Hostilities in Ukraine pose immediate threat to 7.5M children, says UNICEF head

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Intensifying hostilities in Ukraine pose an immediate threat to the lives and well-being of the country’s 7.5 million children, the head of UNICEF said on Thursday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in the neighboring country.

“Heavy weapons fire along the line of contact has already damaged critical water infrastructure and education facilities in recent days,” Catherine Russell said in a statement.

“Unless the fighting subsides, tens of thousands of families could be forcibly displaced, dramatically escalating humanitarian needs.”

Russell said UNICEF is echoing the UN secretary-general’s appeal for an immediate cease-fire, calling on all parties to respect their international obligations to protect children from harm.

“This is the saddest moment in my tenure as secretary-general of the United Nations,” Antonio Guterres said in New York hours earlier. “I started this meeting of the Security Council addressing President Putin and telling him from the bottom of my heart: Stop your troops from an offensive against Ukraine, give peace a chance because too many people have died.”

Russel said the past eight years of conflict have inflicted “profound and lasting damage” to children who “need peace, desperately, now.”

The UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide called on all parties to refrain from attacking essential infrastructure on which children depend, including water and sanitation systems, health facilities, and schools.

Putin announced the “special military operation” in the Donbas region following a request from authorities of separatist-held Donetsk and Lugansk, which he recently recognized as independent states, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it is using “high-precision weapons” to disable air defense systems, military airports, and air forces in Ukraine.

Western leaders, who condemned Moscow’s actions and started imposing sanctions, say they will respond in a united and decisive way.

In 2014, Moscow began to support separatist forces in eastern Ukraine against the central government. The conflict has taken more than 13,000 lives, according to the UN.

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