Live updates | Ukraine demands corridor for Mariupol holdout

KYIV, Ukraine — A senior Ukrainian official is demanding that the Russian military open a humanitarian corridor from the Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Thursday on the messaging app Telegram that “there are about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there. They all need to be pulled out of Azovstal today!”

Vereshchuk called on “world leaders and the international community to focus their efforts now on Azovstal.” She said it was a “key point and a key moment for humanitarian efforts.”

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:

— Putin tells forces not to storm Ukraine holdout in Mariupol

— China’s Xi urges dispute resolution, opposes sanctions

— Biden set to announce new military assistance for Ukraine

— AP-NORC poll: Many say Biden not tough enough on Russia

Follow all AP stories on Russia’s war on Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

BERLIN — Official figures from Germany show that the country’s exports to Russia plunged in March as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.

The Federal Statistical Office said on Thursday that exports to Russia were down 57.5% compared with a year earlier, at 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion), as a result of sanctions and other decisions by companies.

That left Russia as the No. 12 destination outside the European Union for German exports, compared with No. 5 in February.

Germany has Europe’s biggest economy.

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BEIJING — A Russian news outlet is reporting that China’s credit card processor has refused to work with banks in Russia for fear of being targeted by sanctions over its war on Ukraine, cutting off a possible alternative after Visa and Mastercard stopped serving them.

RBC reported Wednesday that UnionPay’s decision affects Sberbank, Russia’s biggest commercial bank, and smaller institutions. It cited five unidentified sources in large Russian banks.

Mastercard and Visa suspended operations in Russia after the United States and other governments imposed trade and financial sanctions on President Vladimir Putin’s government for its attack on Ukraine.

Sberbank and another institution, Tinkoff Bank, announced they were looking at switching to UnionPay, which is operated by Chinese state-owned banks. UnionPay is one of the biggest global payments processors but does almost all its business in China.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol but to block it “so that not even a fly comes through.”

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin on Thursday that the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian forces were holed up was “securely blocked” while the rest of the city was “liberated,” which Putin hailed as “success.”

Leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands, however, robs the Russians of the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol. The city’s capture has both strategic and symbolic importance.

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LONDON — Britain’s defense ministry says Russian forces in Ukraine are advancing from staging areas in the Donbas region toward the city of Kramatorsk, which is the target of “persistent” rocket attacks.

In an intelligence update posted Thursday morning, the ministry says Russian forces may increase the intensity and forcefulness of operations in Ukraine as the Kremlin seeks to demonstrate “significant successes” before the annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9, which commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The ministry also reports “high levels” of activity by Russian air forces as they provide close air support to the offensive in eastern Ukraine and try to suppress Ukraine’s air defenses.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Kyiv regional police said Thursday two mass graves with nine bodies were discovered the day before in the city of Borodyanka northwest of the Ukrainian capital.

Head of the Kyiv regional police Andriy Nebytov said two women and a teenager were among the “civilians killed by the Russian occupants.”

“I want to stress that these people are civilians. The Russian military deliberately shot civilians that didn’t put up any resistance and didn’t pose any threat,” Nebytov said, adding that some of the victims were apparently tortured.

All of the bodies were transported to the morgues of the Kyiv region for further forensic study.

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MADRID — Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen have arrived in Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian President, Sánchez’s office has announced.

The three leaders will be holding a press conference later Thursday in the Ukrainian capital, it said in a statement.

“I look forward to the meeting with Zelenskyy, where my message will be that Denmark will continue to help Ukraine,” Frederiksen said in a statement announcing her arrival in Kyiv Thursday. “The West stands together to support the Ukrainian people.”

Frederiksen is the first Nordic leader to travel to Kyiv since Russia began its invasion Feb. 24.

Sánchez’s office had announced earlier this week that the prime minister would travel to Ukraine following the visits by several European leaders, but officials had cited security concerns to avoid specifying the visit’s exact date.

Spain has also announced that it will reopen its embassy in the Ukrainian capital after closing it down within hours of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk says only four buses evacuating civilians were able to leave Mariupol on Wednesday.

In a short statement on the messaging app Telegram, Vereshchuk said that the effort to evacuate women, children and the elderly will continue on Thursday. She warned that “the security situation remains difficult.”

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s General Staff said Thursday in their morning update that the Russian forces continue the offensive in the east of the country with the goal of establishing full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The Ukrainian forces in the two regions have repelled nine Russian attacks over the past 24 hours, destroying one tank, 10 armored units and two vehicles, one artillery system, two special engineering units, an anti-aircraft missile system and an ammunition depot, according to the update posted on the General Staff’s Facebook page.

The Russian military also continue “to launch missile and bomb strikes on military and civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine,” the General Staff said.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is being shelled and partially blocked.

In the southern Kherson region, which Russia has claimed to fully control, the Russian military “plan to organize the forced mobilization of the population for war with Ukraine,” as well as cut off “humanitarian support of the region from the Ukrainian authorities,” the General Staff said.

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is set to announce plans Thursday to send additional military aid to help Ukraine fight back against the Russian invasion, according to a U.S. official.

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Biden will deliver a Thursday morning address at the White House detailing his plans to build on the roughly $2.6 billion in military assistance the administration has already approved for Ukraine.

The new package is expected to be similar in size to the $800 million package Biden announced last week. It includes much-needed heavy artillery and ammunition for Ukrainian forces in the escalating battle for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also said his country will send heavy artillery to Ukraine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the Netherlands will send more heavy weapons, including armored vehicles.

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Aamer Madhani and Darlene Superville reported from Washington.

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LVIV, Ukraine — The Luhansk governor said Russian forces now control 80% of the region, which is one of two regions that make up the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

One of Russia’s stated goals is to expand the territory in the Donbas under the control of Moscow-backed separatists.

Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.

Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians, who renewed their offensive this week in eastern and southern Ukraine, have strengthened their attacks in the Luhansk region.

After seizing Kreminna, Haidai said the Russians now are threatening the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna and he has urged all residents to evacuate immediately.

The Donetsk region, also part of the Donbas, has seen extremely heavy fighting as well, particularly around the port city of Mariupol.

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KHARKIV, Ukraine — Some residents of the eastern city of Kharkiv have been living in basements for weeks, hoping to stay safe from Russian shelling. With no running water, gas or electricity, they collect rainwater and cook on open fires, burning debris from wooden buildings destroyed by the shelling.

In the Saltivka neighborhood, some have sought shelter in a school basement, where they have used school desks, tables and chairs to make beds. More than 300 people slept in the shelter in the first days of the war, but most have left for safer places. Now, only a few dozen remain.

As she stirred a large pot of a thin vegetable soup, a woman said volunteers brought them cabbage, beets and canned beans.

“We mixed everything together and made borsht,” said Natasha, who gave only her first name.

Another woman pointed up at her damaged apartment. “All the windows and doors were blown off, but the walls held up,” said the woman, who gave only her first name, Larisa. “It’s impossible to stay there as it’s on the eighth floor and when the shelling starts it’s not for the faint of heart.”

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