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Civilians flee east Ukraine

KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE (AFP) – Ukraine is preparing for “big battles” against Moscow’s forces in the east of the country, officials in Kyiv said, as thousands of civilians flee in fear of an imminent Russian offensive.

Evacuations resumed on Saturday from Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, where a missile strike killed 52 people at a railway station a day earlier, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv.

Hailing the country’s response to the Russian invasion, Johnson offered Ukraine armoured vehicles and anti-ship missiles to help ensure, he said, that the country will “never be invaded again”.

His offer came after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv was readying for a Russian onslaught.

“Sadly, in parallel we see the preparations for important battles, some people say decisive ones, in the east,” he said on Saturday at a press conference with visiting Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

“We are ready to fight and to look in parallel to end this war through diplomacy.”

Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said Ukraine must beat back Russia in the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow controls two separatist territories, before a meeting can take place between the Ukrainian leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

ABOVE & BELOW: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine; and two boys play cards at a house in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv. PHOTOS: AP

“Ukraine is ready for big battles. Ukraine must win them, including in the Donbas. And once that happens, Ukraine will have a more powerful negotiating position,” he said on national television, as quoted by the Interfax news agency.

“After that the presidents will meet. It could take two weeks, three.”

A video released by Zelenskyy’s office showed him and Johnson walking through largely empty city streets to Kyiv’s historic Maidan Square, as snipers kept watch.

The two men greeted passersby, and one visibly emotional man called out to Johnson: “We need you.”

Johnson said the discovery of scores of civilian bodies in Ukrainian towns had “permanently polluted” Putin’s reputation.

Six weeks into Russia’s invasion, Moscow has shifted its focus to eastern and southern Ukraine after stiff resistance thwarted plans to swiftly capture Kyiv.

With thousands killed in the fighting and more than 11 million fleeing their homes or the country, the Ukrainian president called on the West to follow Britain’s example on military aid.

“We need even more sanctions” against Russia, Zelenskyy said in a video address on Saturday. “We need more weapons for our state.”

EU leaders were meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Friday as news emerged of the devastating attack on Kramatorsk’s station. The 52 victims included five children.

US President Joe Biden accused Russia of being behind a “horrific atrocity” in Kramatorsk, and France condemned the strike as a “crime against humanity”.

Moscow denied responsibility for the rocket attack, which also wounded 109 people, according to the latest official count.

As Russian forces regroup in the east and south of Ukraine, local officials are urging residents to flee before it is too late.

Mayor of eastern Lysychansk Oleksandr Zaika asked residents to evacuate as soon as possible due to constant shelling by the Russian army.

“It has become very difficult in the city, enemy shells are already flying,” Zaika said in a video message.

While the city had stocks of humanitarian aid, he added, “that doesn’t mean it will save your life if an enemy shell arrives”.

And more Russian shells did arrive on Saturday, killing five people in the eastern cities of Vugledar and Novo Mikhaylovka, local governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram.

Meanwhile, in Kramatorsk, minibuses assembled at a church to collect shaken evacuees.

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