By Oleksandr Kozhukhar and Pavel Polityuk
LVIV/KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine said a Russian missile attack killed seven people in Lviv on Monday, the first civilian victims in the western city, and reported signs that Russia had started its anticipated new offensive in the east.
Maksym Kozytskyy, the governor of Lviv which lies 60 km (40 miles) from the Polish border, said preliminary reports suggested there were four strikes, three on warehouses that were not in use by the military and another on a car service station.
“It was a barbaric strike at a service station, it’s a completely civilian facility,” he told a news conference.
Andriy Sadoviy, mayor of Lviv, said the youngest victim among the dead was aged 30. The blast also wounded 11 and shattered windows of a hotel housing Ukrainians evacuated from elsewhere in the country, he added.
“Seven peaceful people had plans for life, but today their life stopped,” the mayor said.
Late on Monday President Zelensky announced that the expected Russian offensive in the east of Ukraine has started: ““Now we can say that Russian troops have started the battle for Donbass, for which they have been preparing for a long time. A very large part of the entire Russian army is now devoted to this offensive,” he said in a speech broadcast on Telegram. Meanwhile, the governor of Luhansk said on Facebook: “”It’s hell. The offensive has begun, the one we’ve been talking about for weeks… There is fighting in Rubizhne and Popasna, incessant fighting in other peaceful towns,” he said, shortly after announcing on Telegram the death of four civilians in Kreminna, a town taken by the Russians on Monday.
Driven back by Ukrainian resistance in the north, Moscow has refocused its ground offensive in the two eastern provinces known as the Donbas, while launching long-distance strikes at other targets, including the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine’s armed forces command said it believed that Russia had started a new push for control of the east, increasing the intensity of attacks.
“This morning, along almost the entire front line of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers attempted to break through our defences,” Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said in televised comments.
“They began their attempt to start the active phase this morning,” he said.
A man and a woman were killed in Kharkiv on Monday when shells hit a playground near a residential building, the prosecutor’s office said in a post on Telegram messaging service.
Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to demilitarise Ukraine and eradicate what it calls dangerous nationalists. It rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Ukraine has staged them to undermine peace talks.
Western capitals and Kyiv accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of unprovoked aggression.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had hit hundreds of military targets in Ukraine overnight. It said air-launched missiles had destroyed 16 military facilities in the Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions and in the port of Mykolayiv, which are in south and east Ukraine.
It added that the Russian air force had launched strikes against 108 areas where Ukrainian forces were concentrated and Russian artillery struck 315 Ukrainian military targets.
‘HELL ON EARTH’
Russia is trying to take full control of the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been besieged for weeks and which would be a huge strategic prize, linking territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
Major Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade which is still fighting in Mariupol, appealed for help in a letter to Pope Francis, saying women and children were trapped among fighters in the city’s steel works.
“This is what hell looks like on earth … It’s time (for) help not just by prayers. Save our lives from satanic hands,” the letter said, according to excerpts tweeted by Ukraine’s ambassador to the Vatican.
Ukraine called for Russia to facilitate a humanitarian corridor for evacuees from Mariupol and one from the steel plant that is the city’s last significant area of Ukrainian resistance.
The Azovstal steelworks are one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants, covering more than 11 sq km (4.25 sq miles) and overlooking the Sea of Azov.
Video and audio footage showed explosions rumbling and smoke rising from the steelworks, which contain myriad buildings, blast furnaces and rail tracks.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday that the situation in Mariupol was “extremely difficult” but the city was not under full control of Russian forces.
Two captured British men who fought with Ukrainian forces in Mariupol appeared on Russian state TV on Monday and asked to be exchanged for pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk who is being held by Ukrainian authorities.
It was unclear how freely the two men – Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin – were able to talk.
Medvedchuk, meanwhile, was shown in a video released by Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service asking to be swapped for the defenders of Mariupol and citizens struggling to leave. It was also unclear how freely Medvedchuk was speaking.
Taking Mariupol would unite Russian forces on two of the main axes of the invasion, and free them up to join an expected new offensive against the main Ukrainian force in the east.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner said on Monday that the civilian death toll from the war in Ukraine had surpassed 2,000, reaching 2,072 as of midnight on 17 April from the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.
About five million Ukrainians have fled the country.
(Reporting by Reuters journalists in Kyiv and Lviv; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaus worldwide; Writing by Alexandra Hudson and Keith Weir; Editing by Edmund Blair and Nick Macfie)
PHOTO: A view of at least three rows of new graves for people killed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at a cemetery in Irpin, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 18, 2022. Picture taken with drone. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra