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NATO warns Russia 'repositioning,' not withdrawing

March 31, 2022

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says Russian forces are seeking to reinforce their offensive in eastern Ukraine after Moscow claimed to scale down operations in some areas.

Nina Babina, 63, recounts how Russian troops entered her neighbourhood, forcing residents to leave their apartments during their occupation of the town of Trostyanets, Ukraine.
Nina Babina, 63, after Russian troops entered her neighbourhood, forcing residents to leave their apartments in Trostyanets, UkraineImage: Thomas Peter/REUTERS
  • Ukraine's state nuclear operator says most Russian forces withdrew from Chernobyl
  • UK military intelligence forecasts heavy fighting in Kyiv suburbs in days ahead
  • Russia bans entry of top EU officials
  • Putin says gas payments to be made via Russian bank accounts
  • EBRD forecasts dire economic picture for Ukraine, Russia
  • Oil depot and factory hit in eastern Ukraine

This article was last updated at 21:17 GMT/UTC.

This live updates article has been closed. For more up-to-date information on the war in Ukraine, please click here.

Ukraine: Russian shelling hits evacuation convoy, one dead

One person was killed and four wounded when Russian forces shelled an evacuation convoy out of the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova said.

Denisova said that there were "civilian volunteers" on the buses.

Denisova said Russian forces were "denying any chance of evacuating peaceful citizens from besieged Chernihiv, essentially holding tens of thousands of people hostage without food, water or heat."

Russia had previously announced it would draw down military activities around Chernihiv.

Pentagon: Ukraine stopped Russian convoy near Kyiv 'pretty quickly'

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby it was not clear if Russia's convoy of military vehicles to Kyiv, "even exists" anymore after failing to accomplish its mission.

The stalled convoy, which had once stretched some 40 miles (64 kilometers), became a symbol of Russia's battlefield difficulties and had been reportedly attacked several times by Ukrainian forces during the first weeks of the more than monthlong war. 

"I don't even know if it still exists at this point... They never really accomplished their mission," Kirby told reporters, responding to a question about whether the Pentagon had any updates about the convoy. 

"They never really accomplished their mission. They never really provided any supply of any value to Russian forces assembling around Kyiv," he added.

"The Ukrainians put a stop to that convoy pretty quickly." 

UN nuclear watchdog says Russian forces have left Chernobyl

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it has been informed by Ukraine that Russian forces have "in writing, transferred control" of the Chernobyl nuclear plant to Ukrainian authorities. 

Energoatom, Ukraine's nuclear operator company, earlier reported that most of the Russian forces that were occupying the Chernobyl nuclear power station had left. 

Energoatom said only a "small number" of Russian troops remained, but the majority were heading toward Belarus. 

"The information is confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the exclusion zone, have set off in two columns toward the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus," it said in a statement.

Russian troops were exposed to "significant doses" of radiation from digging trenches at the highly contaminated site around the now-closed Chernobyl plant, Energoatom said. 

The troops "panicked at the first sign of illness," which "showed up very quickly," and began preparing to leave, the operator added. 

The IAEA said it could not confirm that Russian forces had received high doses of radiation. 

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US continues "to see indications" that Russian troops were departing from Chernobyl. 

"But we don't see any indication that they're going be sent home," he told reporters.

Kirby said the troops' departure was "not necessarily because of a health hazard or emergency at Chernobyl," but rather for repositioning to be "resupplied and used elsewhere in Ukraine." 

Germany says sent over €80 million worth of weapons to Ukraine

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said Germany has delivered more than €80 million ($88.62 million) worth of weapons to Ukraine so far, "and more are to follow." 

Berlin has come under fire over what critics say is not enough military aid to Kyiv, as compared to, for instance, Washington. 

Earlier this month, the White House said US President Joe Biden was sending an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine.

According to the White House, the figure brings the total US security assistance to Kyiv to $1 billion in one week — and a total of $2 billion since Biden took office in early 2021. 

Ukraine says Russian forces killed 148 children 

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Russian forces have killed 148 children during shelling and airstrikes.

According to the ministry, Russia has fired 1,370 missiles and destroyed 15 Ukrainian airports since the start of the invasion on February 24.

Over 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, the ministry said. 

The figures could not be independently verified. 

Biden says Putin 'seems to be self-isolated' 

US President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be self-isolating and may have sacked some of his advisers.

"He seems to be self-isolated and there's some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers," Biden said. "But I don't want to put too much stock in that at this time."

