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EU eyes Russian oil import ban as Azovstal under fresh fire



Publicado: 04/05/2022

Zaporizhzhia (Ukraine) (AFP) -

The European Commission proposed a gradual ban on Russian oil imports to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine Wednesday, as officials in the destroyed city of Mariupol reported heavy fighting at the Azovstal steel plant.

The EU also pledged to 'significantly increase' its support for Ukraine's neighbour Moldova, which has seen a series of attacks in a Moscow-backed separatist region, sparking fears it could be drawn into the conflict.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would 'phase out Russian supply of crude oil within six months, and refined products by the end of the year'.

If approved, the oil ban would be the EU's toughest move yet against Russia's strategic energy sector that helps the Kremlin finance its war. But will still not touch its huge gas exports.

Within hours, however, Hungary said it could not support the plan 'in this form', as it would 'completely destroy' the security of its energy supply.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said EU countries blocking an oil embargo would be 'complicit' in Russia's crimes in Ukraine.

- Fighting in Azovstal -

The EU is also mulling moves against Russia's biggest bank, Sberbank, and against Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ukraine's allies have sent money and, increasingly, heavy weapons to Kyiv to help it defend itself in a war US President Joe Biden has framed as a historic battle for democracy.

Biden said Wednesday he was 'open' to imposing more sanctions on Russia and would be discussing measures with allies from the G7 in the coming days.

Russian forces are currently focused on the east and south of Ukraine, in what Kyiv says is an attempt to consolidate a land bridge between separatist pro-Russian areas in the east and annexed Crimea.

The strategic southern port of Mariupol has been under siege since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and is now largely controlled by Moscow's forces. The last Ukrainian soldiers are holding out at the Azovstal steelworks.

Mariupol's mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said there was 'heavy fighting' at the plant Wednesday and that city officials had 'lost contact' with Ukrainian forces inside.

Russia was attacking with heavy artillery, tanks, and war planes, and war ships off the coast were also involved, he told Ukrainian television.

'There are local residents there, civilians -- hundreds of them there,' he added. 'There are children waiting for rescue. There are more than 30 kids.'

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday denied Russian forces were storming the plant.

There were instances of 'exacerbation' at the site when Ukrainian 'militants take up firing positions', he said, insisting that these were 'suppressed very quickly'.

- Civilians rescued -

Before the fighting resumed, the United Nations and Red Cross had confirmed Tuesday that more than 100 civilians had been evacuated from the plant, another 58 joining the convoy from the city of Mangush, outside Mariupol.

Azovstal evacuees who emerged from a caravan of white buses in Ukraine-held Zaporizhzhia were met at a makeshift reception centre by crying loved ones and dozens of journalists.

'We are so thankful for everyone who helped us,' evacuee Anna Zaitseva said, holding her six-month-old baby in her arms. 'There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us.'

Apart from the steelworks, Mariupol was now largely calm, AFP journalists note during a recent press tour organised by Russian forces. Remaining locals were emerging from hiding to a ruined city.

Ukraine's military intelligence accused Russia of planning to hold a parade in Mariupol on May 9 to celebrate victory over the Nazis in World War II.

'A large-scale propaganda campaign is under way. Russians will be shown stories about the 'joy' of locals on meeting the occupiers,' it said.

In a briefing on the army's plan for May 9, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made no mention of a celebratory march in Mariupol.

In the eastern Lugansk region meanwhile, governor Sergiy Gaiday said two people had died in the last 24 hours, adding 'the whole region is under fire completely, there is no safe place'.

- Attacks in the west -

Russian attacks periodically stray close to Ukraine's western border with the EU.

Both sides on Wednesday reported Russian strikes on infrastructure sites around the western city of Lviv, near Poland, and Transcarpathia, a region bordering Hungary.

Russia's defence ministry said Wednesday that its air- and sea-based weapons had destroyed six electrical substations near railways including around Lviv, near Odessa to the south, and near Dnipropetrovsk to the south-east.

It said Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region had used the railway stations to transport weapons and ammunition from the EU and United States.

In Ukraine's western neighbour Moldova, there are fears the conflict will spill over the border.

Visiting the tiny ex-Soviet republic Wednesday, European Council President Charles Michel offered the EU's 'full solidarity' and support including in the areas of logistics and cyber defence.

'This year we plan to significantly increase our support to Moldova by providing its armed forces with additional military equipment,' he told a press conference with President Maia Sandu.

Ukraine has accused Russia of wanting to destabilise Moldova's separatist region of Transnistria to create a pretext for a military intervention.

- Japan-Russia tensions -

The war in Ukraine has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 13 million, creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

The US and Europe have led the sanctions against Russia, but Japan has also joined -- prompting Moscow Wednesday to announce it had banned entry to several dozen Japanese officials.

The foreign ministry accused the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida -- among those banned -- of an 'unprecedented anti-Russian campaign'.

But Kishida, speaking to journalists during a visit to Rome and the Vatican City, said Moscow was to blame for deteriorating ties between the two countries.

Russia's 'killing of innocent civilians is a significant violation of international humanitarian law,' he said. 'We cannot forgive this.'

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