Russia laments 'tragedy' of troop deaths as Ukraine braces for major offensive

[LVIV] Russia gave the most damning assessment so far of its invasion, describing the "tragedy" of mounting troop losses and the economic hit from sanctions as Ukrainians were evacuated from eastern cities before an anticipated major offensive.

Moscow's 6-week long incursion has seen more than 4 million people flee abroad, killed or injured thousands, left a quarter of the population homeless, turned cities into rubble and led to Russia's near total isolation on the world stage.

In a symbolic move, the United Nations General Assembly suspended it from the UN Human Rights Council, expressing "grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis". Russia then quit the council.

Russia has previously acknowledged its attack has not progressed as quickly as it wanted, but on Thursday (Apr 7) Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov lamented the rising death toll.

"We have significant losses of troops," he told Sky News. "It's a huge tragedy for us." Russia is facing its most difficult economic situation for 3 decades due to unprecedented Western sanctions, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said. The US Congress removed its "most favoured nation" trade status in a further blow.

Russia says it launched what it calls a "special military operation" on Feb 24 to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine.

Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext.

Following new restrictions after the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha that were widely condemned by the West as war crimes, Ukraine called on allies to stop buying Russian oil and gas, amid divisions in Europe, and to boost it militarily.

"Ukraine needs weapons which will give it the means to win on the battlefield and that will be the strongest possible sanction against Russia," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video late on Thursday.

He also said the situation in Borodyanka - another town northwest of Kyiv retaken from Russian forces - is "significantly more dreadful" than in Bucha, without citing any evidence.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians and says images of bodies in Bucha were staged to justify more sanctions against Moscow and derail peace negotiations.

The EU's ambassadors agreed a fifth sanctions package on Russia with a coal embargo containing a 120 day wind-down period to give member states time to find alternative suppliers, following pressure from Germany to delay the measure.

Ukraine accused Hungary of undermining EU unity after Budapest said it was prepared to pay roubles for Russian gas, a Kremlin demand that most in the West had resisted.

On the battlefield, Ukraine says after withdrawing from Kyiv's outskirts, Russia is regrouping to try to gain full control over the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been partly held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

In Donbas, Zelenskiy said Ukraine's opponents were becoming "more active and receiving new forces from Russia". The besieged southern port of Mariupol, where the mayor said over 100,000 people were still trapped, was also a target.

"Evacuate! The chances of saving yourself and your family from Russian death are dwindling every day," Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Authorities in Dnipro, a city in central-eastern Ukraine, also urged women, children and the elderly to leave.

Trading accusations

Both sides continued to trade accusations, with Moscow opening a criminal investigation into a Russian soldier's allegations that he was beaten and threatened with death while being held in Ukraine as a prisoner of war.

Separately, a social media video verified by Reuters and geolocated to an area west of Kyiv appears to show Ukrainian forces shooting and killing a captured and badly wounded Russian soldier.

In the city of Kharkiv, at least 1 person was killed and 14 wounded in shelling on Thursday, the regional governor said, while Ukraine's prosecutor general reported 26 bodies were found under 2 ruined buildings in Borodyanka.

Reuters could not immediately verify the accounts.

Nato members agreed to strengthen support to Ukraine on Thursday. Foreign ministers discussed the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining the alliance as Russia's neighbours consider their security following the assault on Ukraine.

Canada said it was reviewing its overall defence policy.

Ukraine has received about 25,000 anti-aircraft weapons systems from the United States and its allies, the top US general said, and Washington is looking into what new support it could send.

Zelenskiy's government says starving Moscow's war machine is the only way to bring it to a settlement at on-and-off peace talks.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a draft peace deal from Kyiv contained "unacceptable" elements and deviated from previously agreed proposals.

Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters Lavrov was not directly involved in negotiations and his statements were "of purely propagandistic significance" aimed at diverting attention from killings in Bucha.

On Wednesday, Reuters reporters saw the body of a man in Bucha with a rope tied around his feet and a charred hole in his forehead, 1 of at least 5 victims shot through the head documented by the news organisation.

Since Russian troops pulled back last week, Ukrainian officials have said hundreds of civilians have been found dead.

Bucha's mayor has said dozens were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by Russian troops. Reuters could not independently verify those figures.

Media outlets including Reuters have seen satellite images released by a private security company that appear to show bodies in the streets while Bucha was still occupied by Russia, contradicting Moscow's assertion that Ukraine staged the bodies after retaking the town.

Accounts by at least a dozen residents of 1 apartment complex in Bucha painted a picture of violence and intimidation by Russian soldiers.

The mutilated bodies of 1 resident of the complex and another local were discovered in a stairwell. REUTERS

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