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Ukraine’s Western tanks in action for first time as counter-offensive starts

Ukraine: Smoke rises following explosion in Luhansk

Ukraine has sent its Western tanks on to the front line for the first time as its long-awaited counter-offensive begins.

Leopard II main battle tanks, donated by European allies, were in action during a sudden surge in fighting in the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine that it is understood to have marked the start of the assault.

Ukraine’s ministry of defence, which has a strict policy of silence about its plans, denied reports the counter-offensive had begun.

But US media reports said Ukrainian officials had anonymously briefed that an “active phase” of the counter-offensive was under way.

US officials said the latest assault appeared to be the main thrust of the counter-offensive, but they warned there had been “stiff resistance” from the Russians and the Ukrainians had suffered losses.

Read more: German arms firm says it can supply 139 Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine

The Ukrainian attack appeared to be focused around the Ukrainian-held front-line town of Orikhiv, a move that led analysts to suggest Kyiv was intending to push down towards the coast and cut off Russia’s access to Crimea.

But Western officials have long warned that the counter-offensive would be difficult, even with fresh supplies of modern Nato-standard equipment such as the main battle tanks.

The Russians have prepared multi-layered defensive lines, and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu briefed Vladimir Putin on Thursday (June 8) that their forces had defeated a large attack by Ukraine’s 47th mechanised brigade in a two-hour battle in the Zaporizhzhia region that morning. There was no way to independently verify the claim.

Russian drone pictures circulated by pro-Kremlin social media showed several vehicles, including two Leopard tanks, at a junction outside Malaya Tokmachka. Some were burning and observers said at least one of the Leopards was among the vehicles damaged or destroyed.

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A senior Ukrainian defence official suggested the Russian reports were exaggerated.

“When it (the counter-offensive) starts you won’t have to ask for confirmation,” the official told The Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said that “amidst a highly complex operational picture, heavy fighting continues along multiple sectors of the front. In most areas Ukraine holds the initiative”.

Ukraine has also continued action around Bakhmut and to back cross-border raids by anti-Kremlin Russian militias further north, which it hopes will stretch Kremlin defences.

At a White House press conference with Rishi Sunak, Joe Biden, the US president, said he was “very optimistic” about the “evolving” situation.

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The Prime Minister said it was “totally reasonable” for the American people to ask allies to “do their part”, adding that the UK was “proud” to be the biggest contributor behind the US to the military effort.

He said: “I think it is important other nations step up and do their part. President Putin will be thinking that the alliance will tire, will get fatigued, and that is not the case.”

Mr Biden pledged “our unwavering support for the people of Ukraine” who he said were “defending themselves against the most brutal aggression we’ve seen in a long time at the hands of Vladimir Putin”.

Meanwhile, Russia targeted civilians fleeing the floodwaters near the Ukrainian city of Kherson, where a major dam was breached.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, visited the city moments before it was hit by a barrage of shells.

Jens Stoltenberg, the head of Nato, urged members of the alliance to speed up humanitarian assistance to Ukraine after the destruction of the dam.

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