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Ukraine braces for likelihood of new Russian offensive in east

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Satellite images show Russia is repositioning forces in the east of Ukraine in what appears to be preparation for a new offensive there. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are working to evacuate as many people as possible from towns and cities in that region and beyond. Elissa Nadworny is in Lviv in western Ukraine, and she's with us now to tell us more. Elissa, thank you so much for joining us.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Would you just start by giving us the latest about what you're seeing and hearing where you are?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So earlier today, there were more civilian targets hit in the Luhansk region - that's in the east - two residential buildings and a school, according to officials. But no casualties have been reported yet. There was also a strike on an airport in Dnipro. That's a city that's long been a staging city for NGOs and where evacuees go, right in the center of Ukraine. A handful of rescue workers there were killed. And this follows that attack late last week at a train station in Kramatorsk, which killed more than 50 people who were trying to evacuate.

MARTIN: And, Elissa, all this is coming as Ukrainian and Western leaders are warning that Russia may actually be ramping up its targeting of civilians. Is there anything you can tell us about that on your end?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. So the Department of Defense confirmed that Russia has appointed a new battlefield commander. He's had a history of such attacks in Syria. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has continued to ask for weapons, support from the West, maintaining that he is still invested in peace talks. Yesterday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to the capital here in Kyiv. He talked with Zelenskyy. They walked down the main square in the capital in what British officials are calling a show of solidarity with Ukraine. And that visit also came with the announcement that Britain is going to give 120 armored vehicles and new anti-ship missiles to Ukraine.

MARTIN: Have other Western countries announced whether they will also be sending more weapons to Ukraine?

NADWORNY: So Slovakia has sent Ukraine a Soviet-era air defense unit, which can be used to defend against aircraft. Help in defending the skies - that's long been a request from Zelenskyy and Ukrainian officials. And with Slovakia's aid on that air defense system, the U.S. has agreed to provide Slovakia with a Patriot missile defense system.

MARTIN: You know, Elissa, millions of people have had to flee their homes in the last six weeks in western Ukraine. You've been talking with people who recently fled. Could you just tell us what you're hearing from them?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. So today in Lviv, I spoke with Olha. She's a psychologist and a mother of two who escaped the city of Rubizhne. That's a 50,000-person city in the Luhansk region.

OLHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: I'm left without a city, without a home, she told us. When she fled, she saw bodies on the street. Her children were traumatized. But many people there are still trapped.

OLHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She says even here in safety, her children are still having trouble sleeping. They wake up screaming in the night saying, please don't shoot.

OLHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: To people who are still in the east who are thinking of evacuating, Olha says to them, do not wait.

OLHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Grab your documents. Grab your children, she says. She understands why people haven't left. She says, you know, it's hard to believe that this is actually happening. But she says...

OLHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: No apartment, no amount of money is worth the trauma and the pain of what will happen to you if you stay.

MARTIN: Wow, Elissa. Wow. That's very powerful. Before we let you go, how are the evacuation efforts going?

NADWORNY: Well, according to the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, nearly 3,000 people were evacuated today from the Luhansk and Mariupol regions. Just yesterday, more than 4,000 people were evacuated. You know, there have been some issues. Buses that left Zaporizhzhia - that's that city that's close to Mariupol - they planned to evacuate civilians, and the buses were held up at checkpoint. On Saturday, Russian forces prevented buses carrying civilians to leave three cities in the east, which actually broke a deal they had set up. But Ukrainian officials say they are continuing to work to get those buses through the blocked areas, and they're hoping in the coming days that thousands more will be able to get to safety.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Lviv, western Ukraine. Elissa, thanks to you and your team for your work, and we hope you'll continue to be safe.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.