Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that the surveillance system could give the police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn the authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.

Hikvision, that aims to predict protests. The system collects data on legions of Chinese petitioners, a general term in China that describes people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities.

It then scores petitioners on the likelihood that they will travel to Beijing. In the future, the data will be used to train machine-learning models, according to a procurement document.

Local officials want to prevent such trips to avoid political embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing. And the central government doesn’t want groups of disgruntled citizens gathering in the capital.

A Hikvision representative declined to comment on the system.

Under Mr. Xi, official efforts to control petitioners have grown increasingly invasive. Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of a group that for years sought redress over a real estate fraud, said the authorities in 2017 had intercepted fellow petitioners in Shanghai before they could even buy tickets to Beijing. He suspected that the authorities were watching their communications on the social media app WeChat.

The Hikvision system in Tianjin, which is run in cooperation with the police in nearby Beijing and Hebei Province, is more sophisticated.

The platform analyzes individuals’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations, according to the procurement document. It helps the police create a profile of each, with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”

Many people who petition do so over government mishandling of a tragic accident or neglect in the case — all of which goes into the algorithm. “Increase a person’s early-warning risk level if they have low social status or went through a major tragedy,” reads the procurement document.

When the police in Zhouning, a rural county in Fujian Province, bought a new set of 439 cameras in 2018, they listed coordinates where each would go. Some hung above intersections and others near schools, according to a procurement document.

Nine were installed outside the homes of people with something in common: mental illness.

While some software tries to use data to uncover new threats, a more common type is based on the preconceived notions of the police. In over a hundred procurement documents reviewed by The Times, the surveillance targeted blacklists of “key persons.”

These people, according to some of the procurement documents, included those with mental illness, convicted criminals, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators and threats to social stability. Other systems targeted migrant workers, idle youths (teenagers without school or a job), ethnic minorities, foreigners and those infected with H.I.V.

The authorities decide who goes on the lists, and there is often no process to notify people when they do. Once individuals are in a database, they are rarely removed, said experts, who worried that the new technologies reinforce disparities within China, imposing surveillance on the least fortunate parts of its population.

In many cases the software goes further than simply targeting a population, allowing the authorities to set up digital tripwires that indicate a possible threat. In one Megvii presentation detailing a rival product by Yitu, the system’s interface allowed the police to devise their own early warnings.

With a simple fill-in-the-blank menu, the police can base alarms on specific parameters, including where a blacklisted person appears, when the person moves around, whether he or she meets with other blacklisted people and the frequency of certain activities. The police could set the system to send a warning each time two people with a history of drug use check into the same hotel or when four people with a history of protest enter the same park.

Yitu did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In 2020 in the city of Nanning, the police bought software that could look for “more than three key people checking into the same or nearby hotels” and “a drug user calling a new out-of-town number frequently,” according to a bidding document. In Yangshuo, a tourist town famous for its otherworldly karst mountains, the authorities bought a system to alert them if a foreigner without a work permit spent too much time hanging around foreign-language schools or bars, an apparent effort to catch people overstaying their visas or working illegally.

In Shanghai, one party-run publication described how the authorities used software to identify those who exceeded normal water and electricity use. The system would send a “digital whistle” to the police when it found suspicious consumption patterns.

The tactic was likely designed to detect migrant workers, who often live together in close quarters to save money. In some places, the police consider them an elusive, and often impoverished, group who can bring crime into communities.

The automated alerts don’t result in the same level of police response. Often, the police give priority to warnings that point to political problems, like protests or other threats to social stability, said Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing.

At times, the police have stated outright the need to profile people. “Through the application of big data, we paint a picture of people and give them labels with different attributes,” Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”

Mr. Zhang first started petitioning the government for compensation over the torture of his family during the Cultural Revolution. He has since petitioned over what he says is police targeting of his family.

As China has built out its techno-authoritarian tools, he has had to use spy movie tactics to circumvent surveillance that, he said, has become “high tech and Nazified.”

When he traveled to Beijing in January from his village in Shandong Province, he turned off his phone and paid for transportation in cash to minimize his digital footprint. He bought train tickets to the wrong destination to foil police tracking. He hired private drivers to get around checkpoints where his identification card would set off an alarm.

The system in Tianjin has a special feature for people like him who have “a certain awareness of anti-reconnaissance” and regularly change vehicles to evade detection, according to the police procurement document.

Whether or not he triggered the system, Mr. Zhang has noticed a change. Whenever he turns off his phone, he said, officers show up at his house to check that he hasn’t left on a new trip to Beijing.

Credit…Zhang Yuqiao

Even if police systems cannot accurately predict behavior, the authorities may consider them successful because of the threat, said Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of surveillance in China.

“In a context where there isn’t real political accountability,” having a surveillance system that frequently sends police officers “can work pretty well” at discouraging unrest, he said.

Once the metrics are set and the warnings are triggered, police officers have little flexibility, centralizing control. They are evaluated for their responsiveness to automated alarms and effectiveness at preventing protests, according to experts and public police reports.

The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.

One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.

Mr. Zhang expressed frustration at the ways technology had cut off those in political power from regular people.

“The authorities do not seriously solve problems but do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” he said. “This is a big step backward for society.”

Mr. Zhang said that he still believed in the power of technology to do good, but that in the wrong hands it could be a “scourge and a shackle.”

“In the past if you left your home and took to the countryside, all roads led to Beijing,” he said. “Now, the entire country is a net.”

Isabelle Qian and Aaron Krolik contributed research and reporting. Production by Agnes Chang and Alexander Cardia.

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In Ukraine, Some Ethnic Hungarians Feel Ambivalence About the War

TRANSCARPATHIA, Ukraine — Beneath dark clouds unleashing a summer rain, officials in a southwestern Ukrainian border village gathered silently, slowly hanging wreaths on branches to commemorate the destruction of a nation.

The wreaths were not decorated with the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag; they were laced, instead, with the red, white and green of Hungary’s. And the nation they honored this month was not their besieged country, but a homeland from their collective history, torn up more than 100 years ago.

Transcarpathia — now a hardscrabble region of Ukraine bordering Hungary — has been home to as many as 150,000 ethnic Hungarians who, through the complex horse-trading, conquests and boundary adjustments of over a century of European geopolitics, ended up within Ukraine’s borders.

war with Russia, the yearnings of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority were mostly brushed off as benign nostalgia for a time when they lived in one nation with other ethnic Hungarians. Now, divided loyalties within the tiny community — which has soaked up Hungary’s ambivalence toward Russia’s invasion — are being seen as something more worrisome by their fellow Ukrainians, some of whom fear they are susceptible to pro-Russia propaganda from Hungary.

Viktor Orban, is able to cause for his neighbors, in this case by playing on ethnic Hungarians’ feelings of discrimination by their government. And it adds another layer of complexity for Ukraine’s leaders as they try to keep their sprawling, multiethnic country united in the face of a brutal Russian invasion, even as they struggle to win allegiance from minorities including ethnic Russians and Hungarians.

tensions have risen as Mr. Orban has increasingly sought to bring ethnic Hungarian enclaves in Ukraine and elsewhere under his sway. Among other things, he has encouraged Hungarians beyond the country’s borders to claim citizenship, which allowed him to win over new voters to keep him in power.

In this poor region of Ukraine, along the Hungarian border, he doled out funding to run schools, churches, businesses and newspapers, winning gratitude — and helping fan resentments. The ceremony for a lost homeland did not exist before Mr. Orban came to power.

The feelings of otherness intensified as Ukraine, under constant threat by Russia, passed a law that mandates more classes be taught in Ukrainian in public schools. The law was mainly meant to rein in the use of the Russian language, but for the conservative Hungarian community where many still learn, and pray, almost exclusively in Hungarian, the law was seen as an unfair infringement on constitutional rights.

tried to block European Union sanctions on Russian energy imports, on which Hungary relies. And he declined to give weapons to Ukraine, or even allow them to be shipped across Hungary’s borders.

That wariness has seeped into the ethnic Hungarian community, fed by Hungarian television channels close to Mr. Orban’s governing party that broadcast into Hungarian-Ukrainian homes along the border. Hungarian broadcasters cast doubt on Ukraine’s position that Russia invaded to steal Ukrainian land, instead sharing Moscow’s perspective that it invaded to protect Russian speakers — a minority with a different language, not unlike the ethnic Hungarians.

“I think this is the main reason for the war, not what Ukraine says,” said Gyula Fodor, a vice rector at the Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute, chatting over traditional plum schnapps after the ceremony for the lost homeland. The institute, a private college, has received Hungarian funding, and Mr. Orban attended its ribbon-cutting.

As the war has dragged on, relations between Mr. Orban and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine have grown increasingly frosty.

In the border towns, suspicion is in the air. Some ethnic Ukrainians claimed during interviews that in the first days of Russia’s invasion Hungarian priests had urged the faithful to hold out hope that their region would be annexed to Hungary after Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, fell, though there is no documentary evidence to substantiate those assertions.

In towns with ethnic Hungarian majorities, some people reported being harassed with mysterious text messages in Ukrainian: “Ukraine for Ukrainians. Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” They said the messages ended with a threat using another word for ethnic Hungarians: “Magyars to the knives.”

Ukrainian intelligence officials publicly claim the texts came from a bot farm in Odesa using Russian software, and labeled it a Russian attempt to destabilize Ukraine, but they did not provide evidence.

Tensions in Transcarpathia erupted publicly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Right-wing nationalists marched through the streets of Uzhhorod in recent years, sometimes chanting “Magyars to the knife.”

And a Hungarian cultural center in the city of Uzhhorod was set ablaze twice in 2017. In both cases, authorities said the perpetrators had pro-Russian links. Dmytro Tuzhankskyi, the director of the Institute for Central European Strategy in Uzhhorod that promotes Ukraine’s alignment with the West, says he believes Moscow was behind other local provocations. Moscow would like to sow discord between Hungary and Ukraine, he alleged, as a way of causing more trouble for the Western alliance that has lined up against Mr. Putin.

Hungarian and local officials, he worried, could unwittingly fall prey to such designs: “They might think: One more little provocation — it means nothing. That’s a very dangerous mind-set.”

