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Live: US designates Russia's Wagner Group as criminal organisation

The US on Thursday formally designated Russian private military company the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organisation, freezing its US assets due to its role supporting Russia's military in its war of aggression against Ukraine. This comes after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna arrived in Odesa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, shortly after missile strikes hit crucial power infrastructure facilities in the surrounding region and caused blackouts in the city. Follow our live blog for the latest updates on the war in Ukraine. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

Canada will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said on Thursday, after Germany this week allowed other countries to re-export the German-built tank.

"This donation, combined with the contributions of allies and partners, will significantly help the armed forces of Ukraine" in their defense against the Russian invasion, Anand told reporters in Ottawa.

France and Italy are close to finalising the technical details to supply an SAMP/T air defence system to Ukraine, two diplomatic sources said on Thursday, although it was unclear how quickly a final decision would come.

Kyiv has asked its Western allies for more air defence systems and specifically requested the SAMP/T, known as Mamba, in November.

France's Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu will travel to Italy on Friday to meet his Italian counterpart Guido Crosetto, with both sides wanting to push ahead with the SAMP/T talks. "We are finalising it with the Italians. It's not very far off," said a French diplomatic source.

Investigators have detained a Ukrainian security official on suspicion of spying for Russia, authorities said on Thursday, part of an effort by Kyiv to weed out moles nearly a year into a war with Russia.

The official - a lieutenant colonel in the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) which joined the operation - had revealed the location of military checkpoints and other "secret information", the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) said.

He allegedly sent the data to his Russian handlers via email and a messaging app. A search turned up mobile phones, Russian SIM cards, cash and other evidence proving "longstanding ties" to Russian state and law enforcement structures, the SBI added.

"Today the service works as a single team and is doing the maximum for Ukraine's victory," said SBU chief Vasyl Malyuk in a separate statement

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Eritrea on Thursday for a one-day surprise visit, the information ministry announced, as part of an African tour aimed at drumming up support for Moscow.

Lavrov, on his second trip to Africa in six months, will meet President Isaias Afwerki to discuss "strengthening bilateral relations as well as regional developments of interest to the two countries", the ministry said.

He and his Eritrean counterpart Osman Saleh are also expected to hold a joint press conference later Thursday, the ministry added in a statement

The US on Thursday formally designated Russian private military company the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organisation, freezing its US assets for helping Russia's military in the Ukraine war.

Last month the White House said the Wagner Group had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, in a sign of the group's expanding role in that conflict

As the US said it will send Abrams tanks to Ukraine in a major policy reversal after the UK broke the dam last week by saying it will send Challengers, Rob Thornton, a lecturer in the defence studies department at King's College London, told FRANCE 24 that "we need to be a bit careful".

"You can supply several dozen tanks - will it make a big difference on the battlefield. And it's one thing supplying these tanks; it's another thing training the crews to operate these tanks. These are very much more sophisticated than the old Soviet tanks that are used by both the Russians and the Ukrainians at the moment. It will take a lot of training to match up, to marry up, the high-tech and modern tanks that are being supplied with the ability of their crews to use them to the greatest effect." As well as the training question, there will be "other problems". In particular, the "maintenance of these tanks is something the Ukrainians will have to very much get used to", Thornton said.

Russian authorities designated the independent news outlet Meduza an "undesirable organisation" on Thursday, effectively outlawing the site from operating in Russia and banning any Russian from cooperating with Meduza or its journalists.

The designation is the latest in a years-long campaign by the Kremlin to curb independent media and stop their reporting from reaching ordinary Russians in a crackdown that has escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

In a statement announcing the decision, Russia's General Prosecutor said the Latvia-based news outlet "poses a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system and the security of the Russian Federation"

"There's no doubt that with the decision [...] of the United States to send its M1 Abrams tanks, a Rubicon has been passed here, and that momentum will now start to pick up," said FRANCE 24 Chief Foreign Editor Robert Parsons.

