Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of “madness" Tuesday after Russian troops hit a chemical plant in their bid to complete the capture of a key eastern city. The battle for control of Severodonetsk has been intensifying this week, with heavy casualties on both sides, as EU leaders haggle over banning Russian gas to punish the Kremlin for its three-month-old invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
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 occupy Kyiv.
Russians now control most of the destroyed city, regional authorities said Tuesday, adding that enemy forces had hit a nitric acid tank at a chemical plant and warning people to stay indoors.
“Given the presence of large-scale chemical production in Severodonetsk, the Russian army’s strikes there, including blind air bombing, are just crazy," Zelensky said in a video message.
“But on the 97th day of such a war, it is no longer surprising that for the Russian military, for Russian commanders, for Russian soldiers, any madness is absolutely acceptable."
Meanwhile, in Brussels European Union leaders were split over banning gas from Moscow after agreeing to embargo two-thirds of its oil to tighten the economic screws.
These nations played down the chances of a rapid gas ban to follow, but Zelensky nevertheless expressed his gratitude for EU action taken so far against “the terrorist state" of Russia.
“It is also important to understand that European countries’ abandonment of Russian oil and other fossil fuels will accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources," he said.
“Strategically, this leaves the Russian state on the sidelines of the modern economy. With such an aggressive policy and a course of isolation from the civilized world, Russia simply will not be able to adapt."
The US State Department also applauded the EU’s efforts, saying there was “broad support" among Washington’s allies for “cutting off the strength of Russia’s war machine."
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen suggested Brussels had gone far enough against Russian fossil fuels, however, and that it was time to focus more on the “financial and the economic sector".
The oil ban “will effectively cut around 90 percent of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of the year", she said.
Denmark became the latest European country to be targeted by Russia over gas exports in the meantime, following the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.
Danish energy firm Orsted said Russian monopoly Gazprom Export would cut gas supplies on Wednesday after the Danes refused to pay in rubles.
The situation on the eastern frontline in Donbas has become increasingly desperate, with Ukrainian towns facing near constant shelling from Russian forces.
A steady flow of vehicles delivered some 1,350 people Monday through an eastern Ukrainian checkpoint towards Red Cross buses, desperate to flee the horrors of life in Russian-controlled territory.
The exhausted crowds, including women and children, crossed a dam cutting through a reservoir that serves as the demarcation line between Russian and Ukrainian troops.
“I can breathe more easily now," Anna, a teacher who fled with her children aged 13 and 11, told AFP, as she crossed the checkpoint.
Tetyana, a 19-year-old student, said she was happy to back in her “native Ukraine" after three months of living in “the Russian world".
French journalist Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff was killed while covering civilian evacuations in the Donbas on Monday.
And an overnight rocket attack left at least three people dead and six wounded in the city of Sloviansk, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Tuesday on Telegram.
‘Save your lives’
“There are no safe places in the Donetsk region, so I call again: evacuate — save your lives," he said.
Four more civilians died and seven were injured in Donetsk on Tuesday, he added in a later Telegram post.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said authorities had identified a “few thousand" cases of war crimes in the Donbas, including murder, torture and the forced displacement of children.
The key Zelensky aide, who met international counterparts in The Hague on Tuesday, said Kyiv was already going to prosecute 80 suspects for alleged war crimes on Ukrainian soil.
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed two Russian soldiers for 11 and a half years for shelling two villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region. Earlier this month, another was jailed for life for murdering a civilian.
Russia’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine’s huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had urged Russian leader Vladimir Putin to end Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian port of Odessa.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the West and Kyiv to resolve the crisis, starting with the lifting of sanctions.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on Macron to visit before the end of France’s EU presidency on June 30.
“It would be good that Macron came during the French EU presidency, and the best thing would be that he comes with more weapons deliveries for Ukraine," he told French news channel LCI.
“That’s the most precious aid we can receive from France."
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