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Azerbaijani Student Held in Russian Captivity in Mariupol, Ukraine Describes Torture

Huseyn Abdullayev, 20-year-old Azerbaijani citizen. (Photo courtesy Huseyn Abdullayev)

A 20-year-old Azerbaijani university student is describing near-daily beatings during his time as a prisoner of Russian forces near Mariupol, Ukraine last month.

Huseyn Abdullayev, who was studying at Mariupol State University when Russia invaded Ukraine, tells VOA Azerbaijani he was held from March 17 until April 12 after Russian military personnel kidnapped him at a military post west of Mariupol in Berdyansk.

Abdullayev said that after he was taken, “They tied my hands and covered my head with my jacket so that I could not see anything. Then they threw me in a truck and took me to prison. They spoke Russian.”

Abdullayev said he was tortured while in captivity and accused of being a Ukrainian soldier.

“They used electric shock (baton), and then I was beaten. They were Russians, and there were Azerbaijanis and Chechens among them. First, they used electric shock, then beat me with a wooden board and trampled my feet. I was beaten almost every day. They asked me whether I am not a student but a Ukrainian soldier.”

Abdullayev said that he was released after Chechen commanders pardoned him for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“We were eight people. I was the only citizen of Azerbaijan. We were all captured by Russian soldiers of Chechen origin and tortured,” he added.

Huseyn Abdullayev was seen seated in a car in a video released on social media on April 13 by an Azerbaijani volunteer in Mariupol. “Student Huseyn Abdullayev, who was held captive in Mariupol by the Kadyrovs, is now free,” stated the volunteer, identified as Aykhan Hajibeyli.

The volunteer was referring to forces under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, a leader from the Chechnya region of the Russian Federation and a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hajibeyli added that other Azerbaijanis are in Mariupol and other parts of Ukraine, but that their fate is not known.

Officials from Azerbaijan have yet to comment on the situation.

Huseyn Abdullayev's father, Amin Abdullayev, who lives in Azerbaijan's Neftchala region, told VOA Azerbaijani that his son's health is critical.

“My son was kept in a freezing place and tortured. This is horrible. One of the torturers was an Azerbaijani. They gave him only dry bread and water. He lost a lot of weight. He was oppressed. They beat him every day,” he said.

Amin Abdullayev added he only spoke to his son twice throughout his son’s captivity, on March 19 and March 25.

The father also thanked the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, along with other Azerbaijani officials, for their help in releasing his son.

Amin Abdullayev said, “I sent a telegram to the president at 10 o'clock. At about 1:30 in the afternoon on the same day, the hostage-takers called and said that we would release your son tomorrow.” VOA could not independently verify that information.

According to Amin Abdullayev, an agreement was reached to hand over his son to the members of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Ukraine.

Huseyn Abdullayev’s family told VOA Azerbaijani that he is now in Lviv and plans to go to Poland Tuesday as he makes his way home.

This story originated in the Azerbaijani service.

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US Senate Overwhelmingly Approves More Ukraine Aid

Villagers walk past unexploded artillery shells as they collect scrap metal from a bombed warehouse in the village of Malaya Rohan, Kharkiv region, May 18, 2022.

The U.S. Senate completed congressional action Thursday on a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, overwhelmingly approving it and sending the measure to President Joe Biden for his expected signature.

The package is intended to buttress Ukraine over the next five months to combat Russia’s ongoing invasion. It includes money for military equipment, training and weapons, as well as billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, including money to help address global food shortages caused by the three-month conflict.

The assistance replenishes stocks of U.S. equipment sent earlier to Ukraine and provides financing to help other countries that are assisting the Kyiv government.

The 86-11 Senate vote came on top of an equally lopsided vote in favor of the legislation in the House of Representatives last week, a broad show of continuing U.S. support for Ukraine at a time when the politically fractious Congress is often sharply divided on the major issues of the day. Republicans cast all the “no” votes in the Senate.

The aid package was about $7 billion more than Biden originally proposed. But he has voiced support in one way or another for Ukraine on an almost daily basis and plans to sign the legislation.

Ahead of the Senate vote, several lawmakers said helping Ukraine in its fights against Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin was an imperative.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Aid for Ukraine goes far beyond charity. The future of America’s security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight.”

“Anyone concerned about the cost of supporting a Ukrainian victory should consider the much larger cost should Ukraine lose,” McConnell warned, calling on “every senator on both sides to join this bipartisan supermajority.”

