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Live blog: Russia pardons thousands of ex-convicts who fought in Ukraine

Saturday, March 25, 2023

More than 5,000 former criminals have been pardoned after finishing their contracts to fight in Russia’s Wagner mercenary group against Ukraine, the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said.

Prigozhin emerged from the shadows and recruited thousands of men from prisons, offering them the chance of freedom in return for serving in some of the most dangerous battles in Ukraine.

“At the present time, more than 5,000 people have been released on pardon after completing their contracts with Wagner,” Prigozhin said in an audio clip posted on Telegram.

Prigozhin said just 0.31 percent of those pardoned after Wagner service had gone on to commit crime, a figure he said was 10-20 times less than the standard indicators.

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1729 GMT — Putin says Moscow has deal with Belarus to station nuclear weapons there

Russia has struck a deal with neighbouring Belarus to station tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, TASS news agency quoted President Vladimir Putin as saying.

Such a move would not violate nuclear nonproliferation agreements, Putin said, adding that the United States had stationed nuclear weapons on the territory of European allies.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long raised the issue of stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders Poland, Putin said.

“We agreed with Lukashenko that we would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus without violating the nonproliferation regime,” TASS quoted Putin as saying.

1724 GMT — Russia ‘largely stalled’ in Bakhmut, shifting focus: UK

Britain’s Defence Ministry has said in its latest intelligence update that “Russia’s assault on the Donbass town of Bakhmut has largely stalled. This is likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian force.”

Russia is likely shifting its focus toward two other sectors, which “suggests an overall return to a more defensive operational design after inconclusive results from its attempts to conduct a general offensive since January,” the UK ministry wrote on Twitter.

However, the Ukrainian military cautioned that a change in strategy was not yet clear and that Bakhmut remained Russia’s main point of attack for now.

1131 GMT — Türkiye favours ‘immediate cessation’ of Ukraine war: Erdogan

In a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated the need for “immediate cessation” of the Ukraine conflict.

Erdogan conveyed to Putin “the importance Türkiye attaches to the immediate cessation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict through negotiations,” the Turkish Communications Directorate said in a statement.

He also thanked Putin for his “positive stance regarding the extension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.”

READ MORE: Erdogan urges end to Ukraine war in call with Russia’s Putin

1118 GMT —  Polish ammunition firm to boost output severalfold as part of EU-Ukraine plan

Polish ammunition maker Dezamet, a unit of state arms producer Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ), will substantially boost capacity to supply EU-funded ammunition to Ukraine, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said.

Seventeen EU member states and Norway this week agreed to jointly procure ammunition to help Ukraine and to replenish their own stockpiles, the European Defence Agency said.

“This plant can count on new orders and funds, we will be launching new production lines at this company and the others to produce ammunition,” Morawiecki told Radio RMF when asked about Breton’s visit to the factory.

“We want to multiply the output severalfold as quickly as possible,” he said.

0955 GMT — New Zealand tells China its concern on lethal aid to Russia

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has expressed concern to China over any provision of lethal aid to support Russia in its war against Ukraine during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart.

Her press office detailed Mahuta’s cautionary remarks in Beijing, days after Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his trip to Moscow, a warm affair in which Xi and Putin praised each other and spoke of a profound friendship.

Mahuta also told Qin’s predecessor Wang Yi, now the Chinese Communist Party’s most senior foreign policy official, that peace and prosperity are the expectations of all parties, according to China’s official news agency Xinhua. New Zealand supports the political settlement of disputes through dialogue, she was quoted saying in the report.

Wang said the pressing task is to achieve a ceasefire and resume peace talks, and that China would continue to play a constructive role to promote a political settlement, the agency added.

0954 GMT — Ukraine ‘managing to stabilise’ Bakhmut battle

Kiev has said its forces were “managing to stabilise” the situation around Bakhmut, a now-destroyed city in eastern Ukraine that has seen the longest battle of the Russian offensive.

The frontline situation is “the toughest in the Bakhmut direction”, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces Valery Zaluzhny said late Friday after a phone call with Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Rada kin.

Senior Ukrainian military commander Oleksandr Syrsky said Thursday that a counter-attack could be launched soon against “exhausted” Russian forces near Bakhmut.

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Monday that his forces were in control of around 70 percent of the city.

0638 GMT Putin ally proposing banning ICC in Russia

Russia’s parliament speaker has proposed banning the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of war crimes.

Vyacheslav Volodin, an ally of Putin’s, said that Russian legislation should be amended to prohibit any activity of the ICC in Russia and to punish any who gave “assistance and support” to the ICC.

Volodin said that the United States had legislated to prevent its citizens from ever being tried by the Hague court and that Russia should continue that work.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant earlier this month accusing Putin of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. It said there are reasonable grounds to believe that Putin bears individual criminal responsibility.

Russian officials have cautioned that any attempt to arrest Putin, Russia’s paramount leader since the last day of 1999, would amount to a declaration of war against the world’s largest nuclear power.

0358 GMT UN accuses Russia, Ukraine of ‘summary executions’ of prisoners

The United Nations has said it was “deeply concerned” by what it said were summary executions of prisoners of war by both Russian and Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.

The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said that her organisation had recently recorded killings by both sides.

“We are deeply concerned about (the) summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons hors de combat by the Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented,” Bogner said at a press conference in Kiev.

Bogner also expressed “deep” concern over the alleged executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners by Russian armed forces after their capture.

0325 GMT — Biden, Trudeau say ‘inseparable’ nations won’t fail Ukraine

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrated the close, “inseparable” US-Canada relationship and vowed that the two nations remain committed to defending Ukraine as it tries to repel a Russian offensive that has no end in sight.

Biden and Trudeau met just days after Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks for the first time since the start of the war.

The Chinese and Russian leaders agreed to deepen economic bonds between their two countries. But Biden argued that Western resolve remains stronger and warned Russia that the US, Canada and their allies would defend “every inch of NATO territory.”

2123 GMT — Biden says China hasn’t sent arms to Russia for Ukraine fight

US President Joe Biden has said he believed China has not sent arms to Russia after Putin’s forces entered Ukraine.

“I don’t take China lightly. I don’t take Russia lightly,” he told a news conference during a visit to Canada.

“I’ve been hearing now for the past three months (that) China is going to provide significant weapons to Russia… They haven’t yet. Doesn’t mean they won’t, but they haven’t yet.”

2100 GMT — US senators urge Biden to share information on war crimes with ICC

Democratic and Republican US senators have urged the Biden administration to share information with the International Criminal Court that could assist as it pursues war crimes charges against Putin.

Last week, the court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. The legal move will obligate the court’s 123 member states to arrest Putin and transfer him to The Hague for trial if he sets foot on their territory.

The letter to President Joe Biden from Democrats Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez, Richard Blumenthal and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republicans Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis, noted that Congress passed legislation to give the administration more flexibility in assisting the ICC.

“Yet, months later, as the ICC is working to build cases against Russian officials, including Putin himself, the United States reportedly has not yet shared key evidence that could aid in these prosecutions,” the letter said.

For our live updates from Friday (March 24), click here.

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