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Port of Odesa comes under missile attack as Russians advance in eastern Ukraine

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© Reuters. A woman walks past destroyed structures at a local market following recent shelling in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine June 19, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

By Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder

KYIV (Reuters) – Russian forces captured territory along a frontline river in eastern Ukraine on Monday and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy predicted Moscow would escalate attacks ahead of a summit of European leaders expected to welcome Kyiv’s bid to join the EU.

Moscow’s separatist proxies claimed to have captured Toshkivka, a town on the mostly Ukrainian-held western bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, south of Sievierodonetsk, which has become the main battlefield city in recent weeks.

Ukraine acknowledged that Moscow had success in Toshkivka and said the Russians were trying to gain a foothold there to make a breakthrough into the wider, Ukrainian-held pocket of the eastern Donbas region. It also confirmed a Russian claim to have captured on Sievierodonetsk’s eastern outskirts.

“Obviously, this week we should expect from Russia an intensification of its hostile activities,” Zelenskiy said in a Sunday nightly video address. “We are preparing. We are ready.”

In Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest Black Sea port, a food warehouse was destroyed in a Russian missile attack on Monday, the Ukrainian military said. No civilians were reported killed.

The city has come under sporadic bombardment since the start of the war and is blockaded by the Russian navy, while each side accuses the other of laying mines in the sea.

The Operational Command “South” said Russian forces fired 14 missiles at southern Ukraine during a three-hour barrage. The Russian military did not comment on the reports.

The Russian-installed leader of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, said Kyiv had struck Black Sea drilling platforms owned by a Crimean oil company. Three people were wounded, and a search was under way for seven workers, he said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said the platforms were located 71 km (44 miles) from Odesa. Reuters was unable to immediately verify the reports of the attack.

European Union leaders at a summit on Thursday and Friday are expected to give their blessing to Ukraine becoming an official candidate to join, a decision that will be marked as a triumph in Kyiv.

“I think that’s very likely it would happen,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters when asked if he felt Ukraine would become an EU member.

Though it would take years for Ukraine to join, for the bloc to reach deep into the heart of the former Soviet Union would bring about one of Europe’s biggest economic and social transformations since the Cold War. Ukraine applied for membership just four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border in February.

Putin says the “special military operation” is aimed at disarming a neighbour Russia views as a threat and protecting Russian speakers there. Kyiv believes Moscow’s true aim is to restore control over Ukraine and erase its national identity.

TOSHKIVKA FOOTHOLD

Russian forces were defeated in an assault on the capital Kyiv in March, but have since mounted a new one to capture more territory in the east and solidify their hold on the south.

The war has entered a brutal attritional phase in recent weeks, with Russian forces concentrating their overwhelming artillery firepower on a Ukrainian-controlled pocket of the Donbas, which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

Much of the fighting has taken place along the Siverskyi Donets river. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Vitaly Kiselev, an aide to the interior minister of the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic separatist administration, as saying on Monday that Toshkivka had been “liberated”.

The town is located on the river’s western bank, south of Sievierodonetsk’s twin city Lysychansk, a Ukrainian bastion.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai acknowledged that a Russian attack on Toshkivka “had a degree of success”. Russian forces were trying to break through and gain a foothold there and near the small village of Ustinovka further north along the river, he said. The Russians were bringing a huge amount of heavy equipment there including tanks.

He also confirmed Russia’s claim to have captured Metyolkine on Sievierodonetsk’s eastern outskirts. “Unfortunately, we do not control Metyolkine today,” he said.

Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksander Stryuk said Russian forces controlled about two-thirds of the city, including most residential areas, and Moscow kept throwing forces at the Ukrainians in an attempt to take over completely.

International concern has focused on trying to restore Ukrainian exports of food, now shut by a de facto Russian blockade. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading sources of grain and food oils, leading to fears of global shortages and hunger.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the grain blockade “a real war crime”. It was “inconceivable…. that millions of tonnes of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger”.

Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions curbing its own exports.

The war has also disrupted global energy markets, including Russian shipments of oil and gas to Europe, still the continent’s main source of energy and Moscow’s primary source of income. Moscow blames EU sanctions for a decline in gas volumes, saying the sanctions had prevented it from restoring pipeline pumping equipment.

Moscow meanwhile threatened to retaliate against EU member Lithuania for banning transport of basic goods to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea surrounded by EU territory. The Lithuanian ban, which took effect on Saturday, blocks shipments of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology to the outpost.

Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Lithuania’s top diplomat and demanded Vilnius reverse the “openly hostile” move immediately, or else Russia “reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests.” Lithuania said it was required to enforce the ban under sanctions imposed by the EU.

