KYIV/WASHINGTON: Ukraine said Russia had started creating a military strike force aimed at President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's hometown of Kryvyi Rih, while NATO moved closer to its most significant expansion in decades as the alliance responds to the invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. Senate and the Italian parliament both approved on Wednesday Finland and Sweden's accession to the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Under NATO membership, which must be ratified by all 30 member states, an attack on one member is an attack against all.
"This historic vote sends an important signal of the sustained, bipartisan U.S. commitment to NATO, and to ensuring our Alliance is prepared to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, has repeatedly warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.
NATO's 30 allies signed the accession protocol last month, allowing them to join the U.S.-led nuclear-armed alliance once its members ratify the decision.
Ratification could take up to a year.
Ukraine on Wednesday dismissed suggestions by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that Russia wanted a "negotiated solution" to the five-month war and said any dialogue would be contingent on a Russian ceasefire and withdrawal of its troops.
Tentative attempts at peace talks in March went nowhere.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Thursday that Ukraine was seeking an opportunity to speak "directly" with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help end the war.
In an interview with SCMP, Zelenskiy urged China to use its political and economic influence over Russia to bring an end to the fighting.
"It's a very powerful state. It's a powerful economy ... So (it) can politically, economically influence Russia. And China is (also a) permanent member of the U.N. Security Council," the report quoted Zelenskiy as saying.
NEW SOUTHERN OFFENSIVE
On the battleground, Russian forces were engaged in considerable military activity, firing from tanks, barrel and rocket artillery in several parts of Ukraine, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in its update on Thursday.
Earlier, Ukraine had warned that Moscow could be preparing new offensive operations in southern Ukraine.
Dmytro Zhyvytsky, governor of Sumy region on the border with Russia, said three towns had been shelled by Russian forces on Wednesday, with a total of 55 missiles fired. There were no injuries, but homes and commercial premises were damaged.
He said eight artillery shells hit residential parts of Krasnopilska community.
Mayor Yevhen Yevtushenko of Nikopol, to the west of Zaporizhzhia in central Ukraine, said on his Telegram channel that his city had been shelled overnight.
Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in an interview appearing on YouTube that the whole point of the Russian offensive in the east was to force Ukraine to divert troops from the area that is truly a danger - Zaporizhzhia.
Russia in March was accused of firing shells dangerously close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as its forces took it over in the first weeks of the invasion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Moscow of using Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant as a "nuclear shield" in attacks on Ukrainian forces.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
Russia denies it targets civilians, but many towns and cities have been destroyed and thousands killed in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War Two. Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russian forces of war crimes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops in Ukraine in what he said was a "special military operation" to rid the country of fascists. Ukraine and the West said Putin launched an unprovoked "imperial" land grab.
The war has sparked a global energy and food crisis. Russia and Ukraine produce about one third of global wheat and Russia is the main energy supplier to Europe.
An agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, to allow safe passage of grain ships from Ukraine has been hailed as a rare diplomatic success in the war.
The first ship carrying Ukrainian grain since the war started passed through the Bosphorus Strait on Wednesday.
The ship, Razoni, left Odesa on the Black Sea early on Monday carrying 26,527 tonnes of corn to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine needed to export a minimum 10 million tonnes of grain to urgently help bring down its budget deficit which was running at $5 billion a month.
A senior Turkish official said three ships could leave Ukrainian ports daily following the Razoni's departure, while Ukraine's infrastructure minister said 17 more ships had been loaded with agricultural produce and were waiting to set sail.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry and Himani Sarkar)