A Democratic lawmaker, Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “The next several months will be critical. I think the realization is … that if the Russians succeed here, that won’t satisfy them, that that will empower them to do more.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week, “We all want to see the fighting end. What we’re doing in the meantime is trying to provide as many advantages to the Ukrainian armed forces as we can so that they are in a better position on the battlefield — and, should there be a negotiated end to it, that they’re in a better negotiating position as well.”

Biden Supports Sweden, Finland's Bids to Join NATO

President Joe Biden accompanied by Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, walks out to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House , May 19, 2022.

President Joe Biden on Thursday enthusiastically welcomed Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the NATO security alliance — a move that would bring two of Europe’s most modern militaries right to Russia’s northwest border.

Speaking from the Rose Garden, flanked by Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland, Biden said he would send their membership applications to the U.S. Congress, where he hopes for a swift approval.

"Sweden and Finland have strong democratic institutions, strong militaries, and strong and transparent economies,” Biden said. “And a strong moral sense of what is right. They meet every NATO requirement, and then some."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement about Sweden and Finland on Wednesday at the alliance headquarters in Brussels. The 29 other NATO members will have to agree by consensus to admit the two nations—a process that normally takes up to a year but is expected to be faster in this case.

Finland’s and Sweden’s applications mark a significant departure from their decades-long neutrality, dating from the Cold War. Moscow’s decision to invade neighboring Ukraine on February 24 raised fears in both countries, especially in Finland, which shares a border with Russia of more than 1,300 kilometers.

At a Wednesday meeting at the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his Swedish counterpart, Peter Hultqvist, “We look forward to your contributions to the NATO alliance.”

“This is a time when the democracies of Europe and North America must stand together against Russia's naked aggression,” Hultqvist said.

Only NATO ally Turkey has expressed reservations about the Baltic neighbors joining the alliance, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of giving a haven to “terrorists” and imposing sanctions on Turkey.

"We asked for 30 terrorists to be extradited, but [Sweden] said they wouldn't,” he said this week. “You will not hand over terrorists to us, but you will ask us to allow you to join NATO. NATO is a security entity. It is a security agency. Therefore, we cannot say 'yes' to depriving this security organization of security."

Ankara says Sweden and Finland have harbored people it says are linked to groups it deems terrorists, namely Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants and followers of U.S.-based Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt.

Erdogan has also said Turkey would oppose NATO bids from those who imposed sanctions on Ankara. Sweden and Finland had banned arms exports to Turkey after its Syria incursion against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units—PKK's Syrian affiliate—in 2019.

On Thursday in Washington, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said his government has had discussions with Turkey and assured them they would be good NATO allies.

"As NATO allies, we will commit to Turkey's security, just as Turkey will commit to our security,” he said. “We take terrorism seriously. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and we are actively engaged in combating it. We are open to discussing all the concerns Turkey may have concerning our membership in an open and constructive manner."

But analysts say this move could further provoke Russia.

“I do worry that the expansion of NATO to add Finland and Sweden is provocative,” Melanie Sisson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA via Zoom. “And I worry that, whatever one's view about the value of having them in the alliance, I'm not sure that working that issue right now is wise and actually, I think, shows some lack of strategic patience. So I worry about that dynamic potentially causing a different reaction from Russia than we otherwise would see.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to Russia, and cited Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance as a reason for his decision to invade in February.

"The expansion of NATO—this is a problem that is created completely artificially, because it is done in the foreign policy interests of the United States,” Putin said this week. “In general NATO has become a foreign policy instrument of one country."

Later Thursday, Biden departed for his first presidential trip to Asia, where he will visit U.S. allies South Korea and Japan and attend a summit of Quad leaders. Those meetings are likely to also feature lengthy discussions on the situation in Ukraine.

VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. Some information is from Reuters.

Russia: 1,730 Ukrainian Troops Have Surrendered in Mariupol

In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on May 19, 2022, Ukrainian servicemen, right, leave the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Thursday hundreds more Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, bringing the total this week to 1,730.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement it was registering fighters who left Azovstal, an operation that began Tuesday and was continuing Thursday.

“The ICRC is not transporting POWs to the places where they are held,” the aid group said. “The registration process that the ICRC facilitated involves the individual filling out a form with personal details like name, date of birth and closest relative. This information allows the ICRC to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families.”

Ukrainian officials have not confirmed the Russian account of the number of Ukrainian fighters who have surrendered at the last holdout in Mariupol. Ukraine has expressed hopes that the soldiers can be part of a prisoner swap with Russia, while Russia’s main investigative body said it intends to interrogate them and determine if any were involved in crimes against civilians.

