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Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russia fires top commanders over Ukraine war failures

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(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

May 19, 2:33 pm
Blinken authorizes drawdown of arms and equipment worth $100 million for Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Thursday that he has authorized a 10th drawdown of additional arms and equipment for Ukraine worth $100 million from U.S. Department of Defense inventories.

This brings total U.S. military assistance to Ukraine to approximately $3.9 billion in arms and equipment since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

"The United States is committed to helping Ukraine continue to meet its defense needs and build its future capabilities, as well as to bolster Allies and partners across NATO’s Eastern Flank and the broader region," Blinken said in a statement.

May 19, 1:36 pm
Senate passes $40 billion aid package for Ukraine

The Senate voted on Thursday to pass an additional $40 billion in new military and economic aid for Ukraine after President Joe Biden called on Congress for more funding.

The bill received bipartisan support, passing with a vote of 86-11.

The House passed the aid package earlier this month, which is now headed to Biden's desk for signing.

"By passing this aid package the Senate can now say to the Ukrainian people help is on the way: real help, significant help, help that could ensure the Ukrainian people are victorious," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said during his floor remarks before the vote.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

May 19, 1:12 pm
US chairman of joint chiefs speaks to Russian counterpart

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley spoke with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov Thursday, for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine. They last spoke on Feb. 11.

The two discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open, according to a readout from the U.S., but the specific details of their conversation were kept private.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said the two sides "discussed issues of mutual interest, including the situation in Ukraine," in a call it said was initiated by the U.S.

-ABC News' Matt Seyler

May 19, 12:17 pm
Biden meets with leaders of Sweden, Finland amid bid to join NATO

President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House Thursday after the two countries submitted applications to join NATO.

"Today I'm proud to welcome and offer the strong support of the United States for the applications of two great democracies, and two close, highly capable partners to join the strongest, most powerful defensive alliance in the history of the world," Biden said.

Biden reaffirmed the U.S.'s support for the Nordic countries' applications to join the alliance.

"Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger not just because of their capacity, but because of their strong democracies and a strong united NATO is the foundation of America's security," he said.

Biden also sent a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia.

"So let me be clear: New members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. It never has been. NATO's purpose is to defend against aggression, that's its purpose, to defend," Biden said.

-ABC News' Karen Travers and Justin Gomez

May 19, 10:54 am
Russian soldier accused of killing Ukrainian civilian appears in court

Vadim Shishmarin, 21, is back in court, one day after he pleading guilty to killing a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian just days into the conflict.

Shishmarin confessed to the killing Thursday morning.

The widow of the victim testified in court that her husband meant everything to her, and she thinks the Russian soldier deserves life in prison, but if he gets exchanged for any of the Azovstal defenders she wouldn’t object.

"I feel very sorry for him," she said. "But for a crime like that -- I can't forgive him."

Shishimarin could spend the rest of his life in prison.

-ABC News' Joe Simonetti

May 19, 10:53 am
Russia continues mass shelling on Sumy region

Mass shelling of the Sumy region continued from Russian territory Wednesday evening, said Dmytro Zhyvytskyy, the governor of Sumy, on Telegram.

The shelling was along the entire border between the Sumy region and Russia, according to Zhyvytskyy.

Zhyvytskyy said Ukraine responded to the shelling appropriately and no casualties were reported.

-ABC News' Joe Simonetti

May 19, 9:47 am
Zelenskyy adviser says cease-fire is impossible without Russian troops withdrawing

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told Russia not to offer Ukraine a cease-fire, because it would be impossible without Russian troops' withdrawal.

"Ukraine is not interested in new 'Minsk' and the war renewal in a few years," Podolyak said in a tweet, referring to the capital of Belarus and that country's allegiance to Russia. "Until [Russia] is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money."

-ABC News' Joe Simonetti

May 19, 8:29 am
ICRC registers hundreds of prisoners of war from Mariupol steel plant

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it has registered hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war from a besieged steel plant in war-ravaged Mariupol this week, after the Ukrainian city fell into Russian hands.

A team from the ICRC began on Tuesday to register combatants leaving the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant, including the wounded, at the request of the parties to the conflict. The operation continued Wednesday and was still ongoing Thursday. The ICRC is not transporting prisoners of war to the places where they are held, according to a press release from the organization.

"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," the organization said. "This information allows the ICRC to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families."

The ICRC noted that it "maintains a confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict on their obligations under international humanitarian law."

"In accordance with the mandate given to the ICRC by States under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the ICRC must have immediate access to all POWs in all places where they are held," the organization added. "The ICRC must be allowed to interview prisoners of war without witnesses, and the duration and frequency of these visits should not be unduly restricted. Whenever circumstances permit, each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to search for and collect the dead."

For weeks, Ukrainian fighters and civilians were holed up inside Mariupol's vast Azovstal plant as the remaining pocket of Ukrainian resistance to Russia's relentless bombardment of the strategic southeastern port city. Russia claimed Thursday that 1,730 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol over the previous three days, while Ukraine confirmed Tuesday that more than 250 had yielded in the initial hours after it ordered them to do so.

Mariupol is the largest city that Russian forces have seized since launching an invasion of neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24. Its complete capture gives Russia total control of the coast of the Sea of Azov as well as a continuous stretch of territory along eastern and southern Ukraine.

May 19, 7:30 am
Russia has fired top commanders over Ukraine war failures, UK says

Russia has fired senior military commanders in recent weeks "who are considered to have performed poorly during the opening stages of its invasion of Ukraine," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said Thursday in an intelligence update.

According to the ministry, Lt. Gen. Serhiy Kisel, who commanded Russia's elite 1st Guards Tank Army, has been suspended for his failure to capture Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia's Black Sea Fleet, has also likely been suspended following the sinking of the fleet's flagship, Moskva, in April. Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, the Russian military's chief of the general staff, likely remains in his post, but it was unclear whether he retains the confidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the ministry.

"A culture of cover-ups and scape-goating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system," the ministry said. "Many officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine will likely be increasingly distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for Russia’s operational set-backs."

"This will likely place further strain on Russia's centralised model of command and control, as officers increasingly seek to defer key decisions to their superiors," the ministry added. "It will be difficult for Russia to regain the initiative under these conditions."

May 19, 6:30 am
Russia puts two Ukrainian commanders on wanted list

Russia has placed two Ukrainian commanders on a wanted list.

Serhiy Velychko and Kostiantyn Nemychev, commanders of the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, have been added to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs' database of wanted fugitives in connection with a criminal case.

According to the Russian Investigative Committee, Velychko and Nemychev are accused of attempted murder of at least eight Russian servicemen who sustained multiple injuries in eastern Ukraine's Kharkiv region. Criminal charges were brought against the pair in absentia, and Russian authorities are working to track down and apprehend them.

