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Top US officials visit Kyiv as war casts pall over Orthodox Easter

Joshua Melvin - Agence France-Presse
Top US officials visit Kyiv as war casts pall over Orthodox Easter
Cookies with the US and Ukrainian flags are set on a table before a meeting between Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon April 21, 2022, in Washington, DC.
AFP / Brendan Smialowski

KYIV, Ukraine — The United States' top diplomat and defence chief were in Kyiv Sunday, Ukraine's presidency said, making the first high-level visit by US officials since Russia invaded its neighbour two months ago, as fierce fighting cast a shadow over Orthodox Easter.

The trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin comes as the war enters its third month, with thousands dead and millions displaced, and as Kyiv desperately sought relief for Ukrainians trapped in the battered city of Mariupol.

Presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky met with the US officials Sunday, as Mariupol's defences were "already on the brink of collapse" and Ukraine was in dire need of offensive weapons.

"As long as there are no 'offensives', there will be a new Bucha every day," he said in an interview on a Russian former lawyer's popular YouTube channel, referring to the town where UN officials said they had documented the unlawful killings of around 50 civilians.

"Maybe they can help," Arestovych added of the US envoys. "They wouldn't come here, if they weren't ready to give (weapons)." 

While the visit remained unconfirmed by Washington and details were kept under wraps, Zelensky tweeted later Sunday that the "Ukraine-US friendship and partnership are stronger than ever!"

The United States has been a leading donor of finance and weaponry to Ukraine and a key sponsor of sanctions targeting Russia, but had not sent any top officials to Kyiv, while several European leaders had travelled there to underscore their support.

'Fierce hatred'

The highly sensitive trip by two of President Joe Biden's top cabinet members coincided with Easter celebrations in the largely Orthodox country.

"Our souls are filled with fierce hatred for the invaders and all that they have done," Zelensky said in a statement marking the holiday. "Don't let rage destroy us from within."  

As Ukrainians marked a sombre Easter, with many braving bombardment for blessings, Russian forces showed no sign of easing their attacks.

Five civilians were killed and another five wounded in Donetsk on Sunday, the besieged eastern region's Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. Authorities also reported a death in northeastern Kharkiv. 

The day before, a missile strike on the southern city of Odessa left eight dead and at least 18 wounded, according to Zelensky, who said five missiles hit the historic city.

"Among those killed was a three-month-old baby girl," Zelensky said. "How did she threaten Russia? It seems that killing children is just a new national idea of the Russian Federation."

Russia's defence ministry said it had targeted a major depot stocking foreign weapons near Odessa, attacks that upended the relative calm the city has enjoyed since the war began. 

Zelensky accused Russia of being a terrorist state, one that has devastated the port city of Mariupol with weeks of unrelenting bombardment.

Yet, with thousands of Ukrainian fighters and civilians in Mariupol facing increasingly dire conditions, Kyiv invited Moscow to talks near the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian fighters are still holding out, Ukraine said Sunday.

"We invited Russians to hold a special round of talks on the spot, right next to the walls of Azovstal," the last Ukrainian stronghold in the strategic port, said Arestovych.

There was no immediate response from Russia. Its president, Vladimir Putin, had ordered his forces not to assault the plant, but Ukrainians say the attacks continue unabated.

'Pause to save lives'

On Sunday, the United Nations' Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called for an "immediate stop" to fighting in Mariupol to allow trapped civilians to leave.

"The lives of tens of thousands, including women, children and older people, are at stake in Mariupol," Awad said in a statement. 

"We need a pause in fighting right now to save lives." 

The call came a day after the latest attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed.

In a message posted on social media Sunday, Sviatoslav Palamar — deputy commander of the far-right Azov Regiment, which is sheltering in a warren of tunnels under the steel plant — said Russian forces continued to rain down fire on Azovstal.

"The enemy continues air strikes, artillery from the sea... enemy tanks continue to strike and infantry is trying to storm," said Palamar.

Mariupol, which the Kremlin claims to have "liberated", is pivotal to Russia's war plans to forge a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea — and possibly beyond, as far as Moldova.

The latest fighting followed an announcement earlier this week from a senior Russian military officer who said Moscow aimed to take full control over the eastern Donbas region and southern Ukraine.

Amid the calls to halt the fighting in Mariupol, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it was "extremely concerned" after a number of its Ukrainian members were believed to have been arrested in pro-Russian separatist territories in the country's east.

More than five million Ukrainians have fled the country, and millions of others have been displaced internally, officials say.

