Thu, 19 May 2022

Russian strikes continue to barrage the port city of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday, an apparent effort to disrupt supply lines and Western weapons shipments critical to Kyiv's defence. Odesa is a major gateway for global grain shipments, and Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that Russia's blockade threatens global food supplies. Follow FRANCE 24's live blog for all the latest developments. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

5:32am: War in Ukraine revives France-Spain gas pipeline project

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Madrid has revived calls to build a huge gas pipeline between Spain and France dubbed MidCat that would boost Europe's energy independence from Russia.

Initially launched in 2003, the 190-kilometre (120-mile) Midi-Catalonia (MidCat) pipeline would pump gas across the Pyrenees from Hostalric just north of Barcelona to Barbaira in southern France.

Its aim was to transport gas from Algeria through Spain to the rest of the European Union. There are currently only two small gas pipelines linking Spain and France.

But following several years of work, the project was abandoned in 2019 after energy regulators from both countries rejected it amid questions over its environmental impact and profitability.

4:18am: US House approves $40 billion Ukraine aid

The House emphatically approved a fresh $40 billion Ukraine aid package Tuesday as lawmakers beefed up President Joe Biden's initial request, signaling a magnified, bipartisan commitment to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin's bloody three-month-old invasion.

The measure sailed to passage by a lopsided 368-57 margin, providing $7 billion more than Biden's request from April and dividing the increase evenly between defense and humanitarian programs. The bill would give Ukraine military and economic assistance, help regional allies, replenish weapons the Pentagon has shipped overseas and provide $5 billion to address global food shortages caused by the war's crippling of Ukraine's normally robust production of many crops.

The measure was backed by every voting Democrat and by nearly 3 out of 4 Republicans. House debate reflected a perspective, shared broadly by both parties, that the U.S. has even more at stake than standing by Ukraine.

02:15am: Volunteer group secures release of American held by Russian forces in Ukraine

A U.S. citizen in Ukraine who had been accused of espionage and held by Russian forces was being evacuated to Poland with two family members after his release was secured by a private volunteer group from Florida, the group said on Tuesday.

Kirillo Alexandrov, 27, along with his Ukrainian wife and her mother, is the latest of over 600 people freed in dozens of such missions since February, according to Project Dynamo, a Tampa-based group first formed to rescue Americans and others from Afghanistan last year.

10:36pm: Czech Republic elected to replace Russia on UN rights council

The United Nations General Assembly elected the Czech Republic to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council on Tuesday to replace Russia, which was suspended last month over its invasion of Ukraine and then immediately quit the 47-member body.

Russia had been in its second year of a three-year term. The Czech Republic will complete that term on the council, which cannot make legally binding decisions. Its decisions carry political weight, however, and it can authorise investigations.

The Czech Republic was elected with 157 votes in favour, while 23 countries abstained. Its term starts immediately.

Our correspondent in New York, Jessica Le Masurier, provides more details below.

9:56pm: US set to approve $40 billion for Ukraine, warning of long war ahead

US lawmakers were set to vote Tuesday on a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine as Washington warned Russia was likely girding for a long conflict with its neighbor.

The defence, humanitarian and economic funding should pass comfortably, with the two parties having reached an agreement on the details, and it will likely move quickly through Congress.

"Time is of the essence -and we cannot afford to wait," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues.

"With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won.

Congressional leaders struck a deal Monday to release $6.8 billion more than the $33 billion previously requested by the White House to help the Eastern European nation ward off Moscow's invasion.

9:35pm: Italian leader urges Ukraine ceasefire in visit with Biden

President Joe Biden and Italian Premier Mario Draghi met in the Oval Office on Tuesday for a visit intended to showcase allied unity against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it also provided a window into divergent approaches to the conflict.

Draghi said leaders should work toward "the possibility of bringing a ceasefire and starting, again, some credible negotiations." He added that "in Italy and Europe now, people want to put an end to these massacres and this violence, this butchery."

Biden did not echo Draghi's comments, and U.S. officials appear openly skeptical that there's a way to restart talks at this point.

The different tones over Ukraine reflect Italy's geographic proximity to the war and deeper economic ties to Russia, which provides 40% of the country's natural gas. There's also growing skepticism in Italy about sending weapons to Ukraine.

7:06pm: Over 40 bodies found under east Ukraine building, officials say

Rescuers on Tuesday found the bodies of 44 civilians under the rubble of a destroyed building in the eastern Ukrainian town of Izium, now under Russian control, the regional governor said.

"The bodies of 44 civilians were found in Izyum under the rubble of a five-storey building which was destroyed by the occupiers in early March," Oleg Synegubov, governor of the eastern Kharkiv region, said on Telegram.

Although fighting continues in the area, local media quoted him as saying residents had made the discovery while clearing the rubble from an area "where there is no shelling".

Synegubov did not say who had removed the bodies nor how they had managed to do so given that the town fell to Russian troops on April 1 after several weeks of heavy fighting.

6:09pm: Heavy shelling in Odesa places global grain shipments at risk

Russia pummeled the vital port of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday, an apparent effort to disrupt supply lines and Western weapons shipments critical to Kyiv's defence.

Odesa is a major gateway for global grain shipments, and Russia's blockade threatens global food supplies. Continuing missile strikes on Odesa reflect the city's strategic importance, with the Russian military repeatedly targeting its airport.

Ukraine's president said on Monday that trade at the country's ports was at a standstill and urged the international community to take immediate steps to end a Russian blockade to allow wheat shipments and prevent a global food crisis.

"For the first time in decades and decades, in Odesa there is no regular movement of the merchant fleet, there is no routine port work. This has probably never happened in Odesa since World War Two," Zelensky said in a video address.

"And this is a blow not only to Ukraine. Without our agricultural exports, dozens of countries in different parts of the world are already on the brink of food shortages. And over time, the situation can become, frankly, frightening."

Ukraine was the world's fourth-largest exporter of maize (corn) in the 2020-2021 season and the No. 6 wheat exporter, according to data from the International Grains Council.

Nearly 25 million tonnes of grains are now stuck in Ukraine, a UN food agency official said on Friday.

European Council president Charles Michel has also warned that vital supplies of wheat and grain that were ready for export were stuck in Odessa because of the conflict.

5:56pm: Belarus to deploy special forces to southern border near Ukraine

Belarus will deploy special operations troops in three areas near its southern border with Ukraine, the armed forces said on Tuesday as President Alexander Lukashenkov talked up the role of Russian-made missiles in boosting the country's defences.

A close ally of Russia, Belarus said in March that its armed forces were not taking part in what Moscow calls its "special operation" in Ukraine, but it did serve as a launchpad for Russia to send thousands of troops across the border on February 24.

Minsk has complained for months about NATO countries amassing soldiers near its borders - Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are all members of the alliance - and is increasing the amount and intensity of its own military exercises in response.

"The United States and its allies continue to build up their military presence on the state borders of the Republic of Belarus," Chief of General Staff Viktor Gulevich said. "The established grouping has more than doubled in the past six months in quantity and quality."

Belarus is also deploying air defence, artillery and missile units for drills in the west, Gulevich said.

5:07pm: Difficult evacuations out of the beseiged Azovstal steel plant continue

Russian forces have been trying to storm the Azovstal steel plant over the past few days, pummeling it with artillery and air strikes and using tanks to try to break in. Evacuations are ongoing but they continue to be difficult because the Russians do not always let people in to Ukrainian territory once they are out of the steel plant. FRANCE 24's correspondent in Ukraine, Gulliver Cragg, reports on the situation in the video below.

4:04pm: Putin preparing for prolonged war in Ukraine, US spy chief says

The United States believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for a long conflict in Ukraine and a Russian victory in the Donbas in the east of the country might not end the war, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Tuesday.

"We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas," Haines told lawmakers.

3:07pm: Lithuanian lawmakers brand Russian actions in Ukraine as 'genocide', 'terrorism'

Lithuania's parliament voted unanimously on Tuesday to describe Russia's actions in Ukraine as "genocide" and "terrorism" and to call for a international tribunal, modelled on the Nuremberg Trials after World War Two, to prosecute suspected war crimes.

The motion, co-sponsored by Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, said Russian forces' war crimes in Ukraine included the deliberate killing of civilians, mass rape, forcible relocation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia and the destruction of economic infrastructure and cultural sites.

