Zelenskyy: Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has begun

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LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia launched its long-feared, full-scale ground offensive to take control of Ukraine's east on Monday, attacking along a broad front over 300 miles (480 kilometers) long, Ukrainian officials said in what marked the opening of a new and potentially climactic phase of the war.

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LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia launched its long-feared, full-scale ground offensive to take control of Ukraine’s east on Monday, attacking along a broad front over 300 miles (480 kilometers) long, Ukrainian officials said in what marked the opening of a new and potentially climactic phase of the war.

“The Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a video address. He said a “significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated on this offensive.”

The Donbas is Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for the past eight years and have declared two independent republics that have been recognized by Russia.

Firefighters work to extinguish fire at an apartments building after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

In recent weeks, the Kremlin declared the capture of the Donbas its main goal of the war after its attempt to storm Kyiv failed. After withdrawing from the capital, Russia began regrouping and reinforcing its ground troops in the east for an all-out offensive.

“No matter how many Russian troops are driven there, we will fight,” Zelenskyy vowed. “We will defend ourselves. We will do it every day.”

The offensive got underway after Russia bombarded the western city of Lviv and a multitude of other targets across Ukraine in what appeared to be an intensified bid to grind down the country’s defenses.

The Ukraine military’s general staff said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces were increasing assaults in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions — both of which are part of the Donbas — as well as in the area of Zaporizhzhia.

“This morning, almost along the whole front line of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the occupiers attempted to break through our defenses,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, was quoted as telling Ukrainian media. “Fortunately, our military is holding out. They passed through only two cities. This is Kreminna and another small town.”

A woman makes the sign of cross as she participates in an Orthodox service celebrating Palm Sunday, in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

He added: “We are not giving up any of our territories.”

A Ukrainian military official said street battles had begun in Kreminna and that evacuation was impossible.

Luhansk regional military administrator Serhiy Haidai said heavy artillery fire set seven residential buildings on fire and targeted the sports complex where the nation’s Olympic team trains.

Haidai later told Ukrainian television that Russians took control of the city after “leveling everything to the ground,” so his forces retreated to regroup and keep on fighting.

Meanwhile, in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard that was holding out against Russian forces, said in a video message that Russia had begun dropping bunker-buster bombs on the Azovstal steel plant where the regiment was holed up.

Ukrainian servicemen run for cover as explosions are heard during a Russian attack in downtown Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The sprawling plant contains a warren of tunnels where both fighters and civilians are sheltering. It is believed to be the last major pocket of resistance in the shattered city.

At least seven people were reported killed in missile strikes on Lviv, a city close to the Polish border that has seen only sporadic attacks during almost two months of war and has become a haven for civilians fleeing the fighting elsewhere. To the Kremlin’s increasing anger, Lviv has also become a major gateway for NATO-supplied weapons.

The attack on Lviv hit three military infrastructure facilities and an auto shop, according to the region’s governor, Maksym Kozytskyy. He said the wounded included a child.

A Lviv hotel sheltering Ukrainians who had fled the fighting in other parts of the country was also badly damaged, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said. The city has seen its population swell with elderly people, mothers and children trying to escape the war.

“The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, who fled with two children from the eastern city of Kharkiv. “There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”

The body of a woman killed a Russian bombardment lies on a sidewalk in downtown Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Lviv, the biggest city and a major transportation hub in western Ukraine, is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Poland, a NATO member.

Russia has strongly complained about the increasing flow of Western weapons to Ukraine and warned that such aid could have consequences. On Russian state media, some anchors have charged that the supplies amount to direct Western engagement in the fight against Russia.

A powerful explosion also rocked Vasylkiv, a town south of the capital of Kyiv that is home to an air base, according to residents. It was not immediately clear what was struck.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was hit by shelling that killed at least three people, according to Associated Press journalists on the scene. One of the dead was a woman who appeared to be going out to collect water in the rain. She was found with a water canister and an umbrella by her side.

