- The city of Sieverodonetsk is focused on the battle for eastern Ukraine
- Hundreds are trapped at the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk
- NATO defense ministers to discuss military aid to Ukraine
KIEV, June 15 (Reuters) – Russia told Ukrainian forces hiding at a chemical plant in the embattled city of Sievierodonetsk to lay down their arms by early Wednesday in a bid to press its advantage in a fight for control of eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is calling for an increase in western heavy weapons after Russia shifted the bulk of its firepower to the eastern Donbass region, an issue expected to feature prominently at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.
Ukraine says more than 500 civilians are trapped along with soldiers at the Azot chemical plant, where its forces have withstood weeks of Russian bombardments and attacks that have left much of Sievierodonetsk in ruins.
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The fighters were to “cease their senseless resistance and lay down their arms” from 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT), Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, told Interfax news agency.
Civilians would be released through a humanitarian corridor, Mizintsev said.
The Azot bombing recalls the earlier siege of the Azovstal Steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of militants and civilians took refuge from Russian shelling. The inmates surrendered in mid-May and were taken into Russian custody.
Azot’s shelling was so intense that “people can’t stand it anymore in the shelters, their mental state is on the verge,” said regional governor Serhiy Gaidai of Luhansk, one of two eastern provinces Moscow is claiming on behalf of separatist proxies.
“Our forces are holding up against attacks from three sides, defending Sievierodonetsk and preventing the enemy from advancing to Lysychansk,” he said, referring to the twin cities on the opposite banks of the Siverskyi Donets River.
The Russian attack on Sievierodonetsk in Lugansk – a city of little more than 100,000 people before the war – is currently at the center of what has been dubbed the Battle of Donbass.
Kyiv said 100-200 of its soldiers are killed and hundreds more wounded every day.
Ukraine is still trying to evacuate civilians after Russian troops destroyed the last bridge connecting Sievierodonetsk with Ukrainian-held Lysychansk.
Russian forces shelled Lysychansk, located on a hill on the west bank of the Siverskyi Donets River.
The ground has changed hands several times in recent weeks, and Ukrainian officials have given little hint that they will back down.
But with all bridges leading from Sievierodonetsk now destroyed, Ukrainian forces risk being encircled.
“We must remain strong… The more casualties the enemy suffers, the less strength he will have to continue his aggression,” Zelenskyy said in a speech late Tuesday.
Russia doesn’t give regular numbers of its own losses, but Western countries say they were massive as President Vladimir Putin tries to force Kyiv to cede full control of two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as Donbass.
The momentum in Sievierodonetsk has shifted several times in recent weeks – Russia concentrated its overwhelming artillery firepower on urban districts to wipe out resistance, then deployed ground forces vulnerable to counterattacks.
Elsewhere in the Donbas, Ukraine says Russia plans to attack Sloviansk from the north and along a front near Bakhmut to the south.
In Donetsk province, critical infrastructure such as houses, schools, hospitals and markets have been attacked over the past week, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
“This has made life almost unbearable for people who are also facing severe water shortages, sometimes unable to leave their homes for days due to the fighting,” Dujarric said.
In the south, the Ukrainian military said it carried out three airstrikes against troop concentrations, fuel depots and military equipment in the Kherson region.
Ukrainian officials have again urged the United States and its allies to send more and better artillery, as well as tanks, drones and other heavy weapons.
Western countries have promised NATO standard weapons – including advanced US missiles. Deploying them will take time, however, and Ukraine will need consistent Western support to transition to new stockpiles and weapons systems as stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition dwindle.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will chair Wednesday’s meeting on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers’ meeting. It is the third time that the group of nearly 50 countries has met to discuss and coordinate aid to Ukraine.
Washington has pledged some $4.6 billion in security assistance since Russia’s February 24 invasion, including longer-range missile systems, drones and advanced artillery.
But Zelenskyi said Ukraine does not have enough missile defense systems to protect its cities, adding that “there can be no justification for delays in deployment”.
While Western sanctions have hit Russia’s economy hard, the resulting global shortages of oil and grain have sent energy and commodity prices skyrocketing. And a speech Putin will deliver at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg on Friday will be closely watched. Continue reading
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Reporting by Reuters bureaus; writing by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Coates; Edited by Grant McCool & Simon Cameron-Moore
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