May 18, 10:41 pm
Senate confirms new US ambassador to Ukraine

The Senate on Wednesday night unanimously confirmed the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, a career foreign service officer.

The vote took place on the same day the U.S. officially resumed operations at its embassy in Kyiv.

May 18, 3:46 pm
Google's Russian business to file for for bankruptcy

Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy, a spokesperson told ABC News in a statement.

"We previously announced that we paused the vast majority of our commercial operations in Russia. The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations," a Google spokesperson said.

Adding, "People in Russia rely on our services to access quality information and we’ll continue to keep free services such as Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Android and Play available."

-ABC News' Rashid Haddou-Riffi

May 18, 3:34 pm
US, European allies 'will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden,' Biden adviser warns

U.S. and European allies “will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden” as their applications to join NATO are being considered, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Wednesday.

President Joe Biden said the U.S. would “remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression.”

Sullivan was asked to clarify if that meant the U.S. was extending NATO security protections to Finland and Sweden during this time, and he said Article 5 only kicks in when all 30 allies ratify the accession.

“But the United States, is prepared to send a very clear message, as are all of our European allies, that we will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process, and there are practical measures that we can take along those lines that Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin will coordinate with his counterparts about Finland and Sweden," Sullivan told reporters.

With Turkey opposed to this move, Sullivan told ABC News' MaryAlice Parks that the White House is “confident at the end of the day” that Finland and Sweden “will have an effective and efficient accession process” and that “Turkey's concerns can be addressed.”

Biden will host the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House Thursday.

“Two nations with a long tradition of neutrality will be joining the world's most powerful defensive alliance, and they will bring with them strong capabilities and a proven track record as security partners and President Biden will have the opportunity to mark just what a historic and watershed moment this is when he meets with them tomorrow," Sullivan said.

-ABC News' Justin Gomez and MaryAlice Parks

May 18, 3:15 pm
Blinken meets with Turkish counterpart at UN ahead of NATO summit

Ahead of a meeting at the United Nations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday.

Blinken told reporters he was grateful for the solidarity Turkey has shown against Russian aggression.

While Cavusoglu said he would work with Blinken to "overcome the differences through dialogue and diplomacy," he signaled that Turkey still had significant reservations about Sweden and Finland joining NATO, complicating their path to membership.

"Turkey has been supporting the open door policy of NATO even before this war, but with regards to these possible candidates—already candidate countries—we have also legitimate security concerns that they have been supporting terrorist organizations, and there are also export restrictions on defense products," Cavusoglu said.

Then adding, "We understand their security concerns, but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met."

Turkey has expressed concerns about Finland and Sweden joining NATO over the countries' support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which the Turkish government considers a terrorist organization.

-ABC News' Shannon Crawford

May 18, 2:21 pm
Russian offensive effort shrinking, incremental progress toward Black Sea: Pentagon

Russian offensive operations in Donbas are becoming more modest, shrinking both in size and scale, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

The Russians are making little progress so far in Donbas, with lots of back-and-fourth between both sides, according to the official.

"We see them hew very closely to their doctrine of artillery fire then a font of frontal attack by formations that are small, and in some cases, not fully resourced, fully manned, fully strong. And they get rebuffed by the Ukrainians," the official said.

Russian forces are also still suffering from poor communication between commanders and are having other coordination issues, according to the official.

To the northeast of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces continue to push Russian troops back toward their border, according to the official.

Russian forces are making some progress pushing closer toward the Black Sea from between Kherson and Mykolayiv, according to the official. The official said it is not clear what the intent is for this line of advance, but the U.S. sees no signs of an imminent naval assault at this time.

The U.S. believes Russia is "certainly trying" to disrupt to flow of military aid moving through Ukraine, but there have been no indications that it has had any success, according to the official.

Three of the eleven Mi-17 helicopters, more than 200 of the 300 Switchblade drones and nearly 10 Phoenix Ghost drones that the U.S. has promised Ukraine have been delivered, according to the official. The Ukrainians have told the Pentagon that 79 of the 90 U.S. howitzers that were delivered are now being used in combat.

-ABC News' Matt Seyler

May 18, 9:53 am
Finland, Sweden formally submit applications to join NATO

Finland and Sweden formally submitted their applications to join NATO to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday morning at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters.

Stoltenberg welcomed the requests, saying, "This is a good day, at a critical moment for our security," according to NATO.

"Every nation has the right to choose its own path. You have both made your choice, after thorough democratic processes. And I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO," Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

Adding, "You are our closest partners. And your membership in NATO would increase our shared security."

May 18, 9:25 am
Russian soldier pleads guilty to killing civilian

Russian Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin pleaded guilty Wednesday to shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man on Feb. 28. The guilty plea carries a life sentence.

It’s the first trial Ukraine has conducted for an act that could be considered a war crime.

Asked by the presiding judge whether he accepted his guilt, Shyshimarin said: “Yes. Fully yes.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov dismissed the proceedings on Wednesday, telling reporters that accusations leveled against Russian soldiers by Ukraine were “simply fake or staged.”

May 17, 6:26 pm
State Department 'confident' in NATO expansion

As Turkey becomes more vocal about its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, the State Department said it is still assured of the alliance's unified support for the two prospective members.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a briefing Tuesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken came away from meetings with NATO allies with a "sense of confidence there was strong consensus for admitting Finland and Sweden into the alliance if they so choose to join, and we're confident we'll be able to preserve that consensus."

Price said that assessment came from what Blinken heard in conversations behind closed doors.

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has publicly said that both candidates are untrustworthy because he perceives them as being supportive of groups Ankara views as extremist.

There is speculation that Turkey’s opposition is an attempt to leverage the moment to achieve its own policy goals or concessions from the U.S. Price said Tuesday that Turkey has not made any specific requests.

Price confirmed that Blinken will meet with his Turkish counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. on Wednesday, adding that "other conversations are ongoing between and among current NATO allies and potential aspirant countries."

-ABC News' Shannon Crawford

May 17, 2:22 pm
Finland, Sweden to jointly submit applications for NATO membership on Wednesday

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's office announced Sweden and Finland will jointly submit an application for NATO membership on Wednesday, after she met with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in Stockholm.

"It is a message of strength and a clear signal that we stand united going into the future," Andersson said in a joint press conference with the Finnish president.

The two leaders are set to meet President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday.

The two countries have stepped away from nonalignment in the wake of Russian's invasion of Ukraine, and fears for their own security.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

May 17, 2:11 pm
ICC sends 42 investigators to Ukraine

The International Criminal Court deployed a team of 42 investigators forensic and support personnel to Ukraine to advance investigations into crimes falling under ICC jurisdiction and provide support to Ukrainian authorities.

"This represents the largest ever single field deployment by my office since its establishment," ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said Tuesday.

Khan said 21 countries have offered to send national experts to his office and 20 states have committed to provide financial contributions.

