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Day 6: US expels 12 Russian diplomats at UN as Ukraine conflict rages

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A Russian flag flies next to the US embassy building in Moscow. (Via AFP)

The United States has expelled 12 Russian diplomats at the United Nations over accusations of "espionage activities" amid escalating tensions with Moscow following Russia’s military operation in NATO-backed Ukraine.

The US mission to the United Nations labeled the Russian diplomats as "intelligence operatives" who had been engaging in “espionage activities” harmful to US national security.

"The United States has informed the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations that we are beginning the process of expelling 12 intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the United States by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security," Olivia Dalton, a spokeswoman for the US mission, said in a statement.

Dalton said the decision was taken in full accordance with the UN headquarters agreement.

Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, who was informed of the expulsion through a phone call he had received while participating in a press conference at UN headquarters in New York, said the diplomats were instructed to leave the US by March 7.

Accusing the US of taking "hostile" action against Russia, Nebenzia said, “This is sad news and again another demonstration of gross disrespect to the host country agreement."

The US, along with European allies, have imposed sweeping sanctions against Russian banks and a several officials in response to the country’s military campaign in Ukraine.

The administration of US President Joe Biden on Friday sanctioned Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov directly. On Saturday the US and European partners agreed to cut certain Russian banks from SWIFT, the high-security network that connects financial institutions around the world.

The White House said Biden discussed with world leaders during a conference call on Monday efforts to further impose "severe costs and consequences" on Russia over its military actions in Ukraine.

In a televised address on Thursday, Putin announced a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarization” of the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics in eastern Ukraine.

Russian ground forces move closer to Kiev

A US private company said satellite images taken showed a Russian military convoy north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev that stretched for about 64 kilometers, substantially longer than the 27 km reported earlier in the day.

Maxar Technologies also said additional ground forces deployments and ground attack helicopter units were seen in southern Belarus, less than 32 km north of the Ukraine border.

A satellite image shows Russian airborne forces in town of Zdvyzhivka, Ukraine, February 28, 2022. (Photo via Reuters)

Zelensky urges West to consider no-fly zone for Russian aircraft

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was time for the West to consider imposing a no-fly zone for Russian missiles, planes and helicopters in response to Russian shelling of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

The United States has ruled out sending troops to fight Russia and officials have voiced concern about further escalating tensions between the world's two biggest nuclear powers.

"A no-fly zone would require implementation," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

Such a move would require "deploying US military to enforce, which would be... potentially a direct conflict, and potentially a war with Russia, which is something we are not planning to be a part of."

Zelensky said Russia had over the past five days launched 56 rocket strikes and fired 113 cruise missiles at the city.

The Ukrainian leader accused Russia of committing war crimes and said it should be brought before an international tribunal.

He said Russia continued to bombard Ukrainian cities during the first round of talks with Ukrainian officials in Belarus on Monday.

"Today, at the initiative of the Russian side, the first round of talks between Ukraine and Russia took place. These talks took place while our territory, our cities were being bombed and shelled,” he said.

“Don't waste time. We do not accept such tactics. Fair negotiations can be when one side does not hit the other side with rocket artillery at the moment of negotiations."

Ukrainian officials said Russian attacks in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, had killed civilians, including children.

AU slams reports of mistreating Africans 

In another development, the African Union (AU) said it was disturbed by reports that African citizens in Ukraine were being refused the right to cross borders to safety as they try to flee the conflict in the country.

"Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law," AU Chair, Senegal's President Macky Sall, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, the head of AU Commission, said in a joint statement.

The statement said all people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.

Thousands of African and other foreign nationals, particularly students, have been scrambling to leave Ukraine following Russia's military campaign.

As hundreds of thousands throng to Ukraine's borders, reports have emerged that Africans are being treated differently and sometimes prevented from leaving.

Several have shared videos and testimonies on social media, denouncing discrimination at train stations and border posts.

Turkey blocks warships from Bosphorus, Dardanelles

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on Monday that his country was blocking warships from the key Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits in line with a convention that gives it control over the passage of military vessels in the strategic area.

“We have alerted both countries of the region and elsewhere not to pass warships through the Black Sea,” Cavusoglu said. “We are applying the Montreux Convention.”

The 1936 Montreux Convention governs the free movement of commercial ships in peacetime through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits, but it grants Turkey the right to block the passage of warships in wartime if needs be.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier clarified Turkey’s position as a NATO member, saying, “We have decided to use the Montreux Convention to prevent the escalation of the crisis” between Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine had last week officially asked Turkey to close the Dardanelles Strait — and thus access to the Black Sea — to Russian ships.

UK to freeze all Russian banks' assets, bars ships

The United Kingdom said it would freeze the assets of all Russian banks, tightening the economic stranglehold on Moscow.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UK wants "a situation where they (Russia) can't access their funds, their trade can't flow, their ships can't dock and their planes can't land.”

Truss said more than 50 percent of Russian trade is denominated in dollars or sterling and the new powers "will damage Russia's ability to trade with the world.”

The assets freeze on Russian banks will stop the Kremlin from raising debt in the UK and prevent more than three million businesses from accessing UK capital markets, Truss added, also promising a ban on "high-end technological equipment such as micro-electronics, marine and navigation equipment.”

"This will blunt Russia's military industrial capabilities and act as a drag on Russia's economy for years to come," she said.

At the same time, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordered all UK seaports to turn away Russian vessels, having already barred Russian aircraft.

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