2:31pm: China's Xi warns of confrontations arising from Ukraine crisis

Confrontation between blocs resulting from the Ukraine crisis could become a bigger and more lasting threat to global peace than the crisis itself, China's President Xi Jinping told his French counterpart on Tuesday, according to state media.

China has repeatedly urged European countries to exercise diplomatic autonomy instead of aligning with the United States in what Beijing says is a "cold war mentality". China has refused to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which Russia calls a "special military operation".

Speaking to French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone, Xi said that China felt Europe should have full control of European security, Chinese state television reported.

2:25pm: German foreign minister backs full EU membership for Ukraine on visit to Kyiv

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Tuesday that Ukraine should become a full member of the European Union at some point though there could be no shortcut to membership.

Speaking alongside her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, Baerbock stressed that Germany would reduce its imports of Russian energy to zero, "and that will stay that way forever".

1:55pm: German FM joined by Dutch counterpart on Ukraine visit

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was joined by her Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra as they visited war-torn areas around Kyiv earlier today.

Both visits were unannounced, with Baerbock visiting Bucha, a town which has become synonymous with allegations of Russian war crimes after dozens of bodies in civilian clothing were found in the streets.

After talks with locals, the German minister said Bucha was a place where "the worst crimes imaginable have happened", promising to "hold accountable" those responsible.

"We owe it to the victims to not only commemorate here, but to also hold the perpetrators accountable. This is what we are going to do as the international community, that's the promise that we can and must give here in Bucha," she said.

"No one can take away the pain... but we can ensure justice," she said, accompanied on her visit by Ukraine's attorney general who is investigating the killings.

Separately, Hoekstra tweeted that he had arrived during the morning "in Kyiv for meetings with the Ukrainian government, together with my colleague Annalena Baerbock".

"Started my visit in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv," he wrote of another town near Bucha where Russian troops are alleged to have carried out atrocities, posting pictures of himself near war-scarred buildings.

"The bombed-out houses and buildings illustrate the impact the war has had on the lives of the men, women and children who live here. These acts cannot go unpunished," he tweeted, saying his government was involved in "several accountability efforts".

1:42pm: More than 8 million internally displaced in Ukraine: UN

More than eight million people are estimated to have been internally displaced by Russia's war in Ukraine, having fled their homes but stayed within the country, the United Nations said Tuesday.

The figure for the number of internally displaced persons as of May 3, issued by the UN's International Organization for Migration, is up from the 7.7 million estimate that the IOM gave as of April 17.

1:40pm: Civilian death toll 'thousands higher' than reported, says UN rights official

Thousands more civilians have been killed in Ukraine during nearly 11 weeks of war than the official UN death toll of 3,381, the head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission for the country has said.

The United Nations team, which includes 55 monitors in Ukraine, said most of the deaths were caused by explosive weapons with a wide impact area such as missile and air strikes.

"We have been working on estimates, but all I can say for now is that it is thousands higher than the numbers we have currently given to you," Matilda Bogner told a news briefing in Geneva, when asked about the total number of deaths and injuries.

"The big black hole is really Mariupol where it has been difficult for us to fully access and to get fully corroborated information," she added.

Bogner was speaking following a trip to Ukraine last week where she visited areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv previously occupied by Russian forces. She said her team had reports of over 300 unlawful killings in settlements north of Kyiv, including Bucha, and expected this number to rise.

11:40am: Over 1,000 fighters still in Mariupol plant, says Kyiv

More than 1,000 Ukrainian troops, many of them injured, remain in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in the Russian-controlled port city of Mariupol, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has told AFP.

"Hundreds are injured. There are people with serious injuries who require urgent evacuation. The situation is deteriorating every day," she added.

Earlier, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol said at least a hundred civilians were still trapped in the Azovstal plant, but the information could not be independently verified.

10:35am: Germany's Baerbock visits Bucha on surprise Ukraine trip

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is touring Ukraine's martyred town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, as part of a surprise visit to Ukraine.

Russian troops are accused of massacring hundreds of civilians as they retreated from Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs in late March.

Images of corpses lying in the streets, some with their hands bound, shocked the world and prompted calls for war crimes charges to be brought against Russia.

