The U.N. migration agency estimates that nearly 6.5 million people have now been displaced inside Ukraine, on top of the 3.2 million refugees who have already fled the country.
The estimates from the International Organization for Migration suggests Ukraine is fast on a course in just three weeks toward the levels of displacement from Syria’s devastating war – which has driven about 13 million people from their homes both in the country and abroad.
The findings come in a paper issued Friday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It cited the IOM figures as “a good representation of the scale of internal displacement in Ukraine — calculated to stand at 6.48 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine as of March 16.”
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KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Russia has attacked the outskirts of the western city of Lviv, a crossroads for people fleeing the war and for others entering to deliver aid or fight.
— President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally in Moscow and praised the Russian military
— President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke as the White House looks to deter Beijing from providing assistance to Russia.
— Rescuers search for survivors at a Mariupol theater hit by Russian airstrike; 130 rescued, hundreds still missing
— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TODAY:
WASHINGTON — There have been no indications that Russia is moving troops out of Syria to bolster its forces in Ukraine, or that any more than a few Syrian fighters have been recruited to join the war, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Friday.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters that he has seen little change in Russian military activities in Syria. And he added that the U.S. military still has and uses a deconfliction phone line with the Russians in Syria, in contrast to the mixed success the U.S. has had in maintaining such contact in connection with the Ukraine war.
“We can always contact them if we have a problem. They’ll always pick up the phone, and we feel that we respond in kind to them,” said McKenzie about the Russians, whose forces in Syria support the regime of President Bashar Assad. “That relationship has been very, very professional.”
McKenzie, who is retiring after three years at the head of U.S. Central Command, said he also has seen no indication that Russia is moving any troops or assets from Syria or central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, to Ukraine. And he said he also has seen no evidence that “the temperature is rising” between Russia and the U.S. in Syria as a result of the Ukraine war.
LONDON — Britain’s defense intelligence chief says Russia is shifting to a ”strategy of attrition” after failing to reach its goals in the invasion of Ukraine.
Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull says Russian forces have changed their approach after failing to take major Ukrainian cities during the three-week invasion.
He said Friday that the battle of attrition “will involve the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower. This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis.”
Western officials say Russian forces have enough artillery ammunition to keep up the bombardments for weeks or even longer.
Despite the fact that there have been thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties, Russia denies targeting civilians during what it calls a special military operation in Ukraine.
ROME — For the second time this week, Italy’s financial police have carried out measures to freeze luxurious assets of Russian magnates being sanctioned by the European Union for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The latest action on Friday involved the seaside villa, valued at some 105 million euros ($116 million) and located in the Sardinian town of Portisco, belonging to Alexei Mordaschov, a steel baron, Italian media said.
Just a few days earlier, a sprawling real estate complex on Sardinia’s coast belonging to Petr Aven, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sequestered. A yacht moored off the Italian Riviera and belonging to Mordaschov was sequestered earlier this month by Italian authorities. That vessel is valued at 27 million euros ($30 million).
ATLANTA — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Friday played down recent comments by the head of Russia’s space agency that the United States would have to use broomsticks to fly to space after Russia said it would stop supplying rocket engines to U.S. companies.
“That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us,” Nelson told The Associated Press. “The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control.”
The war has resulted in canceled spacecraft launches and broken contracts, and many worry Rogozin is putting decades of a peaceful off-planet partnership at risk, most notably at the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is due to leave the International Space Station with two Russians aboard a Soyuz capsule for a touchdown in Kazakhstan on March 30.
NASA has said Vande Hei’s homecoming plans remain unchanged.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke Friday for nearly two hours via a video call as the White House looks to deter Beijing from providing military or economic assistance for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China’s Foreign Ministry was the first to issue a readout of the conversation, deploring “conflict and confrontation” as “not in anyone’s interest,” without assigning any blame to Russia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a Twitter message called the U.S. position “overbearing.”
