By The Associated Press
MOSCOW — Russia’s defense chief says the country’s forces have taken full control of the massive steel plant in Mariupol that was the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
That would mark the end of a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of Ukraine’s vital Black Sea port of Mariupol to ruins and left over 20,000 people there feared dead.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday that the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol has been “completely liberated” from Ukrainian fighters.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying that a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at Azovstal have laid down their arms and surrendered since May 16, including 531 on Friday.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine that Mariupol has fallen completely to the Russians.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— West rushes more aid as Mariupol teeters and fighting rages
— VFAB PHOTOS: Shattered lives and recovery in Ukraine war
— Russia to cut Finland’s natural gas in latest energy clash
— In Ukraine, surviving when your home is blasted
— ‘I can’t see the light’: War fuels surging prices in Europe
— Follow VFAB’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at
BERLIN — The Germany news agency dpa reports that the country will ship the first 15 Gepard anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine in July.
Dpa reported Friday that the delivery, which includes training and almost 60,000 rounds of ammunition, was agreed following talks between Germany’s defense minister and her Ukrainian counterpart.
Gepard — German for “cheetah” — is considered highly effective against low-flying aircraft and lightly armored ground targets.
It was decommissioned by the German military in 2012 but some 50 mothballed units are being restored by manufacturer KMW for use by Ukraine.
LVIV, Ukraine — A Russian missile struck a Ukrainian cultural center in the Kharkiv region on Friday, injuring seven people, including an 11-year-old child, in an attack that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called “absolute evil.”
Zelenskyy’s social media channel on Friday released video showing a large explosion hitting the newly renovated Palace of Culture in Lozova. The building was partly destroyed and the roof caught fire, Ukraine’s emergency services reported.
“The occupiers identified culture, education and humanity as their enemies,” Zelenskyy wrote. “What is in the minds of people who choose such targets? Absolute evil, absolute stupidity.”
Lozova’s Palace of Culture is the site of classes, festivals, plays and concerts. It opened in 1977 and includes an auditorium, a lecture hall, three dance halls, a gym and multiple rooms for classes and club meetings.
The Kharkiv region is close to the border with Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Ukrainian troops have been pushing back some Russian forces from the area.
LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces on Friday continued attacking the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk to try to cut the area off from the rest of Ukraine, the region’s governor said.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press Russian forces were focused on the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, which he said is the only road for evacuating people and delivering humanitarian supplies.
“The road is extremely important because it’s the only connection to other regions of the country,” he said via email. “The Russians are trying to cut us off from it, to encircle the Luhansk region.”
Russian forces are constantly shelling the road from multiple directions, but Ukrainian armored transports are still able to get through, Haidai added.
One of Friday’s attacks was on a school in Severodonetsk sheltering more than 200 people, many of them children. Three adults were killed, Haidai said on Telegram.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday, “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic is nearing completion.”
LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces have been trying for weeks to seize Severodonetsk, a key site in the Donbas that’s outside the territory separatists have held for several years.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Friday Russian forces now control 90% of the region.
Twelve people were killed in the latest attack in Severodonetsk and more than 60 houses were destroyed, Haidai said on Telegram. He called the attack on Severodonetsk unsuccessful, adding “the Russians suffered personnel losses and retreated.” His remarks couldn’t be independently verified.
Haidai said on Telegram on Thursday that Russian forces “just want to destroy the city.”
He told The Associated Press that another city the Russians have been targeting, Rubizhne, has been “completely destroyed.”
Haidai said damaged buildings have been looted, and Russian forces have forcibly deported residents, cut off all communications, and removed all modern equipment from the hospitals and schools and taken it to Russia.
KYIV, Ukraine — The Vatican foreign minister paid tribute to the dead at a mass grave in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, praying that “horrors like this may be always avoided.”
Archbishop Richard Gallagher wrapped up a three-day visit to Ukraine on Friday by visiting what he called “three of the most martyred cities,” Vorzel, Bucha and Irpin, where Russian soldiers are accused of atrocities against Ukrainian civilians.
