Ukraine is preparing for “big battles” against Moscow’s forces in the east of the country, officials in Kyiv said, as Pope Francis on Sunday called for an Easter truce to end the war.
Evacuations resumed on Saturday from Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, where a missile strike killed 52 people at a railway station a day earlier, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv.
Hailing the country’s response to the Russian invasion, Johnson offered Ukraine armored vehicles and anti-ship missiles, crucial to halting the Russian naval siege of Black Sea ports, to help ensure that the country will “never be invaded again”.
His offer came after President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv was readying for a Russian onslaught.
“Sadly, in parallel we see the preparations for important battles, some people say decisive ones, in the east,” he said Saturday at a press conference with visiting Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.
“We are ready to fight and to look in parallel to end this war through diplomacy.”
Pope Francis meanwhile called for an Easter ceasefire in Ukraine to pave the way for peace through “real negotiation”.
“Let the Easter truce begin. But not to provide more weapons and pick up the combat again — no! — a truce that will lead to peace, through real negotiation,” he told a public mass at Saint Peter’s Square.
The pontiff denounced a war where “defenseless civilians” suffered “heinous massacres and atrocious cruelty”.
“What victory is there in planting a flag on a pile of rubble?” he asked.
Zelensky’s adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said Ukraine must beat back Russia in the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow controls two separatist territories, before a meeting can take place between the Ukrainian leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Ukraine is ready for big battles. Ukraine must win them, including in the Donbas. And once that happens, Ukraine will have a more powerful negotiating position,” he said on national television, as quoted by the Interfax news agency.
“After that the presidents will meet. It could take two weeks, three.”
A video released by Zelensky’s office showed him and the British prime minister walking through largely empty city streets to Kyiv’s historic Maidan Square, as snipers kept watch.
Johnson said the discovery of scores of civilian corpses in Ukrainian towns had “permanently polluted” Putin’s reputation.
At least two bodies were discovered inside a manhole at a petrol station on a motorway outside Kyiv on Sunday, an AFP reporter saw.
The bodies appeared to be wearing a mix of civilian and military clothing. A distraught woman appeared at the manhole and peered inside, before breaking down and clawing the earth.
She wailed “my son, my son”.
Six weeks into Russia’s invasion, Moscow has shifted its focus to eastern and southern Ukraine after stiff resistance thwarted plans to swiftly capture Kyiv.
With thousands killed in the fighting and more than 11 million fleeing their homes or the country, the Ukrainian president called on the West to follow Britain’s example on military aid.
“We need even more sanctions” against Russia, Zelensky said in a video address Saturday.
“We need more weapons for our state.”