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Europe faces April 1 deadline on Russian gas

European buyers of Russian gas faced a deadline to start paying in roubles on Friday, while negotiations aimed at ending the five-week war were set to resume even as Ukraine braced for further attacks in the south and east.

Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing and galvanised the United States and allies around the world to impose punishing penalties on Russian government entities, businesses and oligarchs.

Russia will respond to European Union sanctions, the RIA news agency quoted a senior foreign ministry official on Friday.

“The actions of the EU will not remain unanswered … the irresponsible sanctions by Brussels are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” Nikolai Kobrinets told the news agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin played one of his biggest cards on Thursday, demanding European energy buyers start paying in roubles from Friday or have existing contracts halted.

European governments rejected Putin’s energy ultimatum, with the continent’s biggest recipient of Russian gas, Germany, calling it “blackmail”.

The energy showdown has huge ramifications for Europe as US officials circle the globe to keep pressure on Putin to stop an invasion that has uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people.

The International Energy Agency will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss a new release of strategic oil reserves alongside a US plan to pump massive supplies starting in May to cool soaring oil prices. The Ukraine war has seen oil prices soaring more than 30 percent this year.

The war also threatens to disrupt global food supplies, with a US government official sharing images of what they said was damage to grain storage facilities in Ukraine, a major grain exporter.

‘Battles Ahead’

Putin sent troops on February 24 for what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Western countries say Mr Putin’s real aim was to topple Ukraine’s government.

At talks this week, Moscow said it would reduce offensives near the capital Kyiv and in the north as a goodwill gesture and focus on “liberating” the southeastern Donbas region.

Kyiv and its allies say Russia is instead trying to regroup after taking losses from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has recaptured suburbs of the capital plus strategic areas in the northeast and southwest.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russian troops have started a partial withdrawal from the Kyiv region towards Belarus and were taking looted vehicles with them.

Video footage from Irpin, on the western fringe of Kyiv, showed destroyed Russian tanks amid bombed-out buildings and Ukrainian authorities removing victims in body bags.

“We knew [Russian troops] were being pushed out but when our army came then I fully understood we have been liberated,” said Irpin resident Lilia Ristich. “It was happiness beyond imagination.”

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