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US defence secretary says allies must move ‘at the speed of war’ to fight Putin

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Putin responded by claiming that Russian troops have offered humanitarian corridors to civilians holed up at the plant. But, he said, the Ukrainian defenders of the plant were using civilians as shields and not allowing them to leave.

Two months into the fighting, Western arms have helped Ukraine stall Russia’s invasion, but the country’s leaders have said they need more support fast.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of officials from about 40 countries at the US air base at Ramstein, Germany, and said more help is on the way.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during the Ukraine Security Consultative Group meeting at Ramstein air base on April 26, 2022. Credit:Getty

“We’ve got to move at the speed of war,” Austin said.

He said he wanted officials to leave the meeting “with a common and transparent understanding of Ukraine’s near-term security requirements because we’re going to keep moving heaven and earth so that we can meet them”.

After unexpectedly fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces thwarted Russia’s attempt to take Ukraine’s capital, Moscow now says its focus is the capture of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking industrial area in eastern Ukraine.

In the town of Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region, people fleeing the shelling lined up Tuesday to board a train headed to the far west of the country. One person was lifted onto the train in a wheelchair, another on a stretcher.

The passengers took with them cats, dogs, a few bags and boxes, and the memory of those who did not flee in time.

A woman weeps on the evacuation train in Pokrovsk.

A woman weeps on the evacuation train in Pokrovsk.Credit:AP

“We were in the basement, but my daughter didn’t make it and was hit with shrapnel on the doorstep” during shelling on Monday, said Mykola Kharchenko, 74. “We had to bury her in the garden near the pear tree.”

He said his village, Vremivka, was under heavy fire for four days and all but destroyed. With tears in his eyes, Kharchenko said he somehow held himself together at home, but once he reached the train station he fell apart. In a flash of anger, he lashed out at Russia.

“Is this liberation? From whom am I, a Russian speaker, from whom am I being liberated? From whom? From my daughter? From everything I have built during my whole life?”

In the gutted southern port city of Mariupol, authorities said Russian forces hit the Azovstal steel plant with 35 airstrikes over 24 hours. The plant is the last known stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the city. About 1,000 civilians were said to be taking shelter there with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said Russia was using heavy bunker bombs. He also accused Russian forces of shelling a route they had offered as an escape corridor from the steel mill.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region of the Donbas, said on the Telegram messaging app that Russian forces “continue to deliberately fire at civilians and to destroy critical infrastructure”.

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Ukraine also said Russian forces shelled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which lies in the northeast, outside the Donbas. But it is seen as key to Russia’s apparent bid to encircle Ukrainian troops in the Donbas from the north, east and south.

Ukrainian forces struck back in the Kherson region in the south.

The attack on the bridge near Odesa — along with a series of strikes on key railroad stations a day earlier — appeared to signal a major shift in Russia’s approach. Until now, Moscow has spared strategic bridges, perhaps in hopes of keeping them for its own use in seizing Ukraine. But now it seems to be trying to thwart Ukraine’s efforts to move troops and supplies.

The southern Ukraine coastline and Moldova have been on edge since a senior Russian military officer said last week that the Kremlin’s goal is to secure not just eastern Ukraine but the entire south, so as to open the way to Transnistria, a long, narrow strip of land with about 470,000 people along the Ukrainian border where about 1,500 Russian troops are based.

It was not clear who was behind the blasts, but the attacks gave rise to fears that Russia is stirring up trouble to create a pretext to either invade Trasnistria or use the region as another launching point to attack Ukraine.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the explosions were carried out by Russia and were “designed to destabilise,” with the intention of showing Moldova what could happen if it supports Ukraine.

Austin, the US defence secretary, said the US was still looking into blasts and trying to determine what was going on, but added: “Certainly we don’t want to see any spillover” of the conflict.

AP



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