Yet for many ethnic Hungarians, Ukraine is not blameless.

László Zubánics, the leader of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Ukraine, said locals watch Hungarian television partly because no Ukrainian cable channels reach the border areas, something he saw as a form of political neglect. But he acknowledged that ethnic Hungarians often choose to tune into Hungarian, and not Ukrainian, satellite channels.

Many ethnic Hungarians say they are only able to afford to stay in the region of family vineyards and farms because of Hungarian funding. That makes many ethnic Hungarians skeptical of Ukraine’s claims that it wants to help integrate them into society, Mr. Zubánics said: “Most kids and parents say, ‘Why do I need the state language? I don’t see my place here in this country.’”

Although the Soviets repressed and exiled Hungarian nationalists, some ethnic Hungarians have started to look back on Soviet rule as a time of relative cultural freedom as well. It was a time, according to Mr. Zubánics, when Hungarians recall holding prominent official positions, unlike in modern Ukraine.

Nostalgia for Soviet times stirs the ire of local right-wing nationalists such as Vasyl Vovkunovich, once a political ally of Hungarian nationalists in the final days of the Soviet Union. In 2017, he said he led a march of supporters down the streets of Berehove, ripping down Hungarian flags raised over many churches and buildings.

“These Hungarians are not worthy,” he said. “Their ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew Hungary was siding with Russia.”

For local residents like Zoltan Kazmér, 32, the present feels more complicated. He feels loyal to Ukraine, he said. But it was Hungarian funding that allowed him to turn his family’s century-old winemaking tradition into a business.

“When we go to Hungary, we feel like Ukrainians,” he said. “When we are in Ukraine, we feel like Hungarians.”

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Investigators find pellet gun near scene where Toronto police killed suspected gunman

Police officers work at the scene where police shot and injured a suspect who was walking down a city street carrying a gun, as four nearby schools were placed on lockdown, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 26, 2022. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

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Ottawa, May 27 (Reuters) – Investigators recovered a pellet gun from the scene where Toronto police shot and killed a man suspected of carrying a rifle in a section of the city that prompted five nearby schools to be placed under precautionary lockdowns.

On Thursday, police went to Scarborough after receiving multiple 911 calls about a man walking with a rifle and located him shortly after, Ontario province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) said in a statement on Friday. The man, 27, was pronounced dead about 20 minutes later.

Toronto Police Chief James Ramer told reporters after the incident that officers responding to the calls were confronted by the man, but had declined to give further details, citing an ongoing investigation. This was after police said on Twitter that officers had fired and injured the suspect.

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The incident occurred days after a gunman in Texas killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school. The Texas shooting raised more concerns about growing gun violence.

Mass shootings are rare in Canada, where gun control laws are stricter than in the United States.

The investigation is ongoing and a post-mortem exam is scheduled for Saturday, said the SIU, which is an independent government agency tasked with investigating the conduct of officials, including police officers.

The SIU aims to complete its investigation within 120 days, which can vary depending on the case.

Canada’s rate of firearm homicides is 0.5 per 100,000 people, far lower than the U.S. rate of 4.12, according to a 2021 analysis by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. read more

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Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Bernard Orr

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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KB Home Announces the Grand Opening of Three New-home Communities in the Highly Desirable and Thriving Valencia Master Plan

VALENCIA, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–KB Home (NYSE: KBH) today announced the grand opening of three new-home communities in the highly desirable Valencia® master plan in Valencia, California. Sage, Vesper and Crimson feature spacious single-family homes, paired homes and townhomes in Valencia’s scenic high country. The new neighborhoods are situated just off West Magic Mountain Parkway near the Interstate 5 and Highway 126 interchange, providing easy access to the area’s major employment centers as well as shopping, dining and entertainment at Westfield Valencia Town Center. The three communities are also minutes to outdoor recreation, including hiking/biking trails and several popular golf courses. Additionally, the new neighborhoods are convenient to the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, popular beaches and other attractions.

Valencia is an exciting and thriving master plan with several new amenities, including a pool with cabanas and lounge areas as well as open space and walking trails. Future planned amenities will include shops, restaurants, additional pools and over 30 miles of interconnected trails and multimodal pathways to explore by foot, bike or Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). Homeowners will also enjoy 10,000 acres of parks and open space and schools in the popular Newhall School District.

The single-family homes at Sage at Valencia showcase desirable design characteristics like open kitchens and great rooms perfect for entertaining, generous bedroom suites with retreats, walk-in closets and ample storage space. The community offers one- and two-story floor plans that feature up to five bedrooms and three baths, and range in size from approximately 2,300 to 2,800 square feet. Pricing begins from low $1M.

Vesper at Valencia offers a selection of paired homes that blend attractive design features like beautiful kitchens and large bedroom suites with walk-in closets as well as loft spaces and covered patios. The community’s floor plans feature up to four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, and range in size from approximately 1,700 to 2,200 square feet. Pricing begins from the low $800,000s.

The beautiful new townhomes at Crimson at Valencia offer spacious kitchens overlooking large great rooms, expansive bedroom suites and optional downstairs bedrooms or dens. The community’s floor plans feature up to four bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, and range in size from approximately 1,800 to 2,000 square feet. Pricing begins from the mid $700,000s.

