US official: Russia plans to annex parts of eastern Ukraine

Russia says targeting Azovstal plant with ‘artillery and planes,’ UK PM Johnson pledges further aid for Ukraine

MOSCOW/LONDON: The Russian army said Tuesday its forces and pro-Moscow separatists were using artillery and planes to target Azovstal, the steel plant in the city of Mariupol where Ukrainian fighters are making their last stand.

The Russian defense ministry accused members of the Azov battalion and other Ukrainian troops of using a pause in fighting to once again take up their combat positions at the plant.

“Using artillery and aircraft, units of the Russian army and the Donetsk People’s Republic are beginning to destroy” the “firing positions” of the Ukrainian troops, the defense ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

Mariupol is among the most battered cities in Ukraine.

Kyiv said more than 100 civilians were evacuated over the weekend from the sprawling Azovstal plant, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, where soldiers and civilians have been sheltering in a maze of underground tunnels.

Military aid from the UK

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced on Tuesday another £300 million ($376 million, 358 million euros) in UK military aid for Ukraine as he hailed its resistance to Russia as its “finest hour” in a remote address to parliament in Kyiv.

Johnson used the speech delivered via video link, the first by a foreign leader to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada since Russia invaded on February 24, to commend Kyiv for fighting “with the energy and courage of lions.”

“This is Ukraine’s finest hour, that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come,” said Johnson, using a phrase first used by his hero Winston Churchill in a speech in 1940.

“The so-called irresistible force of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s war machine has broken on the immoveable object of Ukrainian patriotism and love of country.

“We will carry on supplying Ukraine… with weapons, funding and humanitarian aid, until we have achieved our long-term goal, which must be so to fortify Ukraine that no-one will ever dare to attack you again,” he told Ukrainian lawmakers.

The new military support, which will include electronic warfare equipment, a counter battery radar system, GPS jamming equipment and thousands of night vision devices, is the latest defensive aid from London.

Last week, it announced plans to send Ukraine armored vehicles able to fire missiles against invading Russian aircraft, on top of previous contributions that have included anti-tank missiles, air defense systems and tons of plastic explosives.

The UK will also dispatch in the coming weeks heavy lift Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems “to provide logistical support to isolated forces,” Johnson’s Downing Street office said ahead of the address.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen new specialized Toyota Landcruisers are headed to Ukraine to help protect civilian officials in the country’s east and evacuate people from frontline areas, it added.

The Kremlin has criticized Western countries as they step up donations of military hardware, saying they risk escalating the conflict and warning Russia has the right to respond to any direct interventions.

On the diplomatic front, Britain is also reopening its embassy in Kyiv, with its top envoy there Melinda Simmons telling the UK Sunday newspaper “The Observer” that it “feels like the right place to be.”