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Updates: Nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes since Russia's invasion


UNITED NATIONS -- Nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes in the six weeks since Russia's invasion and the United Nations has verified the deaths of 142 youngsters although the number is almost certainly much higher, the U.N. children's agency said Monday.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's emergency programs director who just returned from Ukraine, said having 4.8 million of Ukraine's 7.5 million children displaced in such a short time is something he hadn't seen happen so quickly in 31 years of humanitarian work.

Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, claimed Russia has taken more than 121,000 children out of Ukraine and reportedly drafted a bill to simplify and accelerate adoption procedures for orphans and even those who have parents and other relatives.

Most of the children were removed from the besieged southern port city of Mariupol and taken to eastern Donetsk and then to the Russian city of Taganrog, according to Kyslytsya.

Fontaine said that of Ukraine's refugee children, 2.8 million are displaced within Ukraine and 2 million more are in other countries.



Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., who was twice sickened in incidents he suspected were poisonings, has been detained in Moscow by police, another prominent opposition figure said Monday.

Ilya Yashin said on Twitter that Kara-Murza was detained Monday near his Moscow residence. It was unclear whether he had been charged.

Kara-Murza was hospitalized with poisoning symptoms twice, in 2015 and 2017. A journalist and associate of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot and killed in 2015, and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Kara-Murza nearly died from kidney failure in the first incident. He suspects he was poisoned but no cause has been determined.

Kara-Murza was taken to a hospital with a sudden, similar illness in 2017 and put into a medically induced coma. His wife said doctors confirmed that he was poisoned.


PARIS ---- Societe Generale has announced it is ending its Russian activities -- making it the first big Western bank to announce it's quitting Russia.

SocGen is also selling its entire stake in Rosbank to a company linked to a Russian oligarch, costing the French bank some 3 billion euros (US$3.3 billion).

Rosbank is a heavyweight in the Russian banking sector, and Societe Generale was the majority shareholder.

"After several weeks of intensive work," the bank said in a statement, it had signed an agreement with Russian investment fund Interros Capital to sell all of its stake in Rosbank as well as its insurance subsidiaries in Russia.

Interros is one of the largest funds in the country, which holds assets in heavy industry and metallurgy.


MILAN -- Italian Premier Mario Draghi secured a deal Monday for more natural gas imports across a Mediterranean pipeline from Algeria, in the latest push by a European Union nation to reduce dependence on Russian energy following its invasion of Ukraine.

Draghi told reporters in the Algerian capital after meeting with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune that an agreement to intensify bilateral cooperation in the energy sector along with the deal to export more gas to Italy "are a significant response to the strategic goal" of quickly replacing Russian energy.

Russia is Italy's biggest supplier of natural gas, representing 40% of total imports, followed by Algeria, which provides some 21 billion cubic meters of gas via the Trans-Mediterranean pipeline.

The new deal between Italian energy company ENI and Algeria's Sonatrach would add up to 9 billion cubic meters of gas from Algeria, just eclipsing Russia's current 29 billion cubic meters a year. The increased flows will start in the fall, ENI said in a statement.


LVIV, Ukraine - The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol tells The Associated Press that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the southeastern city since the Russian invasion in February.

Mayor Vadym Boychenko told The Associated Press by telephone Monday that corpses were “carpeted through the streets of our city” and that the death toll could be more than 20,000.

Boychenko also said Russian forces have brought mobile crematoria to the city to dispose of the bodies and accused Russian forces of refusing to allow humanitarian convoys into the city in an attempt to disguise the carnage.

The mayor had previously claimed 5,000 dead. He explained that these data were on March 21, but “thousands more people were lying on the streets, it was just impossible for us to collect them.”

About 120,000 civilians remain in Mariupol in dire need of food, water, warmth and communications, the mayor said.

Boychenko said that about 150,000 people have been able to leave the city in private vehicles for other parts of Ukraine and that at least 33,000 were taken to Russia or to separatist territory in Ukraine.


WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's latest assessment is that Russia is gearing up for, but has not yet begun, an intensified offensive in the Donbas.

A senior U.S. defence official said the Russians are moving more troops and materiel toward that area and are focusing many of their missile strikes there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.

The official said a lengthy convoy of vehicles that is headed south toward the eastern city of Izyum contains artillery as well as aviation and infantry support, plus battlefield command-and-control elements and other materials.

The official said the convoy appeared to originate from the Belgorod and Valuyki areas in Russia, which are shaping up as key staging and marshalling grounds for the Russian buildup in the Donbas.

The official said the Russians also are bolstering their presence in the Donbas by deploying in recent days more artillery southwest of the city of Donetsk.

- By Robert Burns


VIENNA - Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer says his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow was “very direct, open and tough.”

In a statement released by his office after the meeting, Nehammer said Monday his primary message to Putin was “that this war needs to end, because in war both sides can only lose.”

Nehammer was the first European leader to meet Putin in Moscow since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.

The Austrian leader stressed that the Monday trip was “not a friendly visit,” but rather his “duty” to exhaust every possibility for ending the violence in Ukraine.

Nehammer's Moscow visit comes after a trip on Saturday to Kyiv, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In his conversation with Putin, Nehammer said he raised the issue of “serious war crimes” committed by the Russian military in the Ukrainian city of Bucha and others. “All those who are responsible will be held to account,” he added.

Austria is a member of the European Union and has backed the 27-nation bloc's sanctions against Russia, though it so far has opposed cutting off deliveries of Russian gas. The country is militarily neutral and is not a member of NATO.


UNITED NATIONS -- The UN children's agency says nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes in the six weeks since Russia's invasion, and the United Nations has verified that 142 children have been killed and 229 injured though these numbers are likely much higher.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's emergency programs director who returned from Ukraine last week, told the UN Security Council on Monday that of the 3.2 million children estimated to have remained in their homes “nearly half may be at risk of not having enough food,” and attacks on water system infrastructure and power outages have left an estimated 1.4 million people in the country without access to water.

He said the situation is worse in cities like Mariupol and Kherson in the south, which have been besieged by Russian forces where children and their families have spent weeks without running water, sanitation or a regular supply of food.

“Hundreds of schools and educational facilities have been attacked or used for military purposes,” Fontaine said. “Others are serving as shelters for civilians.”

He said school closings are affecting the education of 5.7 million school-age children and 1.5 million students in higher education.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Relatives of the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica are worried that the history is repeating itself in the war in Ukraine.

Hundreds of women who lost their sons, husbands and other relatives in the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 people in the eastern Bosnian town, on Monday demanded that all those who committed war crimes be brought to justice.

An association of the relatives of the Srebrenica victims, the Mothers of Srebrenica, has been active in keeping the memory alive of the Bosnian Serb execution of the Bosniak men and boys - who are mostly Muslim - in the late months of the 1992-95 War in Bosnia.

Sehida Abdurahmanovic says “we spent all these years working to prevent this Srebrenica (killings) from happening to anyone else.” But, she adds, “we are really sad to say, but in today's Europe its happening again - Srebrenica is happening again.”


LONDON -- The World Bank says Ukraine's economy will shrink by 45 per cent this year because of Russia's invasion, which has shut down half of the country's businesses, choked off imports and exports, and damaged a vast amount of critical infrastructure.

Unprecedented sanctions imposed by Western allies in response to the war, meanwhile, are plunging Russia into a deep recession, lopping off more than a tenth of its economic growth, the Washington-based lender said in a report Sunday.

The report said economic activity is impossible in "large swathes of areas" in Ukraine because productive infrastructure like roads, bridges, ports and train tracks have been destroyed.

Ukraine plays a major role as a global supplier of agricultural exports like wheat but that's in question now because planting and harvesting have been disrupted by the war, the report said. The war has cut off access to the Black Sea, a key route for exports, including 90% of Ukraine's grain shipments.