“Our three new communities, Sage, Vesper and Crimson, feature spacious single-family homes, paired homes and townhomes in a picturesque setting that offer a wide selection of floor plans. The new neighborhoods are compelling additions to the highly desirable Valencia master plan, which showcases several family friendly amenities, including a pool with cabanas and lounge areas as well as open space and walking trails,” said Keltie Cole, President of KB Home’s Los Angeles and Ventura County division. “The new communities are also convenient to Interstate 5 and Highway 126, providing access to the Los Angeles metropolitan area’s major employers and attractions. As with other KB Home communities, Sage, Vesper and Crimson provide home shoppers with the opportunity to purchase a personalized, new KB home at a price that fits their lifestyle and needs.”

KB Home stands out from other homebuilders as the company gives homebuyers exceptional choice and control. KB Home starts by offering a wide variety of homes at an affordable price. From there, the builder gives buyers the ability to personalize their homes from floor plans to exterior elevations, from design options to where they live in the community. The KB Home team works hand in hand with homeowners every step of the way, so they have a real partner in the process.

Every KB home is designed to be ENERGY STAR® certified thanks to the quality construction techniques and materials utilized that ultimately deliver significant savings on utility bills compared to used homes. Additionally, all new KB homes are designed to deliver an enhanced indoor environment and include high performance ventilation systems, low- or zero-VOC products and other features guided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Indoor airPLUS standards.

The Sage, Vesper and Crimson sales offices and model homes are open for walk-in visits and private in-person tours by appointment. Homebuyers also have the flexibility to arrange a live video tour with a sales counselor. Pricing begins from low $1M, low $800,000s and mid $700,000s, respectively.

For more information on KB Home, call 888-KB-HOMES or visit kbhome.com.

About KB Home

KB Home is one of the largest and most recognized homebuilders in the United States and has built over 655,000 quality homes in our more than 65-year history. Today, KB Home operates in 47 markets from coast to coast. What sets KB Home apart is the exceptional personalization we offer our homebuyers — from those buying their first home to experienced buyers — allowing them to make their home uniquely their own, at a price that fits their budget. As the leader in energy-efficient homebuilding, KB Home was the first builder to make every home it builds ENERGY STAR® certified, a standard of energy performance achieved by fewer than 10% of new homes in America and has built more ENERGY STAR certified homes than any other builder. An energy-efficient KB home helps lower the cost of ownership and is designed to be healthier, more comfortable, and better for the environment than new homes without certification. We build strong, personal relationships with our customers, so they have a real partner in the homebuying process. As a result, we have the distinction of being the #1 customer-ranked national homebuilder in third-party buyer satisfaction surveys. Learn more about how we build homes built on relationships by visiting kbhome.com.

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Eid Under the Taliban Shows a Changed Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Thousands of Afghans had piled into buses and set out down the country’s once perilous highways bound for relatives they had not seen in years. Afghanistan’s only national park was filled with tourists who had only dreamed of traveling to its intensely blue lakes and jagged mountains when fighting raged across the country.

And Zulhijjah Mirzadah, a mother of five, packed a small picnic of dried fruit, gathered her family in a minibus and wove for two hours through the congested streets of the capital, Kabul, to a bustling amusement park.

From the entrance, she could hear the low whoosh of a roller coaster and the chorus of joyous screams from Afghans inside celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But she could not go further. Women, she was told at the gate, were barred by the Taliban from entering the park on Eid.

“We’re facing economic problems, things are expensive, we can’t find work, our daughters can’t go to school — but we hoped to have a picnic in the park today,” said Ms. Mirzadah, 25.

country’s economic collapse since the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government, the freedom of travel and luxury of celebratory outings remained out of reach.

City Park, the amusement park in Kabul, and the city’s zoo, had less than half of the number of visitors that typically come each Eid, according to park managers. The low turnout was a reflection of both the country’s economic downturn and the Taliban’s edict barring women from visiting on Eid — the latest in a growing roster of restrictions on women in public spaces.

In a modest house tucked into one of Kabul’s many hillsides, Zhilla, 18, gathered with relatives at her aunt’s house on the second day of Eid. Her young cousins and siblings chased each other in the small courtyard. Inside, Zhilla marveled over her new cousin, just six days old, sleeping peacefully in her mother’s lap.

“The baby knows we’ve been through a lot, she needs to behave for us,” Zhilla joked.

The previous year, she and her relatives had gathered by the city’s Qargha reservoir for a picnic by the river, as boys and girls rode bicycles along its banks and took boats out on the water — a memory that feels like a lifetime ago, she said.

“This Eid is the same as any other day — we cannot go out, we cannot be free,” she said.

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Houston.

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Will President Biden Forgive Student Loan Debt?

Justin Nelson’s letter, one of the thousands that arrived at the White House this month, said he was proud to vote for President Biden back in 2020. Now he had a request: Would the president please honor a campaign promise and use the enclosed pen to wipe out thousands of dollars he owes in student loans?

