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Ukraine: Russia strikes eastern cities and brings in more troops


KYIV, UKRAINE — Russia has unleashed its military might against Ukrainian cities and sent more troops into the war, seeking to cleave the country in two in a potentially crucial battle for control of the eastern industrial heartland of coal mines and factories.

Tuesday’s fighting unfolded along a boomerang-shaped front hundreds of kilometers long in what is known as Donbass. If successful, it would give President Vladimir Putin a victory after Moscow forces’ failed attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv, and heavier than expected casualties.

In Mariupol, the now devastated port city in Donbass, Ukrainian troops said the Russian army dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of a sprawling steel factory and hit a hospital where hundreds of people were staying.

The eastern cities of Kharkiv and Kramatorsk came under deadly attacks. Russia also said it hit areas around Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro west of Donbass with missiles.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow forces bombed many Ukrainian military sites, including troop concentrations and missile warhead storage depots, in or near several towns or villages. These claims could not be independently verified.

Both sides described the assault that began on Monday as a new phase in the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian military was throwing everything it had into the battle, with most of its combat-ready forces now concentrated in Ukraine and just across the Russian border.

“They pushed almost everyone and everything capable of fighting us against Ukraine,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation.

Despite claims that they only strike military sites, the Russians continue to target residential areas and kill civilians, he said.

“The Russian army in this war will forever go down in world history as the most barbaric and inhumane army in the world,” Zelenskyy said.

A few weeks ago, after Russia’s failed attempt to take kyiv, the Kremlin said its main objective was the capture of the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.

A Russian victory in the Donbass would deprive Ukraine of the industrial assets concentrated there, including mines, metallurgical plants and heavy equipment factories.

A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said the Russians had added two more combat units, known as battalion battle groups, in Ukraine in the previous 24 hours. This brings the total number of units in the country to 78, all located in the south and east, from 65 last week, the official said.

That would translate to 55,000 to 62,000 troops, from what the Pentagon said at the start of the war, that was the typical strength of a unit of 700 to 800 troops. But accurately determining Russia’s combat capability at this stage is difficult.

A European official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said Russia also had 10,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters in Donbass. According to the official, it is a mixture of mercenaries from the private Russian Wagner Group and Russian proxy fighters from Syria and Libya.

While Ukraine described Monday’s attacks as the start of the dreaded offensive in the east, some observers noted that an escalation had been underway there for some time and wondered if it it was really the beginning of a new offensive.

The US official said the offensive in Donbass started in a limited way, mainly in an area southwest of the city of Donetsk and south of Izyum.

Justin Crump, a former British tank commander now with strategic consultancy Sibylline, said the Ukrainian comments could, in part, be an attempt to persuade allies to send in more weapons.

“What they’re trying to do by positioning this, I think, is … focus people’s minds and efforts saying, ‘Look, the conflict started in Donbas,'” Crump said. “Part of it puts pressure on NATO and EU suppliers to say, ‘Guys, we’re starting to fight now. We need it now.

President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days that will include additional artillery and ammunition, according to a US official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke under the guise of anonymity.

Canada and the Netherlands also planned to send more heavy weapons, their prime ministers said.

Associated Press reporters in Kharkiv said at least four people were killed and three injured in a Russian attack on a residential area of ​​the city.

An explosion also rocked Kramatorsk, killing at least one person and injuring three, according to AP reporters at the scene.

In the southern town of Bashtanka, an unknown number of people were injured when Russian forces shelled the hospital, destroying the reception area and the dialysis unit, regional council head Hanna Zamazeeva said on Facebook.

Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials gave an overview of the extent of the Russian advance. But independent reporting in parts of Donbass held by Russian forces and separatists is very limited, making it difficult to know what is happening in many places on the ground.

Military experts said the Russians’ objective was to encircle Ukrainian troops from the north, south and east.

Key to the campaign is the capture of Mariupol, which would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized from Ukraine in 2014. It would also free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbass.

A few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Russians’ estimate, remained locked in a sprawling ironworks in Mariupol, representing what was believed to be the city’s last major pocket of resistance.

Russia issued a new ultimatum to Ukrainian defenders to surrender on Wednesday after a previous ultimatum was ignored. The Russian Defense Ministry said those who surrendered would be allowed to live and receive medical treatment. There was no immediate response from Ukrainian troops, but they repeatedly vowed not to give up.

The deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which was among the troops remaining in Mariupol, said the Russian army dropped heavy bombs on the steel plant and hit an “improvised” hospital.

Serhiy Taruta, the former governor of the Donetsk region and a native of Mariupol, also reported the shelling of the hospital, where he said 300 people, including wounded soldiers and civilians with children, were housed.

Reports cannot be independently confirmed.

Zelenskyy said the Kremlin did not respond to a proposal to exchange Viktor Medvedchuk, the imprisoned leader of a pro-Russian party, for Mariupol defenders.

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Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff around the world.

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