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Russia steps up operation to encircle last Ukrainian holdout in Donbas

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A file photo shows a local resident pushes a wheelbarrow past a heavily damaged apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Via Reuters)

Russian forces have intensified their military operation in eastern Ukraine to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin cities in the last Ukrainian-held pocket in the Donbas region.

Reports on Tuesday said Russian troops are advancing from three directions to encircle the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets river and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank.

“The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk.

"The intensity of fire on Sievierodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city," he added.

Russia's defense ministry said on Tuesday that its troops struck an arms depot in Donbas that used to store shells for US-made M777 howitzers, a type of artillery weapon.

The artillery systems were hailed by a Ukrainian military spokesman for their effectiveness, saying the arms were making Russian troops "sad".

"On behalf of the Ukrainian artillery men shooting the M777, it is like switching from a steam-operated train to an electric car," Captain Lieutenant Dmytro Pletenchuk, from the Mykolaiv regional military administration, told AFP during a recent interview.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that the coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and they "must be aware of that."

"The most difficult fighting situation today is in Donbas," Zelensky added.

Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

Since the start of the operation, Western countries have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Moscow and sent a huge cache of weapons to Ukraine.

Zelensky, during a virtual speech on the first day of the World Economic Forum gathering in Switzerland on Monday, called for further punitive measures and an international oil embargo on Russia.

The German economy minister, Robert Habeck, announced on Monday night that a Russian oil embargo was "within reach".

He noted that a European agreement on the embargo is possible "within a few days".

"There are only a few states left who have issues, Hungary above all," Robert Habeck told public broadcaster ZDF, noting that discussions were "continuing".

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