KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces in Ukraine attempted to storm a steel mill housing soldiers and civilians in the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday as they attempted to crush the last corner of resistance in a place of high symbolic and strategic value for Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
The reported assault on the eve of Orthodox Easter came after the Kremlin claimed its army had seized all of Mariupol except for the Azovstal factory, and that the Russian army had shelled other towns and villages in southern and eastern Ukraine. Officials reported that Russia fired at least six cruise missiles at the Black Sea port city of Odessa, killing five people.
The fate of the Ukrainians locked in the sprawling seaside steelworks was not immediately clear; Earlier on Saturday, a Ukrainian military unit released a video believed to have been taken two days earlier in which women and children locked underground, some for two months, said they longed to see the sun.
“We want to see peaceful skies, we want to breathe fresh air,” one woman said in the video. “You just have no idea what it means to us to just eat, drink sweet tea. For us, that’s already happiness.
As the battle for shattered Mariupol continued, Russia claimed to have taken control of several villages elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region and destroyed 11 Ukrainian military targets overnight, including three artillery depots.
Associated Press reporters also observed shelling in residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and in Sloviansk, a city in northern Donbass. The AP saw two soldiers arrive at the city hospital, one of them fatally wounded. , while a small group of people gathered outside a church where a priest prayed and sprinkled them with water on Holy Saturday.
While British officials said the Russians had not gained significant ground, Ukrainian officials announced a nationwide curfew ahead of Easter Sunday, a sign of the disruption of the war and the threat to the whole from the country.
Mariupol, part of the industrial region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass, has been a key Russian target since the start of the February 24 invasion and has taken on outsized 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 and killed an estimated 20,000 people there.
Occupying Mariupol would deprive 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.
An adviser to Ukraine’s presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovich, told a briefing on Saturday that Russian forces had resumed airstrikes on the Azovstal factory and were trying to storm it. A direct attempt to take the plant would represent a reversal of an order Russian President Vladimir Putin had given two days earlier.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin on Thursday that all of Mariupol, except Azovstal, had been “liberated” by the Russians. At the time, Putin ordered him not to send Russian troops into the factory, but rather to block the facility, an apparent attempt to starve the Ukrainians and force them to surrender.
Ukrainian officials estimated that around 2,000 of their troops were inside the plant along with the civilians sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels. Arestovic said Ukrainian forces were trying to counter the new attacks.
Earlier Saturday, the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, which has members locked in the factory, released images of around two dozen women and children. If authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life was like for civilians still trapped in Mariupol’s underground bunkers.
The regiment’s deputy commander, Svyatoslav Palamar, told the AP that the video was taken on Thursday, the same day Russia declared victory over the rest of Mariupol. The contents could not be independently verified. 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 drew criticism for some of its tactics.
Footage from Azovstal showed soldiers giving candy to children who responded with punches. A young girl says she and her loved ones “have not seen the sky or the sun” since leaving home on February 27.
More than 100,000 people – compared to a pre-war population of around 430,000 – are believed to be trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heating, according to Ukrainian authorities, who estimate that more than 20,000 civilians have were killed in the city during the nearly two-month siege. .
Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be a second mass grave near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians to cover up the massacre taking place there.
The Kremlin did not respond to satellite images.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced all victims of war, noting that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his death by crucifixion.
“We believe in the victory of life over death,” he said. “As fierce as the fighting is, death has no chance of defeating life. Everybody knows that. Every Christian knows that.
Ukrainian officials said they were trying again on Saturday to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Mariupol after many previous attempts had failed. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app that the effort was due to start at noon, but it was unclear how the new assault on the factory would affect a possible evacuation.
Russian state television showed the flag of pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the city’s highest point, its television tower. He also showed what he said was the main building in flames.
On Saturday, Russian forces also fired at least six cruise missiles at Odessa, said Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister. At least one landed and exploded, he said.
“City residents heard explosions in different areas,” Gerashchenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Residential buildings were affected. We already know a victim. He burned in his car in a courtyard of one of the buildings.
Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak later reported that a 3-month-old baby was among five people killed in the missile attack.
In Donbass, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Saturday that two people had been killed by Russian shelling in the town of Popasna. Separately, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov reported that two people were killed and 19 injured by Russian shelling.
Synehubov said that over the past day, Russian forces have fired 56 times at civilian infrastructure in the region. Violent Ukrainian counterattacks have nevertheless slowed the Russian offensive in the east, Ukrainian and British officials said on Saturday.
Russia has still not established air or sea control due to Ukrainian resistance, and despite Putin’s declaration of victory in Mariupol, “heavy fighting continues to take place, frustrating Russian attempts to capture the city, thus further slowing down their desired advancement in the Donbass.” said the UK Ministry of Defence.
Fisch reported from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Inna Varenytsia in Kviv, and Associated Press staff around the world contributed to this story.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine