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An explosion is seen in an apartment building after Russian's army tank fires in Mariupol, Ukraine, Friday, March 11, 2022.Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press

Ukrainian authorities say Russia has now killed more civilians than soldiers in a war that Moscow is now seeking to expand by bolstering its ranks with foreign combatants.

Russia on Friday said it would welcome “applications” by more than 16,000 Middle Eastern fighters to join its invasion of Ukraine. But the Kremlin also signalled it was seeking other ways to expand its military assault, as its own troops suffer losses and struggle to make advances on key cities including Kyiv, the capital.

On Friday, Russia agreed to provide Belarus with more advanced military equipment, state media reported after five hours of talks between the presidents of the two countries, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. Those talks took place at a moment of increasing anxiety that Belarusian troops will join the war, with Ukraine on Friday accusing Russian jets of firing into Belarus as a provocation.

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Odesans brace for the arrival of war’s brunt in the historic Ukrainian city

The Kremlin has also continued to press its case, without evidence, that Kyiv poses a biological weapons threat, raising alarm that Russia itself will deploy such weapons in Ukraine.

“Russia has a track record of falsely accusing other countries of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating,” U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Friday at a meeting of the UN Security Council called by Russia.

Russia’s invasion, now in its 16th day, has already laid waste to major centres in Ukraine, including Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. More than 400 residential buildings there have now been destroyed, member of parliament Pavlo Yakymenko said.

“For these 16 days, we have seen everything that can be seen in this life,” he said. “The only aim of the Russian Federation is to destroy Ukraine,” he added, including with the second shelling of a major medical facility this week.

Early Friday, a residential psychiatric facility in Oskil, located about 80 kilometres from Kharkiv, was struck with 330 patients inside, 50 of them unable to move on their own. The attack knocked out power and heat, Yuriy Shparaga, director of the social-services department in Kharkiv region, said in an interview. “This facility is now uninhabitable,” he said, and patients and staff need to be moved to safety.

People attend the memorial and funeral service for three fallen Ukrainian Army service men, Taras Didukh, Dmytro Kabakov and Andrea Stefanyshyn during a ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine.KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

“But it is difficult to organize an evacuation because the facility is located near the front lines,” he said. The attack, he wrote on Facebook, amounted to “a war crime against civilians.”

Russia has denied attacking civilian targets in an invasion it has called a campaign to “demilitarize” Ukraine.

But Russian forces have now “killed more Ukrainian civilians than the total number of all military personnel killed in fighting,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a video address.

“The Kremlin is bombing schools, hospitals and maternity hospitals,” he said.

At least 70 Ukrainian children have died, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Early Friday, Russian missiles also struck two airfields in western Ukraine, one just 85 kilometres from the border with Poland, a NATO member state. Those attacks, which killed four people, appear to mark a shift in Russian military tactics to evade Ukrainian air defences. In both Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, alert systems failed to detect the incoming threat.

Four missiles struck the Lutsk airfield Friday at 5:45 a.m. Only three minutes later did the air raid siren begin.

That airfield had already been rendered unusable by an attack at the outset of the Russian invasion, on Feb. 24, Mayor Ihor Polishchuk said in an interview.

“We are just trying to figure out what happened,” he said. “One possible reason is the missiles were flying on extremely low-altitude trajectories and could not be identified by the air-defence system.”

He believes the attack was designed to instill fresh fear in local residents, in a region of the country that has largely escaped the ravages of war. An estimated 10,000 people from elsewhere in Ukraine have already come to Lutsk, he said.

But the demonstration of weaknesses in Ukraine’s air defences brought new urgency to the country’s calls for greater foreign military assistance. The U.S. and Britain have provided Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles that Ukrainian forces have used to devastating effect. But the Friday attacks showed a need for new armaments, including SLAMRAAM surface-to-air missiles, said Valentyn Badrak, Director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.

“We need weapons to close the sky,” he said.

The Russian Ministry of Defence claims it has now “disabled” 90 per cent of Ukraine’s military airfields, leaving the country with severely weakened air-force capabilities. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych called the Russian claim “very funny.”

“We are answering this statement every day and every night,” he said in an interview Friday afternoon. Ukraine had shot down 10 Russian air assets in the past 24 hours alone, he said. But, he added, “we need air-defence systems and military aircraft. That is the No. 1 priority.”

Ukraine has reported thousands of civilian deaths but remained defiant, with President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday saying that though his country is beginning to tire, it has “reached a strategic turning point” toward victory.

He did not describe what that was, but Ukrainian leaders have allowed little public expression of concern over Mr. Putin’s attempts to draft foreign fighters into the war, saying the logistics of moving 16,000 people will not be simple.

Nor do they expect Middle Eastern combatants – who Mr. Zelensky called “thugs from Syria” – to be a formidable adversary.

“I just want to watch these Syrian guys in Ukraine when it is -8 or -16 degrees. How will they fight?” Mr. Arestovych said.

For Moscow to bring non-Russian troops into Ukraine, he said, suggests “that this very strong Russian army could not invade Ukraine on its own. They need to include some Syrians. And they were saying that they would just conquer everything within three days.”

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