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‘You are our last hope’: Wives of trapped Ukraine soldiers plead for help from Pope Francis. Live Ukraine updates – USA TODAY

The wives of two Ukrainian soldiers holed up in a Mariupol steel mill met with Pope Francis on Wednesday, asking him to help arrange evacuation of the troops before Russian soldiers overrun the sprawling plant.

Yuliia Fedusiuk, who met with the pope at the conclusion of his weekly general audience in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square, said food and water were running out in the mill, that some soldiers were injured and dead and that the survivors were ready to lay down their arms. But they want to be evacuated to a third country, concerned that they would be tortured and killed if they surrendered to the Russians.

“You are our last hope. We hope you can save their lives,” said Kateryna Prokopenko, who wept as she greeted Francis. “Please don’t let them die.”

The plea came one day after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a package of about $40 billion in urgently needed aid for Ukraine, $7 billion more than President Joe Biden requested from Congress.

“The additional resources included in this bill will allow us to send more weapons, such as artillery, armored vehicles and ammunition, to Ukraine,” press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Tuesday night. “And they will help us replenish our stockpile and support U.S. troops on NATO territory.”

The bill now goes to the Senate – and Biden urged passage as soon as possible, saying he has “nearly exhausted” the existing aid money for Ukraine.

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Latest developments:

►British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting Sweden, pledged his country’s support should Sweden or Finland come under attack. Both nations are expected to announce as soon as this week whether they will seek membership in NATO.

►World Unite for Ukraine announced it will stream a benefit concert June 16 featuring music by Pink Floyd, AJR, Crash Test Dummies and other bands. Organizers hope to raise $10 million toward easing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

►Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and served as its first president, died Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said. He was 88.

►Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, who leads the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday that eight to 10 Russian generals have been killed during the war in Ukraine.

Smoke rises from burning storage buildings containing agricultural products after shelling by Russian forces in Orikhiv, Ukraine, on May 11, 2022.

Russian soldier in Ukrainian custody will be first to stand trial for war crimes

A 21-year-old Russian soldier alleged to have killed an unarmed civilian who was riding a bike in a village in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine on Feb. 28 will become the first person to stand trial for war crimes since the start of the war, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova announced Wednesday.

Vadim Shishimarin, a prisoner of war, is accused of firing a Kalashnikov machine gun through the open window of a car at a 62-year-old resident in the village of Chupakhivka. If found guilty of premeditated murder, Shishimarin could face a sentence of up to life in prison. A trial date is expected to be announced this week, Venediktova’s office told USA TODAY. Ukrainian authorities unveiled their first war crimes charges late last month connected to alleged incidents in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, in March.

Sanctions slowing ability of Russia to replenish precision weaponry

Sanctions that prevent Russia from obtaining electronic parts have taken a “bite” out of its ability to replenish precision-guided weapons, a Pentagon official said. The official, who is not authorized to speak publicly about intelligence assessments, said there are signs that Russian supplies of precision weapons are dwindling, forcing the Russians to rely on older bombs that are not guided to their targets with satellites or lasers, the official said.

So-called “dumb bombs” are being dropped in Mariupol, causing hundreds of civilian deaths and devastation to homes and businesses.

Russia could annex Ukraine city of Kherson

Russian-appointed authorities in the southern Ukraine city of Kherson said Wednesday that they will ask President Vladimir Putin to annex the region. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the regional military-civilian administration, said there were no plans to create a separate republic such as those sought in the eastern Donbas region. He also said that, by the end of May, a bank for converting money to Russian rubles will start operating in the region and ultimately will be integrated into the Bank of Russia.

Kherson, a Black Sea port city of almost 300,000, is one of few major Ukraine cities to be under Russian control.

“There will be no referendums,” Stemousov said. “It will be a decree based on an appeal from the Kherson regional leadership to the Russian president.”

Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak dismissed the plan, suggesting the Russian-appointees request to join “Mars or Jupiter.”

“The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson, no matter what word games the occupiers invent,” Podoliak said.

US, Europe condemn Russian cyberattack prior to invasion

The United States, the European Union and Britain collectively blamed Russia for a cyberattack on Ukraine that happened only one hour before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion on Feb. 24. The cyberattack disrupted satellite communications used by Ukraine’s military, and also affected European countries, according to a statement from the EU released Tuesday.

“Cyberattacks targeting Ukraine, including against critical infrastructure, could spill over into other countries and cause systemic effects putting the security of Europe’s citizens at risk,” the statement said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Tuesday the cyberattack was only one in a series that began in mid-January. Russia’s digital attacks on Ukraine included stolen and deleted data, disrupted telecommunications and attempts to knock out power.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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