• Fri. Jun 24th, 2022

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Biden signs $40 billion Ukraine aid package as Russia steps up assault in the east

President Joe Biden signed a $40 billion package of new military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine Saturday, less than 24 hours after Russia claimed victory in the months-long battle for Mariupol’s Asovstal steel plant.

The bill which will help Ukraine to replenish U.S. stocks of military equipment, provide hardship pay for troops and provide aid to refugees was signed by the president on a visit to South Korea where he met with his counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol.  

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Biden for the “additional support” in a tweet. “Look forward to new, powerful defense assistance,” he wrote. “Today it is needed more than ever.”

It came as Russia continued its assault in Ukraine’s east Saturday, having earlier claimed to have captured Mairupol’s Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the southern city which has been besieged for nearly three months.

Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement Friday that the sprawling site had been “entirely liberated,” adding that 2,439 defenders had surrendered in the past few days, including 531 in the final group.

The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire. Although the Ukrainian government has not commented on the capture, it had earlier ordered its remaining forces to abandon the plant’s defense and save themselves.

Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of them for war crimes and put them on trial.

Paying homage to the fighters, Zelenskyy called them “absolutely heroic people,” in an interview with Ukrainian television. He added that the conflict could only be ended through diplomacy, but hinted that Kyiv was prepared for a long war with Russia

“The war will be bloody, there will be more battles,” he said. “But the end will definitely be in diplomacy, because there are some things that we will not be able to finish otherwise than at the negotiating table. 

Mariupol endured some of the fiercest battles of the conflict so far, with an estimated 100,000 people remaining out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water or electricity for weeks. 

Its loss deprives Ukraine of a vital sea port and finally completes a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014

It has also allowed Russia to move the majority of its troops away from the city and bolster its forces further north, where their offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region continues.

May 20, 202203:45

Kremlin-backed separatists have controlled parts of the region since 2014 and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control to include the entire Donbas region, made up of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Serhiy Gaidai, the area’s regional governor, said in a social media post that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Severodonetsk and fighting taking place on its outskirts.

The head of neighbouring Kharkiv’s military administration also said Russian forces had shelled several towns overnight, wounding 20 people and killing a 66-year-old woman. 

Oleh Synehubov said in a post on his Telegram channel that the fiercest battles were around the city of Izyum, which sits on a highway linking the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions. 

NBC News has not be able to verify their claims.

Russia’s military meanwhile, told the Interfax news agency that it had destroyed a major consignment of arms provided by Ukraine’s western allies in the Zhytomyr region west of Kyiv.

Artem Grudinin, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.