Ahead of the call, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would question Xi about Beijing’s “rhetorical support” of Putin and an “absence of denunciation” of Russia’s invasion.
LVIV, Ukraine — Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show the Russian strike on the Lviv airport Friday destroyed the repair hangar just to the west of the north end of its runway. Firetrucks stood parked amid the rubble.
A row of fighter jets near the hangar appeared intact, though an apparent impact crater sat right in front of them. Two other buildings nearby the hangar also appear to have taken direct hits in the strike, with debris littered around them.
The early morning attack on Lviv’s edge was the closest strike yet to the center of the city, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or fight. The war has swelled Lviv’s population by some 200,000.
BERLIN — Switzerland is adopting the latest round of European Union sanctions against Russia targeting luxury goods and banning rating agencies from working with Russian clients.
The Swiss government said Friday that it will echo the EU’s fourth package of sanctions imposed on Russia following its attack on Ukraine.
It said that “the ban on the export of luxury goods contained in the new sanctions affects only a small portion of Switzerland’s global exports of such goods.”
However, it said that “specific companies could be seriously affected,” without naming them.
Unlike the EU and the United States, Switzerland has not yet decided whether to remove Russia from its list of “most favored” trading partners.
MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Officials say 130 people have been rescued from the ruins of a theater that served as a shelter when it was blasted by a Russian airstrike Wednesday in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday that 130 people had survived the theater bombing.
“As of now, we know that 130 people have been evacuated, but according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”
ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s prime minister is offering to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol that was bombed by Russian forces last week.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted Friday that “Greece is ready to rebuild the maternity hospital in Mariupol, the center of the Greek minority in Ukraine.”
Some 100,000 people of Greek origin were living in the besieged city before the Russian invasion.
Mitsotakis called Mariupol “a city dear to our hearts and symbol of the barbarity of the war.”
Associated Press journalists documented the attack and saw the victims and damage firsthand. They shot video and photos of several bloodstained, pregnant mothers fleeing the blown-out maternity ward as medical workers shouted and children cried.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Finnish government has begun posting information in Russian about the invasion of Ukraine.
“We … want to provide Russian speakers with fact-based information from the authorities,” the Finnish government tweeted Friday.
The move comes in the face of a Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign that aims to strengthen domestic support for the invasion and undermine the resolve of Ukrainians.
The website of the Finnish government is available in Finnish and Swedish — the Nordic country’s two official languages — and in English.
President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally Friday at a Moscow stadium on the eighth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Putin, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people waving Russian flags at the Luzhniki Stadium, praised the Russian military for its actions in Ukraine.
“Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” Putin said in a rare public appearance. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
Before Putin spoke, bands played patriotic Soviet songs about national identity and speakers praised Putin as fighting “Nazism” in Ukraine, a claim flatly rejected by leaders across the globe.
Some people, including presenters at the event, wore T-shirts or jackets with a “Z” — a symbol seen on Russian tanks and military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by supporters of the war.
ROME — Pope Francis has denounced the “perverse abuse of power” on display in Russia’s war in Ukraine. He is calling for aid to Ukrainians who he said had been attacked in their “identity, history and tradition” and were “defending their land.”
Francis’ comments, in a message Friday to a gathering of European Catholic representatives, marked some of his strongest yet in asserting Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state and to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
It came just days after Francis told the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, that the concept of a “just war” was obsolete since wars are never justifiable and that pastors must preach peace, not politics.
WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s border agency says that the 2 million mark for the number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland was reached Friday morning.
A European Union nation of some 38 million people, Poland has become the main destination for people fleeing war in neighboring, non-EU Ukraine, with which Poland shares almost 540 kilometers (335 miles) of border.
The first refugees came Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. They are chiefly women and children, because men aged 18-60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine to be available to fight in the country’s defense.
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Friday that more than 3.27 million people have fled Ukraine, a nation of some 44 million, since Russia’s attack.
