WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. has still not seen anything to indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to use a dirty bomb.

He said there are continued concerns that the conflict could escalate, and said that’s why it is critical for the U.S. to keep the lines of communication open with allies and with Russia.

“We’re going to continue to communicate that any type of use of a weapon of that sort, or even the talk of the use of a weapon of that sort is dangerous and irresponsible,” said Austin, who spoke with his Russian counterpart twice in the last week.

“It’s important to make sure that we’re talking to adversaries and allies alike and making sure that that we’re tamping down dangerous talk.”

Asked if there are concerns Russia might use its upcoming nuclear exercises as a cover for a strike inside Ukraine, Austin said, “it’s something we continue to watch. And we haven’t seen anything to cause us to believe at this point that that is some kind of cover activity.”

Moscow has repeatedly made the unfounded claim that Ukraine is preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” an explosive devise with radioactive material, on its own territory. Western officials have dismissed the claim as misinformation possibly designed as a pretext for Russia to justify its own military escalation.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

— ‘Kill everyone’: Russian violence in Ukraine was strategic

— Europe’s energy crisis raises firewood prices, theft fears

— UN optimistic on Ukraine grain deal; Russia has reservations

— Takeaways from investigation of Russian general in Ukraine

— West and Russia clash over UN probe of drone use in Ukraine

— Russia’s chaotic mobilization leaves some new soldiers unprepared

— Follow all AP stories on the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow has no intention to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“We see no need for that,” Putin said Thursday at a conference of international foreign policy experts, adding: “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.”

Without offering evidence, he repeated Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was plotting to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a false flag attack blaming Russia. Ukraine has rejected the unsubstantiated accusation, and Western allies have dismissed it as “transparently false.”

Putin said Russia knows the Ukrainian facilities allegedly working on the purported project and asserted, again without providing proof, that Kyiv’s plan is to rig a missile with radioactive waste and blow it up, casting it as a Russian nuclear strike.

He maintained the goal was to politically isolate Russia and to force its allies to end any cooperation with Moscow.

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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday sought to cast the conflict in Ukraine as part of efforts by the West to secure its global domination.

Speaking at a conference of international policy experts, Putin accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to dictate their terms to other nations in a “dangerous and bloody” domination game.

Putin, who sent his troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, has cast Western support for Ukraine as part of broad efforts by Washington and its allies to enforce what they call a rules-based world order that only foments chaos.

The Russian leader claimed that “he who will sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.” He said “humankind now faces a choice: accumulate a load of problems that will inevitably crush us all or try to find solutions that may not be ideal but working and could make the world more stable and secure.”

Putin said Russia isn’t the enemy of the West but will continue to oppose the diktat of Western neo-liberal elites.

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MOSCOW — Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Thursday that the threat of a nuclear conflict has risen amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Maria Zakharova argued that “the more the U.S. is drawn into supporting the Kyiv regime on the battlefield, the more they risk provoking a direct military confrontation between the biggest nuclear powers fraught with catastrophic consequences.”

She charged that unlike the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviets and the United States quickly negotiated a compromise, “Washington now keeps upping the ante, apparently believing that it’s capable of controlling the escalation.”

Zakharova said that instead of the ongoing “thoughtless and mad” escalation, the U.S. should take a more responsible approach shown during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The warning comes as Moscow has made unsubstantiated allegations of a Ukrainian plot to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb, claims rejected by Ukraine and denounced its Western allies as “transparently false.”

Ukrainian authorities on Thursday reported that a mass grave containing up to 17 bodies of soldiers and civilians was discovered near a key city recaptured by Kyiv last month.

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KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian interior ministry said in a statement Thursday that local police found a mass grave outside the city of Izium, which Ukraine’s forces retook last month as part of a sweeping offensive in the northeast.

The statement cited locals as saying that Russian troops dumped the bodies in a pit outside the nearby village of Kopanky in mid-April and then leveled the ground with tanks.

“Locals say that (Ukrainian) soldiers died in battle and were buried there. The Russians did not put a single mark on the grave and did not allow the villagers to go to the cemetery. People found three crosses, and (used them to) mark the perimeter of the grave, removed weeds,” Dmytro Soima, a local police representative, was cited as saying in the ministry’s statement.

His account could not be independently verified.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A senior Ukrainian military officer has accused Russia of planning to stage explosions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and blame them on Ukraine in a false flag attack.

Gen. Oleksii Hromov, the chief of the main operational department of the Ukrainian military’s General Staff, pointed to Russia’s unfounded allegations that Ukraine was plotting to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb as a possible signal that Moscow was planning explosions at the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest.

Russia took control of the Zaporizhzhia plant in the opening days of the invasion. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of attacking the plant, which has been shut after continuous shelling.