In the western city of Lviv, 32-year-old Tetiana Kasian — who had fled Mariupol — stopped to solemnly take in a wall of flowers memorialising the dead.

"I never thought that it would happen in Ukraine in the 21st century," she said quietly. "I don't know if I will see my parents" again.

Easter Sunday

Even as fighting raged on, Ukrainians took time to observe a solemn Easter. 

Under the rain at a frontline position in the eastern town of Lyman, soldiers traded the usual patriotic salutation of "Glory to Ukraine!" for a cry of "Christ has risen!"

"Truly risen!" came the reply.

Around 50 civilians gathered in the town's small Orthodox church. Artillery fire could be heard as they prayed. 

"If we make the wrong choices, then darkness will ruin us, as darkness is destroying us during this war," the priest said in his sermon.

Elsewhere on the frontline, in the eastern city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian troops had hidden their small stock of supplies, including Easter treats, under a bridge after Russian mortar rounds struck overnight.

Next to the Kalashnikovs were Coke bottles and cereal bars, as well as icing-covered Easter breads sprinkled with colourful sugar beads.

While others have fled the battered country, some Ukrainians have stayed in place — either bound to the land, too old or ill to travel, or simply lacking other options.

"I must work," farmer Vassili Kushch, 63, said in the village of Mala Tokmachka in southern Ukraine, standing near rubble left by a bomb. "I don't have anywhere else to go." — with Daphne Rousseau in Lyman

ANTONY BLINKEN

LLOYD AUSTIN

UKRAINE

UNITED STATES

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes that Moscow and the West could find a solution to the raging security crisis over Ukraine, but also accused Washington of using Kyiv as a "tool" against Russia.

"I hope that in the end we will find a solution, although it will not be simple," Putin says, indicating he was ready for more talks with the West, which has accused Moscow of massing more than 100,000 troops on the border and plotting to invade Ukraine.

"It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine... but its main task is to contain Russia's development," Putin says. — AFP

June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

A Russian missile strike on a crowded mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk killed at least 16 people, the head of emergency services says early Tuesday, sparking international outrage.

"The Russian strike today on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk is one of the most brazen terrorist acts in European history," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening broadcast posted on Telegram.

"As of now, we know of 16 dead and 59 wounded, 25 of them hospitalised. The information is being updated," emergency services chief Sergiy Kruk says. — AFP

June 27, 2022 - 1:20pm

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a "crime" not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

"You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying 'no swimming' — but you see someone drowning. It's a crime not to help. That's how I see it," he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a "patriot", he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

"I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help," he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea's passport law to leave as equivalent to a "traffic violation". — AFP

June 26, 2022 - 2:40pm

Indonesian President and G20 chairman Joko Widodo set off on Sunday to Europe where he said he plans to visit Russia and Ukraine and meet with the countries' leaders to urge peace talks. 

Widodo departed for Germany to attend as a guest for the G7 summit from June 26 to 27, and he will then go to the Ukraine capital Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

"The mission is to ask... President Zelensky to open a dialogue forum for peace, to build peace because the war has to be stopped," he told a press conference in Jakarta. 

The two leaders will also discuss the food supply chain "that needs to be reactivated" soon, Widodo said. From Kyiv, Widodo is scheduled to visit Moscow and meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. 

The visit to Moscow is planned for June 30, Indonesian authorities said earlier. — AFP

June 26, 2022 - 1:36pm

Four explosions were heard in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early Sunday, with AFP journalists reporting a residential complex near the centre of the city had been hit, causing a fire and cloud of grey smoke.

The blasts occurred around 6:30 am (0330 GMT), half an hour after air raid sirens sounded in the capital, which has not not come under Russian bombardment for nearly three weeks.

There was no immediate information on casualties.

An AFP colleague living in the same residential complex heard a loud buzz preceding the explosions.

"Several explosions in the Shevchenkivsky district," Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram.

"Ambulances and rescuers are on site. In two buildings, the rescue and evacuation of residents is underway," he added. — AFP

June 24, 2022 - 8:07am

The United States is sending a new batch of military assistance to Ukraine, the White House says, with the $450 million shipment including four more advanced rocket systems to use against Russian invasion forces.

"This package contains weapons and equipment, including new High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems," White House spokesman John Kirby says. Also included are tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition and patrol boats.

The rocket systems known as HIMARS are at the top of Ukraine's wish list as the pro-Western country battles a Russian invasion force advancing through the east of the country with the help of a significant advantage in heavy artillery. — AFP

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