Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russian forces have “completely destroyed” the industrial Donbas region, and accused Moscow of carrying out senseless bombardments as it intensified its offensive.
- An undisclosed number of Ukrainian fighters remain in the Azovstal steel plant despite the surrender
The Kremlin says it will be up to residents of areas in Ukraine controlled by Russian troops to determine their future status
The US has strongly supported Finland and Sweden’s bid to join the NATO alliance
Mr Zelenskyy also accused Russian forces of attempting to kill as many Ukrainians and do as much damage as possible, repeating his charge that Russia was carrying out a genocide.
He said while Ukrainian forces were continuing to liberate the Kharkiv region to the east of Kyiv, Russia was trying to exert even more pressure in the Donbas, which lies in the south-eastern part of Ukraine.
“It is hell there — and that is not an exaggeration,” he said in a late night video address, adding 12 people had been killed in the “brutal and absolutely senseless bombardment” of Severodonetsk on Thursday.
“[There are] constant strikes on the Odesa region, on the cities of central Ukraine. The Donbas is completely destroyed,” he said.
Fate of Azovstal fighters remains uncertain
More than 1,700 defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have surrendered since Monday, Russian authorities said, in what appeared to be the final stage in the nearly three-month siege of the pulverised port city.
At least some of the fighters were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Others were hospitalised, according to a separatist official.
But an undisclosed number remained in the warren of bunkers and tunnels in the sprawling plant.
In a brief video message, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defence of the steel mill, said he and other fighters were still inside.
While Ukraine expressed hope for a prisoner exchange, Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the Azovstal fighters for war crimes and put them on trial.
Ukraine puts up stiff resistance in Donbas region
Kyiv’s troops, bolstered by Western weapons, thwarted Russia’s initial goal of storming the capital Kyiv and have put up stiff resistance against Moscow’s forces in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on capturing.
The surprising success of Ukraine’s troops has buoyed Kyiv’s confidence.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr Zelenskyy who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said in a tweet addressed to Moscow: “Do not offer us a cease-fire — this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal.
Questions over future of Russian-controlled areas
Russia again signalled its intent to incorporate or at least maintain influence over areas its troops have seized.
Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin this week visited the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, which have been under the control of Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in February.
He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the regions could become part of “our Russian family”.
Volodymyr Saldo, the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, also appeared in a video on Telegram saying Kherson “will become a subject of the Russian Federation”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said residents of areas in Ukraine controlled by Russian troops must “determine how and with whom they want to live”.
Mr Peskov made the statement during a conference call with reporters after being asked about some Russian officials saying Russia could move to incorporate the captured Kherson region of southern Ukraine.
The Kremlin spokesman responded by saying that authorities need to focus on providing basic services to the residents of areas under Russian control.
US supports Nordic push to join NATO
US President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust support for their applications to join NATO, while Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Joining Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the White House Rose Garden, Mr Biden said: “Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger.”
Mr Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” he said.
“Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Meanwhile, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved nearly $US40 billion ($56.6 billion) in new aid for Ukraine on Thursday — by far the largest US aid package for Ukraine to date.
Mr Biden said the bill’s passage ensured there would be no lapse in US funding for Ukraine.
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