Ukraine says Moscow is forcibly taking civilians to Russia

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine on Thursday accused Moscow of forcing thousands of civilians from disintegrated Ukrainian cities into Russia, where some could be used as “hostages” to force Kiev to leave.

Ukraine’s ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova said 402,000 people, including 74,000 children, had been taken to Russia.

The Kremlin has given almost identical numbers to those who have been relocated, but has said they want to go to Russia. Ukraine’s rebel-held eastern regions are predominantly Russian-speaking, and many there support close ties with Moscow.

One month after the attack, fierce fighting broke out between the two sides which turned into a devastating battle. The Ukrainian navy says it has sunk a large Russian landing ship near the port city of Berdyansk that was used to carry armored vehicles. Russia has claimed control of the eastern city of Izim after heavy fighting.

At an emergency NATO summit in Brussels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Western allies via video for planes, tanks, rockets, air defenses and other weapons that his country was “protecting our common values.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, for the summit and other high-level meetings, assured Europe that more aid was on the way, although it seemed unlikely that West would give Jelensky everything he wanted, for fear of starting a wider war.

In the vicinity of the capital, Kyiv, and other areas, Ukrainian guards have fought a near-stalemate with Moscow’s ground troops, raising fears that a frustrated Russian president, Vladimir Putin, may resort to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Other developments on Thursday:

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged a total of 50 military and civilian prisoners, the largest exchange reported so far, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s pro-Moscow leader, warned that Poland’s proposal to deploy a Western peacekeeping force in Ukraine would “mean a third world war.”

Alexander Lomako, a city official, said Russian forces were unleashing a “humanitarian catastrophe” targeting food storage facilities in Chernihiv, where an air strike destroyed a key bridge this week. He said about 130,000 people remained in the besieged town, about half of the pre-war population.

Russia says it will offer safe passage from Friday to 67 ships from 15 foreign countries stranded in Ukrainian ports due to the threat of shelling and landmines.

Kiev and Moscow have given conflicting reports that, in the meantime, people have been relocated to Russia and whether they are going voluntarily – as Russia claims – or by force or lying.

Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizinsev says about 400,000 people have been evacuated to Russia since the start of the military operation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years.

Russian authorities say they are providing accommodation and money to the displaced.

However, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kirilenko said “the people are being forcibly relocated to the territory of the aggressor state.” Denisova said one of the evacuees was a 92-year-old woman from Mariupol who had been forced to flee to Taganrog in southern Russia.

Ukrainian officials say the Russians are taking people’s passports and transferring them to former separatist-controlled “filtration camps” in Ukraine before sending them to various remote, economically depressed areas of Russia.

Of those taken, Ukraine’s foreign ministry alleged, there were 6,000 residents in the country’s previously devastated port city of Mariupol. Moscow’s military is seizing identity cards from an additional 15,000 people in a part of Russian-controlled Mariupol, the ministry said.

Some could be sent as far as the Pacific island of Sakhalin, Ukrainian intelligence says, and they are being offered jobs on condition that they do not leave for two years. The ministry said the Russians “wanted to use them as hostages and put more political pressure on Ukraine.”

Kirilenko said residents of Mariupol had been deprived of information for a long time and that the Russians had made false claims about Ukraine’s defeat in order to persuade them to leave.

“Russian lies could affect those who were under siege,” he said.

For the naval attack on Bardiansk, Ukraine claimed that two more ships were damaged when the Russian ship Orsk sank and a 3,000-ton fuel tank was destroyed, causing a fire in the ammunition supply.

Zelensky called on the country to continue its military defense in the hope that it would lead to peace.

“With each passing day, we are moving closer to the peace we need. We are moving closer to victory. “We can’t stop for a minute, every minute determines our destiny, our future, whether we survive,” he said late Thursday night in his video address to the nation.

Zelensky said thousands of people, including 126 children, had died in the first month of the war. Across the country, 230 schools and 155 kindergartens have been destroyed. Towns and villages are “overshadowed,” he said.

Sending a signal that Western sanctions have not brought it to its knees, Russia has reopened its stock market but allowed only limited trading to prevent a massive sell-off. Foreigners were barred from selling, and traders were barred from short sales, or the price of bets would be reduced.

Millions of Ukrainians have fled the country, some pushing to the border after trying to stay and adapt.

At the central station in the western city of Lviv, a teenage girl stood at the door of a waiting train, a white pet rabbit trembling in her arms. He was on his way to join his mother and then to Poland or Germany. He was traveling alone, leaving other family members in Dinipro.

“At first I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “Now I’m scared for my life.”


Anna reports from Lviv, Ukraine. Washington-based Associated Press writer Robert Burns, Lviv’s Uras Karmanou and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to the report.


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