Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine at dawn on Thursday, with airstrikes across the country, including the capital Kiev, and the entry of ground forces from the north, east and south of the country, according to the Ukrainian border guards who record the first losses.
The offensive sparked an international outcry to which Moscow remains deaf.
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Two days after recognizing the independence of Ukrainian separatist territories in Donbass, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he wanted to “defend” them against Ukrainian aggression, gave the signal for hostilities.
“I have taken the decision for a special military operation,” Putin announced in a surprise statement on television before 6 a.m. (0300 GMT). “We will strive to achieve demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” said the master of the Kremlin, seated at a dark wooden desk.
“We do not have in our plans an occupation of Ukrainian territories, we do not intend to impose anything by force on anyone”, he assured, calling on the Ukrainian soldiers “to lay down their arms”
He repeated his unfounded accusations of a “genocide” orchestrated by Ukraine in the pro-Russian secessionist territories in the east of the country, argued the call for help from the separatists announced overnight and the aggressive policy of NATO with regard to Russia and of which Ukraine would be the tool.
Shortly after, a series of explosions were heard in Kiev, Kramatorsk, a city in the east which serves as the headquarters of the Ukrainian army, in Kharkiv (east), the second city of the country, and in Odessa (south), on the Black Sea. Air-raid sirens sounded every 15 minutes in Lviv, the western city where the United States and several other countries have moved their embassies, and in Odessa.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “gave the order that maximum casualties be inflicted on the aggressor”, indicated the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Valery Zalujni, assuring that the army “contrasts with dignity” enemy attacks.
Ukrainian border guards said that ground forces entered Ukrainian territory from Russia and Belarus, reporting three deaths in their ranks.
In the Kiev metro, dozens of residents were trying to take shelter or leave the city, by train or by road.
“I was woken up by the sound of bombs, I packed bags and I fled,” Maria Kachkoska, 29, told AFP, squatting in shock in the metro.
While it was still dark, the traffic was that of rush hour. Cars full of families were racing out of town, west or into the countryside, as far as the Russian border, 400 km away.
In Shugouyev, near Kharkiv, a woman and her son were mourning a man killed by a missile, one of the first victims of this attack. “I told him to leave,” the son repeated tirelessly, next to the remains of an old Lada car and the crater left by the projectile that fell between two five-storey buildings.
The Russian army, however, assured to target Ukrainian military sites with “high precision weapons”. It claimed to have destroyed airbases and Ukrainian air defence, while Kyiv claimed to have shot down five Russian planes and a helicopter.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, claimed his country was targeting “the ruling junta in Kiev”.
In a video posted on Facebook, the Ukrainian president declared martial law across the country. “Don’t panic”, “we will win”, he said.
Ukraine has announced the closure of its airspace for civil aviation. Flights have been canceled from airports in major cities in southern Russia near Ukraine, and Russia has closed the Sea of Azov, which borders Ukraine and Russia, to shipping.
The Russian attack, after months of tension and diplomatic efforts to avert a war, sparked a torrent of international condemnation.
“President Putin, in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia!”, Launched the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, visibly tried, during an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
US President Joe Biden has denounced an “unjustified attack” which will cause “suffering and loss of human life”. “The world will hold Russia to account,” he promised. He also spoke early Thursday with the Ukrainian president, pledging his support.
French President Emmanuel Macron, current President of the Council of the European Union, called on Europeans to “unity” and convened a security council at the Élysée.
“Russian leaders will face unprecedented isolation,” warned Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief.
The Twenty-Seven, who meet at an exceptional summit on Thursday evening in Brussels, are preparing a new set of sanctions which is the “most severe ever implemented”, he added.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg condemned a “reckless and unprovoked attack” by Russia.
An emergency meeting of Atlantic Alliance ambassadors has been decided.
China, with close relations with Moscow, said it was following the situation “closely” and called for “restraint by all parties”.
Many fear that the crisis in Ukraine could lead to the most serious conflict in Europe since 1945. A Russian intervention could result in “up to five million additional people displaced”, warned the American ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas -Greenfield.
Washington and its Western allies had taken the first sanctions on Tuesday in response to the recognition of the Donbass separatists supported by Moscow, which Kiev has been fighting for eight years, a conflict which has already killed more than 14,000 people to date.
Global markets immediately took the hit. Shortly after Putin’s speech, oil rose above $100 a barrel for the first time in more than seven years, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange fell more than 3%.
After a hiatus, the Moscow stock exchange reopened falling nearly 14%.
The United States was due to table a draft resolution on the table of the UN Security Council on Thursday condemning Russia for its “war” in Ukraine