Ex-rebel frontrunner in Colombian vote, could shake US ties

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Fabian Espinel last year helped organize roadblocks where young people protested against police violence and government plans to increase taxes on lower income Colombians. Now, as his country heads into its presidential election Sunday, he walks the streets of the capital’s working-class sectors handing out flyers and painting murals in support of Gustavo Petro, the front-runner candidate who could become Colombia’s first leftist head of state.

“Young people in this country are stuck. We hope Petro can change that.” said Espinel, who lost his job as an event planner during the pandemic and received no compensation from his company. “We need an economic model that is different than the one that has been failing us for years.”

Colombians will pick from six candidates in a ballot being held amid a generalized feeling the country is heading in the wrong direction. The latest opinion polls suggest Petro, a former rebel, could get 40% of the votes, with a 15-point lead over his closest rival. But the senator needs 50% to avoid a runoff election in June against the second-place finisher.

Should Petro win outright Sunday or the possible runoff contest next month, the leftist anti-establishment candidate would usher in a new era of presidential politics in Colombia. The country has always been governed by conservatives or moderates while the left was sidelined due to its perceived association with the nation’s armed conflict.

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“The left has been quite marginalized due to the weight of the armed conflict in Colombia, to the very recent existence of a guerrilla that claimed to be leftist like the FARC,” Yann Basset, a political analyst and professor at the Universidad del Rosario, said referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. “The change occurs with the peace agreement, which lifts this mortgage for the left a little and promotes a different agenda with social issues suspended by the conflict.”

His main rival through most of the campaign has been Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is backed by most of Colombia’s traditional parties and is running on a pro-business, economic growth platform.

But populist real estate tycoon Rodolfo Hernández has been rising fast in polls and could challenge for the second spot in Sunday’s vote. He has few connections to political parties and says he will reduce wasteful government spending and offer rewards for Colombians who denounce corrupt officials.

Petro promises to make significant adjustments to the economy as well as change how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His agenda largely centers on fighting inequalities that have affected the South American nation’s people for decades and became worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He has promised government jobs to people who can’t get work, free college tuition for young Colombians and subsidies for farmers who are struggling to grow crops, which he says he will pay for by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

His agenda also touches on issues that could shake up Colombia’s tight-knit relationship with the United States.

Adam Isacson, an expert on defense policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said if Petro wins the election “there will be more disagreement and distance” between both countries.

Petro wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S. that has boosted imports of American products like powdered milk and corn. and instead favor local producers.

He also promises to change how Colombia fights drug cartels that produce around 90% of cocaine currently sold in the U.S. The senator often criticizes U.S. drug policy in the hemisphere, saying it “has failed” because it focuses too much on eradicating illegal crops and arresting kingpins. He wants to boost help for rural areas, to give farmers alternatives to growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Isacson said coca eradication targets could become less of a priority for the Colombian government under a Petro administration, as well as the pace at which drug traffickers who are arrested are sent to the U.S. to face charges,

The election comes as Colombia’s economy struggles to recover from the pandemic and frustration grows with political elites.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month said 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of conservative President Ivan Duque, who cannot run for re-election. A poll last year by Gallup found 60% of those questioned were finding it hard to get by on their household income.

Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota, said the pandemic and the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group have shifted voters’ priorities.

“Whereas previous elections centered around issues like how to deal with rebel groups, now the main issue is the economy,” Guzmán said. “Voters are concerned about who will tackle issues like inequality or the lack of opportunities for youth.”

If Petro or Hernández should win the presidency, they would join a group of leftist leaders and outsiders who have been taking over Latin American governments since the pandemic started in 2020.

In Chile, leftist legislator Gabriel Boric won the presidential election last year, leading a progressive coalition that promised to change the country’s constitution and make public services like energy and education more affordable.

In Peru, voters elected rural school teacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency although he had never held office. Castillo defied political parties that have been mired in bribery scandals and presidential impeachment trials and bungled the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ecuadorians bucked the leftist trend last year, but still elected an outsider opposition candidate, Gullermo Lasso.

In regional affairs, Petro is looking to re-establish diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Colombia cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019 as part of a U.S.-led effort to isolate Maduro and pressure him with sanctions into holding new elections.

Some observers think Petro could be in a position to mend bridges between Maduro and some sectors of Venezuela’s opposition.

“Solving Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is in Colombia’s interest,” said Ronal Rodríguez, a professor at Bogota’ Rosario university.

Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, said Petro may not have enough leverage to make significant changes to Colombia’s foreign policy.

Efforts to renegotiate the free trade agreement with the United States could be thwarted by legislators in both countries, she said. And when it comes to security, the Colombian military will be reluctant to give up on cooperation agreements with the U.S. that include joint exercises, intelligence sharing and jobs for Colombian military instructors in U.S.-financed courses in other Latin American countries.

Borda said Petro’s ability to change Colombia’s foreign policy could hinge on whether he wins the first round outright. If he has to go to a run-off, she said, he will have to make deals with parties in the center, which might support his domestic reforms in exchange for more control over security and international relations.

“His priority will be to carry out domestic reforms aimed at reducing inequality and overcoming poverty,” Borda said. “Petro understands that if he does that he has a greater chance of consolidating his political movement.”

Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia asserted Saturday that its troops and separatist fighters had captured a key railway junction in eastern Ukraine, the second small city to fall to Moscow’s forces this week as they fought to seize all of the country’s contested Donbas region.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the city of Lyman had been “completely liberated” by a joint force of Russian soldiers and the Kremlin-backed separatists, who have waged war in the eastern region bordering Russia for eight years.

Lyman, which had a population of about 20,000 before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, serves as a regional railway hub. Ukraine’s train system has ferried arms and evacuated citizens during the war, and controlling the city would give Russian troops another foothold for advancing on larger Ukrainian-held cities.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany in which he warned against the continued transfers of Western weapons to Ukraine and blamed the conflict’s disruption to global food supplies on Western sanctions.

During the 80-minute call, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron urged an immediate cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, according to the chancellor’s spokesperson. Both urged Putin to engage in serious direct negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to end the fighting, the spokesperson said.

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A Kremlin readout of the call between Macron, Putin and Scholz phone call said the Russian leader affirmed “the openness of the Russian side to the resumption of dialogue.” The three leaders agreed to stay in contact, according to the readout.

But Russia’s recent progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two provinces that make up the Donbas, could further embolden Putin. Since failing to occupy Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Russia has set out to seize the last parts of the region not controlled by the separatists.

“If Russia did succeed in taking over these areas, it would highly likely be seen by the Kremlin as a substantive political achievement and be portrayed to the Russian people as justifying the invasion,” the British Ministry of Defense said in a Saturday assessment.

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On Tuesday, Russian troops took over Svitlodarsk, a small municipality that hosts a thermal power station, while intensifying efforts to encircle and capture the larger city of Sievierodonetsk.

Fighting continued Saturday around Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk, which are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province. Zelenskyy called the situation in the east was “difficult” but expressed confidence his country would prevail with help from Western weapons and sanctions.

“If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” he said.

The governor of Luhansk had warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to retreat from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded but reported Saturday that they had repelled an attack.

“We managed to push back the Russians to their previous positions,” Gov. Serhii Haidai said. “However, they do not abandon their attempts to encircle our troops and disrupt logistics in the Luhansk region.”

Speaking on Ukrainian TV later Saturday, the governor said the Russians had seized a hotel on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk. The advance of Russian forces raised fears that residents would experience the same horrors as people in the southeastern port city Mariupol in the weeks before it fell.

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said Friday that some 1,500 civilians in the city with a prewar population of around 100,000 have died there during the war, including from a lack of medicine or because of diseases that could not be treated. About 12,000 to 13,000 residents remain in the city, Striuk said.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers worked to evacuate people amid a threatening soundtrack of air raid sirens and booming artillery. AP reporters saw elderly and ill civilians bundled into soft stretchers and slowly carried down apartment building stairs Friday in Bakhmut, a city in northeast Donetsk province.

Svetlana Lvova, the manager of two buildings in Bakhmut, tried to convince reluctant residents to leave but said she and her husband would not evacuate until their son, who was in Sieverodonetsk, returned home.

“I have to know he is alive. That’s why I’m staying here,” Lvova, 66, said.

A nearly three-month siege of Mariupol ended last week when Russia claimed the city’s complete. The city became a symbol of mass destruction and human suffering, as well as of Ukrainian determination to defend the country. More than 20,000 of its civilians are feared dead.

Mariupol’s port reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing mines in the Azov Sea off the once-vibrant city. Russian state news agency Tass reported that a vessel bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered Mariupol’s seaport early Saturday.

The Kremlin said that Putin emphasized during “an in-depth exchange of views” with Macron and Scholz that Russia was working to “establish a peaceful life in Mariupol and other liberated cities in the Donbas.”

Ukrainian authorities have reported that Kremlin-installed officials in seized cities have started airing Russian news broadcasts, introduced Russian area codes, imported Russian school curriculum and taken other steps to annex the areas.

Russian-held areas of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region have switched to Moscow time and “will no longer switch to daylight-saving time, as is customary in Ukraine,” Russia’s state RIA Novosti agency quoted Krill Stremousov, a Russian-installed local official, as saying Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian navy said Saturday morning that Russian ships “continue to block civilian navigation in the waters of the Black and Azov seas” along Ukraine’s southern coast, “making them a zone of hostilities.”

The war in Ukraine has caused global food shortages because the country is a major exporter of grain and other commodities. Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations over which side was responsible for keeping shipments tied up, with Russia saying Ukrainian sea mines prevented safe passage.

The press service of the Ukrainian Naval Forces said two Russian missile carriers “capable of carrying up to 16 missiles” were ready for action in the Black Sea. It said that only shipping routes which had been established through multilateral treaties could be considered safe.

Ukrainian officials pressed Western nations for more sophisticated and powerful weapons, especially multiple launch rocket systems. The U.S. Defense Department would not confirm a Friday CNN report saying the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine.

Russia’s U.S. ambassador on Saturday branded such a move as “unacceptable” called on the Biden administration to “abandon statements about the military victory of Ukraine.”

A Telegram post published on the Russian embassy’s official channel cited Anatoliy Antonov, Moscow’s top diplomat in Washington, as saying that “the unprecedented pumping of weapons into Ukraine significantly increases the risks of an escalation of the conflict.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the Russian navy successfully launched a new hypersonic missile from the Barents Sea. The ministry said the recently developed Zircon hypersonic cruise missile had struck its target about 1,000 kilometers away.