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Rescuers dig for survivors of Russian missile strike on Ukrainian shopping mall

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© Reuters. Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kremenchuk, in Poltava region, Ukraine June 27, 2022. Picture taken June 27, 2022. REUTERS/Anna Voitenko

2/5

By Simon Lewis

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Firefighters and soldiers searched for survivors in the rubble of a shopping mall in central Ukraine on Tuesday after a Russian missile strike killed at least 16 people in an attack condemned by the United Nations and the West.

Family members of the missing lined up at a hotel across the street where rescue workers had set up a base after Monday’s strike on the busy mall in Kremenchuk, southeast of Kyiv.

More than a 1,000 people were inside when two Russian missiles slammed into the mall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said. At least 16 people were killed and 59 injured, Ukraine’s emergency services said.

“This is not an accidental hit, this is a calculated Russian strike exactly onto this shopping centre,” Zelenskiy said in an evening video address. He said the death count could rise.

More than 40 people had been reported missing, Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said.

A survivor receiving treatment at Kremenchuk’s public hospital, Ludmyla Mykhailets, 43, said she was shopping with her husband when the blast threw her into the air.

“I flew head first and splinters hit my body. The whole place was collapsing,” she said.

“It was hell,” added her husband, Mykola, 45, blood seeping through a bandage wrapped around his head.

Russia has not commented on the strike but its deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, accused Ukraine of using the incident to gain sympathy ahead of a June 28-30 summit of the NATO military alliance.

“One should wait for what our Ministry of Defence will say, but there are too many striking discrepancies already,” Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR).

The United Nations Security Council will meet Tuesday at Ukraine’s request following the attack. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the missile strike was “deplorable”.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies, at a summit in Germany, said the attack was “abominable”.

“Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account,” they wrote in a joint statement tweeted by the German government spokesperson.

BATTLE FOR LYSYCHANSK

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Ukraine endured another difficult day following the loss of the now-ruined city of Sievierodonetsk after weeks of bombardment and street fighting.

Russian artillery pounded Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk’s twin city across the Siverskyi Donets River.

Lysychansk is the last big city still held by Ukraine in eastern Luhansk province, a main target for the Kremlin after Russian troops failed to take the capital Kyiv early in the war.

A Russian missile strike killed eight and wounded 21 others in Lysychansk on Monday, the area’s regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said. There was no immediate Russian comment.

Ukraine’s military said Russia’s forces were trying to cut off Lysychansk from the south.

Rodion Miroshnik, ambassador to Moscow of the Luhansk People’s Republic, said Russian troops and their Luhansk Republic allies were advancing westward into Lysychansk and street battles had erupted around the city’s stadium.

Fighting was on in several villages around the city, and Russian and allied troops had entered the Lysychansk oil refinery where Ukrainian troops were concentrated, Miroshnik said on his Telegram channel.

Reuters could not confirm Russian reports that Moscow’s troops had already entered the city.

Russia also shelled the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine on Monday, hitting apartment buildings and a primary school, the regional governor said.

The shelling killed five people and wounded 22. There were children among those wounded, the governor said.

‘AS LONG AS IT TAKES’

Moscow denies targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine, but Kyiv and the West have accused Russian forces of war crimes.

The war has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing, and triggered spikes in global food and energy prices.

During their summit in Germany, G7 leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, said they would keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and intensify pressure on President Vladimir Putin’s government and its ally Belarus.

The United States also said it was finalising another weapons package for Ukraine that would include long-range air-defence systems.

Zelenskiy asked for more arms in a video address to the G7 leaders, U.S. and European officials said. He requested help to export grain from Ukraine and for more sanctions on Russia.

The G7 nations promised to squeeze Russia’s finances further – including a cap on the price of Russian oil that a U.S. official said was “close” – and pledged up to $29.5 billion more for Ukraine.

The White House said Russia had defaulted on its external debt for the first time in more than a century as sanctions have effectively cut the country off from global finance.

Russia rejected the claims, telling investors to go to Western financial agents for the cash which was sent but bondholders did not receive.

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Russian missile strike kills 16 in shopping mall, Ukraine says

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© Reuters. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a working session of G7 leaders via video link, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 27, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

2/2

By Simon Lewis

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (Reuters) -Two Russian missiles slammed into a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk on Monday, killing at least 16 people and wounding 59, officials said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said more than 1,000 people were in the mall at the time of the attack, which witnesses said caused a huge fire and sent dark smoke billowing into the sky.

At least 16 people were killed and 59 injured, Ukraine’s emergency services said.

A Reuters reporter saw the charred husk of a shopping complex with a caved-in roof. Firefighters and soldiers were pulling out mangled pieces of metal as they searched for survivors.

The mall was engulfed in a wall of flame which turned to thick clouds of smoke as firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Aerial photos showed the structure reduced to twisted metal, with workers combing through growing piles of rubble.