Earlier, US and UK intelligence reports said Putin was being "misled" by his advisers about the developments of the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin denied the claim. 

UN delivers aid to northern Ukraine, says south inaccessible 

Osnat Lubrani, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, says supplies have been delivered for thousands of people in the country's northeast — but some encircled cities in the south of Ukraine remain difficult to reach. 

Lubrani said food rations from the UN's partners will benefit nearly 6,000 people in Sumy and areas including Trostianets and Okhtyrka.

According to Lubrani, basic household items, including blankets and kettles from the UN refugee agency, will support 1,500 people. Sanitation kits will also help 6,000 people with hygiene and drinking water, she said.

The UN-facilitated humanitarian notification system with Ukraine and Russia enabled safe passage for the convoy to Sumy on Thursday, "but this is clearly not enough," Lubrani said. 

However, efforts to reach Mariupol, Kherson and other southern Ukrainian cities have been unsuccessful over the past month due to safety concerns.

Britain, allies to send more 'lethal aid' to Ukraine

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Britain and its allies have agreed to send more military aid to Ukraine. 

"There'll be more lethal aid going into Ukraine as a result of today. A number of countries have come forward either with new ideas or indeed more pledges of money," Wallace told reporters.

He said the aid for Ukraine would include the provision of air and coastal defense systems, longer-range artillery and counter-battery capabilities, armored vehicles and wider training and logistical support.

The minister's statement came after he hosted over 35 international partners at the second International Defense Donor Conference for Ukraine (IDDCU).

"Today's donor conference demonstrates the international community's determination to support Ukraine in the face of President Putin's illegal and unprovoked invasion by Russian forces," Wallace said in a later statement.

Oil prices fall as Biden releases oil reserves

US President Joe Biden has announced the largest-ever release of US emergency oil reserve in a bid to bring down gasoline prices.

Prices have soared in recent weeks over fears of a major supply shortfall in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Following the news about Biden's move, oil prices tumbled. London's Brent crude and New York's WTI managed to pull back slightly in mid-afternoon trading but were both still more than 4% lower at prices well above $100 (€90) a barrel.

Biden said the US will release 1 million barrels of oil a day for the next six months.

"The scale of this release is unprecedented: the world has never had a release of oil reserves at this one million per day rate for this length of time," the White House said in a statement. "This record release will provide a historic amount of supply to serve as bridge until the end of the year when domestic production ramps up."

US sanctions Russian tech firms

The US Treasury Department announced sanctions against a series of Russian tech firms, including Russia's largest chip maker.

The US Treasury said the sanctions are "part of its crackdown on the Kremlin's sanctions evasion networks and technology companies, which are instrumental to the Russian Federation's war machine."

IAEA chief arrives in Russia for talks

The International Atomic Energy Agency said its director, Rafael Mariano Grossi, has arrived in Russia's Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad for talks with senior Russian officials. 

The UN nuclear watchdog did not specify whom Grossi would meet on Friday. 

Grossi arrived in Russia after visiting a nuclear power plant in Ukraine and held talks with top officials on efforts to ensure the safety of Ukraine's nuclear power plants. 

There are 15 active nuclear reactors at four plants in Ukraine. Russia's military controls one of them, Zaporizhzhia, Europe's largest nuclear power plant. 

A map showing Ukraine's nuclear reactors

Red Cross team prepares for Mariupol evacuation

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said its team has assembled in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia with medicines, food, water, hygiene items and other essentials.

The team is preparing to take civilians out of the besieged port city of Mariupol. 

"We're here because really, we hope to be able to facilitate safe passage for civilians desperately wanting to flee Mariupol," said Lucile Marbeau, a staff member with the ICRC team hoping to enter the city. 

Russia has said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, and Ukrainian authorities said they were sending 45 buses to collect civilians from the city and provide aid to those who remain. 

Julien Lerisson, deputy director of operations for the ICRC, said the organization has high-level agreement for the mission but is focused on making sure "the order trickles down the chain of command," allowing the team to enter and leave Mariupol safely. 

Russia says foreign leased aircraft to remain in country

Yuri Borisov, Russia's deputy prime minister, said all foreign leased aircraft that are still in Russia after the termination of Western leasing contracts will remain in Russia.

According to the Reuters news agency, Borisov said those planes have been entered into the Russian aircraft register.

Western sanctions on Russia forced leasing companies to terminate contracts with Russian airlines for more than 500 aircraft. Over 400 of them remain in Russia, Reuters reported. 

