Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is preparing to welcome U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Kiev on Sunday as a delegation from Washington makes a visit to the embattled country.
The announcement came as Russia continued to bombard Ukrainian cities on Saturday.
Amid the onslaught, Zelensky said he planned to discuss with Blinken and Austin the weapons Ukraine needs and how quickly they can be supplied, in comments to the press in a Kiev metro station.
Zelensky added that he hoped that US President Joe Biden would also come to Kiev “as soon as the security situation permits.”
His comments came after a day of attacks by Russian troops who continued to target the Azovstal steelworks in the fiercely contested port city of Mariupol.
Russia appears to be concentrating its attacks on the east and south of Ukraine, with Russia’s top brass apparently determined to create a land bridge between Russia proper and the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Moscow’s forces attacked the southern port city of Odessa, saying they had hit a logistics terminal at a military airfield where Russia said a “large consignment” of weapons from the US and European countries was being stored.
Russian forces had also destroyed weapons, ammunition and fuel depots, among other targets, and killed up to 200 Ukrainian fighters, Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said, according to Interfax news agency.
Many people were killed and injured in the Odessa attack, according to Ukrainian sources. “Eight people died and 18 or 20 were wounded, a 3-month-old baby was killed,” Zelensky said.
There were reports of further deaths in the east of Ukraine throughout the day as Russian forces renewed their artillery and rocket attacks.
Two people were killed and two others injured in the Luhansk village of Zolote, regional governor Serhiy Hayday said on Telegram.
The embattled Luhansk region towns of Popasna, Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk were also heavily shelled by Russian artillery and bombed in air strikes on Saturday, Hayday said.
In the neighbouring Donetsk region, three people were killed and seven injured on Friday, according to the regional administration.
In the Kharkiv region, Governor Oleh Syneyhubov announced that two people had died and a further 19 had been injured in some 56 Russian attacks on the region within the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile eight people were injured by shelling in the southern Ukrainian region of Mykolayiv, the authorities said.
Attacks were also reported in Dnipropetrovsk.
Moscow also continued to target the besieged city of Mariupol and Zelensky repeated his his threat to withdraw from peace talks with Russia to end the war should the Ukrainian troops holding out in Mariupol be massacred by Russian forces.
Mariupol has been completely surrounded by Russian troops since the early days of the Russian invasion.
Kiev estimates that more than 20,000 people have been killed in the battle for the city and satellite images have shown the location of what are thought to be mass graves.
The last defenders of Mariupol and their families remain holed up in the Azovstal steelworks, a labyrinthine complex.
“If our people are annihilated in Mariupol, if a pseudo-referendum on independence takes place in Kherson, then Ukraine will step out of all negotiation processes,” Zelensky said during the press conference.
Zelensky said the Azovstal site was facing massive artillery attacks and air strikes.
“Ukraine is not capable of a military deblockade of Mariupol at the moment. And the Ukrainian soldiers who are there understand that,” he said.
While the U.S. visit remains unconfirmed by Washington, Zelensky said he hoped that the U.S. would support weapons deliveries from Germany so that Berlin starts “supplying what they have and what they are not using right now.”
Visitors are currently very welcome, but not just to take “selfies” Zelensky said.
“You cannot come to us empty-handed today. We don’t expect just gifts or any cupcakes.
“We expect concrete things and concrete weapons,” he added.
Zelensky has repeatedly called for heavy weapons, a point of contention with Germany while many other countries have promised supplies.
There are about 44,000 Ukrainian soldiers in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, according to Zelensky, while the Russian army and pro-Russian separatists are said to have a force of between 60,000 and 80,000 men in the same area.
Analysts believe the Russian military command aims to surround the Ukrainian units in the Donbass.
Amid the fighting, Ukrainian officials extended a curfew for the Orthodox Easter weekend, banning people from going out between the hours of 7 pm (1700 GMT) and 5 am in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhya, Kherson and Kharkiv regions. Shorter curfews apply in other areas.