Russian forces continued heavy shelling of Ukrainian cities on Sunday as people in both countries observed Orthodox Easter and the US secretaries of state and defence made their first visit to Kyiv since the invasion.
Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin arrived in Kyiv and were holding talks with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said on Sunday in a social media video.
Ukrainian officials plan to tell Blinken and Austin of the immediate need for more weapons, including anti-missile systems, anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles and tanks, Zelenskiy aide Igor Zhovkva told NBC News on Sunday.
The request will come as the conflict ratchets up.
The Russian military reported hitting 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, including fortified positions and troop concentrations, while its warplanes destroyed 26 Ukrainian military sites, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots.
Most of the Easter fighting focused on the eastern Donbas region where Ukrainian forces are concentrated and where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war.
“The Russian army continued to actively shell peaceful cities in Ukraine and kill civilians,” said Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman. She said Russian strikes killed four civilians in the Donetsk region and eight in the Luhansk region.
“Three people working in a garden in Zaporizhzhia were killed by Russian artillery on Saturday,” Denisova said.
According to Ukraine’s national police, two girls aged five and 14 died in shelling in the town of Ocheretyne, part of the industrial region.
Russia’s forces continued to strike the city of Kharkiv, injuring three police officers and one woman, while artillery killed two men in the village of Slatyne, in Kharkiv region.
Moscow’s forces launched fresh airstrikes on a Mariupol steel plant where up to 1,000 civilians are holed up along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters.
Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade forces in Mariupol, said in an interview with an opposition lawmaker posted on YouTube on Sunday that Russia was hitting the complex with air and artillery bombardments.
“We are taking casualties, the situation is critical … we have very many wounded men, [some] are dying, it’s a difficult [situation] with guns, ammunition, food, medicines … the situation is rapidly worsening,” Volyna said, speaking from his location at the plant.
The UN’s Ukraine crisis coordinator, Amin Awad, called for an “immediate stop” to fighting in Mariupol to allow the evacuation of trapped civilians from the battered city. “The lives of tens of thousands, including women, children and older people, are at stake in Mariupol,” Awad said. “We need a pause in fighting right now to save lives.”
An adviser to the Ukrainian president said on Sunday that Ukraine had invited Russia to talks near the Mariupol steel plant. “We invited Russians to hold a special round of talks on the spot right next to the walls of Azovstal,” said Oleksiy Arestovych.
Earlier in the day, Kyiv had called for a truce in battered Mariupol for Orthodox Easter, celebrated in both Russia and Ukraine.
Even as fighting raged across the country, a military position in the eastern town of Lyman, on the frontline, took time to observe a solemn Easter, trading the usual patriotic salutation of “Glory to Ukraine!” for the ritual “Christ has risen!”.
“Truly risen!” came the reply.
In the town’s small Orthodox church, about 50 civilians braved possible mortar fire to gather to pray from dawn.
Ukrainians meanwhile shared tributes to a journalist, Valeria Glodan, and her three-month-old daughter who were among eight people killed in missile attacks on the southern port of Odesa on Saturday.
Glodan had posted on Instagram immediately before the invasion of her joy at the arrival of her baby girl. “These were the best 40 weeks ever,” she wrote on Twitter 11 weeks ago. “Our girl is one month old now. Daddy got her first flowers. It’s a whole new level of happiness.”
On Sunday her husband, Yury Glodan, shared a heartbreaking tribute to his wife and daughter. “My dear ones, the kingdom of heaven! You are in our hearts,” he wrote on social media.
Zelenskiy spoke angrily about the death of the baby during a press conference on Saturday night in a Kyiv underground metro station.
“Try to grasp it,” he said. “The war started when the child was a month old. These are pure bastards. They are monsters. It’s horrifying. They don’t care.” A future war crimes tribunal would mete out justice against Russia’s leaders, he added.
Zelenskiy announced he would meet the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, in Kyiv on Sunday. The White House declined to comment.
It would be the first high-level US trip to Kyiv since the war began 24 February. The visit by Blinken and Austin will come at a symbolic moment, as the war enters its third month, and with fierce battles continuing in the country’s east.
Zelenskiy aide Igor Zhovkva told NBC News on Sunday that Ukrainian officials intended to tell Blinken and Austin of the immediate need for more weapons, including anti-missile systems, anti-aircraft systems, armoured vehicles and tanks,
The United States and Nato allies have shown growing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and is considering supplying British tanks to Poland to free up Warsaw’s Russian-designed T-72s for Ukraine.
Zelenskiy gave little detail about the logistics but said he expected concrete results – “not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons”.
On Sunday in a video message from Kyiv’s ancient St Sophia Cathedral, Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, highlighted the significance of Easter, the highest point in the Orthodox calendar.
“The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win,” he said.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report