Russia-Ukraine war: Mayor of Melitopol abducted; Russian attack widens as US imposes new trade sanctions

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of kidnapping the mayor of the city of Melitopol, equating it to the actions of “Isis terrorists”.

“They have transitioned into a new stage of terror, in which they try to physically liquidate representatives of Ukraine’s lawful local authorities,” Zelenskyy said in a video address Friday evening (Saturday NZT).

Kirill Timoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, posted a video on the social media site Telegram which he said showed a group of armed men carrying the mayor, Ivan Fedorov, across a square.

Russian forces captured the southern port city of Melitopol, with a population of 150,000, on February 26.

The prosecutor’s office of the Luhansk People’s Republic, a Moscow-backed rebel region in eastern Ukraine, said on its website that there was a criminal case against Fedorov. The prosecutor’s office accused Federov of “terrorist activities” and of financing the nationalist militia Right Sector to “commit terrorist crimes against Donbass civilians.”

The office said it was looking for Fedorov and called for anyone with information about his whereabouts to contact them

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials accused Russia of damaging a cancer hospital and several residential buildings in the southern city of Mykolaiv with shelling from heavy artillery.

The hospital’s head doctor, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were in the hospital during the attack but that no one was killed. The assault damaged the building and blew out windows.

Russian forces have stepped up their attacks on Mykolaiv, located 470 kilometers (292 miles) south of Kyiv, in an attempt to encircle the city.

Ukrainian and Western officials earlier accused Russia of shelling a maternity hospital in the southern city of Mariupol on Wednesday. Three people died in that attack.

Russian warplanes, artillery widen attack

Russia’s airplanes and artillery widened their assault on Ukraine on Friday, striking airfields in the west and a major industrial hub in the east, as Moscow’s forces tried to regroup from recent losses and their onslaught fast reduced crowded cities to rubble.

American defense officials offered an assessment of the Russian air campaign, estimating that invading pilots are averaging 200 sorties a day, compared with five to 10 for Ukrainian forces, which are focusing more on surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and drones to take out Russian aircraft.

In a devastated village east of the capital, villagers climbed over toppled walls and flapping metal strips in the remnants of a pool hall, restaurant and theater freshly blown apart by Russian bombs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “created this mess, thinking he will be in charge here,” 62-year-old Ivan Merzyk said. In temperatures sinking below freezing, villagers quickly spread plastic wrap or nailed plywood over blown out windows of their homes.

“We are not going away from here,” Merzyk said.

Israeli PM reportedly tells Zelenskyy to 'surrender'

A senior Ukrainian official claims Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept Putin’s conditions in order to end the conflict.

After Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, Bennett was the first world leader to speak to Putin in person.

Axios reports the call between Bennett and Zelenskyy occurred on Tuesday, with Ukrainian officials rebuffing the Israeli Prime Minister’s suggestions.

“Bennett is basically telling us to surrender and we have no intention of doing that,” the senior Ukrainian official said.

“His initiative looks like an excuse for why he is not speaking out against Russia, not providing weapons to Ukraine and not sanctioning Russia,” they added.

However, the claims have been disputed by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. They claimed the mediation talks were conducted on a private line and were only attended by Zelenskyy and his close advisers.

They also said that recommendations had not been given during the talks, which are being focused on “stopping the bloodshed in Ukraine”.

Third Russian general killed by Ukrainian forces

Officials are reporting a third Russian general, Major General Andriy Kolesnikov, has been killed by Ukrainian forces.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence’s website, Kolesnikov was commander of the Eastern Military District.

Russia widened its offensive in Ukraine on Friday (US time), striking airfields in the west and a major industrial city in the east, while the huge armoured column that had been stalled for over a week outside Kyiv was on the move again, spreading out into forests and towns near the capital.

On the economic and political front, the US and its allies moved to further isolate and sanction Russia by revoking its most favoured trading status, while on the ground, the Kremlin’s forces appeared to be trying to regroup and regain momentum after encountering heavier losses and stiffer resistance than anticipated.

“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” said Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

With the invasion in its 16th day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there had been “certain positive developments” in Russia-Ukraine talks, but gave no details.

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. Thousands of civilians and soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed in the invasion.

