Pride, defiance and solidarity mark Ukrainian Independence Day under pall of war
KYIV/KRAMATORSK, Ukraine, Aug 24 (Reuters) - On the frontlines of Ukrainian resistance to Russia's invading forces and in shattered cities, combatants and civilians marked Ukraine's independence day with defiant words and the promise of victory.
In normal years a day of celebrations hailing the end of Soviet rule in 1991, this Independence Day took place six months to the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions have fled their homes, and cities have been laid waste by bombardments.
But the day also reaffirmed Ukrainians' resolve and Western support for their struggle.
"Our nation has become more conscious and, thus, stronger, to finally give a devastating response and forever punish the (Russian) criminals," said Mkyta Nadtochii, commander of the Azov Regiment.
It was heavily involved in gruelling fighting in the port city of Mariupol and the siege of its Azovstal steelworks, which eventually fell to the Russians.
"We are certainly going to win... A steel spirit has been born out of the ashes," he said.
The streets of Kramatorsk, in eastern Donetsk province, were deserted on Wednesday, with only a few residents out as the city was under curfew. Donetsk, part of the Donbas region, has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
A man who gave his name as Artem said: "Everything is closed, the factories are closed, so there is no work."
After days of warnings that Moscow could use the anniversary to launch more missile attacks missile on urban centres, Ukraine's second city Kharkiv was under curfew after months of bombardment and Kyiv was quiet.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians in a conflict it refers to as a "special military operation".
In the capital, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife Olena Zelenska attended prayers at Saint Sophia Cathedral to mark independence and also visited various sites to pay tribute to fallen Ukrainians.
"We will not sit down at the negotiating table (with Russia) out of fear, with a gun pointed at our heads. For us, the most terrible iron is not missiles, aircraft and tanks, but shackles...," Zelenskiy said in an address to the nation.
"What for us is the end of the war? We used to say: peace. Now we say: victory."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson - one of Ukraine's most vocal backers - turned up in Kyiv in person to appear at Zelenskiy's side.
He praised Ukraine for its "indomitable" resistance and said it was vital that Europe keep up its military and economic support for Ukraine.
The leaders of France and Germany also sent words of support and encouragement - and in the case of the United States, the announcement of a new security assistance package of about $3 billion in military aid.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country would also deliver weapons "month after month" and train Ukrainian soldiers, he said.
European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen pledged European Union help to get Ukraine back on its feet after the war.
"Together with you we will rebuild your cities, brick by brick, and replant your gardens and fields, seed by seed... Europe is with you today and in the long run," she said.
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