"I look forward to working with all actors, including survivor groups, national authorities, civil society organisations and international partners, in order to accelerate this collective work moving forward," Khan said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

May 17, 1:33 pm
US commerce secretary says export controls on Russia are working

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters Tuesday that the export controls the U.S. and other countries have put on Russia are working, including compliance from China.

"These export controls are having a strong and significant effect," Raimondo said Tuesday.

Raimondo returned from Paris where she co-chaired the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Ministerial Meeting. She said there was consensus and partnership amongst countries with respect to cutting off Russia's access to "critical technologies."

"We've had extensive discussions on export controls," she said.

The Commerce Department and 37 other countries have limited semiconductor chips that can be exported to Russia, which help not only everyday Russian carmakers, but the Russian military build and use military equipment.

"You've all heard the anecdotal stories of Russia's inability to continue to produce tanks and auto companies shutting down but overall U.S. exports to Russia have decreased over 80%, between February and a week ago," she said. "So we essentially stopped sending high tech to Russia, which is what they need for their military."

Even China, Raimondo said, stopped shipping tech products such as laptops to Russia by 40% compared to a year ago.

Asked whether she trusts the Chinese data, Raimondo said it is "consistent" with what the Ukrainians are seeing on the ground.

"We are not seeing systematic efforts by China to go around our export controls," she said. "So yes, I think this is probably quite accurate."

-ABC News' Luke Barr

May 17, 9:20 am
Biden to meet with leaders of Sweden, Finland as they seek to join NATO

President Joe Biden will host Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland at the White House on Thursday as the two countries seek to join NATO, the White House announced Tuesday.

The three leaders will "discuss Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO applications and European security," according to a statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

International trade of spiders, scorpions is 80% unregulated -- threatening conservation, scientists say

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(NEW YORK) -- Spiders, tarantulas and scorpions may be creepy to many, but it turns out there's a gargantuan market for arachnids as pets, and it is mostly unregulated -- posing problems for the sustainability of their species.

Nearly 80% of the global arachnid trade, which is quite larger than previously estimated, is not monitored or regulated, researchers who studied the market over two decades discovered.

More than 1,200 species of arachnids, including spiders and scorpions, have been or are currently being traded around the world, according to the findings of a study published in Nature on Tuesday. About 79% of the creatures are listed on arachnid-selling websites but not included in trade databases, according to the research.

Wildlife trade is a "huge issue" for biodiversity, Alice Hughes, conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong and author of the study, told ABC News. However, it tends to be the illegal trade of bigger, more "charismatic" animals that people tend to think is the wider problem, she said.

"But the fact that they are being traded legally does not mean that it's sustainable," she said.

The researchers investigated global arachnid trades between 2000 and 2021 by combining data from the U.S. Law Enforcement Management Information System with the international trade databases of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which contains detailed information on global online arachnid retailers.

Among popular traded species, the researchers found that 77% of emperor scorpions were caught in the wild, with 1 million individuals imported into the U.S. alone during the study period.

More than 50% of tarantula species had been traded, including 600,000 Grammostola tarantulas, a group that includes the common pet species Chilean rose tarantulas, according to the researchers.

Two-thirds of arachnids from all traded species were reportedly wild-caught, which could have negative impacts on wild populations if they are harvested to an unsustainable extent, according to the study.

"I don't think anyone who was buying these animals is really aware of just how likely it is that a couple of weeks prior, that animal was wandering around a rainforest or a desert somewhere," Hughes said. "So this is a major threat to the future survival of the species."

The lack of regulation of the market could lead to these species becoming vulnerable to unsustainable harvesting and trade, the scientists said.

Hughes described the findings as "shocking" due to the threat the species are likely under.

To further complicate matters, the researchers found that out of over 1 million known invertebrate species, under 1% had been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In addition, only a small fraction of invertebrate species was regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, such as 39 of the 52,060 known species of spiders.

"These are under-appreciated, neglected taxa that are threatened by the pet trade," she said.

The lack of data indicates that the vulnerability of these heavily traded species is unclear, making the development of appropriate management or conservation policies "currently almost impossible," according to the authors.

"So only about 2% of all species in trade are listed by scientists, and that's a vanishingly small proportion of all arachnids," she said. "But 2% of insight is is really nothing. It means 98% of species can be traded with no overarching regulations, outside those that are instigated by their country."

The research also poses concern about the individuals who are buying these arachnids, Hughes said. There is no vetting of potential owners, a demographic consisting largely of younger people, many of whom may release the animal when they no longer want them.

They then could become an invasive species that competes with the native species, or be infected with mites or other parasites that then spread to other species, Hughes said.

The findings highlight that millions of spiders, scorpions and their relatives are being bought and sold, and there is a pressing need to monitor trade to prevent biodiversity losses, the researchers wrote. Hughes urged pet owners to be conscientious when deciding whether to buy one of these creatures.

"People just need to be aware that when they are buying an exotic pet, they need to check out where it's come from," she said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Russian soldier pleads guilty to shooting unarmed Ukrainian civilian

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(KYIV, Ukraine) -- Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian. The guilty plea carries a life sentence.

Shishimarin, 21, is accused of shooting a 62-year-old man on Feb. 28. The man was a resident of Chupakhivka who was riding a bike on the roadside when he was shot, according to Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine's prosecutor general.

This is the first trial Ukraine has conducted for an act that could be considered a war crime.

Asked by the presiding judge whether he accepted his guilt, Shishimarin said: "Yes. Fully yes."

Shishimarin is charged with murder and two counts of robbery. He surrendered to Ukrainian law enforcement and has been a prisoner of war since, Ukrainian prosecutor Andriy Syniuk said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the proceedings on Wednesday, telling reporters that accusations leveled against Russian soldiers by Ukraine were "simply fake or staged."

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Chinese plane crash that killed 132 caused by intentional act: US officials

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(WASHINGTON) -- The China Eastern Airlines plane crash that killed 132 people is believed to have been caused by an intentional act, according to U.S. officials who spoke to ABC News.

The Boeing 737-800 passenger jet was flying from Kunming to Guangzhou on March 21 when it plunged into a mountainous area in Guangxi, China. All 123 passengers and nine crew members were killed.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report the news.

The officials who spoke to ABC News point to the plane’s flaps not being engaged and landing gear not put down. The near-vertical descent of the plane, they believe, would’ve required intentional force.

The plane slammed into the ground with such force that it created a 66-foot deep hole in the ground, according to Chinese officials.

Investigators also looked into the pilot’s personal life and background and believe he may have been struggling through certain issues right before the crash, ABC News has learned.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said all information on the investigation will come from their counterparts in the Civil Aviation Administration of China, but regulators and Boeing have not flagged any mechanical issues. Sources said Chinese investigators also haven’t flagged any mechanical issues.

