Live updates: Top Europe human rights body kicks out Russia

STRASBOURG, France — The Council of Europe has expelled Russia from the continent’s foremost human rights body in an unprecedented move over its invasion and war in Ukraine.

The ministerial committee of the 47-nation organization said in statement Wednesday that “the Russian Federation ceases to be a member of the Council of Europe as from today, after 26 years of membership.”

The decision comes on the heels of weeks of condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Earlier this week, the group’s parliamentary assembly already initiated the process of expulsion and unanimously supported Russia’s expulsion.

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HERE ARE TODAY’S KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

— Russia says Ukraine talks are progressing but military onslaught continues

— Ukraine President urges U.S. Congress to help his country

— Mariupol descends into despair

— Russia could default – what then?

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Europe next week for face-to-face talks with European leaders about Russia’s invasion

Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for updates throughout the day.

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING TODAY:

BRUSSELS — Estonia’s defense minister is backing Ukraine’s appeal for NATO to set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Speaking Wednesday before a meeting of fellow NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Kalle Laanet said alliance countries can help defend civilians against Russian air strikes.

Laanet says Estonia, a Baltic state, has “the kind of capabilities” needed to police a no-fly zone.

Many NATO allies are opposed to the idea, hwever. It could oblige them to attack air defense systems in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and force them to shoot down Russian aircraft, sparking a wider war in Europe.

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ROME — Italy has frozen 4 million euros ($4.4 million) in Sardinian real estate belonging to Petr Aven, classified by the European Union as “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.”

A statement from Premier Mario Draghi’s office Wednesday said the Sassari building complex was frozen March 15.

It was the latest in a series of confiscations of Russian oligarch-owned yachts, villas and other holdings in Italy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of EU sanctions on Putin and members of his inner circle.

According to the European Union Council decision sanctioning Russian oligarchs, Aven regularly meets with Putin and “does not operate independently of the president’s demands.” It identified him as an important shareholder of the Alfa Group, which includes the Russian Alfa Bank.

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TOKYO — Japan’s prime minister says his country will revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status over its invasion of Ukraine, as Tokyo steps up sanctions against Moscow in line with other Group of Seven countries.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Wednesday that Japan is also barring the export of luxury products to Russia and is to stop importing selected Russian goods.

He said Japan will also step up efforts to prevent Russia from obtaining loans from global financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund.

The measures are the latest Japan has taken against Moscow in recent weeks. Japan has also frozen the assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin and top officials and billionaires close to him and banned exports of high technology goods that could be used for military purposes.

Japan will also step up humanitarian support for the Ukrainians, including shipping medical supplies and other relief goods, while taking in those who flee the country, Kishida said.

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BERLIN — German authorities are investigating attacks on Russian premises in the country following the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Berlin police said Wednesday they are probing whether a bottle thrown at a Russian-Orthodox church in the city, damaging three windows, was politically motivated.

Police said nobody was injured in the incident, which happened Tuesday morning. The church is currently housing Ukrainian refugees.

In a separate incident last week, a bottle containing flammable liquid was thrown at the gym of a Russian private school in the German capital. Nobody was injured but the building sustained fire damage.

German weekly Der Spiegel reported last Friday that authorities had registered 318 incidents across the country — including property damage, threats and assaults — that might be linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

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GENEVA — The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross is in Kyiv to try to obtain greater access for humanitarian groups in Ukraine and better protection for civilians.

The ICRC said Wednesday that the planned five-day visit by its president, Peter Maurer, aims to view first-hand the challenges facing civilians, meet with members of Ukraine’s government and explore ways the ICRC can expand its work in the country.

The trip came a day after the Geneva-based organization helped shepherd out hundreds of people in an evacuation from the northern city of Sumy in some 80 buses.

The ICRC also announced the delivery of 200 tons of aid to Ukraine, including kits for the war-wounded, blankets, kitchen sets, water and more than 5,200 body bags.

The ICRC has been working in Ukraine since 2014 and has a team of more than 600 staffers there, it says.

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ROME — Italy is bolstering its refugee reception system to accommodate the around 47,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived since the start of the Russian invasion.

Top government officials from Italy’s interior, economy and labor ministries, as well as the Civil Protection agency, met Wednesday to coordinate Italy’s response. To date, 47,153 Ukrainians have arrived, including 19,069 minors, the government said in a statement.

Italy initially processes refugees in welcome centers. They are then placed with families or in apartments run by NGOs, church groups or other agencies.

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MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says a “business-like spirit” is emerging at talks with Ukraine that are now focused on a neutral status for the war-torn country.

“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said Wednesday on Russian channel RBK TV. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”

He didn’t elaborate, but said “the business-like spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”

Russia’s chief negotiator in the latest round of talks with Ukraine, which started Monday and are set to continue Wednesday, said earlier the sides are discussing a possible compromise idea for a future Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.

