BBC 2024-02-25 22:32:05


Ukraine war: Zelensky says 31,000 troops killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion

Volodymyr Zelensky says 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed during Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian president said he would not give the number of wounded as that would help Russian military planning.

Typically, Ukrainian officials do not make casualty figures public, and other estimates are much higher.

It comes after the defence minister said half of all Western aid for Ukraine has been delayed, costing lives and territory.

Mr Zelensky said on Sunday that he was providing an updated death toll in response to the inflated figures that Russia has quoted.

“31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in this war. Not 300,000 or 150,000, or whatever Putin and his lying circle are saying. But each of these losses is a great loss for us.”

Speaking about the wider losses in the war, Mr Zelensky said tens of thousands of civilians had died in the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia but the true number was unknown.

“I don’t know how many of them died, how many were killed, how many were murdered, tortured, how many were deported.”

It is rare for Ukraine to provide a military death toll, and other estimates suggest a much higher number.

US officials in August put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 70,000 and as many as 120,000 injured.

In terms of Russian losses, Mr Zelensky said 180,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands more injured.

BBC Russian, in a joint project with the Mediazona website, has established the names of more than 45,000 Russian servicepeople who had died. But it estimates the total number to be greater than that.

In February, the UK’s defence ministry estimated that 350,000 Russian troops had been killed or injured.

President Zelensky’s address came after his defence minister, Rustam Umerov, called out the country’s Western allies for delays in military aid.

“At the moment, commitment does not constitute delivery,” he said.

Ukraine is currently experiencing a variety of setbacks in its mission to drive Russia from its territory.

Mr Umerov said that the lack of supplies put Ukraine at a further disadvantage “in the mathematics of war”.

“We do everything possible and impossible but without timely supply it harms us,” he said.

Germany warned in November that a European Union (EU) plan to deliver a million artillery shells by March would not be met.

In January, the EU said just over half of these would reach Ukraine by the deadline and that the promised amount would not be there until the end of 2024.

President Zelensky said one of the reasons Ukraine’s highly anticipated counter-offensive last year did not start earlier was the lack of weapons.

That counter-offensive largely failed – one of a number of setbacks Kyiv has faced after some early successes in repelling Russia after it invaded in February 2022.

Mr Zelensky also suggested on Sunday that plans for the counter-offensive were leaked to Russia ahead of time.

Last week, it was announced that Ukrainian troops had withdrawn from the key eastern town of Avdiivka – Moscow’s biggest win in months.

Mr Zelensky also blamed this partly on faltering Western weapon supplies.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has said the hold-up in Congress of a $60bn aid package for Ukraine contributed to the fall of the town.

Western leaders travelled to Kyiv on Saturday in a show of solidarity with Ukraine as the country marked two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

There, it was announced that Italy and Canada had signed security deals with Ukraine – bolstering support until the country could join Nato.

Canada’s deal included more than three billion Canadian dollars (£1.7bn) in financial and defence aid.

It is not only Ukraine that is having trouble resourcing its military activities. Russia is also struggling to provide ammunition and weapons, according to Western officials.

“Russia’s domestic ammunition production capabilities are currently insufficient for meeting the needs of the Ukraine conflict,” a Western official claimed.

They added that Moscow has been able to increase its supply only by seeking out alternative sources of ammunition and weapons, which do not offer a long-term solution.

Alabama IVF ruling divides devout Christians: ‘Fewer children will be born’

When Alabama’s Supreme Court defined frozen embryos as children, the shock and confusion was immediate. Major hospitals pulled fertility services and would-be parents scrambled for clarity on what would happen next.

The debate over reproductive rights in America has long been driven, in part, by opposition to abortion from Christian groups – but this ruling has divided that movement and ignited debate about the role of theology in US lawmaking.

Margaret Boyce is soft-spoken, a private person, and certainly not – in her words – a “crier”.

She had been taking fertility drugs for 10 months and was days away from her first appointment for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) when the justices of Alabama’s top court upended her life.

Their ruling, which prompted many fertility clinics to pause their work, has left her turning to the Bible daily for comfort.

The 32-year-old and her husband have a young boy but, second time round, she is experiencing unexplained infertility. Building a family has always been the dream.

