Germany said on Monday it was prepared to back an immediate European Union embargo on Russian oil, a major shift from Moscow's biggest energy customer that could let Europe impose such a ban within days.
Russia's energy exports - by far its biggest source of income - have so far largely been exempt from international sanctions over the war in Ukraine. Kyiv says that loophole means European countries are funding the Kremlin war effort, sending Moscow hundreds of millions of euros every day.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has been more cautious than other Western leaders in backing Ukraine, has been under growing pressure to take a firmer line, including from within the Social Democrat's own governing coalition.
"Germany is not against an oil ban on Russia. Of course it is a heavy load to bear but we would be ready to do that," Economy Minister Robert Habeck, of the Greens, told reporters before talks with his EU colleagues in Brussels.
"With coal and oil, it is possible to forgo Russian imports now," Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the pro-business FDP told Die Welt newspaper. "It can't be ruled out that fuel prices could rise."
Germany had already reduced the share of Russian oil in its imports to 12% for 35% before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb.24, but had previously said it needed months to phase out Russian crude to lessen the economic impact at home.
Eastern parts of Germany in particular rely on fuel from a refinery owned by Russia's state oil company Rosneft, served by the Soviet-era "Friendship" pipeline that runs thousands of miles to oil fields in Siberia.
Weaning Europe off Russia's natural gas is likely to prove more difficult than finding other sources of oil. Russia has demanded European customers pay for gas in roubles, which the EU rejects. Last week, Moscow cut off supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. The EU ministers were meeting on Monday to discuss a joint response.
EVACUATION FROM MARIUPOL
The first civilians to be evacuated from a giant steel plant in Mariupol were expected to arrive later on Monday in the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia after an overnight bus journey across the front-line.
Ukraine says hundreds of civilians have been trapped inside the Azovstal plant along with the city's last Ukrainian defenders. Dozens were able to leave on Sunday in an evacuation organized by the United Nations, the first to leave since President Vladimir Putin ordered the plant barricaded last week.
An efforts to organize the evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city, now held by the Russians, ran into delays. Ukraine says 100,000 people are still living among the ruins in desperate conditions after months of Russian siege.
"Our house is completely destroyed. We had a two-story building, it's not there anymore. It burned to the ground," said Natalya Tsyntomirska, a Mariupol native who reached Zaporizhzhia on Monday in a funeral service van.
After being forced to abandon an assault on Kyiv at the end of March, Russia has launched a major new offensive in eastern Ukraine. For its part, Kyiv hopes a massive influx of Western military aid will allow it to repel that assault and then turn the tide with a counter-attack.
The Russian offensive is focused on the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, parts of which were already held by Russian-backed separatists before the invasion. Russian troops are now trying to encircle a large Ukrainian force there, attacking from three directions with massive bombardment along the front.
Ukraine's military said on Monday Russian forces were trying to take over the frontline Luhansk province town of Rubizhne, and prepare an assault on nearby Sievierodonetsk.
The heaviest clashes were taking place around Popasna, further south. Shelling was so intense it was not possible to collect the bodies, said regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai.
"I don't even want to speak about what's happening with the people living in Popasna, Rubizhne and Novotoshkivske right now. These cities simply don't exist anymore. They have completely destroyed them."
In Russia, two explosions took place on Monday in Belgorod, a southern region bordering Ukraine, governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said. The cause of the blasts was not clear but the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of making cross-border attacks. Gladkov said there were no casualties.
Ukraine does not generally respond to accusations it is behind attacks in Russia, but has described incidents there as "karma."
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