Russia bans entry of top EU officials, lawmakers

Moscow has imposed entry bans on representatives of the European Union in response to Western sanctions. 

"The restrictions apply to the highest leadership of the European Union... as well as to the majority of members of the European Parliament," Russia's Foreign Ministry announced. 

The ministry added that the "blacklist" also includes representatives of governments and parliaments of individual EU states. 

It did not list specific names. 

German economy minister calls for more Russia sanctions

Robert Habeck, the German economy minister, said the EU should impose additional sanctions on Russia to prevent a "barbaric" war in Ukraine.

He said he discussed what further measures could be taken with his French counterpart during a bilateral meeting in Berlin on Thursday.

"The last package [of sanctions] doesn't need to be the final one, it should not be the final one," he told reporters,

Habeck added that he and French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire had "identified additional points that could be included in a [sanctions] package."

The German minister declined to elaborate on what those points might be.

Zelenskyy calls on Belgium to send arms to Ukraine

Speaking to Belgian lawmakers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Belgium to deliver arms to help his people fight Russian troops, especially in Mariupol. 

The Ukrainian leader called on Belgium to consider peace more important than trade with Russia. 

"I think that peace is much more valuable than diamonds, than agreements with Russia, than Russian ships in the ports, more also than Russian oil and gas, so help us!

Zelenskyy went on to say that the besieged city of Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, remained with thousands of civilians without access to "anything necessary to survive."

"Today [Mariupol] is hell on earth... but no one has the determination to stop the disaster," Zelenskyy said via video call. 

UNHCR reports 4,059,105 people fled Ukraine 

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said 4,059,105 Ukrainians had fled across the country's borders since the Russian invasion started on February 24.

"We are confronted with the realities of a massive humanitarian crisis that is growing by the second," UNHCR said, also noting the millions displaced within Ukraine.

Some 13 million people are estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave, according to UNHCR. 

Refugees from Ukraine flee to Germany

Macron calls for extended cease-fire in Mariupol

French President Emmanuel Macron's office said Russia's hourslong cease-fire on Thursday was not enough time to allow trapped residents to get out of — or aid into — the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

The city has been surrounded by Russian troops since the beginning of March, and its residents have been in dire humanitarian conditions. 

On Thursday, the Ukrainian government sent 45 buses to Mariupol to get people out. It's still unclear if the mission was successful. 

NATO formally requests extra Danish troops for Baltic

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen confirmed that NATO has officially requested Denmark to send a combat battalion with around 800 soldiers to Latvia, according to the Danish Ritzau news agency. 

The Danish government had offered to send the battalion to the Baltics if requested. 

The deployment is contingent on approval by the Danish Parliament, but the Defense Ministry expects the battalion to be ready for deployment in Latvia in May.

Putin says gas payments to be made via Russian accounts

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that foreign countries open accounts with Gazprombank in order to continue receiving Russian gas. 

Putin signed a decree stipulating that foreign buyers must transfer foreign currency to a special Gazprombank account. The bank would then act as intermediary, buying rubles on behalf of the gas buyer to transfer the payment in Russian currency to another special account.

If "unfriendly" countries fail to comply with Putin's order, Russian gas supplied would be cut off, he said.

It came day after Germany said Putin had assured Chancellor Olaf Sholz in a phone call that gas payments could still be made in euros.

"De facto, for those who receive Russian gas, who pay for the deliveries, there is in fact no change. They just acquire rubles for the amount in currency which is stipulated in the gas contract," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday.

"Russia remains committed to all its obligations under existing contracts, both in quantity and in price," he said, adding that Putin and Scholz had discussed the system in detail a day earlier. 

Kremlin dismisses claims that Putin is 'misled' by advisers 

Kremlin spokesman Dimity Peskov has denied US and British claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin's advisers are not reporting to him the truth about Moscow's military operation in Ukraine.

"This shows that neither the Department of State nor the Pentagon have real information about what is happening in the Kremlin," Peskov told journalists.

"They don't understand President Putin, they don't understand the mechanism for taking decisions and they don't understand the style of our work," he added.

The White House had said earlier that declassified intelligence found that Putin "felt misled by the Russian military."

Britain's GCHQ spy agency chief, Jeremy Fleming, later said that "Putin's advisers are afraid to tell him the truth" about the degree of Ukrainian resistance. 

