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Ukraine has been telling anyone who would listen for months that Russia had a formal state-sponsored plan to effectively steal Ukrainian children, take them to Russia and turn them against their own country.

The Ukrainian government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say the number of missing children in the last year alone is more than 16,000.

They say the Russian brainwashing programme dates back to the start of this conflict in 2014, and in that time more than 700,000 children have been illegally moved.

Some parents have grown so desperate, they are risking travelling thousands of miles from Ukraine through Poland, then Belarus and Russia to Crimea to get their children back.

In a hostel in Kyiv set up for refugees, I met Lyudmila Motychak and her 15-year-old daughter Anastasia.

Lyudmila had undertaken this harrowing journey, but she lit up when she showed me the emotional video of the pair reuniting outside a Russian children’s facility in Crimea, after months apart.

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Nastya and her mother Lyudmila
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Nastya and her mother Lyudmila spoke to Sky News about their ordeal

Sceptical from the start, Lyudmila described how she was effectively tricked into letting her daughter go on a school trip, organised by the Russian-supporting authorities in Kherson and Crimea.

She said: “We were told that it will be a camp, and that the children were going there for two weeks, and they told us not to worry, that they would bring our children back, that a lot of children were going.

“I was afraid to let her go from the beginning. I was saying it’s a war, she shouldn’t go, but they insisted everything would be okay.

“They told me not to worry, everything will be okay. They said there is no war there, everything is good there, they will feed them five times a day and it’s good for her health, and that there is everything there, even a swimming pool.”

Two weeks later when her daughter didn’t return, Lyudmila realised something more sinister was at play.

“They told me it would be very good for my child, but there was nothing like that there, to tell the truth.”

Forced to sing Russia’s national anthem

Lyudmila described how she rang up the teachers, and the director of the educational college that her daughter attended. They kept telling her she would be returned at some point, but that the trip had turned into an evacuation because of the war.

Her daughter Anastasia, who goes by Nastya, told us that when she left Kherson, she departed on a convoy of 100 buses, each carrying 30 to 40 children. That’s more than 3,000 children on just one trip.

The opportunity was described to her as something like a “summer camp”, even though it was October.

But, she says, it was nothing like that.

She described how they were forced to sing Russia’s national anthem and follow strict orders.

“They said to us: ‘We are feeding you, we give you water, and we give you heating and comfort, and you’re so ungrateful.’

“They were confiscating balloons we had in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, and they were also shouting at us, saying: ‘We are ungrateful’, and to ‘go back to your fascists’.”

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When two weeks passed, Nastya asked if she could go home, but the authorities were buying time.

She said: “They started delaying and telling us on this date… you will go back home, don’t worry.

“But we didn’t go when those dates came.

“Then they started telling us other dates, but we never left.

“Then they told us it was an evacuation, and then finally they said we have to stay indefinitely – and that only our parents can come get us out.”

With the help of Save Ukraine, a Ukrainian NGO that helps families travel to Russia and the occupied territories to get their children back, Lyudmila and Nastya were able to reunite.

‘Indoctrination of our children’

Lyudmila believes it was always the plan to take the children for good and then try to convince the parents to follow – and stay.

She said: “They took the children and then they wanted parents to join their children, and then they were promising money, and they were promising homes and apartments, financial help.

“Of course they wanted to people to adopt their way of thinking. They wanted people to join them and play by their rules.”

The Ukrainian authorities and Save Ukraine say this is all part of a detailed strategy Russia had to take Ukraine’s children.

Save Ukraine spokesperson Olga Yerokhina said: “We consider it re-education and indoctrination of our children, and when I think about those children who haven’t got any parents for different reasons, how will we find them at all.”

“We must look at this from the perspective of history. It’s nothing new and this whole thing was prepared. What do they do with children… it’s part of a bigger policy against Ukraine.”

Olga Yerokhina
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Olga Yerokhina

I asked her if she thought it was part of a well-orchestrated plan.

She replied: “Yeah, we understand that it was not only about the full-scale invasion in 2022, it was prepared long before this.”

The exact number of children who have left Ukraine, or been forcibly removed, and may never be seen or heard from again, is unknown.

But the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges may one day bring someone involved to justice. That’s what Olga Yerokhina wants – some kind of concerted international plan and justice.

She said: “We have a lot of work to do.

“We hope the international community and Poland and the United Nations, that together we can create some kind of mechanism to return these children.

“We are realistic. Maybe we can’t do it for all of them, but we have to do as much as we can.”

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Israel v Iran – Is escalation inevitable?

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Vietnam: Property tycoon Truong My Lan sentenced to death after country’s biggest fraud trial

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Vietnam: Property tycoon Truong My Lan sentenced to death after country's biggest fraud trial

A property tycoon has been sentenced to death in Vietnam after the biggest fraud trial in the country’s history.

