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Your Friday Briefing: Russia Doubles Down

Good morning. We’re covering Russia’s increased bombing campaigns, the W.H.O.’s revised Covid death toll and sandstorms sweeping Iraq.

Russian forces sought to destroy the last pocket of resistance at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, where about 200 civilians were holed up with fighters, Ukrainian officials estimated.

A Ukrainian commander said that “heavy, bloody battles” were being fought in the plant’s subterranean labyrinth of bunkers and fallout shelters. Russian forces found their way into the complex when a former worker showed them tunnels they could use to enter, a city official said. Russia also bombarded key points along the eastern front, launching missiles at the strategic city of Kramatorsk.

The onslaught comes days before the May 9 holiday, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany. Seizing Mariupol, a potent symbol for President Vladimir Putin, would allow him to claim a major victory before Moscow’s military celebration.

Ukraine is still holding strong despite suffering heavy injuries. Ukrainian forces reclaimed several villages around the eastern city of Kharkiv and pushed the Russians back some two dozen miles from the city, officials said, putting civilian areas that have suffered weeks of bombardment out of reach of Russian artillery. Here are live updates.

Mariupol: The Russian bombing of a theater in the coastal city in March killed about 600 people, The Associated Press found, which is almost double the death toll cited so far.

Energy: Despite pleas from Western governments, India continues to buy Russia’s oil at a low price. Europe is struggling to replace Russian gas amid climate concerns and political disputes.

Strategy: U.S. intelligence helped Ukraine kill Russian generals, according to American officials. Ukrainian officials said they had killed approximately 12 generals on the front lines, a number that has astonished military analysts.

Other updates:

The W.H.O. found that nearly 15 million more people died during the first two years of the pandemic than would have been expected during normal times.

Most were victims of Covid-19 itself, a global panel of experts said, but some died because the pandemic made it more difficult to get medical care for ailments such as heart attacks.

The previous count of virus deaths, from countries’ reporting, was six million. The new report offers a startling glimpse of how drastically the death counts reported by many governments have understated the true toll of the pandemic.

Details: In 2021, the total number of deaths was 18 percent more than usual — an extra 10 million people — as new and more contagious variants drove surges in countries that had fended off earlier outbreaks.

Background: The data had been ready since January, but India stalled their release after disputing the methodology. The W.H.O. estimates that nearly a third of the excess deaths globally — 4.7 million — took place there. India’s government counts just 481,080 excess deaths through the end of 2021.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

The seventh sandstorm in recent months swept Iraq on Thursday. More than 5,000 people were treated for respiratory problems, according to the country’s health ministry, and at least one person died.

This year, the barrage of sandstorms has also grounded flights and limited driving visibility. (Watch a video from Baghdad here.)

Prof. Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist in Iraq, expects 20 sandstorms to hit Iraq this year, up from two about 20 years ago. Climate change is partly to blame.

He also said that mismanagement of surface water and groundwater in the region — along with disturbances in deserts from farming and the movement of people — had exacerbated the issue.

What’s next: Climate change will most likely compound the challenges Iraq is facing, like water shortages after low rainfalls and increasing temperature.

Cost: In 2016, the U.N. said that more than $13 billion in gross domestic product was being lost each year because of dust storms in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mexican authorities thought they had found a contemporary crime scene when they discovered dozens of skulls in 2012. Now, archaeologists think they were the victims of sacrificial killings more than 1,000 years ago instead of casualties from gang warfare.

Peatlands are some of the earth’s most effective reservoirs of carbon.

But for decades, humans have been drying out the long-neglected landscapes and letting them burn, propelling nearly two billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually. Five percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions each year come from peatland that we’ve converted from carbon sinks to sources.

Peatlands, though, can be restored. And one fast-fashion billionaire in Scotland sees an opportunity: Repairing the country’s damaged landscape may be a multimillion-dollar business, given generous subsidies.

The experiment suggests that profit motives can be harnessed to keep carbon in the ground. But it could also point to the transformation of the peatlands into a luxury good for wealthy investors seeking virtuous-seeming assets, making land much more expensive for people already living in Scotland.

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