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Russian strikes hit western Ukraine as offensive widens


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By Yuras Karmanau in Lviv

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia widened its offensive in Ukraine on Friday, striking airfields in the west and an industrial city in the east for the first time, while the huge armored column stalled for over a week outside Kyiv was on the move again, spreading out into forests and towns.

The U.S. and its allies prepared to step up their efforts to isolate and sanction Russia by revoking its most favored trading status. But with the invasion now in its 16th day, Russia appeared to be trying to regroup and regain momentum, with expanded bombardment and tightening of its stranglehold on cities already under attack, particularly the strategic port of Mariupol, where tens of thousands struggled to find food amid an intense 10-day-old siege.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said there have been “certain positive developments” in Russia-Ukraine talks but gave no details. He told Belarus’ leader that negotiations were being held “almost on a daily basis.”

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had “reached a strategic turning point,” though he did not elaborate.

“It’s impossible to say how many days we will still need to free our land, but it is possible to say that we will do it,” he said via video from Kyiv.

He also said authorities were working on establishing 12 humanitarian corridors and trying to ensure food, medicine and other basics get to people across the country.

Western and Ukrainian officials have said Russian forces have struggled in the face of stiffer resistance and heavier losses than anticipated, along with supply and morale problems. So far, they have made the biggest advances on cities in the south and east while stalling in the north and around Kyiv.

Friday’s strikes targeted the west, away from the main battle zones. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of action.”

The Lutsk strikes killed four Ukrainian servicemen and wounded six, Lutsk Mayor Ihor Polishchuk said. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered into shelters in an air raid alert

Russian airstrikes also targeted for the first time the eastern city of Dnipro, a major industrial hub and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, situated on the Dnieper River. Three strikes hit, killing at least one person, according to Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko.

In images of the aftermath released by Ukraine’s emergency agency, firefighters doused a flaming building, and ash fell on bloodied rubble. Smoke billowed over shattered concrete where buildings once stood.

In another potentially ominous development, new satellite photos appeared to show the massive Russian convoy outside the Ukrainian capital had fanned out.

Howitzers were towed into position to open fire, and armored units were seen in towns near the Antonov Airport north of the city, according to Maxar Technologies, the company that produced the images.

The 40-mile (64-kilometer) line of tanks and other vehicles had massed outside Kyiv early last week. But its advance had appeared to stall amid reports of food and fuel shortages and attacks by Ukrainian troops with anti-tank missiles.

The purpose of the latest move was unclear, though Russia is widely expected eventually to try to encircle the capital.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said that after making “limited progress,” Russian forces were trying to “re-set and re-posture” their troops, gearing up for operations against Kyiv.

But Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst at British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute, said the move, in part, looks like an attempt by the troops to better protect themselves by dispersing. He said it may indicate that the Russians are not ready to surround the city quickly.

In the meantime, Russia is increasing bombardments and regrouping its forces on the ground.

“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” Reynolds said.

Moscow also indicated it plans to bring fighters from Syria into the conflict. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia knew of more than 16,000 applications from Middle East countries, many of them from people who had had helped Russia against the Islamic State group.

Since 2015, Russian forces have backed Syrian President Bashar Assad against various groups opposed to his rule, including the Islamic State.

On the sanctions front, revoking Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status by the U.S. and other nations would allow higher tariffs on some Russian imports. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow to Russia, causing the ruble to plunge, foreign businesses to flee and prices to rise sharply. Putin has insisted Russia can endure sanctions.

In Syria, Russia backed the government in imposing long, brutal sieges of opposition-held cities, wreaking heavy destruction and causing widespread civilian casualties. That history, along with the siege of Mariupol, has raised fears of similar bloodshed in Ukraine.

Temperatures sank below freezing across most of Ukraine and were forecast to hit -13 degrees Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has come under heavy bombardment.

Some 400 apartment buildings in Kharkiv lost heat, and Mayor Ihor Terekhov appealed to remaining residents to descend into the subway or other underground shelters where blankets and hot food were being distributed.

The bombardment continued in Mariupol, where a deadly strike on a maternity hospital this week sparked international outrage and war-crime allegations. Repeated attempts to send in food and medicine and evacuate civilians from the city of 430,000 have been thwarted by continued attacks, and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk put the number of dead there at more than 1,300.

Some 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began, according to the United Nations.


Associated Press journalists Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, along with other reporters around the world contributed.


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armed conflict

‘On tour in hell’: Wounded Ukrainian soldiers evacuated

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An injured Ukrainian soldier lies on a bed inside a special medical bus during an evacuation by volunteers from the Hospitallers paramedic organisation in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

By Elena Becatoros in Donetsk Region

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine (AP) — Their hands are blackened and grimy from the fight. Some are still wearing their combat boots, small flecks of black soil from the battlefield clinging to their torsos, bare under the emergency blanket.

With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medical evacuation bus by members of the Hospitallers, a Ukrainian organization of volunteer paramedics who work on the front lines in the war in Ukraine.

The soldiers were all wounded recently in fierce fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have been pressing advances. The battle in Bakhmut, a city now encircled on three sides by Russian troops, has been particularly bloody, with soldiers describing endless days of combat, often at close quarters.

