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Volodymyr Zelensky from Ukraine expects an Easter visit by top US officials

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine – President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday prepared for the reception of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin in Ukraine to discuss military assistance in preparing Russian forces for an offensive in the east of the country.

The meeting, which has not been confirmed by the United States, is to be the visit of top US officials to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict and comes at a time when Orthodox Christians, the largest religious group in Russia and Ukraine, are celebrating two months of Easter. to the war.

António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, called for a four-day ceasefire during Orthodox Holy Week to allow the evacuation of civilians from the front cities and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is attending a press conference at a metro station in Kiev on Saturday.

Photo: GLEB GARANICH / REUTERS

Moscow rejected the ceasefire proposal, saying it was a ruse to allow the Ukrainian army to regroup. Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, said last week that a break in hostilities would give Ukrainian forces time to accept new supplies of drones, anti-tank missiles and portable air defense. systems.

Mr Guterres is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week before traveling to Kiev. At a press conference on Saturday, Mr Zelensky criticized Mr Guterres’ decision to visit Russia first. “The war is in Ukraine, there are no bodies in the streets of Moscow,” he said.

On Sunday, Mr Zelensky, a Jew, posted a video from Kiev’s Saint-Sophia Cathedral on the Telegram social media platform, in which he said that Ukraine was asking at Easter “God for great mercy to make our big dream come true – this is another big day – the day when great peace will come to Ukraine. “

After the rapid initial success of Russian forces, the Ukrainian conflict settled into a crushing war with Russia, which is gradually gaining profits in the south and east of the country, where it concentrates its firepower after withdrawing from Kiev and other northern areas.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that it had destroyed a gunpowder and explosives factory in Pavlohrad, a city near the eastern region of Donbas, where Russian troops are targeting their offensive, as well as four weapons depots in the northern Kharkiv region.

An Orthodox priest on Sunday blesses a Cossack Easter basket at the church gate in Sumi, Ukraine.

Photo: Manu Brabo for The Wall Street Journal

The window of a residential house on fire due to Russian shelling in northeastern Kharkov.

Photo: Alex Chan Tsz Yuk / Zuma Press

Ukraine’s southern operational command said on Sunday that its forces had recaptured eight settlements in the southern Kherson region, most of which were occupied by Moscow. Russian procedures on the cities of Oleksandrivka, Tavri and Mykolaivka were also repulsed by Ukrainian artillery, the statement said.

No independent confirmation of claims by either party.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia plans to hold a referendum in May on the establishment of a “Kherson People’s Republic” modeled on Donetsk and Luhansk states in the east, which Moscow created in 2014. Mr. Putin recognized independence People’s Republic of China.

At a press conference on Saturday, Zelensky said that if the referendum continued, or if Russia killed another of an unknown number of civilians and fighters hiding in a steel plant in the south, there would be no further talks with Moscow. the port city of Mariupol.

The city experienced some of the most difficult battles of the war. In his night speech, Zelensky said that new evidence was emerging that Russian soldiers had killed tens of thousands of Mariupol residents since the invasion began and were trying to cover up “traces of their crimes.” He also accused Russia of deporting Ukrainians, including children, to remote parts of Russia.

Adviser to Ukrainian President Mykhailo Podoljak said on Sunday that Russia was shelling the Azovstal power plant with artillery and air raids and gathering forces and equipment to attack the last Ukrainian fortress in the city. He called for an Easter truce, a humanitarian corridor for civilians and talks on exchanging military personnel.

People gather at their cars after arriving at an evacuation point for people fleeing Mariupol and surrounding cities under Russian control on Saturday.

Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Russian military vehicles are moving in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol on Saturday.

Photo: Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press

A senior Russian military commander said last week that Moscow’s goal was to take control of the whole of southern Ukraine, from Mariupol in the east to the Moldovan region of Transnistria, where he said Russian-speaking people were suffering from discrimination.

This would secure the land corridor to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014, and deny Ukraine access to the sea.

Two Russian missiles struck unspecified military assets and two residential buildings in Odessa on Saturday, killing eight people, including a mother and child, in the deadliest attack inside the city since the start of the war, according to Odessa mayor Gennady Truchanov.

In an Easter message posted on the Kremlin’s website on Sunday, Mr. Putin thanked the Russian Orthodox Church for its help to those in need of care and support “in our difficult times.”

Email Isabel Coles at isabel.coles@wsj.com and Evan Gershkovich at evan.gershkovich@wsj.com

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