Ukrainian servicemen walk near a destroyed bridge as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 12, 2022. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
LVIV, Ukraine, March 13 (Reuters) – Russian missiles hit a large Ukrainian base near the border with NATO member Poland on Sunday, killing 35 people and wounding 134, a local official said, in an escalation of the war to the west of the country as intense fighting was reported elsewhere.
Russia’s defence ministry said the air strike had destroyed a large amount of weapons supplied by foreign nations that were being stored at the sprawling training facility, and that it had killed “up to 180 foreign mercenaries”.
Reuters could not independently verify the casualties reported by either side.
The attack on the Yavoriv International Centre for Peacekeeping and Security, a training base just 15 miles (25 km) from the Polish border that has previously hosted NATO military instructors, brought the conflict to the doorstep of the Western defence alliance.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister had warned on Saturday that convoys of Western arms shipments to Ukraine could be considered legitimate targets.
Britain said the incident marked a “significant escalation” of the conflict. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation”, said any attack on NATO territory would trigger a full response by the alliance.
The 360-square km (140-square mile) Yavoriv facility is one of Ukraine’s biggest and is the largest in the western part of the country, which has so far been spared the worst of the fighting.
Regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy said Russian planes fired around 30 rockets at the facility, adding that some were intercepted before they hit. At least 35 people were killed and 134 wounded, he said.
Ukraine, whose aspirations to join NATO are a major irritant to Russian President Vladimir Putin, held most of its drills with countries in the Western defence alliance at the base before the invasion. The last major exercises were in September.
In the weeks before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, the Ukrainian military trained there, but according to Ukrainian media, all foreign instructors left the training ground in mid-February, while leaving all the equipment.
While Western nations have sought to isolate Putin by imposing harsh sanctions, the United States and its allies are concerned to avoid NATO being drawn into the conflict.
“There are no NATO personnel in Ukraine,” the NATO official said, when asked if any NATO personnel were at the base.
Air raid sirens wailed once again across the capital Kyiv and authorities said they were stockpiling two weeks worth of essential food items for the 2 million people who have not yet fled from Russian forces attempting to encircle the city.
Ukraine also reported renewed air strikes on an airport in the west, heavy shelling on Chernihiv northeast of the capital and attacks on the southern town of Mykolayiv, where officials said nine people had been killed.
An American journalist was shot and killed by Russian forces in the town of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, and another journalist was wounded, the regional police chief said.
Despite the violence, both sides gave their most upbeat assessment yet of the prospects for progress at bilateral talks that have been held periodically since Russia the start of the invasion, although they gave no details of what might be agreed.
“Russia is already beginning to talk constructively,” Ukrainian negotiator and presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a video posted online. “I think that we will achieve some results literally in a matter of days.”
A Russian delegate to talks with Ukraine, Leonid Slutsky, was quoted by RIA news agency as saying they had made significant progress and it was possible the delegations could soon reach draft agreements.
Neither side said what these would cover. Three rounds of talks between the two sides in Belarus, most recently last Monday, had focused mainly on humanitarian issues.
‘VIOLENT AND INHUMAN’
Russia’s invasion has sent more than 2.5 million people fleeing across Ukraine’s borders and trapped hundreds of thousands in besieged cities.
“It is terrifying how violent and inhuman it is,” Olga, a refugee from Kyiv, told Reuters after crossing into Romania.
Ukraine’s human rights monitor said Russia used phosphorous bombs in an overnight attack on the town of Popasna in the eastern Luhansk region, calling it a “war crime”. She shared a photograph purporting to show the alleged attack, but did not say if Ukraine had concrete evidence. Reuters could not immediately verify any of the reports.
In eastern Ukraine, Russian troops were trying to surround Ukrainian forces as they advance from the port of Mariupol in the south and the second city Kharkiv in the north, the British Defence Ministry said.
The city council in Mariupol said in a statement that 2,187 residents had been killed since the start of the invasion. Reuters was not able to verify that toll.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has suffered some of the heaviest bombardment. Videos from one resident, Teimur Aliev, who is helping bring aid to residents, show bombed buildings lining streets, burned out cars riddled with shrapnel holes and debris strewn around.
“We will stitch up the wounds and the pain of our country and our city. We are ready to build it and we are ready to renew it when the war is over. We’re not going anywhere,” said Aliev, a 23-year-old musician.
British intelligence also said Russian forces advancing from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, were trying to circumvent Mykolayiv as they look to drive west towards Odesa. Air strikes on Mykolayiv killed nine people on Sunday, regional Governor Vitaliy Kim said online.
In Chernihiv, around 150 km (100 miles) northeast of Kyiv, firefighters rescued residents from a burning building after heavy shelling, video from Ukraine’s emergency service and verified by Reuters showed.
Moscow denies targeting civilians. It blames Ukraine for failed attempts to evacuate civilians from encircled cities, an accusation Ukraine and its Western allies strongly reject.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday nearly 125,000 people had been evacuated via “humanitarian corridors” agreed with Russia.
The Kremlin describes its actions as a “special operation” to demilitarise and “deNazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of choice.
Reporting by Reuters bureaus Writing by Michael Perry, Philippa Fletcher and Alex Richardson Editing by William Mallard and Frances Kerry
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