ICC expected to launch war crimes cases against Russians over Ukraine
- Charges to cover child deportations, civilian targeting
- Case would be first to arise from invasion
- China's Xi could visit Moscow, speak to Zelenskiy
- Ukrainian commander says forces repel Bakhmut attacks
- Wagner chief says Russian forces are advancing
AMSTERSDAM/NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine, March 13 (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court is expected to seek the arrest of Russian officials for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine and targeting civilian infrastructure, a source said on Monday, in what would be the first international war crimes cases arising from Moscow's invasion.
The source said the arrest warrants could include the crime of genocide, and were expected to arrive in the "short term" if the court prosecutor's request was approved by a pre-trial judge at the Hague-based court. It was unclear which Russian officials the prosecutor might seek warrants against.
The office of the prosecutor at the ICC declined to comment.
Russia's defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moscow would be certain to reject any arrest warrants against any of its officials. But an international war crimes prosecution could deepen Moscow's diplomatic isolation and make it difficult for those accused to travel abroad.
Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, said the ICC had no jurisdiction over the country since Moscow withdrew its backing in 2016. "The ICC is an instrument of neo-colonialism in the hands of the West," he said.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, saying its attacks are all intended to reduce Kyiv's ability to fight. It has not concealed a programme under which it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, but presents it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
Kyiv says thousands of deported Ukrainian children are being adopted into Russian families, housed in Russian camps and orphanages, given Russian passports and brought up to reject Ukrainian nationality.
The U.N. genocide convention defines "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" as one of five acts that can be prosecuted as genocide. Asked if the ICC charges against the Russian officials could include genocide, the source said: "It looks that way."
'THERE IS A LOT OF ARTILLERY'
On the ground, both sides described relentless fighting in and around Bakhmut, a small ruined city in eastern Ukraine that has become the main focus of a Russian winter campaign.
Near Kreminna, north of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers said they were repelling intensified attacks by increasingly professional soldiers, while heavy equipment was being brought closer to the frontline by the Russians.
In a forest some 8 km (5 miles) from the front, cannons boomed, targeting enemy positions to the northeast. Explosions rumbled constantly in the distance, a sign of heavy fighting.
Reuters reporters saw a soldier being brought from the front with a badly wounded leg. He was stabilised in a van with a splint and painkillers before being taken to a medical centre further from the front.
"Two or three weeks ago the fighting was at its peak but it has calmed down a bit," said Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old medic. "There is a lot of artillery and mortar fire."
On a bad day he would see 20 wounded troops in a single day from his battalion, he told Reuters.
The months-long fight for Bakhmut has become Europe's bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.
Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city's eastern part but so far failed to encircle it.
"All enemy attempts to capture the town are repelled by artillery, tanks, and other firepower," Ukraine's Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of ground forces who has vowed not to withdraw, was quoted as saying by Ukraine's Media Military Centre.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday the situation was "tough, very tough".
Moscow says taking it would be a major success, opening a path to capture the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region, a central war aim.
Kyiv says it has decided not to pull out because it is inflicting huge losses on the Russian assault force which will make it easier to stage a counterattack later this year.
As the fighting ground on in eastern Ukraine, Moscow appeared on the cusp of one long-sought diplomatic breakthrough: several sources told Reuters that China's President Xi Jinping could visit Russia as soon as next week, an earlier-than-expected response to a long-standing invitation.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Kremlin said it had nothing to announce yet.
President Vladimir Putin has touted such a visit as a show of support, but it could be overshadowed by plans for Xi to speak by video link to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the first time since the invasion.
The plans for talks between Zelenskiy and Xi were reported by the Wall Street Journal. Reuters could not immediately confirm them and Ukraine's president's office did not immediately respond.
A visit by Xi to Russia would be a major event for Putin, who portrays the war in Ukraine as a conflict with the combined might of the West. Russia relies on China to buy oil and gas it can no longer sell in Europe.
But a video meeting with Zelenskiy could be an even bigger coup for the Ukrainians, who want Beijing to remain neutral rather than firm up support for Moscow.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One that Ukraine had not confirmed a call between Xi and Zelenskiy.
Sullivan said Washington has been publicly and privately encouraging Xi to talk to Zelenskiy so that they hear "not just the Russian perspective" on the war.
China has declined to ascribe blame for the war while opposing Western sanctions against Russia. It unveiled a proposal in February for a peace plan, met with scepticism in the West but praised in Moscow and cautiously welcomed by Zelenskiy.
China and Russia struck a "no limits" partnership in February of 2022, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the two sides have reaffirmed the strength of their ties in public.
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