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Next 24 hours ‘crucial’ for Ukraine, Zelensky warns

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President Volodymyr Zelensky says the next 24 hours will be crucial for his country, as fighting continues across Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky made the comment on a call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday (Australian time).

It came just hours after it emerged that Russian ally Belarus had approved a new constitution ditching the country’s non-nuclear status. That would potentially allow the former Soviet republic to become a launchpad for Russian troops invading Ukraine, Russian news agencies said.

They cited the Belarus central elections commission as saying 65.2 per cent of those who took part voted in favour.

The result came as little surprise, given the tightly controlled rule in Belarus of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The new constitution could allow nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil for the first time since the country gave them up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

It raises the stakes as Mr Lukashenko backs Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military assault on Ukraine after earlier playing an intermediary role between the two neighbours. Late on Sunday, Mr Zelensky said he had agreed to send advisers to the border of Belarus and Ukraine for negotiations with the Russians – although he was blunt about the likelihood of success.

“I will say frankly that I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try to make sure that no citizen of Ukraine has any doubt that I, as a president, did not try to stop the war,” Mr Zelensky wrote on his Telegram channel.

The West has already said it will not recognise the results of the Belarus referendum, which came against the background of a sweeping crackdown on domestic opponents of the government.

According to human rights activists, as of Sunday, there were more than 1000 political prisoners in Belarus.

The referendum sparked anti-war protests in several cities. At least 290 people were detained, rights activists said.

Protests had largely died down in Belarus after Mr Lukashenko launched a violent crackdown on dissent against his 28-year-long rule. Mass protests had erupted in 2020 following a disputed election that opponents say Mr Lukashenko rigged.

On Sunday, speaking at a polling station, Mr Lukashenko said he could ask Russia to return nuclear weapons to Belarus.

“If you (the West) transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions,” he said.

The new constitution would give powers to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, created by Mr Lukashenko and populated by party loyalists, local councils, officials and activists of pro-government organisations.

It would also give lifetime immunity from prosecution to the president once he left office.

The Belarus vote came as fighting continued in Ukraine. Images released by BlackSky, a global satellite monitoring company, show craters after shelling in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces had blown up a natural gas pipeline in the city, Ukraine’s second largest, early on Sunday. The images show craters from artillery fire near residential areas.

There has been intensive fighting in the streets of Kharkiv, as thousands of residents sheltered in underground rail stations. Ukrainian authorities said they regained control of the city despite the Russian assault.

The Ukraine military also said its Turkish-made force of drones had been successful in attacks Russian forces.

On Sunday, the Armed Forces of Ukraine released footage showing the destruction of armour by a drone, which it said was carried out against a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system.

Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi said the drone attack was near the town of Malyn, 100 kilometres north-west of Kyiv.

Elsewhere, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed unequivocal support for Ukraine becoming a member of the bloc, saying it was “one of us”.

Ms von der Leyen made her comments in an interview hours after the 27-nation EU decided for the first time in its history to supply weapons to a country at war.

A source told Reuters it would send €450 million ($706 million) of weaponry to Ukraine.

“Indeed over time, they belong to us. They are one of us and we want them in,” Von der Leyen told Euronews.

She had previously said the EU would close its airspace to Russian aircraft, including the private jets of Russian oligarchs, as concerns rise the crisis might spill into neighbouring countries.

The bloc will also ban Russian state-owned television network Russia Today and news agency Sputnik.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his G7 counterparts also “underscored” the “unified response to Russia’s invasion,” in a call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday, according to a US State Department readout.

“Together we are supporting the Ukrainian people and imposing severe costs and consequences to hold Russia accountable for its war of choice,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“We stand with Ukraine and recognise the bravery and heroism of the Ukrainian people.”

-with AAP

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