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Russian strikes hit western Ukraine as offensive widens

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Russia widened its military offensive in Ukraine on Friday, striking near airports in the west of the country for the first time as troops kept up pressure on the capital, Kyiv, and the U.S. and its allies prepared to revoke Russia’s favored trading status in a new punishment for the invasion.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons Friday to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of action.” He did not provide details.

The airstrikes on the Lutsk airfield left two Ukrainian servicemen dead and six people wounded, according to the head of the surrounding Volyn region, Yuriy Pohulyayko. In Ivano-Frankivsk, residents were ordered to shelters after an air raid alert, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said.

According to AP, the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine has topped 2.3 million, and some 100,000 people have been evacuated during the past two days from seven cities under Russian blockade in the north and center of the country, including the Kyiv suburbs, Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskyy told Russian leaders that the invasion will backfire as their economy is strangled. Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow, causing the ruble to plunge, foreign businesses to flee and prices to rise sharply.

“You will definitely be prosecuted for complicity in war crimes,” Zelenskyy said in a video address, adding that “you will be hated by Russian citizens.”

Putin dismissed such talk, saying the country has endured sanctions before.

″We will overcome them,” he said at a televised meeting of government officials, but acknowledged the sanctions create “certain challenges.”

In addition to those who have fled the country, millions have been driven from their homes inside Ukraine. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s population, have left the capital.

“Every street, every house … is being fortified,” he said. “Even people who in their lives never intended to change their clothes, now they are in uniform with machine guns in their hands.”

Western officials said Russian forces have made little progress on the ground in recent days and are seeing heavier losses and stiffer Ukrainian resistance than Moscow apparently anticipated. But Putin’s forces have used air power and artillery to pummel cities.

New satellite photos, meanwhile, appeared to show a massive convoy outside the Ukrainian capital had fanned out into towns and forests near Kyiv, with artillery pieces raised for firing in another potentially ominous movement.

The photos emerged amid more international efforts to isolate and sanction Russia, particularly after a deadly airstrike on a maternity hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol that Western and Ukrainian officials decried as a war crime.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian-backed fighters have advanced up to 800 meters of Mariupol from the east, north and west, further squeezing the city which has the Azov Sea to its south. Konashenkov said the advance was being conducted by fighters from the separatist-held Donetsk region, the standard Russian line for fighting in the east.

Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved bringing “volunteer” fighters from around the world to join the Ukraine offensive. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia knew of “more than 16,000 applications” from countries in the Middle East, many of them from people who he said had helped Russia against the Islamic State group, according to a Kremlin transcript.

Since 2015, Russian forces have backed Syrian President Assad against various groups opposed to his rule, including Islamic State.

Putin told Shoigu that Russia should help would-be volunteers to “move to the combat zone” and contrasted them with what he called foreign “mercenaries” fighting for Ukraine.

Increasing the pressure on Moscow, the U.S. and other nations were poised later Friday to announce the revocation of Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status, which would allow higher tariffs to be imposed on some Russian imports.

Unbowed by the sanctions, Russia kept up its bombardment of besieged Mariupol while Kyiv braced for an onslaught, its mayor boasting that the capital had become practically a fortress protected by armed civilians.

The head of the Kyiv Region administration, Oleksiy Kuleba, said a missile hit the town of Baryshivka, about 20 kilometers east of Kyiv’s main international Boryspil Airport. He reported significant damage to residences but no immediate casualty toll.

Three Russian airstrikes early Friday also hit the eastern city of Dnipro, a major industrial hub and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in a strategic position on the Dnieper River. The strikes killed at least one person, according to Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko.

Meanwhile, Russian forces were pushing toward Kyiv from the northwest and east but were repulsed from Chernihiv as Ukrainian fighters regained control of Baklanova Muraviika, the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said.

The convoy seen in satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies showed the 40-mile (64-kilometer) line of vehicles, tanks and artillery had been redeployed, the company said. Armored units were seen in towns near the Antonov Airport north of the city. Some vehicles moved into forests, Maxar reported, with towed howitzers nearby in position to open fire.

The Russian column had massed outside the city early last week, but its advance appeared to stall as reports of food and fuel shortages circulated. U.S. officials said Ukrainian troops also targeted the convoy with anti-tank missiles.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk in a video message announced efforts to create new humanitarian corridors to bring aid to people in areas occupied or under Russian attack around the cities of Kherson in the south, Chernihiv in the north and Kharkiv in the east.

Authorities also planned to send aid into Mariupol, a city of 430,000, where the situation was increasingly dire as trapped civilians scrounged for food and fuel, Vereshchuk said. Repeated previous attempts have failed as aid and rescue convoys were targeted by Russian shelling.

More than 1,300 people have died in the city’s 10-day siege, Vereshchuk said. “They want to destroy the people of Mariupol. They want to make them starve,” she added. “It’s a war crime.”

Residents have no heat or phone service, and many have no electricity. Nighttime temperatures are regularly below freezing, and daytime ones hover just above it. Bodies are being buried in mass graves. The streets are littered with burned-out cars, broken glass and splintered trees.

“They have a clear order to hold Mariupol hostage, to mock it, to constantly bomb and shell it,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation Thursday. He said the Russians began a tank attack right where there was supposed to be a humanitarian corridor.

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SourceAP
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