If confirmed, the launch could spell trouble for NATO voyages in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Zircon, described as the world’s fastest non-ballistic missile, can be armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, and is said to be impossible to stop with current anti-missile defense systems.

Moscow’s claims, which could not be immediately verified, came a week after Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that Russia would form new military units in the west of the country in response to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.

Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP journalists around the world contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war

Fleeing the Russians: Evacuations are slow, arduous, fraught

BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — To a threatening soundtrack of air raid sirens and booming artillery, civilians are fleeing towns and cities in eastern Ukraine as Russian forces advance.

Negotiating narrow apartment building staircases, volunteers carry the elderly and infirm in their arms, in stretchers or in wheelchairs to waiting minibuses, which then drive them to central staging areas and eventually to evacuation trains in other cities.

“The Russians are right over there, and they’re closing in on this location,” Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase, said during an evacuation in the town of Bakhmut on Friday.

“Bakhmut is a high-risk area right now,” he said. “We’re trying to get as many people out as we can in case the Ukrainians have to fall back.”

He and other Ukrainian and foreign volunteers working with the Ukrainian charity Vostok SOS, which was coordinating the evacuation effort, were hoping to get about 100 people out of Bakhmut on Friday, Poppert said.

A few hours earlier, the thud of artillery sounded and black smoke rose from the northern fringes of the town, which is in the Donetsk region in Ukraine’s industrial east. Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk makes up the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled some territory for eight years.

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The evacuation process is painstaking, physically arduous and fraught with emotion.

Many of the evacuees are elderly, ill or have serious mobility problems, meaning volunteers have to bundle them into soft stretchers and slowly negotiate their way through narrow corridors and down flights of stairs in apartment buildings.

Most people have already fled Bakhmut: only around 30,000 remain from a pre-war population of 85,000. And more are leaving each day.

Fighting has raged north of Bakhmut as Russian forces intensify their efforts to seize the key eastern cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk, 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the northeast. The two cities are the last areas under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region.

Northwest of Bakhmut in Donetsk, Russia-backed rebels said Friday they had taken over the town of Lyman, a large railway hub near the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both which are still under Ukrainian control. On Thursday, smoke rising from the direction of Lyman could be seen clearly from Slovyansk.

But even when faced with shelling, missiles and an advancing Russian army, leaving isn’t easy.

Svetlana Lvova, the 66-year-old manager for two apartment buildings in Bakhmut, huffed and rolled her eyes in exasperation upon hearing that yet another one of her residents was refusing to leave.

“I can’t convince them to go,” she said. “I told them several times if something lands here, I will be carrying them — injured — to the same buses” that have come to evacuate them now.

She’s tried to persuade the holdouts every way she can, she says, but nearly two dozen people just won’t budge. They’re more afraid to leave their homes and belongings for an uncertain future than to stay and face the bombs.

She herself will stay in Bakhmut with her husband, she said. But not because they fear leaving their property. They are waiting for their son, who is still in Sieverodonetsk, to come home.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I have to know he is alive. That’s why I’m staying here.”

Lvova plays the last video her son sent her, where he tells his mother that he is fine, and that they still have electricity in the city but no longer running water.

“I baked him a big cake,” she said, wiping away tears.

Poppert, the American volunteer, said it was not unusual to receive a request to pick people up for evacuation, only for them to change their minds once the van arrives.

“It’s an incredibly difficult decision for these people to leave the only world that they know,” he said.

He described one man in his late 90s evacuated from the only home he had ever known.

“We were taking this man out of his world,” Poppert said. “He was terrified of the bombs and the missiles, and he was terrified to leave.”

In nearby Pokrovsk, ambulances pulled up to offload elderly women in stretchers and wheelchairs for the evacuation train heading west, away from the fighting. Families clustered around, dragging suitcases and carrying pets as they boarded the train.

The train slowly pulled out of the station, and a woman drew back the curtain in one of the train carriages. As the familiar landscape slipped away, her face crumpled in grief and the tears began to flow.

WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox in more than 20 countries

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease, but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.

During a public briefing on Friday, the U.N. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.

“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behaviour,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.

Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.

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Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount. On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.

U.K. officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106, while Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases. And authorities in Argentina on Friday reported a monkeypox case in a man from Buenos Aires, marking Latin America’s first infection. Officials said the man had traveled recently to Spain and now had symptoms consistent with monkeypox, including lesions and a fever.

Doctors in Britain, Spain, Portugal, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have noted that the majority of infections to date have been in gay and bisexual men, or men who have sex with men. The disease is no more likely to affect people because of their sexual orientation and scientists warn the virus could infect others if transmission isn’t curbed.

WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”

Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.

As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the U.S. begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to stem the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission. No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85% effective.

She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.

Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.

“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said. “So the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid, and Daniel Politi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.

Shanghai lockdown: Residents demand release, and some get it

BEIJING (AP) — On a balmy Sunday night, residents of an upscale Shanghai compound took to the streets to decry lockdown restrictions imposed by their community. By the following morning, they were free to leave.

The triumphant story quickly spread on chat groups across the Chinese city this week, sparking one question in the minds of those who remained under lockdown: Shouldn’t we do the same?

By the end of the week, other groups of residents had confronted management in their complexes, and some had won at least a partial release.

While it’s unclear how widespread they are, the incidents reflect the frustration that has built up after more than seven weeks of lockdown, even as the number of new daily cases has fallen to a few hundred in a city of 25 million people.

