US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to travel to Kyiv to discuss Ukraine’s demand for more powerful weapons after months of fighting with invading Russian forces.
Sunday’s visit, announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, would be the highest-level visit by US officials to the country since the war began on February 24.
The White House has not confirmed any travel plans for Blinken and Austin. The State Department and the Pentagon declined to comment.
As the war enters its third month, there is no end in sight to the fighting that has shocked the world, killed thousands, uprooted millions and reduced cities to rubble.
“Tomorrow we will discuss this exact list of weapons that are essential for us and the pace of deliveries,” Zelenskiy said at a dramatic Saturday evening press conference in an underground metro station.
“We would like to have… powerful heavy weapons. As soon as we have (more weapons), as soon as there are enough of them, believe me, we will immediately take back this or that territory, which is temporarily occupied.”
Zelenskiy’s comments came as Russia resumed its assault on the defenders making a final stand at a giant steelworks in Mariupol, days after Moscow declared victory in the key southern port city and said its forces will not didn’t need to take the factory.
The attack on Mariupol, the biggest battle of the conflict, has been raging for weeks. The city’s capture is seen as vital to Russia’s attempts to link the eastern Donbass region with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014.
Moscow-backed separatists have for years held territory in the Donbass region, which includes Donetsk regions, including Mariupol, and Luhansk.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai noted that fighting continued during the Orthodox Easter holiday.
“Usually we used to come to our churches with Easter baskets. But now it’s impossible,” Gaidai posted on his Telegram channel. “Seven churches in the Luhansk region were mutilated by Russian artillery.”
Reuters could not independently verify the report of destroyed churches.
Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in Mariupol and claims that 100,000 civilians are still there. The United Nations and the Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.
A new attempt to evacuate civilians failed on Saturday, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol said.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a political adviser to Zelenskiy, said Ukrainian troops in the steel complex were resisting and attempting counterattacks. More than 1,000 civilians are also at the plant, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that Russian forces were continuing their offensive in the east of the country to establish full control over Donetsk and Luhansk and secure a land route to the annexed Crimean peninsula, adding that they were attacking both military and civilian infrastructure.
He said Russian forces were also partially blockading the northeastern city of Kharkiv and moved Iskander-M missile launchers about 60 km from the Ukrainian border. The Iskander-M system fires short-range ballistic missiles that can hit targets 500 km away.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian forces said they repelled 12 attacks on Saturday, destroying among other things four tanks, 15 units of armored equipment and five artillery systems. Reuters could not independently confirm the information.
In the Black Sea port of Odessa, at least eight people were killed, Zelenskiy said on Saturday. Two missiles hit a military facility and two residential buildings and two others were destroyed, the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.
The death toll could not be independently verified. The last major strike in or near Odessa took place in early April.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its “special military operation”.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it used high-precision missiles to destroy a logistics terminal in Odessa containing weapons supplied by the United States and European countries.
Australian Associated Press