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Russia pounds Ukraine targets on Orthodox Easter; Austin, Blinken headed for Kyiv? Live updates – USA TODAY

Ukrainians marked Orthodox Easter in the capital, Kyiv, on Sunday with prayers for those fighting on the front lines in the Donbas region and others trapped in cities such as Mariupol.

But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians not to let anger at the war overwhelm them.

“All of us believe our sunrise will come soon,” he said.

The deputy commander of the nationalist Azov Regiment, which has been battling separatists in the Donbas since 2014, recorded a video address chastising the Russian military for failing to observe the holy day. 

“The enemy continues to drop air bombs, ship artillery fires, guns are fired,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar said.

The Eastern Orthodox church follows the Julian calendar, first proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, rather than the Gregorian calendar adopted by Catholic Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. This means the holiday typically falls later than Easter Sunday in Western Christian tradition.

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Latest developments:

►Top officials from the Biden administration are set to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday in the highest-ranking visit to Ukraine by a U.S. delegation since Russia began its invasion.

►Speaking in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis lamented the “barbarity” of the war. “It is sad that these days, which are the holiest and most solemn for all Christians, we hear the deadly noise of weapons rather than the sound of bells announcing the Resurrection,” the pope said. “It is sad that arms are taking the place of words.”

►The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it is “extremely concerned” that several mission members are being held in eastern Ukraine. The Vienna-based agency said it is using “all available channels to facilitate their release” but did not specify the number of people being held or who was holding them.

►Russian missile and artillery troops hit 423 targets in Ukraine overnight as part of the special military operation, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Sunday. He said 26 Ukrainian command posts, 367 “places of the amassment of manpower and military equipment” and 25 gun lines were hit.

A hole in the roof of a damaged church as seen Friday in Lukashivka, near the city of Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine. Only a single metal cross remains inside the Orthodox church of shattered brick and blackened stone.

Austrian opposition to Ukraine membership in EU ‘shortsighted’

The Austrian foreign minister’s comments that Ukraine should not be offered membership in the European Union is drawing stiff criticism in the besieged nation. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he supports closer ties between Europe and Ukraine short of full membership. One option would be allowing Ukraine to join the EU’s economic zone, he said.

“We are disappointed with the statements of the Austrian Federal Foreign Minister on Ukraine’s European future,”  Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Sunday. “We consider them strategically short-sighted and not in the interests of a united Europe.”

Zelenskyy adviser calls Mariupol ‘almost wiped out’

Igor Zhovkva, top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Sunday that the southern city of Mariupol is “almost wiped out.” Zhovkva told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that the weapons delivered so far to Ukraine have been what the country needs to fight Russia, but it now also needs weapons to defend its skies. Noting NATO has not imposed a “no-fly” zone over the country, Zhovkva said, “we also need anti-missile systems and anti-aircraft systems because daily and nightly Ukraine cities are bombarded by the cruise missiles.”

Zhovka denied the Russian claim that it controls all of the southern city of Mariupol, where 100,000 civilians remain, though he said the Russians control part of it.

“Ukrainian armed forces are still in town.,” he said. “They are concentrated now mainly on the Azovstal steel plant. And they are concentrated there together with the civilians. And many of the Ukrainian soldiers are wounded.”

He criticized the U.N. secretary general’s request to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, saying he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the Ukrainian government

“This is not a good idea to travel to Moscow. We do not understand his intention to travel to Moscow and to talk to President Putin.”

Kharkiv feels wrath of Russian invasion

While the world mourns the battering taken by Mariuspol, 260 miles to the north the city of Kharkiv has quietly been overwhelmed by Russian artillery. The vast majority of Kharkiv’s 1.4 million residents have fled. Mayor Ihor Terekhov says Russia is “furiously bombing” his city as shells and rockets continue to smash Kharkiv’s historic center and residential areas in the most intense assaults outside Mariuspol. Mayor Ihor Terekhov says Russia is “furiously bombing” his city, that an estimated 2,000 high-rise buildings have been destroyed.

Oleksandr Zuiev 46, said he never believed Russian forces would target civilians – and never expected his own apartment to come under fire.

“I was wrong,” Zuiev told the Kyiv Independent. “It’s still hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century.”

US official: Russia has ‘already lost’

Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said Sunday that from the U.S. perspective, Russia “has already lost” in Ukraine, noting the many ways Russian President Vladimir Putin has not achieved his goals.

