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US launching program to bring in Ukrainians fleeing conflict

The Biden administration is launching a program next week allowing Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their home country to come to the United States temporarily if they have American sponsors, US officials said on Thursday.

The “humanitarian parole” program will offer qualifying Ukrainians the ability to stay in the United States for up to two years, one official said on a call with reporters. Unlike the US refugee resettlement program, it does not provide a path to citizenship.

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Any US citizen, including representatives of businesses and nonprofit organizations, can apply to sponsor Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States but must show financial support and pass background checks, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

US sponsors can submit applications for the program, called “Uniting for Ukraine,” beginning on Monday — a process another official said could take a week to complete.

Facing pressure from US lawmakers and refugee advocates, President Joe Biden’s administration has said the United States would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians.

About 5 million people have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, according to United Nations data, making it Europe’s fastest-moving refugee crisis since the end of World War Two.

“We are proud to deliver on President Biden’s commitment,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.

Any person outside the United States can apply for humanitarian parole but must demonstrate an urgent reason to be allowed to enter the country or that their entry will significantly benefit the United States.

More than 350 Ukrainians have already sought humanitarian parole to enter the United States from abroad since the start of the conflict through early April, Reuters reported this month.

However, the program set to begin on Monday will require US sponsors to apply on behalf of Ukrainians and will offer a sped-up process to bring them into the country, one of the officials said on Thursday.

In addition to humanitarian parole, other pathways for Ukrainians include the US refugee resettlement program, as well as existing visa avenues.

The effort to bring up to 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States could stretch beyond the current fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, the Biden administration has said, signaling that it may not move quickly.

While thousands of Ukrainians have entered the United States via the border with Mexico and some on legal visas, only 12 Ukrainians came through the US refugee program in March.

Ukrainians in Europe should apply from there and not travel to Mexico to enter the United States, DHS said.

About 3,300 Ukrainians were encountered by US southern border authorities in March, the vast majority of whom approached ports of entry without permission to cross, according to US government data.

The number of Ukrainians attempting to enter at the border with Mexico has risen sharply in April, according to internal US government figures reviewed by Reuters, with an average of about 1,000 per day arriving from April 10-16.

Read more: US started training Ukrainians on Howitzers in country outside of Ukraine: Pentagon

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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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