“We’ve been on tour in hell,” said Yura, who like all the soldiers would give only his first name for safety reasons. He lay on a bed in a specially equipped medical bus, with his arm and leg badly wounded.

Blood stained the heavy bandages around his right forearm, which metal rods held together to stabilize the shattered bone. His bicep bore a deepening purple bruise left by the tourniquet applied to staunch the blood and save his life. The time it was put on was scrawled in pen across his right cheek: 19:45.

“They tried to get me with grenades,” he said.

Unlike most of the wounded, Yura is not Ukrainian. He is Russian, but fought on the side of Ukraine in Bakhmut since November. The Moscow native said he moved to Ukraine before the war, as did a friend of his who is also fighting for Ukraine and had spent 2 1/2 years in prison in Russia for reposting a social media post saying Crimea — annexed by Russia in 2014 — was Ukrainian.

It was his own countrymen who wounded him.

He was in Bakhmut for “eight days of almost uninterrupted combat.” But he and his unit managed to repel all the assaults on their position, he said.

“On the fifth day without sleep, I had thoughts that I would go crazy,” he said. “In fact, it’s impossible to sleep there. They shell it in such a way that the earth trembles.”

He showed a video on his mobile phone shot inside Bakhmut: the interior of a devastated building, holes punched through the walls by artillery, rubble strewn across the floor. Beyond the twisted metal remnants of a window, a glimpse of an urban hellscape of shattered buildings and splintered trees.

Yaroslav, 37, was also wounded in Bakhmut. The battle was so close that Russian and Ukrainian forces fought room to room inside buildings, he said.

Pale and with an almost imperceptible tremor, his lips nearly white, he propped himself up on an elbow as he waited to be carried on a stretcher from an ambulance onto the bus for the trip to a better equipped hospital in a city further west.

An explosion had sent shrapnel through his leg, piercing it below the knee.

“I came to my senses and saw that there is nobody around me, and then I understood that there is blood oozing into my shoe, blood squelching in my shoe,” he said, quietly drawing on a cigarette. “It was totally dark.”

As his unit had attempted to move from its position, the Russian forces began shelling.

“When I left, everything was on fire,” he recalled. There were dead Russians lying on the ground, and dead Ukrainians, too. “People were running in the road and falling down, because mines were exploding, drones were flying.”

He finished his cigarette and lay back on the stretcher. His eyes fixed on some invisible point before him, and he slowly closed his eyelids. The Hospitallers lifted his stretcher and carried it to the waiting bus.

The medically equipped bus — named “Austrian,” the nickname of a Hospitaller paramedic who was killed in a crash of another medical evacuation bus — can carry six severely wounded patients on stretchers, and several more walking wounded.

“We’re doing evacuations as necessary. It could be twice or three times per day,” chief paramedic Kateryna Seliverstova said.

Bought with money from donations, the bus is better equipped medically than even some state hospitals, Seliverstova said. It is stocked with monitors, electrocardiographs, ventilators and oxygen tanks and can care for severely ill patients while they are transported to a major hospital.

“This project is really important, because it helps to economize resources,” Seliverstova said. “We can transport six injured people who are in serious or moderate condition,” whereas a normal ambulance can only transport one.

All six places were taken on the trip evacuating Yura and Yaroslav. Across the aisle from Yura, another soldier slipped in and out of consciousness, a brown bandage wrapped around his head. A paramedic checked his vital signs on a monitor, and helped him sip water from a syringe.

Behind him, a man coughed deeply. Only the blackened tip of his nose was visible from his heavily bandaged head. He had suffered extensive burns to his face.

Yura spoke softly to one of the paramedics. Without his expression changing, tears began rolling down the side of his face. The paramedic leaned over and gently wiped them away.


Vasilisa Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka contributed from Donetsk region, Ukraine.

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Pentagon: Budget readies US for possible China confrontation

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, right, accompanied by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

By Lolita C. Baldor And Tara Copp in Washington

(AP) — The U.S. military must be ready for possible confrontation with China, the Pentagon’s leaders said Thursday, pushing Congress to approve the Defense Department’s proposed $842 billion budget that would modernize the force in Asia and around the world.

“This is a strategy-driven budget — and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

Pointing to increases in new technology, such as hypersonics, Austin said the budget proposes to spend more than $9 billion, a 40% increase over last year, to build up military capabilities in the Pacific and defend allies.

The testimony comes on the heels of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, amid concerns China will step up its support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and increasingly threaten the West.

China’s actions, said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “are moving it down the path toward confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbors and possibly the United States.” He said that deterring and preparing for war “is extraordinarily expensive, but it’s not as expensive as fighting a war. And this budget prevents war and prepares us to fight it if necessary.”

Milley, who will retire later this year, said the Defense Department must continue to modernize its forces to ensure they will be ready to fight if needed.

Two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded the military’s equipment and troop readiness, so the U.S. has been working to replace weapons systems and give troops time to reset. It’s paid off, Milley told Congress.

“Our operational readiness rates are higher now than they have been in many, many years,” Milley said. More than 60% of the active force is at the highest states of readiness right now and could deploy to combat in less than 30 days, while 10% could deploy within 96 hours, he said.

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