Russian authorities have promised free accommodation to all residents of the occupied Kherson region who choose to evacuate to Russia.

Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made the announcement Thursday shortly after the Russia-backed leader of Kherson asked the Kremlin to organize evacuation from four cities, citing the danger from missile strikes.

Vladimir Saldo said “these missile strikes cause serious damage, first and foremost to the residents and that missiles also hit “hotels, residential buildings, markets, (places) where there are lots of civilians.”

Saldo said a decision has been made to evacuate residents of Kherson, Nova Kakhovka, Hola Prystan and Chornobaivkato to the Russian regions of Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol, as well as to annexed Crimea.

Russia has characterized the movement of Ukrainians to Russia as voluntary but reports have surfaced that many have been forcibly deported from occupied territory, to “filtration camps” where harsh conditions have been reported.

Ukrainian forces are pushing their counteroffensive deeper into the southern region, one of four that Russia recently annexed illegally.

In a separate statement, Saldo’s deputy Kirill Stremousov tried to play down the announced evacuation, saying that “no one’s retreating … no one is planning to leave the territory.”

The British military said Thursday on Twitter that Russia-backed Kherson authorities have ordered the evacuation because they anticipate combat to extend to the city of Kherson.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

— How Moscow grabs Ukrainian kids and makes them Russians

— Ukraine’s Kyiv area hit by Iranian-made kamikaze drones

— EXPLAINER: US weapons systems that Ukraine will or won’t get

— UN demands that Moscow return annexed regions to Ukraine

— NATO holds talks on nukes as concerns deepen over Putin’s threats

— Poland sees no signs of interference in oil pipeline spill

— Follow all AP stories on the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

KYIV, Ukraine — The director general of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, told the journalists in Kyiv that the situation around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant remains “concerning.”

“It hasn’t improved in any way,’ he said on Thursday evening in Kyiv shortly after returning from Russia.

The International Atomic Energy Agency keeps pushing for a demilitarization zone around the nuclear plant, which means “no attack against the plant and the plant not to be used as a tool to attack,” Grossi explained. The plant is in an area occupied by Russia but those working at the plant are Ukrainian.

At the same time, he said the IAEA believes Russians want to create the security, because “they are working with him.”

However, Grossi said he still didn’t receive any indications from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he is ready to discuss with IAEA the definitive “parameters” that will allow finding a safe solution for the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe amid the war.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that he met with Grossi in a bomb shelter in Kyiv “while Russian terrorists kept firing missiles at Ukraine.” His post included a photo of the two men meeting in what appeared to be an underground room with pipes hanging from the ceiling.

“I reiterated that Russia must withdraw from the ZNPP to ensure its nuclear safety and security, immediately stop abductions and intimidation of the Ukrainian personnel,” he tweeted.

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BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be crossing a “very important line” if he were to order the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, as the military alliance and Russia are both due to hold nuclear exercises in the coming days.

NATO is holding its exercise, dubbed “Steadfast Noon” next week. The long-planned maneuvers are conducted around the same time every year and run for about one week. It involves fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but doesn’t involve any live bombs.

Russia usually holds its own maneuvers around the same time. Stoltenberg said Thursday NATO will “closely monitor” what Russia is up to.

Asked what NATO would do if Russia launched a nuclear attack, Stoltenberg said: “We will not go into exactly how we will respond, but of course this will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict. It will mean that a very important line has been crossed.”

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal is sending six of its Russian-built firefighting helicopters to Ukraine to help fend off Russian forces.

Portuguese Defense Minister Helena Carreiras said Thursday the Kamov helicopters can’t fly in Portugal because European Union sanctions prevent them being given an air worthiness certificate. She added that one of the choppers also needs spare parts which can’t be imported.

She said Ukrainian authorities “warmly welcomed” news they would be getting the aircraft.

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LISBON, Portugal — Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended decisions made during her time in power to buy natural gas from Russia.

Merkel said at an award ceremony in Lisbon on Thursday that “you always act in the time you are in” and she doesn’t regret decisions she made. She said Germany needed to diversify its energy supplies as it moved away from nuclear and coal-fueled power generation and that gas would be needed for the transitional period.

