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Putin could declare war soon, experts say

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Russian forces on Tuesday began storming the sprawling steel plant serving as the last holdout for Ukrainian fighters in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said.

The assault came a convoy carrying civilians evacuated from the Azov steelworks plant by UN and International Red Cross officials arrived in the Ukraine-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, 140 miles west of Mariupol. The UN said 127 people were evacuated from the plant and nearby areas Tuesday.

“Thanks to the combined efforts, we managed to save Mariupol residents from this hell,” Mayor Vadym Boichenko said on the city council’s Telegram channel.

Svyatoslav Kalyna Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment holed up in the plant, said Russian forces were storming the facility with armored vehicles, tanks and even boats. The plant includes a maze of underground tunnels and bunkers, and thousands of troops and residents have been trapped in and around the plant for weeks.

“We’ll do everything that’s possible to repel the assault, but we’ll call for urgent measures to evacuate everything the civilians that remain inside the plant and to bring them safely,” Palamar said.

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latest developments:

President Joe Biden on Tuesday toured a Lockheed Martin facility in Troy, Alabama, that manufactures Javelin missiles. “These weapons, touched by your hands, are in the hands of Ukrainian heroes making a significant difference,” Biden told the factory’s workers.

►Slovakia and Hungary say they won’t support sanctions against Russian energy that the European Union is preparing over the war in Ukraine. Leaders say they are too reliant on Russia and have no immediate alternatives.

►Singer Michael Feinstein, violinists Itzhak Perlman and Midori, and pianist Evgeny Kissin are among the stars to perform in New York at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert for Ukraine on May 23.

►Russia’s progress in eastern Ukraine remains “uneven” despite the Kremlin’s decision to move assets away from Kyiv to focus on the Donbas region, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Tuesday. “It has been impeded, it has been slow,” Kirby said. “Ukraines are fighting back stiffly, bravely, skillfully.”

►Russia did not invite foreign leaders to Moscow for Victory Day celebrations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. A parade in Red Square will feature 11,000 military personnel and over 200 pieces of equipment, the Kremlin said. A determination on traditional parades near the Ukraine border has not been made, officials said.

Russian forces on Tuesday struck Ukrainian infrastructure and military targets in cities around the country.

At least six railway stations were hitting in the country’s central and western regions, delaying at least 14 trains, according to Olexsandr Kamyshin, the head of Ukraine’s railways.

Also, Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said Russian strikes three power substations, knocking out electricity in parts of the city. At least 10 were killed and 15 wounded Tuesday when Russian troops shelled a chemical plant in Avdiivka, the Donetsk regional governor said.

“The Russians knew exactly where to aim – the workers just finished their shift and were waiting for a bus at a bus stop to take them home,” Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Another cynical crime by Russians on our land.”

Meanwhile, the Russian military says its artillery has hit over 400 Ukrainian targets during the last day, including Ukrainian artillery positions, troop strongholds and fuel depots. Russian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said a US-supplied artillery radar, four air defense radars and six ammunition depots were among the targets destroyed with precision-guided weapons over the last day. Konashenkov’s claims couldn’t be independently verified.

After a convoy helped 127 evacuate from the Azovstal steel plant and surrounding areas on Tuesday, officials are worried about the many civilians who are still there.

According to the UN’s humanitarian aid chief in Ukraine, 30 people who were taken out of the steel mill opted not to leave Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city under siege by Russian forces.

Osnat Lubrani said during a virtual press conference that the people who chose to stay were “horrified” at the state of their city and wanted to search for loved ones.

“These are people that have lived their lives and worked in Mariupol and so it was difficult for them to just leave without knowing what the fate of their loved ones is,” she said.

There are also still civilians inside the plant. Lubrani said some may have been too afraid to leave with the convoy on Tuesday, while others could have had difficulty doing so because of their age or disability.

“We have done everything to help these people to basically leave the place where they were – to leave hell,” Pascal Hundt, who heads the Ukraine office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said. “But we would have hoped that much more people would be able to join the convoy and to get out of hell.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin could be poised to formally declare war on Ukraine within days, abandoning his “special military operation” terminology in a bid to mobilize more troops and equipment, some experts say.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week that there were no plans to complete the invasion, which began Feb. 24, by Russia’s annual “Victory Day” holiday next Monday. British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said he believes Putin, unable to claim victory on the day that commemorates the Nazi surrender to the Russians in 1945, could well formally declare war instead.

