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UN chief Antonio Guterres warned of the “horror that lies ahead” as Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine began on Tuesday, and appealed for a four-day ceasefire as many eastern Europeans mark the Orthodox faith’s Easter festivities.
“This year, Orthodox Holy Week is being observed under the cloud of a war that represents the total negation of the Easter message,” the Secretary General said, in front of a UN peace statue after Moscow launched dozens of overnight air strikes across eastern Ukraine.
“Instead of a celebration of new life, this Easter coincides with a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.”
Mr Guterres said the “intense concentration of forces and firepower” in the east, which is home to many Russian-speaking and pro-Moscow Ukrainians, portended an “inevitably more violent, bloody and destructive” phase of the invasion.
“The onslaught and terrible toll on civilians we have seen so far could pale in comparison to the horror that lies ahead,” he said.
He called for a four-day pause in fighting running up to April 24 to allow for deliveries of much-needed aid and the evacuation of civilians from bombed-out areas, including Mariupol, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.
According to the UN, about 12 million Ukrainians need food, water, medicine and other supplies and that number will soon reach 15.7 million — or about 40 per cent of the people who have remained in the country during weeks of chaos.
“For all these life or death reasons, I call on Russians and Ukrainians to silence the guns and forge a path to safety for so many at immediate risk,” added Mr Guterres.
The UN Security Council met on the worsening humanitarian situation in Ukraine later on Tuesday, focussed on the 4.9 million people who have fled the east European country and millions more displaced within its borders.
Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was among several western diplomats to push Moscow to silence its guns over the Orthodox festival. He demanded an end to a "senseless and devastating war".
Russia's deputy UN envoy Dmitry Polyanskiy said he was "sceptical" of the UN's call for a ceasefire. Russian forces had opened aid corridors and declared several ceasefires, but they were ignored or flouted by the Ukrainians, he added.
"They were either not used by Ukraine, or they were used for some mean purposes, for staging some kinds of provocations ... and other very criminal stuff," Mr Polyanskiy told reporters.
Russia has been isolated at the UN over its invasion of Ukraine, with the 193-nation General Assembly voting three times to condemn Moscow’s invasion. The latest vote on April 9 saw Russia removed from the UN Human Rights Council.
Liechtenstein on Tuesday convened UN General Assembly talks on a US-backed draft resolution requiring Russia and the other four permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, the US, France and China – to justify their use of the veto.
Many UN members have long sought to curtail the use of the special veto power. The push has been revived amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Moscow’s veto effectively paralysing the Security Council from responding to the crisis.
Speaking with CNN on Tuesday, US UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she expected the draft to pass and said the results would be “more than symbolic” in restraining the “extraordinary power to veto” council resolutions.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield added that Russia’s frequent partner at the UN, China, was growing increasingly “uncomfortable” over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which runs counter to Beijing’s long-professed support for sovereignty.
“They have to defend a country that is going against their core values,” she said.
“As this war continues, I think China will be put in a position of having to determine whether they are going to continue to defend this aggression.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had kicked off its widely anticipated offensive in the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland, in a report published on Tuesday.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had launched strikes across eastern Ukraine overnight.
Ahead of the advance, Ukrainian authorities had urged people in Donbas to flee west to escape, even as officials called off evacuations for a third straight day from frontline cities due to continuing fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys broad support from Russia’s Orthodox establishment, says he launched the so-called military operation on February 24 to save Russian speakers in Ukraine from a “genocide” carried out by a “neo-Nazi” regime.