WARSAW, Poland -- The mayor of Warsaw says a disputed compound administered by Russia's diplomatic mission is being taken over by the city and will be made available to the Ukrainian community.

Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski was at the site Monday and said that a bailiff had entered the two apparently empty buildings, dubbed "spyville" by Warsaw residents, to check their condition and to mark them as seized by the Town Hall.

"It is very symbolic that we are closing this procedure of many years now, at the time of Russia's aggression" on Ukraine, Trzaskowski said on Twitter.

Russia's Embassy, which had the tall apartment blocks built in the 1970s, has been refusing court orders to pay lease or to hand it over. Once busy, the buildings became empty in the 1990s, after Poland shed its communist rule and dependence from Moscow and after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Ever since, Poland has been saying that lease on the plot of land had expired and demanded it be returned.


BUDAPEST, Hungary - Hungary plans to modify its natural gas contract with Russian energy company Gazprom in order to satisfy a demand by President Vladimir Putin that Russian gas be paid for in rubles.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference on Monday that the subsidiary of Hungary's energy group MVM, CEE Energy, would pay its gas bills in euros to Russia's Gazprombank, which would convert the payments into rubles and transfer them to the gas provider Gazprom Export.

Putin, in retaliation over sanctions against Russia by the European Union, has demanded that countries pay for Russian gas in rubles or risk having their supply shut off.

While Hungary has voted with the European Union on most sanctions against Russia, it has lobbied heavily against blocking Russian energy imports, arguing that would cripple its economy.

Szijjarto said that modifying Hungary's contract with Gazprom ensured the country's energy supply while staying in line with the EU's sanctioning policy.


COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- The Danish Health Authority said Monday it will buy 2 million iodine tablets in case of "a nuclear accident in our immediate area."

The COVID-19 pandemic "has shown us that it is important to be prepared," while the war in Ukraine shows that "the world is unpredictable," the health authority said, adding it had based its recommendation on advice by the Danish Emergency Management Agency as well as impact calculations for the risk of a nuclear incident in Denmark's immediate area.

The tablets would cover the risk group which includes those up to age 18, health and emergency personnel under the age of 40, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.


BUCHAREST, Romania -- The Republic of Moldova received on Monday in Luxembourg a questionnaire from the European Commission to assess the small country's readiness to become a European Union member, authorities said.

"A period of hard work is ahead starting today," Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu wrote online.

The former Soviet republic of around 2.6 million people is one of Europe's poorest nations. Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova has pushed to accelerate joining the EU since Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine in late February.

Becoming a EU member will take years and be contingent on reforms, including cleaning up widespread corruption.


VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte on Monday became the latest Western leader to visit Ukraine to express support to the nation under Russian attack,

"Today, my visit in Ukraine started in Borodyanka. No words could possibly describe what I saw and felt here," Simonyte wrote on Twitter. She also posted photos of her looking at the at the blackened hole in a high-rise apartment building in Borodyanka, northwest of Kyiv.

During the unannounced visit, she is expected to meet with the Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy, who plans to address the Lithuanian parliament on Tuesday.


LUXEMBOURG -- Slovakia says that it cannot confirm that air defence systems it has provided to Ukraine have been destroyed by the Russian armed forces.

Russia's defence ministry says sea-launched cruise missiles were used to destroy four S-300 air defence missile systems on the southern outskirts of the city of Dnipro and to kill about 25 Ukrainian troops.

The ministry did not say which country supplied the air defence systems destroyed in Sunday's strike.

Asked by The Associated Press whether Russia has destroyed Slovak supplied S-300s, Slovakian Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said that "we have no evidence of this."

"We've been hearing news to that end, but based on information provided by the Ukraine side we cannot confirm that. The Ukrainian side has excluded that," he said at an EU meeting in Luxembourg.

Korcok says Slovakia is supplying the systems "because we want to beef up the air defence of Ukraine."


ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatia is expelling 24 Russian diplomats and other embassy staff, joining other European nations that have done so.