Death toll after strike on Mykolaiv rises to 20: emergency services

The Ukrainian emergency services said a Russian strike in the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolaiv has killed 20 people. 

"Rescuers pulled 19 bodies from under the rubble, and one person died in intensive care," it said in a post on Facebook.

The initial death toll was 12. 

The regional governor accused Russia of waiting until civilians arrived for work before hitting the building on Tuesday.

Emergency services said they were still working at the scene.

UK: Russia targeting countries opposing war in cyberspace

Jeremy Fleming, the head of the British spy service GCHQ, said Russia has attempted to disrupt Ukraine's government and military, as well as countries opposing the invasion, in cyberspace.  

"We've seen sustained intent from Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems. We've seen what looks like some spillover of activity affecting surrounding countries," Fleming said in a speech in Canberra.

"And we've certainly seen indications which suggests Russia's cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions," he added.

NATO chief: Russian forces not withdrawing but regrouping

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia's forces are not withdrawing from Ukraine but rather regrouping after Russia announced it would be scaling back military operations around Kyiv.

Citing NATO intelligence, Stoltenberg said, "Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region."

"At the same time, Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities. So, we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering," he added. 

Italy's Draghi: Putin says conditions not yet right for cease-fire

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said at a news conference Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that conditions were not yet right for a ceasefire during a phone call Wednesday.

Draghi also said Putin told him that current gas contracts remain and European firms will continue to pay in euros and dollars despite threats that the Kremlin would only accept rubles.

Two killed in fuel depot attack

The regional governor in the Dnipro region of eastern Ukraine said two were killed when Russian rockets hit a military unit and a fuel depot.

Putin signs decree ordering 134,500 new conscripts

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering 134,500 new conscripts into his country's army as part of the annual spring draft while denying the decree had anything to do with what the Kremlin terms its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said those drafted would not be sent to any "hot spots." Prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia also denied any such plans.

Conscription is a sensitive issue in Russia. Putin has denied on various occasions that Russia is ordering conscripts into Ukraine though on March 9, the Ministry of Defense acknowledged some conscripts had indeed been sent to invade Ukraine.

At the time, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had ordered military investigators to punish those responsible for ordering conscripts into Ukraine, something he insisted had not been ordered despite the defense ministry's contradictory statement. 

UK sanctions 14 more individuals over Ukraine invasion

The UK announced it had sanctioned 14 more individuals including senior Russian state media figures over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The managing director of Russian state-run RT Alexey Nikolov, along with Sergey Brilev, a prominent news anchor at Russian state-run Rossiya Television and Radio network and Anton Anisimov, the editor-in-chief of Russian state-run Sputnik, are among those facing sanctions in this newly announced round.

In a statement, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, "Putin's war on Ukraine is based on a torrent of lies."

IAEA to establish online monitoring missions

Peetro Kotin, the CEO of Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear company, said the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will establish online monitoring missions at the Russian-occupied Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plants in Ukraine.

Kotin said the IAEA "can influence this and they must influence" Russian nuclear officials to not disrupt the operation of nuclear plants currently under Russian control on Ukrainian territory.

Kotin met with IAEA chief Rafael Grossi Wednesday while on a visit in Ukraine. 

Kyiv to resume alcohol sales from Friday

The sale of alcohol in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv will resume from Friday, the city administration said. 

Alcohol sales are set to resume in shops and restaurants from 11 am until 4 pm for the immediate future.

The sale of alcohol was banned due on March 1. Both Lviv and Mykolaiv have already relaxed the temporary ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Russian stocks badly hit while ruble stabilizes

Russia's stock market experienced its worst quarterly decline in over 13 years. 

The RTS index, a dollar-denominated, free-float capitalization weighted index of 50 Moscow Stock Exchange traded stocks, dropped nearly 38% this quarter. The ruble-denominated index also plunged more than 30% the last quarter.

Both indexes experienced their worst quarterly performance since the financial crisis hit global markets in December 2008.

Stock trading picked up Thursday as some restrictions on short selling were lifted. 

The ruble also tightened to near prewar levels at 83 against the US dollar. While the ruble lost almost half its value following the war, tight capital controls as well as intervention from the central bank have brought the currency's decline to 11.5% for the year.

How sanctions are changing Russia

Red Cross warehouse in Mariupol damaged by Russian shelling: reports

A warehouse belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reportedly damaged during intense Russian shelling in the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol, satellite pictures from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the Associated Press show. CNN also reported the incident.