The letter-writing campaign — #PensForBiden — is the latest attempt to sway Mr. Biden on a high-stakes dilemma as the midterm elections approach and much of his domestic agenda remains stalled: What to do about the $1.6 trillion that more than 45 million people owe the government?

So far, Mr. Biden has extended the pandemic pause on student loan payments four times, most recently until Aug. 31. Payments have now been on hold for more than two years, over two presidential administrations.

But all that time poses problems. Many of the issues that have long bedeviled the loan system have only grown more complicated during the pause, and receiving bills again will infuriate and frustrate millions of people who feel trapped by a broken system and crushing debt.

progressive wing of his Democratic Party. He backed the idea on the campaign trail in 2020. “I’m going to make sure that everybody in this generation gets $10,000 knocked off of their student debt as we try to get out of this God-awful pandemic,” he told an audience in Miami.

Senate Democrats lack the votes to help make good on that promise, leaving executive action as the only possible pathway. But close allies say some influential members of Mr. Biden’s team have been reluctant for him to do it — some because they disagree with the idea of forgiveness and some because they don’t believe he has the authority.

“He’s got lawyers telling him he shouldn’t,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat and a key supporter of Mr. Biden. But Mr. Clyburn, the most senior Black lawmaker in Congress, said presidential actions had brought sweeping changes before, including Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Harry Truman’s order banning segregation in the military.

“If executive orders can free slaves and integrate the armed services, it can eliminate debt,” Mr. Clyburn said.

analysis released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last week. A separate study by the bank found that surveyed borrowers reported a 16 percent chance of quickly missing a payment if the moratorium ended.

Mr. Nelson, a 32-year-old bank operations associate in Minneapolis, said the pause had freed up $120 a month for home repairs and other expenses.

recent Morning Consult poll found that more than 60 percent of registered voters were in favor of some level of student debt cancellation. But despite Mr. Biden’s campaign promise, his advisers have been divided, three people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Some view debt cancellation as relief for critical constituencies, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Others oppose it as bad policy or because they fear the economic effects of putting more money in consumers’ pockets when inflation is soaring.

But the pressure on Mr. Biden to act has only grown.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose pledge to cancel up to $50,000 per borrower was a centerpiece of her 2020 presidential primary bid, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, led more than 90 congressional Democrats in sending Mr. Biden a letter last month asking him to “provide meaningful student debt cancellation.”

voting rights protections and Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, as reason for the president to take matters into his own hands.

The New Georgia Project, a group focusing on voter registration founded by the gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has cast debt relief as an action that would serve Mr. Biden’s pledge to put racial equity at the forefront of his presidency.

“Much of your administration’s legislative priorities have been stymied by obstructionist legislators,” the group wrote in a joint letter with the advocacy group the Debt Collective that was reviewed by The New York Times. “Student debt cancellation is a popular campaign promise that you, President Biden, have the executive power to deliver on your own.”

announcing the latest pause extension last month, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said he “hasn’t ruled out” the idea.

But Mr. Biden’s power to act unilaterally remains an open legal question.

Last April, at Mr. Biden’s request, the Education Department’s acting general counsel wrote an analysis of the legality of canceling debt via executive action. The analysis has not been released; a version provided in response to public records requests was fully redacted.

Proponents of forgiveness say the education secretary has broad powers to modify or cancel debt, which both the Trump and Biden administrations have leaned on to carry out the payment freeze that started in March 2020.

Legal challenges would be likely, although who would have standing is unclear. A Virginia Law Review article this month argued that the answer might be no one: States, for example, have little say in the operation of a federal loan system.

scathing criticism from government auditors and watchdogs, with even basic functions sometimes breaking down.

Some problems are being addressed. The Biden administration has wiped out $17 billion in debt for 725,000 borrowers by expanding and streamlining forgiveness programs for public servants and those who were defrauded by their schools, among others. Last week, it offered millions of borrowers added credit toward forgiveness because of previous payment-counting problems.

But there’s much still to do. The Education Department was deluged by applicants after it expanded eligibility for millions of public servants. And settlement talks in a class-action suit by nearly 200,000 borrowers who say they were defrauded by their schools recently broke down, setting up a trial this summer.

will be restored to good standing.

Canceling debt could make addressing all this easier, advocates say. Forgiving $10,000 per borrower would wipe out the debts of 10 million or more people, according to different analyses, which would free up resources to deal with structural flaws, proponents argue.

“We’ve known for years that the system is broken,” said Sarah Sattelmeyer, a higher-education project director at New America, a think tank. “Having an opportunity, during this timeout, to start fixing some of those major issues feels like a place where the Education Department should be focusing its attention.”

Voters like Ashleigh A. Mosley will be watching. Ms. Mosley, 21, a political science major at Albany State University in Georgia, said she had been swayed to vote for Mr. Biden because of his support for debt cancellation.

Ms. Mosley, who also attended Alabama A&M University, has already borrowed $52,000 and expects her balance to grow to $100,000 by the time she graduates. The debt already hangs over her head.

“I don’t think I’m going to even have enough money to start a family or buy a house because of the loans,” she said. “It’s just not designed for us to win.”

