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Russia prepares for assault in eastern Ukraine, hits Lyiv

Kyiv, April 18: Russia bombarded the western city of Lviv and numerous other targets across Ukraine on Monday in what appeared to be an intensified bid to grind down the country’s defenses while building up its own forces for a major ground offensive in the east.

At least seven people were reported killed in the missile strikes on Lviv, a city close to the Polish border that has seen only sporadic attacks during almost two months of war and has become a haven for civilians fleeing the fighting elsewhere. To the Kremlin’s increasing anger, Lviv has also become a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.

In other developments, a few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Russia’s estimate, remained holed up at a mammoth steel mill in Mariupol, the last known pocket of resistance in the devastated southern port city.

The Russian attack on Lviv hit three military infrastructure facilities and an auto shop, according to the region’s governor, Maksym Kozytskyy. He said the wounded included a child.

A Lviv hotel sheltering Ukrainians who had fled the fighting in other parts of the country was also badly damaged, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said. The city has seen its population swell with elderly people, mothers and children trying to escape the war.

“The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, who fled with two children from the eastern city of Kharkiv. “There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”

Lviv, the biggest city and a major transportation hub in western Ukraine, is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Poland, a NATO member.

Russia has strongly complained about the increasing flow of Western weapons to Ukraine and warned that such aid could have consequences. On Russian state media, some anchors have charged that the supplies amount to direct Western engagement in the fight against Russia.

A powerful explosion also rocked Vasylkiv, a town south of the capital of Kyiv that is home to an air base, according to residents. It was not immediately clear what was struck.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was hit by shelling that killed at least three people, according to Associated Press journalists on the scene. One of the dead was a woman who appeared to be going out to collect water in the rain. She was found with a water canister and an umbrella by her side.

Military analysts say Russia is increasing its strikes on weapons factories, railroads and other infrastructure ahead of an expected assault on the Donbas, Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east. The Kremlin has declared the capture of the Donbas its main goal since its attempt to storm Kyiv failed.

Moscow said its missiles struck more than 20 military targets in eastern and central Ukraine in the past day, including ammunition depots, command headquarters and groups of troops and vehicles.

It also reported that its artillery hit an additional 315 Ukrainian targets and that warplanes conducted 108 strikes on troops and military equipment. The claims could not be independently verified.

Gen. Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, told Sky News that Russia is waging a “softening-up” campaign ahead of the Donbas offensive.

“We are doing everything to ensure the defense” of eastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation on Sunday.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said there are now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.

That could translate to around 50,000 to 60,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers, but the numbers are difficult to pinpoint at this stage in the fighting.

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