Merkel said “from the perspective of that time, it was very rational and understandable to get pipeline gas, including from Russia, that was cheaper than LNG from other parts of the world.”

But the former German leader said Russia’s “brutal attack” on Ukraine is “a turning point, and the new government of course has to deal with that.”

Merkel led Germany from 2005 until last December. Russia was Germany’s main gas supplier when she left office; that has changed this year, and Russia halted supplies through the main Nord Stream 1 pipeline at the end of August.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine and Russia say 20 soldiers on both sides have been released as part of a prisoner exchange, 40 soldiers in all.

“As a result of the negotiation process on the exchange today, 20 Russian servicemen were returned from the territory of Ukraine controlled by the Kyiv regime,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said.

The soldiers are being provided with the necessary medical and psychological assistance and would soon be taken to the Ministry of Defense’s medical facilities for treatment and rehabilitation.

Ukraine also said its 20 soldiers have been freed from captivity in Olenivka, in the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. They are now undergoing medical checkups.

The head of the Ukrainian president’s office, Andriy Yermak, vowed on Telegram: “We will bring everyone back.”

The last large-scale exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine, involving nearly 300 people, took place at the end of September.

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PARIS – A day after he promised to send Ukraine more weapons, French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to “stop this war” and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

France will soon deliver more cannons, radar and anti-aircraft missiles to help protect Ukraine from drone and missiles strikes, Macron told TV broadcaster France 2 on Wednesday evening.

Macron emphasized on Thursday that the arms shipments are aimed at “helping Ukraine to resist on its own soil, never to attack Russia.”

“We do not want a world war,” he said in a Twitter post.

The French president who had tried hard to prevent the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine and travelled to Moscow to talk Putin out of the war, insists that dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv should resume despite recent escalation on the battlefield.

“I hope as soon as possible … there will be peace discussion with Ukraine on one side, and Russia on the other,” Macron said.

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BRUSSELS — Ukrainian entries dominated Thursday’s shortlist to win European Union’s top human rights prize.

The Christian Democrat, Socialist and Liberal groups, the three biggest within the European parliament, all nominated the people of Ukraine as their choice to win the Sakharov Prize this year for their resistance to the Russian invasion.

On top of that, the conservative ECR group specifically named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as their favorite for his endurance and defense of his people.

The overwhelming support for the Ukraine cause reduced other nominees to outsiders, including Brazil environmental activist Sonia Guajajara and imprisoned WikiLeaks activist Julian Assange.

The winner of the prize will be announced Wednesday.

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VELYKA OLEKSANDRIVKA, Ukraine – In this small town in southern Ukraine that has been retaken in a Ukrainian counteroffensive, signs of Russian occupation and fighting are clearly visible.

The village is in the Kherson region, which Moscow illegally annexed following referendums described as sham by Ukraine and the West. Now wrestled away from Russia’s hold, the town is fraction of what it used to be.

Bridges have been blasted into pieces and blackened vehicles are left on damaged roads. Public buildings and private homes bear the scars of shelling. Tattered Ukrainian blue and yellow flags flew outside of municipal centers – sign of defiance against the Russian occupiers.

Ukraine recaptured the town of 7,000 people a week ago, but residents say they are still struggling to recover from the occupation. Constant threat of shelling and the fear of Russian soldiers breaking into homes and demanding information about Ukraine’s army were unbearable, said Oleksandr Soltan, 58.

Tetyana Patsuk’s house was struck a month ago during the fighting, and turned into a pile of rubble. Her living room sofa stuck out from under the debris.

“It’s a disaster,” the 72-year-old woman said. “I’ve been crying for a month. I am still shocked. I can’t recover from that feeling that I have lost everything now … and that’s it. I was left with nothing.”

Patsuk’s basement was used as a shelter for her and her neighbors during the heaviest bombardments.

“There is no house which was not damaged by them (Russians),” she said.

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed turning Turkey into a gas hub for Europe after deliveries were halted through the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Putin floated the idea to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting Thursday on the sidelines of a regional summit in Kazakhstan.

There was no immediate comment from Erdogan. Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov said that Turkey has reacted positively to the idea.

