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US to send advanced rocket systems to Ukraine

A woman collects belongings in the rubble of their house after a strike destroyed three houses in the city of Slovyansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. - AFP
A woman collects belongings in the rubble of their house after a strike destroyed three houses in the city of Slovyansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. - AFP

SOLEDAR: Ukraine looked close to losing the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to Russian forces but was boosted on Wednesday by the US decision to send more advanced rocket systems to help with its defence.

"The Russians control 70 per cent of Severodonetsk," Lugansk region governor Sergiy Gaiday announced on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were withdrawing to prepared positions.

"If in two or three days, the Russians take control of Severodonetsk, they will install artillery and mortars and will bombard more intensely Lysychansk," the city across the river, which Gaiday said remained under Kyiv's control.

One of the industrial hubs on Russia's path to taking the eastern Lugansk region, Severodonetsk has become a target of massive Russian firepower since the failed attempt to capture Kyiv.

But in a boost for the outgunned Ukrainian military, President Joe Biden confirmed that more US weaponry was on the way to allow them to "more precisely strike key targets" in Ukraine.

The new weapon is the Himars multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS: a mobile unit that can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles.

They are the centrepiece of a $700-million package being unveiled that also includes air-surveillance radar, more Javelin short-range anti-tank rockets, artillery ammunition, helicopters, vehicles and spare parts, a US official said.

With a range of about 50 miles, they will allow Ukrainian forces to strike further behind Russian lines.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of "adding fuel to the fire", saying "such supplies" did not encourage Kyiv to resume peace talks.

In an article in the New York Times, Biden insisted: "We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders."

He wrote: "We do not seek a war between Nato and Russia.

"As much as I disagree with Mr (President Vladimir) Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow."

While some analysts have suggested the Himars could be a "game-changer", others caution they should not be expected to suddenly turn the tables, not least because Ukrainian troops need time to learn how to use them effectively.

What they may do is improve morale.

"If you know you have a heavy weapon behind you, everyone's spirits rise," one Ukrainian fighter on the frontline said before the announcement.

On the eastern frontline in Donbas, Ukrainian towns are being subjected to near-constant shelling from Russian forces.

Moscow said on Wednesday it had no information on the death of a French journalist killed this week while covering the evacuation of civilians in the east of the country.

West of Severodonetsk, in the city of Sloviansk, journalists saw buildings destroyed by a rocket attack in which three people died and six others were hurt.

And on Wednesday, at least one person died and two others were injured in Soledar, between Sloviansk and Severodonetsk.

The European Union has also sent weapons and cash for Ukraine, while levelling unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow.

Germany said on Wednesday it would deliver an air defence system capable of shielding a major city from Russian air raids, although it will take months to get to the frontline.

EU leaders agreed this week to ban most Russian oil imports but played down the prospects of shutting off Russian gas on which many member states are hugely dependent. Moscow said a "reorientation" was under way to find alternative destinations for the oil, to "minimise the negative consequences" of the move. - AFP

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