Ukraine has tightened security for the Orthodox Easter weekend and urged people to limit their attendance of events that could be a target for attack, as senior European officials urged China to do more to help bring an end to Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak spoke to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday about how to accelerate military support to the embattled state, as London said Kyiv’s forces faced “re-energised” Russian attacks on the ruined city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, and at least five people were killed and 15 hurt when rockets hit the nearby city of Slovyansk.
Ukrainian officials said thousands of police officers and volunteers would be on patrol to boost security over the Orthodox Easter weekend and warned that Russian forces and pro-Kremlin provocateurs could target churches and large public events.
Ukraine’s SBU security service said Russia must be denied “even the slightest opportunity to use the religious issue to achieve its goals” and urged people to limit attendance at mass gatherings, avoid possible “provocations”, observe curfew rules and air-raid alerts, leave church promptly after the traditional blessing of Easter baskets and report any suspicious people, objects and activity.
At least five people were killed and 15 hurt when Russian missiles hit residential buildings in the Kyiv-held city of Slovyansk, in the partly occupied Donetsk region. Rescue work began to find seven people, including a child, who were feared to be buried in the rubble.
Fierce fighting continued 60km to the southeast in Bakhmut, a road and rail hub that has been devastated by months of intense fighting.
“Russia has re-energised its assault on ... Bakhmut as forces of the Russian defence ministry and Wagner [mercenary] group have improved co-operation,” Britain’s ministry of defence wrote in its daily intelligence briefing.
“The Ukrainian defence still holds the western districts of the town but has been subjected to particularly intense Russian artillery fire over the previous 48 hours ... Ukrainian forces face significant resupply issues but have made orderly withdrawals from the positions they have been forced to concede.”
Mr Zelenskiy and colleagues are pressing allies to step up supplies of arms and ammunition to Ukraine ahead of a planned spring offensive, which some reports suggest could be delayed due to the failure of Western states to supply promised weapons promptly.
“The leaders discussed the latest situation on the battlefield and the prime minister paid tribute to the efforts of the Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut,” Mr Sunak’s office said of his phone conversation with Mr Zelenskiy.
“The leaders also discussed efforts to accelerate military support to Ukraine, and the prime minister said the UK and its allies needed to continue to ensure Ukraine was in the strongest possible position to build on its recent battlefield successes.”
Amid reports that leaked US documents suggest China approved plans to supply arms secretly to Russia – which Beijing denies – German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged the Asian superpower to put more pressure to Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine.
On a visit to Beijing, Ms Baerbock said “no other country has a bigger influence on Russia than China” and questioned “why China so far has not asked the aggressor Russia to stop the war”.
Separately, Mr Borrell said: “It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the European Union to maintain a relationship of trust with China ... if China does not contribute to the search for a political solution based on Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory. Neutrality in the face of the violation of international law is not credible.”