Ukraine sees openings as Russia focuses on beleaguered Mariupol

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Residents of Ukraine’s beleaguered southeast coast awaited possible evacuation on Sunday as the country’s president said Russia’s obsession with capturing a key port city had weakened it and created opportunities for its troops.

It came as Russia said its military struck an oil processing plant and fuel depots around the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Russian ships and planes fired missiles to hit the facilities, which he said had been used to supply troops with fuel Ukrainians near Mykolaiv.

Major General Konashenkov said Russian strikes also destroyed ammunition depots at Kostiantynivka and Khresyshche.

In an audio message published by Italian news agency Ansa, Italian photographer Carlo Orlandi said Odessa woke up on Sunday to military sirens at 5.45 a.m., followed immediately by the sound of bombs falling on the port city from two planes.

He described a column of black smoke rising from the targets and flames coming from the buildings.

“What we can see is a thick screen of black smoke, and one explosion after another,” he said.

With Mariupol, east of Odessa, directly in Russia’s crosshairs, Ukraine insists it has taken a head start elsewhere in the country, leading troops to resume the territory north of the capital, kyiv, as Russian forces departed.

“Ukraine has gained invaluable time, time that allows us to outwit the enemy’s tactics and weaken its capabilities,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday evening.

People at Odessa train station, before boarding a train to Poland (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

However, inside Mariupol, surrounded by Russian forces for more than a month and the victim of some of the worst attacks of the war, conditions remain dire and prospects for escape uncertain.

About 100,000 people are believed to remain in the Sea of ​​Azov city, less than a quarter of its pre-war population of 430,000, and severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine persist.

Many still in Mariupol are waiting for the fulfillment of promises to help them reach safety. Among those trying to get residents out was the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had still not reached the town on Saturday, a day after local authorities said it had been blocked by Russian forces .

Some residents fled on their own, including Tamila Mazurenko, who reached Zaporizhzhia, a town still under Ukrainian control that served as a hub for further evacuations.

“I only have one question: why? she said of her city’s ordeal. “Our normal life has been destroyed. And we lost everything. I don’t have a job, I can’t find my son.

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A man distributes rolls of toilet paper as people wait for supplies after a convoy of military and humanitarian vehicles arrived in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

Mariupol is in the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years. Its capture would create an unbroken land corridor from Russia to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

As Ukrainian troops moved cautiously to retake territory north of kyiv, the country and its Western allies said Russia was strengthening itself in eastern Ukraine. Where Russian troops are retreating, Ukraine has said it will continue its attacks, shelling and targeting them as they withdraw.

“Peace will not be the result of decisions made by the enemy somewhere in Moscow. There is no need to entertain vain hopes that they will simply leave our land. We can only have peace by fighting,” President Zelensky said.

Although the geography of the battlefield had changed, there was little difference for many Ukrainians more than five weeks into a war that has sent more than four million people fleeing the country as refugees.

Mr Zelensky alleged that as Russian troops moved, they left mines around houses, abandoned equipment and even corpses. These claims could not be independently verified, but Ukrainian troops heeded the warning.

In Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Associated Press reporters saw Ukrainian soldiers, backed by a column of tanks and other armored vehicles, using cables to drag bodies out of a remote street , lest they were entrapped. Residents said the dead – AP counted at least six – were civilians killed unprovoked by departing Russian soldiers.

In towns and villages surrounding kyiv, signs of fierce fighting were everywhere following the Russian redeployment. Destroyed armored vehicles of both armies lay in the streets and fields with scattered military equipment.

Ukrainian troops were stationed at the entrance to Antonov airport in the suburb of Hostomel, demonstrating control of the runway that Russia tried to storm in the early days of the war.

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A Ukrainian serviceman walks past an Antonov An-225 Mriya plane destroyed in fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces at Antonov Airport in Hostomel (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

Inside the compound, the Mriya, one of the largest planes ever built, lay in ruins under a hangar riddled with holes from the February attack.

“The Russians couldn’t make one like this, so they destroyed it,” said Oleksandr Merkushev, mayor of nearby Irpin.

The head of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia says Moscow negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed in face-to-face talks in Istanbul this week, but no written confirmation has been forthcoming. has been provided.

However, Davyd Arakhamia told Ukrainian television that he hoped the project would be developed enough for the presidents of the two countries to meet to discuss it.

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Ukrainian servicemen board a combat vehicle outside kyiv (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

Although glimmers of hope have emerged for Ukraine in some places, Zelensky said he expects towns where Russian forces have moved to come under missile and rocket strikes from far and wide. let the battle in the east be intense.

In his Saturday evening speech, he called on his people to do all they can to ensure the country’s survival, even such simple acts as being kind to each other.

“When a nation is defending itself in a war of annihilation, when it comes to the life or death of millions, there are no unimportant things… And everyone can contribute to a victory for all,” Mr. Zelensky said.

“Some with weapons in their hands. Some while working. And some with a warm word and help at the right time. Do everything you can so that we are united in this war for our freedom, for our independence.

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