Gallagher later told reporters at a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba that he wanted to bring Pope Francis’ solidarity to the Ukrainian people and promote dialogue and negotiation to find a peaceful resolution what he called “this senseless conflict” sparked by “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”
The Vatican has been toeing a delicate diplomatic line with Ukraine, condemning the death and destruction but seeking to maintain a channel of dialogue open with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church.
BERLIN — Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder plans to leave the board of directors of Russian state energy company Rosneft as a backlash over his ties with Russia and its energy sector mounts.
Schroeder, 78, is the chairman of Rosneft’s board. Rosneft said Friday that Schroeder announced “the impossibility of extending his powers on the board of directors of the company.”
The announcement came a day after German lawmakers agreed to strip Schroeder of his taxpayer-funded office and staff.
Schroeder, 78, led Germany from 1998 to 2005. He has become increasingly isolated in recent months due to his work for state-controlled Russian energy companies.
MILAN — The Council of Europe secretary-general said the human rights organization is supporting Ukrainian prosecutors as they investigate “gross human rights violations” committed during the Russian invasion.
Marija Pejcinovic Buric told a news conference in Turin, Italy that during a visit to Kiev last week he witnessed “the severity and scale of the devastation inflicted on Ukraine.” He said that included the ”rape, torture, the killing of civilians and combatants.”
She said that confirms the Council of Europe’s decision to expel Russia after the invasion. The organization based in Strasbourg, France was founded after World War II to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, comprised of 46 member states.
The secretary-general said the Council of Europe was uniquely positioned to support Ukraine and an independent judiciary.
MILAN — Italy’s foreign minister said Friday that Italy has submitted a peace plan for Ukraine to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said during a Council of Europe meeting in Turin, Italy, that the plan submitted Thursday calls for local cease-fires to evacuate civilians along humanitarian corridors, and creating the conditions for a general cease-fire leading “to a long-lasting peace.”
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was aware of the plan, adding the European Union is “putting all our efforts into trying to bring this conflict to an end.”
Borrell said it’s up to Ukraine to decide the terms of any negotiations. He said that he hopes that “when the time comes for negotiations to take place, Ukraine will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.”
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Russia will cut off natural gas to Finland after the Nordic country that applied for NATO membership this week refused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand to pay in rubles, the Finnish state-owned energy company said Friday.
Finland is the latest country to lose the energy supply, which is used to generate electricity and power industry, after rejecting Russia’s decree.
Poland and Bulgaria were cut off late last month by Russia but, along with Finland, they were relatively minor customers who had prepared to move away from Russian natural gas.
Putin has declared that “unfriendly foreign buyers” open two accounts in state-owned Gazprombank, one to pay in euros and dollars as specified in contracts and another in rubles.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says his country has faced a barrage of cyberattacks from the West amid the invasion of Ukraine but has successfully fended them off.
Speaking Friday to members of Russia’s Security Council, Putin noted that “the challenges in this area have become even more pressing, serious and extensive.”
He charged that “an outright aggression has been unleashed against Russia, a war has been waged in the information space.”
Putin added that “the cyber-aggression against us, the same as the attack on Russia by sanctions in general, has failed.”
He ordered officials to “perfect and enhance the mechanisms of ensuring information security at critically important industrial facilities which have a direct bearing on our country’s defensive capability, and the stable development of the economic and social spheres.”
WARSAW, Poland – Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Friday hailed the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
Morawiecki spoke alongside visiting Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa with whom he had discussed the war in neighboring Ukraine.
Concerned for their security, Finland and Sweden applied this week to join the military alliance, against Russia’s threats aimed at discouraging the move.
Finland shares a long land border with Russia and Sweden neighbors Russia through the Baltic Sea basin.
“We believe these are sovereign decisions by the countries and we will be very happy if Finland and Sweden join NATO swiftly,” Morawiecki said.