“I’m one of three. I feel like it’s the greatest gift to give your child a sibling,” she said.

“The journey to becoming parents is different for every single couple – mentally, emotionally and financially,” she added, welling up.

“This ruling has added more unnecessary anxiety to something that is already so hard.”

For a devout Christian like Margaret, the ruling – given its consequences for what she sees clearly as a process to create life – is even more difficult to comprehend.

“God,” she said, “tells you to go forth and be fruitful and multiply.”

  • What is the ruling and what does it mean for fertility patients?

IVF is a difficult and lengthy treatment, involving the fertilisation of a woman’s eggs with sperm in a lab to create a microscopic embryo. The fertilised embryo is then transferred into a woman’s uterus, where it may create a pregnancy – but a successful outcome is not guaranteed.

Embryos are often frozen or eventually destroyed as part of IVF, which accounts for around 2% of US pregnancies.

The Alabama court ruled that an existing law – wrongful death of a minor – covers not just foetuses in the womb, but embryos held in a lab or storage facility too.

It did not explicitly restrict or ban IVF, but it has still created deep uncertainty for clinics and medical workers who handle embryos and fear prosecution. In recent days the office of the state’s attorney general said he had “no intention” of pursuing criminal charges against IVF clinics – but one clinic told the BBC this statement lacked detail and did not quell their fears.

While the majority of the justices rooted their ruling in law, Chief Justice Tom Parker also had a higher authority in mind, repeatedly invoking scripture in explaining his decision.

The people of Alabama, he wrote in a concurring opinion, had adopted a “theologically-based view of the sanctity of life” in their state constitution.

Delving into religious sources from classic Christian theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and also a modern conservative Christian manifesto, he concluded that “even before birth, all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory”.

Some anti-abortion groups celebrated the explicit use of scripture in Justice Parker’s opinion to justify what for them was a momentous decision.

Tony Perkins, president of evangelical activist group the Family Research Council, described it as “a beautiful defence of life”.

But the chief justice’s theocratic justification has left Margaret puzzled. She doesn’t believe in abortion but she also struggles to see a frozen embryo as a living person. For her, life begins with a heartbeat.

“Nobody understands more that an embryo is not a child,” she said, before taking a pause, “than the person yearning for that embryo to be a child.”

US courts do sometimes make decisions that seem to be based on religious premises, said Meredith Render, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.

But, she added, “rarely do you see it as explicitly stated” as in the chief justice’s opinion.

  • Alabama IVF row an election-year political bombshell
  • Trump calls on Alabama to protect IVF treatment

The ruling was however “not an outlier” for a conservative court in a red state, said Kelly Baden, the vice president for public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion legislation across the US.

“We do see that many elected officials and judges alike are often coming at this debate from a highly religious lens,” she said.

While the Alabama state Supreme Court is not appointed by the US president, more than 200 judges were appointed by Donald Trump to federal courts during his four-year term, winning him lasting support from American evangelicals.

During his presidency he was able to nominate three new justices to the nine-member Supreme Court – all of whom sided with the majority in striking down the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that had guaranteed a federal right to abortion.

Since that decision in 2022 re-opened a national battle over reproductive rights, courts in Missouri have quoted Biblical teachings to justify restricting abortion rights and a Trump-appointed judge in Texas who previously worked for a Christian legal organisation tried to impose a nationwide ban on Mifepristone, a commonly used abortion pill.

While many Republican politicians comfortably agree with such rulings, restrictions on abortion imposed by conservative courts have proved a potent campaign issue for Democrats in recent elections, including the 2022 midterms.

The Alabama decision, made by Republican judges and affecting fertility treatments widely supported by the US public, went one step further, prompting immediate fear of a political backlash in a presidential election year.

Any sign of IVF being endangered could worsen the anger that’s already cost Republicans since the fall of Roe v Wade, especially among suburban women and those who are uncomfortable with abortion bans.

Donald Trump himself, the clear frontrunner in the Republican nomination race, came out strongly in support of IVF, calling on Alabama lawmakers to preserve access to the treatment. His last remaining rival Nikki Haley at first appeared to support the ruling, but then backtracked.

