Ukraine-Russia: Europol deploys teams to identify terrorists trying to enter EU

Europol has deployed operational teams to frontline European countries neighbouring Ukraine to identify criminals and terrorists trying to enter the EU in the refugee flow and "exploit the situation".

The move comes as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi appealed for an end to the war on his first visit to Ukraine since the conflict started.

The appeal coincided with emergency relief and evacuation convoys for the besieged city of Mariupol remaining in doubt after reports of Russian interference. Moscow officials separately accused Ukraine of flying helicopter gunships across the border and striking an oil depot.

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The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said the alleged air strike caused multiple fires and two people were injured.

A destroyed window of a house is seen during a military sweep to search for possible remnants of Russian troops after their withdrawal from villages in the outskirts of Kyiv. Picture: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
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A Kremlin spokesman said the incident on Russia’s territory could undermine negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian representatives that resumed by video link on Friday.

“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied when asked if the strike could be viewed as an escalation of the war.

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It was not immediately possible to verify the claim that Ukrainian helicopters targeted the oil depot or several nearby businesses in Belgorod.

Russia has reported shelling from Ukraine before, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but not an incursion into its air space.

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The latest negotiations follow law enforcement agency Europol saying that it had placed operational teams in Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova, with an coming deployment planned to Hungary. The move came after the agency received requests to do so from the countries amid fears the crisis, which has seen more than ten million Ukrainians displaced from their homes, could be exploited.

Europol specialists will also gather information in the field, which is used to develop criminal threat assessments at the European level. It carried out a similar service at the request of EU member states in places in the Mediterranean from 2016, which had high numbers of refugees.

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Visiting Ukraine for the first time since the Russian military offensive began, Mr Grandi called on the international community to provide sustained support to the millions of civilians impacted by the fighting.

He said the speed of the displacement, coupled with the huge numbers of people affected, was "unprecedented in Europe in recent memory".

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Mr Grandi said more than 10.5 million people had been displaced either within Ukraine or abroad as refugees, around a quarter of the population. In total, 13 million people are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance across the country.

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“I have spoken with women, with children, who have been gravely affected by this war,” he said.

“Forced to flee extraordinary levels of violence, they have left behind their homes and often their families, leaving them shocked and traumatised. The protection and humanitarian needs are enormous and continue to grow. And while critically urgent, humanitarian aid alone cannot give them what they really need – and that is peace."

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In a meeting of Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Turkey on Tuesday, Ukraine had reiterated its willingness to abandon a bid to join Nato and offered proposals to have its neutral military status guaranteed by a range of foreign countries.

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, wrote on social media that Moscow’s positions on retaining control of the Crimean peninsula and expanding the territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists “are unchanged”.

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The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said complex logistics were still being worked out for the operation to get emergency aid into Mariupol and civilians out of the city, which has suffered weeks of heavy fighting with dwindling water, food and medical supplies.

“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” ICRC spokesperson Ewan Watson said during a UN briefing in Geneva.

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“The situation is horrendous and deteriorating, and it’s now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”

He said the group had sent three vehicles towards Mariupol and a front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces, but two trucks carrying supplies for the city were not accompanying them.

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Dozens of buses organised by Ukrainian authorities to take people out had also not started approaching the dividing line, Mr Watson said.

On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to take people out of Mariupol after the military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. Only 631 people were able to leave in private cars, the Ukrainian government said.

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Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies trying to reach Mariupol, deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

The city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. Tens of thousands of residents have managed to leave in the past few weeks through humanitarian corridors, reducing the population from a pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 by last week, but continued Russian attacks have repeatedly thwarted aid and evacuation missions.

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In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said its “main goal” is gaining complete control of the Donbas, where Mariupol is located.

The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 and have declared two areas as independent republics.

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Western officials said there were growing indications Russia was using its talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as cover to regroup.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have retaken the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka, south of the besieged northern city of Chernihiv and along one of the main supply routes between the city and Kyiv, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.

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Ukraine has also continued to make successful but limited counter-attacks to the east and north east of Kyiv, the ministry said.

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