"The NTSB will not be issuing any further updates on the CAAC's investigation of the China Eastern 5735 crash," the NTSB said in a statement. "When and whether CAAC issues updates is entirely up to them. And I haven't heard anything about any plans for them to do so."

The first black box, the cockpit voice recorder, was found on March 23, while the flight data recorder was found March 27.

ABC News' Mark Osborne contributed to this report.

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Bloody protests in Iran are not just about food prices

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(LONDON) -- Hundreds of Iranians have taken to the streets in cities across the country, protesting against the crippling political and economic situation. Unofficial reports say security forces have killed at least four people.

Coming from all walks of life, protestors shout slogans that target the top officials of the clerical system, including the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi.

The internet in the cities with ongoing protests is either cut or partially throttled by the government in an attempt to control the spreading of the news.

The unrest started after the government cut subsidies on essential food items such as cooking oil, eggs and milk last Wednesday. For example, the price of cooking increased more than 400% overnight from 336,700 rials, or nearly US$8, to 1,420,000 rials, or US$33 -- US$1 is about 42,350 rials.

However, dominant slogans in the protests like "Down with Khamenei, Down with dictator" and "We don't want mullah's ruling" indicate that protesting the ailing economy follows another primary demand: overthrowing the system.

"The establishment suffers from lack of legitimacy," Mohammad Mosaed, a dissident journalist in exile, told ABC News. "It has failed to fulfill the promises it made 43 years ago like freedom and justice."

Mosaed had to leave Iran after another series of protests in November 2019.

With hundreds of people killed and thousands arrested, the nationwide protests in 2019 were the deadliest since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The exact number of killings still remains unknown due to the strict censorship of the media and cutting off the whole country's internet for 10 days. Those protests also started after fuel went up three times its cost and soon spread all around the country, especially in small cities.

"The current protests are similar to those in 2019 as they are not bound to Tehran that has a bigger middle-class population, but are rather spread all over the country, especially in smaller towns which are economically deprived," Mosaed said.

Iran's state media has repeatedly blamed the West's economic sanctions for the hardship the country faces. They are the sanctions that mainly aim to restrict Iran's nuclear program.

In 2015, Iran committed to restricting its nuclear program in return for the West's commitment to easing the sanctions in a deal with the world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, in May 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact, leaving it a matter of renegotiation. Four years later, after rounds of talks, the process of reviving the JCPOA is still stalled due to disagreements among the negotiation parties -- the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Russia and China.

However, unlike the Islamic Republic's blame narrative, many believe Western sanctions are not the only reason or even the main reason for the situation.

"The recent crippling situation resulted from having totally incompetent leaders for years, widespread corruption, and then the sanctions," Mosaed said.

After four decades of giving several chances to different parties to lead the country, Mosaed believes that more and more people are coming to the understanding that the incompetency and corruption of the leaders must be the main subject of the protests.

"These people used to form up the main body of the establishment's loyal patrons, and now the former patrons have turned to fierce protestors," he added.

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Ukrainians fighters leave Mariupol, effectively ceding the city to Russian control

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(NEW YORK) -- Ukraine's military has ended its combat mission in the city of Mariupol and hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are being taken by bus to Russian-controlled territory after nearly three months of heavy fighting in the port city. Russia began its attacks on the city in early March.

The Ukrainians and Russians struck a deal to exchange badly injured soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for Russian prisoners of war, Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar told a Ukrainian TV station.

Mariupol's mayor confirmed that a cease-fire remains in place in the port city.

The Ukrainian military ordered remaining troops who had been sheltering beneath the Azovstal steel factory to focus on efforts to save the lives of their personnel.

More than 260 Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor, some of whom were injured, according to Ukraine's defense minister.

Malyar said that 53 wounded soldiers are being transported from Azovstal to Novoazovsk where they will receive immediate medical attention.

"About Azovstal, we hope that we'll manage to save their lives. There are seriously injured among them. I want to stress that we need our defenders alive. The operation to rescue them was launched by our military. We work on getting them home and this work demands delicacy and time," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address.

Another 211 Ukrainian fighters were accompanied by Russian forces from Azovstal to Olenivka in rebel-held Donetsk, where they will be part of the exchange for Russian prisoners of war.

"As a part of an exchange deal, 50 wounded were evacuated from Azovstal to Novoazovsk. Negotiations are underway for them to be transferred to Zaporozhzhya," another source told ABC News, confirming the exchange.

Russia's state-run TASS reported that Russia's defense ministry confirmed an agreement was reached on Monday to evacuate wounded Ukrainian troops from the plant and transport them to a medical facility in Novoazovsk to "provide them with all the necessary assistance."

The Russian defense ministry on Tuesday said 265 Ukrainian militants have laid down arms and surrendered, including 51 who are seriously wounded. All those in need of medical assistance were sent for treatment to a hospital in Novoazovsk, Donetsk People's Republic.

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Biden approves return of US troops for Somalia counterterrorism fight, reversing Trump

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(WASHINGTON) -- Reversing a decision by predecessor Donald Trump, President Joe Biden has approved a Pentagon request to redeploy several hundred American troops to Somalia for what the National Security Council calls "a persistent U.S. military presence" there as part of counterterrorism efforts.

The move will reestablish an open-ended mission in Somalia assisting the country in its fight against al-Shabab, a local al-Qaida affiliate.

The group once ruled Somalia and has been seeking to regain territorial control over parts of the country. It has carried out overseas terror attacks in Kenya, including in January 2020 when three Americans died in an assault targeting a U.S. base.

The Biden administration believes the move will "enable our partners to conduct a more effective fight against al-Shabab, which is al-Qaida's largest, wealthiest, and deadliest affiliate and poses a heightened threat to Americans in East Africa," National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Monday.

A senior administration official told reporters later Monday that the number of U.S. troops returning to Somalia would be "under 500" and that they would continue with the same mission of training Somalia's military and assisting local forces on counterterrorism missions. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stressed on Monday afternoon that "our forces are not now nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations."

The Pentagon is still evaluating when the return of forces will take place, in consultation with the Somali government.

"This is a repositioning of forces already in theater who have travelled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis since the previous administration made the precipitous decision to withdraw at the end of 2020," Watson, the NSC spokeswoman, said.

"The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more efficient support to our partners," Watson added.

In December 2020, near the end of his presidential term, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the nearly 750 U.S. troops in Somalia as part of a broader strategy to further reduce the troop presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Trump had committed to ending what he labeled "forever wars."

His draw-down decision ended a longterm presence of U.S. special operations troops that had been assisting the Somali military against al-Shabab. Since then, American personnel have been rotating into Somalia on temporary training missions lasting up to a few months.

President Biden's decision to recommit forces there will allow troops to again stay in an open-ended posture against al-Shabab, according to the administration. The new presence will end the "in and out" rotation implemented after Trump's decision, the senior Biden official told reporters Monday.

