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Gunship attack on Russian oil depot reported as talks with Ukraine continue

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Emergency relief and evacuation convoys for the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol remained in doubt on Friday following reports of Russian interference, while Russian officials have accused Ukraine of flying helicopter gunships across a border between the two countries and hitting an oil depot.

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said the alleged airstrike caused several fires and two people were injured. A Kremlin spokesman said the incident on Russian territory could undermine talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials which resumed via video link on Friday.

READ MORE: Russia focuses on southern Ukraine amid heavy resistance

“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied when asked if the strike could be considered. like an escalation of the war in Ukraine.

It was not immediately possible to verify the claim that Ukrainian helicopters were targeting the oil depot or several businesses near Belgorod were also hit. Russia has previously reported bombings from Ukraine, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but not an incursion of its airspace.

The negotiations follow a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Turkey on Tuesday during which Ukraine reiterated its willingness to drop its NATO candidacy and offered to have its neutral military status guaranteed by a series of countries. strangers.

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, wrote on social networks that Moscow’s positions on maintaining control of the Crimean peninsula and expanding territory in eastern Ukraine held by separatists backed by Russia “remain unchanged”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said complex logistics were still being worked out for the operation to move emergency aid to Mariupol and civilians out of the city, which has suffered weeks of heavy fighting with dwindling water, food and medical supplies.

“We run out of adjectives to describe the horrors suffered by the people of Mariupol,” ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson said Friday at a UN briefing in Geneva. “The situation is appalling and deteriorating, and it is now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”

He said the group sent three vehicles to Mariupol and a frontline between Ukrainian and Russian forces, but two trucks carrying supplies did not accompany them. Dozens of buses organized by Ukrainian authorities to ferry people out of the city had not begun to approach the demarcation line, Watson said.

Russian forces on Thursday blocked a convoy of 45 buses attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area, and only 631 people were able to leave in private cars , said the Ukrainian government.

Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies while trying to reach Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The city was the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. Tens of thousands of residents have managed to leave in recent weeks through humanitarian corridors, reducing the population from a pre-war 430,000 to around 100,000 last week. But continued Russian attacks have repeatedly thwarted relief and evacuation missions.

“We do not see a real willingness on the part of the Russians and their satellites to offer an opportunity for the inhabitants of Mariupol to evacuate to the territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Friday. , on Telegram messaging. application.

In recent days, the Kremlin, in an apparent shift in its war aims, has declared that its “main objective” is now to take complete control of Donbass, where Mariupol is located. Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and have declared two areas as independent republics.

Western officials said there were growing indications that Russia was using its de-escalation rhetoric in Ukraine as a cover to regroup, resupply and redeploy its forces for a strengthened offensive in the east.

Russian forces have subjected both Chernihiv, a besieged and blockaded city in northern Ukraine, and the capital of kyiv to continued air and ground missile strikes, although Moscow said on Tuesday it planned to reduce military activity in these areas.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have taken over the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka, located south of the besieged city of Chernihiv and located along one of the main supply routes between the city and the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, according to the ministry. British Defence.

Ukraine also continued to carry out successful but limited counterattacks east and northeast of Kyiv, the ministry said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russian withdrawals in the north and center of the country were just a military tactic to build up forces for further attacks in the southeast.

“We know their intentions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know they are moving away from the areas where we hit them to focus on other very important areas where it can be difficult for us.”

Hours later, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on Telegram early Friday that the fire at the oil depot “occurred as a result of an airstrike by two Ukrainian Armed Forces helicopters, which entered on the territory of Russia at low altitude”.

The depot run by Russian energy giant Rosneft is located about 35 kilometers (21 miles) north of the Ukraine-Russia border.

Separately, Ukraine’s state-owned electricity company, Energoatom, said Russian troops withdrew from the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site in northern Ukraine early Friday after receiving “significant doses” of radiation. when digging trenches in the exclusion zone around the closed plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it could not independently confirm the exposure claim. Energoatom gave no details on the condition of the soldiers it said were exposed to radiation, and it did not say how many were affected. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

The agency, which is the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said it was informed by Ukraine that Russian forces in Chernobyl had handed over control of the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster to the Ukrainians in writing.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi wrote on Twitter that he would visit the disused plant as soon as possible and that his agency’s “assistance and support” mission to Chernobyl “will be the first in a series nuclear safety and security missions in Ukraine”.

Grossi was in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on Friday for talks with senior officials on nuclear issues in Ukraine. Nine of Ukraine’s 15 operational reactors are currently in operation, including two at Russia’s Zaporizhzhya facility, the agency said.

Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site shortly after invading Ukraine on February 24, raising fears they could cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. The workforce there oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and concrete ruins from the reactor that exploded in 1986.

Five weeks and a day into a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and driven more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine, it seemed unlikely that the two sides would soon reach an agreement on their respective demands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said conditions are not yet “ripe” for a ceasefire and he is not ready for a meeting with Zelensky until negotiators do more work , Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after a phone conversation Thursday with the Russian leader. .

Following a call from Zelenskyy when he addressed the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country would send mine-resistant armored personnel carriers to Ukraine.

“We are not just sending our prayers,” Morrison said, adding that Australia was also sending firearms, ammunition, humanitarian aid, body armor and Bushmaster vehicles.

Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.


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