BERLIN — Germany and Qatar have signed an agreement to deepen their cooperation on energy, as Berlin seeks to diversify its natural gas supplies and ultimately stop using Russian gas.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a news conference alongside Qatar’s emir that the agreement signed Friday “opens many opportunities for successful cooperation.” He said that Qatar also “has enormous potential for renewable energies and for the production of hydrogen.”
Germany plans to build two liquefied natural gas terminals to bring in gas from suppliers such as Qatar.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said that “whatever we can provide for energy security in Europe even during this period, we will make sure that we can provide.” He didn’t give any figures.
Russia’s defense minister says 1,908 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the Azovstal steelworks, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the port city of Mariupol, have surrendered so far.
“Nationalists blocked off at the plant started to surrender. As of now, 1,908 people have laid down arms,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted by the Russian media as saying Friday.
On Thursday, the Russian military put the total of surrendered fighters at 1,730. It remains unclear how many fighters are still holed up in the giant steel plant’s maze of underground tunnels and bunkers.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment, said Friday that the defenders of Mariupol — a group of Ukrainian fighters from various military and law enforcement units —- have received an order to “cease the defense of the city.” The intention is to “save lives and health of the servicemen of the garrison,” he said.
Speaking in a video statement released on Telegram, Prokopenko also said that “the seriously wounded received the necessary assistance and they were able to be evacuated with further exchange and delivery to the territory controlled by Ukraine.”
It was not clear from the video whether Prokopenko was still at the plant. His right arm was bandaged above the elbow.
GENEVA — The international Red Cross says it has been visiting prisoners of war on “all sides” since the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine almost three months ago.
The International Committee of the Red Cross didn’t specify what “all sides” meant, but it is believed to mean Russian and Ukrainian government forces, as well as pro-Russian separatists who have been waging an armed struggle in eastern Ukraine against the Kyiv government since 2014. It could also include foreign fighters who might have been captured.
A Red Cross statement Friday said the POW visits had enabled it to pass on information to hundreds of families about their loved ones.
The ICRC did not specify how many families had been informed about their relatives, or where the visits took place. It said only that the visits had taken place “in recent months.”
The statement came a day after the humanitarian agency broke its silence about prisoners of war in the nearly three-month-long conflict, announcing it has registered “hundreds” of Ukrainian prisoners of war this week from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. It remains unclear how many fighters are still holed up in the giant steel plant’s maze of underground tunnels and bunkers.
“Many more families need answers; the ICRC must have full access to POWs and civilian internees, wherever they are held, in order to provide those answers,” the Geneva-based organization said.
Some humanitarian law experts have questioned why the ICRC took so long to announce its POW visits, a key part of its mandate.
The ICRC often operates confidentially in its role to help protect civilians, prisoners of war and other noncombatants in conflicts, and ensure the respect of the rules of war.
KOENIGSWINTER, Germany — Germany’s finance minister says the Group of Seven leading economies and global financial institutions are providing $19.8 billion in aid to bolster Ukraine’s public finances.
Finance Minister Christian Lindner told reporters Friday that $9.5 billion of the total was mobilized at meetings of the G-7 finance ministers in Koenigswinter, Germany, this week.
He said the goal is to ensure that Ukraine’s financial situation does not affect its ability to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
“We agreed on concrete actions to deepen multilateral economic cooperation and underlined our commitment to our united response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and to our unwavering support to Ukraine,” a G-7 statement said.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Finnish state-owned energy company Gasum says natural gas imports from Russia will be halted on Saturday, after the Finns refused to pay for it in rubles.
Russia demanded payment in rubles after sanctions were imposed against Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine in February.
Gasum’s CEO Mika Wiljanen called it “highly regrettable” that the gas supplies will now be stopped.
But there “will be no disruptions in the gas supply network,” he said in a statement.
The group was informed by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom in April that future payments in the supply contract must be made in Russian currency instead of euros.
