Civilians flee east Ukraine as Kyiv readies for Donbas battle

EU rules allow the country to redraft the plan due to an extraordinary event. However, changes to the plan and approval process could take months. [EPA-EFE/Darek Delmanowicz]

Ukraine is preparing for “big battles” against Moscow’s forces in the east of the country, officials in Kyiv said, as thousands of civilians flee in fear of an imminent Russian offensive.

Evacuations resumed on Saturday (9 April) from Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, where a missile strike killed 52 people at a railway station a day earlier, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv.

Hailing the country’s response to the Russian invasion, Johnson offered Ukraine armoured vehicles and anti-ship missiles to help ensure, he said, that the country will “never be invaded again”.

His offer came after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv was readying for a Russian onslaught.

“Sadly, in parallel we see the preparations for important battles, some people say decisive ones, in the east,” he said Saturday at a press conference with visiting Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

“We are ready to fight and to look in parallel to end this war through diplomacy.”

Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said Ukraine must beat back Russia in the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow controls two separatist territories, before a meeting can take place between the Ukrainian leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Ukraine is ready for big battles. Ukraine must win them, including in the Donbas. And once that happens, Ukraine will have a more powerful negotiating position,” he said on national television, as quoted by the Interfax news agency.

“After that the presidents will meet. It could take two weeks, three.”

A video released by Zelenskyy’s office showed him and Johnson walking through largely empty city streets to Kyiv’s historic Maidan Square, as snipers kept watch.

The two men greeted passersby, and one visibly emotional man called out to Johnson: “We need you.”

Johnson said the discovery of scores of civilian bodies in Ukrainian towns had “permanently polluted” Putin’s reputation.

Six weeks into Russia’s invasion, Moscow has shifted its focus to eastern and southern Ukraine after stiff resistance thwarted plans to swiftly capture Kyiv.

With thousands killed in the fighting and more than 11 million fleeing their homes or the country, the Ukrainian president called on the West to follow Britain’s example on military aid.

“We need even more sanctions” against Russia, Zelenskyy said in a video address Saturday.

“We need more weapons for our state.”

Plea to evacuate

EU leaders were meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Friday as news emerged of the devastating attack on Kramatorsk’s station. The 52 victims included five children.

Zelenskyy calls for 'firm global response' to train station bombing

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for a “firm global response” Friday after a missile strike killed 52 people at a train station in eastern Ukraine where civilians had gathered to flee a feared Russian offensive.

US President Joe Biden accused Russia of being behind a “horrific atrocity” in Kramatorsk, and France condemned the strike as a “crime against humanity”.

Moscow denied responsibility for the rocket attack, which also wounded 109 people, according to the latest official count.

According to Moscow, the photos and videoclips freely available on Internet, including geo-referenced pictures of the missile that fell in Kramatorsk, lead to the conclusion that it could have come exclusively from a sector controlled by the Ukrainian armed forces.

As Russian forces regroup in the east and south of Ukraine, local officials are urging residents to flee before it is too late.

The mayor of eastern Lysychansk, Oleksandr Zaika, on Saturday asked residents to evacuate as soon as possible due to constant shelling by the Russian army.

“It has become very difficult in the city, enemy shells are already flying,” Zaika said in a video message.

While the city had stocks of humanitarian aid, he added, “that doesn’t mean it will save your life if an enemy shell arrives”.

And more Russian shells did arrive on Saturday, killing five people in the eastern cities of Vugledar and Novo Mikhaylovka, local governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram.

Meanwhile, in Kramatorsk, minibuses assembled at a church to collect shaken evacuees. Almost 80 people, most of them elderly, sheltered in a building near the targeted station.

“There were around 300 to 400 people who rushed here after the strike,” Yevgeny, a member of the Protestant church, told AFP.

“They were traumatised. Half of them ran to shelter in the cellar, others wanted to leave as soon as possible. Some were evacuated by bus” on Friday.

The Kramatorsk station was serving as the main evacuation hub for refugees from parts of the eastern Donbas region still under Ukrainian control.

AFP reporters at the station saw the remains of a missile tagged in white paint with the words “for our children” in Russian — an expression used by pro-Russian separatists to invoke their own losses since fighting in Donbas began in 2014.

The governor of Donetsk claimed a missile with cluster munitions — banned by an international treaty — was used in the attack, according to remarks published by the Interfax news agency.

NATO plans new force

Speaking Saturday from Warsaw, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said a global pledging event for Ukrainian refugees has raised €10.1 billion ($11 billion).

In another sign of Western solidarity, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance was drawing up plans for a permanent military force on its border to prevent further Russian aggression.

“What we see now is a new reality, a new normal for European security. Therefore, we have now asked our military commanders to provide options for what we call a reset, a longer-term adaptation of NATO,” he said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph published Saturday.

He said the new force would be one of the “long-term consequences” of Putin’s invasion.

Russian troops appear intent on creating a long-sought land link between occupied Crimea and the Moscow-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region.

Growing evidence of atrocities has also galvanised Ukraine’s allies in the EU, which has approved an embargo on Russian coal, frozen billions in assets of sanctioned individuals and ordered the closure of its ports to Russian vessels.

Bucha — where authorities say hundreds were killed, some with their hands bound — has become a byword for the brutality allegedly inflicted under Russian occupation.

And Ukrainian officials say they are uncovering even greater devastation in nearby towns.

Fresh allegations also emerged from Obukhovychi, northwest of Kyiv, where villagers told AFP they were used as human shields.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians.

Prisoner exchange

Ukraine said Saturday it had completed a third prisoner exchange with Russia, bringing 12 soldiers and 14 civilians home.

But Moscow said Russian troops also fired on a Ukrainian vessel trying to evacuate commanders of the Azov battalion from the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol.

The Azov Special Operations Detachment has been fighting Russian forces in Mariupol — scene of some of the war’s most grievous civilian suffering — as it lies between Russia-occupied Crimea and the pro-Russian separatist regions in Ukraine’s east.

Fighting has become increasingly fierce in the region as Russia redirects its focus.

The governor of Donetsk said that Russian shelling had also killed five civilians and wounded five others in two eastern Ukrainian cities Saturday.

Four of them died in the city of Vugledar, and one in the town of Novomikhaylovka, Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a Telegram post.

The Ukrainian army announced on Facebook that it had “destroyed four tanks, eight armoured vehicles and seven enemy vehicles”, as well as “a plane, a helicopter” and drones.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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