Ukraine aims to conduct counter-offensive actions in 2024, top commander says

KYIV: A deadly Russian missile strike Wednesday on the Ukrainian port city of Odesa appeared to land near the motorcade of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the visiting Greek prime minister, who described the “intense” moment of the surprise attack.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Zelensky was giving him a tour of the Odesa port — a vital outlet for Ukrainian exports across the Black Sea — when “we heard sirens.”

“Shortly after, as we were getting into our vehicles, we heard a powerful explosion,” he said.

“We did not have time to get to a shelter. It is a very intense experience,” Mitsotakis said through a translator in Odesa.

Ukraine’s navy told AFP the attack on port infrastructure killed five people and left an unspecified number of wounded.

Ukraine stepped up its own attacks behind Russian lines with the apparent killing of a Russian election official with a car bomb and a drone assault on a metals plant.

Russia and Ukraine have increased aerial attacks as Moscow’s troops advance on the front lines and Kyiv faces a shortage of manpower and weapons.

Ukrainian navy spokesman Dmytro Pletenchuk confirmed the Odesa strike came as the Greek delegation was visiting the port with Zelensky.

According to the White House spokeswoman in Washington, “it appears that (the rocket) landed near the convoy.”

In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed “total condemnation for the attack on Odesa during the meeting.”

But the Russian defense ministry claimed a strike on a “hangar in a commercial port area of Odesa in which crewless cutters were being prepared for combat use by the Ukrainian armed forces.”

The hit came just days after 12 people, including five children, were killed when a Russian drone hit an apartment block in the same Black Sea city, one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in weeks.

With the White House struggling to end Republican stonewalling on new US aid packages to Ukraine, a spokesperson for President Joe Biden’s National Security Council said the Odesa attack showed the “urgent need” for sending weapons.

“This strike is yet another reminder of how Russia is continuing to attack Ukraine recklessly every single day.”

Meanwhile, authorities in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk in southern Ukraine blamed Kyiv for a car bombing that it said killed a local election official.

“A homemade explosive device was planted under the vehicle of a member of the precinct election commission,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

“The victim died from her injuries,” it added, publishing a video of a blown-out small beige car parked on a dirt track.

The attack came with early voting already underway across occupied Ukraine for this month’s Russian presidential election.

The Moscow-installed head of the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, blamed Ukrainian authorities for the attack and said they were trying to “intimidate” residents ahead of the ballot.

A number of Russian-installed officials have been targeted since Moscow launched its full-scale military operation in Ukraine two years ago.

Russia also said Ukraine hit a fuel tank at a metals plant in Russia’s Kursk region in an early morning drone strike.

“A drone attacked a fuel and lubricants warehouse” at the Mikhailovsky Mining and Processing Plant in the city of Zheleznogorsk, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from the border with Ukraine, Kursk governor Roman Starovoyt said.

Videos posted on Russian social media showed thick grey smoke billowing as a fire raged inside a cylindrical fuel storage tank.

Ukrainian forces have launched a wave of drone attacks at Russian energy facilities in recent months, trying to target the country’s vital energy and gas sector that Kyiv says fuels the invasion.

Meanwhile, Russian-installed officials said a Ukrainian artillery strike on Kreminna, a town in Ukraine’s Lugansk region, killed two people.

Five more were killed when a bus drove over a mine in Kirovsk, also in Lugansk, the Moscow-appointed head of the region said.

Lugansk is one of the four Ukrainian regions — along with Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — that Russia claimed to annex in 2022.

The region has been at war since 2014 when Russian-backed separatists tried to secede following a pro-EU revolution in Kyiv.

On the front lines, the Ukrainian army said Wednesday it had built an “extensive system” of fortifications near the town of Adviivka — captured last month by Russia — in a bid to stop further Russian advances.

Hold-ups to Western aid, mainly a crucial $60-billion package from the United States, have left Ukraine’s troops in a vulnerable position, forced to ration ammunition and unable to mount large-scale offensives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also held talks with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, in Sochi to discuss the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

The facility, Europe’s largest nuclear energy site, was seized by Russian troops in the first days of the war.

Speaking to AFP ahead of the meeting, Grossi rejected Russian suggestions that the plant could be put back online.

“First of all, this is an active combat zone, and this cannot be forgotten. Secondly, this plant has been in shutdown for a prolonged period of time,” he told AFP.

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