The capture of Mariupol, a prewar city of 430,000 people along the north coast of the Sea of Azov, would be Moscow’s biggest success in its nearly three-month offensive against Ukraine.

With Russian forces focusing efforts on the eastern Donbas region, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said Thursday that agreeing to a cease-fire with Russia “is impossible without total Russian troop withdrawal.”

“Until Russia is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money,” Podolyak said in a Twitter post.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official said Thursday there have been no major gains by either Russia or Ukraine in the last day, although Ukrainian forces “continue to claw back territory” north and northeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city.

The official did not dispute a British intelligence assessment that top Russian military commanders have been fired.

"We have seen indications where Russian commanders at various levels have been relieved of their duties,” the U.S. official said, adding that the U.S. had nothing to share about "senior, senior levels" of the Russian command.

Russian logistical and troop morale issues are continuing, the official said.

Ukraine on Thursday welcomed the confirmation of a new U.S. ambassador. The U.S. Senate gave its approval to Bridget Brink, a veteran foreign service officer who had been the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.

The ambassador post in Ukraine had been vacant since 2019 when then-President Donald Trump forced out Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

Brink’s confirmation came as the United States also resumed operations at its embassy in Kyiv, joining other nations that have returned since Russian forces withdrew from the area around the Ukrainian capital.

Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 19

Men walk past a damaged building after Russian shelling in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo)

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All times EDT:

1:08 p.m.: Yury Shevchuk, leader and frontman of DDT, one of Russia's most popular rock groups, has been charged with an administrative misdemeanor over a statement he made during a concert about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Producer Radmir Usayev said in a post on Instagram on Thursday that police approached Shevchuk after a concert in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, a day earlier and "first wanted to detain him," but then just informed the popular rock musician that he was being charged with an unspecified misdemeanor. Video of Shevchuk talking about the war at the concert has since gone viral on social media. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has the story.

12:58 p.m.:

12:49 p.m.: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team is on Capitol Hill urging U.S. senators to consider a fresh round of sanctions on Russians with a more “nuanced” approach that targets mid-level government officials and public figures over the war in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported. The group is discussing with senators a list of 6,000 Russians, including defense and security officials, administrative employees, governors, members of parliament, even editors and managers at Russian media operations for sanctions. It is also planning to meet Thursday with officials at the U.S. State Department, the Justice Department and other offices in Washington. Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said the “avalanche of sanctions” imposed so far is having an effect in Russia.

12:41 p.m.:

12:32 p.m.: A Ukrainian state prosecutor asked a court on Thursday to sentence a Russian soldier to life in prison for killing an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial arising from Russia's February 24 invasion, Reuters reported. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian tank commander, asked widow Kateryna Shelipova to forgive him for the murder of her husband, Oleksandr, in the northeast Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka on February 28.

12:02 p.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden met the leaders of Sweden and Finland on Thursday to advance their applications to join the NATO military alliance, Reuters reported. Biden stood with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with flags. He cheered the "momentous" day, giving his strong support for the two “great democracies” to “join the strongest most powerful defensive alliance in the history of the world." Biden said, "They meet every NATO requirement and then some," adding he is submitting paperwork today to the U.S. Congress for speedy approval once NATO approves their accession."

11:57 a.m.: Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley held a phone call, RIA news agency reported on Thursday, citing the Russian defense ministry. They discussed issues of “mutual interest” including Ukraine, RIA said. The call took place six days after a phone conversation between the defense ministers of the two countries, their first since Russia launched what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine, Reuters reported.

11:20 a.m.: British defense minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday he believed there was a way to address Turkey's concerns over Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Finland and Sweden formally applied on Wednesday to join NATO, a decision spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but Turkey has objected, accusing the countries of supporting groups that it deems terrorists. "I think there is a way through. I think we will get there in the end and it is very important that we listen to all members and their concerns in that process and we will certainly be listening to Turkey," Wallace told parliament, adding he would be speaking to his Turkish counterpart.

11:17 a.m.: The U.N. nuclear watchdog says Ukraine has informed it new wildfires near the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant don’t pose a radioactive threat to people, The Associated Press reported. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday that Kyiv told it gamma dose rate levels near the plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, were “not exceeding the reference levels.” It said previous experience suggests such fires could lead to a “very small increase” of radioactive concentration in the air but the IAEA supports Ukraine’s assessment that it wouldn’t endanger human health. It noted “spontaneous fires” often occur in the area this time of year.

