Ukraine braces for new Russian offensive as Moscow dismisses rape allegations
LVIV (Reuters) - Ukraine pleaded for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off an expected Russian offensive in the east, as more reports emerged of rape and brutality against Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a televised address late on Monday that Russia could resort to chemical weapons as it amassed troops in the eastern Donbas region for a new assault on the port of Mariupol, where thousands are believed to have died under a near-seven week siege.
“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.
The first European Union leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in person since he launched what he called a "special operation", Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, said following talks in Moscow on Monday that an offensive in the east was "being prepared on a massive scale".
After suffering heavy losses and withdrawing forces from the suburbs of Kyiv, Russia has turned its sights toward Donbas, where it demands Ukraine cede control to separatist fighters. Capturing Mariupol would allow Moscow to attempt to encircle the main Ukrainian force in the east.
The departure of Russian forces from the outskirts of Kyiv has brought to light harrowing allegations of war crimes including executions and rape of civilians. Moscow dismisses the allegations as Ukrainian and Western provocations and has also accused Ukrainian forces of sexual violence.
Senior UN official Sima Bahous told the Security Council on Monday that while all allegations must by independently investigated, "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."
Russia's deputy UN ambassador denied the allegations and accused Ukraine and allies of "a clear intention to present Russian soldiers as sadists and rapists."
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.
Putin is scheduled to meet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Western sanctions, news agencies in Russia and Belarus reported. Belarus is a key staging area for Russian forces.
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.
During a brief portion of the call open to reporters, Modi said he had suggested in recent talks with Russia that Putin and Zelenskiy hold direct negotiations.
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.
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.