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African Olympic body says Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to compete in Paris games
From CNN’s Niamh Kennedy in London
The African Olympics Committee has said that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
In a statement posted on Twitter Sunday, the Association of the National Olympics Committees of Africa (ACNOA) said that during a meeting of its 59th ordinary session, "members decided unanimously to support the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in all international competitions."
This comes following a call from the United States and 30 other “like-minded” countries on February 20 to impose a ban on Moscow and Minsk's athletes from competing in international sports because of Russia's war in Ukraine — an invasion launched in part from ally Belarus' territory.
The International Olympic Committee sparked controversy in January when it unveiled a multi-step plan for Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate at the 2024 Summer Games in Paris and the 2026 Winter Games in Milan, but as neutral parties (rather than competing in the name of their home country).
The IOC has stressed its “strong commitment to the unifying mission of the Olympic Movement” remarking in a January 30 statement that “no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport.”
The ACNOA said Sunday that its decision is aligned with the position of the IOC and its President Thomas Bach and “will allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in total neutrality without any identity sign.”
CNN's Zayn Nabbi and Eve Brennan contributed to this report.
Russian shelling in Ukraine’s Kherson region kills three people, official says
From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Kyiv
Three people, including two children, were killed in Russian shelling of a village in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson Sunday, a Ukrainian official said.
“Poniativka village of Kherson region was shelled with mortars. Residential building was hit. Three people died,” the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said in a Telegram post.
The shelling came during the afternoon, according to Kherson’s regional military administration.
On Saturday, a 57-year-old man was killed by Russian shelling in Kherson's Lvove village, where several civilian houses and the areas's Palace of Culture were also damaged.
Death toll rises to 13 following Thursday rocket strike on Zaporizhzhia
From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Kyiv and Niamh Kennedy
The death toll of Thursday's early rocket strike on the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia has risen to 13, according to a Ukrainian official.
"(There are) 13 dead, including a little child, as a result of a rocket strike at Zaporizhzhia on March 2," Anatoliy Kurtiev, secretary of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Council, said in an update on Telegram Sunday.
Following Russia's shelling of the high-rise residential building, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, posted on Telegram Thursday that "people were sleeping at home, but for terrorists, residential buildings are also 'military targets.'"
According to the update, five people have been reported missing and four people remain in hospital.
As of 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) Sunday, rescuers in Zaporizhzhia continued "to search for people under the rubble and dismantle dangerous elements of the building around the clock," Kurtiev added.
On the day of the strike, Ukrainian authorities said a pregnant woman was among the people rescued from the building.
Turkey is working to renew the Black Sea grain deal, its foreign minister says
From CNN's Sugam Pokharel in London
Turkey is "working hard" to extend a UN-backed initiative that has enabled Ukraine to export grain from ports blockaded by Russia following its invasion, its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday, according to the country's state media Anadolu.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last July in Istanbul, allows grain to be exported from Ukrainian ports.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned earlier this week that the current deal is set to expire March 18, and Russia has not agreed to extend the vital agreement.
"We are working hard for the smooth implementation and further extension of the Black Sea grain deal," Cavusoglu said in a speech at the United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries being held in Doha, Qatar, Anadolu added.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 22 million tons of food has been sent to over 43 countries through the initiative.
Russia said on Wednesday it will only agree to an extension if the interests of its own agricultural producers are taken into account, Reuters reported.
Some context: An extension to the deal is vital for the global food supply chain. In normal times, Ukraine - one of the globe’s breadbaskets - would export around three-quarters of the grain it produces. Together with Russia, it accounted for about one quarter of global wheat exports in 2019.
Currently, the world is grappling with one of the worst food crises in modern history, already shaken by extreme weather conditions and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Ukraine crisis has had this ongoing negative impact on world food prices and [added] even more volatility,” said Abby Maxman, CEO of Oxfam America. “The supply chains and how they flow to places like East Africa and the Horn of Africa are taking big hits.”
Evacuations from frontline Bakhmut slow to a trickle, deputy mayor says
From CNN’s Maria Kostenko, Maria Avdeeva and Saskya Vandoorne in Kyiv and Niamh Kennedy in London
Evacuations from the frontline city of Bakhmut have slowed to a trickle, the city's deputy mayor has told CNN.
Speaking over the phone from a neighboring town, Oleksandr Marchenko said five to 10 people were being evacuated each day, down from the up to 600 who were leaving the city when evacuations were at their peak.
“The enemy blows everything to the ground, strikes at multi-story buildings, and the residential sector. There are air raids, artillery shelling, mortar shelling. The enemy is striking the city with everything they can,” the deputy mayor told CNN.
“There is no way we can get there,” Marchenko stressed.
