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A middle-aged woman with a bright yellow hat stepped out of a white van close to the frontline Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Smiling cheerfully, Liudmyla Bila handed out a jumble of supplies – from woollen socks and metal pans to dried noodles and cans of beans – to a small group of grateful soldiers.

She even gave them periscopes – useful to peer over the top of a trench – and heart-shaped biscuits.

“The guys are helping us [the troops gave her fuel] – and we are helping them”, Liudmyla, 45, said, before jumping back into her van, with two other companions, and heading into Bakhmut.

Liudmyla
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Liudmyla Bila hands out supplies to grateful Ukrainian soldiers

The trio is among a band of volunteers that braves the treacherous journey to distribute aid to the few thousand residents who are still living in the town despite months of relentless bombardments by Russian forces that have prompted most people to flee.

As well as providing supplies, the volunteers try to convince remaining residents to be evacuated, offering to drive them out to safety themselves.

There is no electricity or running water in Bakhmut and the threat of death from incoming rounds is constant.

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Russia is desperate to take the town, in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, after suffering humiliating defeats elsewhere.

Ukrainian troops are defending hard but the bloody battle – one of the fiercest of the war – has been dubbed a “meat grinder” because of the huge and growing number of casualties.

A local resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment house in Bakhmut, Donetsk 
PIC:AP
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A resident leaves his home after Russian shelling destroyed an apartment building in Bakhmut. Pic: AP

For local people caught in the middle, there is an added danger as winter falls and temperatures drop below freezing.

The active combat means even entering the town is high risk.

But Liudmyla said her only son, 22, is a soldier fighting around Bakhmut. She said she wanted to be nearby, adding: “I am not afraid.”

Her voluntary group of some 20 people is called Wings of Liberty, based in the city of Dnipro, about a five hour drive from Bakhmut.

Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/LIBKOS)
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Ukrainian soldiers in a shelter in the frontline near Bakhmut. Pic: AP/LIBKOS

She makes the round trip to the town every week.

Sky News followed her and her team – 35-year-old Olha Ekzarkhova, whose brother was killed on the frontline two months ago, and Ian Boiko, 39, who drives the van – into Bakhmut on Wednesday morning.

They stopped in a residential area, surrounded by large, concrete apartment blocks.

Glass was shattered across the ground – evidence of past blasts having blown out windows.

The volunteers had to work quickly – wanting to minimise their time on the ground. The sound of distant explosions and gunfire could be heard.

“People!” shouted Liudmyla as she and Olha darted from the van to one of the blocks, carrying bottles of water, candles, blankets and food.

No one immediately appeared.

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‘Ferocious’ battle for Bakhmut

They left the aid at the top of a short flight of steps leading down to a shelter in the basement. Liudmyla said people are living in there.

We knocked on the door to the shelter but there was no reply. It turned out they had gone to another spot in town where it is still possible to pick up mobile phone signal.

A tired-looking man was shuffling around the entrance of the apartment block next door.

Sky News approached him, but he did not want to speak and said no one else was around.

Aid delivered, Liudmyla and her team headed further into town.

We peeled off to speak with people in a small crowd on the side of a main road.

Desperate and weary, they queued at a window to try to receive stoves to heat their homes.

Read more:
Eyewitness | Ukrainians fight Russian mercenaries and plummeting temperatures in the Battle for Bakhmut

One woman moved away from the window empty handed.

Asked how life is in Bakhmut, Oksana, 75, said: “Very difficult. Very difficult.”

Then her face crumpled and her voice broke.

It is “impossible, cold – without blankets”, she said.

“This is bad. We are freezing. The temperature is only 3 to 5 degrees inside our home.

“We are waiting here for a stove. They told us to put your names on a list and wait. When will it end? When will it end? Oh God.

“Why are they [Russians] so stubborn when it comes to our Bakhmut? And here: war, war, war. They have been hitting us all the time for more than half a year already.”

The Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm in the Donetsk region
Sergiy, 35, an operator for a self propelled artillery vehicle with the 24th Mechanized Brigade of King Danylo of the Ukrainian Army heats up water for coffee while waiting for coordinates to strike a Russian military target as Russia’s invasion on Ukraine continues near Bakhmut in Ukraine, December 3, 2022. REUTERS/ Leah Millis
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Ukrainian service members fight and stay warm close to Bakhmut

She explained that she lived with her husband who is 82 and too frail to be evacuated.

“How can I leave him? There are no doctors here. No nurses. Nothing is here.”

Oksana said she was worried about having to live through the winter. As she spoke booms from incoming rounds could be heard, again in the distance.

“We are in the Stone Age. It is terrifying to live like this in the 21st century. And no one in the world can help us. How can it be?”

With the sound of explosions growing louder, we decided to leave.

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On the way out of town, an artillery round or some other form of munition exploded up ahead. We did not see the impact but could see the smoke.

Suddenly, there was a loud blast and our vehicle shook.

A second round had smashed into the ground to the right of us, sending shrapnel across the road. It narrowly missed a small car that was just ahead of ours – a reminder of the reality and the randomness of this war.

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Kamala Harris: US vice president says there must be ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza and more aid – as Israel ‘boycotts’ talks

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Kamala Harris: US vice president says there must be 'immediate ceasefire' in Gaza and more aid - as Israel 'boycotts' talks

US vice president Kamala Harris has said there must be an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza as she called on the Israeli government to do more to increase the flow of aid, with “no excuses”.

Ms Harris said a six-week ceasefire would get Israeli hostages out and get a significant amount of aid into the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.

She said people were “starving” and Israel needed to increase the flow of aid to ease what she described as “inhumane” conditions and a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Her comments are among the strongest by a senior US official over the crisis.

Middle East latest – Houthis vow to sink British ships

The vice president also said there is a “deal on the table” and Hamas “needs to agree to that”.

“Let’s get a ceasefire. Let’s reunite the hostages with their families. And let’s provide immediate relief to the people of Gaza,” she said.

Although a Hamas delegation is in Egypt for the latest truce talks, Israel has reportedly boycotted them.

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Israeli media says it is because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not got an answer from Hamas on two questions – a list of hostages who are alive in Gaza and the number of Palestinian prisoners Hamas wants released in exchange for each hostage.

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Gaza: Doctors set up clinics in streets

Ms Harris is on Tuesday due to meet top Israeli politician Benny Gantz, who will also have talks in Washington with US secretary of state Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

Although Mr Gantz is in Mr Netanyahu’s war cabinet, he is also a centrist political rival and is thought to have been rebuked by the Israeli prime minister for those planned discussions in America.

An official from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said Mr Gantz’s visit was not authorised by the leader.

And the PM had a “tough talk” with Mr Gantz about the trip and told him the country has “just one prime minister”, according to the official.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz. File pic: Reuters
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(L-R) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and war cabinet member Benny Gantz. File pic: Reuters

Mr Gantz had told the PM of his intention to travel to the US and to co-ordinate messaging with him, added an official.

US efforts in the region have increasingly been hampered by Mr Netanyahu’s hardline cabinet, which ultra-nationalists dominate. Mr Gantz’s more moderate party sometimes acts as a counterweight to the PM’s far-right allies.

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US carries out first aid airdrop in Gaza

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Analysis – A fresh truce could be highly significant
Analysis – Airdrops illustrate just how much of a disaster Gaza is
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There are deep disagreements between Mr Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden over how to alleviate Palestinian suffering in Gaza and come up with a post-war vision for the enclave.

On Saturday, the US airdropped aid into Gaza after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from trucks were killed last Thursday.

Speaking on Sunday in Selma, Alabama, Ms Harris said: “People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane and our common humanity compels us to act.

“The Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.”

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A senior US official had said the path to a ceasefire was “straightforward and there’s a deal on the table”, with mediators returning to Egypt hoping to reach an agreement before Ramadan begins in a week.

The unidentified official spoke to the Reuters news agency ahead of the talks in Cairo, billed as the final hurdle to a six-week ceasefire.

Earlier on Sunday, the US said a deal had already been “more or less accepted” by Israel and was waiting for approval by Hamas militants.