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Live Ukraine Updates: Calling Off Steel Plant Assault, Putin Prematurely Claims Victory in Mariupol

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia claimed victory in Mariupol on Thursday despite persistent fighting there, publicly calling off an assault on the final Ukrainian stronghold in the devastated city in a stark display of the Kremlin’s desire to present a success to the Russian public.

Mr. Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, in a choreographed meeting shown on Russian television, not to storm the sprawling, fortress-like Azovstal steel mill complex where 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were said to be holed up, and instead to blockade the plant “so that a fly can’t get through.” That avoids, for now, a bloody battle in the strategic port city that would add to Russia’s mounting casualty toll and tie down troops who could be deployed to the broader battle for eastern Ukraine.

“Of course, getting control of such an important center in the south as Mariupol is a success,” Mr. Putin was shown telling Mr. Shoigu, though the city is not yet fully under Russian control. “Congratulations.”

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President Vladimir V. Putin used a choreographed meeting with his defense minister to claim major progress in the war, saying that he ordered Russian troops to blockade a steel plant where Ukrainian fighters and civilians have taken refuge.CreditCredit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

The fight for Mariupol carries enormous significance for both sides. It is the last pocket of serious resistance in the land bridge the Kremlin has created between territory it already holds in the Donbas region in the east and the Crimean Peninsula in the south. It is also home to much of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, filled with far-right fighters who give a sheen of credibility to Mr. Putin’s false claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that he is “denazifying” the country.

The battle for the city also illustrates both the brutality of the Russian invasion and its struggles — truths that have galvanized much of the world but that Moscow has worked hard to conceal from its own people. Mariupol has been under siege for more than a month, much of it lies in ruins, and satellite images show a growing mass grave on the city’s outskirts. Roughly three-quarters of the residents have fled and, according to Ukrainian officials, about 20,000 civilians there have been killed — yet it is still not fully conquered.

Russia is shifting the focus of the war to gaining territory and wiping out Ukrainian forces in Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine since 2014. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday in an intelligence assessment that the Kremlin is eager to make swift gains that it can trumpet on May 9, at the annual celebrations of victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

At the White House, President Biden said the fight for Donbas was “going to be more limited in terms of geography but not in terms of brutality,” compared to the early phase of the war. But, he added, Russia will “never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine.”

Mr. Biden announced another $800 million package of weapons for Ukraine, including dozens of heavy howitzers, 144,000 shells for them, and tactical drones, bringing total military aid this year to well above $3 billion. The weapons supplied by NATO nations are becoming increasingly heavy and sophisticated, reflecting an expected shift in the nature of combat as the war pivots to Donbas, but the president said some of armaments will remain secret.

Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

“We won’t always be able to advertise everything that we, that our partners are doing,” Mr. Biden said. Referring to the U.S.-made antitank missile that Ukrainians have used to devastating effect, he added, “To modernize Teddy Roosevelt’s advice, sometimes we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin.”

Mr. Biden also banned ships tied to Russia from U.S. ports, and announced $500 million in economic aid to Ukraine — though the government in Kyiv told the International Monetary Fund that over the next three months it will need $15 billion. The White House also detailed plans for accepting up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, saying that U.S. citizens can begin applying to sponsor the immigrants on Monday.

The war in Ukraine took center stage in the French presidential campaign in a televised debate Wednesday night between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, who has in the past praised Mr. Putin. She spoke against arming Ukraine and said Mr. Macron’s efforts to cut imports of Russian energy would hurt France economically. He replied, “you are, in fact, in Russia’s grip,” noting that Ms. Le Pen’s party had borrowed from a Kremlin-linked bank.

The Kremlin worked quickly to portray the battle for Mariupol as a success. Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that there was now “an opportunity to start establishing a peaceful life” in Mariupol and start “returning the population to their homes.”

Mr. Peskov described the Azovstal steel plant — an immense Soviet-era complex near the city center — as “a separate facility” with no impact on life elsewhere in the city. Ukrainian fighters have been hiding for weeks in the plant’s underground bunkers, along with about 1,000 civilians, amid rising concerns they lack food and water.

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Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, said on Wednesday that his troops would soon help Russia capture the Azovstal plant in its entirety. In Thursday’s televised meeting, Mr. Shoigu told Mr. Putin that it would take three to four days to clear the plant.

But Mr. Putin responded by calling the storming of the plant “impractical,” and added, “I order it to be canceled.”

It was not clear what that would mean on the ground; shelling and rocket attacks on the steel mill complex continued on Thursday, Staff Sgt. Leonid Kuznetsov of the Ukrainian National Guard, one of the soldiers there, said via text message. He said that shortly before he heard about Mr. Putin’s public order, Russian troops had attempted to storm the plant, coming within about 20 meters of his hide-out. The Ukrainians, he said, were running out of ammunition.

In directing Mr. Shoigu on a national broadcast, Mr. Putin, who made the decision to go to war, presented himself as a rational and humane leader. “This is the case when we must think — that is, we must always think, but even more so in this case — about preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers,” he said. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities.”

Implicit in his statement was a potential credibility challenge for Mr. Putin, stemming from his unwillingness to admit setbacks and blunders in the war to his own people. The government and military have not acknowledged the deaths of Russian sailors on the missile cruiser Moskva, pride of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which was sunk last week, but information about missing troops is increasingly circulating online.

