The first British Challenger 2 battle tanks have arrived in Ukraine, in a major boost for its armoured forces ahead of a planned spring offensive.
“Today, I had the honour to try out the newest addition to our armed units, particularly Challengers from the UK,” Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukraine defence minister, said.
A Challenger 2 was pictured alongside several other recently donated armoured vehicles including an American Stryker infantry carrier and a German Marder.
Ukrainian troops spent several weeks learning how to operate the 75-tonne Challenger 2 in Britain, the Ministry of Defence said.
The training began shortly after Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, announced in January that it would send 14 of the tanks to the front line.
“It is truly inspiring to witness the determination of Ukrainian soldiers having completed their training on British Challenger 2 tanks on British soil,” said Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
“They return to their homeland better equipped but to no less danger. We will continue to stand by them and do all we can to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he added.
Lt Col John Stone, who oversaw the training mission, said the British instructors were “hugely impressed with the level of competence displayed” by the Ukrainian crews.
Ukraine’s forces also received the first delivery of advanced Leopard 2 tanks from Germany.
“Yes, we delivered Leopard tanks as we announced,” Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, told a press conference in Rotterdam, confirming that 18 of the advanced tanks had reached Ukraine.
Earlier on Monday, powerful explosions blamed on Ukrainian partisans rocked two major occupied cities, wounding a Russia-appointed police chief and damaging an army barracks being used by Moscow’s forces.
In Mariupol, Mikhail Moskvin, the Russia-appointed police chief, escaped with only light injuries after his car exploded on Monday morning, a senior separatist leader said. Vadym Boychenko, the city’s Ukrainian mayor in exile, attributed the blast to the “Mariupol resistance”.
The bombing was a rare attack in the Azov Sea city, which was almost flattened by Russia’s two-month siege last year and which Vladimir Putin visited earlier this month.
The exiled mayor of Melitopol, a strategically-located city that lies between the Crimean peninsula and mainland Ukraine, claimed partisans had attacked a building serving as a garrison for Russian forces. Local authorities, however, attributed the explosions to shelling.
Footage from the scene showed a ruined one-storey annex next to the main building, which had all of its windows blown out.
Melitopol’s Russia-backed administration denied the building was being used by the military and claimed the attack had targeted a vocational college where students were reportedly having a class.
IAEA visit Zelensky
Meanwhile, Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, met Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of his planned visit to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which is still under Russian control.
Mr Grossi’s visit to the occupied power plant comes amid international condemnation of Mr Putin’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
Even China, one of Russia’s last remaining allies, issued a veiled rebuke of the move. Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, urged all parties in the conflict to “focus on diplomatic efforts towards a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis and push together for an end to tensions”.
Only two months ago, Russia and China issued a joint statement on preventing nuclear war and committed not to stationing their nuclear weapons abroad. Asked if the global backlash could have any influence on Russia’s decision-making, a Kremlin spokesman insisted on Monday the plans are unchanged.
“The president explained everything in this statement on Saturday – I have nothing to add to that,” said Dmitry Peskov.
In eastern Ukraine on Monday, the town of Slovyansk, which was previously spared major fighting, came under a Russian missile attack that killed at least two people and injured 25 others.
At least three apartment blocks and six private houses were damaged after Russia fired S-300 missiles at the city centre, leaving rescuers scouring the debris for possible survivors.
To the south of Slovyansk, Russian forces intensified their artillery bombardment of the frontline town of Avdiivka, where a Ukrainian official on Monday urged the evacuation of utility workers.
“I am sad to say this but Avdiivka is becoming more and more like a place straight out of post-apocalyptic movies,” Vitaly Bababash, the town’s mayor, said in a statement.
Just 2,000 people out of Avdiivka’s pre-war population of 30,000 remain in the town, which lies about 55 miles south-west of Bakhmut.
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