Ukraine called civilians to leave eastern Luhansk 


LVIV: Ukraine on Saturday called on civilians in the eastern Luhansk region to flee from amassing Russian forces after officials said more than 50 civilians trying to evacuate by rail from a neighbouring region were killed in a missile attack the previous day.

Air-raid sirens sounded in cities across eastern Ukraine, which has become the focus of Russian military action in recent weeks following a withdrawal from areas close to Kyiv.

“They are amassing forces for an offensive,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai in a televised address in which he urged remaining civilians to flee shelling that he said had intensified in recent days.

Russia’s invasion, which began on Feb 24, has forced more than 4 million people to flee abroad, killed or injured thousands, left a quarter of the population homeless, and turned cities into rubble.

The civilian casualties have triggered a wave of international condemnation, in particular over the deaths in the town of Bucha, which was until last week occupied by Russian forces.

Russia has denied targetting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its southern neighbour. Ukraine and Western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Saturday in a “show of solidarity” with Ukraine a day after a missile strike killed dozens at a railway station in the country’s east.

Johnson tweeted that Britain was “setting out a new package of financial and military aid which is a testament of our commitment to his country’s struggle against Russia’s barbaric campaign”.

As part of the solidarity campaign, a global pledging event for Ukrainian refugees raised 10.1 billion euros ($11 billion), European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in Warsaw.

With thousands killed in fighting and more than 11 million fleeing their homes or the country, Zelensky said the Kramatorsk strike marked a fresh atrocity that required Western action.

“This is another Russian war crime for which everyone involved will be held accountable,” he said in a video message, calling for “a firm global response to this war crime”.

Zelensky later said he was “still ready” to continue talks with Russia to resolve the conflict, after talks with visiting Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

US President Joe Biden accused Russia of being behind a “horrific atrocity” in Kramatorsk, the de facto capital of the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region, and France condemned the strike as a “crime against humanity”. Moscow denied responsibility for the rocket attack on Friday morning, which killed 52 people including five children and injured a further 109 victims, according to the latest official count.

The Ukrainian president said the bombing had been reported in Russia before the missiles had even landed and called for more weaponry to counter Moscow’s aggression.

“I am sure that the victory of Ukraine is just a matter of time, and I will do everything to reduce this time,” he added.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians, but growing evidence of atrocities has galvanised Ukraine’s allies in the EU, which has approved an embargo on Russian coal and the closure of its ports to Russian vessels.

The bloc has frozen 30 billion euros in assets from Russian and Belarusian individuals and companies, it said.

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