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Ukraine crisis talks move to Moscow and Washington

International efforts to defuse the standoff over Ukraine intensified Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding talks in Moscow and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington to coordinate policies as fears of a Russian invasion mounted.

The buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fueled Western worries of a possible offensive. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day,” triggering a conflict that would come at an “enormous human cost.”

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Russia has denied any plans to attack its neighbor but demands that the US and its allies bar Ukraine and other former Soviet nations from joining NATO, halt weapons deployments there and roll back NATO forces from Eastern Europe. Washington and NATO reject those demands.

Macron, who is set to meet in the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin before visiting Ukraine on Tuesday, spoke by phone Sunday with US President Joe Biden to discuss “ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts,” according to the White House.

“The security and sovereignty of Ukraine or any other European state cannot be a subject for compromise, while it is also legitimate for Russia to pose the question of its own security,” Macron said in an interview with French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, adding that he believes that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described Macron’s visit as “very important,” but sought to temper expectations, saying “the situation is too complex to expect a decisive breakthrough after just one meeting.”

He noted that “the atmosphere has remained tense,” adding that the US and its allies have continued to ignore Moscow’s security demands.

Continuing the high-level diplomacy, Scholz is to meet with Biden later Monday in Washington. Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv and Moscow on Feb. 14-15.

Sullivan, the national security adviser, reiterated Sunday that the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany “will not move forward” if Russia attacks Ukraine.

Biden and Scholz are expected to address the pipeline during their their first face-to-face meeting since Scholz became the head of the German government nearly two months ago.

Ahead of the visit, the White House sought to play down Germany’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troops in Eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia — a cautious stand that has drawn criticism abroad and inside Germany.

White House officials, who briefed reporters ahead of the meeting on the condition of anonymity, noted that Germany has been a top contributor of nonmilitary aid to Ukraine and has been supportive of the US decision to bolster its troop presence in Poland and Romania to demonstrate its commitment to NATO.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht raised the possibility Sunday that the country could send more troops to Lithuania to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.

Biden has deployed additional US troops to Poland, Romania and Germany, and a few dozen elite US troops and equipment landed Sunday in southeastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, with hundreds more infantry troops of the 82nd Airborne Division set to arrive.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal for eastern Ukraine in a bid to end the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists that erupted the previous year following the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The agreement signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk helped stop large-scale fighting, but efforts at a political settlement have stalled and frequent skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact in Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last met in Paris in 2019 in the so-called Normandy format summit, but they failed to resolve the main issues.

Amid tensions over the Russian military buildup, presidential advisers from the four countries met in Paris on Jan. 26 but didn’t make any visible progress and agreed to meet again in Berlin in two weeks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed for another four-way Normandy summit, but the Kremlin said such a meeting would only make sense if the parties agree on the next steps to give special status to the rebel east.

Putin and his officials have urged France, Germany and other Western allies to encourage Ukraine to fulfill its obligations under the 2015 agreement, which envisaged a broad autonomy for the Donbas region and a sweeping amnesty for the separatists. The agreement stipulated that only after those conditions are met would Ukraine be able to restore control of its border with Russia in rebel regions.

The Minsk deal was seen by many Ukrainians as a betrayal of national interests, and its implementation has stalled. During the latest tensions, Ukrainian authorities have warned the West against pressuring Ukraine to implement the agreement.

Last week, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press that an attempt by Ukraine to fulfil the Minsk deal could trigger internal unrest that would play into Moscow’s hand.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the country has received more than 1,000 metric tons of weapons and military supplies from its allies, noting that a series of visits by Western officials has helped deter Russia.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is set to hold talks in Kyiv and later head to the area near the line of contact in the east. The British government said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will visit Moscow on Thursday and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace will follow meet Friday with his Russian counterparts.

Read more: Leave Ukraine now, US tells families of diplomats as Russia tensions boil

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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