Top US officials visit Kyiv as war casts a pall over Orthodox Easter

The top US diplomat and defense chief was in Kyiv on Sunday, the Ukrainian presidency said, making the first high-level visit by US officials since Russia invaded its neighbor two months ago, as fierce fighting casts a shadow over Orthodox Easter.

The trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin comes as the war enters its third month, with thousands dead and millions displaced, and as kyiv desperately seeks relief for trapped Ukrainians in the battered city of Mariupol.

Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky met with US officials on Sunday because Mariupol’s defenses were “already on the brink of collapse” and Ukraine was in dire need of offensive weapons.

“As long as there are no ‘offensives’, there will be a new Bucha every day,” he said in an interview on the popular YouTube channel of a former Russian lawyer, referring to the town where UN officials said they documented the unlawful killings of around 50 civilians.

“Maybe they can help,” Arestovitch added of the American envoys. “They wouldn’t come here if they weren’t ready to give [weapons].”

Although the visit was not confirmed by Washington and the details were kept under wraps, Zelensky tweeted later Sunday that “the friendship and partnership between Ukraine and the United States is stronger than ever! “

The United States has been a major funding and arms donor to Ukraine and a major sponsor of sanctions against Russia, but had not sent any senior officials to Kyiv, while several leaders Europeans had gone there to underline their support.

“Fierce Hate”

The highly sensitive trip by two of President Joe Biden’s top cabinet members coincided with Easter celebrations in the predominantly Orthodox country.

“Our souls are filled with fierce hatred towards the invaders and all they have done,” Zelensky said in a statement marking the holiday. “Don’t let rage destroy us from within.”

As Ukrainians celebrated a somber Easter, with many brave bombardments for blessings, Russian forces showed no sign of letting up in their attacks.

Five civilians were killed and five others injured in Donetsk on Sunday, the besieged eastern region’s governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said. Authorities also reported one death in northeast Kharkiv.

The day before, a missile strike on the southern city of Odessa left eight people dead and at least 18 injured, according to Zelensky, who said five missiles hit the historic city.

“Among those killed was a three-month-old baby girl,” Zelensky said. “How did she threaten Russia? It seems that killing children is just a new national idea of ​​the Russian Federation.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said it had targeted a major foreign arms depot near Odessa, attacks that upended the relative calm the city has enjoyed since the start of the war.

Zelensky accused Russia of being a terrorist state, which has devastated the port city of Mariupol with weeks of relentless shelling.

Still, with thousands of Ukrainian fighters and civilians in Mariupol facing increasingly harsh conditions, Kyiv has invited Moscow to talks near the sprawling Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian fighters are still resisting, the official said. Ukraine on Sunday.

“We invited the Russians to hold a special round of talks on the spot, right next to the walls of Azovstal”, the last Ukrainian bastion of the strategic port, Arestovych said.

There was no immediate response from Russia. Its president, Vladimir Putin, had ordered his forces not to attack the factory, but the Ukrainians say the attacks continue unabated.

“Pause to save lives”

On Sunday, UN Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called for an “immediate halt” to fighting in Mariupol to allow trapped civilians to leave.

“The lives of tens of thousands of people, including women, children and the elderly, are at stake in Mariupol,” Awad said in a statement.

“We need a pause in the fighting right now to save lives.”

The call came a day after the last attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed.

In a social media post on Sunday, Sviatoslav Palamar – deputy commander of the far-right Azov regiment, which is sheltering in a maze of tunnels under the steelworks – said Russian forces were continuing to rain fire on Azovstal.

“The enemy continues with airstrikes, artillery from the sea…enemy tanks continue to strike and infantry tries to storm,” Palamar said.

Mariupol, which the Kremlin claims to have “liberated”, is at the heart of Russia’s war plans to forge a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea – and possibly beyond, to Moldova.

The latest fighting followed an announcement earlier this week by a senior Russian military officer who said Moscow was aiming to take full control of the eastern Donbass region and southern Ukraine.

Amid calls for an end to the fighting in Mariupol, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has said it is “extremely concerned” after a number of its Ukrainian members were reportedly arrested in the pro-Russian separatist territories in the country. is.

More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country and millions more have been internally displaced, officials say.

In the western city of Lviv, 32-year-old Tetiana Kasian – who had fled Mariupol – stopped to solemnly admire a wall of flowers commemorating the dead.

“I never thought this would happen in Ukraine in the 21st century,” she said calmly. “I don’t know if I will see my parents again.”

Easter Sunday

Even as the fighting raged, Ukrainians took time to observe a solemn Easter.

In the rain at a frontline position in the eastern town of Lyman, soldiers exchanged the usual patriotic greeting of “Glory to Ukraine!” for a cry of “Christ is risen!”

“Truly risen!” came the answer.

About 50 civilians gathered in the town’s small Orthodox church. Artillery fire could be heard as they prayed.

“If we make the wrong choices, then darkness will ruin us, as darkness destroys us in this war,” the priest said in his sermon.

Elsewhere on the frontline, in the eastern city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian troops had hidden their small stockpile of supplies, including Easter treats, under a bridge after Russian mortar shells hit overnight.

Next to the Kalashnikovs were bottles of Coke and cereal bars, as well as Easter breads covered in icing and sprinkled with colored sugar beads.

While others fled the battered country, some Ukrainians stayed put – either landbound, too old or sick to travel, or simply lacking other options.

“I have to work,” said farmer Vasily Kushch, 63, in the southern Ukrainian village of Mala Tokmashka, standing near the rubble left by a bomb. “I have nowhere to go.”

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