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Ukraine braces for Severodonetsk fall

SOLEDAR, Ukraine: Ukraine looked close to losing the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to Russian forces but was boosted Wednesday by the US decision to send more advanced rocket systems to help with its defence. “The Russians control 70 percent of Severodonetsk,” Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday announced on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing to prepared positions. “If in two or three days, the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, they will install artillery and mortars and will bombard more intensely Lysychansk,” the city across the river, which Gaiday said remained held by Kyiv.

One of the industrial hubs on Russia’s path to taking the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of massive Russian firepower since the failed attempt to capture Kyiv. But in a boost for the outgunned Ukrainian military, President Joe Biden confirmed that more US weaponry was on the way to allow them to “more precisely strike key targets” in Ukraine.

The new weapon is the Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS: A mobile unit that can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles. They are the centrepiece of a $700 million package being unveiled Wednesday that includes air-surveillance radar, more Javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammunition, helicopters, vehicles and spare parts, a US official said. With a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometres), they will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines.

‘Fuel to the fire’

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of “adding fuel to the fire”, saying “such supplies” did not encourage Kyiv to resume peace talks. In an article in the New York Times, Biden insisted: “We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

He wrote: “We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia. As much as I disagree with Mr. (President Vladimir) Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow. “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”

While some analysts have suggested the Himars could be a “game-changer”, others caution they should not be expected to suddenly turn the tables, not least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively. What they may do is improve morale, according to one Ukrainian soldier getting pummelled on the front line. “If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone’s spirits rise,” one fighter who uses the nom de guerre Luzhniy told AFP before the announcement.

On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a tank containing nitric acid at a chemical plant in Severodonetsk, prompting the local governor to warn people to stay indoors. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s strikes in the area, “including blind air bombing, are just crazy”.

West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, AFP journalists saw buildings destroyed by a rocket attack in which three people died and six others were hurt. And on Wednesday, at least one person died and two others were injured in Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, AFP saw.

The European Union has also sent weapons and cash for Ukraine, while levelling unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow. Leaders this week agreed a ban on most Russian oil imports but played down the prospects of shutting off Russian gas on which many member states are hugely dependent. – AFP

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