“A whole range of issues tied with the size of Ukraine’s army is being discussed,” Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said, according to Russian news agencies.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the country realizes it can’t join NATO. Ukraine’s bid to join the Western military alliance has been a sore point for Moscow.

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is begging for prayers and protection for the children of Ukraine as the Vatican intensifies its appeals for peace while still refraining from condemning Russia by name for its invasion.

Francis met with Italian school children in St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday and urged them to think of their Ukrainian counterparts who are hungry, cold and have been forced to flee their homes.

Francis has stepped up his criticism of the war but has refrained from condemning Russia by name. That is evidence of his aim to keep open a dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and reflects the Vatican’s tradition of not calling out aggressors amid its efforts to position itself as a possible mediator.

Meanwhile, Francis is to celebrate a Mass on Friday during which he will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in a ritual that holds deep significance for the Catholic faithful. According to tradition, one of the so-called secrets of Fatima concerns the consecration of Russia to “the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” prophesizing that peace will follow if the consecration is done.

St. John Paul II performed the consecration on March 25, 1984, and Francis will repeat the gesture 38 years later. On the same day, Francis’ chief alms-giver, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who recently returned from a humanitarian mission to Ukraine, will celebrate a consecration Mass in Fatima, Portugal, the site of the early 20th century Marian apparitions that formed the basis of the “secrets of Fatima.”

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DUBAI — Ambulances and trauma and emergency surgery supplies are on their way to Ukraine from Dubai, via Poland.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday sent the shipment from their warehouses in the United Arab Emirates on two chartered flights provided for free by the government.

These were the third and fourth flights by the WHO to be sent to Ukraine through Dubai and were carrying 36 tons of medical supplies, including medicines for noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes or hyper-tension.

The International Humanitarian City, a Dubai-based hub, has so far sent a total of 36 shipments worth approximately $4 million in response to the Ukraine emergency. They have included trauma and emergency supplies, shelter and food.

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WARSAW, Poland — The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia have returned safely from a visit to Kyiv, as invading Russian forces menace the embattled Ukrainian capital.

The visit was meant to show support for Ukraine as it endures heavy bombardment.

The leaders met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday to send the message that Ukraine is not alone and that they support the nation’s aspirations to one day join the European Union.

They went ahead with the hours-long train trip despite worries within the European Union about the security risks of traveling within a war zone.

Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said Wednesday morning that they had returned safely to Poland.

Officials had not given details about their schedule for security reasons.

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Ukraine is not going to join NATO “any time soon,” after the country’s president acknowledged Ukraine would not become part of the Western military alliance.

President Vladimir Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia, something the alliance denies.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that Ukraine realized it could not join NATO, his most explicit acknowledgment that the goal, enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, was unlikely to be met.

It came as Russia and Ukraine held a new round of talks, with Zelenskyy saying Wednesday that Russian demands were becoming “more realistic.”

On Wednesday, Johnson — one of the most vocal Western supporters of Ukraine — said “the reality of the position” is that “there is no way Ukraine is going to join NATO any time soon.” But he said the decision had to be for Ukraine to make.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press show a suspected Ukrainian strike on the Russian-held Kherson International Airport and Air Base set several helicopters and vehicles ablaze.

The images Tuesday at the dual-use airfield show thick black smoke rising overhead from the blazes. At least three helicopters appeared to be on fire, as well as several vehicles. At a pad further away, other helicopters appeared damaged from an earlier strike.

The Ukrainian president’s office said that fighting had continued at Kherson airport on Tuesday, with “powerful blasts” rocking the area during the course of the day. They said they were assessing damage in the area, without elaborating.

Kherson is about 450 kilometers (275 miles) southeast of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

Meanwhile, satellite images Tuesday of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Enerhodar, Ukraine, showed no damage to the site’s six reactors after Russian forces engaged in a firefight to seize the facility. Zaporizhzhia is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and the fighting raised fears about safety there.

Zaporizhzhia is about the same distance and direction as Kherson from Kyiv. Residents in the region are building barricades and setting up firing positions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said some 4,000 vehicles left Mariupol in the first major evacuation from the besieged southern city, but most of the convoy spent the night on the road out toward Zaporizhzhia.

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NEW YORK — Russia’s Defense Ministry reported fighting near the separatist-held eastern regions Wednesday but did not comment on Russian military activity elsewhere.

Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov claimed Russian forces have destroyed 111 Ukrainian aircraft, 160 drones and more than 1,000 tanks or other military vehicles since the start of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The Russian military’s daily public statements on the war focus almost exclusively on fighting in the separatist-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and on Ukrainian military targets, without acknowledging attacks on civilians.

