KYIV/OUTSIDE MAIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russian forces invaded Ukraine by land, air and sea on Thursday in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two.
Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities and Ukraine reported columns of troops pouring across its borders into the eastern Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions. Russian troops also landed by sea at the port cities of Odessa and Mariupol in the south.
Explosions were heard before dawn in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.
Black smoke rose over the headquarters of Ukraine’s military intelligence after an explosion in Kyiv near midday.
The assault followed weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war and realised their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.
A Ukrainian Armed Forces aircraft shot down in the Kiev region Ukrainian State Emergency Service, via Reuters
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history. Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
He called on Ukrainians to defend the country on its cities’ streets, and said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight. He also urged Russians to take to the streets to protest against their government’s actions.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
A resident of Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, the closest big city to the Russian border, said windows in apartment blocks were shaking from constant blasts.
Outside Mariupol, close to the frontline held by Russian-backed separatists, smoke billowed from a fire in a forest hit by Russian bombing.
A Ukrainian armoured column headed along the road, with soldiers seated atop turrets smiling and flashing victory signs to passing cars which honked their horns in support.
In nearby Mangush and Berdyansk towns, people queued for cash and gasoline. Civilians from Mariupol were seen packing bags.
“We are going into hiding,” one woman said.
Initial reports of casualties were unconfirmed. Ukraine reported at least eight people killed by Russian shelling and three border guards killed in the southern Kherson region.
Ukraine’s military said it had destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed six Russian warplanes in the east.
Russia denied reports its aircraft or armoured vehicles had been destroyed. Russian-backed separatists claimed to have downed two Ukrainian planes.
In a televised declaration of war in the early hours, Putin said he had ordered “a special military operation” to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine – an accusation the West calls absurd propaganda.
“And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said. “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine… All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”
‘UNPROVOKED AND UNJUSTIFIED’
U.S. President Joe Biden said his prayers were with the people of Ukraine “as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack”. He and other Western leaders promised tough sanctions in response.
“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way,” Biden said.
The prospect of war and sanctions disrupting energy and commodities markets posed a threat to a global economy barely emerging from the pandemic. Stocks and bond yields plunged, while the dollar and gold soared. Brent oil surged past $100/barrel for the first time since 2014.
“There are no buyers here for risk, and there are a lot of sellers out there, so this market is getting hit very hard,” said Chris Weston, head of research at broker Pepperstone.
Ukraine, a democratic country of 44 million people with more than 1,000 years of history, is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and aims to join NATO and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Putin, who denied for months that he was planning an invasion, has called Ukraine an artificial creation carved from Russia by its enemies, a characterisation Ukrainians say is false.
Three hours after Putin gave his order, Russia’s defence ministry said it had taken out military infrastructure at Ukrainian air bases and degraded its air defences.
Earlier, Ukrainian media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and Kharkiv had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed in Odessa and Mariupol. A Reuters witness later heard three loud blasts in Mariupol.
Russia announced it was shutting all shipping in the Azov Sea. Russia controls the strait leading into the sea where Ukraine has ports including Mariupol. Ukraine appealed to Turkey to bar Russian ships from the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Queues of people waited to withdraw money and buy supplies of food and water in Kyiv. Traffic going out of the city towards the Polish border was jammed. Western countries have prepared for the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing an assault.
By mid-morning, traffic was at a standstill on the four-lane main road to the western city of Lviv. Cars stretched back for dozens of kilometres, Reuters witnesses said.
Oxana, stuck in a jam with her three-year-old daughter on the back seat, said she was fleeing “because a war has started. Putin has attacked us.”
“We’re afraid of bombardments,” she said. “This is so scary.”
World leaders expressed near universal outrage at the invasion, with China, which signed a friendship treaty with Russia three weeks ago, a notable exception. Beijing reiterated a call for all parties to exercise restraint and rejected a description of Russia’s action as an invasion.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan)
PHOTO: Police officers inspect the remains of a missile that fell in the street, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised the invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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