- US urges citizens to leave Ukraine ‘now’
- Heightened fears of attack on Kyiv around independence day
- Wednesday marks six months since Russian invasion
- Zelenskiy pledges powerful response to any attack
KYIV, Aug 23 (Reuters) – As Ukraine prepared to mark both its independence from Soviet-rule in 1991 and the six months since Russian troops invaded, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged that any Russian attacks in or around the date would provoke a powerful response.
Zelenskiy, who has led his country’s resistance since Russian troops poured over the border on Feb. 24, also said Ukraine would restore its rule over the Crimea region – annexed by Russia in 2014 in a precursor to this year’s invasion.
Despite his defiance, there was concern among Ukrainian and allied Western officials that Russia was preparing to attack the capital Kyiv once again.
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The United States urged its citizens to leave Ukraine, saying it believed Russia would target civilians and government infrastructure in the next few days. US citizens should leave Ukraine “now” by their own means if it was safe to do so, the US Embassy said.
On the battlefields away from Kyiv, Russian forces carried out artillery and air strikes in the Zaporizhzhia region in southeastern Ukraine, where fighting has taken place near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Ukraine’s military said.
Meanwhile leaders of dozens of countries and international organizations were taking part in the so-called Crimea Platform – most of them by video – in solidarity with Ukraine on the six-month anniversary of the invasion.
Opening the forum, Zelenskiy, dressed in his customary military gear, told delegates: “To overcome terror, it is necessary to gain victory in the fight against Russian aggression.”
“It is necessary to liberate Crimea. This will be the resuscitation of world law and order,” he said.
Italy’s acting Prime Minister Mario Draghi told the summit Rome would continue to support Ukraine. “We are with you in your fight to resist Russia’s invasion, restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, protect your democracy and independence,” he said.
Earlier, Zelenskiy had warned that Moscow might try “something particularly ugly” in the run-up to Wednesday’s Independence Day. Asked at a news conference with visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda about the possibility of a Russian missile strike on Kyiv, Zelenskiy said there was a daily threat of attacks although the number of them could increase.
Ukraine’s response would be the same for any city that comes under attack from Russia.
“They will receive a response, a powerful response,” Zelenskiy said. “I want to say that each day…this response will grow, it will get stronger and stronger.”
Fears of intensified Russian attacks followed the killing of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian ultra-nationalist, in a car bombing near Moscow on Saturday. Moscow blamed the killing on Ukrainian agents, a charge Kyiv denies.
Kyiv has only rarely been hit by Russian missiles since Ukraine repelled a ground offensive to seize the capital in March.
The mood in the city was calm on Tuesday, with many people still wandering the streets, but signs of the increased threat could be felt.
Authorities have told Ukrainians to work from home where possible from Tuesday to Thursday, also urging people to take air raid warnings seriously and seek shelter when sirens sound.
The Kyiv city administration banned large public gatherings until Thursday, fearing that a crowd of celebrating residents could become a target for a Russian missile strike.
NUCLEAR POWDER KEG
Six months on from the Russian invasion, which has caused thousands of deaths, made millions of people refugees and destroyed whole cities, the conflict is locked in a stalemate.
Russian forces control a large swathe of the south, including along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov coasts, and chunks of the eastern Donbas region. The prospects for peace look almost non-existent.
Russian shelling hit eastern Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second-largest city – around dawn on Tuesday, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said. A house had been hit but no one was hurt, he said.
In the south, Ukraine said Russia fired artillery and mounted air strikes in several towns in the Zaporizhzhia region, where Russian forces captured the nuclear power plant shortly after the start of the invasion.
Artillery and rocket fire near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, on the south bank of the Dnipro River, has led to calls for the area to be demilitarised. The two sides have traded blame over frequent shelling at the plant.
In other action, Ukrainian forces shelled a building housing the local administration headquarters in the center of separatist-controlled Donetsk city on Tuesday, TASS news agency reported, quoting Russian-installed officials. Three people were killed, it said.
Russia’s defense ministry said its forces had downed a Ukrainian SU-27 warplane over the Kharkiv region.
Russia sent its troops over the border in what it calls a “special military operation” saying it wanted to demilitarize its neighbor and protect Russian-speaking communities. Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Moscow of waging an unjustified war of aggression.
The United Nations said on Monday that 5,587 civilians had been killed and 7,890 wounded between Feb. 24 and Aug. 21, mainly from artillery, rocket and missile attacks. Its children’s agency UNICEF said at least 972 children have been killed or injured over six months of war.
Separately, Ukrainian armed forces chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi provided what appeared to be the first public Ukrainian military death toll, saying nearly 9,000 soldiers had been killed in action.
Russia has not said how many of its soldiers have been killed. Ukraine’s General Staff have estimated the Russian military death toll at 45,400.
Reuters has been unable to verify military losses.
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Reporting by Ron Popeski and Natalia Zinets; Writing by Stephen Coates and Angus MacSwan; Editing by William Maclean
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.