Military analysts say Russia was increasing its strikes on weapons factories, railroads and other infrastructure ahead of its assault on the Donbas.

Passengers rest in the train minutes before arriving in Lviv from Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Moscow said its missiles struck more than 20 military targets in eastern and central Ukraine in the past day, including ammunition depots, command headquarters and groups of troops and vehicles.

It also reported that its artillery hit an additional 315 Ukrainian targets and that warplanes conducted 108 strikes on troops and military equipment. The claims could not be independently verified.

Gen. Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, told Sky News that Russia was waging a “softening-up” campaign ahead of the Donbas offensive.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said there are now 76 Russian combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in eastern and southern Ukraine, up from 65 last week.

That could translate to around 50,000 to 60,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers, but the numbers are difficult to pinpoint at this stage in the fighting.

A man carries bicycle along a street filled with destroyed Russian military vehicles near Chernihiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. Witnesses said multiple explosions believed to be caused by missiles struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv early Monday as the country was bracing for an all-out Russian assault in the east. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The official also said that four U.S. cargo flights arrived in Europe on Sunday with an initial delivery of weapons and other materials for Ukraine as part of a $800 million package announced by Washington last week. And training of Ukrainian personnel on U.S. 155 mm howitzers is set to begin in the next several days.

The capture of Mariupol, where Ukraine estimates 21,000 people have been killed, is seen as key, and not just because it would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, seized from Ukraine from 2014.

The U.S. defense official said that if Russian forces succeed in taking full control of Mariupol, that could free up nearly a dozen battalion tactical groups for use elsewhere in the Donbas.

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Associated Press journalists Nico Maounis and Philip Crowther in Lviv, Ukraine, Adam Schreck in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff members around the world.

A train travelling from Dnipro passes by the area where emergency workers clear up debris after an airstrike hit a tire shop in the western city of Lviv, Ukraine, Monday April 18, 2022. Russian missiles hit the city of Lviv in western Ukraine on Monday, killing at least six people, Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow’s troops stepped up strikes on infrastructure in preparation for an all-out assault on the east. (AP Photo/Philip Crowther)

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Emergency workers clear up debris after an airstrike hit a tire shop in the western city of Lviv, Ukraine, Monday April 18, 2022. Russian missiles hit the city of Lviv in western Ukraine on Monday, killing at least six people, Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow’s troops stepped up strikes on infrastructure in preparation for an all-out assault on the east. (AP Photo/Philip Crowther)
Men stands next to a crater of an explosion after night shelling in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
A part of a missile with a sign in Russian reading "Filter FT-1 Pressurization" lies on the ground after night shelling in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
A woman cries next to the body of her father lying on the ground after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Ukrainians wait for a food distribution organised by the Red Cross in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Valentyna Nechyporenko, 77, mourns at the grave of her 47-year-old son Ruslan, during his funeral at the cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Monday, April 18, 2022. Ruslan was killed by Russian army on March 17 while delivering humanitarian aid to his neighbours in the streets of Bucha. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
An interior ministry sapper collects unexploded shells, grenades and other devices in Hostomel, close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Valentyna Volynets, 59, drinks tea made by her neighbour on a makeshift fire in a public garden near their building in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Monday, April 18, 2022. Citizens of Bucha are still without electricity, water and gas after more than 43 days since the Russian invasion began. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A man suspected to be a Russian collaborator is detained during an operation by Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Damaged and burned vehicles are seen at a destroyed part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, as smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal during heavy fighting, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov, has been besieged by Russian troops and forces from self-proclaimed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine for more than six weeks. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
Elderly people are evacuated from a hospice in Chasiv Yar city, Donetsk district, Ukraine, Monday, April 18, 2022. At least 35 men and women, some in wheelchairs and most of them with mobility issues, were helped by volunteers to flee from the region that has been under attack in the last weeks. They are being transported to Khmelnytskyi, in western Ukraine. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Volunteers carry the body of a civilian killed by the Russian Army in Bucha, to be taken to a morgue for investigation on Monday, April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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