President Volodymyr Zelensky is set to hold talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday on the latest leg of a tour to push Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and secure more weapons from allies.

The talks in Istanbul come on the eve of the 500th day since Russia’s invasion, with Zelensky admitting a long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive was progressing slowly.

“But nevertheless, we are advancing, not retreating, like Russians,” Zelensky told reporters. “We now have the initiative.”

For his next stop before Istanbul, the Ukrainian president arrived in Bratislava, where he will notably meet with his Slovak counterpart and the prime minister before heading to Turkey.

The talks with Erdogan -- an important broker in the conflict -- are to focus on an expiring deal to ship Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea, as well as next week’s NATO summit.

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Analysts also expect Zelensky to push Erdogan to give a green light for Sweden’s NATO membership ahead of the July 11-12 meeting of the military alliance in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Turkey is blocking Sweden’s candidacy because of a longstanding dispute about Stockholm’s perceived lax attitude toward alleged Kurdish militants living in the Nordic country.

Zelensky is seeking NATO accession for his own country, which has been battling Russia’s invasion since February 2022, and has said he wants the summit to lead to an “invitation” to join the bloc.

Netherlands’ Rutte Signs Security Deal in Ukraine, Promising Artillery Funding
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Netherlands’ Rutte Signs Security Deal in Ukraine, Promising Artillery Funding

The Dutch prime minister signed a security deal with Ukraine in the northeastern city of Kharkiv and said the Netherlands would help fund the supply of 800,000 artillery shells.

Both Zelensky and Erdogan want to extend a United Nations and Turkey-brokered deal with Russia under which Ukraine has been allowed to ship grain to global markets during the war.

The deal will expire on July 17 unless Russia agrees to its renewal.

Erdogan has tried to leverage good working relations with both Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin to mediate an end to the war.

Turkey staged two early rounds of peace negotiations and is pushing for more talks.

Before visiting Prague on Thursday, Zelensky travelled to Sofia to discuss weapons deliveries with Bulgaria, a major supporter and ammunition producer.

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The Kremlin criticised the visit to Bulgaria, saying the Ukrainian leader was trying to “drag” other countries into the war.

- ‘Progress’ on nuclear inspections -

The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog said on Friday that it was “making progress” on inspecting several areas of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, after claims it had been mined.

Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of planning a provocation at the Russia-controlled site, raising alarm over risks of a radioactive disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

Ukraine’s military this week claimed “external objects similar to explosive devices” had been placed on the outer roof of the third and fourth reactors at the site.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been able to “complete the tours of the cooling ponds and other places”, Rafael Grossi said Friday in Tokyo.

They had “not seen any indications of explosives or mines”, he said, although he added IAEA officials had not yet been able to visit the facility’s rooftops.

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- Prigozhin ‘not in Belarus’ -

Meanwhile, the mystery deepened as to the fate of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, after the collapse of his short-lived mutiny.

Originally, Prigozhin was said to have been exiled to Belarus.

But Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko -- who mediated the deal to end the revolt -- said Thursday that the Wagner leader wasn’t in his country.

“As far as Prigozhin is concerned, he is in Saint Petersburg... He is not in Belarus,” Lukashenko told reporters in Minsk.

Lukashenko said he knew “for sure” that Prigozhin was free.

He added that Wagner mercenaries had not yet established a base in Belarus, despite a Kremlin offer for attempted mutiny participants to relocate.

- ‘Ceiling started to fall’ -

On Thursday, Russian missiles fell on Lviv in the biggest attack on civilian infrastructure in the western Ukrainian city since the Russian invasion, the city’s mayor said.

Rescuers had found a 10th body in the rubble, Andriy Sadovyi said early Friday, adding the search and rescue operation would end once the remains had been removed.

The strike also wounded 42 people, including three children, Ukraine’s interior ministry said Friday.

Russia’s defence ministry said its long-range, precision strikes overnight had hit all their designated targets but it did not specifically mention Lviv.

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“I woke up from the first explosion, but we didn’t have time to leave the apartment,” Olya, 37, told AFP.

“There was a second explosion, the ceiling started to fall, my mother was immediately hit.”

She said her mother and neighbours died in the attack.

“At this point, it seems that I was the only one who survived from the fourth floor. It’s a miracle,” she said.

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