"That's certainly what the Ukrainians are hoping for, and last night Volodymyr Zelensky the Ukrainian president made that point in particular, when he was saying that 'the key issue for us now is numbers' and delivery time. They want those tanks as quickly as possible and they want them in as large numbers as possible," Parsons continued. "They're talking about 300; that's what they believe they need if they're going to stave off a Russian attack and then launch their own counter-attack against the Russians and break through and perhaps by the end of this year regain much of the territory that has been lost to the Russians over the last year."

Given the number of countries now lining up to send tanks, "you could possibly envisage in pretty quick time two brigades of tanks being formed; that's about 100 tanks", Parsons noted. "That would suit the Ukrainians pretty well at this stage, but [...] the Ukrainians are looking beyond this now. They're talking about fighter jets. And although [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz said yesterday that's not something that Germany would do, other NATO members are talking about the possibility."

Ukraine's corn and wheat production is set to fall for a second year in 2023, with corn output not expected to exceed 18 million tonnes and wheat production 16 million tonnes as farmers reduce planting due to the war, a grain sector group said on Thursday.

The projections were a best case scenario, and production could fall more sharply depending on weather and financial difficulties of farms, Ukraine Grain Association (UGA) head Nikolay Gorbachov told Reuters on the sidelines of Argus Media's Paris Grain Conference.

Disruption to export trade following Russia's invasion last year has left many farmers producing at a loss, he said.

"For farmers it became unprofitable to produce the grain and that's why they cut the planted area," he added.

Neither France nor its allies are fighting a war against Russia, the French foreign ministry said Thursday, following a Western decision to send heavy tanks to Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion.

"We are not at war with Russia and none of our partners are," ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said, after comments from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that "we are fighting a war against Russia and not against each other".

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna's visit to Odesa is a "highly symbolic" visit that was "hailed" by Ukraine's foreign minister as "something courageous, something brave", FRANCE 24's Emmanuelle Chaze reported from Kyiv.

Colonna is in Odesa to "discuss the specific needs of the Ukrainian army when it comes to heavy weaponry", Chaze continued. A "diplomatic source did address the question of whether or not Ukraine will get Leclerc tanks" from France - however, "apparently this is not on the cards because from the get-go, Ukraine was more keen to get Leopard tanks and maybe it would be too much of a hassle for Ukraine to have different kinds of tanks".

The Ukrainian army said Thursday it had shot down 47 out of 55 missiles launched by Russia in a massive new wave of attacks.

The head of Ukraine's army, Valery Zaluzhny, said Russia launched 55 air and sea-based missiles. "Ukraine's armed forces destroyed 47 cruise missiles, 20 of them in the area of the capital," he added on Telegram.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on Thursday arrived in Ukrainian city Odesa in a visit aimed at underscoring France's support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

She was there "to show France's support for Ukraine's sovereignty, now as before," Colonna wrote on Twitter alongside a picture of herself in front of a city landmark.

Although delayed by a new wave of Russian strikes overnight and on Thursday morning, Colonna was still set to meet her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in the historic Black Sea port.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on Thursday he would kick off talks with the defence industry as early as next week to speed up arms procurement and ramp up ammunitions supplies.

"My primary task now is to enter into talks with the defence industry with the aim of significantly shortening procurement times," he told reporters on the sidelines of a military exercise in Altengrabow in eastern Germany.

"If you look at ammunition, there is also the issue of quantity. This is another topic that I will raise in my talks with the defence industry, likely as early as next week if the schedule permits it," he added.

The Kremlin said Thursday that a decision by Western countries to supply Ukraine with modern tanks meant that they were party to the conflict, after Berlin and Washington approved the weapons for Kyiv.

"European capitals and Washington constantly give statements that sending various types of weapons, including tanks, in no way means their involvement in hostilities. We strongly disagree with this. In Moscow, this is perceived as direct involvement in the conflict and we see that this is growing," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Ukraine on Thursday enforced emergency power cuts in Kyiv and several other regions to relieve pressure on the electricity grid following Russian strikes, an operator said.

"Due to the threat of a missile attack in Kyiv and the regions of Kyiv, Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk emergency blackouts have been introduced," said DTEK, Ukraine's largest private power producer.

Ukrainian authorities earlier on Thursday reported Russian hits on energy facilities.

