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Mariupol mayor calls Russian siege ‘the new Auschwitz,’ says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed: Live Ukraine updates – USA TODAY

The mayor of the encircled Ukrainian city of Mariupol said more than 5,000 civilians, including 210 children, have been killed during the monthlong Russian siege.

Vadym Boichenko said Wednesday that Russian forces bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people burned to death, and have destroyed more than 90% of the southern port city’s infrastructure.

“The world has not seen the scale of the tragedy in Mariupol since the existence of the Nazi concentration camps. Russia-occupation forces turned our entire city into a death camp,” Boichenko said, according to the Ukrainian news agency Interfax. “This is the new Auschwitz and Majdanek.”

Boichenko’s estimates of the fatalities in Mariupol come on the same day the U.S. imposed sweeping new sanctions on Russia that include targeting Vladimir Putin’s two adult daughters in response to atrocities in Ukraine that the White House has called war crimes.

Maria Vorontsova and Katerina Tikhonova, two daughters of the Russian leader and his ex-wife Lyudmila Shkrebneva Putina, face full blocking sanctions that will cut them off from the U.S. financial system and freeze any assets they may hold in the U.S. The administration believes many of Putin’s assets are hidden with family members.

Sanctions also target Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s wife and daughter. The new wave of sanctions on Russian elites add to the 140 other oligarchs and Kremlin officials already hit with sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“We’re going to keep raising the economic costs and ratchet up the pain for Putin,” President Joe Biden said.

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Latest developments

►The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday calling for a federal government report on evidence of war crimes committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The legislation calls for the U.S. president to submit to Congress a report on efforts to preserve evidence related to war crimes

►Ukrainian authorities say nearly 5,000 people were evacuated from combat areas in the south or eastern part of the country. Over 10 million people, about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, have been displaced by the war, and more than 4 million of them have fled the nation.

►A North Dakota farmer jailed in Ukraine since November has been moved from Kyiv to Lviv, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said. Kurt Groszhan, 50, is charged with plotting to assassinate Ukraine’s then-agriculture minister, Roman Leschenko. The two had gone into business together after Groszhan moved to Ukraine in 2017.

►Ukraine’s military said it has retaken the settlements of Dobryanka, Novovoznesenske and Trudolyubivka in the Kherson region just north of Crimea.

►$100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles will be sent to Ukraine to meet an urgent need, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement. The “transfer” comes amid a shift of fighting to eastern Ukraine.

►Greece is expelling 12 Russian diplomats. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Western countries have expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats.

A Ukrainian serviceman pets a cat next to a destroyed Russian fighting vehicle after collecting parts and ammunition in the village of Andriivka, on April 6, 2022. Several buildings in the village were reduced to mounds of bricks and corrugated metal and residents are struggling without heat, electricity or cooking gas.

Biden: New sanctions ‘ratchet up the pain’ further on Russia

President Joe Biden said new economic sanctions imposed Wednesday against Russia, including two adult daughters of President Vladimir Putin, “ratchet up the pain” further on Russia following the discovery of atrocities committed by its troops.

“There’s nothing less happening than major war crimes,” Biden said, describing scenes of bodies left in the streets of the Ukrainian town of Bucha including civilians executed with their hands tied behind their backs. 

“Responsible nations have to come together to hold these preparators accountable. And together with our allies and our partners, we’re going to keep raising the economic costs and ratchet up the pain for Putin, and further increase Russia’s economic isolation.”

The Biden administration announced sanctions on 21 Kremlin officials and Russian elites in addition to two adult Putin daughters, Maria Vorontsova and Katerina Tikhonova, and the wife and daughter of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Other measures include full blocking sanctions on Russia’s largest financial institution, Sberbank, and Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank, as well as a ban on U.S. investment in Russia. European allies took similar actions.

