Ukraine claims battlefield breakthrough as Blinken ramps up aid

Ukraine on Thursday claimed a military breakthrough in its counter-offensive against Russian invaders as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a surprise visit to Kiev, unveiled another $2.8 billion in military aid.

Ukraine said its forces made gains in the north, the south and the east, prying back land seized by Russia which had hoped for a swift victory when it attacked nearly seven months ago.

"Our heroes have already liberated dozens of settlements. And today this movement continued," said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in an address to the nation.

"In total, more than a thousand square kilometres (nearly 400 sq miles) have been liberated since September 1," he said shortly after announcing the recapture of Balakliya in the eastern Kharkiv region, a town which fell to Russian forces in early March.

In the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, forces penetrated 50 kilometres (30 miles) beyond Russian lines and "liberated" more than 20 towns and villages, senior military official Oleksiy Gromov said.

Hoping to build on the momentum, Blinken secretly travelled to Kiev for his second trip during the war, passing through dark hallways with sandbags in the sealed presidential compound to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"It's very early, but we are seeing clear and real progress on the ground," Blinken said after spending more than two hours with Zelensky.

Blinken vowed the United States would keep up assistance "until the aggression ceases and Ukraine is fully sovereign" and that pressure on Russia would keep getting "heavier and heavier".

"You have our word -- and our track record," he told Zelensky.

Zelensky, clad in his now signature military-green T-shirt, presented a state award...

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