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A Ukrainian territory defence soldier walks past the ruins of a building hit by shelling in the separatist region of Donbas. Photo: dpa

Ukraine war: Zelensky says Donbas ‘destroyed’ and is now ‘hell’; Russian strikes kill 13 civilians

  • Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday that Moscow was nearing full control of the separatist region of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine
  • British military intelligence said on Friday that Russia is likely to further reinforce its operations in Donbas once it finally secures the southern port city of Mariupol

Russian forces have bombarded areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas from land and air, killing at least 13 civilians, Ukraine’s military said on Friday, and President Volodymyr Zelensky said the assaults had turned the region into “hell”.

As the war neared the three-month mark, the Russians were intensifying their efforts to subdue the Donbas region, the Ukrainian general staff said.

They had hit civilian infrastructure with “massive” artillery shelling, including multiple rocket-launchers, the general staff said in a statement. Russian aircraft had also struck at targets.

Russian shelling in the Luhansk area of Donbas killed 13 civilians over the past 24 hours, regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai said. Twelve of those deaths were in the town of Sievierodonesk but a Russian assault there had been unsuccessful, he said.

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“The Donbas is completely destroyed,” President Zelensky said in an address on Thursday night. “It is hell there – and that is not an exaggeration.”

There were also constant strikes on the Odesa region in the south, he said.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports and Russia denies targeting civilians.

On Friday, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow was nearing full control of Luhansk.

“The liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic is nearing completion,” Shoigu said at a meeting in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. He also said that 1,908 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, which is under Moscow’s control.


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Russia’s focus on Donbas follows its failure to capture the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24.

Thousands of people – many of them civilians – have been killed and whole towns and cities razed in the gravest crisis in Europe in decades.

Almost a third of the Ukraine’s people have fled their homes, including more than 6 million who have left the country in a refugee exodus, while others remain trapped in cities pulverised by Russian bombardments.

British military intelligence said on Friday that Russia is likely to further reinforce its operations in Donbas once it finally secures the southern port city of Mariupol – scene of a weeks-long siege and Russia’s most significant success in an otherwise faltering campaign.

The region, an industrial powerhouse, compromises the Donetsk and Luhansk areas, which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

Putin calls the invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists – an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

The Kremlin leader was due to hold a security council meeting later on Friday.

Western powers, who have strongly condemned Russia’s actions and sought to isolate Moscow with an array of sanctions, were stepping up their support for Ukraine.

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The Group of Seven rich nations on Thursday agreed to provide Ukraine with US$18.4 billion to make up for lost revenues as the war wrecks its economy.

The US Senate approved nearly US$40 billion in new aid for Ukraine, by far the largest US aid package to date.

The White House is also working to put advanced anti-ship missiles in the hands of Ukrainian fighters to help defeat Russia’s naval blockade, which has largely stopped Ukraine’s exports of food.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using food as a weapon by holding “hostage” supplies for not just Ukrainians, but also millions around the world. The war has caused global prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel and fertiliser to soar.

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The EU said it is looking into ways of using the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, while the United States has not ruled out possibly placing sanctions on countries that purchase Russian oil.

The past week has seen Russia secure its biggest victory since the invasion began, with the Kyiv government ordering the defenders of a steelworks in Mariupol to stand down after a protracted siege.

British military intelligence said as many as 1,700 soldiers were likely to have surrendered at the Azovstal steel factory, matching a similar number released on Thursday by Moscow.

Ukrainian officials, who have tried to arrange a prisoner swap, have declined to comment on the number, saying it could endanger rescue efforts.

An aerial view of damaged residential buildings and the Azovstal steel plant in the background in the port city of Mariupol. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Late on Thursday, Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy head of the Azov Regiment defending the steelworks, released an 18-second video in which he said he and other commanders were still inside the plant.

“A certain operation is going on, the details of which I will not disclose,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of prisoners from Azovstal now held by Russia, but it has not given a precise number.

The leader of Russian-backed separatists in control of the area said nearly half of the fighters remained inside the steelworks.

The wounded were given medical treatment while those who were fit were taken to a penal colony and were being treated well, he said.