The satellite images revealed damage to the roof where a red cross had been painted on the ICRC warehouse along the Kalmius River.

In a statement, the ICCRC said it distributed all supplies from the warehouse earlier in March and no staff had been on site since March 15.

Turkey: Not seeing Istanbul dialogue results implemented

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said the outcomes of the Istanbul talks between Russsia and Ukraine are not being implemented on the ground.

Turkey remains committed to bringing together the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers again. Cavusoglu also said significant progress was made during the Istanbul talks.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has also played a useful role in liaising between Kyiv and Moscow and is "sincerely" working to end the war since it began, Cavusoglu added.

Zelenskyy addresses Australian parliament

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Australian parliament, calling for a tightening of sanctions and said he would be grateful for donated vehicles, such as Australia's Bushmaster armored vehicles.

Before his speech, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised Zelenskyy as "a lion of democracy" and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" for the first time.

Convoy of buses to evacuate civilians headed to Mariupol

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine's deputy prime minister, said a convoy of buses had set out for the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol in an effort to evacuate civilians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Russia agreed to open a humanitarian corridor where tens of thousands remain trapped following weeks of Russian bombings.

The General Staff of the Ukraine Armed forces posted video to Twitter of Vereshchuk announcing two additional humanitarian corridors opening from Melitopol and Enerhodar to Zaporizhzhia. 

UK military intelligence: Expect heavy fighting in Kyiv suburbs

UK military intelligence said heavy fighting will likely occur in the suburbs of Kyiv in the coming days as Russian forces continue to hold positions both east and west of Kyiv, despite the withdrawal of a small number of units.

While heavy fighting continues in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces remain in control of the center of the southeastern city, UK military intelligence assesses currently.

EBRD: Ukraine, Russian economies to see massive contraction

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said that Russia's economy will contract by 10% this year and Ukraine's gross domestic product (GDP) will decline by as much as 20% due to Russia's invasion.

The EBRD said the war Russia launched against Ukraine last month has caused "the greatest supply shock" in 50 years.

"Russia and Ukraine supply a disproportionately high share of commodities, including wheat, corn, fertiliser, titanium and nickel," the EBRD said.

Prior to the war, the EBRD had forecast the Ukrainian economy to grow by 3.5% and Russia's economy to likewise expand by 3%. Instead, now the EBRD's revised forecasts shows both economies tanking in what is the first updated growth forecast for both nations from an international financial institution since the war began.

The EBRD's current model is to "assume that a ceasefire is brokered within a couple of months, followed soon after by the start of a major reconstruction effort," none of which is certain at this stage.

The EBRD was created in the ashes of the Cold War to aid countries formerly under Soviet tutelage transition from highly inefficient Moscow-controlled command economies to free-market economies. Since the early 1990s, the EBRD has expanded its reach to include Middle Eastern and African nations.

IMF: Russia sanctions could erode US dollar's dominance

Gita Gopinath, the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told The Financial Times that financial sanctions imposed on Russia could gradually lessen the dominance of the US dollar.

Gopinath also said the war in Ukraine will lead to greater use of cryptocurrency and related, lightly regulated financial instruments such as stablecoins as well as central bank digital currencies. 

The result of the war on the global financial system is also likely to be one of "fragmentation," Gopinath said.

Biden promises to end 'nightmare' of US citizens detained in Russia

US President Joe Biden promised to end the "nightmare" of US citizens detained in Russia.

Biden met with the parents of former US Marine Trevor Reed. Reed was convicted of assaulting police officers while drunk in 2019.

Reed was on hunger strike and serving in an isolation cell, a spokesman for the detainee said on Tuesday.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that US diplomats were being denied access to Americans detained in Russia.

Such citizens including Reed, as well as Paul Whelan, who is also a former Marine. The United States says that they are being held under trumped-up charges.

EU and US open joint strategic dialogue on Russia

The European Union and the United States have opened a strategic dialogue on Russia.

The two sides held the first "US-EU High-Level Dialogue on Russia" in Washington on Wednesday, a joint press release said.

The meeting focused "on US and EU strategic objectives and policy coordination aimed at ending Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine," the press release said.

The two sides discussed additional steps to isolate Russia from the US and EU economies.

US: Ukraine war has 'deadly' impact on Arab world

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was having a "deadly" impact on the Arab world.

