By JOHN LEICESTER and YURAS KARMANAU
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, and the governor of a key eastern city acknowledged that Russian forces are advancing amid heavy fighting.
Those strikes came as fighting raged for the city of Sievierodonetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area, the 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 Russian officials, who said they would take civilians to areas controlled by Russian forces, not Ukrainian ones.
Many previously announced planned evacuations from other areas of fighting in Ukraine have failed, with each side blaming the other. Some Ukrainians have been reluctant to evacuate to Russian-held territory.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, 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 shells for M777 howitzers, a type supplied by the United States, were being stored there. He said four howitzers were destroyed elsewhere in fighting and that Russian airstrikes also destroyed Ukrainian “aviation equipment” at a military aerodrome in the southern Mykolaiv region.
There was no immediate comment on the Zolochiv strike from the Ukrainians.
While focusing most of their attacks on eastern Ukraine, where they are trying to capture large swaths of territory, Russian forces have also been hitting more specific targets elsewhere in the country, using high-precision missiles to disrupt the international supply of weapons and destroy military infrastructure.
Civilian infrastructure has been bombarded as well, even though Russian officials have claimed they’re only targeting military facilities.
The latest attacks 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 in the east saying: “We are holding on, just say: when to expect the weapons?” He said that’s the same message he has for NATO leaders.
Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council who is a former Russian president, ominously suggested that Russia appears intent on not just claiming some territory but eliminating Ukraine as a nation.
In a Telegram post, he wrote that he saw reports in which Ukraine wants to receive liquified natural gas 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?”
Reacting to Medvedev’s comments, Podolyak said on Twitter: “Ukraine has been and will be. Where will Medvedev be in two years, that’s the question.”
MORE STORIES ON THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Mines are killing people in Ukraine even after the fighting leaves their areas
— NATO defense ministers discuss sending more weapons to Ukraine
— Germany says a reduced flow of Russian gas appears to be a political move
— Russia’s economic forum takes place but with fewer participants
__ French president suggests he will visit Kyiv to show support for Ukraine
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it may be possible to create secure corridors to transport Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea without the need to clear sea mines near Ukrainian ports.
Cavusoglu’s comments Wednesday came a week after he discussed with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov a U.N. plan to open up Odesa and Ukraine’s other Black Sea ports to allow millions of tons of grains to be shipped to world markets.
Russia has demanded that Ukraine remove mines from the Black Sea before grain exports can resume by ship. Ukraine rejects the proposal, insisting it would leave its ports vulnerable to attacks.
Cavusoglu told reporters that since the location of the mines are known, it would be possible to establish “secure corridors” that avoid them.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Turkey, Russia and Ukraine have appointed high-ranking military officers and set up a telephone hotline to try and overcome hurdles over crop exports.
Russia’s Gazprom announced a reduction in natural gas flows through a key European pipeline for the second day in a row Wednesday, hours after Germany’s vice chancellor said its initial move appeared to be political rather than a result of technical problems.
The state-owned energy giant said on Twitter that deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany would be cut again Thursday, bringing the overall reduction through the undersea pipeline to 60%.
The new cut came a day after Gazprom said it would reduce flows by 40% after Canadian sanctions over the war in Ukraine prevented German partner Siemens Energy from delivering overhauled equipment. It blamed the same issue for the additional reduction.
Gazprom also told Italian gas giant Eni that it would reduce gas through a different pipeline by roughly 15% on Wednesday. The reason for the reduction has not been made clear, and the Italian company said it was monitoring the situation.
The reduced flows follow Russia’s previous halt of natural gas supplies to Bulgaria, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark as Europe works to reduce its dependence on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine. Gas demand has fallen after the end of the winter heating season, but European utilities are racing to refill storage ahead of next winter with prices high and supplies uncertain.
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 West must step up weapons deliveries to Ukraine and prove its commitment to helping the country’s military fight along a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line in a grinding war of attrition with Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday.
Opening a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on supporting Ukraine, Austin urged more than 45 participating nations to demonstrate “our unwavering determination to get Ukraine the capabilities that it urgently needs to defend itself.”
“We must intensify our shared commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense, and we must push ourselves even harder to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself, its citizens and its territory,” he said.
Increased arms supplies can’t come soon enough for the Ukrainian forces battling to keep Russia from taking control of their country’s industrial east after more than 3½ months of war.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded Tuesday for more and faster deliveries of Western arms, specifically asking for anti-missile defense systems.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is spreading a deadly litter of mines, bombs and other explosives. They are killing civilians, disrupting planting, complicating the rebuilding of homes and villages, and will continue taking lives and limbs long after the fighting stops.
Often, blast victims are farmers and other rural workers with little choice but to use mined roads and plow mined fields, in a country relied on for crops that feed the world.
Vadym Schvydchenko, a 40-year-old driver who hit a tank mine that blew up his truck, said he’ll steer clear of dirt tracks for the foreseeable future, although they’re sometimes the only route to fields and rural settlements. Mushroom-picking in the woods has also lost its appeal to him.
“I’m afraid something like this can happen again,” he said.
Ukraine is now one of the most mined countries in Europe. The east of the country, fought over with Russia-backed separatists since 2014, was already contaminated by mines even before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion multiplied the scale and complexity of the dangers both there and elsewhere.
Ukraine’s State Emergency Service says 300,000 square kilometers (115,000 square miles) — the size of Arizona or Italy — need to be cleared of mines. The ongoing fighting will only expand the area.
Karmanau reported from Lviv.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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