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Fight looms on eastern front, Ukraine pleads for weapons

Kyiv, April 7: Ukraine told residents of its industrial heartland to leave while they still can and urged Western nations to send “weapons, weapons and weapons” Thursday after Russian forces withdrew from the shattered outskirts of Kyiv to regroup for an offensive in the country’s east.

Russia’s six-week-old invasion failed to take Ukraine’s capital quickly and achieve what Western countries say was President Vladimir Putin’s initial aim of ousting the Ukrainian government. Russia’s focus is now on the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine.

In Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged NATO to provide more weapons and help his war-torn country prevent further alleged atrocities. Ukrainian authorities are working to identify hundreds of bodies found in Kyiv’s northern outskirts after Russian troops withdrew and to document evidence of possible war crimes.

While NATO is striving to avoid actions that might draw any of its 30 members into a war with Russia, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged nations that belong to the Western alliance to send Ukraine more weapons, and not just defensive arms.

Western countries have provided Ukraine with portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, but they have been reluctant to supply aircraft, tanks or any equipment that Ukrainian troops would have to be trained to use.

Moscow announced more than a week ago that it planned to concentrate its forces in the east, and they have largely withdrawn from Kyiv and the north. Growing numbers of Putin’s troops, along with mercenaries, have been reported moving into the Donbas, where Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years and control some territory.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged civilians to evacuate to safer regions before it was too late. She said Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 civilian evacuation routes Thursday.

The change of Russia’s focus brought relief to Chernihiv, a city near Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus that was encircled and cut off for weeks.

The departed troops left behind twisted buildings and traumatized residents, who clambered over rubble and passed cars destroyed by the fighting. Dozens of people lined up for food, diapers and medicine Thursday at a shattered school now serving as an aid-distribution point.

The blackboard in one classroom was chalked, “Wednesday the 23rd of February – class work.” Russia invaded Ukraine the next day, besieging Chernihiv as its troops tried to sweep south towards the capital.

“At last we can bring food,” said Viktiriia Veruha, who was distributing aid at the school. “We can now bring food, medicine, and we can evacuate people from Chernihiv, which is also very important.”

Tatiana Nesterenko, who left the city and crossed to Medyka in Poland, joined more than 4.3 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since the war started.

Britain’s defence ministry said Thursday that Russia was targeting the “line of control” between Ukrainian-held and rebel-controlled areas in the Donbas with artillery and airstrikes and hitting infrastructure targets around Ukraine to wear down the Ukrainian defence.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it struck fuel storage sites around the cities of Mykolaiv, Zaporozhe, Kharkiv and Chuguev overnight using cruise missiles fired from ships in the Black Sea.

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