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Putin to meet EU leader Nehammer today for first time since Ukraine invasion

"We are militarily neutral, but (have) a clear position on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine," Mr Nehammer said on Twitter

Residents carry their belongings near buildings destroyed in Mariupol

Elizabeth Piper and Zohra Bensemra

Russian forces pounded targets in eastern Ukraine with missiles and artillery yesterday as Austria's leader announced he planned to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin face-to-face today.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer's meeting would be the Russian leader's first face-to-face meeting with a European Union counterpart since Russia's invasion began on February 24.

"We are militarily neutral, but (have) a clear position on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine," Mr Nehammer said on Twitter.

"It must stop. It needs humanitarian corridors, ceasefire and full investigation of war crimes."

Mr Nehammer met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Saturday - the same day as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who promised to give Ukraine 120 armoured vehicles and anti-ship missile systems.

Russia has failed to take any major cities since it launched its invasion seven weeks ago, but Ukraine says it has been gathering its forces in the east for a major assault and has urged people to flee.

Russian forces fired rockets into Ukraine's Luhansk and Dnipropetrovsk regions yesterday, officials said.

Missiles completely destroyed the airport in the city of Dnipro, said Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the central Dnipropetrovsk region.

Russia's defence ministry claimed high-precision missiles had destroyed the headquarters of Ukraine's Dnipro battalion in the town of Zvonetsky.

Western military analysts say Russia's assault was increasingly focusing on a sickle-­shaped arc of eastern Ukraine - from Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, in the north to Kherson in the south.

Newly released Maxar Technologies satellite imagery showed a 13km convoy of military vehicles headed south to the Donbas, recalling images of a convoy that got stalled on roads to Kyiv for weeks before Russia gave up on trying to take the capital.

Yesterday, Russian forces shelled government-contro­ll­ed Kharkiv and sent reinforcements toward Izyum to the south-east in a bid to break Ukraine's defences, the Ukrainian military command said.

The Russians also kept up their siege of Mariupol, a key southern port that has been under attack and surrounded for six weeks.

Capturing that city on the Sea of Azov would give Russia a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.

In Mariupol, Russia is believed to be deploying Chechen fighters, who are reputed to be particularly fierce.

Residents have lacked food, water and electricity since Russian forces surrounded the city and frustrated evacuation missions.

Vladimir Putin (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said Russia's military used air-launched missiles to hit Ukraine's S-300 air-defence missile systems in the southern Mykolaiv region and at an air base in Chuhuiv, a city not far from Kharkiv.

Since Russia invaded, Mr Zelensky has appealed to western powers to provide more defence help, and to punish Moscow with tougher sanctions, including embargoes on Russian energy exports.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on US TV yesterday: "We're going to get Ukraine the weapons it needs to beat back the Russians to stop them from taking more cities and towns."

Mr Zelensky said he had confidence in his own armed forces but "unfortunately I don't have the confidence that we will be receiving everything we need" from the United States.

He spoke via phone to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about additional sanctions, as well as more defence and financial support for his country.

Mr Zelensky also discussed with Ukrainian officials Kyiv's proposals for a new package of EU sanctions.

In a video address late on Saturday evening, Mr Zelensky renewed his appeal for a total ban on Russian energy products and more weapons for Ukraine.

The EU on Friday banned Russian coal imports among other products, but has yet to touch oil and gas imports from Russia.

Mounting civilian casualties have triggered widespread international condemnation and new sanctions.

A grave with at least two civilian bodies had been found in Buzova village near Kyiv, said Taras Didych, head of the Dmytrivka community that includes Buzova, the latest such reported discovery since Russian forces withdrew from areas north of the capital to focus on the east of the country.

Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians in what it calls a "special operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" its southern neighbour.

Ukraine and western nations have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.

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