“I believe he is going to move from his quote-unquote special operation to ‘This is now war against the Nazis and I need more people. I need more Russian cannon fodder,'” Wallace told LBC radio in London.

WHY IS MAY 9 IMPORTANT? Russia’s Victory Day could mark key deadline in its invasion of Ukraine

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing Monday that it would be a “great irony” if Moscow used the occasion of ‘Victory Day’ to declare war.

“It would allow them to surge conscripts in a way they’re not able to do now, in a way that would be tantamount to revealing to the world that their war effort is failing, that they are floundering in their military campaign and military objectives ,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a phone conversation with French leader Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday that Russia remains open to a dialogue with Ukraine, the Kremlin’s press service said.

Putin “stressed that despite Kiev’s inconsistency and unpreparedness for serious work Russia remained open to a dialogue,” the Kremlin said. The readout also said Putin complained that EU countries ignore war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces. Putin suggested the West might “contribute to putting these crimes to an end” but applying pressure to Ukraine leaders and halting the flow of arms to the country.

Russia has drawn global scorn for relentless bombing of Ukraine’s cities. Mass graves with hundreds of bodies have been found in areas overtaken, then abandoned by Russian forces.

Pope Francis says he was told two weeks ago by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that the war would be over by May 9, although the Kremlin acknowledged this week that won’t happen. The pope, in an interview released Tuesday by the Italian Corriere della Sera newspaper, also said that in March he offered to travel to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin but had received no response.

“Such brutality, how can you not try to stop it?” the pope said.

He said he was trying to understand why Russia had invaded Ukraine. Maybe “this barking of NATO at Russia’s door” had prompted it, he was quoted as saying, “An anger that I don’t know if it was provoked, but maybe facilitated.”

UKRAINIANS WELCOME: Clear majority of Americans would welcome 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, poll finds

Hungary dismissed as “fake news” claims by Ukraine that Hungarian officials knew of Russia’s invasion in advance – and that Hungary hoped to obtain land from Ukraine. Ukraine and Hungary share a small border and the two nations have clashed politically over the rights of ethnic-Hungarians in western-most Ukraine.

Since the war began, Hungary has drawn Ukraine’s ire by refusing to provide arms and balking at a boycott of Russian energy.

Zoltán Kovács, Hungary’s secretary of state for international communication and relations, tweeted: “Responding to fake news: On April 3, Hungarians decided that HU will not ship weapons to Ukraine. While we understand that the UKR does not welcome our decision, spreading fake news and coming up with lies will not change our position.”

Israel’s outrage over inflammatory comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is falling on deaf ears in Moscow. Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry on Monday demanded an apology and summoned the Russian ambassador for a “clarification meeting” after Lavrov pressed his claim that his troops were going to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, which is led by a Jewish president. Lavrov also said Hitler “had Jewish origins” and that “wise Jewish people say the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid described Lavrov’s remark as racist and “both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded Tuesday with a statement saying “we have paid attention to foreign minister Yair Lapid’s anti-historical remarks, which largely explain the current government’s decision to support the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”

As the US and its allies rush more cannons, tanks and ammunition to Ukraine, Russia’s already diminished military is still looking for victories to justify the huge cost of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Putin is hoping to grab those gains in eastern Ukraine and parts of the Black Sea coastline. If successful, he could claim he’s met an initial objective of securing the Donbas, an area that has been contested by Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Read more on how the war in Ukraine could end, here.

— Maureen Groppe and Tom Vanden Brook

Russia may try to abduct local mayors in Ukraine’s eastern region and install Kremlin “puppets” in the latest phase of the war, a top State Department official said Monday.

Michael Carpenter, the US Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters the US has seen planned “highly credible” reports of “abductions of mayors and other local officials” in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions.

The strategy would be part of a push toward annexing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine and to “engineer a referendum” about having those areas join Russia, Carpenter said. He declined to disclose the source of that information but said Russia may make this move in mid-May, adding that Moscow appears to have a similar plan for the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine.

— Deirdre Shesgreen

Contributing: The Associated Press

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