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Leaders of 3 EU states head to Kyiv as attacks intensify

Firefighters work in an apartment building damaged by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia traveled by train on Tuesday to Kyiv to meet with Ukraine’s top leadership as Russia’s offensive moved closer to the center of the capital.

The visit by the leaders of three countries which belong to the EU but also NATO, comes as a series of strikes hit a residential neighborhood in Kyiv.

They described their visit into the war zone as a mission by the European Union to support Ukraine, though EU officials characterized it as trip the central European leaders had undertaken independently despite the security risks.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland announced he was joined by Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic and Janez Jansa of Slovenia. Also traveling is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de-facto leader.

Kaczynski’s presence carries a certain symbolic significance. He is the surviving twin of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash on Russian soil in 2010 along with 95 other Poles, among them political and military leaders, as they traveled to commemorate Poles executed by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

A Polish investigation determined that the crash was an accident caused by fog and pilot error, but Kaczynski, 72, has long suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a role in provoking the accident, a suspicion he has so far failed to prove.

The leaders traveling to Kyiv on Tuesday are to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

“The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence,” said Fiala.

Morawiecki said on Facebook that he and the other leaders were making a visit, which he cast as historic, in agreement with the EU and that the United Nations was also informed.

“In such critical times for the world it is our duty to be where history is forged,” Morawiecki said. “Because it’s not about us, but about the future of our children who deserve to live in a world free from tyranny.”

In Brussels, officials said they had been informed of the visit but characterized it as one taken independently into a war zone.

An EU official, who spoke off the record because of the sensitivity of the trip, said after a summit last week at Versailles, the European Council was informed of the potential mission, but there were “no conclusions or mandate of the European Council as such” for the initiative.

That official said EU Council President Charles Michel also “pointed at the security risks” of such a trip.

Eric Mamer, spokesman of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, confirmed that both she and Michel were informed of a potential visit on the margins of the Versailles meeting. He stressed that the EU supports Ukraine as it faces attack.

This visit was confirmed yesterday night,” Mamer said. “The European Union stands by Ukraine. The EU is working to provide coordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian” support.

The visit had been planned for several days but was kept secret for security reasons, said Michal Dworczyk, the head of Morawiecki’s office. He said that Morawiecki and Kaczynski had crossed the Polish border by train into Ukraine on Tuesday morning.

A proposal of concrete help for Ukraine would be presented to Ukraine’s leaders, Dworczyk added.

Shortly before dawn as the leaders were en route, large explosions thundered across Kyiv from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes. The shelling ignited a huge fire and a frantic rescue effort in a 15-story apartment building. At least one person was killed and others remain trapped inside.

Shockwaves from an explosion also damaged the entry to a downtown subway station that has been used as a bomb shelter. City authorities tweeted an image of the blown-out facade, saying trains would no longer stop at the station.

Ahead of his departure, Morawiecki on Facebook recalled how the former Polish President Lech Kaczynski had made a visit to the capital of Georgia in 2008 when that ex-Soviet country was under attack from Russia.

He quoted President Kaczynski who said at the time in Tbilisi: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and then maybe it’s time for my country, for Poland.”

Casert reported from Brussels.