Plunging Russian gas supplies have caused prices to soar, driving inflation, pressuring governments to help ease the pain of sky-high energy bills for households and businesses and raising fears of rationing and recession.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine has received $1.3 billion in additional emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Thursday.

He said on Telegram that the funds would be used “to finance priority needs: strengthening defense capabilities, paying pensions, social programs and supporting the economy”.

According to Shmyhal, the IMF has given Ukraine $2.7 billion since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion on Feb. 24.

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Kremlin-backed authorities in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, illegally annexed by Moscow last month, announced on Thursday that separatist troops together with the Russian army have retaken two settlements, Opytne and Ivanhrad.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials on the development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties last month absorbing Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into Russia in defiance of international law.

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BRUSSELS — NATO’s secretive Nuclear Planning Group met Thursday as the military alliance presses ahead with plans to hold a nuclear exercise next week as concerns deepen over President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that he will use any means necessary to defend Russian territory.

Defense ministers led the session, which usually happens once or twice a year, at NATO headquarters in Brussels. It comes against a backdrop of high tension as some NATO allies, led by the U.S., supply Ukraine with advanced weapons and munitions to defend itself against Russian aerial attacks.

NATO is keeping a wary eye on Russia’s movements, but has so far seen no change in its nuclear posture.

But additional uncertainty comes from the fact that Russia is also due to hold its own nuclear exercises soon, possibly at the same time as NATO or just after, according to NATO diplomats. That could complicate the 30-country military organization’s reading of the war and of Moscow’s intentions.

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MOSCOW — Russian officials say Ukrainian forces have shelled a western region inside Russia near the border with Ukraine.

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said Thursday Ukrainian attacks damaged a residential building in the city of Belgorod – the region’s administrative center – while an unexploded projectile landed on a school sports ground.

Vyacheslav Gladkov said a nearby village was also shelled but there were no injuries.

The reports of shelling within Russia came as the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament threatened an even tougher response to what he describes as Kyiv’s “terror attacks.”

Parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin wrote on Telegram that Russia struck more than 70 energy facilities in Ukraine this week and that the “response will be even tougher” if Ukrainian attacks continue.

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BRUSSELS — Germany’s defense minister says 15 countries have agreed to move ahead with plans for an improved European air defense system.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers that a letter of intent was signed Thursday to organize joint procurement for the so-called European Sky Shield, under German coordination.

She didn’t list the other countries involved. German news agency dpa reported that representatives of the U.K., Slovakia, Norway, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovenia attended the signing ceremony.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s presidential office says 13 people have been killed and 37 others wounded in the past 24 hours as the result of Russian attacks throughout the country.

Rescuers going through the rubble following Russia’s attack on the southern city of Mykolaiv have found a man who died under the rubble.

Local authorities say a Russian missile hit a river boat station, killing a worker there.

Numerous villages in the region were also shelled, leaving many houses damaged but no apparent casualties.

Also Thursday, the local administrator in the Zaporizhzhia region says Russian attacks killed one person there and wounded over a dozen, while also damaging civilian infrastructure and buildings.

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine says it has shot down six Iranian-made drones in the south of the country which were also used for attacks in the Kyiv region on Thursday morning.

Ukrainian forces downed overnight the Shahed-136 drones above Odesa and Mykolaiv, the Air Force Command of Ukrainian Armed Forces said.

In Kyiv, the drones hit an infrastructure object for three times early on Thursday, officials said. The attack caused a fire but no casualties, regional Gov. Oleksii Kuleba said.

Ukraine’s Center for National Resistance says Russian forces have invited instructors from Iran to help them operate the Shahed-136.

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BRUSSELS — Britain says that it will provide missiles for advanced NASAM anti-aircraft systems that the Pentagon plans to send to Ukraine in coming weeks.

Britain is also sending hundreds of additional aerial drones for information gathering and logistics support, plus 18 more howitzer artillery guns, the U.K. defense secretary said Thursday.

Ben Wallace says “these weapons will help Ukraine defend its skies from attacks and strengthen their overall missile defense alongside the U.S. NASAMS.”

The systems, which Kyiv has long wanted, will provide medium- to long-range defense against missile attacks.