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The Russian military is intensifying its attacks on Ukraine’s eastern regions, with airstrikes on Mariupol, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, Ukrainian sources said on Saturday.
The airstrikes affected the arms industry and also residential areas in the cities, presidential adviser Olexiy Arestovych told Ukrainian television.
This could not be independently verified. Russia denies attacking civilian targets.
However, in contrast, Russian soldiers had been pushed towards the state border in the north and north-east, Arestovych said, noting that Ukrainian troops had recaptured more than 30 villages around Kiev.
After talks with Ukraine, Russia agreed to significantly reduce its combat operations near Kiev and Chernihiv last week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also said he expected Russian military operations to ramp up in the east even as Western intelligence agencies saw a pull back from Kiev.
“Russian soldiers are being brought to the Donbass. Likewise in the direction of Kharkiv,” Zelensky said in a video address late Friday.
“The situation in the east of our country remains very difficult.” Washington and London have reported a scaling back of Russian soldiers near Kiev.
The Pentagon estimates that about 20% of Russia’s troops outside the city have left the area in the past several days, although it describes the movement as a “repositioning” to other areas, such as the Donbass, not a complete withdrawal.
The British Defence Ministry said on Saturday that Russian forces were reported to have withdrawn from Hostomel airport, north-west of Kiev.
Also, the Ukrainian General Staff said Russian troops were being withdrawn from the exclusion zone around the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant and adjacent areas in Belarus, apparently to be moved to Russia’s Belgorod region to advance from there to Kharkiv.
But fierce fighting continued in other parts of the country, with Ukrainian authorities reporting Russian rocket fire on several major cities in the south.
In Dnipro, two or three heavy explosions were heard overnight, the Ukrayinska Pravda news portal reported, citing the regional administration.
The area around the city of Kryvyi Rih was shelled by rocket launchers. A petrol station caught fire, said the head of the local military administration, Oleksandr Vilkul.
The port city of Odessa was also hit with rockets on Friday evening.
Russia said on Saturday it has destroyed 67 more military targets in its latest missile attacks in Ukraine. The Defence Ministry said a petrol and diesel depot were destroyed near the commercial and industrial city of Kremenchuk, some 300 kilometres south-east of the capital Kiev, on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, attempts were under way to evacuate thousands of civilians from Mariupol after the failure of Friday’s attempt by the Red Cross.
According to estimates, about 100,000 people are still holding out in the embattled city.
Ten larger buses were to bring about 500 people to the north-western city of Zaporizhzhia in a civil initiative announced on the Telegram news channel.
In addition, the Red Cross was trying to bring residents out of the city in a convoy. By the afternoon it was still unclear whether this had been possible.
Nationwide, seven escape corridors had been established for several Ukrainian cities, according to the government.
Such operations have proved difficult so far, however, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of sabotaging the evacuations.
Meanwhile the Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that Ukrainian documentary filmmaker and photographer Max Levin, who had been missing since mid-March, had been found dead in a village near the capital. Reporters Without Borders said that Levin was the sixth journalist to be killed since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.
Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict continued on Saturday. US diplomat Victoria Nuland, the under-secretary of state for political affairs, is coming to Europe to coordinate the response to Russia’s war. Nuland is expected to visit France, Germany, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, the US State Department said.
Others called for tougher measures on Moscow. Poland’s head of government pushed for a further tightening of EU sanctions targeting Russia, saying the measures taken so far are not nearly enough.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met European Parliament President Roberta Metsola at a refugee centre near Warsaw.
Morawiecki said that the exchange rate of the Russian rouble had returned to the level it had before the attack on Ukraine, indicating Moscow was escaping punishment.
He also said more money was needed from the EU to support Ukrainian refugees, an appeal Metsola echoed during her visit. Poland is currently home to more than 2.4 million refugees from Ukraine, more than any other EU country.
However, recent numbers show that thousands of Ukrainians are returning home from abroad despite the war. Some 19,000 people crossed the border near Lviv within 24 hours, the local military chief Maksym Kozytsky wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
Meanwhile a German official also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the sanctions in place. The EU sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs will have little effect in Germany, according to a long-time customs investigator.
The authorities are “hardly in a position to track down and secure assets of sanctioned persons,” Frank Buckenhofer, chairman of the customs police union, told the Sunday edition of the newspaper Die Welt seen in advance by dpa.
Meanwhile the Russian authorities said they have opened criminal proceedings against the Ukrainian military for a “terrorist attack” on an oil depot near the city of Belgorod.
The Russian National Investigation Agency in Moscow said two Ukrainian combat helicopters equipped with heavy offensive weapons illegally entered Russian airspace and launched at least four air strikes on the fuel complex.
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