“Think about the incredible amounts of money these oligarchs have stolen,” Biden said, adding that they won’t be able to keep their “$100 million yachts” and luxury homes “while children in Ukraine are being killed, displaced from their homes every single day.”

– Joey Garrison

Russian disinformation machine cranks up upon accusations of atrocities

As much of the world recoils upon seeing images of the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, Moscow is turning to a well-rehearsed, long-standing strategy: Deny culpability, blame the victim, crank up the propaganda machine.

In detailed broadcasts to millions of viewers, correspondents and hosts of Russian state TV channels said Tuesday that some photo and video evidence of the ghastly killings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha were fake while others showed that Ukrainians were responsible for the horrors.

Some reports claimed to have video showing fake Ukrainian corpses moving, supposed evidence the deaths were staged. Accounts from eyewitnesses and foreign journalists in Ukraine, along with satellite images, belie that notion. But the disinformation can be effective in sowing confusion among the audiences, especially those in Russia whose access to independent sources of information is limited.

“This is simply what Russia does every time it recognizes that it has suffered a PR setback through committing atrocities,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank. “So the system works almost on autopilot.”

Blinken says Ukrainians well armed but war may last a long time

As they put up a fierce resistance to the assaults from a much larger enemy, Ukrainian forces are far from defenseless. The additional $100 million President Joe Biden authorized this week for military aid brings up to $1.7 billion the amount of security assistance the U.S. has contributed to Ukraine since the Russian invasion Feb. 24.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that along with the U.S. allies and partners, “for every Russian tank in Ukraine, we have provided or will soon provide 10 anti-tank systems. … They have the tools that they need, they’re gonna keep getting them, and we’re gonna keep sustaining that.”

Blinken shared those thoughts with NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell during an interview in Brussels that aired Wednesday on MSNBC. The kind of firepower Blinken referenced has helped the Ukrainians stave off attacks on the capital city of Kyiv, forcing the Russians to retreat and regroup.

But for all the pressure the U.S. and its allies are putting on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war — by increasing sanctions, supporting the Ukrainians and calling out Russian atrocities — there’s a harsh reality staring at those yearning for peace:

“As much as we want to see this come to an end as soon as possible, to stop the death and destruction that’s being wrought by Russia in Ukraine, there is also a very likely scenario by which this goes on for some time,” Blinken said.

How long? Blinken was responding to congressional testimony from Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the length of the conflict will likely be “measured in years.”

Justice Department helps investigate war crimes, indicts Russian who supported Crimea separatists

The Justice Department unsealed an indictment Wednesday against Russian oligarch Konstantinos Malofeyev for alleged sanction violations, the first such criminal charges brought by the U.S. since Russia’s invasion. The Treasury Department previously identified Malofeyev as one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea and for providing material support for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. Malofeyev attempted to evade the sanctions by using co-conspirators to acquire and run media outlets across Europe, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a Justice briefing. 

“We are also announcing the seizure of millions of dollars from an account at a U.S. financial institution, which the indictment alleges constitutes proceeds traceable to Malofeyev’s sanctions violations,” Garland said.

Garland also acknowledged for the first time that the Justice Department is assisting in the effort to examine possible war crimes in Ukraine. He said U.S. authorities recently met with counterparts in Europe to develop a plan to gather evidence.

“This department has a long history of helping to hold accountable those who perpetrate war crimes,” Garland said.

“We have seen the mass graves. We have seen the bombed hospital, theater, and residential apartment buildings,” he said. “The world sees what is happening in Ukraine. The Justice Department sees what is happening in Ukraine.”

Kevin Johnson

Russian forces exit Kyiv, Chernihiv

Russian forces have completely retreated from Kyiv and Chernihiv, moving into neighboring Belarus and Russia after facing fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces, a senior Defense official said Wednesday. The Ukrainians hit Russian forces as they retreated from Kyiv, the official said.

Kyiv remains under threat, although it has not been hit by airstrikes in the last 24 hours, the official said. The threat of a ground invasion to Kyiv has dissipated for now, the official said.

