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Top US officials to visit Kyiv amid call for heavy arms, Ukraine says

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Kyiv on Sunday to discuss Ukraine’s call for more powerful weapons, two months after Russia’s invasion began.

A service member of pro-Russian troops stands in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 21, 2022. Picture: Reuters/Chingis Kondarov

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KYIV – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Kyiv on Sunday to discuss Ukraine’s call for more powerful weapons, two months after Russia’s invasion began.

The trip, announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, would be the highest-level by US officials since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24.

The White House has not confirmed any visit by Blinken and Austin. The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment.

As Christians in Ukraine celebrated Orthodox Easter on Sunday, there was no end in sight to a war that has killed thousands of people, uprooted millions more and reduced cities to rubble. Ukraine said two children were among those killed in shelling on Sunday.

“Usually we would come to our churches with Easter baskets. But now this is impossible,” Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, wrote on Telegram, saying seven churches in the Luhansk region had been “mutilated by Russian artillery.”

Reuters could not independently verify his report.

“We are all convinced that we will not be destroyed by any horde or wickedness,” Zelenskiy said in an Easter video message from the 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, praying God would “give endurance to those who, unfortunately, would not see the return of their child from the front.”

He said on Saturday that talks with his US visitors would cover the “powerful, heavy weapons” Ukraine needed and the pace of supplies that he said would be used to retake territory. He did not specify what equipment he would ask for.

MORE EQUIPMENT

The United States and Nato allies have shown growing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and said it was considering supplying British tanks to Poland to free up Warsaw’s Russian-designed T-72s for Ukraine.

Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Kyiv staged them.

Ukraine said on Sunday that Russian forces were bombarding the steel works in Mariupol where Ukrainian defenders were holding out, days after Moscow declared victory in the southern port city and said it did not need to take the plant.

“The place where our civilians and military are located is shelled with heavy air bombs and artillery,” senior Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, calling for “a real Easter truce in Mariupol”.

Fighting in Mariupol, the biggest battle of the conflict, has raged for weeks. Capturing the city would link up pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that make up the Donbas with the southern Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.

Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and says 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said troops in the giant Mariupol steel complex were attempting counter-attacks. More than 1,000 civilians are also in the plant, Ukraine says.

A new attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed on Saturday, an aide to the city’s mayor said.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, called for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.

NEW ATTACKS

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were continuing their offensive in the east of the country to try to establish full control over Donetsk and Luhansk with attacks on both military and civilian infrastructure.

The governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said two children were killed by shelling in his area on Sunday.

Ukraine said its forces repulsed 12 attacks on Donetsk and Luhansk a day earlier, destroying four tanks, 15 armoured equipment units and five artillery systems.

Reuters could not independently confirm the reports.

British military intelligence said Ukrainian resistance had been strong, especially in Donbas, despite some Russian gains.

“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganise forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” it said.

Russia said on Sunday its missiles hit eight military targets overnight, including four arms depots in the north-east Kharkiv region and one facility in the Dnipropetrovsk region producing explosives for the Ukrainian army.

Moscow had said on Saturday its missiles destroyed a logistics terminal in the southern city of Odesa containing weapons supplied by the United States and European states.

Zelenskiy said eight people, including a 3-month-old child, were killed in the Odesa strike.

– REUTERS

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