KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine, Feb 24 (Reuters) – Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Thursday in a massed assault by land, sea and air, the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two.
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Ukrainian troops fought Russian forces along practically the entire border, and fierce fighting was taking place in the regions of Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, Odessa and at a military airport near Kyiv, an adviser to the presidential office said.
Explosions were heard before dawn and throughout the morning in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.
The assault brought a calamitous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war, their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions realised.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
Calling on Ukrainians to defend their country, he said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight. He also urged Russians to take to the streets to protest against their government’s actions.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the Russian action an “unprovoked and unjustified attack”. EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would impose a new round of sanctions that would hit Russia’s economy severely.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
A resident of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city and close to the Russian border, said windows in apartment blocks were shaking from constant blasts.
Blasts could be heard in the southern port of Mariupol, near a frontline held by Russian-backed separatists. On a highway leading out, a Ukrainian armoured column thundered along the road, with soldiers atop turrets smiling and flashing victory signs to cars which honked their horns in support.
Civilians in Mariupol packed bags: “We are going into hiding,” a woman said.
Ukrainian officials said Russian helicopters attacked Gostomel, a military airport near Kyiv, and Ukraine downed three of them. Ukrainian border officials said the Russians were trying to penetrate Kyiv region and the Zhytomyr region on the Belarusian border, and they were using Grad rockets.