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KHARKIV, Ukraine — Hospital workers in Ukraine’s second-largest city find themselves on two frontlines, battling COVID-19 in intensive care units as war rages outside.

The Kharkiv Regional Clinical Infectious Diseases Hospital, the city’s leading facility for treating virus patients throughout the pandemic, has barricaded its windows and is adapting every day.

Hospital director Dr. Pavel Nartov said air raid sirens go off multiple times daily, forcing fragile patients into the hospital’s makeshift bomb shelter. Handling ICU patients on ventilators is the most difficult and dangerous part of the process, but also the most crucial, given the dangers of exposing oxygen tanks to bombings and shrapnel, he said.

“Bombing takes place from morning into night. Thank God a bomb has not yet hit our hospital. But it could hit at any time,” he told The Associated Press.

Kharkiv has been under sustained fire from Russian forces since the outbreak of the war, with shelling hitting residential buildings and sending masses of people fleeing.

Ukraine’s official daily COVID-19 cases reached record highs in February but have declined since Russia invaded amid the chaos of war. COVID-19 concerns have fallen by the wayside as people focus on fleeing the fighting.

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TOKYO — U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel praised Japan Wednesday for standing with the U.S. and other Western nations in announcing its latest sanctions to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Emanuel noted Japan’s ban on the exports of about 300 goods to Russia and Belarus, including semiconductors and communications equipment, as well as its stripping Russia of its most favored nation trade status.

“Japan’s actions demonstrate its steadfast commitment to stand in unity with the United States, our allies and partners in Europe and around the world, and the Ukrainian people,” he said.

The U.S. also welcomed Japan’s recent decision to freeze the assets of 17 more Russian politicians, tycoons and their relatives. The number of Russians targeted by Japan’s sanctions that freezes their assets now totals 61.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A plume of smoke was seen rising up over western Kyiv on Wednesday morning after shrapnel from an artillery shell slammed into a 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv, obliterating the top floor and igniting a fire, according to a statement and images released by the Kyiv emergencies agency.

The neighboring building was also damaged. The agency reported two victims, without elaborating.

Russian forces have intensified fighting in Kyiv suburbs, notably around the town of Bucha in the northwest and the highway leading west toward Zhytomyr, the head of the Kyiv region Oleksiy Kuleba said Wednesday.

He said Russian troops are trying to cut off the capital from transport arteries and destroy logistical capabilities even as they plan a wide-ranging attack to seize Kyiv.

Twelve towns around Kyiv are without water and six without heat.

Russia has occupied the city of Ivankiv, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Kyiv, and controls the surrounding region on the border with Belarus, Kuleba said.

Across the Kyiv region, he said, “Kindergartens, museums, churches, residential blocks and engineering infrastructure are suffering from the endless firing.”

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LVIV, Ukraine — Russian warships around midnight fired missiles and artillery at the Ukrainian sea coast near Tuzla, to the south of Odesa, Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said.

“They fired a huge amount of ammunition from a great distance,” he said on Facebook.

Gerashchenko said Russia wanted to test Ukraine’s coastal defense system.

He said there was no attempt to land troops. He didn’t say whether any of the shelling hit anything.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Ukraine said a fourth Russian general has been killed in the fighting.

Maj. Gen. Oleg Mityaev died Tuesday during the storming of Mariupol, said Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko, who published a photo on Telegram of what he said was the dead officer.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reported the death of another Russian general in his nighttime address but didn’t name him.

Mityaev, 46, commanded the 150th motorized rifle division and had fought in Syria, Gerashchenko said.

There was no confirmation of the death from Russia.

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NEW YORK — The Russian state television employee who was arrested after interrupting a live news program by protesting the war in Ukraine said she was not allowed to sleep in police custody and was interrogated for 14 hours.

“These were very difficult days of my life because I literally went two full days without sleep, the interrogation lasted for more than 14 hours and they didn’t allow me to contact my family and close friends, didn’t provide any legal support,” Marina Ovsyannikova said after she was released.

Ovsyannikova, an employee of Channel 1, walked into the studio during Monday’s evening news show with a poster saying “stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.” In English, it said “no war” at the top of the poster and “Russians against the war” at the bottom.

In a video recorded before her action, she urged Russians to join anti-war protests and said that “Russia is the aggressor country and one person, Vladimir Putin, solely bears responsibility for that aggression.”

She was fined 30,000 rubles (about $270) on charges of organizing unsanctioned actions for her call to take part in demonstrations against the war.

The state news agency Tass said Ovsyannikova was fined for the video, not for her appearance during the news show.

She remains under investigation for that on-air protest, Tass said, citing a law enforcement source. Tass said Ovsyannikova is being investigated under a new law against the dissemination of “deliberately false information” about the use of Russian armed forces, which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

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