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Russia launches conscription drive; Moscow accuses Kyiv of air strike on Russia in new snag for talks; Ukraine swaps 86 servicemen with Russia: Kyiv

By AFP
April 02, 2022

Kyiv, Ukraine: Ukraine on Friday exchanged 86 servicemen with Russia, senior Kyiv officials said.

"The exchange has just taken place, 86 of Ukraine’s servicemen, including 15 women, are already safe," Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian president’s deputy chief of staff said in a video message on Telegram.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the servicemen are "already being taken home." "I would like to address all our (people) who are still being held prisoner: We will fight for each of you! And will bring you home. Stay strong."

Meanwhile, Russia on Friday launched its spring draft of young men eligible for national service, vowing conscripts will not be sent to fight in Ukraine, where over 1,000 troops have been killed.

The Russian military holds two annual draft sessions, in spring and autumn, when it recruits eligible men aged 18 to 27 to serve for a year. This time, President Vladimir Putin has set a recruitment goal of 134,500 men, according to a Kremlin decree. Military service is nominally mandatory for men but many Russians avoid the draft by entering higher education or evading the summons.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said this week that conscripts will not be sent to any hot spots and those currently ending their military service would all be sent home. Putin stated on March 8 that he would not send conscripts or reservists to fight in Ukraine.

But a Russian army spokesman said a day later that conscripts were mistakenly sent to Ukraine as part of some units. While most have been returned to Russia, some have been taken prisoner, he said.

An unnamed US official said this week that declassified intelligence showed Putin had not known that conscripts were serving in Ukraine. Russian independent media and voluntary groups have reported that some conscripts have been sent to the front after signing a contract to join the professional army under pressure.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Friday that conscripts would not be sent to Ukraine. "This cannot have anything to do with the military special operation in Ukraine. Conscripts are not being sent there".

Russia’s military announced last week that 1,351 soldiers had been killed in Ukraine and 3,825 wounded.Meantime, Moscow on Friday accused Kyiv of carrying out its first air strike on Russian soil, further dashing hopes of any deescalation in President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials resumed via video, but Moscow warned that the helicopter attack on a fuel depot in the town of Belgorod would hamper negotiations. After over a month of a military campaign that has reduced parts of Ukraine to rubble, Moscow said in peace talks earlier this week it would scale back attacks on the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv.

But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was consolidating and preparing "powerful strikes" in the country’s east and south, joining a chorus of Western assessments that Moscow troops were regrouping.

"This is part of their tactics," said Zelensky in a late-night address. "We know that they are moving away from the areas where we are beating them to focus on others that are very important... where it can be difficult for us," he said.

In particular, he warned, the situation in the country’s south and east was "very difficult". "In Donbas and Mariupol, in the Kharkiv direction, the Russian army is accumulating the potential for attacks, powerful attacks," he said.

Washington echoed that assessment, with a senior US defence official saying Russia’s focus on Donbas could herald a "longer, more prolonged conflict". Fears grew that the theatre of war may yet grow, as Russia for the first time on Friday accused Ukraine of an air strike with helicopters hitting Rosneft’s fuel storage facility in the western town of Belgorod, around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the border with Ukraine. "There was a fire at the petrol depot because of an air strike carried out by two Ukrainian army helicopters, which entered Russian territory at a low altitude," Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on messaging app Telegram.

The consequence of the accusation was swiftly made clear by the Kremlin. "Of course, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of negotiations," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, referring to ongoing peace talks.

Russia launched its offensive on February 24 on its neighbour, expecting to quickly take Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s government. But a ferocious Ukrainian fightback and logistics and tactical problems scuppered such plans.

Meanwhile Russia has faced unprecedented Western sanctions that have led multinationals to quit the country en masse. On the ground, Ukraine’s troops were beginning to regain control including around capital Kyiv and in the southern region of Kherson -- the only significant city that Russia had managed to occupy. Russian troops "are continuing their partial retreat" from the north of Kyiv towards the Belarusian border, said Ukraine’s defence ministry.

Condemning the invading forces for "pillaging" along the way, the ministry also said that in some regions, the Russians were forcing small businesses to use the ruble. Around Kyiv, civilians were trickling out of devastated areas as Ukrainian troops retook control.

"The shops are closed, there’s no delivery of supplies. The bridge is also blown up, we can’t go for groceries through there," said Karina Tkachenko, holding her three-year-old daughter Karolina in a pink bobble hat in her arms.

"I hope all this will end soon, and I will go back to my work," she told AFP. In the southern city of Mariupol, civilians were still desperately waiting for help after weeks under heavy shelling with little water, food and electricity. Russian forces have encircled and relentlessly bombarded Mariupol in their bid to capture the city in order to join up the breakaway regions in Lugansk and Donetsk under control of pro-Moscow forces in the east with the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in 2014.

Yulia, who arrived to safety in Zaporizhzhia on Friday in a private vehicle in a group of 13 people including two daughters, told AFP it took them two weeks and five attempts to get out. Their previous bids were either halted by shelling or blocked by Russian troops.

Some 42 buses carrying 3,000 evacuees were on Friday seeking to get out. "We don’t know when they will arrive, it depends on the checkpoints," said a volunteer who is helping to coordinate arrivals in Zaporizhzhia.

Repeated operations to set up a safe corridor for civilians to escape weeks of relentless Russian bombardments of Mariupol have collapsed. Meantime, the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO on Friday said it had confirmed that at least 53 Ukrainian historical sites, religious buildings and museums had sustained damage during Russia’s invasion of the country.

"This is the latest list but it is not exhaustive as our experts are continuing to verify a number of reports," filed by the Ukrainian authorities, a UNESCO spokesman told AFP as the body published a list of damaged 53 sites in the north and east of the country.

In a related development, the EU sought on Friday to convince China’s leaders at a virtual summit not to back Russia in its war on Ukraine as the conflict threatened to hit vital trade ties between the economic superpowers. EU chiefs Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen held talks first with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ahead of a video conference with President Xi Jinping.

The discussions -- initially intended to focus on issues like trade and climate change -- have been overshadowed by Western fears of Chinese support for Moscow in its attack on Ukraine.