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Russia steps up Ukraine assault as US warns of annexation


US Embassy charge d’affaires Kristina Kvien walks in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv — the US hopes its diplomats will be able to return to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv within weeks

Russia on Monday launched a fresh assault on the critical Ukrainian port of Odessa as the United States warned that Moscow was preparing formally to annex embattled regions in the east.

The new heavy fighting came as the European Union said it was bracing for a complete end to Russian gas supplies with the bloc preparing another package of sanctions sure to anger President Vladimir Putin.

Odessa’s city council said that a Russian strike hit a residential building housing five people. A 15-year-old boy was killed and a girl was hospitalised, the council said on Telegram.

In Lyman, relentless shelling has reduced hamlets around the city to rubble, according to AFP reporters.

“I don’t have a house anymore,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, told Italian television that Moscow’s forces “will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day”.

Whatever Russia’s military decisions, the United States warned that Moscow was preparing imminently to annex both Lugansk and neighbouring Donetsk.

“Russia plans to engineer referenda upon joining sometime in mid-May”, said Michael Carpenter the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

“We think the reports are highly credible,” Carpenter told reporters in Washington.

“Such sham referenda — fabricated votes — will not be considered legitimate, nor will any attempts to annex additional Ukrainian territory,” Carpenter said.

– Evacuating battered Mariupol –

Among the most battered cities is Mariupol, where an untold number have died and survivors have little access to food, water and medicine as Russia battles to connect southern and eastern strips under its control.

Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov unit, said that another 20 people were transferred out on Monday evening but only after a five-hour delay as “the enemy’s artillery caused new rubble and destruction.”

US State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Russia to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Mariupol and other besieged cities.

Ukrainian forces have recaptured some territory in recent days, including the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.

But Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the east and has asked Western powers to deliver more heavy weapons to bolster its defences there.

“The Bayraktars are working,” said Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, referring to Turkish-made military drones.

Western powers have levelled unprecedented sanctions against Russia over the war while delivering money and weapons to Ukraine, including a $33-billion (31-billion-euro) arms and support package announced by US President Joe Biden last week.

After talks on Monday, the European Union warned member states to prepare for a possible complete breakdown in gas supplies from Russia, insisting it would not cede to Moscow’s demand that imports be paid for in rubles.

EU and French officials said the 27-member bloc was united with Poland and Bulgaria, whose gas supplies were cut last week after they refused to pay in rubles.

Western nations have been trying to show support by reopening embassies in Kyiv that were closed due to the invasion, with Denmark the latest to make the move Monday.

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