LVIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday lauded a brigade accused by Ukraine of committing atrocities near the capital Kyiv as his forces pounded targets across the country, killing at least seven people in the western city of Lviv. The air strikes in Lviv came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of wanting to "destroy" the entire eastern region of Donbas where Russian forces were massing for an expected all-out assault. Despite widespread condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin appeared to double down on Monday.

The Russian president signed an official decree bestowing the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade the title of "Guards" for defending the "Motherland and state interests" and praised the "mass heroism and valour, tenacity and courage" of its members. The Ukrainian defense ministry has accused the same outfit of carrying out "war crimes" while occupying the suburb of Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv, where residents were shot to death with some having their hands bound.

Earlier Monday, Russia's defense ministry said it had hit 16 military targets at various locations across Ukraine. Following the attack on Lviv, black smoke billowed from the gutted roof of a car repair shop in the northwest of the city as air raid sirens wailed. "Fires were set off as a result of the strikes. They are still being put out. The facilities were severely damaged," Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said on social media.

Lviv has largely been spared the Russian bombardment that has rained down on other parts of the country since Russia invaded on February 24. The city and its surroundings have instead become a relatively safe haven for those seeking to escape the fighting further east. "Today we understood clearly that we don't have any safe places in Ukraine. It's very dangerous," a bank employee who gave her name as Natalia told AFP after the strikes.

Prisoner swap

In the south, Russia continued its push to capture the besieged port city of Mariupol where the last remaining Ukrainian forces prepared for a final stand. Ukraine has pledged to fight on and defend the strategic city, defying a Russian ultimatum for remaining fighters inside the encircled Azovstal steel plant to lay down their arms and surrender.

Russian state TV on Monday broadcast a video of what it described as "Britons" captured fighting for Ukraine and demanding that Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiate their release. The two haggard-looking men asked to be exchanged for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian tycoon close to President Vladimir Putin, who was recently arrested in the pro-Western country. Ukraine then aired its own video featuring Medvedchuk calling for his exchange in return for an evacuation of civilians and troops from Mariupol.

"I want to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to exchange me for Ukrainian defenders and residents of Mariupol," he said in the video published by Kyiv's security services, wearing black clothes and looking directly into the camera. Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine's unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.

While several large cities were under siege, according to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, not one - with the exception of Kherson in the south - had fallen, and more than 900 towns and cities had been re-captured. Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to have a land bridge between the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the two Moscow-backed separatist statelets in Ukraine's east.

'They have to be pushed back'

In the east, Ukrainian authorities urged people in Donbas to move west to escape a large-scale Russian offensive to capture its composite regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. "Russian troops are preparing for an offensive operation in the east of our country in the near future. They want to literally finish off and destroy Donbas," Zelensky said. Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday said the coming week would be "difficult" with local authorities on Monday saying Russian troops had captured the nearby town of Kreminna. "There was a major attack in the night" from Sunday to Monday in Kreminna, Gaiday said in a statement on social media.

"The Russian army has already entered there, with a huge amount of military hardware... Our defenders have retreated to new positions," he added. Heavy bouts of shelling also resumed in the country's second city of Kharkiv on Monday morning, according to an AFP reporter on the ground, killing at least three people. The shelling comes a day after another five were killed and 20 wounded during a string of strikes in the city just 21 kilometers from the Russian border on Sunday.

On the edge of Kharkiv over the weekend, Ukrainian forces huddled in fortified positions surrounded by earth blemished with craters where they stared down the Russian lines. "The longer they stay in one place, the more they entrench, and the harder it will be to knock them out," a sergeant using the call sign Oreshek told AFP. "They have to be pushed back." Ukraine officials also said on Monday they were halting the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns and cities in the east for a second day, accusing Russian forces of blocking and shelling escape routes. - AFP