KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces in Ukraine tried to storm a steel plant housing soldiers and civilians in the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday while attempting to crush the last corner of resistance in a place of deep symbolic and strategic value to Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
The reported assault on the eve of Orthodox Easter came after the Kremlin claimed its military had seized all of the shattered city except for the Azovstal plant, and as Russian forces pounded other cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The fate of the Ukrainians in the sprawling seaside steel mill wasn’t immediately clear; earlier Saturday, a Ukrainian military unit released a video reportedly taken two days earlier in which women and children holed up underground, some for as long as two months, said they longed to see the sun.
“We want to see peaceful skies, we want to breathe in fresh air,” one woman in the video said. “You have simply no idea what it means for us to simply eat, drink some sweetened tea. For us, it is already happiness.”
As the battle for the port ground on, Russia claimed it had taken control of several villages elsewhere in the eastern Donbas region and destroyed 11 military Ukrainian military targets overnight, including three artillery warehouses. Russian attacks also struck populated areas of Ukraine.
Associated Press journalists also observed shelling in residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine‘s second-largest city; regional governor reported Oleh Sinehubov said three people were killed. In the Luhansk area of the Donbas, Gov. Serhiy Haidai said six people died during the shelling of a village, Gorskoi
In Sloviansk, a town in northern Donbas. The AP witnessed two soldiers arriving at the town’s hospital, one of them mortally wounded. Nearby, a small group of people gathered outside a church, where a priest blessed them with water on Holy Saturday.
While British officials said the Russians hadn’t gained significant new ground, Ukrainian officials announced a nationwide curfew ahead of Easter Sunday, a sign of the war’s disruption and threat to the entire country.
Mariupola part of the industrial region in eastern Ukraine Known as the Donbas, has been a key Russian objective since the Feb. 24 invasion began and has taken on outsize importance in the war. Completing its capture would give Russia its biggest victory yet, after a nearly two-month siege reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin.
Occupying Mariupol would deprive the Ukrainians of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere and allow Russia to create a land corridor with the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. Russia-backed separatists control parts of the Donbas.
An advisor to Ukraine‘s presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovich, said during a Saturday briefing that Russian forces had resumed air strikes on the Azovstal plant and were trying to storm it. A direct attempt to take the plant would represent a reversal from an order Russian President Vladimir Putin gave two days earlier.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin on Thursday that the whole of Mariupolwith the exception of Azovstal, had been “liberated” by the Russians. At the time, Putin ordered him not to send Russian troops into the plant but instead to block off the facility, an apparent attempt to starve out the Ukrainians and force them to surrender.
Ukrainian officials have estimated that about 2,000 of their troops are inside the plant along with the civilians sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels. Arestovic said the Ukrainian forces were trying to counter the new attacks.
Earlier Saturday, the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard, which has members holed up in the plant, released the footage of around two dozen women and children. The contents could not be independently verified.
If authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life has been like for civilians still trapped in Mariupol‘s underground bunkers. The video showed soldiers giving sweets to children who respond with fist-bumps.
One young girl says she and her relatives “haven’t seen neither the sky, nor the sun” since they left home on Feb. 27.
The regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told The AP the video was shot Thursday. The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was formed in 2014 by far-right activists at the start of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and elicited criticism for some of its tactics.
More than 100,000 people – down from a prewar population of about 430,000 – are believed trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heat, according to Ukrainian authorities, who estimate that over 20,000 civilians have been killed in the city during the Russian blockade.
Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be a second mass grave near Mariupoland local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians to conceal the slaughter taking place there.
The Kremlin hasn’t responded to the satellite images.
Ukrainian officials had said they would try again Saturday to evacuate women, children and older adults from Mariupol. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram that the effort was to get underway at midday.
Like previous plans to get civilians out of the city, this one failed. Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol‘s mayor, said Russian forces did not allow Ukrainian-organized buses to take residents to Zaporizhzhia, a city 227 kilometers (141 miles) to the northwest.
“At 11 o’clock, at least 200 Mariupol residents gathered near the Port City shopping center, waiting for evacuation,” Andryushchenko posted on the Telegram messaging app. “The Russian military drove up to the Mariupol residents and ordered them to disperse, because now there will be shelling.”
At the same time, he said, Russian buses assembled about 200 meters away. Residents who got on board were told that they were being taken to separatist-occupied territory and not allowed to disembark, Andryushchenko said. His account could not be independently verified.
During the attack on Odesathe Russians fired at least six missiles, Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine‘s interior minister. Defense forces repelled some of the rockets, but at least one landed and exploded, he said.
“Residents of the city heard explosions in different areas,” Gerashchenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Residential buildings were hit. It is already known about one victim. He burned in his car in a courtyard of one of the buildings.”
The Ukraine presidential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, later reported that the 3-month-old baby was among the five people killed in the missile attack.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced all the war’s casualties, noting that the Easter holiday commemorates Christ’s resurrection after his death by crucifixion.
“We believe in the victory, of life over death,” he said. “No matter how fierce the battles are, there is no chance for death to defeat life. Everyone knows that. Every Christian knows that.”
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