The Russian forces – up to 40,000 troops, or almost one-third of the force Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to invade Ukraine – are being resupplied, according to intelligence assessments the official described on condition of anonymity. It’s unclear when the withdrawal of Russian troops from those cities was completed. The Russians appear to have seeded some of the ground left behind with mines.

The Pentagon believes the troops will be sent back into fighting in eastern Ukraine, the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have clashed with Ukrainian troops since 2014.

Investigators search for proof of Russian atrocities

Days after Russian forces retreated from the Kyiv area, investigators and volunteers are beginning the long, grim work of chronicling what U.S. officials have described as a “troubling campaign” of brutality against civilians. Ukrainian officials say the bodies of more than 400 civilians were found in towns around Kyiv after Russian forces withdrew. United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet said preserving, exhuming and identifying bodies would be critical for an independent investigation into possible war crimes. Read more here.

“Everything was like in fog – a lot of crying, a lot of happiness to see Ukrainian people, a lot of fear in eyes, a lot of anger,” Kyiv resident Vladimir Basovskyi, 35, told USA TODAY. “Next what I remember, I am sitting at home and crying like a child.”

– Grace Hauck and Chris Kenning

Dutch put 14 Russian yachts under ‘special supervision’

Dutch customs officials placed 14 yachts at five shipyards under “special supervision” on Wednesday because they are being built or repaired for wealthy Russians. Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said 12 yachts are under construction and two are undergoing maintenance. The boats will not be allowed to leave the country because of the export ban and sanctions imposed on hundreds of wealthy supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Netherlands has been criticized for its slow start to enforcing sanctions.

Russian owners made up 9% of all superyacht owners in 2021, making Russia the second largest ownership country behind the United States, according to Superyacht Times. The U.S. government on Monday seized a 254-foot yacht in Spain owned by an oligarch with close ties to Putin. Other countries also have seized the luxury boats.

China calls for probe of Bucha slayings, does not condemn Moscow

The reports and images of civilian deaths in Bucha are “deeply disturbing” and should be thoroughly investigated, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said Wednesday. But Zhang placed no blame on Russia and urged all sides to “exercise restraint and avoid unfounded accusations” until more details are known.  

China has been walking a diplomatic tightrope, declining to condemn Russia for the invasion of Ukraine and suggesting sanctions will only accelerate the crisis and create global economic problems. China has chastised the U.S. and NATO, saying they provoked the war with NATO’s expansion and fueled it by arming Ukraine.

UN to vote on Russia’s spot in Human Rights Council

The United Nations will vote Friday on whether Russia should be removed from the Human Rights Council. The United States and United Kingdom called for Russia’s removal from the council in recent days as evidence of atrocities by the Russian military emerged. To remove Russia from the council, at least two-thirds of the UN General Assembly would need to vote for the ouster.

“Given the growing mountain of evidence, Russia should not have a position of authority in a body whose purpose is to promote respect for human rights,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at a Security Council meeting Tuesday. “Not only is it the height of hypocrisy – it is dangerous.”

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia denied that Russian troops were committing war crimes, blaming Ukrainians for the deaths and defending the invasion by claiming the “Nazi malignant tumor that is devouring Ukraine would have eventually begun to devour Russia.”

Ella Lee

Pope Francis kisses Ukrainian flag, pleads for end to war

Pope Francis kissed the Ukrainian flag and renewed his appeal Wednesday for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine. During his weekly audience in the Vatican’s auditorium, several Ukrainian children – now refugees in Italy – joined him on the stage. The pope furled the faded, stained flag and held it up, saying the flag “came from war, from that martyred city of Bucha.”  He condemned “the massacre” in that city outside Kyiv.

“Ever more horrendous cruelties, even against civilians, women and helpless children,” the pope said. “They are victims whose innocent blood cries out to heaven and implores.”

Contributing: The Associated Press