GENEVA — The U.N. refugee agency says it’s noticing a slowdown in the number of people fleeing Ukraine, though its estimate of internally displaced people from the fighting has soared in the wake of evacuations from embattled cities like Mariupol and Sumy.
Speaking by video conference from Poland, UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh said the number of refugee arrivals, “particularly here in Poland, has been falling in recent days.” Some of those fleeing the violence may have been “recuperating” in the western city of Lviv and “waiting to see whether they should cross the border or not.”
Saltmarsh said UNHCR’s latest estimate of people internally displaced in Ukraine was now above 2 million. He said it was not possible to estimate how many of those might travel abroad. UNHCR has previously projected that 4 million people, or more, could flee Ukraine.
In Poland, which has taken about two-thirds of the some 3.2 million refugees from Ukraine, those arriving in recent days appear “more traumatized” and “in shock,” Saltmarsh said, and often come without a plan for where to go.
More than 93,000 people fled Ukraine on Thursday, according to UNCHR, the lowest single-day figure since fighting began on Feb. 24. That was down from peaks of more than 200,000 daily on two consecutive days in early March.
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Three Baltic countries have ordered the expulsion of Russian embassy staff members in a coordinated action taken in solidarity with Ukraine.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry said on Friday that four Russian embassy staff are no longer welcome in the country, while in neighboring Latvia, three Russian staff were declared persona non grata.
Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania, Aleksei Isakov, was informed that their activities were incompatible with the status of a diplomat, according to the official statement of the Lithuanian foreign ministry.
“Lithuania has made such a decision in solidarity with Ukraine, which is experiencing unprecedented Russian military aggression” the statement reads.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that the expulsion of the embassy staff was a coordinated action of the Baltic States, which include former Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Estonia also announced on Friday that it was ordering three staff of the Russian Embassy in the capital Tallinn to leave the country.
BUCHAREST, Romania — A 35-year-old Romanian soldier died in an accident Friday during a tank driving exercise at the country’s western Smardan military facility, Romania’s ministry of defense said.
“The soldier coordinated maneuvers in order to start moving a tank,” the ministry’s statement reads, “at which point he was caught between the moving tank.”
Emergency services were called to the scene but the soldier, who was married and had been employed by the Romanian military since 2008, died of his injuries.
Romania’s Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca sent condolences to the deceased soldier’s family, writing online that “a routine training activity turned into a tragedy” and that a “young man lost his life in the line of duty.”
The Smardan military base in Galati County has been used for NATO training exercises as recently as March 8, after the alliance bolstered forces in response to Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine.
County police are conducting on-the-spot investigations and military prosecutors have been informed about the fatal accident.
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Bulgaria says it has declared 10 Russian diplomats “persona non grata” and demanded their expulsion.
In a statement on Friday, Bulgaria’s foreign ministry said that Bulgaria’s prime minister Kiril Petkov had been consulted on the expulsions.
An official note was handed to Russia’s ambassador in the capital Sofia requiring that the diplomats leave Bulgaria within 72 hours over their alleged involvement in “activities incompatible with their diplomatic status,” the statement said.
European Union and NATO member Bulgaria, which was one of Moscow’s closest allies in the Soviet bloc, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has expelled 10 other Russian diplomats suspected of espionage since October 2019.
WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says that Poland will formally submit a proposal for a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission on Ukraine’s territory at next week’s extraordinary NATO summit.
Morawiecki stressed Friday that Poland had already made the proposal during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday. Denmark has expressed readiness to join such a mission.
The idea for a NATO or wider international peacekeeping mission under military protection was launched by Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski during a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday by the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
Kaczynski, who is Poland’s ruling party leader and the country’s key politician, stressed in Kyiv that the mission would be in line with international law and would not constitute any form of hostile action.
NATO leaders have been opposed to the alliance’s presence in Ukraine over concerns it could escalate the conflict.