Approximately 4,000 to 4,500 people are still in Bakhmut, but Marchenko said it was difficult to persuade those there to leave.
Most, he said, "fear having nowhere to go and nothing to go with."
He said four medical workers remain in the city and there are heating points available for residents.
Russia has been pressing hard to capture Bakhmut for months and appears to be closing in on the city.
One soldier inside the city told CNN Sunday that the situation remains “difficult,” as the Russian assault continues to cause “a lot of destruction” and losses for the Ukrainian side.
Russian reservists fought with "shovels" during assault on Ukrainian stronghold, says UK Ministry of Defence
From CNN's Hafsa Khalil
Russian reservists said they were ordered to attack a Ukrainian strong point armed only with "firearms and shovels," according to the UK Ministry of Defence.
"The ‘shovels’ are likely entrenching tools being employed for hand-to-hand combat," it said in an intelligence update tweeted on Sunday. An entrenching tool is digging tool used by military forces.
Designed in 1869, the ministry described the lethality of the standard issue MPL-50 entrenching tool as "particularly mythologised" in Russia.
"Its continued use as a weapon highlights the brutal and low-tech fighting which has come to characterise much of the war," it said, adding that evidence has shown an increase in close combat.
One reservist told the MoD that they were "neither physically nor psychologically" prepared for attack.
According to evidence obtained by the ministry, there has been a rise in close combat, which it says may be the result of a Russian insistence on an offensive despite being short of munitions.
In December, Russian citizens were crowdfunding to equip soldiers deployed in Ukraine with socks, winter clothes, sleeping bags and body armor. This came after troops complained they were short of basic equipment, which Russian officials said were teething problems.
Turkey blocking NATO's expansion could backfire
Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee
When Sweden and Finland declared their intention to join NATO last May, it was seen by many as a poke in the eye for Russia and evidence of a shift in European thinking. Historically, both countries had committed to non-alignment with NATO to avoid provoking Moscow, but the invasion of Ukraine changed that.
Both countries – along with the majority of NATO allies – would like to see them formally join the alliance at a NATO summit on July 11. However, a significant hurdle stands in the way of this becoming a reality: Turkey has yet to give the plan its formal and official blessing.
Hungary has also failed to ratify the Nordics’ accession which further muddies the waters.
Officially, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan objects to Sweden and Finland’s membership on security grounds, claiming both countries are harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terror group in Turkey, Sweden, the US and Europe.
But Gonul Tol from the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program believes there are other reasons that Erdogan doesn’t want to upset Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia has been a lifeline economically for Turkey after other nations imposed sanctions for their activities in Syria, their cooperation militarily with Russia and other hostile activity,” Tol explained.
NATO diplomats are split on whether they think Turkey will budge before the July summit.
US evaluating Ukrainian pilots for possible F-16 training
From CNN's Zachary Cohen, Aaron Pellish, Chloe Liu and Heather Chen
The US is working with Ukrainian pilots in the United States to determine how long it would take to train them to fly F-16 fighter jets, three sources briefed on the matter told CNN.
Two Ukrainian pilots are currently at a military base in the US having their skills tested in flight simulators to see how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including F-16s.
A US military official told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the Middle East that the Ukrainian pilots were in Tucson, Arizona, for “a familiarization event” that he described as a “routine activity” in their military-to-military dialogue with Ukraine.
Ukraine has been pushing for the US to provide fighter jets, arguing that they need them to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.
But that push has been met with skepticism by allied officials, who say the jets would be impractical because they require considerable training and Russia has extensive anti-aircraft systems that could easily shoot them down.
When previously asked if the US would be providing F-16s to Ukraine, President Joe Biden responded with a flat “no,” but this event suggests the US has not completely closed the door on providing F-16s.
Why is Bakhmut important for Russia?
From CNN's Rob Picheta
Russian forces are continuing their efforts to encircle the eastern city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. The city sits toward the northeast of the Donetsk region, about 13 miles from Luhansk region, and has been a target for Putin's forces for some time, but why is the city so important for Russia?
Since last summer the city has been a stone's throw from the front lines, so its capture would represent a long sought-after success for Moscow's forces -- and bring some limited strategic value.
The city has important road connections to other parts of the Donetsk region; eastwards to the border with Luhansk, northwest to Sloviansk and southwest to Kostiantynivka.
For several weeks, the routes into Bakhmut have gradually come under the control of Russian forces. Rather than drive directly toward the city center, Wagner groups sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north. In January, they claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and have since taken a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut.
If the Russians can take the high ground to the west of the city, nearby industrial towns Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk would be at the mercy of their artillery and even longer range mortars. And it is unclear where exactly Ukrainian forces would fall back to should they retreat from the city.
But the battle for Bakhmut has been costly for the Russians, which will come as some consolation to Kyiv.