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Putin rallies behind troops while lethal fire rains down

As Russian troops rained lethal fire on Ukrainian cities, Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge flag-waving rally to lavish praise on his Russian forces, while Ukrainian’s president accused the Kremlin of deliberately creating “a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Russia’s president addressed the packed Moscow stadium Friday, saying the Kremlin’s troops had fought “shoulder to shoulder” and supported each other. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he told the cheering crowd.

The invasion has touched off a burst of antiwar protests inside Russia, and the rally was surrounded by suspicions it was a Kremlin-manufactured display of patriotism. The event happened as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces are blockading the largest cities with the goal of creating such miserable conditions that Ukrainians will cooperate. He said the Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in central and southeastern Ukraine.

“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation, which was recorded outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office behind him. He again urged Putin to meet with him directly.

“It’s time to meet, time to speak,” Zelenskyy said. “I want to be heard by everyone, especially in Moscow.”

Kyiv continued to take heavy fire Friday, and Russian forces pounded an aircraft repair installation on the outskirts of Lviv, close to the Polish border. Ukrainian officials said late Friday that the besieged southern port city of Mariupol lost its access to the Azov Sea, and Russian forces were still trying to storm the city. It was unclear whether they had seized it.

Police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the Luzhniki stadium for the Moscow event, which included patriotic songs such as “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

Several Telegram channels critical of the Kremlin reported that students and employees of state institutions in a number of regions were ordered by their superiors to attend rallies and concerts marking the eighth anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine. Those reports could not be independently verified.

Seeking to portray the war as just, Putin paraphrased the Bible to say of Russia’s troops: “There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends.”

Taking to the stage where a sign read “For a world without Nazism,” he railed against his foes in Ukraine with a baseless claim that they are “neo-Nazis.” Putin continued to insist his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” — an idea flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.

Video feeds of the event cut out at times but showed a loudly cheering crowd that broke into chants of “Russia!”

Putin’s appearance marked a change from his relative isolation of recent weeks, when he has been shown meeting with world leaders and his staff either at extraordinarily long tables or via videoconference.

In the wake of the invasion, the Kremlin has clamped down harder on dissent and the flow of information, arresting thousands of antiwar protesters, banning sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and instituting tough prison sentences for what is deemed to be false reporting on the war, which Moscow refers to as a “special military operation.”

The OVD-Info rights group that monitors political arrests reported that at least seven independent journalists had been detained ahead of or while covering the anniversary events in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

High above the conflict, three Russian cosmonauts arrived Friday at the International Space Station wearing bright yellow flight suits with blue accents matching the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

When cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev was asked about the yellow suits, he said every crew chooses its own suits, and they had a lot of yellow material they needed to use “so that’s why we had to wear yellow.”

Since the war started, many people have used the Ukrainian flag and its colors to show solidarity with the country.

Back at the Moscow event, some people, including presenters, wore T-shirts or jackets with a “Z” — a symbol seen on Russian tanks and other military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by supporters of the war.

Putin’s quoting of the Bible and an 18th-century Russian admiral reflected his increasing focus in recent years on history and religion as binding forces in Russia’s post-Soviet society. His branding of his enemies as Nazis evoked what many Russians consider their country’s finest hour, the defense of the motherland from Germany during World War II.

The rally unfolded as Vladimir Medinsky, who led Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, said the two sides have moved closer to agreement on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status. In remarks carried by Russian media, he said the sides are now “halfway” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine.

Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, characterized the Russian assessment as intended “to provoke tension in the media.” He tweeted: “Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops & strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.”

British Chief of Defense Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull warned that after failing to take major Ukrainian cities, Russian forces are shifting to a “strategy of attrition” that will entail “reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower,” resulting in higher civilian casualties and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked. Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said at least 130 people had survived Wednesday’s bombing of a Mariupol theater that was being used a shelter.

“But according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”

Satellite images on Friday from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate. Zelenskyy said more than 9,000 people were able to leave the city in the past day.

One person was reported killed in the missile attack near Lviv. Satellite photos showed the strike destroyed a repair hangar and appeared to damage two other buildings. Ukraine said it shot down two of six missiles in the volley, which came from the Black Sea.

That early morning attack was the closest strike yet to the center of Lviv, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or join the fight. The war has swelled the city’s population by some 200,000.

Early morning barrages also hit a residential building in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv, killing at least one person, according to emergency services, who said 98 people were evacuated from the building. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 19 were wounded in the shelling.

Ukrainian officials said a fireman was also killed when Russian forces shelled an area where firefighters were trying to put out a blaze in the village of Nataevka, in the Zaporizhzhia region. Two others were killed when strikes hit residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to the regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.

Maj. Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, who is leading the defense of the region around Ukraine’s capital, said his forces are well-positioned to defend the city and vowed: “We will never give up. We will fight until the end. To the last breath and to the last bullet.”

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Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine



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