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Kremlin gets ready to annex 4 regions of Ukraine on Friday

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By Jon Gambrell And Adam Schreck in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Friday will formally annex parts of Ukraine where separation “referendums” received approval, the Kremlin’s spokesman said, confirming the expectations of Ukrainian and Western officials who have denounced the Moscow-managed votes as illegal, forced and rigged.

Four regions of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — will be folded into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.

Peskov said the pro-Moscow administrators of those regions would sign treaties to join Russia during the ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting of the National Security and Defense Council for Friday, apparently in response to the Russian move.

The official annexation was widely expected following the votes that wrapped up Tuesday in the areas under Russian occupation and the administration of Moscow-installed officials. Ukraine’s supporters in the West have described the stage-managed referendums on living under Russian rule as a bald-faced land grab based on lies.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, whose country currently holds the European Union presidency. “We reject such one-sided annexation based on a fully falsified process with no legitimacy.”

Lipavsky described the pro-Russia referendums as “theater play” and insisted the regions remain “Ukrainian territory.”

Armed Russian troops at went door-to-door with election officials to collect ballots in five days of voting that produced suspiciously high margins in favor of joining Russia. Ukrainian officials said the military escorts also took down the names of residents who voted against annexation.

Moscow-installed administrations in the four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine claimed Tuesday night that 93% of the ballots cast in the Zaporizhzhia region supported annexation, as did 87% in Kherson, 98% in Luhansk and 99% in Donetsk.

“Under threats and sometimes even (at) gunpoint, people are being taken out of their homes or workplaces to vote in glass ballot boxes,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a conference in Berlin.

“This is the opposite of free and fair elections,” Baerbock said. “And this is the opposite of peace. It’s dictated peace. As long as this Russian diktat prevails in the occupied territories of Ukraine, no citizen is safe. No citizen is free.”

The votes and the Kremlin’s quick move to incorporate territory seized during Russia’s war in Ukraine came after a Ukrainian counteroffensive this month dealt Moscow’s forces heavy battlefield setbacks.

Putin last week ordered a troop mobilization that the Russian defense minister said would put 300,000 reservists into active military duty. In response, tens of thousands of Russian men have left the country. Putin and other Russian officials also have threatened to resort to nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory, including any annexed land.

On the battlefront Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling killed at least eight civilians in the past 24 hours, including a child, and wounded scores of others. A 12-year-old girl was pulled alive out of rubble after an attack on Dnipro, officials said.

“The rescuers have taken her from under the rubble, she was asleep when the Russian missile hit,” said local administrator Valentyn Reznichenko.

A Russian rocket attack on Kramatorsk, a city in the eastern Donetsk region still held by Ukraine, wounded 11 people and inflicted damage on the city, Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said.

More fighting near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s biggest – was another source of concern. Russian forces occupy the plant, which is Europe’s biggest nuclear power station, but Ukrainian technicians still are running it.

A suspected landmine explosion on the perimeter fence Thursday that was likely triggered by wild animals damaged electrical lines, according to Ukraine’s national atomic power agency, Energoatom.

Reports of new shelling came as Russia appeared to lose more ground around the northeastern city of Lyman. The Russian military is struggling with a chaotic mobilization of troops and trying to prevent fighting-age men from leaving the country, according to a Washington-based think-tank and the British intelligence reports.

The Institute for the Study of War, citing Russian reports, said Ukrainian forces have taken more villages around Lyman, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The report said Ukrainian forces may soon encircle Lyman entirely, in what would be a major blow to Moscow’s war effort.

“The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping in northern Donetsk and western Luhansk oblasts and may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk” region, the institute said.

British military intelligence claimed the number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country likely exceeds the number of forces that Moscow used to initially invade Ukraine in February.

“The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia,” the British said. “When combined with those reservists who are being mobilized, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labor and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant.”

Russia’s partial mobilization has been deeply unpopular in some areas, however, triggering protests and scattered violence. Russian men have formed miles-long lines trying to leave at some borders and Moscow also reportedly has set up draft offices at its borders to intercept some of those fleeing.

On the subject of sabotage that has hit Russian gas pipelines to Europe this week, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, claimed Thursday that the Nord Stream pipeline accidents would have been impossible without a government’s involvement.

“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Peskov told reporters. “It’s a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation.”

He dismissed media reports about Russian warships spotted in the area as “stupid and biased,” claiming that many more NATO aircraft and ships “have been spotted in the area.”

European officials have noted that Russia benefits from higher gas prices when supplies to Europe are disrupted.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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N Korea fires 23 missiles, prompting air raid alert in South

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By Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Air raid sirens sounded on a South Korean island and residents evacuated to underground shelters after North Korea fired more than 20 missiles Wednesday, at least one of them in its direction and landing near the rivals’ tense sea border. South Korea quickly responded by launching its own missiles in the same border area.

The launches came hours after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” in protest of ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal. The White House maintained that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea and vowed to work with allies to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North’s barrage of missile tests also came as world attention was focused on South Korea following a weekend Halloween tragedy that saw more than 150 people killed in a crowd surge in Seoul in what was the country’s largest disaster in years.

South Korea’s military said North Korea launched at least 23 missiles — 17 in the morning and six in the afternoon — off its its eastern and western coasts on Wednesday. It said the weapons were all short-range ballistic missiles or suspected surface-to-air missiles. Also Wednesday, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells into an eastern maritime buffer zone the Koreas created in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to South Korea’s military.

The 23 missiles launched is a record number of daily missile tests by North Korea, some experts say.

One of the ballistic missiles was flying toward South Korea’s Ulleung island before it eventually landed 167 kilometers (104 miles) northwest of the island. South Korea’s military issued an air raid alert on the island, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korean media published photos of island residents moving to underground shelters.

