US Announces $1 bn to Aid Ukraine as Russian Strike Kills at least 17

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wait to make a statement to media ahead of their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv on September 6, 2023. Photo by Brendan Smialowski / POOL / AFP

Kyiv, Ukraine -- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $1 billion of aid during a surprise visit Wednesday to Ukraine which suffered a Russian strike that killed at least 17 people at a market in the east.

The attack, which President Volodymyr Zelensky described the attack as deliberate and "heinous", drew international condemnation from the West including accusations of "war crimes".

Projectiles tore through the centre of Kostiantynivka -- a town of nearly 70,000 people in the Donetsk region -- in one of the deadliest strikes in weeks.

"They smashed everything, all the shop windows, everything was strewn around," an eyewitness told AFP.

"Thank God we are alive, of course. But the girls who were selling there, they are all dead," the witness said.

Rescue workers picked through the debris and carried some of the 32 people reportedly wounded for treatment past charred vehicles and kiosks torn to pieces in the blast, according to images distributed by officials.

"Anyone in the world who is still dealing with anything Russian simply ignores this reality," said Zelensky.

"Heinous evil. Brazen wickedness. Utter inhumanity."

He later accused Russia of deliberately targeting civilians and said there were no military units "anywhere near" the scene.

The European Union condemned the strike along with the "escalation" of Russian attacks on "civilian objects" that has seen hundreds killed or wounded in recent weeks.

"Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes," the bloc said in a statement.

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that "this Russian war of aggression is an attack on international law, on humanity."

Meanwhile, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the incident underscored "the importance of continuing to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their territory."

- 'Build momentum' -

During a meeting with Zelensky, Blinken reiterated Washington's support for Kyiv in its fight to liberate territory in the south and east.

"We are determined in the United States to continue to walk side by side with you. And President Biden asked me to come to reaffirm strongly our support," he told Zelensky.

"We see the important progress that's being made now in the counteroffensive and that's very, very encouraging," he added.

The new $1 billion aid package, which includes $665.5 million in military and civilian security assistance, would further "build momentum" for the counteroffensive, Blinken said at a later press conference.

In addition to the funds, the Pentagon announced it will provide Ukraine with depleted uranium tank ammunition -- a powerful but controversial weapon due its toxicity.

The Kremlin earlier dismissed Blinken's visit, arguing US aid would not "influence the course of the special military operation" -- Moscow's term for its offensive.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of wanting to "keep Ukraine in a state of war, to wage this war till the last Ukrainian".

Kyiv's army meanwhile said it was pressing on with "offensive operations" towards eastern Ukraine's war-battered town of Bakhmut, which fell to Russian forces in May, and the southern Moscow-occupied city of Melitopol.

The boost in US aid to Ukraine follows criticisms in recent weeks that the counteroffensive has been too slow.

Russia said Wednesday it had "improved its tactical position" near the northwestern city of Kupiansk, where it has led a local offensive for weeks.

It also hit Ukraine's south-western Odesa region, near the border with Romania, with drone attacks overnight, killing one person.

Romania on Wednesday announced it was investigating debris "resembling" that of a drone, which was discovered on its soil, after having rejected Kyiv's claims that Iranian-made Russian drones fell and detonated on Romanian territory at the weekend.

A technical analysis of the debris -- found near a village across from the Ukrainian port of Izmail -- is underway, Romania's defence ministry said.

- 'Everything possible and impossible' -

Ukrainian lawmakers approved Wednesday the nomination of Crimean Tatar Rustem Umerov as Kyiv's new wartime defence minister, in what was hailed as a historic move.

Crimean Tatars are an ethnic minority hailing from the Black Sea peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

"I will do everything possible and impossible for the victory of Ukraine -- when we liberate every centimetre of our country and every one of our people," he said in a post on social media.

The 41-year-old businessman has been involved in prisoner exchange negotiations involving Saudi Arabia and grain export talks with Turkey and the United Nations.

"Children, prisoners of war, political prisoners, civilians... are waiting for us," he said.

Zelensky had nominated Umerov as new defence minister after the resignation of Oleksiy Reznikov, calling for "new approaches" in the wake of several corruption scandals in the ministry.

"It is the highest state post ever held by a Tatar (from Crimea)," Sergiy Leshchenko, an advisor to the presidential administration, told AFP.

© Agence France-Presse

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