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Austrian Leader Pessimistic After Talks With Putin Amid Preparations For Major Russian Assault In Southeast

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer (composite file photo)

A fresh diplomatic effort by Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer offered little hope of a de-escalation of the war in Ukraine, where officials say Russia is poised to unleash a massive offensive as Moscow shifts its focus to seizing territory from its neighbor's eastern regions.

Austria's leader told reporters after meeting with President Vladimir Putin on April 11 that he was pessimistic about the success of negotiations and described Putin as having "massively entered into a logic of war."

"I generally have no optimistic impression that I can report to you from this conversation with President Putin," said Nehammer, the first EU leader to meet Putin face-to-face since the war began. "The offensive [in eastern Ukraine] is evidently being prepared on a massive scale."

Russia is believed to be preparing for a potentially decisive showdown that experts say could start within days with a full-scale offensive. The goal is believed to be connecting occupied Crimea with territory in the southeast occupied by Moscow-backed separatist in the area known as the Donbas.

"We forecast that active combat will begin in these areas in the nearest time," Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.

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A key city in the region, Mariupol, once home to more than 400,000 people, has been under assault since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

If Russia finally captures it, it could link troops advancing from the east with those in Crimea and shift their focus to a new attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east.

Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, insisted Mariupol's defenders were still holding out.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address to South Korean lawmakers that Mariupol has been destroyed and tens of thousands people have been killed there. The number has not been independently confirmed.

A separatist leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, told Russia's RIA news agency that more than 5,000 people may have been killed in Mariupol. He said Ukrainian forces were responsible.

The number of people leaving the city has fallen because Russian forces had slowed pre-departure checks, Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram.

Zelenskiy said late on April 11 in a video message to the nation thatUkraine could unblock Mariupol if it received enough heavy weapons.

"Unfortunately, we are not getting as much as we need to end this war sooner. To completely destroy the enemy on our land, and to fulfill those tasks that are obvious to...our people. In particular, to unblock Mariupol," he said. "If we got planes and enough heavy armored vehicles, the necessary artillery, we could do it."

Weekend strikes hampered evacuations in and around another major city, Kharkiv, close to Ukraine’s northeastern border with Russia, which has been under bombardment for weeks.

Authorities in Kharkiv warned people not to go near what they said were landmines being dropped on the city. Security forces cordoned off an area as they cleared a number of the small devices scattered on residential streets.

Earlier, authorities issued a warning that Russian forces had been dropping what they said were parachute bombs on Kharkiv.

U.S. President Joe Biden held a video call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 11 to ask him not to accelerate purchases of Russian oil.

Biden, who is seeking to build a wider coalition of nations opposed to Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, told Modi during an hourlong video call on April 11 that India's position in the world would not be enhanced by relying on Russian energy sources.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Russia was responsible for the escalating global food crisis because of its bombing of wheat stocks and preventing ships from carrying grain abroad.

And the World Trade Organization cautioned separately that the war could almost halve global trade growth this year.

The United Nations on April 11 heard accounts of rape and violence by Russian forces.

Kateryna Cherepakha, president of La Strada-Ukraine, said the rights group's emergency hotlines had received calls accusing Russian soldiers of nine cases of rape, involving 12 women and girls.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," she told the UN Security Council, according to Reuters. "We know and see -- and we want you to hear our voices -- that violence and rape is used now as a weapon of war by Russian invaders in Ukraine."

Russia's deputy UN ambassador denied the allegations and accused Ukraine and allies of "a clear intention to present Russian soldiers as sadists and rapists."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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