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LVIV/KYIV, Russia launched its long-awaited all-out assault on east Ukraine on Tuesday, unleashing thousands of troops in what Ukraine described as the Battle of the Donbas, a campaign to seize two provinces and salvage a battlefield victory.

Ukrainian officials insisted their troops would withstand the new assault, which they said began overnight with massive Russian artillery and rocket barrages and attempts to advance across almost the entire stretch of the eastern front.

In the first reported success of Russia's new assault, Ukraine said the Russians had seized Kreminna, a frontline town of 18,000 people in Luhansk, one of the two Donbas provinces.

"Kreminna is under the control of the 'Orcs'. They have entered the city," the province's Ukrainian governor, Sergiy Gaidai, told a briefing, invoking the goblin-like creatures who appear in J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy books.

Russian forces are attacking "on all sides", authorities are trying to evacuate civilians and it is impossible to tally the civilian dead, Gaidai said.

Moscow gave few details about its new campaign, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that "another stage of this operation is beginning". Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the aim was to "liberate" Donetsk and Luhansk, provinces which Moscow demands Kyiv cede fully to Russian-backed separatists.

In the ruins of Mariupol, a southeastern port destroyed while withstanding nearly eight weeks of siege, Russia gave the last Ukrainian defenders holed up in a giant steel works an ultimatum to surrender by noon (0900 GMT) or die.

"All who lay down their arms are guaranteed to remain alive," the defence ministry said. The pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya, whose forces have been fighting in Mariupol, predicted troops would capture the plant on Tuesday.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Ukrainians in a video address overnight that they would withstand the new advance.

"No matter how many Russian troops they send there, we will fight. We will defend ourselves," he said.

Driven back by Ukrainian forces in March from an assault on Kyiv in the north, Russia has poured troops into the east to regroup for a ground offensive in the Donbas. It has also been launching long-distance strikes at other targets including the capital.

BLASTS

Ukrainian media reported explosions, some powerful, along the front line in the Donetsk region, with shelling taking place in Marinka, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

Blasts were also heard in Kharkiv in the northeast, Mykolaiv in the south and Zaporizhzhia in the southeast while air raid sirens were also going off in main centres near the front line, officials and media said.

The governor of the Russian province of Belgorod said Ukrainian forces had struck a border village wounding three residents.

Ukraine's top security official, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russian forces attempted to break through Ukrainian defences "along almost the entire front line of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions".

The coal and steel producing Donbas has been the focal point of Russia's campaign to destabilise Ukraine since 2014 when the Kremlin used proxies to set up separatist "people's republics" in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

Moscow now says its aim is to capture the full provinces on behalf of the separatists. Ukraine has a large force defending the northern section of the Donbas, and military experts say Russia probably aims to cut the Ukrainians off or surround them.

For its part, Ukraine has launched counterattacks near Kharkiv in the rear of Russia's advance in recent days, apparently aimed at cutting off supply lines, a repeat of the tactics that defeated Russia's advance on Kyiv last month.

Ukraine's general staff said Russian forces aimed to establish full control over the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson regions, while intensifying missile strikes in west Ukraine.

Zelenskiy's office said at least eight people had been killed and 13 wounding in shelling or fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk frontline towns and villages, listing Kreminna, Popasna, Avdiivka, Maryinka, Toretsk, Vuhledar and Lymanske.

Oleh Sinegubov, governor of Kharkiv province just north of the Donbas, said five people had been killed and 17 wounded in the past 24 hours there, from shelling and grad missiles.

Zelenskiy adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the new Russian offensive was doomed to fail because Moscow simply did not have enough troops to overrun the defences.

BIDEN TO HOLD CALL

Western countries and Ukraine accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of unprovoked aggression. The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden, who has called Russia's actions "genocide", would hold a call with allies on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, including how to hold Russia accountable.

French President Emmanuel Macron said his dialogue with Putin had stalled after mass killings were discovered in Ukraine.

Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to demilitarise Ukraine. It has bombed cities to rubble, and hundreds of civilian bodies have been found in towns where its forces withdrew. It says, without evidence, that those and other signs of atrocities were staged.

Russia has been trying to take full control of the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been besieged since the war's early days, site of the war's heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe.

Tens of thousands of residents have been trapped with no access to food or water and bodies littering the streets. Ukraine believes more than 20,000 civilians have died there. Capturing it would link pro-Russian separatist territory with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.

In Russian-held districts reached by Reuters, shell-shocked residents cooked on open fires outside their damaged homes.

Major Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine's 36th marine brigade which is still fighting in Mariupol, appealed for help in a letter to Pope Francis.

"This is what hell looks like on earth ... It's time (for) help not just by prayers. Save our lives from satanic hands," he said in the letter, according to excerpts that Ukraine's Vatican ambassador posted on Twitter.

Source: Reuters

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