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Ukraine says Russia launches new eastern offensive with blasts all along front

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had begun the “Battle of Donbas” in the east on Monday and a “very large part of the entire Russian army is now focused on this offensive.”

“No matter how many Russian troops they send there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves,” he vowed in a video address.

Zelenskiy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak called it “the second phase of the war” and assured Ukrainians that their forces could hold off the offensive. “Believe in our army, it is very strong,” he said.

Ukrainian media reported a series of explosions, some powerful, along the front line in the Donetsk region, with shelling taking place in Marinka, Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. Ukrainian local officials and local media also said explosions were heard in Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine, Mykolaiv in the south and Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the reports.

Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling killed four people in the Donetsk region on Monday, while a man and a woman were killed in Kharkiv when shells hit a playground near a residential building.

They said a Russian missile attack also killed seven people in Lviv, the first civilian victims in the western city about 60 km (40 miles) from Poland.

Ukraine’s top security official, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russian forces attempted to break through Ukrainian defences “along almost the entire front line of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions” on Monday morning.

Driven back by Ukrainian resistance in the north, Moscow has refocused its ground offensive in the two eastern provinces known as the Donbas, while launching long-distance strikes at other targets including the capital, Kyiv.

Donbas has been the focal point of Russia’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine, starting in 2014 when the Kremlin used proxies to set up two separatist “people’s republics” in the ex-Soviet state. It is also home to much of Ukraine’s industrial wealth, including coal and steel.

Russia’s defence ministry said it had hit hundreds of military targets in Ukraine overnight. It said air-launched missiles had destroyed 16 military facilities in the Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions and in the port of Mykolayiv, which are in south and east Ukraine.

It added that the Russian air force had launched strikes against 108 areas where Ukrainian forces were concentrated and Russian artillery struck 315 Ukrainian military targets.

BIDEN TO HOST CALL WITH ALLIES

Western capitals and Kyiv accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of unprovoked aggression, and the White House said U.S. President Joe Biden would hold a call with allies on Tuesday to discuss the Ukraine crisis, including on how to coordinate on holding Russia accountable.

The United Nations said on Monday the war’s civilian death toll had surpassed 2,000, reaching 2,072 as of midnight on April 17 from the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.

About 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country.

Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to demilitarise Ukraine and eradicate dangerous nationalists. It rejects what Kyiv says is evidence of atrocities, saying Ukraine has staged them to undermine peace talks.

Last week, Biden announced an additional $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, expanding the aid to include heavy artillery ahead of the expected Russian assault in the east.

The U.S. military expects to start training Ukrainians on using howitzers in coming days, a senior U.S. defence official said, adding that this would take place outside Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron said his dialogue with Putin had stalled after mass killings were discovered in Ukraine.

‘HELL ON EARTH’

Russia has been trying to take full control of the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been besieged for weeks and which would be a huge strategic prize, linking territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.

Major Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade in Mariupol, appealed for help in a letter to Pope Francis, saying women and children were trapped among fighters in the city’s steel works.

“This is what hell looks like on earth … It’s time (for) help not just by prayers. Save our lives from satanic hands,” the letter said, according to excerpts tweeted by Ukraine’s Vatican ambassador.

At least 1,000 civilians were hiding in underground shelters beneath the vast Azovstal steel plant, the city council said.

Video and audio footage showed explosions rumbling and smoke rising from the steelworks, which contain myriad buildings, blast furnaces and rail tracks.

Azovstal is the main remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol. The city’s defenders include Ukrainian marines, motorised brigades, a National Guard brigade and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by far-right nationalists that was later incorporated into the National Guard.

Russia’s invasion has damaged or destroyed up to 30% of Ukraine’s infrastructure at a cost of $100 billion, a Ukrainian minister said on Monday.

(Reporting by Reuters journalists in Kyiv and Lviv; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne, Ronald Popeski in Winnipeg and Reuters bureaus worldwide; Writing by Alexandra Hudson, Keith Weir and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Edmund Blair, Nick Macfie, Cynthia Osterman and Lincoln Feast)


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