Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) -
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy visited Kyiv on Thursday in a show of European support for Ukraine, as Russia presses its brutal offensive in the east of the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrived in the Ukrainian capital by train from Poland, according to an AFP reporter travelling with them.
Asked by a journalist why he had come to Ukraine, Macron said: 'For a message of European unity.'
Scholz told German daily Bild that they 'want to show not only solidarity, but also assure that the help that we're organising -- financial, humanitarian, but also, when it comes to weapons -- will continue'.
'And that we will continue it as long as it is necessary for Ukraine's fight' against Moscow, he said.
It is the first time that the leaders of the three European Union countries have visited Kyiv since Russia's February 24 invasion.
They are due to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, at a time when Kyiv is pushing to be given official candidate status to join the EU.
France -- which holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of this month -- Germany and Italy view Ukraine's aspirations to join the bloc favourably.
But officials and leaders in the bloc caution that, even with candidacy status, membership could take years or even decades.
Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve Ukraine's candidate status, though with strict conditions attached.
Other leading figures to have visited Ukraine since the start of the war include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN chief Antonio Guterres.
- 'Stand by Ukraine' -
Ukraine is also expected to reiterate its pleas for allies to send more weapons, with officials saying only a fraction of what they have asked for has so far been delivered.
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden announced $1 billion worth of new arms for Ukrainian forces.
The new package features howitzers, ammunition, anti-ship missile systems, and additional rockets for new artillery systems that Ukraine will soon put in the field.
Biden said that he told Zelensky in a phone call Wednesday that 'the United States will stand by Ukraine as it defends its democracy and support its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression.'
'The bravery, resilience, and determination of the Ukrainian people continues to inspire the world.'
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is focused on the industrial city of Severodonetsk, and the Russians appear close to consolidating control after weeks of intense battles.
Sergiy Gaiday -- the governor of the Lugansk region, which includes the city -- said Thursday around 10,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, out of a pre-war population of some 100,000.
Kyiv's army is 'holding back the enemy as much as possible,' he said on Telegram. 'For almost four months they have dreamt of controlling Severodonetsk... and they do not count the victims.'
Moscow's forces have destroyed the three bridges spanning a river between the city and Lysychansk.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a Severodonetsk chemical plant, which is under constant bombardment, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Russia said Ukrainian authorities had on Wednesday prevented an attempt at evacuating them.
From an elevated position in Lysychansk, an AFP team saw black smoke rising from the chemical factory in Severodonetsk and another area in the city.
The Ukrainian military was using the high ground to exchange fire with Russian forces across the river.
'It's scary, very scary,' 83-year-old Lysychansk pensioner Valentina said. 'Why can't they agree at last, for God's sake, just shake hands?'
Elsewhere, Russia launched a missile strike in Ukraine's northeast Sumy region, killing four people and injuring six others, governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky said on Telegram.
- Seeking more arms -
In Brussels Wednesday, Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov and other officials met with some 50 countries of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at NATO headquarters asking for a surge in weapons and ammunition.
'Ukraine is really in a very critical situation and therefore, it's an urgent need to step up,' NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told journalists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile underscored that he was not as isolated internationally as his foes would wish with a call with China's leader Xi Jinping, their second reported call since Russia attacked Ukraine.
China has refused to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of providing diplomatic cover for Russia by criticising Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv.
The United Nations warned a hunger crisis that has been worsened by the war in Ukraine, traditionally a breadbasket to the world, could swell already record global displacement numbers.
Addressing the food insecurity crisis is 'of paramount importance... to prevent a larger number of people moving,' the United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi told reporters.