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Ukraine battles Russian push in east as Kyiv allies pledge $1 bln in aid


2022-12-13T14:55:45Z

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held talks with U.S. President Joe Biden and with the leaders of Turkey and France on Sunday, stepping up diplomatic activity around a war started by Russia nearly 10 months ago. Flora Bradley-Watson reports.

Russia and Ukraine pounded each other’s forces in heavy fighting in the eastern region of Donetsk on Tuesday as Kyiv’s allies meeting in Paris pledged just over 1 billion euros ($1.05 billion) to help Ukrainians survive the freezing winter.

Russian forces are battling to take control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, two of four territories the Kremlin claims to have annexed in votes rejected by most countries as illegal.

Moscow is also attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with waves of missile and drone strikes, at times cutting off electricity for millions of civilians enduring Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War Two.

“They’re shelling really hard, there’s shelling, especially at night,” Valentyna, 70, told Reuters as she fled the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, which Moscow seeks to capture but which is now largely in ruins because of incessant bombardment.

Valentyna, who declined to give her surname, spoke in a van driving to the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled Pokrovsk.

“The house would shake and every minute, second you expect it could crumble around you and that’d be it. I couldn’t even sleep in the last week, so I decided to leave,” she added.

Air raid sirens wailed across Ukraine on Tuesday afternoon, but no new attacks were reported and the all clear was given.

In Paris, about 70 countries and institutions pledged payments of just over 1 billion euros ($1.05 billion) to help maintain Ukraine’s water, food, energy, health and transport, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had said Ukraine needed at least 800 million euros ($840 million). “It’s a lot, but the price is less than the cost of blackout,” Zelenskiy told the meeting via video link.

French President Emmanuel Macron said there was an agreement on removing heavy weapons from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and that talks were under way on the way to do this.

Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed administrator of the portion of Donetsk controlled by Moscow, told Russian media that just over half of the Donetsk People’s Republic had been “liberated”. The self-styled republic is a breakaway Russian-backed entity that has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.

Fighting in the region in recent weeks has left unclear which parts of Donetsk are under Russian and Ukrainian control.

Three civilians were killed in Donetsk over the past 24 hours, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on his Telegram channel, while in the southern Kherson region, governor Yaroslav Yanushevych reported three people killed by Russian artillery.

Russian troops shelled the part of the Kherson region under Ukrainian control 57 times, he said.

Russia’s sustained shelling of the frontline in Donetsk has destroyed Bakhmut city and heavily damaged the city of Avdiivka, which lies in the region’s centre, Zelenskiy said on Friday.

On Monday, Ukraine’s armed forces said Russia kept concentrating its efforts to advance and capture both cities.

Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region, late on Monday shared video on Telegram of what he said was a damaged bridge connecting a suburb to Melitopol, a Russian-occupied city Ukraine sees as vital to Russia’s defence of territory it holds in the south, including Crimea.

Reuters could not independently confirm the report. Ivan Fedorov, Melitopol’s exiled mayor, also shared video taken from the perspective of a vehicle approaching what appeared to be the bridge and then reversing away from a section that had buckled.

Fedorov drew a parallel with an attack in October on a more strategically significant road-and-rail bridge linking Russia and the Crimean peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that blast was orchestrated by Ukraine and unleashed retaliatory strikes on Ukrainian cities including Kyiv.

Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), said there had been a significant increase in “terrorist manifestations” in Russia this year, mostly in regions close to Ukraine, according to the Interfax news agency.

Interfax cited the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, which Bortnikov chairs, as saying 123 such crimes were averted this year, including 64 terrorist acts. Bortnikov said these acts were due to the activities of Western-backed Ukrainian “special services” and those of “international terrorist organisations”.

Reuters could not independently verify the latest battlefield accounts.

Russia’s close ally Belarus announced a snap military inspection on Tuesday including increased combat readiness in the south of the country, the latest in a burst of exercises that have prompted concern from neighbouring Ukraine.

The Group of Seven on Monday promised to “meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements” after Zelenskiy appealed for modern tanks, artillery and long-range weapons. He also urged the G7 to support his idea of convening a special Global Peace Summit.

Russia on Tuesday dismissed a peace proposal from Zelenskiy that would involve a pullout of Russian troops and demanded Kyiv accept new territorial “realities” which included Russia’s addition of four Ukrainian regions as its “new subjects”.

U.S. President Joe Biden told Zelenskiy on Sunday that Washington’s priority was to boost Ukraine’s air defences. The United States also shipped the first batch of power equipment to Ukraine under an aid package agreed last month.

Moscow denies deliberately attacking civilians, but the war has displaced millions and killed thousands of non-combatants.

There are no peace talks under way to end the conflict, which Moscow describes as a “special military operation” against security threats posed by its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies call it an unprovoked, imperialist land grab.

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