Ukraine war rages on multiple fronts

Siverskyi Donets River
Ukraine stopped Russian forces crossing the Siverskyi Donets river in eastern Ukraine, the UK says. -AP

The bodies of hundreds of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine have been loaded onto a refrigerated train in a rail yard outside Kyiv, waiting for the time when they can sent back to their families.

Volodymyr Lyamzin, the chief civil-military liaison officer, told Reuters on Friday there were refrigerated trains in other regions across Ukraine, being used for the same grim purpose.

Reuters filmed stretcher-bearers in white, head-to-toe protective suits lifting bodybags into the box cars.

Ukraine's military also released aerial photographs of the burnt out and abandoned remnants of a Russian armoured column caught trying to cross a river in the Donbas region, which has become the main battleground.

Britain's defence ministry said a pontoon bridge and parts of an armoured battalion had been destroyed at the Siverskyi Donets River, while Russian forces were trying to break through defences elsewhere in the Donbas.

"We are entering a new, long phase of the war," Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a Facebook post, predicting "extremely tough weeks" when Ukraine would largely be alone against an "enraged aggressor".

Making their fastest territorial gains since forcing the Russians to abandon an advance on Kyiv over a month ago, Ukrainian forces have driven the invaders away from the second largest city, Kharkiv.

Ukraine controls territory stretching to the Siverskyi Donets River, around 40 km to the east.

However, Moscow is still bombarding nearby villages, including Dergachi, some 10 km north of Kharkiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's most tangible success has been to capture a swathe of territory along the southern coast to link the Crimean peninsula - which Russia seized in 2014 - with the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for years.

Even there, his forces were still trying to extinguish the last bastion of resistance at the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol.

Ukraine has proposed evacuating 38 of the most severely wounded defenders, offering to release a number of Russian prisoners of war in return.

"At the moment very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission – the removal of the badly wounded, medics," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late night address.

There has also been renewed fighting around Snake Island, a strategically located islet controlling vital shipping lanes in the Black Sea.

The Kremlin calls its invasion of Ukraine a "special military operation" to demilitarise a neighbour threatening its security. Ukraine says it poses no threat to Russia and that the deaths of thousands of civilians and destruction of cities and towns show Russia is waging a war of aggression.

In their first conversation since the invasion, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke by telephone on Friday with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, seeking an immediate ceasefire and stressing the importance of open lines of communication.

A day after Finland committed to applying to join NATO, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde advocated membership for her country too, though NATO member Turkey has raised objections.

Joining the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance would end the neutrality the two states have maintained during the Cold War. Putin has said one aim of the war was to prevent further expansion of the 30-nation Western military group.

Meeting in Germany, foreign ministers from the G7 group of rich nations backed giving Ukraine more aid and arms and the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced a further 500 million euros in military support that should be approved next week by EU members.