11:12 a.m.:

11:09 a.m.: A senior U.S. defense official on Thursday said that Ukrainian forces “continue to claw back territory” to the north and northeast of Kharkiv, as Russia is reinforcing its positions around Kherson in the south. He said weather is likely hampering Russian sorties into Ukraine, and Russian naval activity. He concurred with British intelligence assessments that top Russian military commanders have been fired, saying “We have seen indications where Russian commanders at various levels have been relieved of their duties,” but, he added, the U.S. has nothing to share about Russian leaders at the “senior, senior levels.” VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin monitored the briefing and shared these details on Twitter.

10:55 a.m.: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to participate in a United Nations Security Council Meeting on Food Insecurity and Conflict Thursday morning in New York City.

10:47 a.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden, and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland deliver brief remarks at a trilateral press conference at the White House on Thursday.

10:35 a.m.: U.S. refiners imported about 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude and fuel oil from Latin America in April, the highest in seven months according to U.S. Customs data, as buyers began replacing Russian supplies.

10:20 a.m.: The Group of Seven countries are launching a new Global Alliance for Food Security that is aimed in part at addressing the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported. German Development Minister Svenja Schulze said Thursday after meeting her counterparts from the G-7′s major economies that the aim is to better coordinate the efforts of aid donors and to ensure that looming crises don’t get overlooked. She said the G-7 will seek to bring as many partners on board as possible, including emerging countries that may have supplies. The World Bank is helping to implement the project. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced a sharp increase in food and energy prices.

10:03 a.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden met the leaders of Sweden and Finland on Thursday after the nations set aside their long-standing neutrality and moved to join the NATO alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters reported. Hours before his first trip to Asia as president, Biden sat down with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the White House to discuss their NATO applications. “This is a historic event, a watershed moment in European security. Two nations with a long tradition of neutrality will be joining the world’s most powerful defensive alliance,” said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

9:44 a.m.: Russia said it was closing the Moscow offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in retaliation for Ottawa's banning of Russian state media outlet RT, Agence France-Presse reported. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed the decision, saying "responsible journalism, sharing what's actually going on with citizens, is a deep threat to Vladimir Putin." Canada in March formally banned RT and RT France from its airwaves, saying their programming was "not consistent with Canadian broadcasting standards. RT and state-controlled outlet Sputnik have been blocked in most Western countries since Russia's military offensive in Ukraine, accused of spreading propaganda.

9:33 a.m.:

9:15 a.m.: Germany on Thursday removed official perks accorded to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, assessing that he has failed to uphold the obligations of his office by refusing to sever ties with Russian energy giants, Agence France-Presse reported. "The coalition parliamentary groups have drawn consequences from the behavior of former chancellor and lobbyist Gerhard Schroeder in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine," the parliament decided. "The office of the former chancellor shall be suspended," it added.

9:01 a.m.: Russia will send any oil rejected by European countries to Asia and other regions, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said on Thursday, adding that Europe would have to find substitute supplies that would be more expensive, Reuters reported. The European Commission on Wednesday unveiled a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027 and to use the pivot away from Moscow to quicken its transition to green energy.

8:39 a.m.: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused huge environmental damage for which Kyiv will seek compensation in international courts, Ukraine’s environment minister said on Thursday, according to Reuters. Ruslan Strilets, Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, said the war had destroyed ecosystems, deprived wildlife of its natural habitat and contaminated land in one of the world’s main grain producers. “Over the past 20 years, this is the first military conflict in the world that has caused such large-scale environmental damage,” he told a news conference. “Russian missiles hit our oil depots, thermal power plants, chemical plants - this definitely affects the environment. Forests are burning, valuable protected things are being destroyed,” he said.

8:10 a.m.:

8:00 a.m.:

7:38 a.m.: Moscow said on Thursday that sanctions on Russia would have to be reviewed if it were to heed a U.N. appeal to open access to Ukraine's Black Sea ports so that grain could be exported, according to an Interfax news agency report. Ukraine, one of the world's biggest grain producers, used to export most of its goods through its seaports, but since Russia sent troops into Ukraine, it has been forced to export by train or via its small Danube River ports. U.N. food chief David Beasley appealed on Wednesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying: "If you have any heart at all, please open these ports." Beasley's World Food Programme feeds some 125 million people and buys 50% of its grain from Ukraine, Reuters reported.

7:30 a.m.:

7:19 a.m.: European Union lawmakers have voted to suspend import duties on all Ukrainian exports for a year to support the war-torn country’s economy, The Associated Press reported. The measure covers industrial products, fruits, vegetables and steel. The EU is Ukraine’s most important trading partner, accounting for more than 40% of its total trade in goods last year.“We must support Ukraine at all levels with every tool at our disposal: not only with weapons and sanctions but with our trading power, too,” said lawmaker Sandra Kalniete. “Giving Ukraine the support it needs to defend itself does not end on the battlefield; it includes ensuring that Ukraine’s economy remains resilient and competitive.”

6:46 a.m.:

6:38 a.m.: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has defended his country’s decision to supply Ukraine with weapons to fight Russia, saying this “does not constitute an escalation,” The Associated Press reported. In a speech to lawmakers Thursday, Scholz dismissed concerns raised by some in Germany that arming Ukraine could result in a wider conflict. Arming Ukraine was “a contribution to fending off the attack and thereby ending the violence as quickly as possible,” he said. Scholz added that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “mistaken” in thinking peace can be imposed on Ukraine by force.

6:34 a.m.:

6:23 a.m.: The first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes in Ukraine asked for "forgiveness" in a Kyiv court Thursday and described how he shot dead a civilian in the opening days of Russia's invasion, Agence France-Presse reported. "I know that you will not be able to forgive me, but nevertheless I ask you for forgiveness," 21-year-old Russian sergeant Vadim Shishimarin said in court, addressing the widow of a 62-year-old civilian whom he admitted killing. Shishimarin faces possible life imprisonment in Ukraine on charges of war crimes and premeditated murder in a landmark war crimes trial against Moscow's forces.Two other Russian soldiers are in court for crimes against civilians, as Kyiv launched a judicial reckoning for alleged atrocities after nearly three months of war.

6:20 a.m.: Britain said on Thursday it was introducing new sanctions against the Russian airline sector to prevent state-owned Aeroflot, Ural Airlines and Rossiya Airlines from selling their unused landing slots at British airports, Reuters reported.The British government said it estimated the landing slots were worth $61.9 million. "We’ve already closed our airspace to Russian airlines. Today we’re making sure they can’t cash in their lucrative landing slots at our airports," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement.

6:17 a.m.: Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday his country will double its financial aid for Ukraine to $600 million in support of the country badly damaged by Russia’s aggression, The Associated Press reported. Japan will provide the additional $300 million through the World Bank to help Ukraine’s financial difficulties because of the Russian invasion, Kishida said. The announcement comes just before Japan hosts U.S. President Joe Biden and two other leaders for a regional strategic framework known as the Quad summit and bilateral meetings next week when Kishida is expected to emphasize Japanese support for Ukraine.The new pledge, combined with the $300 million Japan promised last month, brings Tokyo’s total contribution to $600 million.

6:14 a.m.: The NATO alliance has not expressed any interest in placing nuclear weapons or permanent bases in Finland, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told an Italian newspaper in an interview published on Thursday during a visit to Rome. Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday, a decision spurred by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but face objections from Turkey to an accession process that was originally expected to be relatively rapid, Reuters reported.

6:08 a.m.: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on Russia to allow the secure export of grain through Ukrainian ports.The ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and others have been cut off by Russian warships in the Black Sea, so the grain can only travel on congested land routes that are far less efficient. Speaking on Wednesday at a major United Nations summit in New York on worldwide food insecurity, Guterres called on Russia to free up exports of Ukrainian grain. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has this story.

6:05 a.m.: With Russian forces focusing efforts on the eastern Donbas region, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said Thursday that agreeing to a cease-fire with Russia “is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal." Podolyak said in a Twitter post, “Until Russia is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money.”

6:00 a.m.: Russia's foreign ministry said Thursday it was expelling five Portuguese diplomats, according to Reuters. The expulsions come several weeks after Portugal expelled 10 Russian embassy staffers.

5:45 a.m.: Switzerland said Thursday it is reopening its embassy in Kyiv

5:10 a.m.: Russia’s defense ministry said Thursday that 1,730 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol over three days, including 771 in the past 24 hours, claiming a surrender on a far bigger scale than Ukraine has acknowledged since ordering its garrison to stand down. The ultimate outcome of Europe's bloodiest battle for decades remained publicly unresolved, with no confirmation of the fate of the hundreds of Ukrainian troops who had held out in a vast steelworks at the end of a near three-month siege.

4:30 a.m.: Ukraine welcomes the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of Bridget Brink as Washington’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy’s chief of staff said on Thursday.