They also are a reminder of the power of China’s neighborhood committees that the ruling Communist Party relies on to spread propaganda messages, enforce its decisions and even settle personal disputes. Such committees and the residential committees under them have become the target of complaints, especially after some in Shanghai and other cities refused to allow residents out even after official restrictions were relaxed.

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More than 21 million people in Shanghai are now in “precaution zones,” the least restrictive category. In theory, they are free to go out. In practice, the decision is up to their residential committees, resulting in a kaleidoscope of arbitrary rules.

Some are allowed out, but only for a few hours with a specially issued pass for one day or certain days of the week. Some places permit only one person per household to leave. Others forbid people to leave at all.

“We have already been given at least three different dates when we are going to reopen, and none of them were real,” said Weronika Truszczynska, a graduate student from Poland who posted vlogs about her experience.

“The residential committee told us you can wait a week, we are going to reopen probably on June 1st,” she said. “No one believed it.”

Two days after the Sunday night breakout at the upscale Huixianju compound, more than a dozen residents of Truszczynska’s complex confronted their managers on a rainy Tuesday,

The residents, who were mostly Chinese, demanded to be allowed to leave without time limits or restrictions on how many per household. After the demands were not met, some returned to protest a second day. This time, four police officers stood watch.

On Thursday afternoon, community representatives knocked on the doors of each resident with a new policy: Write their name and apartment number on a list, take a temperature check, scan a barcode — and they were free to leave.

“We got the possibility of going out just because we were brave enough to protest,” Truszczynska said of her fellow residents.

The Shanghai lockdown has also prompted resistance from people being taken away to quarantine and workers required to sleep at their workplaces. Videos on social media showed what were said to be employees of a factory operated by Taiwan’s Quanta Computer Inc. trying to force their way out of the facility in early May.

The party’s strict anti-virus campaign has been aided by an urban environment in which hundreds of millions of people in China live in gated apartment compounds or walled neighborhoods that can be easily blocked off.

The front line for enforcement are the neighborhood committees that are responsible for keeping track of every resident in every urban household nationwide and enforcing public health and sanitation rules.

Many tend to err on the side of over-enforcement, aware of the example made of public officials who are fired or criticized for failing in their pandemic prevention duties.

The importance of neighborhood committees dwindled in the 1990s as the Communist Party relaxed restrictions on the movement of citizens, but they have been undergoing a resurgence in an ongoing tightening of societal controls under President Xi Jinping.

The incident at Huixianju prompted others to speak out. In a series of videos that circulated this week, about two dozen people march toward the Western Nanjing Road Police Station, chanting “Respect the law, give me back my life.”

Residents of a compound in Jing’an district saw the gates of neighboring compounds open over the past month — yet theirs remained locked. On Wednesday, about two dozen gathered at the gate, calling out to speak with a representative.

“I want to understand what are the neighborhood leaders planning?” one woman asks in a video of the incident. Another woman chimes in: “Are you making progress?” A third resident points out that they should be free by now, since the compound has been case-free for a while. “Didn’t they say on television that things are opening up? We saw it on television,” an older man says.

The next day, the community issued one-day passes — residents were allowed out for two hours on Friday, with no word on what would happen after that.

Shanghai authorities have declared a June target for life to return to normal. But some people aren’t waiting, pushing the boundaries bit by bit.

On Thursday night, more than a dozen young people gathered for a street concert in the same district where Sunday’s protest took place. Video of the last song, “Tomorrow will be better,” was shared widely on social media.

A police car parked nearby with its flashing red and blue lights and headlights on. As the final song drew to a close, an officer wearing a face shield strode toward the group and said, “OK you’ve had enough fun. It’s time to go back.” The crowd dispersed.

Associated Press researcher Si Chen in Shanghai and writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

Ukraine fears repeat of Mariupol horrors elsewhere in Donbas

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow-backed separatists pounded eastern Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region Friday, claiming to capture a railway hub, as Ukrainian officials pleaded for the sophisticated Western weapons they say they need to stop the onslaught.

The advance of Russian forces raised fears that cities in the region would undergo the same horrors inflicted on the people of the port city Mariupol in the weeks before it fell.

The fighting Friday focused on two key cities: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. They are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas and where Russia-backed separatists have already controlled some territory for eight years. Authorities say 1,500 people in Sievierodonetsk have already died since the war’s start three months ago. Russia-backed rebels also said they’d taken the railway hub of Lyman.

The governor of Luhansk warned that Ukrainian soldiers may have to retreat from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded. But he predicted an ultimate Ukrainian victory. “The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days, as analysts predict,″ Serhiy Haidai wrote on Telegram on Friday. “We will have enough forces and means to defend ourselves.”

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnskyy also struck a defiant tone. In his nightly video address Friday, he said: “If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian.”

For now, Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press that “the city is being systematically destroyed — 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.”

Striuk described conditions in Sievierodonetsk reminiscent of the battle for Mariupol, located in the Donbas’ other province, Donetsk. Now in ruins, the port city was constantly barraged by Russian forces in a nearly three-month siege that ended last week when Russia claimed its capture. More than 20,000 of its civilians are feared dead.

Before the war, Sievierodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, Striuk said, huddled in shelters and largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine. At least 1,500 people have died there because of the war, now in its 93rd day. The figure includes people killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated diseases, a lack of medicine or being trapped under rubble, the mayor said.

