BERLIN — The U.N. refugee agency is reporting that more than 6 million people have now fled Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Geneva-based UNHCR also said Thursday that the number of refugees who have returned back to Ukraine, either partially or fully, has reached more than 1.6 million. It says that number reflects cross-border movements, and doesn’t necessarily indicate “sustainable” returns. The agency says it’s too early to draw conclusions about “definitive trends” on returns.
Matthew Saltmarsh, an agency spokesman, also said Thursday that a total of 2.4 million people who have left Ukraine have moved beyond Ukraine’s immediate border countries which have taken in the lion’s share of refugees from the country. Poland alone has registered more than 3.2 million people who fled Ukraine. It and other European Union member countries have open borders, making tracking where people go a complex endeavor.
On Tuesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, tweeted that the number of refugees from Ukraine had reached the same 5.7 million figure as the tally from Syria’s 11-year war, which previously was the source of the world’s biggest refugee crisis.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Finland’s leaders in favor of applying for NATO membership
— ' This tears my soul apart ’: A Ukrainian boy and a killing
— Protesters vent fury at French company for staying in Russia
— Ukrainian circus comes to town, and stays in Italy, amid war
Follow all AP stories on Russia’s war on Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. children’s agency says the war in Ukraine is a “child rights crisis” where education is under attack and nearly 100 youngsters have been killed in just the last month.
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi told the U.N. Security Council Thursday that more children have been injured, millions have been displaced and schools continue to be attacked and used for military purposes.
The school year came to a standstill after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and as of last week at least 15 of 89 UNICEF-supported schools in the country’s east have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting, he said.
In mid-March, over 15,000 schools resumed education in Ukraine mostly through remote learning or in-person hybrid options, he said.
“It is estimated that 3.7 million children in Ukraine and abroad are using online and distance learning options,” Abdi said.
But he stressed that there are still “enormous obstacles” to education including availability for learning, resources, language barriers and movements of children and their families.
“Ultimately, children need an end to this war -- their futures hang in the balance,” Abdi said.
KYIV, Ukraine — Talks are underway between Kyiv and Moscow on the possible evacuation of 38 “severely wounded” Ukrainian troops from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine’s deputy PM said Thursday afternoon.
The steel mill is the only remaining stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the ruined port city, and is now surrounded by Russian forces.
“Currently, we are negotiating only about 38 severely wounded fighters, who cannot stand on their own. We are working step by step,” Iryna Vereshchuk wrote in a public post on the Telegram messenger app.
She said that Kyiv hoped to exchange the soldiers for 38 “significant” Russian prisoners of war, before moving on to the next stage of the negotiations. She did not specify what this next stage would concern, but said that there were no negotiations “on the exchange of 500 or 600 people.”
Earlier on Thursday, an official at the Ukrainian President’s Office said that Kyiv hoped to extract “half a thousand” wounded Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal.
Members of the Azov Regiment holed up inside the plant have repeatedly refused to surrender, citing fears of being killed or tortured. On Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said that “more than a thousand” Ukrainian troops, many of them injured, remained at Azovstal.
KYIV, Ukraine — Four Russian air strikes targeted the Kremenchuk oil refinery, in Ukraine’s central Poltava region, on Thursday, the acting regional governor said that same day.
“Four ‘arrivals’ again at the Kremenchuk refinery. Explosions were also heard in the Poltava region,” Dmytro Lunin wrote in a Telegram post, adding that more details would follow.
In early April, Lunin had said that the Kremenchuk refinery - Ukraine’s only remaining fully functional facility of its kind at the time — was no longer operational following a Russian attack. Moscow claimed to have targeted the refinery again at the end of the month, and to have destroyed further fuel production and storage facilities.
VIENNA — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö Thursday, the same day Finland’s leaders announced the country plans to apply for NATO membership, the German chancellery said Thursday afternoon.
“Chancellor Scholz welcomed today’s statements by the President and Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin, in which both advocate their country’s immediate accession to NATO, and assured Finland of the Federal Government’s full support on this path,” Scholz’s office said in a statement.
