Monday, May 23, 2022

Russian strikes hit west Ukraine as US urges China to get tough

Lviv had until now largely escaped military strikes from Russian forces, and earlier in the war had become a staging post for foreign diplomats fleeing Kyiv.

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Russian missiles struck near Lviv’s airport in the far west of Ukraine Friday, extending the war to a region left relatively unscathed, as China came under US pressure to restrain its Kremlin allies.

Ambulance and police vehicles raced to the scene of the early-morning strike on an aircraft repair plant near the border of Nato member Poland – which said it has seen more than two million refugees cross over from Ukraine.

Motorists were turned away at checkpoints and a thick pall of smoke billowed over the airport, an AFP reporter saw. Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi said the maintenance plant had been destroyed.

Located 70km from the border, Lviv had until now largely escaped military strikes from Russian forces, and earlier in the war had become a staging post for foreign diplomats fleeing Kyiv.

“There have been air raid alarms here every morning, but now the strikes are actually landing,” Valentin Vovchenko, 82, told AFP.

“We fled Kyiv because of the attacks but now they’ve started to hit here,” he said.

As President Vladimir Putin’s three-week-old ground offensive has stalled under fierce Ukrainian resistance, Moscow has increasingly turned to indiscriminate air and long-range strikes.

In the besieged southern city of Mariupol, rescue workers have been searching desperately for any survivors buried beneath the rubble of a bombed-out theatre, amid fears that hundreds may be trapped.

Russia said Friday its troops and their separatist allies were fighting in the centre of the strategic port city.

Before dawn broke, air raid alarms had rung in cities across Ukraine.

Authorities in Kyiv said one person was killed early Friday when a downed Russian rocket struck a residential building in the capital’s northern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit.

Russians lack ‘basic essentials’

In the hard-pressed eastern city of Kharkiv, Russian strikes demolished the six-storey building of a higher-education institution, killing one person and leaving another trapped in the wreckage, officials said.

In an update on the devastating invasion, Britain’s defence ministry said Russia was struggling to resupply its forward troops “with even basic essentials such as food and fuel”.

“Incessant Ukrainian counterattacks are forcing Russia to divert large number of troops to defend their own supply lines. This is severely limiting Russia’s offensive potential,” it said.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine’s resistance had killed thousands of invading troops, as he addressed Russian mothers in his latest video message.

“We didn’t want this war. We only want peace,” he said. “And we want you to love your children more than you fear your authorities.”

In a call later Friday, US President Joe Biden will warn his counterpart Xi Jinping that China will face “costs” for “any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

After accusing Putin of being a “war criminal”, Biden hopes China will use “whatever leverage they have to compel Moscow to end this war”, the top US diplomat said.

“Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime,” Blinken added in the wake of the Mariupol theatre attack.

More than 24 hours after the once-gleaming whitewashed Drama Theatre was hollowed out by a Russian strike, the number of dead, injured or trapped remained unclear.

‘It is hell’

Ukraine’s ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said a bomb shelter in the building had survived the impact, and some “adults and children” had emerged alive.

The attack on a civilian building marked with the words “DETI”, or “children” in Russian, sparked a wave of international revulsion and heaped pressure on Russia’s few remaining allies – notably China.

But Beijing has refused to oppose Russia at the United Nations, nor even to use word the “invasion” three weeks after Russian troops went into Ukraine, while stressing its opposition to punishing sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow.

Russia has routinely denied that it is targeting civilians, claiming for instance without evidence that hardline Ukrainian nationalists blew up the theatre in Mariupol.

Local officials say more than 2,000 people have died so far in indiscriminate shelling of the city, and 80% of its housing has been destroyed.

“In the streets, there are the bodies of many dead civilians,” Tamara Kavunenko, 58, told AFP after fleeing the city.

“It’s not Mariupol anymore,” she said. “It is hell.”

Outgunned and outnumbered, Zelensky has beseeched allies to provide more military assistance – even as an arsenal of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles floods into the country.

Slovakia confirmed it is willing to provide powerful Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Ukraine, but only on the condition that it receive a substitute from NATO allies.

On Thursday Zelensky told German lawmakers that Russia was throwing up another “Berlin Wall”, a dividing line between “freedom and bondage” in Europe.

‘Odessa holding on’

“And this wall is growing bigger with every bomb,” he added.

That dividing line is currently drawn around 15km from Kyiv, where Russian troops are still trying to surround the capital in a slow-moving offensive.

For many Ukrainians, Russia’s actions on the ground and from the air make a mockery of stop-start peace talks that have been proceeding this week.

Russia wants Ukraine to disarm and disavow all Western alliances – steps that Kyiv says would return it to a vassal state of Moscow.

In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin on Friday accused Ukrainian authorities of “trying in every possible way to stall negotiations, putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals”.

“Nevertheless, the Russian side is ready to continue to search for solutions in line with its well-known principled approaches,” he said, according to the Kremlin.

Western governments have ridiculed Putin’s approach to peace and in Odessa, on the Black Sea, civilians are braced for attack, with tanks deployed at intersections and monuments covered in sandbags.

“Our beautiful Odessa,” said Lyudmila, an elegant elderly woman wearing bright lipstick, as she looked forlornly at her city’s empty, barricaded streets.

“But thank God we are holding on! Everyone is holding on!”

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