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Ukraine accuses Moscow of forcibly taking civilians to Russia

Ukraine says more than 400,000 have been taken against their will to Russia, while the Kremlin said the people relocated from Ukraine wanted to go.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine accused Moscow on Thursday of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia, where some may be used as “hostages” to pressure Kyiv to give up.

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine's ombudsperson, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, have been taken against their will to Russia, and some have reported shortages of food and water there.

The Kremlin has said that the people relocated from Ukraine wanted to go to Russia. The country's rebel-controlled eastern regions, for example, are predominantly Russian-speaking, and many people there have supported close ties to Moscow.

A month into the invasion, meanwhile, the two sides traded heavy blows in what has become a devastating war of attrition. Ukraine’s navy said it sank a large landing ship near the port city of Berdyansk that had been used to supply Russian forces with armored vehicles. Russia claimed to have taken the eastern town of Izyum after fierce fighting.

At an emergency NATO summit in Brussels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with the Western allies via video for planes, tanks, rockets, air defense systems and other weapons, saying his country is “defending our common values.” U.S President Joe Biden, in Europe for a series of summits, gave assurances more aid is on its way.

Credit: AP
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, early Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance's leaders agreed to send equipment to help protect Ukraine against chemical attack. Around the capital, Kyiv, and other areas, Ukrainian defenders appear to have fought Moscow's ground troops to a stalemate, raising fears that a frustrated Russian President Vladimir Putin will resort to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Kyiv and Moscow gave conflicting accounts, meanwhile, about the people being relocated to Russia and whether they were being moved willingly.

Russian Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev said Wednesday that a total of 384,000 people, including over 80,000 children, of the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been evacuated to Russia since the start of the Russian military action.

Russian authorities said they are providing accommodations and dispensing payments to the evacuees.

But Donetsk Region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said that “people are being forcibly moved into the territory of the aggressor state.” Denisova said those removed by Russian troops included a 92-year-old woman in Mariupol who was forced to go to Taganrog in southern Russia.

Credit: AP
A Ukrainian serviceman stands at a checkpoint in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Ukrainian officials said that the Russians are taking Ukrainians’ passports and moving them to “filtration camps” in Ukraine’s separatist-controlled east before sending them to various distant, economically depressed areas in Russia.

Among those taken, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry charged, were 6,000 residents from the devastated port city of Mariupol. Russian troops are confiscating identity documents from an additional 15,000 people in a section of Mariupol under Russian control, the ministry said.

Credit: AP
A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Kharkiv outskirts, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

Some could be sent as far as the Pacific Ocean island of Sakhalin, Ukrainian intelligence said, and are being offered jobs on condition they don’t leave for two years. The ministry said the Russians intend to "use them as hostages and put more political pressure on Ukraine.”

Kyrylenko said that Mariupol’s residents had been long deprived of information and that the Russians feed them false claims about Ukraine’s defeats to persuade them to move to Russia.

Credit: AP
A man carries shopping bags as heavy smoke from a warehouse destroyed by Russian bombardment casts shadows on the road outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

“Russian lies may influence those who have been under the siege,” he said.

As for the naval attack in Berdyansk, Ukraine claimed two more ships were damaged and a 3,000-ton fuel tank was destroyed when the Orsk was sunk, causing a fire that spread to nearby ammunition supplies.

Sending a signal that Western sanctions have not brought it to its knees, Russia reopened its stock market but allowed only limited trading to prevent mass sell-offs. Foreigners were barred from selling, and traders were prohibited from short selling, or betting prices would fall.

Millions of people in Ukraine have made their way out of the country, some pushed to the limit after trying to stay and cope.

At the central station in the western city of Lviv, a teenage girl stood in the doorway of a waiting train, a white pet rabbit shivering in her arms. She was on her way to join her mother and then go on to Poland or Germany. She had been traveling alone, leaving other family members behind in Dnipro.

“At the beginning I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “Now I’m scared for my life.”

Anna reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Credit: AP
Smoke rises after shelling near a seaport in Berdyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, March 24, 2022. Ukraine's navy reported Thursday that it had sunk the Russian ship Orsk in the Sea of Asov near the port city of Berdyansk.

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