The official contrasted the troop deployment with President Trump's decision to remove forces, calling the earlier draw-down "irrational because it created unnecessary and elevated risk to forces as they moved in and out of the country on a rotational basis."

The official added that "it gave us less payoff for incurring that risk because it disrupted their efficacy and consistency of their work with partners."

The senior official framed the decision as part of the administration's global counterterrorism effort that also focuses on prioritizing limited resources against "the most dangerous and ascendant threats."

"In a world in which we must prioritize how we approach global counterterrorism, al-Shabab is a notable priority given the threat it poses," the official said -- both in Somalia and overseas.

The official highlighted federal charges against a Somali man whom authorities claim was taking flight lessons in the Philippines for a 9/11-style attack on an American city. The suspect, Cholo Abdi Abdullah, has pleaded not guilty.

"It was a mistake to withdraw forces in 2020,” Mick Mulroy, an ABC News contributor who served as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense and is also a veteran of operations in Somalia, told ABC News.

"Remote training was not practical enough to stem the expansion of Al Shabaab or collect on threats coming from this terrorist organization," he said.

"Today’s decision to send special operations forces back into the country to work with our key partners and the newly chosen president, who is very familiar with our operations from his previous time as president, was the right one,” Mulroy said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Sweden to apply to join NATO, joining Finland in ending nonaligned status

HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) -- Sweden will apply to formally join NATO, following in the footsteps of neighboring Finland, the country's prime minister said, ending long-held positions of neutrality in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"The best for our country's security is that Sweden applies for membership in NATO and that we do it now together with Finland," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said on Monday. "And following today's debate in Parliament, the government is ready to make a decision about an application. That will be the starting point for a process that includes ratification in all the NATO member's parliaments and after that, the government will return to Parliament with a proposal for ratification for Swedish membership of NATO."

"As nonaligned countries, Sweden and Finland have been contributing to stability in our region, but that changed when Russia invaded Ukraine," she added.

President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland announced their intention to apply for NATO membership on Sunday, with the country's Parliament expected to endorse the proposal as a formality.

Leaders in both Sweden and Finland had long been expected to apply to join the military alliance, as the war in Ukraine continues to have unintended consequences for Russia by potentially pushing two more of its neighbors into NATO.

Last week, Dmitry Peskov, Russia's presidential press secretary, said that "another enlargement of NATO does not make our continent more stable and secure." Peskov reiterated that stance on Monday, saying that although Russia had "no territorial disputes" with Sweden and Finland, unlike in Ukraine, Russia believed it to be a "serious issue" that they are following "very closely."

Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ann Linde said last week that Finland's leaders had delivered an "important message," adding that her country "will decide after the report from the security policy consultations has been presented."

The Scandinavian countries have long held neutral status when it comes to European conflict. Finland became a neutral country after the Second World War, while Sweden has resisted military alliances long before that.

Yet fears that Russia could do to other non-NATO countries what it has done to Ukraine has sparked a rapid shift in public opinion in both countries, one of which, Finland, shares an 830-mile land border with Russia.

Both could be on the cusp of joining NATO. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has publicly said the Nordic countries would be welcomed into the alliance, however the process could take months once their formal applications have been sent in.

Ahead of any official announcement from both countries for NATO membership, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had previously signed mutual security assurances in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

NATO's expansion would be yet another unintended consequence for Russia, as they continue to be met with fierce resistance in Ukraine and a more united West than their intelligence assessments anticipated. Part of Russia's security demands ahead of the invasion in Ukraine included reverting NATO forces to 1997 positions.

Since NATO was founded in 1949, the alliance has expanded to include 30 member countries, including three former Soviet republics, and the inclusion of Sweden and Finland would further expand the alliance's influence in the Arctic and in the areas around Russia.

Stoltenberg said just days ahead of the invasion "if Kremlin's aim is to have less NATO on Russia's borders, it will only get more NATO. And if it wants to divide NATO, it will only get an even more united Alliance."

This prediction now appears to be coming true -- although Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov last month said that NATO is a "tool sharpened for confrontation" and it is "not an alliance that ensures peace and stability" when asked about Sweden and Finland. Experts say the expansion will be evidence of yet another strategic blunder on Russia's part.

Even as public opinion has shifted, there are still those that opposes NATO membership for the Nordic countries, fearing it would lead to increased tensions with Russia.

"I'm afraid that NATO membership will increase actually the tensions in the Baltic Sea region and also will increase the tensions in Finland, especially regarding the eastern border," Veronika Honkasalo, one of the few members of Finland's parliament who doesn't believe the country should join, told ABC News.

Furthermore, there are concerns that Sweden and Finland could be vulnerable to Russian attacks during the application process, though State Department spokesperson Ned Price moved to reassure both countries last week, saying: "I am certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application and the final ratification."

However, polling reported in both countries appears to show a significant majority are in favor of NATO membership.

"[Putin] has for years said Finland and Sweden joining is a red line," Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told ABC News. "He's managed to drive both Finland and Sweden towards NATO. So I think a massive miscalculation for him, but I think a positive thing for the rest of Europe."

"It's very clearly the population that changed its opinion in, say, six months, radically so," he said, adding that the shift in public opinion had a snowball effect into Sweden, as fears grew about what could happen without the umbrella protection of NATO membership as the war in Ukraine continued.

"Now Russia has gone so far that joining NATO seems to be the only genuine solution here," he said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Russia-Ukraine live updates: 'Historic day' as Finland, Sweden say they will apply to NATO


(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, attempting to capture the strategic port city of Mariupol to secure a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

May 15, 3:45 pm
Video shows bright-burning munitions falling on Azovstal steel plant

A video released Sunday by a pro-Russian separatist commander showed a shower of bright-burning munitions cascading down on the Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters remain holed up weeks after the city fell into the hands of Russian forces.

The video shows projectiles bursting into showers of burning matter which then explode on contact with the ground or buildings.

ABC News has not been able to verify the authenticity of the video. Reuters was able to verify the location of the aerial footage to the Azovstal steel plant, but was not able to confirm the date and time the video was taken.

The footage was posted on Telegram by Alexander Khodakovsky, a commander of the pro-Russian self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk.

"If you didn't know what it is and for what purpose -- you could say that it's even beautiful," Khodakovsky said in a message that accompanied the video.

It was not immediately clear what type of munitions were seen in the video.

Khodakovsky could not be reached for comment.

Ukrainian military officials said there was no letup on Sunday in Russia's bombardment of the steel works plant.

May 15, 3:09 pm
Sweden's ruling party supports a NATO bid

Sweden's ruling Social Democratic party announced Sunday that its board has decided to support the historically neutral country's bid to join NATO.

The party said it will now work to advance Sweden's application for membership to NATO.

If the application is approved by NATO, the Social Democratic Party said it will express unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory.