Truong My Lan was sentenced on Thursday by a court in Ho Chi Minh City after being found guilty of embezzlement, bribery and violations of banking rules following a month-long trial, state media reported.

The 67-year-old chair of the company Van Thinh Phat (VTP) was accused of fraud amounting to $12.5bn – nearly 3% of the country’s GDP in 2022.

Lan and her accomplices were charged with illegally controlling the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank (SCB) between 2012 and 2022 to siphon off funds through thousands of ghost companies and by paying bribes to government officials.

From early 2018 to October 2022, when the state bailed out SCB after a run on its deposits, Lan appropriated large sums by arranging unlawful loans to shell companies, investigators said.

The start of the trial featured prominently in state media, which showed pictures and footage of Lan in the courtroom surrounded by dozens of police officers.

Truong My Lan
Pic: AP
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Lan was sentenced after a month-long trial. Pic: AP

“Lan didn’t plead guilty and didn’t show remorse,” Thanh Nien newspaper cited the prosecutors as saying last month, while demanding the death penalty on the charge of embezzlement.

“The consequences are extremely serious and irreparable, and therefore, there must be a strict punishment for Truong My Lan and remove her from society,” it added.

The harsh sentence was due to the seriousness of the case, with the court saying Lan was at the helm of an orchestrated and sophisticated criminal enterprise that had serious consequences – with no possibility of the money being recovered, state media VnExpress reported on Thursday.

“We will keep fighting to see what we can do,” a family member told Reuters news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. Before the verdict was issued, he had said Lan would appeal against the sentence.

A total of 84 defendants in the case received sentences ranging from probation to life imprisonment, reported Thanh Nien.

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VTP was among Vietnam’s richest property firms, with projects including luxury residential buildings, offices, hotels and shopping centres.

Lan’s arrest in October 2022 was among the most high-profile in an ongoing anti-corruption drive in Vietnam.

The crackdown, dubbed “blazing furnace”, has led to hundreds of senior state officials and high-profile business leaders facing prosecution or being forced to step down.

Former President Vo Van Thuong resigned in March after being implicated in the campaign.

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Nguyen Phu Trong, leader of the ruling Communist Party, has pledged for years to stamp out corruption in the country.

In November, he said the anti-corruption fight would “continue for the long term”.

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Risks of bigger war rising as Iran intends to hit back over suspected Israeli embassy strike – but Biden knows he can’t blink

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Risks of bigger war rising as Iran intends to hit back over suspected Israeli embassy strike - but Biden knows he can't blink

The risks of the Gaza war expanding into a much bigger regional conflict had seemed to have subsided. Not any longer.

Comments from Iranian and American leaders in the last 24 hours may be entirely predictable but they raise the prospects of escalation.

Iran knows it’s been directly attacked in the airstrike on its embassy in Damascus and unless it retaliates it is weakened.

And in this region that is dangerous.

So on Wednesday, celebrating the end of Ramadan, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei issued a stern warning that Israel must be punished and will be.

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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with members of the Air Force in Tehran, Iran 
Piv:WANA/Reuters
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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Piv: WANA/Reuters

The US president knows the attack presumed by most to have been the work of its ally Israel violated international law which declares embassies ‘inviolable’.

And Biden’s relations with the man who almost certainly ordered it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are rock bottom.

But the US president also knows any sign of weakness on his part is dangerous, too.

It would only embolden Iran to do its worst and that in turn would provoke Israel to do the same – potentially setting the entire region alight.

Joe Biden during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Pic: AP
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Relations are strained between Biden and Netanyahu. Pic: AP

So Joe Biden has declared his ironclad support for Israel and raised the prospect of America becoming directly involved if war were to break out between its ally and Iran.

It is exactly the same calculus that led the US president to send two naval carrier groups to the waters off Israel in the wake of the 7 October attacks by Hamas to warn Iran – ‘don’t get involved’.

That move was successful. This time Biden may need to do more.

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Biden: ‘We want to address Iranian threat’

Iran has shown remarkable restraint holding back in this war despite frequent attacks by Israel on its assets and allies in Syria and Lebanon.

It has done so by claiming those attacks were not direct strikes on Iran itself.

The logic is clear. The ayatollahs are weak at home after the biggest uprising against its rule since its revolution and a regional war would be devastating.

But a direct attack on an embassy can’t be overlooked. The Iranians have made that clear.

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They believe they have to retaliate.

But by the same logic, they may try to calibrate their response to avert a regional conflagration.

The region watches and waits.

The balance of stability in the Middle East hangs on Tehran’s decision.

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