Russia steps up assault to seize Ukrainian province for separatists

  • Russia steps up offensive in Donbass
  • Zelenskiy says the region is completely destroyed
  • Group of Seven sends billions more to Ukraine
  • US Senate approves $40 billion in additional aid

KYIV, May 20 (Reuters) – Russian troops shelled a riverside town on Friday in what appeared to herald a major assault to seize the last territory under Ukrainian control in a province it claims on behalf of separatists.

Ukrainian officials said Russian forces launched a massive artillery bombardment against Sievierodonetsk, one of the last Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk, one of two southeastern provinces that Moscow and its proxies proclaim as independent states. .

The city, and its twin Lyshchansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskiy Donets river, form the eastern part of a Ukrainian pocket that Russia has been trying to invade since mid-April after failing to capture the capital kyiv.

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The Ukrainian General Staff said Moscow launched an offensive on Sievierodonetsk but suffered casualties and was forced to retreat, in what it described as major Russian offensive operations on along part of the front line.

Although they have lost ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, in what some military analysts see as a major step towards achieving narrow war goals of capturing all territory claimed by the Russians. pro-Russian rebels.

“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the city of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling has doubled, they are shelling residential areas, destroying house by house,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said via his Telegram channel.

“We don’t know how many people died because it’s just impossible to walk through and look at every apartment,” he said.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that the “liberation of the Lugansk People’s Republic” would soon be completed.

In an overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described conditions in Donbass, which includes Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province, as “hell” and said the region had been “completely destroyed” by the Russian invasion.

Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim victory after announcing last month that was now its goal. It took an important step towards that goal this week, when Ukraine ordered its garrison at Donbass’ main port, Mariupol, to withdraw after a nearly three-month siege.

Russian Shoigu said around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in the past four days.

kyiv has not confirmed how many fighters have surrendered, but Britain gave the first official Western confirmation that a large force had indeed laid down their arms, saying around 1,700 had surrendered. An unknown number of other people are believed to still be inside, he added.

In a video, the commander of the Azov battalion, a Ukrainian unit that had defended the factory, confirmed that the order to stop the fighting had been carried out and said that all wounded civilians and fighters had now come out.

Denys Prokopenko, the commander, did not give further details on the fate of the other fighters, but said a process was underway to remove the dead from the maze of underground tunnels and bunkers.

“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine can bury their soldiers with honor,” Prokopenko said.

The Red Cross claims to have registered hundreds of prisoners of war who surrendered at the factory, but gave no exact figures or further details.

kyiv says it wants to organize an exchange of prisoners against the defenders of Azovstal whom it describes as national heroes. Moscow says they will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have reportedly said some should be tried for crimes or even executed.

FOOD HOSTAGE

Sweden and Finland last week applied to join NATO in the biggest shake-up to European security in decades, although Turkey has so far said it will block the move, blaming the Nordic countries. to host Kurdish activists.

After weeks of retaliatory threats, Putin appears to have backed down, saying this week that Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership poses no threat as such unless the alliance sends new weapons or new troops. Nonetheless, Defense Minister Shoigu said on Friday that Moscow planned to reinforce its forces nearby in response to what he called new threats.

Russian forces in Ukraine have in recent weeks been driven out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, their fastest retreat since being driven from the north and the area around Kyiv in late March .

But they still control much of the south and east, and the end of the fighting in Mariupol means the territory is now largely unbroken. Still, military analysts say Russia has used its offensive firepower and may be running out of time to achieve its goal of capturing all of Donbass.

In a sign of Russia’s aim to bolster its war effort, Moscow’s parliament said it would consider a bill allowing Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to enlist in the army. Putin refrained from declaring his “special military operation” a war, which would facilitate the mobilization of reservists and conscripts.

Western powers, which have strongly condemned Russia’s actions and sought to isolate Moscow with a range of sanctions, have stepped up their support for Ukraine. The Group of Seven agreed on Thursday to provide Ukraine with $18.4 billion to offset revenue as war destroys its economy.

The US Senate has approved nearly $40 billion in new aid, by far the largest US aid package to date. The sum amounts to more than a quarter of Ukraine’s annual pre-war GDP.

The White House is also working to get advanced anti-ship missiles to Ukraine to help defeat the Russian naval blockade, which has halted exports from one of the world’s major grain suppliers, prompting what the Nations United see as a global food crisis. Read more

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of using food as a weapon, holding supplies “hostage” for millions around the world. Read more

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Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Max Hunder, Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Reuters offices; Written by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie

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Joan J. Holland