In the city’s northeastern quarter, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups tried to capture the Mir Hotel and the area around it, Striuk said.

Hints of Russia’s strategy for the Donbas can be found in Mariupol, where Moscow is consolidating its control through measures including state-controlled broadcast programming and overhauled school curricula, according to an analysis from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Gen. Phillip Breedlove, former head of U.S. European Command for NATO, said Friday during a panel mounted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute that Russia appears to have “once again adjusted its objectives, and fearfully now it seems that they are trying to consolidate and enforce the land that they have rather than focus on expanding it.”

That aggressive push could backfire, however, by seriously depleting Russia’s arsenal. Echoing an assessment from the British Defense Ministry, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “which means that the second army of the world has run out of modernized equipment.”

Russia-backed rebels said Friday that they had taken over Lyman, Donetsk’s large railway hub north of two more key cities still under Ukrainian control. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych acknowledged the loss Thursday night, though a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesperson reported Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to completely push them out.

As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations for heavy weapons, saying it was the one area in which Russia had a clear advantage.

“Without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems we won’t be able to push them back,” he said.

The U.S. Defense Department would not confirm a CNN report that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, perhaps as early as next week. “Certainly we’re mindful and aware of Ukrainian asks, privately and publicly, for what is known as a multiple launch rocket system. And I won’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers hoped to evacuate 100 people from a smaller town. It was a painstaking process: Many of the evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and needed to be carried out of apartment buildings in soft stretchers and wheelchairs.

Minibuses and vans zipped through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west.

“Bakhmut is a high-risk area right now,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We’re trying to get as many people out as we can.”

To the north, neighboring Belarus — used by Russia as a staging ground before the invasion — announced Friday that it was sending troops toward the Ukrainian border.

Some European leaders sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin about easing the global food crisis, exacerbated by Ukraine’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products.

Moscow has sought to shift the blame for the food crisis to the West, calling upon its leaders to lift existing sanctions.

Putin told Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Friday that Ukraine should remove Black Sea mines to allow safe shipping, according to a Kremlin readout of their conversation; Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for the mines near Ukraine’s ports.

Nehammer’s office said the two leaders also discussed a prisoner exchange and said Putin indicated efforts to arrange one would be “intensified.”

Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP journalists around the world contributed.

This story has been edited to correct that 1,500 people have died in Sievierodonetsk alone, not the Donbas region as a whole.

UK minister: Russian meddling ‘must be stopped’ in Bosnia

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visited Bosnia’s capital Thursday to reaffirm the U.K.’s commitment to the ethnically divided Balkan country amid growing fears of what she described as malign influence from Russia.

Truss was meeting with top officials in Sarajevo to announce a deepened security and economic partnership between Bosnia and the U.K. She unveiled a U.K.-backed Western Balkans investment package aimed at providing $100 million for infrastructure and energy projects in the region by 2025.

Truss said the signs of “Russian meddling here today” threatened to take the Balkans back “those darks days” of the 1990s when interethnic conflicts following the breakup of Yugoslavia killed thousands of people.

“This must be stopped,” Truss said after meeting Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic.

“The way we go about this is not by offering compromise and appeasement to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. As Russia meddles here, Putin’s troops are committing atrocities just 700 miles away in Ukraine,” she added. “This country’s tragic history is a reminder of what happens when we fail to stand up to aggression.”

Bosnia has been divided along ethnic lines since a 1992-95 war between its Bosniak, Croat and Serb ethnic communities. The war started when Bosnian Serbs, with the help of the Yugoslav army, tried to create ethnically pure territories with the aim of joining neighboring Serbia.

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Bosnian Serb militias conquered 60% of Bosnia’s territory in less than two months, committing horrendous atrocities against their Bosniak and Croat compatriots. More than 100,000 people were killed and 2 million — more than a half of the country’s population — were left homeless from the war.

In 1995, the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace agreement put an end to the bloodshed in Bosnia by dividing the country into two semi-autonomous parts — one run by the Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The two are linked by weak multiethnic institutions.

The postwar power-sharing system perpetuates a polarized and venomous political climate, and entrenched nationalist leaders continuously stoke ethnic animosities for political gain.

Fears of destabilization have mounted in recent months as the staunchly pro-Russia Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, increased his divisive rhetoric. Dodik has threatened to dismantle the multiethnic institutions, block Bosnia’s long-stated goal of joining NATO and to advocate for the secession of majority Serb areas.

Bosnia condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations but failed to agree on imposing sanctions because of opposition from Dodik and other Serb officials.

Russia’s ambassador has repeatedly praised to Dodik’s anti-Western stance, stating in March that if Bosnia succeeded in gaining NATO membership, Moscow “will have to react to this hostile act.”

Turkovic, Bosnia’s foreign minister, said that with the broader risks posed by the Ukraine war she hoped her country’s Western partners realize that supporting its EU and NATO membership aspirations was “of vital importance not just for us, but for many of them as well.”

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Corporate buzzwords. Technical jargon. Bold but vague pronouncements about climate change and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of CEOs and government leaders this week in Davos, the town in the Swiss Alps, may seem full of important but impersonal announcements.

So what do Davos-goers really think? Here are some voices from the meeting that ends Thursday:


NAME: Allen Blue

TITLE: Co-founder of LinkedIn

Living in Los Angeles, Blue said his family has gotten into the habit of conserving water, as much of California and the Western United States has been in a megadrought for years. They recycle, mostly eat vegetarian, and drive an electric car.