So far, the Russians have made the biggest advances on cities in the east and south — including in Mariupol, the heavily bombarded seaport where civilians scrounged for food and fuel amid a harrowing 10-day-old siege — while struggling in the north and around Kyiv.

On Friday, they continued to launch airstrikes in urban areas such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, while also pounding targets away from the main battle zones.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west “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 split up and fanned out.

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

The 64km 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, muddy roads 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 Defence 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 Reynolds, the defence analyst, said the move, in part, looked like an attempt by the troops to better protect themselves by dispersing. He said it may indicate the Russians are not ready to surround the city just yet.

Repeated rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have taken place along the Belarus border, and the two countries’ foreign ministers held talks on Thursday with no apparent progress, while various third countries have also made attempts to broker a stop to the fighting.

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the fact that negotiations are taking place so early in the fighting “might speak to Russian concerns” about the progress of the war.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian soldiers traversed snow-dusted fields and woods near Kyiv, rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers slung over their shoulders, in a video recorded by Radio Free Europe. One of them vowed to kill their enemies over the bombing of Mariupol.

Gunfire and explosions could be heard, and at one point, shots split the air nearby, and the soldiers dropped to the ground and returned fire.

Interpol restricts Russia to input information directly into network

Interpol is restricting Russia’s ability to input information directly into the global police organisation’s vast network, deciding that communications must first be checked by the general secretariat in Lyon, France.

The French Foreign Ministry said Friday that the beefed-up surveillance measures follow “multiple suspicions of attempted fraudulent use” of the Interpol system in recent days, but it did not elaborate.

Interpol stressed in a statement Thursday that it is maintaining its pledge of neutrality amid a war between two of its members, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it said that “heightened supervision and monitoring measures” of Moscow’s National Central Bureau were needed “to prevent any potential misuse of Interpol’s channels” like targeting individuals in or outside Ukraine.

The ministry noted that Interpol’s decision has multiple impacts from communications, to putting out so-called “red notices” for criminals on the loose or even feeding data on lost or stolen documents — all of which must now get compliance checks from Interpol headquarters.

Interpol, which has 195 members, said it had received calls to suspend Russia from the network, along with calls by law enforcement leaders looking for continued co-operation to better fight crime.

“In addition to the tragic loss of life, conflicts invariably lead to an increase in crime,” as organised crime groups try to exploit desperation, Interpol said. Risks include human trafficking, weapons smuggling and trafficking in illicit goods and medicines.

Russia widens social media crackdown by blocking Instagram

Russian regulators said Friday that internet users will be blocked from accessing Instagram because it’s being used to call for violence against Russian soldiers, in Moscow’s latest move to tighten up access to foreign social platforms.

The communications and media regulator, Roskomnadzor, said in a statement that it’s restricting national access to Instagram because the platform is spreading “calls to commit violent acts against Russian citizens, including military personnel”.

Facebook parent Meta Platforms, which also owns Instagram, didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

Roskomnadzor specifically cited a tweet by Meta spokesman Andy Stone conveying a company statement saying it had “made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules on violent speech, such as ‘death to the Russian invaders”.

Stone’s statement followed a Reuters report that Meta was making a temporary change to its hate speech policy to allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion.

The statement stressed that the company “still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians”.

Russia has already blocked access to Facebook, limited access to Twitter and criminalised the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports, as part of President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on social media and news outlets like the BBC.

Big tech companies, meanwhile, have moved to restrict Russian state media from using their platforms to spread propaganda and misinformation, especially for European users.

Google has blocked European users from viewing YouTube channels operated by RT and Sputnik, which TikTok has disabled their European accounts. Meta has barred Russian state media from Instagram and Facebook.

US to downgrade its trade status with Russia

In Washington, President Joe Biden announced the US will dramatically downgrade its trade status with Russia as punishment for its invasion and also ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds. The move to revoke the “most favoured nation” status for Russia was taken in coordination with the European Union and Group of Seven countries.

“The free world is coming together to confront Putin,” Biden said.

Stripping the most favoured nation status from Russia would allow the US and allies to impose higher tariffs on some Russian imports. Other 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.

The United Nations political chief said the UN has received credible reports that Russian forces are using cluster bombs in Ukraine, including in populated areas. Cluster bombs scatter “bomblets” over wide areas. Their use against civilians is prohibited under international law.

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 in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has come under heavy bombardment.

About 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 1300.

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

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