Coming after Russia’s decision last month to abandon its stalled campaign in the north of Ukraine, the sinking of the Moskva — Ukraine claims to have hit it with two missiles — and the morass in Mariupol, once a thriving industrial and shipping hub, underscore the systemic weaknesses bedeviling the Russian military.

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On Jan. 20, The New York Times captured drone video over the sprawling Azovstal Steel and Iron works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine. Now, it is a battered fortress for the last Ukrainian defenders.

But costly as Mariupol has been for Russia, it is far costlier for Ukraine. Civilian casualties are high, though for now there are only rough estimates, and nearly all the vital infrastructure — including some of Ukraine’s biggest export-oriented enterprises — have been destroyed. Hospitals, theaters, schools and homes have been reduced to rubble.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Thursday that he would trade Russian soldiers who had been taken prisoner for the civilians sheltered at Azovstal, but he said that Russia had not yet responded to the offer.

Agreements to evacuate civilians en masse or bring in vital aid have mostly been thwarted, and have sometimes turned deadly, largely because Russian units have halted or fired on aid convoys. But day by day, people have managed to escape, on their own or in small groups.

On Thursday, a yellow bus carrying dozens of people from Mariupol arrived in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, where passengers described weeks hiding in basements, cold and hungry, amid endless shelling. They escaped in a harrowing, all-night drive through Russian-held territory, past countless checkpoints manned by jumpy Russian soldiers.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“In the city everything is destroyed, it’s terrifying,” said Matvei Popko, 10, who had fled with his mother, father and grandmother. “At any moment your home could get hit and collapse. For a little more than a month we lived in the basement.”

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of forcibly deporting hundreds of thousands of civilians, including a large number from the Mariupol area, to Russian territory, for use as propaganda fodder and a bargaining chip. Russia denies the charge, which is a potential war crime.

The weeks of heavy fighting in Mariupol tied up a significant chunk of Russia’s combat power; at one point the battle was estimated by military analysts to include roughly 10 percent of all the Russian forces in Ukraine.

On Thursday, a Russian video news report from the scene showed a convoy of armored vehicles moving out of Mariupol. Seymon Pegov, a pro-Kremlin reporter embedded with the Russian forces in the city, interviewed Timur Kurilkin, a commander of a separatist battalion from Donetsk, a city in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.

“We are going home, to Donetsk,” said Mr. Kurilkin, walking past the vehicles. “Our next battle is tomorrow,” he said, without specifying where.

In Mariupol, Russia is already seeking to establish authority over civilian life. Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, promised high school seniors that they would receive diplomas certified by the separatist entity.

On Wednesday, Andrei Turchak, a top official in Mr. Putin’s party, visited a school in Mariupol, which has already switched to Russian-language curriculum. In a video of his visit, posted to social media, he said, “Many textbooks have already been delivered and these deliveries will continue.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Hamburg, Germany, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, David E. Sanger and Zach Montague from Washington, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Alan Yuhas from New York, and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland.

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Live Updates: Missile Strike on Train Station Kills 50 People Seeking to Escape Fighting

One moment, they were packed onto the platforms at the Kramatorsk train station, hundreds of women, children and old people, heeding the pleas of Ukrainian officials imploring them to flee ahead of a feared Russian onslaught.

The next moment, death rained from the air.

At least 50 people were killed and many more wounded in a missile assault on Friday morning that left bodies and luggage scattered on the ground and turned the Kramatorsk station into the site of another atrocity in the six-week-old war.

“There are just children!” one woman cried in a video from the aftermath.

The missile struck as officials in Kramatorsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine had been warning civilians to leave before Russian forces mount what is expected to be a major push into the region, where their troops have been regrouping after withdrawing from areas around Kyiv, the capital.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that Russia had hit the station with what he identified as a Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile as “thousands of peaceful Ukrainians were waiting to be evacuated.”

Credit…Fadel Senna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Lacking the strength and courage to stand up to us on the battlefield, they are cynically destroying the civilian population,” Mr. Zelensky said. “This is an evil that has no limits. And if it is not punished, it will never stop.”

Russian officials, denying responsibility, said a Ukrainian battalion had fired the missile in what they called a “provocation.” The Russian Defense Ministry said that Tochka-U missiles are only used by the Ukrainian armed forces and that Russian troops had not made any strikes against Kramatorsk on Friday.

A senior Pentagon official said the United States believed Russian forces had fired the missile. “They originally claimed a successful strike and then only retracted it when there were reports of civilian casualties,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential intelligence assessment.

The train station was hit as a top European Union delegation was visiting Mr. Zelensky’s government, and the images of yet another mass killing provoked new Western outrage.

Whether one or more missiles struck the station was not immediately clear, and there was no way to independently verify the origin of the attack. Several parked cars were also hit, catching fire and turning into charred hulks. The waiting area was strewn with bodies and belongings.

After the strike, the Ukrainian police inspected the remains of a large rocket next to the train station with the words “for our children” written on it in Russian. It was unclear who had written the message and where the rocket had come from.