The mayor of Ukraine's capital Kyiv said one person had been killed and two more were wounded on Thursday after Russia launched more than a dozen missiles in its latest large-scale aerial offensive.

"As a result of a rocket hitting a non-residential building in the Golosiivsky district, there is information that one person is dead and two wounded," Kyiv's mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a statement on social media. The Kyiv city military administration said the death was due to parts of a missile falling.

Authorities in Ukraine's southern region of Odesa said Thursday that two energy facilities were hit by Russian missiles, in the latest attack by Moscow's forces against critical infrastructure.

"There is already information about damage done to two critical energy infrastructure facilities in Odesa. There are no injured. Air Defence Forces are working over the Odesa region," the head of the region's military administration, Yuriy Kruk, said on social media.

Ukraine said Thursday it had shot down more than a dozen Russian missiles launched towards Kyiv, while the capital's major reported an explosion in the city.

"The enemy launched more than 15 cruise missiles in the direction of Kyiv. Thanks to the excellent work of air defence, all air targets were shot down," said Sergiy Popko, the head of Kyiv's military administration, while mayor Vitali Klitschko said: "Explosion in Kyiv! Stay in shelters!"

Ukraine said Thursday that Russian forces had fired more than 30 missiles at targets across the country, in the latest wave of attacks that have put pressure on Ukraine's air defence systems.

"We expect more than 30 missiles, which have already started to appear in various territories. Air defence systems are working," Yuriy Ignat, a Ukrainian military spokesman, told local media.

The wave of missiles was launched during rush hour on Thursday morning and Ukrainians took cover in shelters as air defence forces shot down incoming salvos, officials said. An air raid alert wailed across the country as people were heading to work. In the capital Kyiv, crowds of people sheltered in underground metro stations, with some sitting on blankets or small plastic chairs.

A Reuters reporter heard the sound of a missile flying overhead at a low altitude, about 30 km from Kyiv. "As many as six Tu-95 (warplanes) have preliminarily taken off from Murmansk region and launched missiles," air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat said on national television.

Ukraine declared an air raid alert over the whole country on Thursday, and senior officials said air defences units were shooting down incoming Russian missiles.

Two missiles were spotted over the territory of the Mykolaiv region, its governor, Vitaly Kim, said on the Telegram messaging app. "Missiles are flying inside the territory of Ukraine. At least two northwest through Mykolaiv region," he said. Officials told the public to take shelter.

"The first Russian missiles have been shot down," Andriy Yermak, head of the president's office said.

Russia has targeted critical infrastructure with missile and drone strikes since October, causing sweeping blackouts and other outages during winter.

7:14am: Ukraine declares air raid alert over most of country, authorities warn of possible missile attack

Ukraine declared an air raid alert over most of the country on Thursday, and regional authorities warned of a possible missile attack.

The DTEK electricity company said it was performing emergency shutdowns of electro power in the capital Kyiv, the rest of the Kyiv region, and also the regions of Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk due to a danger of missile attack.

Russian forces launched an unsuccessful overnight drone attack on Ukraine on Thursday, mainly targeting central regions and the capital Kyiv, the Ukrainian military said.

Anti-aircraft defences downed all 24 drones, country's military command said in a morning report.

"There's a major danger of further aviation and missile attack across the entire territory (of Ukraine)," it said in a statement.

Kyiv's regional administration said that 15 out of 24 drones have been downed around the Ukrainian capital and that there were no damages. It also warned people about the possibility of more missile attacks during the day.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged a senior UN official to help find a way to resolve what Ukrainian authorities decry as a serious consequence of 11 months of war - the deportation to Russia of thousands of adults and children.

Ukraine has for months denounced reports of mass deportations to Russia, often to remote regions thousands of kilometres from Ukraine. Russia denies any suggestion of mistreatment or criminal intent, describing the mass movements as evacuations.

"The discussion focused above all on our people that the occupiers have deported to Russia," Zelensky said in his nightly video address, referring to talks with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi earlier on Wednesday. "These are adults, these are our children. A mechanism is needed to protect and bring back people and to bring to account all those who are guilty of deportations. I am certain the UN institutions can show leadership in resolving this issue."

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(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)