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News brief: war crimes probe, COVID relief deal, Sri Lanka protests


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants the U.N. to hold Russia accountable for alleged war crimes. But how does that happen when Russia has a permanent veto on the U.N. Security Council?


Ukrainian officials say they have found the bodies of 410 people in the Kyiv suburbs. That number has not been confirmed by NPR, but reports and photos of bodies in the streets and other atrocities have emerged from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. President Biden again called Vladimir Putin a war criminal and said the U.S. would be seeking additional sanctions on Russia.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He is a war criminal. But we have to gather the information. We have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight. And we have to gather all the detail so this could be - actually have a war crime trial.

MARTIN: Moscow, for its part, denies the authenticity of these reports and images.

MARTÍNEZ: On the line with us from Kyiv, Ukraine, is NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Elissa, the U.S. is supporting a team of international prosecutors who're going to gather evidence of atrocities in order to hold these - those responsible accountable. What can you tell us about the devastation left behind by Russian troops?

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So each day, you know, we're getting more and more information about what Russian soldiers left behind - dead bodies in the street, people riding their bikes shot at close range. President Zelenskyy toured Bucha on Monday, and there he called what he saw genocide, though, you know, I should note, terms like that, alleged war crimes, that's going to take a long time to be able to definitively state. You know, now the effort there is going to turn to documentation - gathering evidence, doing autopsies. In President Zelenskyy's nightly address, he said bodies there had been cleared from the streets, you know, but their images have changed the tone of his conversations with Western leaders.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He's saying, "hundreds of people don't need to be tortured to death for action."

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, these are serious human rights allegations against Russia. What's the reaction been in Ukraine, where you are?

NADWORNY: Well, the grief here is pretty pervasive. I mean, everyone you talk to has seen the images. I talked with a mother yesterday from the Sumy region. She's here in Kyiv with her 7-year-old daughter Eva (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She says, you know, her daughter's seen the news. She's afraid she's going to start seeing dead bodies in the streets of Kyiv. You know, she's just expecting death everywhere. But the other thing, you know, people are talking about is just how much these atrocities de-legitimize the peace talks. People here are angry. The idea of making a deal, making concessions to a country that did this is troubling. But Zelenskyy says talks are really the only way. And I think now all eyes are on the West to see what their reaction is going to be in how they help Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: More than 100,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol. That's a city still besieged by Russian shelling. And on Monday, International Red Cross workers were detained. That stalled an aid convoy that has been trying for days to reach the city to get in. Any update on that?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. So since Friday, this caravan of buses, including a team from the Red Cross, has been attempting to get humanitarian aid into Mariupol. They were stopped and held yesterday by local police about 12 miles from the city. According to the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, after negotiations late last night, they were released and sent back to Zaporizhzhia, which has been, like, a staging city for folks coming in and out of Mariupol. Officials say, as of now, it is not safe to enter Mariupol, though they have set up an evacuation route so that citizens who are trapped there in Mariupol can leave in their own cars. I think now, you know, what we're watching for is, after what was found in Bucha and Irpin, these suburbs of Kyiv, you know, people in Ukraine are just bracing for what those aid teams may eventually find once they get into Mariupol.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks a lot. And stay safe.

NADWORNY: Thanks. You bet.


MARTÍNEZ: Congress has approved nearly $6 trillion in the past two years to combat the COVID pandemic.

MARTIN: Yesterday senators announced a deal to spend $10 billion more. This is far less than what the Biden administration wanted, but it is what lawmakers could agree to.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now to discuss what is and is not in the bill. Susan, the White House and top Democrats agree to this deal, but they are not happy about it. Why not?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, Biden had originally asked for more than double this amount. They had asked for $22.5 billion. And at first, they did get more from Congress. There was about $15 billion in COVID aid included in the annual spending bill Congress approved last month. But a group of House Democrats scuttled that money because they didn't like that it was paid for in part by redirecting funds away from their states. So that required lawmakers to start these negotiations all over again. And in order to get Republicans on board, they had to agree to have all of this new spending offset. And $10 billion is basically the most they could agree to right now.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so what is not getting funded in this package?

DAVIS: So this bill's focused on domestic needs. They dropped about $5 billion in international funding to combat the pandemic abroad, things like providing vaccines and the infrastructure to get them in arms and distributed across other countries. This is a top concern for Republicans as well. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed support for this funding. But they're in a bit of a timing pressure cooker. The White House wants this money fast, and they couldn't come up with the offsets for the international money. The White House supports this deal, but they made clear they still want that money. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says they're going to try again later this spring to do an international aid package that could include pandemic funding, and he said they might try to tie it to additional funding for Ukraine, which could make it easier to get it through Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so how is the 10 billion going to be spent?

