Russia struck the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv shortly after a meeting between President Volodymyr Zelensky and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday evening, in what appeared to be one of the boldest attacks on Kyiv since Russian forces retreated from the city weeks ago.
At least one person was killed and several were injured, including some who were trapped beneath the rubble, according to rescue officials.
Authorities said the UN chief and his team were safe.
The explosions, which sent plumes of black smoke into the air, came just shortly after the two leaders held a press conference in which Guterres condemned the atrocities committed in towns like Bucha, where evidence of mass killings of civilians was found after Russia retreated.
Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the Shevchenkivskyi district in the northwestern part of the city was hit twice, causing fires in at least two high-rise buildings.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine, which Canada’s House of Commons unanimously voted to recognize as an act of genocide, has largely regrouped and refocused on the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine after retreating from the Kyiv region, where it met fierce Ukrainian resistance.
The Donbas is a mostly Russian-speaking region, part of which has been held by Kremlin-backed Ukrainian separatists since 2014.
In a reminder of the horrific toll the war has taken since it began on Feb. 24, Guterres toured the region outside the capital, Kyiv, and visited several towns, including Bucha, where evidence of widespread killing of civilians was found.
“Wherever there is a war, the highest price is paid by civilians,” Guterres said as he visited Irpin, another Kyiv suburb that came under attack.
He sought to drive home the devastation, saying he imagined his own family having to flee from airstrikes against their home, and he reiterated how important it was that the war crimes alleged to have occurred in Bucha and elsewhere be investigated.
“But when we talk about war crimes, we cannot forget that the worst of crime is war itself,” he said.
The discovery of dozens of slain civilians around Kyiv helped to galvanize further support for Ukraine in the West, which has imposed a range of sanctions on Russia and sent arms to Ukraine.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov vowed his country would join others in providing military assistance as he toured another scene of atrocities in Borodyanka outside Kyiv.
“We cannot be indifferent,” he said. “We cannot say that this is a Ukrainian problem; we cannot say some people are dying but we are not interested in that.”
WATCH | Search is on to assess extent of destruction in Borodyanka:
U.S. signals long-term financial support for Ukraine
Western countries have ramped up weapons deliveries to Ukraine in recent days. More than 40 countries met this week at a U.S. air base in Germany and pledged to send heavy arms, such as artillery, for what is expected to be a vast battle of opposing armies along a heavily fortified front line in the east.
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden asked Congress for an additional $33 billion US ($42 billion Cdn) to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion, a signal that the U.S. is prepared to support a robust, long-term campaign.
Biden’s latest proposal – which the White House said was expected to support Ukraine’s needs for five months – has more than $20 billion in military assistance for Kyiv and for shoring up defences in nearby countries, $8.5 billion in economic aid to help keep Zelensky’s government functioning, and $3 billion for food and humanitarian programs around the world.
Biden’s request, which Congress will now consider, comes a day after Russia labelled NATO’s continued support for Ukraine a “proxy war.”
“If someone intends to intervene in the ongoing events from the outside and create strategic threats for Russia that are unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast,” President Vladimir Putin told lawmakers in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
“We have all the tools for this, things no one else can boast of having now. And we will not boast; we will use them if necessary. And I want everyone to know that.”
Eastern offensive picks up momentum
Moscow’s offensive in Eastern Ukraine gathered momentum as several areas came under heavy shelling Thursday, amid suspicions Putin wants to score a major battlefield success in time for Victory Day, one of Russia’s most important holidays, on May 9.
Ukrainian authorities reported intense Russian fire in the Donbas – the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is bent on capturing – and near Kharkiv, a northeastern city outside the Donbas region that is seen as key to the offensive.
The fighting gathered momentum after Russia suddenly cut off natural gas to two NATO nations, Poland and Bulgaria, on Wednesday, in what was seen as a bid to punish and divide the West over its support for Ukraine.
WATCH | Poland, Bugaria push back against loss of Russian gas over ruble ultimatum:
Western officials say the Kremlin’s apparent goal is to take the Donbas by encircling and crushing Ukrainian forces from the north, south and east.
But so far, Russia’s troops and their allied separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains, taking several small towns as they try to advance in relatively small groups against staunch Ukrainian resistance.
As Russia presses that offensive, civilians again bear the brunt.
“It’s not just scary; it’s when your stomach contracts from pain,” said Tatiana Pirogova, a resident of the northeastern city of Kharkiv. “When they shoot during the day, it’s still OK, but when the evening comes, I can’t describe how scary it is.”
Fears of cholera risks in Mariupol
In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities warned that the civilians who remain there face dangerously unsanitary conditions, with water and sewer systems not working and bodies decomposing under rubble.
Hundreds of thousands of Mariupol’s residents have fled, but the city council said Thursday that the 100,000 who remain behind face a “deadly danger” because they are at risk of catching diseases such as cholera and dysentery on account of deeply unsanitary conditions in the city, which has largely been reduced to rubble by Russia’s siege.
“Deadly epidemics may break out in the city due to the lack of centralized water supply and sewers, the decomposition of thousands of corpses under the rubble, a catastrophic shortage of drinking water and food,” the council said on the messaging app Telegram.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed evidence of intensifying Russian fire targeting the Mariupol steel mill, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are holed up, in recent days.
The images show how concentrated attacks have greatly damaged a central facility at the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in the key battleground city.
An estimated 1,000 civilians are sheltering along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters in the steelworks, a massive Soviet-era complex with a warren of underground facilities built to withstand airstrikes.
The UN said on Wednesday that its humanitarian office is mobilizing a team to co-ordinate the complex evacuation of civilians from the besieged steel plant with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle to UN and ICRC participation in the evacuation from the plant during talks earlier this week.
UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said the UN is trying to translate the Guterres-Putin agreement in principle “into an agreement in detail and an agreement on the ground.”
WATCH | Maxar technican explains how satellite images are helping track Russian invasion:
Blasts signal possible Ukrainian counterattack
Meanwhile, in what could be a further Ukrainian counterattack, a series of explosions boomed near a television tower late Wednesday in southern Ukraine’s Kherson, which has been occupied by Russian forces since early in the war.
The blasts at least temporarily knocked Russian channels off the air, Ukrainian and Russian news organizations reported.
Ukraine has urged its allies to send even more military equipment so it can continue its fight.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that “up to date, NATO allies have pledged and provided at least eight billion U.S. dollars in military support to Ukraine. And we see the importance of further stepping up our support to Ukraine.”
While Russia’s initial blitz was stunted — and it suffered the humiliating loss of a massive warship — Britain’s Defence Ministry said the Russian navy still has the ability to strike coastal targets in Ukraine.
WATCH | A view of the aftermath of a Russian attack:
In an intelligence briefing posted Thursday morning, the ministry says that about 20 Russia naval vessels, including submarines, are currently operating in the Black Sea zone.
But the ministry says Russia isn’t able to replace the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, which sank earlier this month in the Black Sea, because the Bosporus Strait remains closed to all non-Turkish warships. Russia also lost the landing ship Saratov, which was destroyed by explosions and fire on March 24.