  • Alabama IVF ruling a political gift for Democrats, headache for Republicans

“It’s a win philosophically for the pro-life movement because it carries on the pro-life recognition of unborn life,” said Eric Johnston, president of the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition.

“But you get into a very difficult situation, where you have this medical procedure that’s accepted by most people, and then how do you deal with it? That’s the dilemma.

“I agree with the opinion overall – I think it’s well written opinion from the legal side and from the medical side,” he added.

“But I think the pro-life community in general supports IVF, and I’ve known and worked with many people who have had children via IVF. And at the same time, they think abortion is wrong. This issue is so different from abortion, but it has to do with life.”

What next for fertility patients in Alabama and beyond?

For patients in the deep-south state, the last week has been one of panicked phone calls to clinics, emails to local lawmakers and a rush by some to try and transfer frozen embryos out of the state.

Rodney Miller, 46, and his wife Mary Leah, 41, spent a decade trying to have children, before IVF allowed them to give birth to a set of twins 18 months ago, who were adopted as frozen embryos.

He said he “thanks the Lord for the advances in science and medicine” that made that possible.

The couple are now going through the process again, and waiting to see if two embryos transplanted this week will develop into a pregnancy.

“This is not a win [for the Christian right],” says Rodney, who works for Carrywell, an organisation that supports families through infertility.

“It’s the classic case of you won the battle but lost the war. Fewer children will be born because of this unless things change.

“How did we become a state where if you want to terminate a pregnancy, you have to leave the state and if you want to initiate a pregnancy, via IVF you [also] have to leave the state?”

Whether the ruling in Alabama influences decisions elsewhere is an open question.

Foetal personhood bills, which enshrine the idea that life begins at conception, have been introduced in more than a dozen states. But these bills, while pushing the idea that a foetus or embryo is a person, don’t explicitly relate that to the context of IVF, said Kelly Baden of the Guttmacher Institute.

The Alabama ruling – with its implications that go far beyond abortion access – does not therefore constitute a trend, she said.

Alabama family lawyer Ashleigh Meyer Dunham, who has used IVF herself, has been working with a large number of cases affected by the ruling. She said she was “terrified” that fertility patients in other states could eventually be affected.

“I think the biggest concerns are that people elsewhere forget about us and they think, ‘Oh they’re just the conservative state, and they’re all country bumpkins. Don’t worry it will never happen here.’

“And the next thing you know, it is happening in other states that are ultra-conservative.”

Because the Alabama ruling involves an interpretation of state, not federal law, it is unlikely to reach the US Supreme Court. Currently a bill is going through the state house in Alabama, introduced by Democrats, which would aim to effectively pause the ruling and allow treatments to resume as before.

Republicans are expected to propose their own bill. If they do, they have to find a way to balance a divided religious constituency, with some celebrating the court’s ruling and others disturbed by its potential implications for IVF.

Margaret is praying that lawmakers find a solution.

“I’m not very outspoken, I keep myself to myself. But if any of my friends or family heard that I was sending emails to every single representative and senator, I think they would be shocked.”

She takes a breath.

“But this has got me fired up. It is all I can think about now.”

Alex Lederman contributed reporting from Alabama. Additional research from Kayla Epstein in New York.

Israel mulls ceasefire plan as progress reported

Israel’s war cabinet has been briefed on talks over a ceasefire deal in Gaza, after reports of progress made in talks in Paris on Saturday.

It comes as police broke up protests in Tel Aviv calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation.

Riot police on horseback charged demonstrators as they tried to make their way to Democracy Square.

The Paris talks are part of negotiations aimed at securing a ceasefire and the return of hostages.

The deal would also see the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

On Saturday evening, the Israeli war cabinet was briefed on negotiations in Paris with mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the US.

“We are working to obtain another outline for the release of our hostages,” Mr Netanyahu wrote on X.

“That is why I sent a delegation to Paris – and tonight we will discuss the next steps in the negotiations.”

Later, it was reported that Israel was sending a delegation to Qatar for further talks this week.

On Sunday, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said an understanding of the “basic contours” of a hostage deal and temporary ceasefire had been reached.