>> FRANCE 24 in Bucha: People looking for their loved ones after massacre of civilians

9:55am: 100 civilians still trapped at Mariupol plant, says mayor's aide

At least 100 civilians remain trapped in the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, according to an aide to the city's mayor.

Mariupol has endured the most destructive fighting of the war in Ukraine. The Azovstal plant is the last part of the city still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters.

"In addition to the military, at least 100 civilians remain in the (Azovstal) shelters. However, this does not reduce the density of attacks by the occupiers," Mariupol mayoral aide Petro Andryushchenko wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Ukraine had previously indicated that all civilians had left Azovstal, and Russia has said the evacuation of civilians from the plant is complete.

8:45am: One killed in missile strikes on Odesa

Russian missile fire targeting the Black Sea port city of Odesa late on Monday killed one person and wounded five, the Ukrainian military's southern command has announced.

One missile struck a shopping centre and a warehouse, the military said, alleging that the munitions dated back to the Soviet era, making them unreliable in targeting.

There's been increasing concern that Russia is running out of guided munitions, making it more likely they'll fire unguided rockets which can cause wider collateral damage.

The missiles struck as European Council President Charles Michel was visiting Odesa, interrupting a meeting with Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

8:20am: NATO membership would strengthen Nordic defence, says Swedish minister

The Nordic region's defence capabilities would be strengthened if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, allowing joint defence planning within the framework of the alliance, Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist has told Swedish radio.

"(If Sweden and Finland join NATO) there will be the effect that we use each others' strengths and advantages and fully complement each other and also carry out operational planning," said Hultqvist, a member of the ruling Social Democrats said.

"If so, the effect will be that we become stronger together. This is something that can happen if we choose to join NATO," he told the public broadcaster.

The Social Democrats will decide on May 15 whether to drop decades of opposition by the party to NATO membership, a move that would almost certainly lead to Sweden asking to join the 30-nation alliance.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sparked a rethink of security policy in both Sweden and Finland. The Finnish president, Sauli Niinisto, is this week expected to announce his support for an application.

7:20am: In Ukraine's Kherson region, civilians flee Russian-held territory on foot

Aside from the Donbas in the aast, a large swathe of southern Ukraine is currently under Russian control, including most of Kherson region. Russian forces are preventing civilians from leaving the area. Yet thousands have been making journeys fraught with risk, in order to get out.

Our correspondent Gulliver Cragg sent this report from Ukrainian-held territory just north of the occupied zone.

5:17am: UN Security Council to hold its 16th meeting on Ukraine Thursday

The UN Security Council is expected to hold a new public meeting on Thursday on Russia's war in Ukraine, in light of the continuing deterioration of the humanitarian situation, diplomats said Monday.

The session, requested by France and Mexico, will be the 16th held by the Security Council since the Russian invasion of February 24, as part of an effort by western states to maintain pressure on Russia, which as a permanent member of the council has the power to block measures it disapproves of.

France and Mexico have requested briefings from the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) and the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), a diplomat said.

4:23am: Russia is not planning on closing its embassies in Europe

Russia is not planning to proactively close its embassies in Europe in response to unfriendly measures by the West and expansion of sanctions against Moscow, the RIA news agency reported on Tuesday, citing a deputy foreign minister.

"This is not in our tradition," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told RIA.

"Therefore, we believe that the work of diplomatic representative offices is important."

11:00pm: Ukraine EU bid could take 'decades', warns Macron

France's President Emmanuel Macron on Monday said it would take "decades" for a candidate like Ukraine to join the EU, and suggested building a broader political club beyond the bloc that could also include Britain.

The idea immediately found favour with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who described it as a "very interesting suggestion" that he was "very pleased" to discuss with the French leader.

Ukraine, which is battling Russia's invasion, is seeking EU membership, and the European Commission has said it will respond to the request next month -- a key step before the issue is taken up by member states.

But Macron buried any hopes of swift membership for Ukraine, suggesting rather that it may be more efficient to consider building a wider club beyond the EU.

"I am saying this in all honesty -- honesty that we owe to the Ukrainians," Macron said.

"We can have an accelerated process... to accept candidate status for Ukraine but we know that given our standards and the criteria, it would probably take decades for Ukraine to really join the European Union."

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

Originally published on France24

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