Danish Defense Minister Morten Bødskov said Wednesday that “if it comes to that, Denmark is ready to contribute. We have decades of experience in this field of work, and I definitely think that Denmark can contribute to this and make a difference.”
President Joe Biden is to attend the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday that will focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and European security.
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Friday that NATO’s entire defense of its eastern flank “must be rewritten strategically,” and that few had thought Russia “had aggressive intentions at the level we see now.”
Landsbergis said that NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg had already announced a review of the military alliance’s security strategy in the east in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Lithuania, a Baltic nation which is a member of NATO, shares land borders with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and with Belarus, a Moscow ally.
Landsbergis said that Russia “has proven that it is a country willing to cross all borders.” He added that before the invasion, “many of us were sure that deterrence was enough.”
BERLIN — German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has indicated that her country should consider imposing an oil embargo on Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.
In a security policy speech Friday, she said it was important to take a stance and not remain silent due to economic or energy dependency.
“Even if it’s difficult, including on questions now with regard to oil or other embargoes,” said Baerbock.
Germany receives about a third of its oil from Russia and half of its coal and natural gas.
Baerbock also warned against China’s growing influence over energy infrastructure in Africa and Asia, saying Germany will soon propose a new strategy on dealing with Beijing.
BERLIN — A spokesman for Olaf Scholz says the German chancellor spoke Friday by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him to agree to an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine.
During the hour-long call, Scholz also called for an improvement to the humanitarian situation and progress in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre wants an extra allocation of 3.5 billion kroner ($400 million) for 2022 to strengthen NATO member Norway’s Armed Forces and civil preparedness.
Gahr Støre told Norway’s parliament that the money will be used to “strengthen our ability to prevent, deter and deal with digital attacks.”
“These are necessary measures because we are facing a more unpredictable and aggressive Russian regime,” Gahr Støre said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has raised the alert of his nuclear weapons forces. It contributes to more uncertainty in an already tense situation.”
He said Norway “is NATO’s eyes in the north.”
In a speech to the Scandinavian country’s parliament about Ukraine, Gahr Støre said Norway was gearing up “to handle an extraordinary situation with up to 100,000 refugees.”
“We do not know how long the war will last, or how many will come here. But in any case, it will put us to a historical test,” he said.
LVIV, Ukraine — Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said Friday on Telegram that several missiles hit a facility used to repair military aircraft and damaged a bus repair facility, though no casualties were immediately reported.
The plant had suspended work ahead of the attack, the mayor said.
The missiles that hit Lviv were launched from the Black Sea, but two of the six that were launched were shot down, Ukrainian air force’s western command said on Facebook.
NEW DELHI — An Indian official says the state-run Indian Oil Corp. bought 3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia earlier this week to secure its energy needs, resisting Western pressure to avoid such purchases.
The official said India will be looking to purchase more oil from Russia despite calls not to from the U.S. and other countries due to the invasion of Ukraine. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter, said India has no such sanctions.
Imports make up nearly 85% of India’s oil needs. Its demand is projected to jump 8.2% this year to 5.15 million barrels per day as the economy recovers from the devastation caused by the pandemic.
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was thankful to U.S. President Joe Biden for the additional military aid but said he would not say specifically what the new package included because he didn’t want to tip off Russia.
“This is our defense,” he said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “When the enemy doesn’t know what to expect from us. As they didn’t know what awaited them after Feb. 24,” the day Russia invaded. “They didn’t know what we had for defense or how we prepared to meet the blow.”
Zelenskyy said Russia expected to find Ukraine much as it did in 2014, when it seized Crimea without a fight and backed separatists as they took control of the eastern Donbas region. But Ukraine is now a different country, with much stronger defenses, he said.
He said it also was not the time to reveal Ukraine’s tactics in the ongoing negotiations with Russia. “Working more in silence than on television, radio or on Facebook,” Zelenskyy said. “I consider it the right way.”
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