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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian attacks laid down a curtain of fire Tuesday across areas of eastern Ukraine where pockets of resistance are denying Moscow full military control of the region, almost four months after the Kremlin unleashed its invasion.
"Today everything that can burn is on fire," Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region, told The Associated Press.
The Russian military currently controls about 95% of the Luhansk region. But Moscow has struggled for weeks to overrun it completely, despite deploying additional troops and possessing a massive advantage in military assets.
"With the help of tactical movements, the Ukrainian army is strengthening defenses in the Luhansk region," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. "That really is where the toughest situation is now."
In the city of Sievierodonetsk, the hot spot of the fighting, Ukrainian defenders held on to the Azot chemical plant in the industrial outskirts. About 500 civilians are sheltering at the plant, and Haidai said the Russian forces are turning the area "into ruins."
"It is a sheer catastrophe," Haidai told the AP in written comments about the plant. "Our positions are being fired at from howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, large-caliber artillery, missile strikes."
The defense of the chemical plant recalled the besieged Azovstal steel mill in the brutalized city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops were pinned down for weeks.
Neighboring Lysychansk, the only city in the Luhansk region that is still fully under Ukrainian control, also was targeted by multiple airstrikes.
The airstrikes on Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk ruined more than 10 residential buildings and a police station. In the city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, a school burned down as the result of the shelling, the president's office said. The Luhansk and Donetsk regions make up the Donbas.
Separately, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland met for about an hour at a Ukrainian-Polish border post with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova. They discussed how the U.S. can help identify, apprehend and prosecute anyone involved in war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.
"We and our partners will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable," Garland said in a statement.
Garland also tapped Eli Rosenbaum — a 36-year Justice Department veteran who headed efforts to identify and deport Nazi war criminals — as counselor for war crimes accountability. He will coordinate efforts to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.
Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, also came under heavy Russian shelling on Tuesday. Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said 15 civilians were killed and 16 wounded in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the region.
Zelenskyy said the attacks in the Kharkiv region were especially "cruel and cynical" because they brought no clear benefit to the Russian forces. "The Russian army is deaf to any rationality. It simply destroys, simply kills, and in this way it shows its command that it is not really standing in place," he said in his video address.
Speaking Tuesday to graduates of Russian military academies at a lavish Kremlin reception, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the Russian armed forces as heirs to the country's "legendary" military traditions. "The country is now going through another series of trials," he said, expressing confidence that Russia will overcome all the challenges.
"There is no doubt that we will become even stronger," he added.
International support for Ukraine was demonstrated once more when a Nobel Peace Prize medal auctioned off by Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov sold Monday night for $103.5 million, shattering the old record for a Nobel. The auction aimed to raise money for Ukrainian child refugees.
Geopolitical tensions stemming from Russia's invasion returned to Lithuania. Due to European Union sanctions on Moscow, the Baltic country earlier this month banned rail traffic from crossing its territory from Russia to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Kaliningrad, with a population of around 430,000 people, is wedged between Lithuania and Poland, both E.U. countries, and is isolated from the rest of Russia.
Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council and a hard-liner, visited Kaliningrad on Tuesday and vowed to respond to the ban.
"The relevant measures are being drawn up in an interagency format and will be adopted shortly," Patrushev said, without elaborating. He added: "Their consequences will have a significant negative impact on the population of Lithuania."
Zelenskyy said he spoke with leaders from nine European Union members — Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain — in anticipation of Friday's meeting of E.U. leaders to decide whether to grant Ukraine candidate status. He said his agenda for Wednesday is just as full. "We are expanding the circle of those who support Ukraine's candidacy and making it more likely that Friday's decision will be positive," he said.
John Kirby, a national security spokesman for the White House, said it was "appalling" that the Kremlin suggested two Americans captured by Russian forces in Ukraine could be sentenced to death. Kirby declined to say what steps the U.S. would take if Russia does not treat Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh, both from Alabama, as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "it depends on the investigation," when asked during an NBC interview whether the Americans could be sentenced to death like two Britons and a Moroccan captured while fighting for Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department confirmed the death of a U.S. citizen in Ukraine who is believed to be only the second American to have been killed while fighting in the conflict.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence report that Ukraine's coastal defenses have "largely neutralized" Russia's ability to project maritime force in the northwestern Black Sea. "This has undermined the viability of Russia's original operational design for the invasion, which involved holding the Odesa region at risk from the sea," the report said.
Russian authorities blocked the website of British newspaper The Telegraph over an article it published, the internet rights group Roskomsvoboda reported Tuesday. It said Russia's media and internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked Russian access to a story that alleged that Russian forces had prepared a mobile crematorium for use in its war with Ukraine, possibly to hide its military casualties. The move made the entire Telegraph website inaccessible for some Russians.