Finland’s announcement paves the way for a historic expansion of the alliance that could deal a serious blow to Russia as its military struggles with its war in Ukraine.
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) land border with Russia.
KYIV, Ukraine — About 3,000 Mariupol civilians are being detained in prisons controlled by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s industrial east, the country’s human rights chief says.
Lyudmyla Denysova claimed on social media Thursday that Kyiv is aware of at least two prisons set up in the eastern Donetsk region, one in the regional capital of Donetsk and another in Olenivka, a suburb 20 kilometers southwest of the city center.
She claimed that authorities in Kyiv had received reports of people being “tortured, interrogated, threatened with execution and forced to cooperate,” and others disappearing after interrogations.
She also alleged that detainees were being kept in “inhuman conditions,” with inadequate access to bathrooms and no space to lie down.
She claimed that some captives had been released after 36 days, after signing unspecified documents, but did not provide more details. Ukrainian authorities are calling on the U.N. to intervene.
More than 100,000 civilians remain in the ruined port city of Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of about half a million. Ukrainian authorities have previously claimed that “thousands of Ukrainians” had been forcibly taken to Russia.
Troops from Ukraine’s Azov Regiment continue to hold out at the Azovstal steelworks, the last bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
MOSCOW — Russia has warned that it will have to take unspecified “military-technical” steps in response to Finland’s decision to join NATO.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Finland’s accession to NATO will “inflict serious damage on Russian-Finnish relations, as well as stability and security in Northern Europe.”
It said in a statement that “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter the emerging threats to its national security.”
The statement noted that while it’s up to Finland to decide on ways to ensure its security, “Helsinki must be aware of its responsibility and the consequences of such a move.” The ministry charged that Finland’s move also violated past agreements with Russia.
“History will determine why Finland needed to turn its territory into a bulwark of military face-off with Russia while losing independence in making its own decisions,” it added.
The ministry’s statement follows Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s comment earlier Thursday that Finland’s decision wouldn’t help stability and security in Europe. Peskov said that Russia’ response will depend on NATO’s moves to expand its infrastructure closer to the Russian borders.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says Western sanctions against Russia are provoking a global economic crisis.
Speaking during a Thursday meeting on economic issues, Putin said Western nations were “driven by oversized political ambitions and Russophobia” to introduce sanctions that “hurt their own economies and well-being of their citizens.”
Putin charged that the “sanctions are provoking a global crisis” and will lead to “grave consequences for the EU and also some of the poorest countries of the world that are already facing the risks of hunger.”
He alleged that the “Western elites are ready to sacrifice the rest of the world to preserve their global domination.”
The Russian leader insisted the Russian economy has successfully withstood the blow from Western sanctions and that Russian companies will fill the niche left by the withdrawal of Western enterprises.
LVIV — Russia has used cluster bombs and phosphorus munitions in the southern Ukrainian region of Kryvyi Rih, according to the regional military chief.
It’s the first time use of the weapons has been reported in the area. The claim could not immediately be verified.
“The occupiers are firing, including with the use of prohibited phosphorus and cluster munitions,” regional military governor Oleksandr Vilkul said Thursday on Ukrainian TV channels. He didn’t detail where and when they allegedly were used.
He said one person was killed and one wounded over the past day.
Russian troops have been pressing an offensive toward the city of Kryvih Rih, the capital of the region. It is north of the Russian-held Black Sea port city of Kherson, and is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s hometown.
The Ukrainian military previously accused Russian forces of using phosphorus and cluster munitions in the eastern Donbas region. Ukrainian authorities have launched investigations into their use, whch dozens of countries have agreed to ban under an international treaty.
BERLIN — The U.N.’s human rights chief says her office has found that Russian forces and affiliated armed groups are responsible for most civilian deaths during the war in Ukraine.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the “vast majority” of civilian casualties have been caused by the use of explosive weapons, including heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and airstrikes.
“According to our information, while such incidents can be attributed to both parties to the conflict, most of these casualties appear attributable to the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups,” Bachelet told a special session of the Human Rights Council on Thursday.
Ukraine and its backers led a push to convene the special session of the 47-member body. The Geneva-based council was set to vote on a resolution that would reiterate its demand “for the immediate cessation of military hostilities against Ukraine.”
The U.N. General Assembly voted last month to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s top human rights body, over allegations of war crimes by Russian forces.
NICOSIA, Cyprus — A Ukrainian human rights activist says LGBTQ people in her country are “on the front line of resistance” against Russia’s invasion and many have joined the Ukrainian army to thwart Russian forces.
Olena Shevchenko told a European forum being held in Cyprus via a video link that Ukraine’s LGBTQ support groups also have joined in offering humanitarian assistance to all those suffering from or who have fled the fighting.
Shevchenko was critical of the European Union’s statements about safeguarding the continent’s values in the face of war, saying words should turn into actions and specifically material help like food and medicine for those who need it most.
Triantafillos Loukarelis, chairman of the Council of Europe’s committee on anti-discrimination, diversity and inclusion, said his organization has notified authorities in countries that are hosting Ukrainian refugees to be vigilant against the potential for human trafficking, especially of LGBTQ people.
MOSCOW — A top Russian official says that there is a growing threat of the fighting in Ukraine spilling into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that growing Western arms supplies to Ukraine and training for its troops have “increased the probability that an ongoing proxy war will turn into an open and direct conflict between NATO and Russia.”
He added that “there is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all.”
Medvedev, who served as Russia’s placeholder president in 2008-2012 while Putin shifted into the prime minister’s seat to observe term limits, has become increasingly hawkish in his statements in recent months.
In a messaging app commentary, Medvedev urged the U.S. and its allies to think about the possible consequences of their actions and “not to choke on their own saliva in the paroxysms of Russophobia.”
LONDON — Britain’s military says Ukraine has recaptured several towns and villages in the country’s northeast from Russian forces.
The Ministry of Defense says Russia’s focus on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine had left its remaining troops around the city of Kharkiv “vulnerable to the mobile, and highly motivated, Ukrainian counter-attacking force.”
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has suffered heavy Russian bombardment during the war as Russia sought to encircle it. But the U.K. said in an intelligence update on social media that “it has reportedly withdrawn units from the region to reorganize and replenish its forces following heavy losses.”
It said that withdrawal was “a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.”
HELSINKI — Finland’s president and prime minister say they’re in favor of applying for NATO membership, paving the way for the alliance to expand in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The announcement by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin on Thursday means Finland is virtually certain to seek NATO membership though a few steps remain before the application process can begin.
Neighboring Sweden is expected to decide on joining NATO in coming days.
Niinisto and Marin said in a joint statement: “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance.”
They said that Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay, adding: “We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”
President Vladimir Putin has reaffirmed Russia’s determination to wrest separatist-held territory from Ukraine in a congratulatory message to the head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Russia backed the separatists for years and recognized them as independent on the eve of invading Ukraine.
In a statement released by the Kremlin on Thursday, Putin said: “I am sure that through our joint efforts we will defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Luhansk republic.
Meanwhile, the head of the Luhansk self-proclaimed republic, Leonid Pasechnik, said Thursday that it would never return to Ukrainian control and that most of its residents want it to become part of Russia.
Russian migration authorities also reported that 15,000 people had crossed from Ukraine’s Donbas region to Russia’s Rostov region in 24 hours, according to Russian state news agency Tass. The number couldn’t be verified and the circumstances of the crossings were unclear.
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s military says Russian forces are continuing airstrikes on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and pressing their advance on towns in eastern Ukraine.
In its operational statement for Day 78 of the war, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff says Russian forces have also fired artillery and grenade launchers at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, which has been a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol.
It did not elaborate on the latest action around Azovstal.
The military says Russian forces also fired artillery at Ukrainian units north of the city of Kharkiv in the northeast, and reported Russian strikes in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions to the north.
Across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, site of sustained fighting since the war began, the Ukrainian military noted “partial success” in Russia’s advance. It said Ukrainian forces repulsed nine Russian attacks and destroyed several drones and military vehicles. The information could not be independently verified.