But after the Hamas delegation arrived, a Palestinian official said the deal was “not yet there”. Hamas also reportedly wanted a permanent ceasefire to be part of any deal.

The war started after Hamas launched a cross-border attack on southern Israel on 7 October last year, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 250 others hostage.

Israel retaliated with strikes and a military ground assault in Gaza which have so far killed more than 30,000 people, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Around 80% of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

More than 100 hostages in Gaza have been released.

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A fresh truce between Israel and Hamas could be highly significant – in more ways than one

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A fresh truce between Israel and Hamas could be highly significant - in more ways than one

There is increasing hope that a new hostage deal can be agreed between Israel and Hamas in time for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a week from now, but time is running out and divisions remain between the sides.

Hamas has sent a delegation to Cairo to continue talks; Israel is yet to dispatch its own team and government sources have told Sky News that, among other things, they are still waiting for Hamas to provide information on the hostages they will release.

There are other points of difference, notably over which Palestinian prisoners Israel will agree to release in exchange and the status of Israeli forces inside Gaza, if a truce goes ahead.

Middle East latest: Houthis vow to sink British ships; path to Gaza truce ‘straightforward’

All parties, including the US, Egypt and Qatar, are making positive noises that a deal can be reached but such is the hatred and mistrust between Hamas and Israel that we can take nothing for granted at this stage.

Separately, but not unconnected, a senior member of Israel’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz, is flying to Washington and London for meetings this coming week.

Read more:
US puts pressure on Hamas to clinch ceasefire ‘deal on table’

FILE - Israeli Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz attends a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 28, 2023. While Israelis quickly rallied behind the military, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party took a hit in opinion polls. Israelis now believe Netanyahu is less fit to govern than Benny Gantz, a rival who agreed to join Netanyahu in an emergency wartime Cabinet. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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Benny Gantz could become Israel’s next leader. Pic: Abir Sultan via AP

Although a member of the war cabinet, Mr Gantz leads an opposition party in Israel and has a clear lead in the polling over who should be Israel’s next prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly furious because he wasn’t consulted on the trip.

If a truce is agreed, it might also be the moment when Bibi’s political foes finally move against him – a deal with Hamas could be highly significant on a number of levels and a watershed moment as this war closes in on the five month mark.

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Anger as Pakistan’s parliament confirms Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister

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Anger as Pakistan's parliament confirms Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister

Pakistan’s newly-formed parliament has elected Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister for the second time.

Mr Sharif won 201 votes from Pakistan’s National Assembly, comfortably ahead of Omar Ayub, the candidate backed by jailed former prime minister Imran Khan, who secured 92 votes.

It means the 72-year-old will resume the role he had until August, when parliament was dissolved and a caretaker government was put in charge until last month’s elections.

Mr Sharif was named premier despite his elder brother Nawaz Sharif winning a seat in parliament and being favourite for the top job.

Nawaz did not want to lead a minority coalition government, having enjoyed majorities in his three previous stints as PM, his daughter Maryam said on X.

The brothers’ Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won fewer seats than Khan’s allies in the February election – but coalition support was enough to get them a majority.

The election saw arrests, violence, an internet blackout and delayed results, leading to claims from Khan’s allies that the vote was rigged.

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They continued their protests in parliament as Mr Sharif’s premiership was confirmed, calling him a “vote thief” and shouting “shame”.

Imran Khan supporters gather for a protest in Karachi demanding free and fair elections. Pic: Reuters
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Imran Khan supporters protest in Karachi a few days after the election. Pic: Reuters

Mr Sharif offered “reconciliation”, adding: “Let us sit together to work for the betterment of Pakistan.” But his words were met by more shouting.

Meanwhile, his government faces a number of challenges: a struggling economy, a surge in militant attacks, tricky relations with Pakistan’s Taliban-run neighbour Afghanistan, and aging infrastructure.

Financially, Pakistan relies heavily on help from outside – wealthy states such as China and Saudi Arabia, as well as the International Monetary Fund.

An IMF bailout negotiated during Mr Sharif’s previous term will expire at the end of this month and he will need to strike another deal while also addressing growing anger over the rising cost of living.

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