Blinken was speaking in the Algerian capital after having traveled to Israel, where a summit was held between the Jewish state and the foreign ministers of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Addressing journalists in Algiers, Blinken said that while the war in Ukraine may seem distant, it was already having "deadly consequences for citizens in the region."

"It's having a direct impact on their lives right now, particularly with regard to rising food prices... especially wheat," he said.

North African countries are heavily dependent on wheat exports, and both Russia and Ukraine are major wheat producers.

South Ossetia leader wants vote on integration into Russia

South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov said the breakaway republic wants to vote on integration into the Russian Federation.

Russia recognized South Ossetia as independent in 2008 following the Russo-Georgian War, whereas most countries consider the region to be part of Georgia.

Bibilov said that a referendum would be the first step toward integration into the Russian Federation, and that this would not be "too difficult to organize."

South Ossetian parliamentary leader Alan Tadtayev told Russian state news agency TASS that the referendum should be held in the "near future."

The remarks follow a statement on Sunday by Leonid Pasechnik, leader of the breakaway Luhansk republic in eastern Ukraine, that his region should hold a vote on integration into Russia.

Moscow announces Mariupol cease-fire

The Russian Defense Ministry announced a Thursday cease-fire around Mariupol to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Russia said that a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia through Berdyansk would open from 10 a.m. local time (0700 GMT). Berdyansk is under Russian control.

"For this humanitarian operation to succeed, we propose to carry it out with the direct participation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry demanded Ukraine guarantee respect for the cease-fire by notifying Russian forces, the UNCHR and the ICRC before 6 a.m. local time (0300 GMT) and to commit to ensuring the security of convoys along the corridor.

Russia's Defense Ministry also said it had agreed to a Ukrainian proposal to open four new humanitarian corridors from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia.

A number of previous attempts to establish corridors out of Mariupol have failed, with Russia and Ukraine trading accusations of sabotaging the efforts.

Kyiv: Nearly half of Ukraine's territory 'polluted' by explosives

Nearly half of Ukraine's territory has been contaminated by explosive devices, Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Yevgen Yenin said.

Yenin said that the area affected amounts to some 300, 000 square meters.

The AFP news agency said it could not immediately verify the data.

Yenin said that Ukraine has demined 300 explosive devices and one aerial bomb since the start of the war.

Oil depot and factory hit by strikes in eastern Ukraine

An oil depot filled with fuel has been destroyed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, regional official Mykola Lukashuk said.

Lukashuk blamed the strike on the Russian military. There were no reports of casualties.

A rocket also hit a factory in nearby Novomoskovsk, regional official Valentyn Reznichenko said. Novomoskovsk lies northeast of Dnipro, and both cities are part of the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Dnipro has not seen much shelling so far in the war.

Pentagon: Russian forces start to withdraw from Chernobyl

Russian forces have started to withdraw from the Chernobyl nuclear power site, a senior US defense official said.

Russian forces took control of the facility on February 24, the day Russia started the war in Ukraine.

Russian troops left the nearby town of Slavutych, where much of the personnel of the Chernobyl plant lives, on Monday.

"Chernobyl is (an) area where [Russian forces] are beginning to reposition some of their troops -- leaving, walking away from the Chernobyl facility and moving into Belarus," the official said.

"We think that they are leaving, I can't tell you that they're all gone."

Summary of events in the Russian war in Ukraine on Wednesday

South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov said that the breakaway republic wants to hold a vote on integration into the Russian Federation.

The head of the United Kingdom's eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, said Russia's President Vladimir Putin "has massively misjudged the situation" in Ukraine.

Russia promised a temporary cease-fire to let residents of the besieged port of Mariupol flee on Thursday.

Russia's Defense Ministry reiterated its plan to focus forces on securing the separatist republics in the Donbas despite its forces continuing to bombard Kyiv and Chernihiv on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that European companies could continue paying for gas in euros. Putin said the money would be paid into Gazprom Bank, which is not a subject of sanctions, and then transferred in rubles to Russia.

President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy the US would provide $500 million (€448 million) in direct budgetary aid to Ukraine.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Western nations should tighten sanctions against Moscow until Russian President Vladimir Putin withdraws all his soldiers from Ukraine. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that a peace deal would not "automatically lead to easing of [sanctions against Russia]."

Russian forces in Ukraine are regrouping and preparing for renewed offensive operations, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.

Russian air strikes and heavy shelling have killed civilians in acts that may amount to war crimes, the top United Nations human rights official said on Wednesday.

fb, ar, sdi/kb, sms (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)