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Biden in Poland as Ukraine fears 300 dead in theatre

US President Joe Biden meets with US Army soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at the G2 Arena in Jasionka, near Rzeszow, Poland, March 25, 2022. — Reuters pic

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RZESZOW (Poland), March 25 — US President Joe Biden came up-close to the war in Ukraine today after forging a new set of measures with Europe designed to place a tighter squeeze on Russia’s tottering, energy-rich economy.

Biden visited Poland as a clearer scale of the ruin emerged from Ukraine’s besieged port city of Mariupol, which a month into the invasion now resembles World War II scenes of Russian cities razed by the Nazis.

Authorities said some 300 civilians may have died in a Russian air strike on a theatre-turned-bomb shelter in Mariupol last week, in what would be the invasion’s single bloodiest attack.

“I have escaped, but I have lost all my family. I have lost my house. I am desperate,” Oksana Vynokurova, 33, told AFP after finally escaping Mariupol by train to the western city of Lviv.

“My mum is dead. I left my mother in the yard like a dog, because everybody’s shooting,” she said.

Also disembarking from the train, Svetlana Kuznetsova said: “There is no water, light and electricity. We were living in cellars. We were cooking food on fires.

“I have never seen such horror. There is no Mariupol,” the middle-aged woman added. “Mariupol is like Grozny (in Chechnya). Everything is destroyed.”

New Russian toll

Smaller-scale strikes continued without pause as Russia, suffering heavy losses and meagre progress against key targets, pursues a relentless campaign of bombardment against Ukraine’s cities.

Giving only its second death toll of the war, the Russian army said it had suffered 1,351 fatalities in the invasion. Ukraine and Western intelligence say it is many thousands more.

In the east, Russian strikes targeting a medical facility in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv killed four civilians and wounded several others, police said.

“I had gone out looking for bread. There were explosions. When I came back there were four bodies lying there, with relatives crying by their side,” 71-year-old Mykola Hladkiy told AFP.

Several residents said cluster munitions were used in Kharkiv, spraying death indiscriminately.

Chemical arms warning

After summits of Nato, the European Union and G7 in Brussels, Biden warned that the Nato alliance would “respond” if Russian President Vladimir Putin resorts next to chemical weapons.

En route to Poland, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Russia would pay a “severe price” — but stressed “the United States has no intention of using chemical weapons, period, under any circumstance”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Biden of seeking to “divert attention”, and also denied Ukrainian claims that Russia had broken international law by dropping incendiary phosphorus bombs on civilians.

Biden and EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced a joint energy task force in Brussels, before he headed to the eastern Polish town of Rzeszow, a mere 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Ukraine.

With US help, the EU intends to cut down its heavy reliance on Russian oil and natural gas, while stopping short of demands by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to impose a total embargo and so deprive Putin of billions to fund his war machine.

Taken together, however, Western sanctions are “draining Putin’s resources to finance this atrocious war”, von der Leyen told reporters alongside Biden.

Germany, Moscow’s biggest customer in Europe, said it would halve Russian oil imports by June and end all coal deliveries by the autumn.

“The first important milestones have been reached to free us from the grip of Russian imports,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said.

In Poland, Biden met members of the US 82nd Airborne Division, part of Nato’s increasingly muscular deployment to its eastern flank.

He will also receive a briefing on the dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which nearly 3.7 million people have fled, mostly to Poland.

The UN believes that more than half of Ukraine’s children have already been driven from their homes — “a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come”, according to Unicef chief Catherine Russell.

Birthday on a bus

In the flashpoint town of Irpin on Kyiv’s north-western outskirts, Daria played with her dinosaur mittens as an evacuation bus took her family and others away. It was her fourth birthday on Thursday.

“We were planning some candles and a cake, but we had to leave it there,” said Daria’s mother Susanna Sopelnikova, 29, holding her tightly on her lap.

“We stayed in the basement for about three weeks, then we decided to leave,” Sopelnikova said, to the distant boom of shelling.

On the battlefield, Moscow said it had destroyed Ukraine’s largest remaining military fuel depot, at Kalynivka near the capital Kyiv, using sea-borne cruise missiles.

Fireballs leapt into the air from the storage facility, while a smaller fire blazed from a severed fuel line and a huge plume of black smoke rose over the site, AFP reporters at the scene said.

But while Mariupol and other places are now charred ruins, Western defensive systems including shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles have helped Ukraine’s armed forces hold their line — and increasingly to go on the offensive.

“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to re-occupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Kyiv,” Britain’s defence ministry said in a daily update.

Cancelling Russia?

For his part, Putin accused the West of discriminating against Russian culture, likening it to the ceremonial burning of books by Nazi supporters in the 1930s.

“Today they are trying to cancel a thousand-year-old country — I am talking about the progressive discrimination against everything connected with Russia,” he said in televised remarks.

After the Kremlin imposed an information blackout on its “special military operation”, most Russians are unaware of the true picture of fighting in Ukraine.

But an exhibition of 24 shocking images opened on Friday at a train station in Lithuania used by Russians transiting from the exclave of Kaliningrad.

On some of the pictures, exhibited at the height of the carriage windows, an inscription read: “Today, Putin is killing the peaceful population of Ukraine. Do you approve of this?” — AFP

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