KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian military said it used long-range missiles Wednesday to destroy a depot in the western Lviv region of Ukraine where ammunition for NATO-supplied weapons was being stored.
Those strikes came as fighting raged for the city of Sievierodonetsk in Ukraine's eastern Donbas area, the key focus of Russia's offensive in recent weeks.
Russia-backed separatists accused Ukrainian forces of sabotaging an evacuation of civilians from the city's besieged Azot chemical plant, where about 500 civilians and an unknown number of Ukrainian fighters are believed to be sheltering from missile attacks. It wasn't possible to verify that claim.
A humanitarian corridor from the Azot plant had been announced a day earlier by Russia but they said it would take civilians to areas controlled by Russian forces, not Ukrainian ones.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk Serhiy Haidai on Wednesday refused to comment on Russian statements regarding a humanitarian corridor for civilians at the plant, but told The Associated Press that “heavy fighting in Sievierodonetsk continues today as well.” The situation in the city is getting worse, Haidai admitted, because Russian forces have more manpower and weapons.
“But our military is holding back the enemy from three sides at once,” Haidai said. “The enemy is advancing because of significant advantage in artillery and people, but the Ukrainian army is holding on to its positions in the city.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces used high-precision Kalibr missiles to destroy the depot near the town of Zolochiv in the Lviv region near the border with NATO member Poland.
Konashenkov said M777 howitzers, a type supplied by the United States, were being stored there. He said the Russian airstrikes also destroyed Ukrainian “aviation equipment” at a military aerodrome in the southern Mykolaiv region.
The strikes came as Ukraine keeps up its pressure on Western countries to deliver more arms and as NATO countries pledge more heavy weapons for Ukraine.
In recent days, Ukrainian officials have spoken of the heavy human cost of the war, with the fierce fighting in the east becoming an artillery battle that has seen Kyiv’s forces outgunned and outnumbered.
“The losses, unfortunately, are painful, but we have to hold out,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Tuesday in his nightly video address. “The more losses the enemy suffers there, the less strength it will have to continue the aggression. Therefore, the Donbas is key to determining who will dominate in the coming weeks.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, tweeted Wednesday that he gets a daily message from the Ukrainian defenders there saying: “We are holding on, just say: when to expect the weapons?” He said that is the same message he has for NATO leaders.
Meanwhile, the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council and Russian former president Dmitry Medvedev suggested that Russia appears intent on the destruction of its neighbor.
In a Telegram post, he wrote that he saw reports that Ukraine wants to receive liquified natural gas in a deal from its “overseas masters” with payment due in two years.
He added: "But there’s a question. Who said that in two years Ukraine will even exist on the map of the world?”
Medvedev has been making harsh statements against Ukraine and the West since the war began.
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A U.N. delegation investigating war crimes in Ukraine has visited areas of the country which were held by Russian troops and says there is evidence that could support war crimes allegations.
The delegation chaired by Erik Møse, a Norwegian judge, visited sites including the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, where Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of mass killings of civilians.
“At this stage we are not in a position to make any factual findings or pronounce ourselves on issues of the legal determination of events,” Møse said.
“However, subject to further confirmation, the information received and the visited sites of destruction may support claims that serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, perhaps reaching war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed in the areas,” he said.
With Ukrainian and international organizations investigating war crimes cases, Møse expressed concern at the risk of investigations “overlapping” or causing witnesses more trauma by going over the same events repeatedly.
The prime ministers of Albania and Montenegro visited Kyiv on Wednesday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and show their sympathy and support to the Ukrainian people.
The pair, from a region that was the site of bloody ethnic wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, visited Borodyanka and Irpin to view the destruction and learn from local officials about the atrocities committed by Russian forces before they pulled back from that area near Kyiv.
Prime Ministers Edi Rama of Albania and Dritan Abazovic of Montenegro also placed teddy bears in Kyiv's national museum to honor young victims of the war that Russia unleashed on Feb. 24.
Nearly two-thirds of the children in Ukraine have been uprooted during the war, according to a U.N. official who visited the country last week.
“The war in Ukraine is a child rights crisis,” Afshan Khan told a news briefing Tuesday. She’s the Europe and Central Asia director for UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.
Khan said 277 children in Ukraine have been killed and 456 injured, mostly due to explosives used in urban areas. She said the number of damaged schools is likely in the thousands, and only about 25% of schools in Ukraine are even operational.
Millions of Ukrainian women and children have fled the country since the Russian invasion in February.
U.S. President Joe Biden says he’s working closely with European partners to get 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain, currently blocked from leaving Black Sea ports due to Russia’s invasion, onto international markets.
He said Tuesday the plan would involve building temporary storage silos on Ukraine’s borders to deal with the problem of the different rail gauges that Ukrainian and European railway systems use.
“Ukraine has a system, like Russia has, a rail gauge that is different than the gauge of the rest of the tracks in Europe,” Biden said. “So we’re going to build silos, temporary silos, in the borders of Ukraine, including in Poland. So we can transfer it from those cars into those silos, into cars in Europe and get it out to the ocean and get it across the world. But it’s taking time.”
Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. The lack of Ukrainian grain on world markets is threatening to exacerbate food shortages and inflation across the world. Many African and Middle Eastern countries rely heavily on Ukrainian grain and could face problems feeding their people without it.
Karmanau reported from Lviv.
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