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Kyiv accuses Moscow of 'imperialism' after general's southern Ukraine comment

Kyiv accuses Moscow of 'imperialism' after general's southern Ukraine comment

Pro-Russian troops are seen atop an armoured vehicle in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Apr 21, 2022, during the Ukraine-Russia conflict. (File photo: Reuters/Chingis Kondarov)

KYIV: Moscow wants to take full control over southern Ukraine, a Russian general said on Friday (Apr 22), a statement that Ukraine said gave the lie to Russia's previous assertions that it had no territorial ambitions.

Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia's central military district, was quoted by Russian state news agencies as saying that full control over southern Ukraine would give it access to a breakaway Russian-occupied part of Moldova in the west.

That would cut off Ukraine's entire coastline and mean pushing hundreds of kilometres west beyond current lines, past the major Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa.

Moscow says it is conducting a "special military operation" to demilitarise Ukraine and liberate its population from people it calls dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies call Russia's invasion an unjustified war of aggression.

"They stopped hiding it," Ukraine's defence ministry said on Twitter. Russia had "acknowledged that the goal of the 'second phase' of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine".

"Imperialism as it is," it said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment when asked if Russia had expanded the goals of its operation and how Moscow saw the political future of southern Ukraine.

A senior European Union official said that the next couple of weeks were likely to be decisive.

"This is not a fairy tale with an imminent happy ending. I think we are likely to see a very significant increase in the intensity of Russian military attacks in the east, I think we are likely to see an intensification of Russian military attacks along the coast," the official told reporters.

Ukraine's general staff said that Russian forces had increased attacks along the whole frontline in the east and were trying to mount an offensive in the Kharkiv region, north of Russia's main target, the Donbas.

Russia's defence ministry said that its forces had captured a large arms depot in the Kharkiv region. It also reported hitting dozens of targets in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions on Friday.

In Kharkiv city, Russian shellfire hit the main Barabashovo market. Ambulance services said there had been casualties, but no details were available yet. A wedding hall and a residential building were also struck.

United States State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter declined to comment specifically on the general's statement, but said that Washington firmly supported Moldova's sovereignty and was "clear-eyed" about what was happening on the ground.

"No one should be fooled by the Kremlin's announcements," Porter said.

WAR CRIMES

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights office said that there was growing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including indiscriminate shelling and summary executions. It said that Ukraine also appeared to have used weapons with indiscriminate effects.

Russia denies targeting civilians and says, without evidence, that signs of atrocities committed by its soldiers were faked.

Ukraine has previously said that it will punish any soldiers found to have committed war crimes. The government did not respond immediately to the UN office's remarks.

Russia's defence ministry said that thousands of Ukrainian troops holed up in a huge steel works in Mariupol, the main port of the Donbas, were "securely blockaded", a day after President Vladimir Putin said that the army would not bother rooting them out.

Putin had nevertheless declared victory in the city after a nearly two-month siege, an announcement dismissed by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who told CNN that there was still an active Ukrainian resistance.

"Actions, not words. I think we have to watch and see what the Russians actually do here," Kirby said.

"We still assess that Mariupol is contested, that it hasn't been taken by the Russians and that there's still an active Ukrainian resistance."

In a Russian-held section of the city, the guns had largely fallen silent and dazed looking residents ventured out on streets on Thursday to a background of charred apartment blocks and wrecked cars. Some carried suitcases.

Volunteers in white hazmat suits and masks roved the ruins, collecting bodies from inside apartments and loading them onto a truck marked with the letter "Z", the symbol of Russia's invasion.

Maxar, a commercial satellite company, said that images from space showed freshly dug mass graves on the city's outskirts.

Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have died in the city during Russia's bombardment and siege, and says that 100,000 civilians are still there and need full evacuation.

Relatives of Mariupol residents feared the worst. Sofia Telehina said that her grandmother had cried constantly when they last spoke by phone and said everything was bombed to pieces.

"Since then, I've not been able to reach her," Telehina said.

The United Nations and Red Cross say that the civilian toll is still unknowable, but is at least in the thousands. Russia says it has rescued the city from nationalists.

"DEMOLISHING EVERYTHING"

In Zaporizhzhia, where 79 Mariupol residents arrived in the first convoy of buses permitted by Russia to leave for other parts of Ukraine, Valentyna Andrushenko held back tears as she recalled the ordeal under siege.

"They (Russians) were bombing us from day one. They are demolishing everything. Just erase it," she said of the city.

Moscow says it has taken 140,000 Mariupol residents to Russia. Kyiv says that many of these were forcibly deported in what would be a war crime.

Western countries believe that Putin is desperate to demonstrate a victory after the failure of his forces to capture the capital Kyiv.

In a late-night address, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia was doing all it could "to talk about at least some victories".

"They can only postpone the inevitable - the time when the invaders will have to leave our territory, including from Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia regardless of what the occupiers say," Zelenskyy said.

Abandoning the effort to defeat the last Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol frees up more Russian troops for the main military effort, an assault from several directions on the towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in the Donbas.

Minnekayev, the Russian general, described a much wider goal of linking up with Transnistria, a Russian-occupied breakaway part of Moldova, which is on Ukraine's south-western border.

He said that Russian speakers there were oppressed. Moldova and Western leaders say that is untrue.

Moscow gave the same justification for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in Donbas. Ukraine says it fears Moscow might try to organise fake independence votes in southern areas as it did in the east and Crimea.

British military intelligence reported heavy fighting in the east as Russian forces tried to advance on settlements, but said that the Russians were suffering from losses sustained early in the war and were sending equipment back to Russia for repair.

The United States authorised another US$800 million in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, including heavy artillery and drones.

Pope Francis dropped plans to meet in June with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a Putin ally and backer of the war. Francis, who has denounced the war, told told Argentine newspaper La Nacion that the plan was suspended because Vatican diplomats advised that such a meeting "could lend itself to much confusion at this moment".

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will visit Moscow next Tuesday to discuss urgently bringing peace to Ukraine, a spokesperson said on Friday, adding that Guterres might also visit Kyiv.

The Pentagon said that more than 20 countries would attend US-hosted defence talks in Germany next week to consider Ukraine's long-term defence relationships once the war is over.

Source: Reuters/fh/kg

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