"We Social Democrats believe that the best for Sweden's and the Swedish people's security is that we join NATO," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at a news conference Sunday. "This is a decision that was taken after careful deliberations. A position in favor of NATO means that we are prepared to abandon a security policy that Sweden has had in different forms over 200 years."

Andersson added, "For us Social Democrats it is clear that the military non-alignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it won't serve us as well in the future."

Leaders of Finland, another historically neutral Nordic country, also announced on Sunday that it will also apply for NATO membership.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

21-year-old Russian soldier to stand trial in Kyiv for murdering Ukrainian civilian

omersukrugoksu/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- The first case against a member of the Russian military is set to go to trial on May 18. 21-year-old Russian serviceman Vadim Shishimarin is accused of killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the Sumy region on Feb. 28, according to Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine's prosecutor general.

The civilian was a resident of Chupakhivka who was riding a bike on the roadside when he was shot, Venediktova alleged.

Shishmarin is charged with murder and two counts of robbery. He surrendered to Ukrainian law enforcement on the same day and has been a prisoner of war since, Ukrainian prosecutor Andriy Syniuk said.

Shishmarin's lawyer and a public defender, Viktor Ovsiannikov, refused to disclose his strategy, but said the fact the soldier was following orders does not legally constitute a defense. It’s up to the judges whether to take that under consideration.

The length of the trial will depend on how the defendant will plead, but the prosecution has sufficient proof regardless, Syniuk told ABC News.

Syniuk also said Shishmarin has cooperated throughout the investigation.

Shishimarin is the first member of the Russian military to be facing a criminal trial, Venediktova said in a post on Facebook.

Prosecutor Andriy Syniuk told ABC News that trying this case should set the standard and prove that Ukraine is a country with a rule of law and respect for human rights. He said this case is important and that more hearings will be starting soon.

Three other people are involved in these crimes, but Shishmarin is the only one facing charges for now, according to the prosecutor.

ABC News' Tatiana Rymarenko contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

North Korea's Kim remains fixed on military might amid COVID outbreak

Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- As North Korea rattles its foreign rivals by escalating shows of firepower, the coronavirus could be attacking the Hermit Kingdom from within.

In a rare admission this week, North Korean state media announced its first COVID-19 cases, including six deaths from the virus and an additional 350,000 infections since April (although experts say those figures are likely much higher.)

After insisting for more than two years that the country was untouched by the global pandemic, its leader Kim Jong Un locked down all cities and counties as part of a "maximum emergency" response, and was spotted wearing a mask for the first time.

Despite the outbreak, North Korea test launched three short-range ballistic missiles this week—evidence of Pyongyang's commitment to expanding its military arsenal and hardening stance against the West.

While the country has ramped up its nuclear weapons program, its health care system remains under-resourced and ill-equipped to handle an influx of patients. According to the World Health Organization, it's one of only two countries that has yet to start a COVID-19 vaccine campaign.

Pyongyang has declined assistance even from its close allies, like China, so offers to share vaccines from its sworn enemies are all but certain to prove futile.

The State Department confirmed the U.S. has no plans to give doses to North Korea, but a spokesperson told ABC News "we strongly support and encourage the efforts of U.S. and international aid and health organizations in seeking to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19."

The spokesperson added that should COVAX -- a global initiative to which the U.S. has pledged to donate over 1 billion doses by the end of next year -- decide to allocate vaccines to North Korea, the department would support the decision.

However, Pyongyang has yet to accept a single shot from COVAX.

"We urge the DPRK (North Korea) to work with the international community to facilitate the rapid vaccination of its population," the spokesperson added.

In addition to vaccines, North Korea is believed to lack adequate testing capabilities and anti-viral treatments to treat COVID-19. Its isolation also means it's likely that very few of its citizens have been previously infected and recovered, giving them some level of immunity.

The capital city hosted a massive military parade late last month that could have contributed to the virus spreading.

President Joe Biden is slated to travel to South Korea and Japan next week, his first trip to the region since entering office. Both North Korea's nuclear provocations and the added instability the coronavirus might bring to country are likely to be top items on the agenda.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke over the phone with his newly appointed counterpart in South Korea on Friday. According to a readout provided by the State Department, both officials condemned North Korea's latest missile launches. The South Korean Foreign Ministry also said they discussed the country's coronavirus outbreak.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian troops suffer 'significant' loss in Donbas

John Moore/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, attempting to capture the strategic port city of Mariupol to secure a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

May 15, 12:35 pm
Sweden's ruling party supports a NATO bid

Sweden's ruling Social Democratic party announced Sunday that its board has decided to support the historically neutral country's bid to join NATO.

The party said it will now work to advance Sweden's application for membership to NATO.

If the application is approved by NATO, the Social Democratic Party said it will express unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory.

Leaders of Finland, another historically neutral Nordic country, also announced on Sunday that it will also apply for NATO membership.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

May 15, 12:14 pm
More people returning to Ukraine than fleeing: Ukrainian officials

Figures show the number of people returning to Ukraine in the past three days is higher than the number of people trying to flee, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said on Sunday.

Of the nearly 84,000 people traveling in and out of Ukraine on Saturday, more than half were Ukrainian nationals returning to the country, the Ukrainian authorities said.

More than 46,000 people returned to Ukraine on Saturday while 37,000 people left the country, the Border Guard Service said.

At least 22,000 of those who left the country traveled to Poland while the rest went to Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, officials said.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 6 million Ukrainians have fled the country. Since then, more than 1.6 million people have returned to Ukraine, officials said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

May 15, 6:39 am
Finland confirms it will seek NATO membership

Finland's leaders on Sunday said the Nordic country would apply for NATO membership.

"It is a historic day -- of course, we have, for years, been in close partnership with NATO," Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Sunday.

Marin and President Sauli Niinistö made the official announcement at a press conference in Helsinki, the capital. The Finnish Parliament is now expected to vote on whether to apply.

Marin said she hoped neighboring Sweden would also decide to join the military bloc in the coming days. Decisions made by both countries "will influence and affect the whole of Nordic countries," she said.

Niinistö said Finland has been discussing NATO membership internally for "at least 30 years."

"We have to keep in mind that NATO membership does not change geography, so we will always have that big border -- land and sea -- with Russians behind it," Niinistö said on Sunday.

May 15, 6:11 am
Russia 'lost momentum' in eastern offensive: UK

Russia has "lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule" in its offensive on eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.

"Despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the past month whilst sustaining consistently high levels of attrition," the ministry said on Sunday. "Russia has now likely suffered losses of one third of the ground combat force it committed in February."

Russian forces in late March pulled out of the suburbs north of Kyiv and collected in eastern Ukraine. They began an offensive in April, but have since foundered, the U.K. said.

Low troop morale, reduced combat effectiveness and loss of equipment have all played a role in slowing the Russian advance, the ministry said.