  • Lyse Doucet on the race to reach a ceasefire deal

Anti-government demonstrations were relatively frequent in Israel before the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October – the demonstrators’ loathing for Mr Netanyahu and his hardline cabinet goes back more than a year.

But Saturday’s unrest was the first time since October that police have resorted to tougher measures.

The demonstrators have been spurred on by the war in Gaza – and the fear their government is more interested in defeating Hamas than freeing hostages.

The Justice Ministry has opened an investigation into an incident in which an officer is seen – in a widely circulated video – using the reins of his horse to strike a protester as he fell to the ground clutching his head.

The main opposition leader, Yair Lapid, criticised the police for their aggressive treatment of the demonstrators who gathered outside the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The right to protest “cannot be taken from protesters with batons and water cannons,” he said.

At least 21 arrests and dozens of injuries were reported.

As well as the anti-government protest, families of the Israeli hostages gathered in the city to call for a diplomatic solution to the war and a focus on their return.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli media reported progress had been made at talks in Paris on a hostage and ceasefire deal.

Israel’s spy chief, David Barnea, met mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the US on Saturday in the French capital.

They reportedly agreed the outline of a deal to form the basis for further negotiations, which was then presented to the Israeli war cabinet on Saturday night.

Israeli media report that the war cabinet agreed to send a delegation to Qatar, where they will continue talks on a deal which would see a weeks-long truce and the release of hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

But the Israeli national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said in a televised interview on Saturday evening: “Such an agreement does not mean the end of the war.”

A senior Palestinian official with close knowledge of the talks had previously told the BBC that no real progress was made in Paris and accused negotiators of leaking inaccurate information to increase pressure on Hamas.

Hamas has also not commented on the latest reports of progress in reaching a deal.

However, Egyptian state media said on Sunday that negotiations have resumed in Doha between “experts from Egypt, Qatar, the United States and Israel.” The reports say Hamas representatives are also present there.

Efforts to secure a ceasefire have intensified following mounting international pressure amid a desperate lack of food in Gaza. International aid agencies have warned that the entire population – 2.2 million people – is experiencing food insecurity at crisis level or above.

  • Israel-Gaza briefing: More aid is desperately needed but agencies can’t cope

Meanwhile fighting and air strikes continue to claim lives in the enclave.

In his post on X, Mr Netanyahu said he would convene his cabinet this week to approve plans for an operation in Rafah in Gaza’s far south, where around 1.2-1.5 million people are crammed into any available space. Increased Israeli air strikes there are already making aid operations more difficult.

Aid agencies and many Western governments have warned that the consequences of an assault on Rafah could be dire.

UNRWA – the UN agency for assisting Palestinian refugees – says it has paused aid deliveries to northern Gaza because convoys are being looted by desperate residents. One of its trucks was also hit by Israeli gunfire on 5 February.

The UN has warned of the growing risk of famine in Gaza, with widely circulated footage showing Gazans in Jabalia in the north queuing for food in desperate conditions.

Local media report that a two-month-old Palestinian boy died from starvation at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Friday.

The Hamas-run health ministry says at least 29,600 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes, and thousands more bodies are likely unaccounted for under rubble across Gaza.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas after the 7 October attacks on southern Israeli communities near the border with Gaza, in which around 1,200 Israelis, mainly civilians, were killed and about 250 others taken hostage to Gaza.

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Man sets himself on fire outside Israeli embassy in Washington DC

A man has set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, according to emergency services.

The incident happened at around 13:00 local time (18:00 BST) on Sunday.

Officers from the US Secret Service extinguished the flames before the man was taken to hospital with critical, life-threatening injuries, the city’s fire department reported.

The Washington police department is investigating alongside the Secret Service and other relevant authorities.

A bomb disposal unit was sent to the sight over concerns about a suspicious vehicle that could have been connected to the individual.

This was later declared safe after no hazardous materials were found.

No embassy staff members were injured in the incident, a spokeswoman for the embassy told the New York Times.

It is not the first time someone has self-immolated in front of an Israeli diplomatic mission in the US.

In December, a protester set themselves on fire in front of the Israeli consulate in the US state of Georgia.

Police said the demonstrator used petrol, and a Palestinian flag was found at the scene on that occasion.