In Finland, natural gas accounted for 6% of the total energy consumption in 2020, Finnish broadcaster YLE said. Almost all gas is imported from Russia and last year the share of Russian natural gas imports was 92%.
Poland and Bulgaria, which also have refused to pay Gazprom in rubles, have had their gas cut off.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s president says he is engaged in “telephone diplomacy” with foreign counterparts over the bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Friday that his country is determined not to approve membership of the alliance for countries accused by Turkey of supporting what it calls “terror organizations.”
Erdogan has placed an obstacle to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance. He accuses Stockholm – and to a lesser extent Helsinki — of supporting the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, and other groups that Turkey views as terrorists and a threat to its national security.
Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, also accuses the two Nordic countries of imposing restrictions on exports of defense industry equipment to Turkey and of failing to extradite suspects wanted by Turkey.
Erdogan told reporters that he spoke to Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday and would hold further discussions with British and Finnish leaders on Saturday.
Sweden and Finland formally applied to join the military alliance this week. All 30 NATO members need to approve the entry of new members.
WARSAW, Poland — Poland and Portugal are trying to figure out ways of bringing Ukraine into the European Union even if some countries in the bloc balk at granting it speedy access.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced the effort after talks Friday in Warsaw with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
Morawiecki said that “if some EU nations protest vehemently, together with Portugal we want to work out an appropriate package that would be attractive for Ukraine and will show that Ukraine’s place is in the EU.”
Germany, for example, has spoken out against a swift EU membership path for Ukraine, which currently fighting a ferocious war against Russia’s invasion. All 27 EU members need to approve an enlargement to include Ukraine.
Costa said EU leaders should not stick to inflexible regulations but be “pragmatic and respond to the current events.” He urged a decision at an EU summit scheduled for June.
KOENIGSWINTER, Germany — Germany’s finance minister says the Group of Seven leading economies are set to agree on more than $18 billion in aid for Ukrainian defense efforts.
Finance Minister Christian Lindner said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday that Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion “are not only defending themselves, they are defending our values.”
A representative from the U.S. Treasury Department declined to confirm the amount set to be allocated at a meeting of G-7 finance ministers in Germany, and a spokesman from the German finance ministry declined to comment to The Associated Press.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other leaders have spoken this week about the need for allies to put together enough additional aid to help Ukraine “get through” the Russian invasion.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the United States for the $40 billion aid package, which got final congressional approval on Thursday.
“This is a demonstration of strong leadership and a necessary contribution to our common defense of freedom,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation.
He also thanked the European Union for its support.
“And for our partners this is not just an expense or a gift. This is their contribution to security,” Zelenskyy said. “For defending Ukraine also defends them from new wars and crises that Russia could provoke if it is successful in the war against Ukraine. Therefore, we must together ensure that Russia’s aggression against our state has no success, not militarily, economically or any other.”
Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s monthly budget deficit is $5 billion “and so to survive in the war for freedom, we need quick and sufficient financial support.”
The U.S. has announced a shipment of $100 million in military equipment to Ukraine, separate from what will be coming from the $40 billion approved by Congress. The latest package includes 18 more howitzers as well as anti-artillery radar systems, both of which the U.S. has provided to Ukraine already since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian troops were intensifying their attacks in the Donbas.
“It is hell there and that’s not an exaggeration,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation. “The brutal and completely senseless bombardment of Severodonetsk. Twelve dead and dozens wounded there in just one day.”
Zelenskyy said Russian strikes on the northeastern Chernihiv region included a terrible strike on the village of Desna, where he said many were killed and rescuers were still going through the rubble.
“The bombing and shelling of our other cities, the air and missile strikes by the Russian army, are not simply military operations in a time of war… It is a conscious and criminal attempt to kill as many Ukrainians as possible,” Zelenskyy said. “To destroy more homes, public sites, businesses. This is what will be qualified as genocide of the Ukrainian people and for which the occupiers will definitely be brought to justice.”