Ukraine's Zelensky visits war-torn southern city as battles rage
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the war-damaged southern city of Mykolaiv on Saturday for the first time since the Russian invasion as "fierce battles" raged again in the eastern Donbas region.
Making a rare trip outside Kyiv, Zelensky surveyed a badly-damaged high-rise building and met officials in Mykolaiv, which has been holding the defence of the Black Sea coast against Moscow's troops.
Russian forces have directed their firepower on the east and south of Ukraine in recent weeks since failing in their bid to take the capital Kyiv after the February 24 invasion.
Zelensky has appealed for western support and weapons, and he hailed an announcement from Brussels on Friday that it backed Ukraine's EU membership drive as a "historic achievement."
"Ukrainian institutions maintain resilience even in conditions of war. Ukrainian democratic habits have not lost their power even now," Zelensky said in a video address overnight.
A video released by Zelensky's office showed the Mykolaiv governor taking the president to see a tall building with a gaping hole, before the president met officials in what appeared to be a basement.
"Special attention was paid to threats from land and sea. We do not stop working for victory," a statement by his office said.
Mykolaiv is a key target for Russia as it lies on the way to the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa. It is around 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Kherson, which fell to Russia in the first weeks of the war.
- 'Abandoning everything' -
The worst of the fighting continues to be in the eastern Donbas region, with battles raging in villages outside the city of Severodonetsk, which Russia has been trying to seize for weeks.
"Now the most fierce battles are near Severodonetsk. They (Russia) do not control the city entirely," the governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said on Telegram.
Gaiday said there was "more destruction" at the besieged Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, where he said 568 people were sheltering, including 38 children.
He also said Lysychansk -- a Ukrainian-controlled city across a river from battered Severodonetsk -- is being "heavily shelled".
Lysychansk residents were preparing to be evacuated.
"We're abandoning everything and going. No one can survive such a strike," said history teacher Alla Bor, waiting with her son-in-law Volodymyr and 14-year-old grandson.
With Ukraine trying to shore up western support as the war drags on and intensifies global food and energy crises, Kyiv got a boost on Friday when the European Commission backed it for EU candidate status.
Full membership could take years but the bloc's 27 leaders could add Ukraine to the list of countries vying for membership as early as a summit next week.
"We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us for the European dream," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
The leaders of the bloc's biggest members -- France, Germany and Italy -- backed the idea during a visit to Kyiv this week.
- 'Defend their country' -
Moscow has warned against outside involvement in its ex-Soviet neighbour, saying it invaded to "de-nazify and de-militarise" a country that was getting too close to the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he had "nothing against" Ukraine joining an economic union like the EU, unlike the security risk he sees in Kyiv joining NATO.
But he said EU membership would turn Ukraine into a "semi-colony" of the West.
Putin also insisted that the Russian invasion was not the cause of global inflation and grain shortages, blaming Western sanctions that he said threatened starvation "primarily in the poorest countries".
Russian state television aired social media videos of two US military veterans who went missing last week while fighting alongside the Ukrainian army, stating they had been captured by Russian forces.
US President Joe Biden had said on Friday he did not know the whereabouts of Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, after their relatives lost contact with the pair. A third American is also missing.
Ukrainian civilian volunteers however continue to sign up, with a group performing military exercises on Friday in fortified positions left by Russian troops in Bucha, a town synonymous with war crimes blamed on Moscow's forces.
"Most of those who are here aren't soldiers. They're just civilians who want to defend their country -- 50 percent of them have never held a weapon until today," a sergeant known as "Ticha" told AFP.
Soldiers in Mykolaiv meanwhile are trying to keep their pre-war routines alive, with one saying he will not give up his vegan diet on the frontlines.
Oleksandr Zhuhan said he had received a package from a network of volunteers to keep up his plant-based diet.
"There was pate and vegan sausages, hummus, soya milk... and all this for free," the 37-year-old drama teacher said happily.
Ukraine is also battling on another front -- the right to host next year's Eurovision song contest after its morale-boosting win this year.
Kyiv condemned a decision by organisers to move the 2023 version of the world's biggest live music event on security grounds, possibly to Britain.
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