“One of the things that has slowed the world’s response to climate change is that there was a story out there that it was the behaviors of consumers that made the difference,” he said. “It’s not.”

Rather, he said consumers’ choices are limited when businesses only provide solutions or products that aren’t environmentally friendly.

NAME: Francis Suarez

TITLE: Mayor of Miami

Suarez says his family has a Tesla and is putting solar panels on the roof of their house.

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“As a public official, I feel it’s my responsibility to do what I can.”

NAME: Antonia Gawel

TITLE: The World Economic Forum’s Geneva-based head of climate change policy

Gawel’s day job is spent on environmental protection and fighting climate change. Outside of work, Gawel commutes by bike, uses public transportation and educates her two kids about the environment.

“My children are kind of the biggest advocates for these types of issues now. And the thing that I have to say that I love seeing is the schools are actually teaching them about this. My daughter, who is 8 years old, is being taught about wind power, about solar, about the challenges of fossil energy.”

Gawel says such issues were “completely not something that was on our curriculum, at least when I was growing up.”


NAME: Hassan El Houry

TITLE: CEO of Kuwait-based National Aviation Services

“The Russia-Ukraine crisis, I think, sends a strong message to the world that the world will no longer accept aggression and war to solve problems,” El Houry said.

He added that “world also has to accept that there are many aggressors around the world that have been doing what they’re doing for years and decades and have gone unpunished. And we can’t have a double standard where we only single out Russia.”

“There’s things happening in the Middle East everyday, things happening in East Asia every day in South America every day. And we need to shed the light on those as well and say ‘that needs to stop.’ I’m not picking sides. I’m just saying that we need to solve those problems as well.”

NAME: Francis Suarez

TITLE: Mayor of Miami

Suarez said the war has exposed how interconnected the world is, from the workforce to energy shocks to a looming food crisis because of dropped agricultural production from Ukraine.

“As leaders, we have the responsibility to make those connections for people, explain why what happens in one place can affect another and why we should care.”

Davos updates | Iran’s foreign minister talks war, nuke deal

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister sat before an audience of Western business executives and policymakers at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, fielding questions about why Iran has yet to condemn Russia for its invasion in Ukraine and why efforts to revive its nuclear deal have stalled.

It was a rare opportunity for many in the audience to hear directly from Hossein Amirabdollahian, who was interviewed Thursday by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

When pressed on why Iran has not condemned its ally Russia for the war in Ukraine, he said Iran has, just as it had wars “against Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine.”

In Ukraine, however, he says the U.S. and NATO were involved in actions that provoked Moscow.

On stalled nuclear talks, he says some people in Iran and the U.S. are against reviving the accord for their own reasons, including members of Iran’s elected parliament.

Amirabdollahian says he thought U.S. President Joe Biden “is facing some kind of inaction. I hope that the American side will act and behave realistically.”

He added that Iran is “keeping the window of diplomacy open” and that the Trump administration’s sanctions must be lifted.

He dodged questions on whether removing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from a list of terrorist organizations was on obstacle to a deal. He hinted that the issue isn’t essential as long as Iran is guaranteed economic benefits.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has reiterated his conviction that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not win the war in Ukraine.

In a speech Thursday at the end of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Scholz said of Putin: “He has already failed to achieve all his strategic goals.”

The chancellor said that “a capture of all of Ukraine by Russia seems further away today than it did at the beginning of the war. More than ever, Ukraine is emphasizing its European future.”

In addition, Scholz said the “brutality of the Russian war” has prompted two states to move closer to NATO: “With Sweden and Finland, two close friends and partners want to join the North Atlantic alliance. They are most welcome!”

The chancellor added that Putin underestimated the unity and strength with which the Group of Seven major industrialized nations, NATO and the European Union had responded to his aggression.

The mayor of Kyiv says he’s grateful to receive calls from the leaders of other cities around the world pledging their support for rebuilding the Ukrainian capital.

Speaking Thursday at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Vitali Klitschko says the support is important but “first of all, right now, we have to stop the war. And after that, we have to rebuild all infrastructure which destroyed (by) aggressors.”

He says 300 hundred buildings in Kyiv have been destroyed, including 220 apartment towers.

Klitschko says the “main priority right now until the winter season is to rebuild, to make a reconstruction for these buildings and give these services to these people who is right now homeless.”

For that, he says around 80 million euros ($85.6 million) is needed.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz says Germany must pursue its climate goals even more resolutely because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In a speech Thursday on the last day of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Scholz said Germany’s plan to become carbon-neutral by 2045 has become “even more important” as a result of the war.

He added that while the conflict is not “the sole trigger of the turning point,” it increases the pressure to act. If the Paris climate targets were not met, he says the world would be heading for a catastrophe.

The German chancellor also mentioned how new, emerging powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are taking advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization. He says that “for too long, we have practically equated ‘democracy’ with the ‘West’ in the classical sense.”

To broaden multilateral cooperation, Scholz says he invited South Africa, Senegal, India, Indonesia and Argentina to the summit of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations in Elmau, Bavaria, next month.

Scholz says, “they represent countries and regions whose cooperation the world needs to move forward on global challenges in the future.”

He added that a new partnership also means showing solidarity in the face of looming hunger, commodity and inflation crises.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has sharply condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine and called for global cooperation to overcome life-threatening challenges such as climate change, hunger and dependency on fossil fuels.

Speaking Thursday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Scholz said the “invasion of Ukraine does not mark the outbreak of any conflict anywhere in Europe. Here, a nuclear-armed superpower claims to redraw borders.”

Scholz said Russian President Vladimir “Putin wants to return to a world order in which the strongest dictate what is right, in which freedom, sovereignty and self-determination are not.”

The German chancellor described Putin’s war politics as “imperialism,” which is “trying to bomb us back to a time when war was a common means of politics, when our continent and the world lacked a stable peace order.”

He says the world is no longer bipolar like during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Instead of using the power politics of past centuries, the chancellor said it’s important all powers work together to solve threats like hunger, climate change or dependence on fossil fuels.

Scholz said: “If some want to take us back to the past of nationalism, imperialism and war, our answer is ‘not with us.’ We stand for the future.”

Journalists, press freedom advocates and human rights activists debated how governments and the private sector can safeguard a free press.

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said Thursday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos that while hundreds of journalists have been imprisoned in repressive regimes, there are also “invisible prisons, invisible bullets — journalism itself, beyond journalists, is under attack” by digital platforms and social networks.

Also speaking on a press freedom panel, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said that “social media has become a way for autocrats and others to evade that kind of journalistic accountability” provided by traditional news organizations.

Roth said powerful governments can set up “fake sites and trolls” and pump out misinformation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is wrapping up the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting with a speech in Davos.

His address Thursday comes after days of discussions about Russia’s war in Ukraine, a global food crisis, climate change and other hot-button issues.

The yearly gathering of elites that was suspended twice over the COVID-19 pandemic has been overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. It’s doused moods among policymakers but not stopping advocacy groups and business leaders from trying to improve fortunes and — as forum organizers hope — the state of the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and an array of lawmakers, local officials and business leaders captured the spotlight in-person and virtually to drum up support for their country’s fight.

Attention is turning to Scholz’s near-finale address, mostly to see if he might try to answer two of Ukraine’s key appeals: for stronger sanctions against Russia and better weapons to help their forces fight.

Kevin Spacey charged in UK with 4 counts of sexual assault

LONDON (AP) — British prosecutors said Thursday they have charged actor Kevin Spacey with four counts of sexual assault against three men.

The Crown Prosecution Service said Spacey “has also been charged with causing a person to engage in penetrative sexual activity without consent.”

The alleged incidents took place in London between March 2005 and August 2008, and one in western England in April 2013. The alleged victims are now in their 30s and 40s.

Rosemary Ainslie, head of the service’s Special Crime Division, said the charges follow a review of evidence gathered by London’s Metropolitan Police.

Spacey, a 62-year-old double Academy Award winner, was questioned by British police in 2019 about claims by several men that he had assaulted them. The former “House of Cards” star ran London’s Old Vic Theatre between 2004 and 2015.

Spacey won a best supporting actor Academy Award for the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects” and a lead actor Oscar for the 1999 movie “American Beauty.”

His celebrated career came to an abrupt halt in 2017 when actor Anthony Rapp accused the star of assaulting him at a party in the 1980s, when Rapp was a teenager. Spacey denies the allegations.

The charges were announced as Spacey was testifying in a courtroom in New York City in the civil lawsuit filed by Rapp. He was on the witness stand Thursday and not immediately available for comment.

A criminal case brought against him, an indecent assault and battery charge stemming from the alleged groping of an 18-year-old man at a Nantucket resort, was dismissed by Massachusetts prosecutors in 2019.

LONDON (AP) — The number of new coronavirus cases and deaths are still falling globally after peaking in January, the World Health Organization said.

In its latest weekly assessment of the pandemic, the U.N. health agency said there were more than 3.7 million new infections and 9,000 deaths in the last week, drops of 3% and 11% respectively. COVID-19 cases rose in only two regions of the world: the Americas and the Western Pacific. Deaths increased by 30% in the Middle East, but were stable or decreased everywhere else.

WHO said it is tracking all omicron subvariants as “variants of concern.” It noted that countries which had a significant wave of disease caused by the omicron subvariant BA.2 appeared to be less affected by other subvariants like BA.4 and BA.5, which were responsible for the latest surge of disease in South Africa.

Salim Abdool Karim, an infectious diseases expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said it appeared that South Africa had passed its most recent wave of COVID-19 caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants; the country has been on the forefront of the pandemic since first detecting the omicron variant last November.

Karim predicted that another mutated version of omicron might emerge in June, explaining that the large number of mutations in the variant meant there were more opportunities for it to evolve.

Meanwhile in Beijing, authorities in the Chinese capital ordered more workers and students to stay home and implemented additional mass testing Monday as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise. Numerous residential compounds in the city have restricted movement in and out, although lockdown conditions remain far less severe than in Shanghai, where millions of citizens have been under varying degrees of lockdown for two months.

China is vowing to stick to a “zero-COVID” policy despite the fact that the WHO describes the policy as “unsustainable,” given the infectious nature of omicron and its subvariants.

In a speech outlining the administration’s China policy, Blinken laid out a three-pillar approach to competing with Beijing in a race to define the 21st century’s economic and military balance.

While the U.S. sees Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as the most acute and immediate threat to international stability, Blinken said the administration believes China poses a greater danger.

“Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order — and that is the one posed by the People’s Republic of China,” Blinken said.

“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order — and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it,” he said. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”

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Thus, Blinken laid out principles for the administration to marshal its resources, friends and allies to push back on increasing Chinese assertiveness around the world. Although he made clear that the U.S. does not seek to change China’s political system, rather it wants to offer a tested alternative.

“This is not about forcing countries to choose, it’s about giving them a choice,” he said.

However, he also acknowledged that the U.S. has limited ability to directly influence China’s intentions and ambitions and will instead focus on shaping the strategic environment around China.

“We can’t rely on Beijing to change its trajectory,” Blinken said in the speech, delivered at George Washington University. “So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open and inclusive international system.”

The speech followed President Joe Biden’s just-concluded visits to South Korea and Japan, where China loomed large in discussions. Biden raised eyebrows during that trip when he said that the United States would act militarily to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of an invasion by China, which regards the island as a renegade province.

The administration scrambled to insist that Biden was not changing American policy, and Blinken restated that the U.S. has not changed its position. Blinken said Washington still holds to its “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows for unofficial links with and arms sales to Taipei.

“Our approach has been consistent across decades and administrations. The United States remains committed to our ‘One China’ policy. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side,” he said, adding that “we do not support Taiwan independence.”

Blinken said that while U.S. policy on Taiwan has remained consistent, China’s had become increasingly belligerent.

Russia slams sanctions, seeks to blame West for food crisis

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow pressed the West on Thursday to lift sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, seeking to shift the blame for a growing food crisis that has been worsened by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products due to the conflict.

Britain immediately accused Russia of “trying to hold the world to ransom,” insisting there would be no sanctions relief, and a top U.S. diplomat blasted the “sheer barbarity, sadistic cruelty and lawlessness” of the invasion.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war, including a Russian blockade of its ports, has halted much of that flow, endangering world food supplies. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to put the blame squarely on the sanctions.

“We accuse Western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that has led to the blockade,” he said in a call with reporters.

Russia also is a significant grain exporter, and Peskov said the West “must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain.”

His comments appeared to be an effort to lump the blockade of Ukrainian exports with what Russia says are its difficulties in moving its own goods.

Western officials have dismissed those claims. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted last week that food, fertilizer and seeds are exempt from sanctions imposed by the U.S. and many others — and that Washington is working to ensure countries know the flow of those goods should not be affected.

With the war grinding into its fourth month, world leaders have ramped up calls for solutions.

“This food crisis is real, and we must find solutions,” World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

She said about 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain is in storage and another 25 million tons could be harvested next month.

European countries have tried to ease the crisis by bringing grain out of the country by rail — but trains can carry only a small fraction of what Ukraine produces, and ships are needed for the bulk of the exports.

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At the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry proposed a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and another to allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Mikhail Mizintsev, who heads Russia’s National Defense Control Center, said 70 foreign vessels from 16 countries are in six ports on the Black Sea, including Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv. He did not specify how many might be ready to carry food.

Ukraine expressed skepticism about the Russian proposal. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle — but that it was not sure if it could trust Russia to abide by any agreement.

The issue, he said in Davos, was “how to make sure that at night or early in the morning, Russia will not violate the agreement on the safe passage and its military vessels will not sneak into the harbor and attack Odesa.”

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “trying to hold the world to ransom” by demanding some sanctions be lifted before allowing Ukrainian grain shipments to resume.

“He’s essentially weaponized hunger and lack of food among the poorest people around the world,” Truss said on a visit to Sarajevo. ”What we cannot have is any lifting of sanctions, any appeasement, which will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term.”

Putin, for his part, insisted that Western attempts to isolate Russia would fail and be counterproductive, listing broken food supply chains among the economic problems the West is facing.

Speaking Thursday via video link to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum that includes several ex-Soviet nations, Putin said “it’s impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world” to isolate Russia, adding that “those who try to do it primarily hurt themselves.”

Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged its members to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself against Putin’s “revanchist delusions.”

If Russia achieved “success” in Ukraine, “there would be more horrific reports from filtration camps, more forcibly displaced people, more summary executions, more torture, more rape, and more looting,” Carpenter said in Vienna.

On the battlefield, Russian forces continued to press their offensive in several parts of the eastern Donbas region, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian military. That industrial heartland of coal mines and factories is now the focus of fighting after Russia suffered a series of setbacks and shifted to more limited goals.

Regional governors said at least four civilians were killed and seven others injured in shelling Thursday in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, while three were killed by attacks in and around the eastern city of Lysychansk, which is a key focus of fighting.

Military officials said Russian forces continued to try to gain a foothold in the area of Sievierodonetsk, which is the only part of the Luhansk region in the Donbas under Ukrainian government control.

In the ravaged port city of Mariupol, Russia began broadcasting state television news, even as a leader of the Russia-backed separatists suggested there might be more Ukrainian fighters hiding in its sprawling Azovstal steelworks that was the focus of weeks of bombardment.

The Russian military declared Azovstal and Mariupol on the whole “completely liberated” on May 20 and reported that 2,439 fighters who had been holed up at the plant had surrendered.

The leader, Denis Pushilin, said some of the fighters may have been hiding, lost or lagged behind those who came out, adding that “there are already those that have been found” and captured.

Becatoros reported from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

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