The Croatian Foreign Ministry on Monday said they have summoned Russia's ambassador in Zagreb and conveyed the "strongest condemnation of the brutal aggression on Ukraine and numerous crimes that have been committed."

The Russian side has been urged to halt military activities, withdraw its troops and ensure evacuation of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid, the Croatian ministry said. Croatia expects that those responsible of crimes be brought to justice, said the statement.

Several EU countries have expelled Russian diplomats following the killings in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns. Croatia says it has asked 18 diplomats and 6 Russian embassy staff to leave the country.


VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican says a Ukrainian and a Russian family will be among those taking turns carrying a cross as part of the traditional Good Friday procession presided over by Pope Francis at the Colosseum.

The Vatican released some details on Monday about the torchlit Way of the Cross ceremony at the ancient arena that draws tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists in Rome during Holy Week. In the procession, participants pass a tall, lightweight cross to other participants, and prayers and meditations are read aloud.

The meditations composed for this year's nighttime procession "have been inspired by the life of each family," the Vatican said without elaborating.

Handing the Ukrainian and Russian families the cross will be a family that has dealt with the loss of a child. The Ukrainians and Russians in turn will pass the cross to a family of migrants.

Repeatedly decrying the loss of civilian life, the pope has sounded increasingly anguished calls for an end to what he calls "the folly of war" in Ukraine and for a return to negotiations. But he has stopped short of denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in launching the invasion on Feb. 24.


BRUSSELS -- Ireland's foreign minister says the European Union should consider imposing sanctions on Russia's oil industry but cautions that it's most important for the 27-nation bloc to remain unified.

Several EU countries are dependent on Russian oil and gas imports. After much debate, the bloc agreed last week to a phase in of restrictions on imports of coal over Moscow's war on Ukraine.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney says that "we need to take a maximalist approach to sanctions to offer the strongest possible deterrents to the continuation of this war and brutality."

Speaking as EU foreign ministers gathered Monday in Luxembourg, Coveney said "that should include, in our view, oil. We know that that's very difficult for some member states and we have to keep a united position across the EU."

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, is assessing what more can be done with a fresh package of sanctions.

Coveney says "the European Union is spending hundreds of millions of euros on importing oil from Russia. That is certainly contributing to financing this war. And in our view, we need to cut off that financing of war."


MOSCOW -- The Russian military says it has destroyed a shipment of air defence missile systems provided by the West.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military used sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles to destroy four S-300 air defence missile launchers on the southern outskirts of the city of Dnipro. He said about 25 Ukrainian troops were also hit by the strike on Sunday.

Konashenkov said in a statement Monday that Ukraine had received the air defence systems from a European country that he didn't name. Konashenkov's claim couldn't be independently verified.

Last week, Slovakia said it had handed over its Soviet-designed S-300 air defence systems to Ukraine, which has pleaded with the West to give it more weapons, including long-range air defence systems.

Slovakia's prime minister office issued a statement late Sunday calling the news that the S-300 system given to Ukraine was destroyed "disinformation." It was unclear, however, whether both sides are referring to the same airstrike. The Russians have targeted missile defence systems in three different locations in recent days.


SEOUL, South Korea -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday called for South Korea to provide military arms to help his country fight back against invading Russian forces.

Zelenskyy's video address to South Korean lawmakers came hours after Seoul's Defence Ministry confirmed it rejected a Ukrainian request for anti-aircraft weapons. The ministry cited the government's principle on limiting military help to non-lethal supplies.

"The Republic of Korea has tanks, ships and various equipment that can block Russian missiles and we would be grateful if the Republic of Korea could help us fight back against Russia," Zelenskyy said, referring to South Korea's formal name.

Zelenskyy, whose comments were dubbed over by a translator during the televised speech, thanked South Korea for participating in U.S.-led economic sanctions against Moscow, but said sanctions alone aren't enough.