The mayor of Kramatorsk, Oleksandr Honcharenko, said 4,000 people had been at the station when it was attacked, the vast majority of them women, children and elderly people. At least two children were among the dead, he said.

The head of the military administration in the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said 50 people had been killed, including 12 who died in the hospital. Another 98 were wounded, including 16 children, he said.

After the attack, Kramatorsk officials said they were trying to find cars and buses to evacuate civilians to western areas presumed to be less vulnerable to Russian attacks.

Credit…Andriy Andriyenko/Associated Press

Ukraine’s railway service said that evacuations would proceed from nearby Sloviansk, where shelters and hospitals have been stocked with food and medicine in anticipation of an imminent Russian offensive.

Western countries, which have been shipping arms to Ukraine and tightening sanctions on Russia to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for the invasion, saw the Kramatorsk slaughter as new justification to intensify their efforts.

“The attack on a Ukrainian train station is yet another horrific atrocity committed by Russia, striking civilians who were trying to evacuate and reach safety,” President Biden said on Twitter. He vowed to send more weapons to Ukraine and to work with allies to investigate the attack “as we document Russia’s actions and hold them accountable.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France called the strike “abominable.”

“Ukrainian civilians are fleeing to escape the worst,” he wrote on Twitter. “Their weapons? Strollers, stuffed animals, luggage.”

The station was hit as the Slovak president, Eduard Heger, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, were traveling to Kyiv in a show of support for Mr. Zelensky and his country’s bid for European Union membership.

Mr. Heger announced that Slovakia had given Ukraine an S-300 air defense system to help defend against Russian missiles and airstrikes.

Credit…Andriy Andriyenko/Associated Press

To make the transfer possible, the Pentagon said it would reposition one Patriot missile system, operated by U.S. service members, to Slovakia. It was the latest buildup in arms and troops along NATO’s eastern flank, as the alliance seeks to deter any Russian incursion.

“Now is no time for complacency,” Mr. Biden said in a statement announcing the Patriot repositioning. “As the Russian military repositions for the next phase of this war, I have directed my administration to continue to spare no effort to identify and provide to the Ukrainian military the advanced weapons capabilities it needs to defend its country.”

The attack on the railway station came after Russian forces had spent weeks shelling schools, hospitals and apartment buildings in an apparent attempt to pound Ukraine into submission by indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure, ignoring Geneva Convention protections that can make such actions war crimes.

Last month, an estimated 300 people were killed in an attack on a theater where hundreds had been sheltering in the battered port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said. In recent days, growing evidence has pointed to atrocities in the devastated suburbs of Kyiv, where Ukrainian troops found bodies bound and shot in the head after Russian forces had retreated.

Ms. von der Leyen visited one of those suburbs, Bucha, on Friday before meeting with Mr. Zelensky.

“It was important to start my visit in Bucha,” she wrote on Twitter. “Because in Bucha our humanity was shattered.”

Russia has said its troops have been falsely accused and that the evidence against them is fake.

The repercussions of the fighting are spreading far beyond Europe. The United Nations reported on Friday that world food prices rose sharply last month to their highest levels ever, as the invasion sent shock waves through global grain and vegetable oil markets. Russia and Ukraine are important suppliers of the world’s wheat and other grains.

Credit…Andriy Andriyenko/Associated Press

The report of rising prices came as the British government said Russia was heading for its “deepest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” estimating that the economy could shrink by as much as 15 percent this year.

On Friday, the European Union formally approved its fifth round of sanctions against Moscow, which included a ban on Russian coal and restrictions on Russian banks, oligarchs and Kremlin officials. The coal ban, which will cost Russia about $8.7 billion in annual revenue, takes effect immediately for new contracts. At Germany’s insistence, however, existing contracts were given four months to wind down, softening the blow to Russia and Germany alike.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, meeting with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in London on Friday, applauded what Mr. Johnson called the “seismic decision” by Germany to turn away from Russian fuel. Britain has pushed for a total ban on Russian energy, a move that Germany, which heats half its homes with Russian gas, has resisted.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged the obstacles to transforming Germany’s energy system “overnight,” but said “we know that Russia’s war in Ukraine will not end overnight.” Mr. Scholz said Mr. Putin had tried to divide European powers, but “he will continue to experience our unity.”

On Friday, Russia retaliated for some of the punishments from the West, declaring 45 Polish Embassy and Consulate staff “persona non grata,” and ordering them to leave Russia. Poland had expelled the same number of Russian diplomats.

Russia’s Justice Ministry also said it had revoked the registration of several prominent human rights groups in the country, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have accused Russian troops of committing war crimes in Ukraine. The ministry accused the groups of violating an unspecified Russian law. The decision means the organizations are no longer allowed to operate in Russia.

Human Rights Watch said that forcing its office to close would not change its determination to call out Russia’s turn to authoritarianism. The group said it had been monitoring abuses in Russia since the Soviet era.

“We found ways of documenting human rights abuses then, and we will do so in the future,” it said.

Credit…Anatolii Stepanov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Megan Specia reported from Krakow, Poland, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Michael D. Shear and Eric Schmitt from Washington, and Mark Landler and Chris Stanford from London.

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