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Ukraine’s Zelenskiy presses Israel for missile defence help, fighting rages in Mariupol

Randy Mancini 4 Mar 20
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Ivano-Frankivsk
A volunteer knits camouflage nets for Ukraine's Armed Forces, at a church, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine March 19, 2022. REUTERS/Yuriy Rylchuk

March 20, 2022

(Updates with Zelenskiy appeal to Israel)

By Pavel Polityuk

LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian and Ukrainian forces fought for control of the port city of Mariupol on Sunday, local authorities said, while President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to Israel for help pushing back the Russian assault on his country.

During a video link address to the Israeli parliament, Zelenskiy questioned Israel’s reluctance to sell its Iron Dome missile defence system to Ukraine. It was the latest in a series of appeals he has made for help from abroad.

“Everybody knows that your missile defence systems are the best… and that you can definitely help our people, save the lives of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian Jews,” said Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish heritage.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has held numerous calls with both Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks to try to end the conflict.

In Mariupol, which has suffered some of the heaviest bombardment since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, many of its 400,000 residents remain trapped in the city with little if any food, water and power.

Fighting continued inside the city on Sunday, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said, without elaborating.

Capturing Mariupol would help Russian forces secure a land corridor to the Crimea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The city council said on its Telegram channel late on Saturday that several thousand residents had been “deported” to Russia over the past week. Russian news agencies said buses had carried hundreds of people Moscow calls refugees from Mariupol to Russia in recent days.

Russian forces bombed an art school on Saturday in which 400 residents were sheltering, but the number of casualties was not yet known, Mariupol’s council said.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Zelenskiy said the siege of Mariupol was a war crime.

“To do this to a peaceful city… is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” he said in an address late on Saturday.

Putin says Russia’s “special operation” is aimed at disarming Ukraine and rooting out people he terms dangerous nationalists. Western nations call it an aggressive war of choice and have imposed punishing sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy.

Ukraine and its Western backers say Russian ground forces have made few advances in the last week, concentrating their efforts instead on artillery and missile strikes.

Zelenskiy’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said there had been a relative lull in the conflict over the past 24 hours, with “practically no rocket strikes on (Ukrainian) cities”. He said front lines were “practically frozen”.

The U.N. refugee agency said 10 million people had now been displaced across Ukraine, including some 3.4 million who have fled to neighbouring countries such as Poland. Officials in the region said they were reaching capacity to comfortably house refugees.

‘WHAT ARE THEY DOING HERE?’

The U.N. human rights office said at least 902 civilians had been killed in the war as of midnight Saturday, though it says the real toll is probably much higher. Ukrainian prosecutors said 112 children had been killed.

“I want the war to be over, I want them (Russian forces) to leave Ukraine in peace,” said Margarita Morozova, 87, who survived Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad in World War Two and has lived in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, for the past 60 years.

“Ukraine is an independent country. What are they doing here?”

Russia’s defence ministry said cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, as well as hypersonic missiles from Crimean airspace.

The hypersonic missiles travel faster than five times the speed of sound and their speed, manoeuvrability and altitude make them difficult to track and intercept.

They were deployed by Russia for the first time in Ukraine on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, in a strike which Moscow said destroyed a large underground depot for missiles and aircraft ammunition.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command confirmed the attack in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region, but said the Ukrainian side had no information on the type of missiles used.

In the southern city of Kherson, a video clip obtained by Reuters showed dozens of protesters, some wrapped in Ukraine’s blue and yellow national flag, chanting “Go home” in Russian to two military vehicles bearing Russian markings. The vehicles then turned and left the area.

DIPLOMACY

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, which like Israel has tried to mediate in the conflict, said Russia and Ukraine were getting closer to agreement on “critical” issues.

Kyiv and Moscow reported some progress in talks last week toward a political formula that would guarantee Ukraine’s security, while keeping it outside NATO – a key Russian demand – though each side accused the other of dragging things out.

Russian forces have also taken heavy losses in the war, and long columns of troops that bore down on the capital Kyiv have been halted in the suburbs. Ukraine’s military said on Sunday Moscow’s combat losses included 14,700 personnel and 476 tanks.

Russia last acknowledged on March 2 that nearly 500 of its soldiers had been killed. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the death count.

Zelenskiy’s office said Ukraine sees risks of an attack launched from Belarus on the western Volyn region, which lies to the north of the city of Lviv. It was not clear whether Ukraine saw such an attack coming from Russian or Belarusian forces.

While Belarus is a close ally of Putin’s and has served as a staging post for Russian forces, it has so far not publicly committed troops to supporting Russia.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones; Editing by William Mallard and Frances Kerry)