Fighting rages in fierce battle for eastern Ukraine

  • The battle for the city of Severodonetsk is underway – Zelensky
  • Ukraine thanks the UK for its pledge of new armaments, as Moscow warns the West
  • US says credible reports Russia “steals” Ukraine’s grain
  • Russian ambassador leaves UN meeting amid comment on food crisis

Kyiv (Reuters) – Street fighting has erupted between Ukrainian and Russian forces in a battle for control of the industrial city of Severodonetsk as Russian forces press to invade eastern Ukraine’s Donbass, seeking a decisive victory more than 100 days after the invasion.

It was not clear which side had the upper hand, Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the administration in Severodonetsk, said on television, as “the situation has changed from hour to hour.”

The city became the main target of the Russian offensive in the Donbass – which includes Luhansk and Donetsk provinces – as the Kremlin’s conquest continued in a war of attrition that led to the destruction of cities by artillery shells.

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“In the city, fierce fighting continues in the streets,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his video night address on Monday. “The Russian army is trying to deploy additional forces towards Donbass,” he added.

The situation worsened after Ukrainian defenders expelled the Russians at the weekend as they looked on the verge of victory, provincial governor Serhiy Geday said earlier on Monday.

Two civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on Monday, and Russian forces fired on more than 20 towns, according to the Ukrainian military.

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Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports. Russia denies targeting civilians in the conflict.

“We are offering people the opportunity to evacuate,” Donetsk region governor Pavlo Kirilenko said on television.

“From Sloviansk, more than 100 people have been evacuated since last week. About 24,000 residents remain. Now people understand, although it is late, that it is time to leave.”

Having been pushed out of Kyiv and Kharkiv in the early stages of the war, Russia says it is on a mission to “liberate” the Donbass islands, partly held by separatists since 2014, and is participating in a “special military operation” to disarm and “disarm” its neighbour.

Ukraine and its allies describe this as a baseless excuse to launch a war that has killed thousands, destroyed cities and forced millions of people to flee abroad.

Exactly the weapons we need

Zelensky thanked Britain for supplying multiple launch missile systems that can hit targets up to 80 km away, providing more accurate and long-range firepower to reach Russian artillery batteries, a key to Moscow’s combat plans.

“I am grateful to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his full understanding of our demands and his willingness to provide Ukraine with exactly the weapons it needs to protect the lives of our people,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would respond to Western shipments of long-range weapons by pushing Ukrainian forces away from Russia’s borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday that Russia would hit new targets if the West provided long-range missiles. On the same day, Russian missiles struck Kyiv for the first time in more than a month.

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The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russian forces were also advancing towards Sloviansk, about 85 km west of Severodonetsk.

Russian whistling beans

Amid the worsening global food crisis, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said there were “credible reports” that Russia was “stealing” Ukraine’s grain exports to sell for profit.

Blinken said the alleged theft was part of broader Russian actions during its war in Ukraine that hurt Ukraine’s ability to export its wheat crop.

Prices of grain, cooking oil, fuel and fertilizer have risen since the February 24 invasion.

Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of the world’s wheat supply, while Russia is also an exporter of fertilizer and Ukraine is an exporter of corn and sunflower oil.

Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia walked out of a UN Security Council meeting on Monday as European Council President Charles Michel accused Moscow of fueling the food crisis.

“I couldn’t stay” because of “the lies that Charles Michel came here to distribute,” Nebenzia told Reuters.

Western countries also imposed extensive and severe unprecedented sanctions on Russia for its invasion.

On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had imposed personal sanctions on 61 US officials, including the secretaries of treasury and energy, and senior defense and media executives.

She added that the move came in response to the “continued expansion of US sanctions.”

White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre did not comment when asked about the move during a news briefing.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zenets, Alexander Kozukhar, Pavel Politik, Lydia Kelly and Ronald Popesky; Writing by Costas Pettas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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