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Battle for Donbas has begun, Zelensky says , as Russia launches fresh offensive in western Ukraine

Russia has launched its anticipated new offensive in the east of the country, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday, as an attack on the western city of Lviv claimed up to seven lives.

“The Russian troops have begun the battle for the Donbas, for which they have been preparing for a long time. A significant part of the entire Russian army is now concentrated on this offensive,” Mr Zelensky said in a video address.

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

His comments came as Ukraine also prepared itself for an all-out offensive in the eastern Donbas region after driving back the Russian attack in the north.

Military analysts say Russia is increasing its strikes on weapons factories, railways and other infrastructure targets across Ukraine to wear down the country’s ability to resist such an assault.

On Monday, Ukraine claimed seven people had been been killed and 12 wounded in missile strikes in the western Ukraine city of Lviv, local officials have said.

Multiple explosions were reported on Monday as Ukraine braced for an all-out Russian attack on the other side of the country.

Lviv has been considered a relatively safe haven during the invasion, as the city – along with the rest of western Ukraine – has been less affected by fighting than the rest of the country.

However, to the Kremlin’s increasing anger, Lviv has also become a major conduit for Nato-supplied weapons and for foreign fighters joining the Ukrainian cause. It is just some 50 miles (80km) from Poland, a Nato member.

Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, said seven people had been killed and 12 injured in a number of missile strikes overnight.

A hotel sheltering Ukrainians who had fled fighting further east was among the buildings badly damaged in the attack, the mayor said.

Maksym Kozystkiy, the regional governor, said three missiles had hit military facilities and another a tyre shop. A child was among those injured in the strikes, he said.

Plumes of thick, black smoke were rising over the city after the explosions.

Smoke is seen on the horizon after Russian missiles struck Lviv

(Getty)

“The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv,” Lyudmila Turchak, a 47-year-old mother of two who had fled with her children from the eastern city of Kharkiv said.

“There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”

The attacks come nearly two month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has devastated cities, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced millions more.

On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said it had destroyed 16 military facilities overnight.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal vowed to “fight absolutely to the end” in strategically vital Mariupol, where the last known pocket of resistance in the seven-week siege consisted of Ukrainian fighters holed up in a sprawling steel plant.

The holdouts ignored a surrender-or-die ultimatum from the Russians on Sunday.

Iryna Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister, said Ukraine had been negotiating passage from cities and towns in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, including Mariupol and other areas in the Donbas. The government of the Luhansk region in the Donbas said four civilians trying to flee were shot and killed by Russian forces.

Ms Vereshchuk said Russia could be prosecuted for war crimes over its refusal to allow civilians to leave Mariupol.

“Your refusal to open these humanitarian corridors will in the future be a reason to prosecute all involved for war crimes,” she wrote on social media. The Russians, in turn, accused “neo-Nazi nationalists” in Mariupol of hampering the evacuation.

Also, Ukrainian officials said it had found 269 dead bodies in Irpin, near Kyiv, since the town was taken back from Russian forces in late March, as workers dug fresh graves on its outskirts.

At a cemetery new graves had been dug and heaped with wreaths. “As of now, we have inspected 269 dead bodies,” said Serhiy Panteleyev, first deputy head of the police’s main investigation department,

The looming offensive in the east, if successful, would give Russian president Vladimir Putin a badly needed victory to point to amid the war’s mounting casualties and the economic hardship caused by western sanctions.

“We are doing everything to ensure the defence” of eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation on Sunday.

The capture of Mariupol is seen as a key step in preparations for any eastern assault since it would free Russian troops up for that new campaign.

Two British fighters captured in Mariupol by appeared on Russian state TV on Monday and asked to be exchanged for an ally of Vladimir Putin known as the “Prince of Darkness”.

Smoke rises above the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant damaged in the southern port city of Mariupol

(Reuters)

Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin both spoke separately after being prompted by an unidentified man in footage broadcast on the Rossiya 24 state TV channel. It was unclear how freely the two men were able to talk.

Mr Pinner, 48, a former Royal Anglian soldier, was captured in Mariupol while fighting with the Ukrainian marines, and Mr Aslin, 28, originally from Nottinghamshire, had been defending the besieged city before having to surrender after running out of food and ammunition.

The two men asked UK prime minister Boris Johnson to help bring them home in exchange for Ukraine releasing pro-Russian politician and oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a close friend of Mr Putin and the godfather to his youngest daughter Daryna.

Additional reporting by agencies

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