in southeast currently under Russian control, have been protesting to demand his release.

Daria Zarivna, spokeswoman of the head of Ukraine's president's office, said Wednesday that Fedorov has been released from captivity, and Russia “got nine of its captive soldiers, born in 2002-2003, practically children, conscripts Russia's Defense Ministry said weren't there.”

Moscow initially denied sending conscripts to fight in Ukraine, but later the Russian military admitted that some conscripts have been involved in the offensive and even got captured by Ukrainian forces.

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council will meet Thursday at the request of six Western nations that sought an open session on Ukraine ahead of an expected vote on a Russian humanitarian resolution that they have sharply criticized for making no mention of Moscow's war against its smaller neighbor.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians. Russia's illegal war on Ukraine is a threat to us all,” tweeted the U.N. mission of the United Kingdom, one of the six countries that requested the meeting.

Russia circulated a proposed Security Council resolution Tuesday that would demand protection for civilians “in vulnerable situations” in Ukraine and safe passage for humanitarian aid and people seeking to leave the country but without mentioning the war or the parties concerned.

The resolution is expected to be voted on by the council Friday.

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian and Russian delegations held talks again Wednesday by video.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's adviser Mikhailo Podolyak said Ukraine demanded a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and legal security guarantees for Ukraine from a number of countries.

“This is possible only through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said on Twitter.

An official in Zelenskyy's office told The Associated Press the main subject under discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

Just before the war, Russia recognized the independence of two regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. It also extended the borders of those regions to areas Ukraine had continued to hold, including Mariupol, a port city now under siege.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on the signing of a legally binding document with security guarantees for Ukraine. In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral status.

Russia has demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there. Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv contributed to this report.

PANAMA CITY — Three Panama-flagged ships have been hit by Russian missiles in the Black Sea during Russia's war in Ukraine and one sank, Panamanian authorities said Wednesday.

The crews of the ships “are safe,” Maritime Authority Director Noriel Araúz said.

The ship that sank was the Helt, but Araúz did not say when that occurred. The others hit were the Lord Nelson and Namura Queen. Panamanian officials previously said the Namura Queen, owned by a Japanese company and operated by a firm in the Philippines, was hit in February.

Araúz said 10 Panama-flagged ships were in the Black Sea, including the three hit. Combined they have about 150 crew members of various nationalities who have not been allowed to leave, he said.

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