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Ukraine news: Zelenskyy says Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has begun

Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press

Posted Monday, April 18, 2022 at 5:28 a.m. EDT

Last updated Monday, April 18, 2022 at 11:47 p.m. EDT

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Monday launched its dreaded large-scale ground offensive to take control of eastern Ukraine, attacking across a broad front more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) long, Ukrainian officials said in what marked the opening of a potentially decisive new phase of the war.

Russian troops have started the battle for Donbass,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a video address. He said that a “significant part of the entire Russian army is now focused on this offensive”.

Donbas is the industrial heartland of mostly Russian-speaking Ukraine to the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years and have declared two independent republics recognized by Russia.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin has declared taking Donbass its main war objective after its failed attempt to storm kyiv. After withdrawing from the capital, Russia began to regroup and reinforce its ground troops in the east for an all-out offensive.

“No matter how many Russian soldiers are taken there, we will fight,” Zelenskyy promised. “We will defend ourselves. We will do it every day.

The offensive began after Russia shelled the western city of Lviv and a host of other targets across Ukraine in what appeared to be an intensified attempt to crush the country’s defences.

Ukraine’s army general staff said Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s forces were stepping up assaults in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – both part of Donbass – as well as in the Zaporizhzhia region.

“This morning, almost on the entire front line of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers tried to break through our defenses,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the Ukrainian National Security Council, was quoted by Ukrainian media as saying. “Fortunately, our soldiers are holding up. They only crossed two towns. It’s Kreminna and another small town.

He added: “We are not giving up any of our territories.”

A Ukrainian military official said street fighting had started in the Kreminna and evacuation was impossible.

Luhansk regional military administrator Serhiy Haidai said heavy artillery fire set fire to seven residential buildings and targeted the sports complex where the national Olympic team trains.

Haidai later told Ukrainian television that the Russians took control of the city after “razing everything”, so his forces withdrew to regroup and continue fighting.

Meanwhile, in the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov regiment resisting Russian forces, said in a video message that Russia had begun dropping bunker busters on the Azovstal steel. factory where the regiment was entrenched.

The sprawling factory contains a maze of tunnels where combatants and civilians take shelter. It is believed to be the last major pocket of resistance in the Shattered City.

At least seven people are believed to have been killed in missile strikes on Lviv, a city near the Polish border that has seen only sporadic attacks for nearly two months of war and has become a haven for civilians fleeing fighting elsewhere . To the growing anger of the Kremlin, Lviv has also become a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.

The attack on Lviv hit three military facilities and a car shop, according to the region’s governor, Maksym Kozytskyy. He said among the injured was a child.

A Lviv hotel housing Ukrainians who had fled fighting in other parts of the country was also badly damaged, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said. The city saw its population swell with old people, mothers and children trying to escape the war.

“The nightmare of war caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, who fled the eastern city of Kharkiv with two children. “There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”

Lviv, the largest city and a major transportation hub in western Ukraine, is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from NATO member Poland.

Russia has complained loudly about the growing flow of Western weapons to Ukraine and warned that such aid could have consequences. In Russian state media, some presenters claimed the supplies amounted to direct Western engagement in the fight against Russia.

A powerful blast also rocked Vasylkiv, a town south of the capital of kyiv that is home to an air base, residents said. It was not immediately clear what had been hit.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, was hit by a bombardment that killed at least three people, according to Associated Press journalists on the spot. One of the dead was a woman who appeared to be going out to fetch water in the rain. She was found with a can of water and an umbrella by her side.

Military analysts say Russia was increasing its strikes against arms factories, railways and other infrastructure ahead of its assault on Donbass.

Moscow said its missiles hit more than 20 military targets in eastern and central Ukraine over the past day, including ammunition depots, command headquarters and groups of troops and vehicles .

He also reported that his artillery hit 315 additional Ukrainian targets and that fighter jets carried out 108 strikes against troops and military equipment. The claims could not be independently verified.

General Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, told Sky News that Russia was carrying out a “softening up” campaign ahead of the Donbass offensive.

A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Pentagon assessments on the war, said there were now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion battle groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.

That could translate to around 50,000 to 60,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war, a typical unit strength of 700 to 800 troops, but the numbers are hard to pin down at this point. battle stage.

The official also said four US cargo flights arrived in Europe on Sunday with a first shipment of arms and other materials for Ukraine as part of an $800 million package announced by Washington last week. . And training of Ukrainian personnel on US 155mm howitzers is expected to begin in the coming days.

Taking Mariupol, where Ukraine estimates 21,000 people were killed, is seen as essential, and not just because it would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the peninsula from Crimea, seized from Ukraine from 2014.

The US defense official said if Russian forces succeed in taking full control of Mariupol, it could free up nearly a dozen battalion tactical groups for use elsewhere in Donbass.

Associated Press reporters Nico Maounis and Philip Crowther in Lviv, Ukraine, Adam Schreck in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff in the world.