-European leaders head for Kyiv as US pledges more weapons –
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy were on a train Thursday morning, June 16, bound for Kyiv, a day after the United States announced $1 billion worth of new arms for embattled Ukrainian forces.
Kyiv’s troops are resisting a fierce onslaught in the Donbas region by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces, which are pushing to seize a swathe of eastern and southern Ukraine.
In a show of support, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi are visiting Kyiv.
The three leaders left Poland in the morning by train, according to an AFP video.
Speaking during a visit to neighbouring Romania Wednesday, Macron said that “we, the European Union, need to send clear political signals to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have been resisting heroically for several months”.
It is the first time that the leaders of the three European Union countries have visited Kyiv since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
They are due to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, at a time when Kyiv is pushing for membership of the EU.
Draghi has backed Ukraine’s hopes of joining the bloc and made the case for EU enlargement eastwards in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month.
The European Commission has said it will give recommendations on Kyiv’s membership prospects soon. France holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of this month.
Other leading figures to have visited Ukraine since the start of the war include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN chief Antonio Guterres.
– ‘Stand by Ukraine’ –
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden unveiled the new US arms package, featuring howitzers, ammunition, anti-ship missile systems, and additional rockets for new artillery systems that Ukraine will soon put in the field.
Biden said that he told Zelensky in a phone call Wednesday that “the United States will stand by Ukraine as it defends its democracy and support its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression.”
“The bravery, resilience, and determination of the Ukrainian people continues to inspire the world.”
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is focused on the industrial city of Severodonetsk, and the Russians appear close to consolidating control after weeks of intense battles.
Moscow’s forces have destroyed the three bridges spanning a river between the city and Lysychansk just to the west, which is “likely to isolate the remaining Ukrainian defenders within the city from critical lines of communication,” according to the US Institute of War.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a Severodonetsk chemical plant, which is under constant bombardment, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Russia said it had sought to establish a humanitarian corridor Wednesday to evacuate them, but that Ukrainian forces “cynically scuppered” the operation and prevented it from going ahead.
From an elevated position in Lysychansk, an AFP team saw black smoke rising from the chemical factory in Severodonetsk and another area in the city.
The Ukrainian military was using the high ground to exchange fire with Russian forces across the river.
“It’s scary, very scary,” 83-year-old Lysychansk pensioner Valentina said. “Why can’t they agree at last, for God’s sake, just shake hands?”
Elsewhere, Russia launched a missile strike in Ukraine’s northeast Sumy region, killing four people and injuring six others, governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky said on Telegram.
– Seeking more arms –
In Brussels, Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov and other officials met Wednesday with some 50 countries of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at NATO headquarters asking for a surge in weapons and ammunition.
“Ukraine is really in a very critical situation and therefore, it’s an urgent need to step up,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told journalists.
Top US defence officials defended the pace of arms deliveries while stressing that some weapons Kyiv wants require weeks of training before they can enter battle.
“We really are focused on what the leadership believes that its current needs are in this fight,” said US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“And I think that the international community has done a pretty good job of providing that capability. But it’s never enough.”
Putin meanwhile underscored that he was not as isolated internationally as his foes would wish with a call with China’s leader Xi Jinping, their second reported call since Russia attacked Ukraine.
China has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of providing diplomatic cover for Russia by criticising Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv.
The United Nations warned a hunger crisis that has been worsened by the war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket to the world, could swell already record global displacement numbers.
Addressing the food insecurity crisis is “of paramount importance… to prevent a larger number of people moving,” the United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi told reporters.
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