Ukraine urges civilians to flee looming Russian offensive in eastern regions

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“You need to evacuate now, while this possibility still exists,” Ukraine’s deputy prime minister and minister for occupied territories, Iryna Vereshchuk, said in a Ukrainian TV appearance Wednesday. “Later, people will be under fire and under threat of death. We won’t be able to help because it will be practically impossible to cease fire.”

Following heavy losses, Russia pulled its troops from the vicinity of Kyiv and from the northern Chernihiv and Sumy regions last week, in a strategy shift that the Kremlin says will allow it to focus on seizing the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as Donbas, that remain under Ukrainian control.

In the besieged city of Mariupol, the second-largest in Donbas, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said on Telegram that Russian troops that are engaged in fierce urban combat with Ukrainian defenders have started using mobile crematoriums to dispose of the bodies of Ukrainian civilians. Mr. Boychenko, who put the death toll at 5,000 civilians last week, said he now believes tens of thousands of Mariupol residents could have been killed. There was no independent confirmation of his assessment.

As heavy clashes continued in and near Donbas, Russia pressed on with its campaign of long-range missile strikes, targeting fuel depots across Ukraine and an industrial facility in the eastern city of Novomoskovsk, local officials said.

The clashes in the east and south contrasted with the north, where a Russian withdrawal has led to the return of relative normalcy. Turkey, which has supplied Ukraine with weapons such as Bayraktar TB2 armed drones while also maintaining close relations with Russia, became the first major nation to send diplomats back to Kyiv now that it is no longer under threat of being shelled or overrun. Turkey has served as the venue for the latest round of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and is involved in efforts to transport civilians and wounded soldiers by sea from Mariupol.

The Turkish Embassy, which had relocated to the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, reopened in Kyiv and will resume consular services, it said on social media. The U.S., by contrast, currently doesn’t have any diplomatic presence on Ukrainian soil, with embassy staff operating from Poland. Several Western leaders have visited Kyiv to show solidarity in recent weeks, including European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Lithuania is planning to send its ambassador back to Kyiv as soon as Thursday, according to Lithuanian officials.

While Russia’s withdrawal from northern Ukraine has relieved pressure on Kyiv and lifted the siege of the cities of Sumy and Chernihiv, it has also allowed Moscow to focus on seizing the entirety of Donbas and trying to encircle the large Ukrainian military contingent there. Heavy battles continued Wednesday south of the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum, in the Kharkiv region, as Russian forces attempted to break through and link up with Russian troops trying to push north from Mariupol.

Russia in February recognized the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, proxy statelets that were established in 2014, as independent. Their claimed borders, recognized by Russia, are two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were controlled by Kyiv at the time.

“The enemy’s main effort is on preparing an offensive to establish full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Ukraine’s General Staff said in Wednesday’s briefing. Ukrainian forces in the southern Kherson region have seized three villages, pushing Russian forces further away from the major city of Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, the military added.

The mayor of the town of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region, where some neighborhoods have been seized by Russian forces, has switched sides and is now working with the occupation forces, the regional government said. The mayor, Serhii Khortiv, released a video repeating Russian propaganda points about the war. In another area under Russian control, the town of Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region, the mayor was filmed under Russian detention saying “Glory to Russia,” according to videos released by pro-Kremlin social-media channels.

Overnight, Russia carried out a series of missile strikes, once again targeting fuel depots as it sought to deprive Ukrainian forces of fuel. Ukrainian demining teams, meanwhile, continued removing unexploded ordnance, land mines and booby traps left behind by Russian forces in the liberated areas, including the town of Bucha, where discoveries of mass graves and bodies in the street after the withdrawal of Russian forces have prompted allegations of war crimes.

Mr. Zelensky on Wednesday told Irish lawmakers that the strikes on fuel facilities just as Ukrainian farmers start the spring sowing season aim to destroy the country’s civilian infrastructure and cause widespread hunger.

“For them, hunger is also a weapon, a weapon against us ordinary people as an instrument of domination,” he said in an address to members of Ireland’s Parliament.

In the latest in a series of speeches to international legislatures, Mr. Zelensky said the food shortages caused by Russian attacks on Ukrainian agriculture and its blockade of the country’s ports would be felt around the world, and particularly in North Africa, which has traditionally relied on Ukrainian wheat.

“There will be a shortage of food and prices will go up,” he said. “This is reality for millions of people who are hungry and it will be more difficult for them to feed their families.”

As the Russian army withdrew from the north to focus on the east, a senior commander characterized the move as the end of a successful phase in its combat operations. Col. Gen. Aleksandr Lapin, the commander of Russia’s Central Military District, said during a medal-awarding ceremony that the first phase of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” had been successfully completed.

“Soldiers, sergeants and officers demonstrated resilience, courage and valor in completing their mission,” said Gen. Lapin, as Russian officials continued to deny evidence of a massacre of Ukrainian civilians in towns near Kyiv that were occupied by Russian forces until last week.

Pope Francis on Wednesday deplored the killing of civilians in Ukraine, particularly in Bucha.

“Ever more horrendous cruelties, even against civilians, women, and helpless children. They are victims whose innocent blood cries out to heaven and implores,” the pope said in his weekly public audience at the Vatican.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for an end to the war and lamented the suffering of Ukraine, though he hasn’t named Russia as the aggressor.

Mr. Zelensky addressed the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, saying Russia should be removed from it or it be dissolved, after warning that newly uncovered atrocities following the withdrawal of Russian forces near Kyiv could be worse than those in Bucha.

“It is difficult to find a war crime that the occupiers have not committed,” Mr. Zelensky said during a virtual appearance at the council’s chamber in New York. He has previously said that more than 300 civilians had been tortured or killed in Bucha.

Mr. Zelensky said civilians were “crushed by tanks in civilian cars in the middle of the road—for fun” as well as “raped and killed in front of their own children.”

Mr. Zelensky’s speech came as the U.S. and European Union prepared to impose broad new packages of sanctions on Moscow, with Washington planning a ban on all new investment in Russia and the European Commission proposing a ban on imports of Russian coal and sanctions on two of President Vladimir Putin’s daughters. The Biden administration is preparing to impose a second round of sanctions this week, including on two of Russia’s biggest banks and on Mr. Putin’s daughters, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. is expected to announce as soon as Wednesday sanctions on Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, and Alfa Bank, one of the country’s top private banks, the officials said.

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