© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Service members of pro-Russian troops, including fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of
By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin were set to visit Kyiv on Sunday to discuss Ukraine’s call for more powerful weapons, two months after Russia’s invasion began.
The trip, announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, would be the highest-level by U.S. officials since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The White House has not confirmed any visit by Blinken and Austin. The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment.
As Christians in Ukraine marked Orthodox Easter on Sunday, there was no end in sight to a war that has killed thousands of people, uprooted millions more and reduced cities to rubble.
“I pray that this horror in Ukraine ends soon and we can return home,” said Nataliya Krasnopolskaia, who fled to Prague from Odesa last month, one of the more than 5 million Ukrainians estimated to have escaped the country.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said Easter celebrations had been shattered by the conflict. He said with seven churches in his region had been “mutilated by Russian artillery”. Reuters could not independently verify his report.
Pope Francis called for an Easter truce: “Stop the attacks in order to help the exhausted population. Stop,” he said.
Zelenskiy said in an Easter video message from Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral that Ukraine would not be defeated by “wickedness” and prayed that God returns happiness to children and brings solace to grieving mothers.
He had earlier said talks with his U.S. visitors would cover the “powerful, heavy weapons” Ukraine needed to retake territory and the pace of deliveries.
The United States and NATO allies have shown growing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and said it was considering supplying British tanks to Poland to free up Warsaw’s Russian-designed T-72s for Ukraine.
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Kyiv staged them to undermine peace talks.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said after talks by phone with Zelenskiy that Ankara was ready to assist in negotiations with Russia. Zelenskiy said he discussed with Erdogan the need for the immediate evacuation of civilians from the southern city of Mariupol and an exchange of troops.
Russian forces are attempting to storm the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol by land, backed up by aerial and artillery bombardment, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Sunday.
“Russian troops are trying to finish off the defenders of Azovstal and more than 1,000 civilians who are hiding at the plant,” Arestovych wrote on Facebook (NASDAQ:). He said on Saturday that troops in the steel complex were attempting counterattacks.
Moscow has previously declared victory in the city and said it did not need to take the plant.
Capturing Mariupol, the site of biggest battle of the conflict, would link up pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that make up the Donbas with the southern Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and says 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, called for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.
The governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said two children were killed by shelling in his area on Sunday.
Ukraine said its forces repulsed 12 attacks on Donetsk and Luhansk a day earlier, destroying four tanks, 15 armoured equipment units and five artillery systems.
Reuters could not independently confirm the reports.
British military intelligence said Ukrainian resistance had been strong, especially in Donbas, despite some Russian gains.
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganise forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” it said.
Russia said on Sunday its missiles hit eight military targets overnight, including four arms depots in the northeast Kharkiv region and one facility in the Dnipropetrovsk region producing explosives for the Ukrainian army.
Russian strikes on Saturday severed an arterial gas pipeline and caused a fire at an electricity substation, cutting gas supply to 5,500 people, Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk region wrote on Telegram on Sunday.
Moscow said on Saturday its missiles destroyed a logistics terminal in the southern city of Odesa containing weapons supplied by the United States and European states.
Zelenskiy said eight people, including a 3-month-old child, were killed in the Odesa strike.
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