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Front lines shift in Donbas as Ukraine mounts counteroffensive

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian servicemen walk amidst rubble at a damaged area, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 14, 2022. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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By Tom Balmforth

KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – The front lines in the Ukraine war had shifted on Sunday as Russia made some advances in the fiercely contested eastern Donbas region and the Ukrainian military waged a counteroffensive near the strategic Russian-held city of Izium.

In the west of Ukraine near the Polish border, missiles destroyed military infrastructure overnight and were fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said.

Ukrainian forces have notched up a string of successes since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on Kyiv and then making rapid gains in the northeast to drive them out of the second-biggest city Kharkiv.

Since mid-April, Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on Donbas after failing to take the capital.

An assessment by British military intelligence issued on Sunday said Russia had lost about a third of the ground combat force deployed in February. Its Donbas offensive had fallen “significantly behind schedule” and was unlikely to make rapid advances during the coming 30 days, the assessment said.

On Saturday night, Ukraine received a morale boost with victory in the Eurovision Song Contest, a triumph seen as sign of the strength of popular support for Ukraine across Europe.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed the win, but said the situation in Donbas remained very difficult and Russian forces were still trying to salvage some kind of victory in a region wracked by conflict since 2014.

“They are not stopping their efforts,” he said.

Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has jolted European security. Kyiv and its Western allies say the fascism assertion is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.

‘HOTTEST SPOT’

Keeping up pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it harder for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in the Donbas.

Izium straddles the Donets river, about 120 km (75 miles) from Kharkiv on the main highway heading southeast.

“The hottest spot remains the Izium direction,” regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media.

“Our armed forces have switched to a counteroffensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts and this is the result of the character of our armed forces.”

But Ukraine’s military acknowledged setbacks in an update on Sunday morning: “Despite losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv areas in the broader Donbas region.”

Both sides claimed success in military strikes in Donbas.

The Ukrainian military said there was no let-up on Sunday in Russia’s bombardment of the steel works in the southern port of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are holding out weeks after the city fell into Russian hands.

Zelenskiy said talks were underway seeking a way to evacuate wounded soldiers from Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.

A large convoy of cars and vans carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after nightfall on Saturday after waiting days for Russian troops to allow them to leave.

Iryna Petrenko, a 63-year-old in the convoy, said she had stayed initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

NATO APPLICANTS

One of the aims of Russia’s action in Ukraine was to prevent the former Soviet republic joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

But Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday that his country, which shares a 1,300-km (800-mile) border with Russia, wanted to join NATO to bolster its own security.

Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats were also poised on Sunday to come out in favour of the country joining NATO, paving the way for an application and abandoning decades of military non-alignment in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin told Niinisto it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality, the Kremlin said, adding that the move could harm bilateral relations.

Germany said on Sunday that it had made preparations for a quick ratification process, should Finland and Sweden apply.

“We must make sure that we will give them security guarantees, there must not be a transition period, a grey zone, where their status is unclear,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.

As well as losing large numbers of men and much military equipment, Russia has been hit by economic sanctions. The Group of Seven industrial powers pledged on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and supply more weapons to Ukraine.

In another token of international solidarity, U.S. Republican senators paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv. The delegation discussed further strengthening sanctions on Russia, Zelenskiy said.

Winners of the Eurovision Song contest traditionally get to host the event the following year.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine will host the Eurovision song contest,” Zelenskiy said in an online message after Kalush Orchestra won with their entry “Stefania”.

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U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney blasts fellow Republicans after ‘great replacement’ mass shooting

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) testifies before the House Rules Committee in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Representative Liz Cheney called on fellow Republicans to reject white supremacism, days after a teenage gunman motivated by the right-wing “great replacement” theory allegedly killed 10 people in a racist shooting in western New York state.

“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism,” Cheney, an outspoken Republican critic of former President Donald Trump and his allies in the House of Representatives, wrote on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR).

“History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse. @GOP leaders must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them,” she tweeted.

Political fallout from the weekend shooting could become a new hurdle for Republicans, as they try to minimize infighting over party fealty to Trump in the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.

A 180-page manifesto that circulated online, believed to have been authored by the 18-year-old white man accused in the killing spree, outlined the “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that white people were being replaced by minorities in the United States and elsewhere.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blamed the spreading of the “replacement” theory on conservative media pundits and Trump-style Republican rhetoric on immigration.

“These views should have no place in American society and certainly no place in the segments of our most-watched news channels,” said Schumer, who called for rooting out of hatred and legislation to address gun violence.

Cheney is one of two Republicans on a congressional committee that has subpoenaed House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and four other party lawmakers to testify about the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of Trump supporters.

McCarthy dismissed Cheney’s tweet by calling her criticism typical and saying she was just trying “to play a political game when she knows something’s not true.”

The California Republican also said he had not given any thought to the Jan. 6 committee’s subpoena, describing the panel as “a one-party-appointed committee.”

Cheney was joined in her criticism by Representative Adam Kinzinger, a fellow maverick Republican who is also on the committee, in blaming the party’s leadership for not condemning the racism that fueled the attack in Buffalo, New York, where 11 of the 13 wounded were Black Americans.

“Here is my replacement theory: we need to replace @EliseStefanik, @GOPLeader, @RepMTG, @CawthornforNC and a number of others,” Kinzinger said Sunday in a tweet referring to McCarthy, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and hard-line Trump supporters Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn.

“The replacement theory they are pushing/tolerating is getting people killed,” said Kinzinger.

Cheney and Kinzinger maintain that House leaders are pandering to Trump allies and supporters who advocate white nationalism as the party tries to take control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

In a tweet on Saturday, Kinzinger said Stefanik pushed white replacement theory in Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) ads last September that claimed Democrats planned to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants to overthrow the U.S. electorate and perpetuate their power.

Stefanik’s office in a statement rejected that criticism.

“Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the left, their Never Trump allies and the sycophant stenographers in the media,” said Alex DeGrasse, a senior adviser to Stefanik.

Stefanik, who represents a New York state congressional district, replaced Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican last year after Cheney condemned Trump for the January 2021 Capitol attack by his supporters.

Greene on Twitter said that responsibility for the shooting lay only with the gunman. The offices of McCarthy and Cawthorn did not respond to requests for comment.

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An oasis in underserved Buffalo neighborhood became killing field

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© Reuters. Mourners react while attending a vigil for victims of the shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, New York, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Jenna Zucker

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) – For many people in the neighborhood, the Tops Friendly Market was an answer to prayers when it opened for business 19 years ago, providing an oasis of fresh groceries at affordable prices in the middle of an area long considered a “food desert.”

Before Tops came, residents of the blocks around Jefferson Avenue in east-central Buffalo, New York – most of them Black people – had to travel for miles to find the kind of supermarket that suburban America takes for granted.

Birthday cake, salad fixings and a prescription refill? It was one-stop shopping for people once unaccustomed to such convenience.

In the years since it opened, the store became a focal point for the tight-knit community, according to many residents. It was just down the street, welcoming, a place to bump into old friends and make new ones.

All of that abruptly ended on Saturday afternoon when a teenager, motivated by racist ideology, carried out a well-planned attack designed to shoot and kill as many Black people as he could, according to law enforcement authorities.

The suspect chose Tops precisely because it was that focal point that Black residents of the community describe, officials said.

“We needed it because we were traveling away from our area to go grocery shopping and buy our items, things that we needed. So it means a whole lot to us, and now it’s just been ripped away from us,” said Yvonda King, a hair stylist who lives down the street from the store.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term ‘food desert’ to describe areas with limited supplies of fresh, affordable foods. An estimated 54.4 million Americans – 17.7% of the population – live in food deserts, according to the USDA.

Not everyone living in food deserts is Black, but studies have shown that even when poverty levels are similar, Black neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than other areas.

The near-dearth of supermarkets in the east side of Buffalo highlights a de facto racial divide that persists in the city, the second largest in New York state.

According to a 2018 report, about 85% of residents who identify as Black live east of Main Street, the north-south thoroughfare that separates the east and west sides of Buffalo.

Where you live in Buffalo not only dictates your access to healthy food but also quality jobs, good schools and decent housing, the report by Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank, concluded.

In a small way, Tops filled some of the void. Now, to many Black residents, the store has become a painful reminder that racism, even in its most violent form, is an everyday reality.

“I go to the Tops every day and I just didn’t that day,” said Christina Hanesworth, 38, a client relations specialist in Buffalo. “I think about if I would have left my two kids at home to get some milk and never made it back.”

Tops, headquartered in Williamsville, just outside Buffalo, said it would ensure the community was able to meet their grocery and pharmacy needs by providing a free shuttle service to the closest location, almost 5 miles (8 km) away. Tops and others are opening a temporary food-distribution center a few blocks from the now-closed store, city officials said.

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Suspect in Buffalo supermarket massacre visited city in March, police say

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© Reuters. A Buffalo Police officer stands at the scene of a shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, New York, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Jenna Zucker and Gabriella Borter

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) -An investigation into the weekend shooting of 13 people in Buffalo, New York, turned on Monday to a visit police said the suspect made to the city in March and whether warning signs were missed, as public figures decried the suspect’s racist ideology.

Authorities said Payton Gendron, 18, who is white, carried out an act of “racially motivated violent extremism” when he opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on Saturday at the Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Buffalo, where 11 of the 13 people struck by gunfire were Black.

Gendron, who police said surrendered to officers who confronted him inside the store, has been jailed without bond on a charge of first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty.

Investigators have said they are searching through phone records, computers and online postings, as well as physical evidence, as new details about the suspect’s past and meticulous planning emerge.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the suspect, a resident of a southern New York state town hours away by car, made a trip to the Tops store in March to map its layout in preparation for the attack. He was confronted there at the time by a store security guard, who thought he looked suspicious, according to the Post.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told reporters at a news briefing on Monday that the suspect had paid a visit to Buffalo in early March, but he declined to confirm other details of the investigation reported by the Washington Post or other news media.

The Post said the planning trip to Buffalo was described in a 589-page document posted online by someone who identified himself as Gendron. The document is no longer available publicly, the Post reported.

The document referred to the Tops store as “attack area 1” and described two other nearby locations as attack areas to “shoot all blacks,” the Post reported. Gendron counted that there were 53 Black people and six white people in the Tops at the time of his visit, according to the account.

Police confirmed that they are investigating Gendron’s online postings, which included a 180-page manifesto he was believed to have written outlining the “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that white people were being replaced by minorities in the United States and elsewhere.

“The evidence that we have uncovered so far makes no mistake this is an absolute racist hate crime that will be prosecuted as a hate crime,” Gramaglia told reporters on Sunday.

Experts say the trend of mostly young white men being inspired by previous racist gun massacres is on the rise, citing recent mass shootings, including the 2015 attack at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a 2018 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a 2019 attack at a Walmart (NYSE:WMT) in an Hispanic neighborhood of El Paso.

President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden plan to visit Buffalo on Tuesday.

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