Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – The Ukrainian leader has asked for stronger Western weapons as he prepares for Sunday’s meeting with top US officials in the war-torn metropolis and Russian forces have concentrated their attacks on the east, including an attempt to oust the last Ukrainian troops. holding in the battered port city of Mariupol.
President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the planned visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a long Saturday night press conference held at the Kiev metro station. The White House did not comment.
Zelensky said he was looking for results from the Americans, both in terms of weapons and security. “You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we’re expecting not only gifts or some cupcakes, but specific things and specific weapons,” he said.
The visit would be the first by senior US officials since Russia invaded Ukraine 60 days ago. Blinken briefly entered Ukrainian soil in March to meet with the country’s foreign minister during a visit to Poland. Zelenskyj last met with the American leader face-to-face on February 19 in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris.
The meeting was to take place at a time when Ukrainians and Russians are celebrating Orthodox Easter, when believers are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, considered the happiest holiday on the Christian calendar.
Jew Zelensky, who stood out from the ancient cathedral of St. Sofia, stressed the allegorical significance of this opportunity for a nation destroyed by almost two months of war.
“Today’s great holiday gives us great hope and unshakable faith that light will triumph over darkness, good will triumph over evil, life will triumph over death, and that is why Ukraine will surely triumph!” he said.
Yet the war cast a shadow over the celebrations. The inhabitants of the rural villages beaten by the war approached the day with some cautious defiance.
“How I feel? Very nervous. Everyone is nervous, “said Olena Koptyl as she prepared Easter bread in the northern village of Ivanivka, where Russian tanks were still sprinkling the roads. “Easter holidays bring no joy. I cry a lot. We can’t forget how we lived. “
Earlier, during his overnight speech to the nation, Zelenskyj claimed that the intercepted communication was recorded by Russian troops discussing “covering up traces of their crimes” in Mariupol. The president also drew attention to the death of a three-month-old girl during Saturday’s Russian missile attack on the Black Sea port of Odessa.
Zelensky said the military equipment received from Western supporters had been of great help so far, but also stressed that Ukraine needed more heavy weapons, including long-range air defense systems, as well as warplanes to repel Russian attacks.
The Russian military said it had struck 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, including fortified positions and troop concentrations, while Russian warplanes had destroyed 26 Ukrainian military facilities, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots.
Most of the fighting on Sunday focused on the area of eastern Donbas, where Ukrainian forces are concentrated and where before the war some territories were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Ever since the Russians failed to conquer Kyiv, they have been trying to gain full control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heart.
Russian forces have launched fresh airstrikes at the Mariupol steel plant, which houses an estimated 1,000 civilians along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. The Azovstal steelworks, where defenders are hiding, is the last place of resistance in the city, which the Russians otherwise occupied.
Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine’s presidential adviser, called for a local Easter truce. He called on Russia to allow civilians to leave the power plant and proposed negotiations to negotiate the departure of Ukrainian troops.
Podoljak said on Twitter that the Russian army was attacking the power plant with heavy bombs and artillery, while gathering forces and equipment for a direct attack.
Mariupol has been the center of fierce fighting since the beginning of the war due to its location on the Sea of Azov. Its conquest would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere, and allow Moscow to establish a ground corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Ukraine seized in 2014.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 people remain in Mariupol – less than the pre-war population of about 430,000 – with a shortage of food, water or heat. Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed.
Satellite images released this week showed what looked like mass graves dug in cities west and east of Mariupol.
Zelensky accused the Russians of committing war crimes by killing civilians, as well as setting up “filter camps” near Mariupol for people caught trying to leave the city. From there, he said, Ukrainians are sent to areas under Russian occupation or to Russia itself, often as far as Siberia or the Far East. According to him, many of them are children.
The claim could not be independently verified.
During the attacks on the eve of Orthodox Easter, Russian forces pounded on cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine. The three-month-old was among eight people killed when Russia fired missiles at Odessa, Ukrainian officials said.
The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, referring to social media posts, said that Valeria Glodan’s mother and grandmother also died when the rocket hit a residential area. Zelensky promised to find and punish those responsible for the strike.
“The war started when this baby was one month old,” he said. Can you imagine what’s going on? “They’re dirty bastards, there are no other words for that.”
For the Donbas offensive, Russia has reunited troops that previously fought around Kiev and northern Ukraine. The British Ministry of Defense said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had repulsed numerous attacks last week and “caused significant costs to Russian forces.”
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, rearm and reorganize forces from previous offensives are likely to hamper Russia’s combat effectiveness,” the ministry said in an update.
The spiritual leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics have called for relief for the suffering population of Ukraine.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Istanbul said that a “human tragedy” was taking place. Bartholomew, considered the first among his Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, quoted in particular “thousands of people surrounded by Mariupol, civilians, among them the wounded, the elderly, women and many children.”
Pope Francis, speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, renewed his call for an Easter truce and called it “a minimal and tangible sign of the desire for peace.”
“The attacks must be stopped in order to respond to the suffering of the exhausted population,” Francis said without naming the aggressor.
Associated Press journalists Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Ukraine, Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkov, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Cara Anna and Inna Varenytsia in Kviva and Associated Press staff from all over the world contributed to this story.
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