Shelling continues near Zaporizhzhia power plant; Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years: Ukraine updates

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Shelling killed civilians, damaged residential buildings and knocked out power lines in nine regions of Ukraine on Thursday, the country's presidential office said.

At least four people were killed and 10 more were injured in 24 hours as explosions rocked cities, officials said, including the frequently targeted Mykolaiv and Nikopol, which is close to Europe's biggest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia.

Shelling killed five civilians and wounded six others in the eastern city of Donetsk, Russian-backed local authorities said. The separatist officials blamed Ukrainian forces for the shelling, which Ukrainian officials denied. Mandatory evacuations in the Donetsk province began Wednesday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram, as the first evacuation train arrived in Kropyvnytskyi.

About 50 residential buildings were damaged by Russian rockets in Nikopol, located across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was occupied by Russian troops early in the war. The projectiles also hit power lines, leaving residents without electricity, Ukrainian officials said.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Associated Press this week the power plant is "completely out of control" and urged Russia and Ukraine to allow experts in to assess the situation.

“Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated," Grossi said. “What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely grave and dangerous.”

An investigative committee officer stands inside a building damaged by shelling in Donetsk, which is under control of the Government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
An investigative committee officer stands inside a building damaged by shelling in Donetsk, which is under control of the Government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

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Latest developments

►A ship that Ukraine says is carrying 10,000 tons of grain stolen by Russia has left a Lebanese port after an investigation, Lebanon's transport minister said Thursday. The Laodicea's departure, which is likely to anger Ukraine, comes as a vessel carrying grain from Ukraine is sailing toward Lebanon, the first ship to leave Ukraine's Black Sea ports since the war began.

►Canada is sending military trainers to the United Kingdom to teach Ukrainians how to fight invading Russian forces, Defense Minister Anita Anand said.

Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison

WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony Thursday in her cannabis possession case.

Griner, 31, who entered a guilty plea weeks ago, apologized to her family and wife. “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, it doesn’t end my life here," Griner said addressing the judge. Her lawyers said they will appeal.

Griner was detained in Russia Feb. 17 after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. She was convicted Thursday of drug possession and smuggling in a politically charged case.

President Joe Biden released a statement in which he condemned Griner's detainment, saying, "It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.''

Now that the trial has concluded, negotiations to free Griner are expected to continue between the U.S. and Russia despite high tension between the countries.

The U.S. State Department said last week it had proposed a "substantial offer" to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Russia made a “bad faith” counteroffer. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov called for "discreet" talks, accusing the U.S. of "megaphone diplomacy" that won't move the negotiations forward.

WHAT'S NEXT: Brittney Griner convicted on drug charges, sentenced to nine years in Russian prison

Amnesty International says Ukraine endangered civilians

Ukrainian forces have violated international law by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, turning civilian areas into military targets, Amnesty International said in a report Thursday.

Researchers for the human rights organization found evidence Ukrainian forces based themselves in buildings like schools and hospitals in 19 towns and villages, exposing populated areas to Russian strikes that killed civilians and destroyed infrastructure.

However, in cities including Kharkiv, Amnesty International found Russia had unlawfully targeted civilian areas and had committed war crimes. Ukraine's use of civilian areas as military bases "does not in any way justify" Russia's use of indiscriminate weapons like internationally banned cluster munitions, the organization said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak criticized the report, saying the only threat to Ukrainians is the Russian army.

Russian state and pro-Kremlin media extensively quoted the report, which to a certain extent aligns with Moscow's official narrative.

“We’re talking about it all the time, calling the actions of Ukraine’s armed forces the tactics of using the civilian population as a ‘human shield,’” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, center, is escorted in a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 4, 2022.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner, center, is escorted in a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 4, 2022.

Russia trying to frame Ukraine in prison attack that killed 53, US says

U.S. intelligence officials say Russia is working to plant false evidence to blame Ukrainian forces for the attack on Olenivka Prison that left 53 dead and dozens wounded.

“We anticipate that Russian officials will try to frame the Ukrainian Armed Forces in anticipation of journalists and potential investigators visiting the site of the attack,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

The UN said it plans to conduct a fact-finding mission to investigate the killings.

Russia has claimed that Ukraine’s military used U.S.-supplied rocket launchers to strike the prison in Olenivka, a settlement controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military denied making any rocket or artillery strikes in Olenivka. The intelligence arm of the Ukrainian defense ministry claims to have evidence that local separatists and Russian operatives mined the barrack and set it on fire.

A Western government official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said explosive experts who have reviewed photos of the prison released by the Russians following the incident have determined the destruction wasn’t likely caused by “a high-explosive strike from the outside” and that it was “much more likely to be incendiary and from inside the location.”

'For the benefit of America': Rare near-unanimity in Senate NATO vote

In an evenly split and polarized U.S. Senate where so much legislation goes to die, near-unanimous support for any measure is reason for astonishment and even celebration.

And indeed, the often-antagonistic parties were cheerful Wednesday evening after a 95-1 vote in favor of supporting the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland, two Nordic countries that had remained militarily non-aligned for decades until Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed their stance.

“This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan U.S. commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

Frequent foil Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, referenced Sweden and Finland’s well-funded, modernizing militaries and their experience working with U.S. forces and weapons systems in calling their inclusion into NATO a “slam-dunk for (U.S.) national security.”

That's a departure from the isolationist policies espoused by former President Donald Trump, who decried NATO and reportedly considered withdrawing the U.S. from the alliance.

McConnell, a longtime NATO supporter, had gone as far as assuring Finnish president Sauli Niinisto that the Senate would promptly ratify Finland's membership in encouraging him to apply, even though the Kentucky Republican no longer heads the majority in the upper chamber.

McConnell pressed his caucus for strong support – only Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri voted no – emphasizing that the U.S. playing a leadership role globally “is not just important militarily, but commercially as well, all of which is good for this country. This is not a charity we’re involved in here. This is for the benefit of America.”

Contributing: Chris Bumbaca, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine updates: Shelling hits near Zaporizhzhia; Griner sentenced