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Trudeau to focus on return of stolen children at Ukraine peace talks

OBERKIRCH — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to shine a spotlight on the plight of Ukrainian children abducted by Russia and call for their safe return while attending a summit dedicated to establishing peace between the two countries.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a family photo during the G7 Summit in Savelletri Di Fasano, Italy on Friday, June 14, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OBERKIRCH — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to shine a spotlight on the plight of Ukrainian children abducted by Russia and call for their safe return while attending a summit dedicated to establishing peace between the two countries.

G7 leaders wrapped up their summit in Italy on Saturday, where Canada was heavily involved in a U.S.-led push to use frozen Russian assets to secure a US$50-billion loan to help Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders.

Canada has pledged $5 billion toward that loan.

Trudeau arrived in Switzerland for the peace talks hours later, alongside delegations from about 90 countries, to discuss a path toward ending the war with Russia.

"We'll work with partners on a plan to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine," the prime minister said at a press conference in Italy at the end of the G7 summit.

The summit began with an opening plenary featuring remarks from 26 leaders.

"Of course, we are aware that there is a long path ahead of us. We are under no illusion that we will reach a conclusive understanding at this summit," said Swiss President Viola Amherd.

"But we can come closer to reaching such an understanding word by word, proposal by proposal step by step."

The conference on Saturday and Sunday is seen largely as a symbolic effort on the part of Kyiv to rally the international community to Ukraine's cause.

Russia and its key ally China will not attend the peace talks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government didn’t want Russia involved, but the Swiss insist that Russia must be involved at some point, and hope it will join the process one day.

"We are all aware that the peace process without Russia is inconceivable. a lasting solution must involve both parties. As an international community, we can help to pave the way," said Amherd.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Russia's absence from the table during the opening plenary.

"Now, there is no Russia here. Why? Because if Russia was interested in peace, there would be no war," he said.

Zelenskyy said the international community must decide on what a "just peace" looks like, using the United Nations charter as its basis. Only then can Russia be brought into the process, he said.

When pressed on what impact the talks will have without Russia's participation, Trudeau said the summit is part of the process toward peace.

"We need to see peace and stability in Ukraine, as we need to see it around the world, and this is part of the effort that we all undertake to engage," he said.

"I'm going to be focusing in particular on the issue of children stolen from Ukraine by Russia who need to be returned."

At the request of Zelenskyy, Trudeau will co-chair a session on the human dimension of the war alongside Norway. The session is expected to touch on prisoners of war, civilian detainees and deported children.

Several families shared stories about their children's captivity and desperate bid to escape with the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights last year, in hopes that Canadian parliamentarians would help rescue others.

It is unclear how many children have been taken to Russia or territories it controls in Ukraine, but Save the Children told the committee in November that Ukrainian and Russian estimates of that number in November ranged from 2,000 to 20,000.

Several teens told the committee about being separated from their families and forcibly taken from Ukraine to camps in Russia or Russian-occupied territories during their testimony by video conference from Ukraine.

G7 leaders focused heavily on Ukraine during their summit, but the host country, Italy, promised the Israel-Hamas war and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip would be an equally significant topic of discussion.

The summit ended without any joint pledge to take specific action to address the situation in the Middle East.

"G7 leaders are united in wanting to see implementation of the US and UN peace plan, the immediate ceasefire, the return of all hostages," Trudeau said.

"We underscored repeatedly the need to continue delivering humanitarian assistance, as we all are."

India, which has avoided criticizing Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, is expected to take part in the peace talks this weekend. Trudeau had a brief conversation with the country's newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G7, but wouldn't elaborate on their discussion.

It was the first time the two leaders have crossed paths since Trudeau publicly accused Modi's government of being involved in the killing of a Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in British Columbia.

"There's important but sensitive issues that we need to follow up on, but this was a commitment to work together in the coming times to deal with some very important issues," Trudeau said.

Canada has been named the host for next year's G7 summit, which will be held in Kananaskis, Alta.

Trudeau would not say if he planned to invite Modi to those meetings.

The prime minister held a bilateral meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni following the news conference on Saturday morning, hailing her leadership at the summit.

The tone of the meeting was much friendlier than the bilateral meeting the two leaders held at the G7 summit last year in Japan, where Trudeau called out the Italian government's stance on LGBTQ2S+ rights.

Meloni’s right-wing government this week worked to water down references to abortion in the final statement issued by all the G7 nations at the end of the summit, prompting a disagreement between nations over language in the final draft of their shared commitments.

That is according to two senior U.S. officials, a senior European Union official and two other officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to talk about the discussions over the statement that were not made public.

The final statement, released Friday, omits the word “abortion” but does reference the need to promote “reproductive health and rights.”

When asked how Trudeau could sign the communique without the explicit mention of abortion, given his government's advocacy on the issue, the prime minister said there were "clear commitments" in the communique for sexual and reproductive rights.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2024.

-- With files from The Associated Press and Laura Osman in Ottawa

Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press