“We greet the U.S. Senate unanimous decision to approve Bridget Brink (as) the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine,” Andriy Yermak wrote on Twitter. There has been no U.S. ambassador in Kyiv since 2019.

4:01 a.m.: The International Committee of the Red Cross said it began registering "combatants leaving the Azovstal plant, including the wounded, at the request of the parties," starting Tuesday and the operation was still ongoing Thursday. The ICRC said it is not transporting prisoners of war to places where they were held in a statement published Thursday.

The aid organization urged warring parties to protect the rights of fighters. “It’s critical to ensure they’re accounted for & treated humanely and with dignity,” ICRC said in a Twitter post.

3:05 a.m.: Several senior Russian commanders have been fired for performing “poorly” during the opening stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense’s Thursday report.

The ministry said the suspended include the lieutenant general who failed to capture Kharkiv, and the vice admiral under whose command the Russian cruiser Moskva sank.

“A culture of cover-ups and scape-goating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system,” the report said. Given the likely finger-pointing and shifting of blame, “it will be [difficult] for Russia to regain the initiative,” it added.

2:15 a.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson for talks Thursday at the White House about their applications to join NATO, support for Ukraine and European security.

Biden on Wednesday praised what he called Sweden and Finland’s “important decision” after they formally applied for membership in the NATO military alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO and look forward to working with the U.S. Congress and our NATO allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history,” Biden said.

At a Wednesday meeting at the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his Swedish counterpart, Peter Hultqvist, “We look forward to your contributions to the NATO alliance.” VOA’s Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.

1:40 a.m.: Amnesty International continues to call for the rights of the Ukrainian soldiers to be respected as reports of soldiers surrendering surfaced after the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol fell under Russian control.

“Prisoners of war must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment,” Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement posted Tuesday.

Prisoners “should be given immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross," he said. "The relevant authorities must fully respect the rights of prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva conventions.”

12:50 a.m.: RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty shares an interview with the mother of a Ukrainian National Guardsman based in Mariupol.

During the May 11 interview in Kyiv, Inna Zatoloka shares some of the texts her 20-year-old son sent her since Russia invaded Ukraine. “Mother, I’m alive,” he once texted. “Love you.”

Mark Zatoloka was one of hundreds of soldiers defending civilians sheltering in the Azovstal steel plant while Russia attacked. Inna does not know whether he made it out alive.

12:30 a.m.: The U.S. Senate is set to vote Thursday on a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine.

The measure includes money for military equipment, training and weapons for Ukraine, replenishing stocks of U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine and financing to help other countries that aid Ukraine.

It also includes billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, including helping to address global food shortages caused by the conflict. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly gave its approval to the package last week.

If the Senate approves the measure, it would go to President Joe Biden for his signature.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Russian Soldier Pleads Guilty to Killing Ukrainian Civilian

Russian army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, is seen behind a glass during a court hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 18, 2022.

A 21-year-old Russian soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the first war crimes case Kyiv has brought since the Russian invasion three months ago.

Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin could be sentenced to life in prison for shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window four days after Russia launched the invasion in late February.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova previously has said her office is preparing war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses that included bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting. It is not clear how many of the Russians are in Ukrainian custody or how many might be tried in absentia.

In Shishimarin’s case heard in a Kyiv court, Venediktova alleged that he was among a group of Russian soldiers that fled Ukrainian forces on February 28, driving to Chupakhivka, a village about 320 kilometers east of the capital, Kyiv.

The prosecutor-general said that on the way the Russian soldiers saw a man riding his bicycle and talking on his phone. Shishimarin, according to Venediktova, was ordered to kill the man so he wouldn't be able to report them to Ukrainian military authorities but did not say who gave the order.

Shishimarin fired his Kalashnikov rifle through the open window and hit the victim in the head, Venediktova wrote in a Facebook account.

"The man died on the spot just a few dozen meters from his house," she said.

In a brief video account of the incident produced by the Ukrainian Security Service, Shishimarin said, "I was ordered to shoot. I shot one (round) at him. He falls. And we kept on going."

Venediktova’s office has said it is investigating more than 10,700 potential war crimes involving more than 600 suspects, including Russian soldiers and government officials. International authorities are also investigating possible Russian war crimes, while Moscow is believed to be working on crimes cases against Ukrainian troops.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and accused Ukraine of staging atrocities. Ukraine says thousands of its civilians have been killed.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.

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