Hours later, South Korea’s military said it lifted the air raid alert on the island. South Korea’s transport ministry said it has closed some air routes above the country’s eastern waters until Thursday morning in the wake of the North Korean launches.

That missile landed 26 kilometers (16 miles) away from the rivals’ sea border. It landed in international waters off the east coast of South Korea. South Korea’s military said it was the first time a North Korean missile has landed so close to the sea border since the countries’ division in 1948.

“This is very unprecedented and we will never tolerate it,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

In 2010, North Korea shelled a front-line South Korean island off the peninsula’s western coast, killing four people. But the weapons used were artillery rockets, not ballistic missiles whose launches or tests are banned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Later Wednesday, South Korean fighter jets launched three air-to-surface, precision-guided missiles near the eastern sea border to show its determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. South Korea’s military said the missiles landed in international waters at the same distance of 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of the sea border as the North Korean missile fell earlier Wednesday.

It said it maintains a readiness to win “an overwhelming victory” against North Korea in potential clashes.

“North Korea firing missiles in a way that sets off air raid sirens appears intended to threaten South Koreans to pressure their government to change policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and tests are worrisome, but offering concessions about alliance cooperation or nuclear recognition would make matters worse.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier identified three of the North Korean weapons launched as “short-range ballistic missiles” fired from the North’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, including the one that landed near the sea border.

North Korean short-range weapons are designed to strike key facilities in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.

In an emergency meeting with top security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to take swift unspecified steps to make North Korea face consequences for its provocation. He said he would consider the North Korean missile’s landing near the border “a virtual violation of (our) territorial waters.”

During the meeting, officials also lamented that the North Korean missile launches came as South Korea is in a mourning period over the crowd crush. They noted this “clearly showed the nature of the North Korean government,” according to South Korea’s presidential office.

Earlier Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at least two ballistic missiles fired by North Korea showed a possibly “irregular” trajectory. This suggests the missiles were the North’s highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, which was modeled on Russia’s Iskander missile.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called North Korea’s continuing missile tests “absolutely impermissible.”

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said the danger of armed clashes between the Koreas off their western or eastern coasts is increasing. He said South Korea needs to make “proportional responses” to North Korean provocations, not “overwhelming responses,” to prevent tensions from spiraling out of control and possibly leading the North to use its tactical nuclear weapons.

Animosities on the Korean Peninsula have been running high in recent months, with North Korea testing a string of nuclear-capable missiles and adopting a law authorizing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations. Some experts still doubt North Korea would use nuclear weapons first in the face of U.S. and South Korean forces.

North Korea has argued its recent weapons tests were meant to issue a warning to Washington and Seoul over their joint military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal, including this week’s exercises.

In a statement released early Wednesday, Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party who is considered a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, called the Vigilant Storm air force drills “aggressive and provocative.”

“If the U.S. and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against (North Korea) without any fear, the special means of the (North’s) armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.

“The U.S. and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,” he said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intentions of attacking North Korea.

“We reject the notion that they serve as any sort of provocation. We have made clear that we have no hostile intent towards (North Korea) and call on them to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said late Tuesday.

North Korea “continues to not respond. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to limit the North’s ability to advance its unlawful weapons programs and threaten regional stability,” Watson said.

This year’s Vigilant Storm military exercises are the largest-ever for the annual fall maneuvers, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. About 1,600 flights are planned involving 240 U.S. and South Korean fighter jets. The round-the-clock drills, which began Oct. 31, are to continue through Nov. 4 and include warfighting tactics both in the air and on the ground, it said.

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Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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Freeland says comments about Africa aid were not meant to offend

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By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she did not mean to offend anyone after saying last week that Africans must be “prepared to die for their democracy,” and hinted that Canada might boost aid for the continent.

“If anyone did find my comments to be insensitive, then I’m very sorry,” Freeland said Monday.

“If … a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.’”

In a speech last week in Washington, Freeland urged democracies to grow closer through trade and energy ties, in the face of a perilous new world order where autocracies are trying to usurp democracy.

In a question session afterwards, a man who said he works for African Development Bank asked Freeland about western countries hinting at a drop in aid for the continent, in order to fund Ukraine’s needs.

The unnamed man, whom The Canadian Press could not identify, asked Freeland to respond to concerns that this will only increase Russia’s sway in that continent.

Freeland responded that western countries do need to step up and “prove we’re real partners.”

But she also said it is up to African countries to choose their own paths, and rejected the idea that they can simply fall into Russia’s orbit by accident.

“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said last week.

The comment led to pushback on social media, and raised eyebrows among Africa experts.

University of Ottawa professor Rita Abrahamsen said Freeland was correct in saying that it’s up to Africans to determine their destiny, but cautioned that the conflict in Ukraine has become a sensitive issue.

“This a strong sense among many African countries that they are being bullied or patronized, or that one is holding aid hostage to support in the UN (forums), for the war in Ukraine,” she said.

“Canada has to be very, very careful here.”

Abrahamsen, the director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put economic pressure on the continent.

“Emotions are running high around this on the African continent, and it means that words have to be judged very carefully,” she said.

“We’re looking at a continent where a large part of it … (is) close to famine conditions, acute starvation. We’re looking at immense flooding in large parts of West Africa; we’re looking at a return of military coups.”

Freeland said Monday that the western world needs to recognize that current problems stem from colonization.

“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”

She hinted that upcoming budgets could include more humanitarian aid for Africa, and noted Canada’s push to reform global financial organizations to better fit the needs of poorer nations.

“We need today, if anything, to step up our engagement with the global south,” she said, referring to developing nations.

“What is important is to take the lead from our African partners, and to listen to them about what it is specifically that is on their agenda, and what specifically they need.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.

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