Ukraine: Russians try to storm Mariupol plant and attack Odessa

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 as they tried to crush the last corner of the 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 the Azovstal plant, and as the Russian army attacked other cities and towns in the south and east. from Ukraine. Authorities 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 holed up in the sprawling steel plant by the sea was not immediately clear; Earlier Saturday, a Ukrainian military unit posted a video purportedly taken two days earlier in which women and children hiding underground, some for two months, said they longed to see the sun.

“We want to see peaceful skies, we want to breathe fresh air,” a woman said in the video. “You just have no idea what it means to us to just eat, drink some sweetened tea. For us, it is already happiness”.

As the battle for shattered Mariupol raged on, Russia claimed it had taken control of several villages elsewhere in the eastern Donbas region and destroyed 11 Ukrainian military targets overnight, including three artillery depots.

Associated Press journalists also observed shelling in residential areas in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and in Sloviansk, a city in northern Donbas. The AP saw two soldiers arrive at the city hospital, one of them fatally wounded, as 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 new ground, Ukrainian officials announced a countrywide curfew ahead of Easter Sunday, a sign of the war’s halt and threat to the entire country.

Mariupol, a part of the industrial region in eastern Ukraine known as Donbas, has been a key Russian target since the February 24 invasion began and has assumed enormous importance in the war. Completing its capture would give Russia its biggest victory yet, after a nearly two-month-long siege reduced much of the city to smoldering ruins 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 aide to Ukraine’s presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovich, said during a briefing on Saturday that Russian forces had resumed airstrikes on the Azovstal plant and were trying to storm it. A direct attempt to seize the plant would represent a reversal of an order given by Russian President Vladimir Putin two days earlier.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Putin on Thursday that all of Mariupol, with the exception of Azovstal, had been “liberated” by the Russians. At the time, he was ordered by Putin not to send Russian troops to the plant, but instead to blockade the facility, an apparent attempt to starve the Ukrainians and force them to surrender.

Ukrainian officials have estimated that around 2,000 of their troops are inside the plant along with civilians sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels. Arestovich said that Ukrainian forces were trying to counter the new attacks.

Early Saturday, the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov Regiment, which has members in hiding at the plant, released images of some two dozen women and children. 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 regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told the AP that the video was shot on Thursday, the same day that Russia declared victory over the rest of Mariupol. The content could not be independently verified. The Azov Regiment traces its roots to 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 sweets to children who responded with fist bumps. One girl says that she and her relatives “have not seen the sky or the sun” since they left home on February 27.

More than 100,000 people, up from 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 more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in the city. for almost two years. month of siege

Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be a second mass grave near Mariupol, with local officials accusing Russia of burying thousands of civilians to hide the massacre taking place there.

The Kremlin has not responded to the satellite images.

In his late-night video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced all war casualties and noted that the Easter holiday commemorates the resurrection of Christ 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 of death defeating life. Everybody knows that. Every Christian knows it.”

Ukrainian authorities had said they would try again on Saturday to evacuate women, children and elderly people from Mariupol after many previous attempts failed. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app that the effort would start at noon, but it was unclear how the new assault on the plant would affect any possible evacuation.

Russian state television showed the flag of pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the highest point in the city, its television tower. He also showed what he said was the main building on fire.

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 attacked. One victim is known. She got burned in her car in a courtyard of one of the buildings.”

Ukraine’s presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak later reported that a 3-month-old baby was among the five people killed in the missile attack.

In Donbas, Lugansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Saturday that two people had been killed by Russian shelling in the city of Popasna. Separately, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov reported that two people were killed and 19 others wounded by the Russian shelling.

Synehubov said that over the last day, Russian forces fired on civilian infrastructure in the region 56 times. However, fierce Ukrainian counterattacks have slowed the Russian offensive in the east, Ukrainian and British officials said on Saturday.

Russia has yet to establish air or sea control due to Ukrainian resistance, and despite Putin’s declaration of victory in Mariupol, “heavy fighting continues, thwarting Russian attempts to capture the city, slowing down further their desired progress in the Donbas”. the UK Ministry of Defense said.

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