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Ukraine prepares for a fresh Russian offensive as Moscow dismisses rape allegations

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

Lviv: Ukraine pleaded with the West for additional weaponry to help it end the siege of Mariupol and stave off an expected Russian offensive in the east, as new tales of rape and cruelty by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians surfaced.

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As Russia prepared forces in the eastern Donbas area for a new assault on the port of Mariupol, where hundreds are estimated to have perished under a near-seven-week siege, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated in a televised address late Monday that the country may use chemical weapons.

“When it comes on the necessary weapons, we still depend on supplies, on our partners. Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster … In particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.

Following meetings in Moscow on Monday, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the first European Union leader to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in person since launching what he dubbed a “special operation,” warned an offensive in the east was “being prepared on a vast scale.”

Russia has switched its attention to Donbas, where it demands Ukraine hand up authority to separatist rebels after suffering serious casualties and withdrawing soldiers from Kyiv’s suburbs. By capturing Mariupol, Moscow would be able to try to surround the main Ukrainian army in the east.

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The withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Kyiv’s outskirts has exposed terrible charges of war crimes, including murders and rape of civilians. Moscow disputes the accusations as provocation by Ukraine and the West, and has accused Ukrainian soldiers of sexual abuse.

Sima Bahous, a senior UN official, told the Security Council on Monday that although all claims must be reviewed independently, “the brutality displayed against Ukrainian civilians has raised all red flags”.

“We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence,” she said.

Kateryna Cherepakha, president of rights group La Strada-Ukraine, told the Council via video: “We know and see – and we want you to hear our voices – that violence and rape is used now as a weapon of war by Russian invaders in Ukraine.”

The charges were refuted by Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, who accused Ukraine and its supporters of having “a clear purpose to portray Russian servicemen as sadists and rapists.”

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Russia’s defence ministry said Ukraine’s government was being directed by the United States to sow false evidence of Russian violence against civilians despite what it cast as Moscow’s “unprecedented measures to save civilians.”

“The United States, which has many years of experience in organising provocations with human victims, continues its campaign to create and promote false ‘evidence’,” the ministry said.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister accused Russia of holding civilians including journalists, activists and elected officials in prisons on Russian territory. Reuters could not verify the allegation.

The United States has sought to pressure Putin to withdraw his forces by banning Russian oil and gas and encouraging allies to follow suit.

But world powers including China and India have refrained from sanctioning Russia. Lured by steep oil discounts, India has purchased more Russian crude since the start of the Feb. 24 invasion than it did for the whole of last year, data compiled by Reuters shows.

In a video call, US President Joe Biden told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “very clearly that it is not in their interest” to increase reliance on Russian energy, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

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During a brief portion of the call open to reporters, Modi said he had suggested in recent talks with Russia that Putin and Zelenskyy hold direct negotiations.

France declared six Russian agents posing as diplomats as persona non grata after an investigation by the domestic intelligence services concluded they were working against French national interests.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would not pause the fighting for any new round of peace talks, which last convened on April 1.

Britain’s defence ministry said Russian shelling continued in Donbas but Ukrainian forces had beaten back several assaults and destroyed Russian tanks, vehicles and artillery equipment.

The governor of another eastern region, Luhansk, told Ukrainian television that shelling was increasing day by day and urged all civilians to evacuate.

 

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