May 13, 3:15 pm
Russian soldier accused of killing Ukrainian civilian to go on trial

Russian military commander Vadim Shishimarin, accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian in the Sumy region on Feb. 28, is set to go to trial on May 19, according to Ukraine's prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova.

The 21-year-old soldier allegedly fired his AK-47 at a car driven by a 62-year-old Ukrainian man, killing him at the scene, Venediktova said.

Shishmarin is charged with murder and two counts of robbery.

Prosecutor Andriy Syniuk said Shishmarin has cooperated throughout the investigation.

He is the first member of the Russian military to face charges, Venediktova said.

He could face a life sentence if convicted.

May 13, 1:37 pm
Biden 'underscored support for NATO's Open Door policy' on call with Swedish, Finnish leaders

On a Friday phone call with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, President Joe Biden "underscored his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements," according to the White House.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the U.S. "would support" Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO "should they choose to apply."

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russian deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told a British news podcast that Finland and Sweden officials "know the moment they become members of the NATO, it will imply certain mirror moves on the Russian side. … If there are NATO detachments in those territories, these territories would become a target -- or a possible target -- for a strike."

On Friday's call, Biden, Andersson and Niinistö "reiterated their shared commitment to continued coordination in support of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people affected by the war," according to the White House statement.

May 13, 11:30 am
Austin speaks to Russian counterpart for 1st time since invasion

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine began, according to a statement from Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

Austin urged for an immediate ceasefire and "emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication," the statement said.

May 13, 3:10 am
Russian troops suffer 'significant' loss in Donbas, UK says

Russian troops suffered "significant" loss while attempting to cross a river in the disputed Donbas region of war-torn eastern Ukraine, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said Friday in an intelligence update.

"Ukrainian forces successfully prevented an attempted Russian river crossing in the Donbas," the ministry said. "Images indicate that during the crossing of the Siverskyi Donets river west of Severodonetsk, Russia lost significant armoured manoeuvre elements of at least one Battalion Tactical Group as well as the deployed pontoon bridging equipment."

"Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a highly risky manoeuvre and speaks to the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine," the ministry added. "Russian forces have failed to make any significant advances despite concentrating forces in this area after withdrawing and redeploying units from the Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts."

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense released images purportedly showing a wrecked pontoon crossing over the Siverskyi Donets river, with a number of damaged or destroyed armored vehicles on both banks.

"Artillerymen of the 17th tank brigade of the #UAarmy have opened the holiday season for [Russian forces]," the ministry said in a post on Twitter, alongside the photos. "Some bathed in the Siverskyi Donets River, and some were burned by the May sun."

The Ukrainian Armed Forces' Strategic Communications Directorate also tweeted images of the scene, purportedly showing the smoking wreckage after artillery units and land forces "destroyed all attempts by the Russian occupiers to cross the Seversky Donets River."

May 12, 5:11 pm
Sen. Rand Paul single-handedly delays $40B in aid, pushing vote to next week

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., single-handedly sidelined the $40 billion emergency Ukraine aid bill until next week in an effort to force lawmakers to include funding for a new watchdog effort to police how the billions in taxpayer dollars are spent.

In a very rare moment, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined forces.

"There is now only one thing holding us back: the junior Senator from Kentucky is preventing swift passage of Ukraine aid because he wants to add -- at the last minute -- his own changes directly into the bill. His change is strongly opposed by many members from both parties," Schumer said Thursday. "He is not even asking for an amendment … he is simply saying, 'my way or the highway.'"

But Paul stood his ground, highlighting the nearly $60 billion that the U.S. will have given to Ukraine if this package passes.

After Paul blocked an effort to expedite passage, Schumer reiterated that Paul will not get his desired changes without a vote and blamed Paul for slowing aid.

The aid bill has enormous bipartisan support and is expected to pass by sometime next week.

-ABC News' Trish Turner and Allie Pecorin

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Queen Elizabeth makes first public appearance in weeks at horse show

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth attended the Royal Windsor Horse Show Friday in her first public appearance since March.

The 96-year-old queen, dressed casually in a sweater and collared shirt, appeared in good spirts as she watched the competition from her car before making her way to her seat in the stands, next to her son, Prince Edward.

From the stands, the queen got to watch her granddaughter, Lady Louise Windsor, Edwards' daughter, lead a parade through the arena in the saddle of the carriage that belonged to her late husband, Prince Philip.

Queen Elizabeth's last public appearance was in late March at a Service of Thanksgiving for Philip, who died last year at the age of 99.

While the queen has continued to maintain a busy schedule of virtual meetings, phone calls and private engagements, her public appearances have become increasingly rare.

She did not attend the opening of Parliament this week, marking the first time in 60 years and only the third time in her 70-year reign that she has not attended.

Queen Elizabeth's heirs, Prince Charles and Prince William, and Charles's wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, attended in her absence.

At the time, Buckingham Palace said the queen was not able to attend because she "continues to experience episodic mobility problems."

Over the past year, Queen Elizabeth has battled COVID-19 and was hospitalized overnight for what the palace described as "preliminary investigations."

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is an event the queen has attended every year since its inception in 1943. It takes place just a short drive from Windsor Castle, where the queen spends much of her time.

When the queen turned 96 last month, the Royal Windsor Horse Show released a new photo to mark her birthday.

The photo, taken in March on the grounds of Windsor Castle, shows the queen posing alongside two of her ponies, Bybeck Katie and Bybeck Nightingale.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Afghan journalists who fled the Taliban say they're in limbo in Pakistan

Afghan journalists in Pakistan. - Courtesy Fawzia Saidzada

(LONDON) -- After eight months of living in hiding and moving between three safe houses in different cities in her native Afghanistan, 32-year-old journalist Fawzia Sayedzada said she fled her Taliban-ruled country in April.

Sayedzada told ABC News that she had been arrested in Kabul and threatened by the Taliban for covering the news, especially women's protests, after the Taliban takeover last August.

She joined dozens of other Afghan journalists in neighboring Pakistan, where she said they are now stranded. Many of them have managed to leave Afghanistan with the help of human rights aid groups, but are now waiting for their fate to be decided by U.N. member nations, including the United States, Canada and Germany, that have announced special schemes to let them in.

"We were not safe in Afghanistan, and we know we are not safe here," Sayedzada told ABC News.

Many Afghan refugees who have fled the Taliban to Pakistan face potential danger from local Taliban members, Sayedzada said, adding that some journalists and former members of rights groups are seen as more high-profile targets. That's why Sayedzada is now advocating on behalf of those reporters, she said.

"We have been trying to help people be heard," she told ABC News. "And, now, on behalf of many of my colleagues here, I'd say we also need to be heard, as we feel we are forgotten by the world."

Afghanistan was ranked 122 out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued in April 2021. Pakistan was ranked 157 on the index.

While some of these journalists have come with their family members, others have had to leave Afghanistan on their own, which puts them in a vulnerable situation, especially in Pakistan, according to Sayedzada.