“It is impossible to even imagine the number of victims … It’s useless to hope for decency and humanity from Russia,” Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Kremenchuk, an industrial city of 217,000 before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, lies on the Dnipro River in the region of Poltava and is the site of Ukraine’s biggest oil refinery.

Dmytro Lunin, governor of the central Poltava region, wrote on Telegram that it was too soon to talk of a final death toll as rescuers continued to trawl through the rubble.

“It’s an act of terrorism against civilians,” he said separately, suggesting there was no military target nearby that Russia could have been aiming at.

At one point, paramedics rushed into the building after rescuers called out “200” meaning they had found one or more bodies in the building. Reporters were later pushed away from the scene as air raid sirens wailed again.

UKRAINE WANTS MORE WEAPONS

As night began to fall, rescuers brought lights and generators to continue the search. Worried family members, some close to tears and with hands over their mouths, lined up at a hotel across the street from the mall where rescue workers had set up a base.

Kiril Zhebolovsky, 24, was looking for his friend, Ruslan, 22, who worked at an electronics store and hadn’t been heard from since the blast. “We sent him messages, called, but nothing,” he said. He left his name and phone number with the rescue workers in case his friend is found.

A mall worker who gave his name as Roman, 28, told Reuters that the mall’s management had only three days ago allowed shops to remain open during air raid sirens.

Ukraine’s air force command said the mall was hit by two long-range X-22 missiles fired from Tu-22M3 bombers that flew from Shaykovka airfield in Russia’s Kaluga region.

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), without citing evidence, that the attack was a “Ukrainian provocation.”

“Exactly what Kiev regime needs to keep focus of attention on Ukraine before (the) NATO Summit,” he said, referring to the alliance’s Madrid gathering due to begin on Tuesday.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that the upcoming summit will agree a new assistance package for Ukraine in areas “like secure communications, anti-drone systems, and fuel.”

“We need more weapons to protect our people, we need missile defences,” Andriy Yermak, head of President Zelenskiy’s office, wrote on Twitter after the attack.

Vadym Denysenko, an interior ministry adviser, said Russia could have had three motives for the attack.

“The first, undoubtedly, is to sow panic, the second is to … destroy our infrastructure, and the third is to … raise the stakes to get the civilised West to sit down again at the table for talks,” he said.

Russia, which has captured the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk after a weeks-long assault, has stepped up missile strikes across Ukraine in recent days.

Missiles hit an apartment block and landed close to a kindergarten in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, killing one person and wounding several more people.

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Biden pick for immigration enforcement withdraws after long delay

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ed Gonzalez testifies on his nomination as director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ed Gonzalez, a Texas sheriff, said on Monday he had told President Joe Biden that he had withdrawn from consideration for the post of director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after a lengthy delay at getting confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“More than a year has passed since the president nominated me for this important position, which has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration,” Gonzalez said in a tweet, referring to Barack Obama, a Democrat who was president from 2009 to 2017.

A copy of his withdrawal letter sent to Biden on Sunday and seen by Reuters on Monday said he needed to focus on an uptick in violent crime in his county and a court backlog driven by the pandemic that has led to a surge in the jail population.

“All this leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that in 2022, I must devote my full, undivided attention and energy toward fulfilling the duties that the people of Harris Country elected me to perform,” he wrote.

A veteran law enforcement officer and Democrat, Gonzalez has served since 2017 as sheriff of Harris County, the most populous county in Texas and home to Houston, the state’s biggest city. In that role, Gonzalez ended the county’s participation in a program that increased cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

Gonzalez had criticized immigration raids during the presidency of Republican former President Donald Trump. Biden nominated Gonzalez as the head of ICE (NYSE:ICE) in April 2021, but his confirmation was stalled in the Senate.

Biden has pledged to move away from the hardline immigration policy of his predecessor. His administration has instructed agents to focus on deporting those people in the United States illegally who have committed dangerous crimes, as well as targeting employers exploiting migrants instead of raiding workplaces to look for people working illegally.

The delay in confirming Gonzalez came after Republican Senator James Lankford raised concerns over an allegation made last year that the sheriff had become “physical or violent” with his wife several years ago, which both the sheriff and his wife deny.

Staff at the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs looked into the domestic abuse charges against Gonzalez and found them without merit, according to a summary of their findings seen by Reuters.

A White House spokesperson responded to Gonzalez’s withdrawal.

“Sheriff Gonzalez has the qualifications and experience to do this important job and would have been a great leader of ICE. We thank Sheriff Gonzalez for his willingness to serve in the face of baseless allegations against his family and thank Homeland Security Chairman Peters for his diligent and hard work in support of the nomination,” the spokesperson said, referring to Senator Gary Peters.

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