DAVIS: So some of it's going to go to purchasing more vaccines, more booster shots and vaccines for kids. About half of this money is going to go to purchasing therapeutic drug treatments for the sick to stockpile things like antiviral medications. There's also money in there to maintaining testing capacities to minimize the risk of those testing shortfalls if there's another surge or when there's another surge in cases. The White House says without the money, there could be shortages in tests and treatment as soon as May or June. There's also about $1 billion in it for new research and clinical trials for the possible development of vaccines for any emerging variants.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, House Democrats already scuttled one COVID deal.

DAVIS: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: How likely is this one to get through quickly, as the White House has requested?

DAVIS: Well, there's urgency to try to get it done as early as this week because Congress is about to adjourn for a two-week break for Easter. At least four Republican senators - Mitt Romney, Roy Blunt, Richard Burr, Lindsey Graham - all helped cut this deal, so it seems pretty likely they're going to have the bipartisan support they need to get it through the Senate. Again, that $10 billion is entirely paid for by redirecting other COVID funds. So it's not going to cost taxpayers any more money, which makes it a lot easier of a sell to Republicans. The House was not a major player in cutting this deal, basically, because they blew up the first one. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she will put this on the floor. I did speak to one senior House Democratic aide who said the attitude on that side of the Capitol was, you take what you can get, and you live to fight another day for the rest.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

MARTÍNEZ: And before we move on, we should mention that with the support of Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson looks all but certain to make history as the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court.


MARTÍNEZ: All right, now to Sri Lanka, where the Parliament is meeting today after several lawmakers have called for the president to step down amid an economic crisis there.

MARTIN: The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his entire Cabinet resigned on Sunday as food, medicine and fuel shortages have triggered these countrywide protests.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MARTIN: Security forces fired tear gas and water cannons at these protesters marching on the president's home.

MARTÍNEZ: Vandana Menon is a reporter with The Print. She's in Colombo, Sri Lanka, following this story. Vandana, tell us about these protests. What are you seeing?

VANDANA MENON: Hi. I've never seen total unity like this before. It's like a mini Arab Spring in Sri Lanka. People spontaneously broke curfew on Sunday to protest, as did members of the opposition. But yesterday, on Monday, it was very clear that the curfew was over because the streets were completely full of protesters, especially at major traffic junctions. Cars were passing by, sounding their horns in support. Some people even got out of their vehicles to join the protest. People didn't seem to mind the traffic congestion at all. The most popular slogans are ones calling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a thief and asking him to go home. And it's mostly young people and middle-class people who were out on the streets protesting.

MARTÍNEZ: The soaring inflation and the shortages in the country - what's been the impact of that?

MENON: Oh, there's a huge fuel crisis, and you can see vehicles queuing up at petrol stations. Hospitals have had to stop surgeries last week because of power cuts and shortages of medicines. Exams are canceled because students don't have paper. There are severe shortages in milk, milk powder, sugar, rice. When the curfew was announced on Saturday afternoon - it came into effect at around 6 p.m. - there was panic-buying, and shelves and grocery stores were empty. People seem to prefer accepting payments in U.S. dollars or Indian rupees over Sri Lankan rupees. That's how bad the currency is doing.

MARTÍNEZ: How has the government responded to these demonstrations?

MENON: Members of the opposition have been joining the demonstrations. But on Sunday, 26 Cabinet ministers resigned, except the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yesterday the president invited all members of Parliament to apply for any ministerial position. The people seem to be unhappy about this, and several Sri Lankans have told me that the changes in the Cabinet seem cosmetic. Another popular slogan last evening was, resignation does not mean reassignment, which is what the government seems to be doing. Ali Sabry, the justice minister, was sworn in as finance minister yesterday, but he's already submitted his resignation today, just one day into the job.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering the inflation, the shortages, the demonstration, any indication at all that President Rajapaksa will step down?

MENON: No, he seems to be holding on quite firmly. His party, the SLPP, lost majority last night when 42 members of Parliament decided to go independent. But Parliament has reconvened today. Let's see what happens. The Rajapaksas are a very political - a powerful political family, and they won in a landslide in 2020. So let's see what happens.

MARTÍNEZ: Vandana Menon is with The Print, reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thank you very much.

MENON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.

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