"Pakistan is a second home to Taliban members. They are everywhere and keep spying on us," she said. "If you live on your own and have no one to rely on, it would be scary and very tough to survive."

Pakistan, in response, said journalists and aid workers were being protected by local and national police.

"If any refugee faces any threat, they can contact the security forces of the interior ministry or the foreign ministry," Abdullah Khan, secretary to the spokesman of the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ABC News.

Khan said "Pakistan protects all of the refugees that enter the country," adding that he couldn't comment on specific cases.

The acting spokesperson of the Taliban foreign ministry did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned of eroding press freedoms under the Taliban, including last year's order that female journalists must wear hijabs while on screen.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghans who have been forced to flee their homes over the years of war. UNHCR has announced that processing asylum cases for Afghans in Pakistan may take time due to the excessive number of applicants.

During a protest in Pakistan on April 27, a group of about 60 journalists from Afghanistan called for support from the international community and asked that their asylum cases be followed up and accelerated.

After the protest, Sayedzada said a young woman who had fled the country on her own asked if she could stay with Sayedzada and her family.

"It broke my heart I could not help her as we are already four people trying to make the ends meet until we are picked by a safe country that lets us in," she told ABC News.

Sayedzada, who worked in Afghanistan with television channel Setare-ye Sobh and radio program Zemzemeh, is a single mother of a 13-year-old boy. She crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with her son, her elderly mother and one of her brothers. She said her brother, who isn't a journalist, has also been arrested and tortured by the Taliban several times, providing medical records to ABC News for review.

"Both my brother and I received death threats from the Taliban many times and had to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible," Sayedzada said. "We had no choice but to leave my father and other family members back home."

At least 50 journalists and media workers in Afghanistan have been detained briefly or arrested by police or the Istikhbarat, the Taliban intelligence agency, since the Taliban returned to power, RSF said in early February.

"These arrests, which are often accompanied by violence, have lasted from several hours to nearly a week. They usually occur when journalists are covering street demonstrations by women in the capital, Kabul," RSF wrote, adding that the Istikhbarat and the Taliban's Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Suppressing Vice are "directly implicated" in this harassment.

Despite the dangers of speaking up, Sayedzada said her colleagues both in Afghanistan and Pakistan keep reporting on the dire situation of living under the Taliban.

"After our gathering in Pakistan and asking for the acceleration of processing our asylum cases, I received a phone call from a Taliban member who told me if I keep talking to the media, they would hang me from the gates of the town so other journalists take a lesson," Sayedzada told ABC News. "But I am not going to stop speaking up, even if I am sometimes scared."

Being heartbroken by the news coming from Ukraine, Sayedzada said she deeply relates to the Ukrainian people and feels the horror of living in a war situation or being forced to leave home.

"We share the pain and suffrage," she said. "War is a sore on the body of humanity and its pain is not bound to borders."

Sayedzada said she and her colleagues in Pakistan have heard that the process of their asylum cases might take longer due to the surge of Ukrainian refugees. She, however, said she wants everyone to be safe, "whether from Ukraine, Afghanistan or Iraq."

"It is true that the process of admitting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers to the western countries might get affected by the urgency of the cases coming from Ukraine," she told ABC News. "It does not affect how I feel for Ukrainian people, though."

"But I do believe that the world needs to remember us and the threats we are facing so they treat us equally to Ukrainians," she added. "Being forgotten is the worst, especially after my colleagues' attempts to amplify the voice of vulnerable people."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Helsinki's 'underground city' reflects tense position as Russia's neighbor

Swimmers relax in an underground pool in Helsinki, Finland. All buildings above a certain size in Finland are required by law to have their own bunkers. - ABC News

(HELSINKI) -- Finland may be world's happiest country -- at least on the surface. But Helsinki's "underground city" tells a different story.

Beneath the capital, a massive network of bunkers and tunnels spreads out all across the city. There are than 5,000 bomb shelters in Helsinki -- enough to shelter more than the city's entire population -- and more than 50,000 bunkers across the country, according to Helsinki's Civil Defense Department. All buildings above a certain size are required by law to have their own bunkers.

"There's a historic sense that you should always be prepared. It might not be this generation or the next generation, but Russia is likely to attack Finland in some way," said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a leading researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.

With so much ground going unutilized, the city of Helsinki has converted some of its shelters into spaces for everyday public use. There's an underground playground, a shelter that doubles as a hockey rink, even an underground swimming pool.

This is what it's like being Russia's neighbor. The two countries share an 800-mile border and a long, complicated history.

For decades, Finland opted not to join any military alliance in an effort meant to appease Russia's security concerns. As a result, Finland had to ensure it could fend for itself. So it's not just the bunkers; conscription is still mandatory for men, and the country has about 900,000 reservists.

"We have to take care of the citizens, that's the main reason we have this system," said Tomi Rask, an instructor with Helsinki's Civil Defense Department.

But the very scenarios Finland has spent years preparing for are now playing out in Ukraine, where some have been living underground for weeks.

The invasion marked a turning point for Finland-Russia relations. Public support in Finland for joining NATO is skyrocketing from roughly 30% before the war to more than 70% in the weeks after the invasion.

"We have such a horrible neighbor on the east side of Finland. We don't have any other option than to go to NATO," said said Finland citizen Kare Vartiainen, who ABC News met making use of the underground pool.

After years of neutrality, on Thursday, Finland's leaders announced Finland should apply to join NATO "without delay." Sweden is expected to follow suit.

The country's accession would more than double Russia's land border with NATO. It would also expand NATO's influence in the Arctic and further unify the West, said Salonius-Pasternak. NATO would also grow stronger.

"NATO would now have two more old democratic countries, both with really capable militaries, so that effectively all of northern Europe would now be one region to defend," he said.

There are those that are still skeptical, like Veronika Honkasalo, one of the few members of Parliament who doesn't think Finland should join. MPs are expected to take up the issue next week.

"I'm afraid that NATO membership will increase actually the tensions in the Baltic Sea region and also will increase the tensions in Finland, especially regarding the eastern border," she said.

Russia has already threatened "serious military and political consequences" if Finland and Sweden join NATO, saying it will have to bolster its defenses in the region and that it could decide to place nuclear weapons in the Baltics.

There are concerns about what could happen in the time period after Finland and Sweden submit their applications but before they formally join the alliance. The two countries now hoping to win over security assurances from allies, including the U.S.

On Thursday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to come to Finland and Sweden's aid if either nation is attacked.

Finns say now is the time to act while Putin is busy with Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is prompting Finland, even with its 50,000 shelters and capable military, to decide it can no longer go it alone. It's likely giving Putin the very thing he worked so hard to prevent: NATO's expansion.

"We are a small nation, we need help, we need friends. And from my point of view, maybe NATO is the friend that we need," said Rask.

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