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Russia expels more Western embassy staff

By REN QI in Moscow | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-20 09:34
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A Russian soldier stands guard at the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on Wednesday. OLGA MALTSEVA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Biden to host Nordic leaders as Turkey opposes NATO bid of Sweden, Finland

Russia has announced plans to expel a total of 90 embassy staff from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal in response to similar moves by those countries, highlighting the damage to relations with some European Union members since it launched a "special military operation" in Ukraine on Feb 24.

This came as US President Joe Biden was scheduled to host the leaders of Finland and Sweden on Thursday to discuss their NATO membership bids, while Ukraine said no military option was left to rescue soldiers still inside a steel plant besieged by Russian forces.

On Wednesday, he said in a statement: "I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO."

Biden will meet President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in Washington on Thursday for consultations.

Finland and Sweden were both militarily nonaligned throughout the Cold War. Their bids face stiff resistance from NATO member Turkey, which accuses the two nations of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday that Turkey had told allies that it will reject Sweden and Finland's membership to NATO.

Each of NATO's 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.

Meanwhile, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic wants his country to follow Turkey's example by trying to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, The Associated Press reported.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it was expelling five employees of Portugal's embassy in Moscow in a tit-for-tat move following the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Portugal, one day after it kicked out 34 diplomatic staff from France, 27 from Spain and 24 from Italy.

The countries are among European nations that have collectively thrown out more than 300 Russians in the past three months. In many cases, they accused Russian diplomats of spying, which Moscow has denied.

Russia's response also included sending home 45 Polish staff and 40 Germans last month. It has also announced tit-for-tat moves against Finland, Romania, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Japan.

1,700 surrender in Mariupol

On the ground, in the port city of Mariupol, a new batch of 771 Ukrainian soldiers blocked at the Azovstal steel plant had surrendered over the past 24 hours, Russia said on Thursday.

"A total of 1,730 militants have surrendered since May 16, including 80 wounded," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, adding that all those in need of inpatient treatment are hospitalized in Donetsk.

Mariupol, a key Azov Sea port city, has seen one of the worst bouts of bloody violence in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Azovstal steel plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Military analysts said Mariupol's capture would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since the city is already effectively under Moscow's control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left, The Associated Press commented.

While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

Russia's main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to "identify the nationalists" and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

Also, Russia's top prosecutor asked the country's Supreme Court to designate Ukraine's Azov Regiment-among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison-as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right, The Associated Press reported.

Agencies and Xinhua contributed to this story.

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