Hromov also charged Thursday that Russian forces could have staged a series of explosions at residential buildings in the city of Kherson before retreating from the city using scorched Earth tactics “to inflict critical damage to the infrastructure of the areas being reclaimed by Ukraine.”

Moscow has repeatedly made the unfounded claim that Ukraine is preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” an explosive device with radioactive material, on its own territory. Western officials have dismissed the claim as misinformation possibly designed as a pretext for Russia to justify its own military escalation.

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KYIV, Ukraine — The governor of Ukraine’s capital region on Thursday announced new rolling blackouts caused by Russian attacks on energy facilities.

Kyiv Gov. Oleksii Kuleba said that the region will have to order new power cuts and urged consumers to save power. He said authorities were still pondering over specifics of the blackouts needed to restore the damaged power facilities.

He said the latest Russian attacks on energy facilities in the region have inflicted “very serious damage.”

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said that rolling blackouts will also be introduced in the neighboring Chernihiv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr regions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said earlier that Russian attacks have already destroyed 30% of the country’s energy infrastructure.

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MOSCOW — The Moscow-appointed authorities in the southern region of Kherson say that tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in the face of Ukraine’s offensive.

Kherson Gov. Vladimir Saldo said Thursday that over 70,000 residents of Kherson and nearby areas have moved to the left bank of the Dnieper river. The regional authorities have urged residents to evacuate as Ukraine has pushed its offensive to reclaim Kherson, which was captured by Russian forces during the first days of the conflict.

Regional authorities have also removed monuments to Russia’s 18th century military chiefs Alexander Suvorov and Fyodor Ushakov from the city. Saldo said that the remains of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general who founded Kherson in the 18th century and was his governor, were also removed from the St. Catherine Church in Kherson and moved to safety.

Vice Gov. Kirill Stremousov said Thursday that the regional administration also has been evacuated from Kherson. Despite that, Stremousov said that Ukrainian attempts to advance on Kherson have been thwarted and insisted that Russian troops will keep their hold on the city.

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MOSCOW — The head of the Crimean city of Sevastopol said a power plant just outside the city has come under a drone attack.

Mikhail Razvozhayev said early Thursday a drone hit a transformer and sparked a fire but didn’t affect the operation. Razvozhayev said that electricity supplies haven’t been interrupted.

Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, has faced drone attacks and explosions from supporters of Ukraine.

In a major setback for Russia on Oct. 8, a powerful truck bomb blew up a section of a strategic 19-kilometer bridge linking Crimea to Russia’s mainland.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s presidential office said that that at least four civilians have been killed and another eight have been wounded in the latest Russian attacks across the country.

Kyiv region Gov. Oleksiy Kuleba said that a Russian drone attack early Thursday hit an energy facility, sparking a fire.

“The Russians are using drones and missiles to destroy Ukraine’s energy system ahead of the winter and terrorize civilians,” Kuleba said in televised remarks.

An energy facility was also struck by Russian rockets in the Zaporizhzhia region, according to local authorities.

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CHISINAU, Moldova — Europe’s energy crisis, triggered by Russia slashing natural gas flows amid its war against Ukraine, has forced some people to turn to cheaper heating sources like firewood as the weather gets colder. But as more people stock up and burn wood, prices have skyrocketed, shortages and thefts have been reported, and scams are emerging.

Foresters are putting GPS devices into logs to track the valuable stocks, and fears are rising about the environmental impact of increased air pollution and tree-cutting.

In the former Soviet republic of Moldova, leaders worry that this winter could be devastating for many of its people because of the high cost of electricity and heat, with European natural gas prices roughly triple what they were in early 2021 despite falling from August’s record highs.

Europe’s poorest country, with pro-Western aspirations but part of its territory controlled by Russian troops, has seen Russian energy giant Gazprom slash natural gas supplies by 30% recently and threaten more cuts.

The clamor for firewood is not limited to poorer nations like Moldova but has surged across richer regions of Europe, too. Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic’s state-owned forests are seeing much stronger demand for the limited amounts of firewood they sell as part of their sustainable forest management.

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MOSCOW — A Russian diplomat has strongly protested the use of Western commercial satellites in support of Ukraine and warned that they could be targeted.

Konstantin Vorontsov, a deputy head of the Russian delegation at a United Nations arms control panel, said in remarks delivered Wednesday that the use of U.S. and other Western commercial satellites for military purposes during the fighting in Ukraine is “extremely dangerous” and effectively means their involvement in the conflict.

Vorontsov warned that “the quasi-civilian infrastructure could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike,” adding that the Western action raises risks for stability of space assets serving civilian needs.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine