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Explainer-Mariupol: Ruins of port could become Russia’s first big prize in Ukraine

The Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, reduced to a wasteland by seven weeks of siege and bombardment that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of civilians, could become the first big city captured by Russia since its invasion.

Russia said on Wednesday more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines, among the last defenders holed up in the Azovstal industrial district, had surrendered, though Ukraine did not confirm that.

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Here is why the city’s capture would be important.

Strategic location

Mariupol, home to more than 400,000 people before the war, is the biggest Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov and the main port serving the industries and agriculture of eastern Ukraine. It is also the site of some of Ukraine’s biggest metals plants.

On the eve of the war, it was the biggest city still held by Ukrainian authorities in the two eastern provinces known as the Donbas, which Moscow has demanded Ukraine cede to pro-Russian separatists.

Its capture would give Russia full control of the Sea of Azov coast, and a secure overland bridge linking mainland Russia and pro-Russian separatist territory in the east with the Crimea peninsula that Moscow seized and annexed in 2014.

It would unite Russian forces on two of the main axes of the invasion, and free them up to join an expected new offensive against the main Ukrainian force in the east.

Prominent among the Ukrainian forces that have defended Mariupol is the Azov Regiment, a militia with far right origins incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard. Russia has portrayed destroying that group as one of its main war aims.

Humanitarian impact

The siege of Mariupol has been the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the conflict, described by Kyiv as a war crime. Ukrainian officials say at least 20,000 civilians were killed there by Russian forces employing tactics of mass destruction used in earlier campaigns in Syria and Chechnya.

International organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations say they believe thousands died but the extent of suffering cannot be assessed yet because the city has been cut off.

Ukrainian officials have said around a third of the population escaped before the siege, a similar number got out during it, while around 160,000 were trapped inside. They sheltered for weeks in cellars with no power or heat, or access to outside shipments of food, water or medicine.

Daily attempts to send convoys to bring in aid and evacuate civilians failed throughout the siege, with Ukraine blaming Russia for looting shipments and refusing to let buses pass through the blockade. Moscow said Ukraine was to blame for failing to observe ceasefires.

Bodies have been buried in mass graves or makeshift graves in gardens. Ukraine says Russia has brought in mobile crematorium trucks to burn bodies and destroy evidence of killings.

Among the major incidents that drew international outcry was the bombing of a maternity hospital on March 9, when wounded pregnant women were photographed being carried out of rubble. A week later, the city’s main drama theatre was destroyed. Ukraine says hundreds of people were sheltering in its basement, and it has not been able to determine how many were killed. The word “children” had been spelled out on the street in front of the building, visible from space.

Russia denies targeting civilians in Mariupol and has said, without presenting evidence, that incidents including the theatre bombing and maternity hospital attack were staged. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss this as a smear to deflect blame.

Ukraine says Russia forcibly deported thousands of Mariupol residents to Russia, including some unaccompanied children it views as having been kidnapped. Moscow denies this and says it has taken in refugees.

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IAEA loses transmission from Ukraine’s Russian-held nuclear plant surveillance system

The UN atomic watchdog said on Wednesday it had again lost its connection to its surveillance systems keeping track of nuclear material at the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Europe’s largest, which the watchdog wants to inspect.
“The fact that our remote safeguards data transmission is down again –- for the second time in the past month –- only adds to the urgency to dispatch this mission (to Zaporizhzhia),” the
International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

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The connection was lost on Saturday “due to a disruption of the facility’s communication systems,” it added.

Read more: UN watchdog ‘concerned’ about Ukraine nuclear plant access

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Anti-coup protesters in Sudan shot dead: Report

Four protesters were killed in Sudan on Thursday, medics said, as large crowds took to the streets despite heavy security and a communications blackout to rally against the military leadership that seized power eight months ago.

In central Khartoum, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon as they tried to prevent swelling crowds from marching towards the presidential palace, witnesses said.

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They estimated the crowds in Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri to be in the tens of thousands. In Omdurman witnesses reported tear gas and gunfire as security forces prevented protesters from crossing into Khartoum.

The protests mark the third anniversary of huge demonstrations during the uprising that overthrew long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir and led to a power-sharing arrangement between civilian groups and the military.

Last October, the military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan toppled the transitional government, triggering rallies that have called on the army to quit politics.

Some protesters carried banners calling for justice for those killed in previous demonstrations. Others chanted, “Burhan, Burhan, back to the barracks and hand over your companies,” a reference to the Sudanese military’s economic holdings.

Earlier, protesters barricaded some of the capital’s main thoroughfares with stones and burning tires.

It was the first time in months of protests against the October coup that internet and phone services had been cut. After the military takeover, extended internet blackouts were imposed in an apparent effort to hamper the protest movement.

Staff at Sudan’s two private sector telecoms companies, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities had ordered them to shut down the internet once again on Thursday.

Bridges shut

Phone calls within Sudan were also cut and security forces closed bridges over the Nile linking Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri – another step typically taken on big protest days to limit the movement of marchers.

In recent days there have been daily neighborhood protests in the build-up to Thursday’s rallies.

On Wednesday, medics aligned with the protest movement said security forces shot dead a child during protests in Bahri. Thursday’s four deaths, all in Omdurman, brought the number of protesters killed since the coup to 107.

There was no immediate comment from Sudanese authorities.

The United Nations envoy in Sudan, Volker Perthes, called this week on authorities to abide by a pledge to protect the right of peaceful assembly. “Violence against protesters will not be tolerated,” he said.

Military leaders said they dissolved the government in October because of political paralysis. As a result, however, international financial support agreed with the transitional government was frozen and an economic crisis has deepened.

Burhan said on Wednesday the armed forces were looking forward to the day when an elected government could take over, but this could only be done through consensus or elections, not protests.

Mediation efforts led by the United Nations and the African

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UN: Almost 16 million people in Ukraine need humanitarian aid

As Russia presses on with its invasion of Ukraine, some 16 million people inside the country need humanitarian aid, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine said Thursday.

“Almost 16 million people in Ukraine today need humanitarian assistance: water food, health services,” Osnat Lubrani told a press briefing.

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Six million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes for other parts of the country since the war started, though around 5 million have since returned, she said.

But “many know that they might be forced to flee again,” she added.

Over 5.3 million more Ukrainians have fled abroad, Lubrani said.

She said the UN tally of casualties since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 was likely much higher.

“The number we have of almost 5,000 civilians killed and more than 5,000 injured is just a fraction of the frightening reality,” she said.

She also said it was “extremely difficult if not… impossible” for humanitarian groups to access areas that are no longer under Kyiv’s control.

Lubrani called on Russia and Ukraine “to do more to protect the people of this country and to make our work possible.”

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