“They have intended to divide the West. They have resulted in a West and a NATO alliance that is much more united than it’s ever been,” he said. “They thought that they would unsettle and undermine and maybe even overthrow the Ukrainian government. President Zelenskyy is firmly entrenched in power and Ukrainian democracy continues.”

Finer sai Russia is more isolated in the world, its economy is weaker, and its military is “failing at virtually every one of their initial objectives. And our objective is going to be to continue that trend.”

He also would not confirm that there is evidence of a new mass grave in the embattled city of Mariupol but said such an allegation “is wholly consistent with everything that we’ve seen Russia doing and it should stop.”

Zelenskyy ally calls visit from Austin, Blinken ‘symbolic’

Yevheniia Kravchuk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and close ally of Zelenskyy, said a planned visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is a probable signal to Russia that “Ukraine will not be left alone with this war.”

“I think that visit of Blinken and Austin is really, really (symbolic),” Kravchuk told ABC’s Martha Raddatz Sunday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Kravchuk said more weaponry that can “burn everything” would be most useful to help Ukrainians defend South and to Eastern Ukraine from Russian troops. Weaponry from the U.S. would also “sort of a green light to other countries in Europe, for example, to give these weapons as well,” according to Kravchuk.

– Chelsey Cox

Blinken, Austin to meet with Zelenskyy

Top officials from the Biden administration are set to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday in the highest-ranking visit to Ukraine by a U.S. delegation since Russia began its invasion.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip was announced by Zelenskyy but was not unconfirmed by U.S. officials. Zelenskyy did not give details about the meeting but said he is expecting “not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons.”

The Ukrainian president has for weeks urged Western leaders to commit more weapons and military aid. 

More Western officials have visited with Zelenskyy since Russian forces withdrew from around the capital of Kyiv. The visit comes the same day as Orthodox Easter, in a nation where about 78% of adults were Orthodox Christians in a 2015-16 Pew Research Center study. Russian adults were about 71% Orthodox Christians.

Ukrainian officials highlighted the brutality of Russian attacks on the eve of the holiday. At least six were killed, including an infant, in a strike on Odesa Saturday. “Nothing sacred,” said Andriy Yermak, an adviser to Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy, Turkish president speak ahead of Erdogan talks with Putin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he spoke by phone Sunday with Turkish President Erdogan, one day before Erdogan was scheduled to meet with Putin.

“I stressed the need for immediate evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, including Azovstal, and immediate exchange of blocked troops,” Zelenskyy said. He said the men also discussed the peace talks process, ways to guarantee security for Ukraine and global food supply issues damaged by the war.

On Saturday, Turkish officials said Ankara will close Turkish airspace to Russian civilian and military flights between Russia and Syria. But Turkey, a NATO member that has good relations with Russian and Ukraine, has balked at joining the West in its strong economic sanctions against Russia.

British intelligence: Ukrainian resistance strong in Donbas

Ukraine repelled numerous Russian assaults in the Donbas last week, the British Defense Ministry reported Sunday. Russia did make some territorial gains, but Ukrainian resistance was strong “across all axes” and inflicted significant cost on Russian forces, the intelligence report said.

“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganize forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” the report said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadfastly maintained that the war is going according to plan.

Russia rejects concerns that it will use chemical, nuclear weapons

The United States is preparing to falsely accuse the Russia of using chemical, biological, or tactical nuclear weapons, a top Russian military leader says. Chief of Russian Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force Igor Kirillov said the alleged plan is a reaction to Russia’s success in its “special operation” in Ukraine – Russia has refused to describe its invasion as a war. Western intelligence officials had warned that Russia might resort to internationally banned weaponry if its invasion continues to face setbacks. 

“In March-April of this year alone, the leadership of Western countries regularly made provocative statements about the possibility of Russia using weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

An orthodox Ukrainian priest blesses believers as they collect traditional cakes and painted eggs prepared for an Orthodox Easter celebration at a church in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv on April 24, 2022.

Ukrainian officials: 6 dead in Russian strike on Black Sea port city of Odesa

At least six people were killed, including a 3-month-old infant, in a Russian strike in the Black Sea port city of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Saturday.

“The war started when this baby was 1 month old. Can you imagine what is happening?” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. “They are just bastards. … I don’t have any other words for it, just bastards.”

Russia’s firing of cruise missiles on the region came on the eve of Orthodox Easter. 

“Nothing sacred,” said Andriy Yermak of the president’s office on Telegram.

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Contributing: The Associated Press