He highlighted the Russia's brutal takeover of Mariupol, briefly stopping his speech to play a video showing buildings hit by rockets, Russian tanks firing as they rolled through destroyed streets and people wailing over dead relatives at overwhelmed hospitals. "Russia is aiming to eliminate Ukraine independence and separate the country. It is trying to eliminate the culture and language of the Ukrainian nation," Zelenskyy said.


ROME -- Nearly 90,000 refugees from the war in Ukraine have arrived in Italy. The Italian Interior Ministry, in providing the data on Monday, said most of them go to Milan, Rome, Naples and Bologna. The majority of those who arrive stay in relatives or friends among the nearly 250,00 Ukrainians who have been living and working in Italy for years, according to the Italian government. The refugees include some 46,000 women and 33,000 minors. Of those who haven't a place to stay previously arranged, many are being hosted by charity groups, church organizations and towns throughout Italy.


BRUSSELS -- Austria's foreign minister says Chancellor Karl Nehammer is taking "very clear messages of a humanitarian and political kind" to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said Monday that Nehammer decided to make the trip after meeting in Kyiv on Saturday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and following contacts with the leaders of Turkey, Germany and the European Union.

Schallenberg said ahead of a meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg that "we don't want to leave any opportunity unused and must seize every chance to end the humanitarian hell in Ukraine."

He added that "every voice that makes clear to President Putin what reality looks like outside the walls of Kremlin is not a wasted voice."

Schallenberg said that Nehammer and Putin will meet one-on-one without media opportunities. He insisted that Austria has done everything to ensure that the visit isn't abused, "and I think he (Putin) himself should have an interest in someone telling him the truth and really finding out what's going on outside."


BRUSSELS -- Germany's foreign minister says Ukraine needs heavy weapons to defend itself and this is no time for "excuses."

Ukraine's president has warned that his country faces a crucial time and that Russian troops will step up operations in the east.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said as she arrived for a meeting with her European Union counterparts Monday: "What is clear is that Ukraine needs further military material, above all heavy weapons, and now is not the time for excuses -- now is the time for creativity and pragmatism."

Germany broke with a foreign policy tradition after Russia's invasion to supply arms to Ukraine but has faced criticism from Kyiv for perceived hesitancy and slowness in providing material.


BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign ministers are meeting to weigh the effectiveness of the bloc's response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine amid concern about Moscow's preparations for a major attack in the east.

The ministers will hold talks with the International Criminal Court's Prosecutor-General Karim A.A. Khan as Western pressure mounts to hold to account those responsible for any war crimes in Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing Monday's meeting in Luxembourg, deplored what he called the "brutal, brutal aggression" of Russian troops.

Borrell, who was in Ukraine over the weekend, says further EU sanctions against Russia "are always on the table."

He says he's "afraid the Russian troops are massing on the east to launch an attack on the Donbas," region in the east after Moscow withdrew its forces from around the capital Kyiv last week.


LONDON -- Britain's Ministry of Defence says Ukraine has beaten back several assaults by Kremlin forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, resulting in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery.

In an intelligence update released Monday morning, the ministry says Russian shelling in the two eastern regions is continuing.

"Russia's continued reliance on unguided bombs decreases their ability to discriminate when targeting and conducting strikes, while greatly increasing the risk of civilian casualties," the ministry said.

The ministry also said Russia's "prior use" of phosphorus munitions in the Donetsk region raises the possibility they may be used in Mariupol as the battle for the city on Ukraine's south coast intensifies.


WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand will send a military transport plane and a support team of 50 to Europe, as well as give money to Britain to buy weapons, as it significantly steps up its response to the war in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday that the C130 Hercules plane would travel throughout Europe to carry much-needed equipment and supplies to key distribution centers. She said the plane wouldn't fly directly into Ukraine as most military equipment is transported into the country by land.

Ardern said her government would also spend an additional 13 million New Zealand dollars (US$9 million) on military and human rights support, including NZ$7.5 million for Britain to buy weapons and ammunition..


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