ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine: Ukraine tried to evacuate more civilians from a besieged Mariupol steel plant on Saturday as Russian forces unleashed new bombardments across the country ahead of Victory Day festivities in Moscow. The Azovstal steel mill is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city and its fate has taken on a symbolic value in the broader battle since Russia’s invasion.
Fighting continues on many fronts, and Ukraine’s defense ministry said it had destroyed another Russian warship – a Serna-class landing craft – in the Black Sea. “The traditional parade of the Russian Black Sea fleet on May 9 this year will be held near Snake Island – at the bottom of the sea,” the ministry added. Russia did not immediately confirm the incident.
Ukraine’s defense ministry had earlier said Russian forces had resumed their assault on the Azovstal site, despite talk of a truce to allow trapped civilians to flee the complex. Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said rescuers would try to evacuate more civilians on Saturday. On Monday, President Vladimir Putin will celebrate the World War II Soviet victory over Nazi Germany with a traditional Victory Day parade.
According to Russia’s defence ministry, 77 aircraft will conduct a flypast, including the rarely-seen Il-80 Doomsday plane that can withstand a nuclear attack. Eight Mig-29 fighter jets will fly over Moscow’s Red Square forming the letter “Z” – the mark of Russia’s military assault in Ukraine. The campaign has run into tough resistance – and provoked Kyiv’s western allies into slapping massive economic sanctions on the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle.
But with Victory Day fast approaching, Ukrainian officials fear more intense missile and artillery bombardments and renewed assaults as Moscow scrambles for symbolic wins. The Ukrainian rescue service said a missile hit a technical college in Kostiantynivka, in the eastern region of Donetsk, causing a fire and at least two deaths.
Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said there had been “massive bombardments” along the frontline. Strikes were also reported in the north of Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv and in the southern city of Mikoleyev, a key Russian target. Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive of their own.
According to the defense ministry, Russian troops were forced to demolish three road bridges near Tsyrkuny and Ruski Tyshky outside Kharkiv, to slow the Ukrainian advance. According to British intelligence, Ukrainian forces equipped with high-end weaponry by the western allies, have been able to destroy at least one of Russia’s most advanced tanks, the T-90M. “The conflict in Ukraine is taking a heavy toll on some of Russia’s most capable units and most advanced capabilities,” UK Defense Intelligence said. “It will take considerable time and expense for Russia to reconstitute its armed forces following this conflict,” it said, warning sanctions on advanced components would make it harder for Russia to re-arm.
The West, meanwhile, is stepping up arms deliveries to Ukraine’s defenders. US President Joe Biden on Friday announced another package of military assistance worth $150 million, including counter-artillery radars used for detecting the source of enemy fire. This brings the total value of US weaponry sent to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began to $3.8 billion. Biden had urged Congress to approve a further $33 billion package, including $20 billion in military aid, “to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
The G7 leaders, including Biden, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky are to meet in videoconference on Sunday to discuss Western support for Kyiv. And Biden’s wife, US First lady Jill Biden, hailed the “amazingly strong” refugees from war-torn Ukraine as she visited neighboring Romania on Saturday.
“You are amazingly strong,” Biden said after listening to mothers and children recount how they fled Russia’s invasion of their country. “We stand with you, I hope you know that,” she said in a visit to a school in Bucharest, accompanied by her Romanian counterpart Carmen Iohannis, according to images transmitted by TVR public television.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, who has finished a four-day visit to Ukraine, including to areas just outside Kyiv, condemned “staggering” human rights violations by Russian forces. Her visit showed “the extent of such egregious human rights and humanitarian law violations, with mounting evidence of widespread arbitrary killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.” The organization, which protects human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, expelled Russia as a member in March.
On Friday, Zelensky said “diplomatic options” were also under way to rescue Ukrainian soldiers from the Mariupol steelworks, as civilian evacuations continued. The Russian defense ministry said 50 people were evacuated from the site, including 11 children. It added they were handed over to the UN and Red Cross, which are assisting in the operation, and that the “humanitarian operation” would continue on Saturday.
About 200 civilians, including children, are thought to be trapped in the tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal, along with Ukrainian soldiers making their last stand. Russia announced a day-time ceasefire at the plant for three days starting Thursday but the Ukrainian army said Russian “assault operations” had continued by ground and air. Ukraine’s Azov battalion, leading the defense at Azovstal, said one Ukrainian fighter had been killed and six wounded when Russian forces opened fire during an attempt to evacuate people by car.
Since failing to take Kyiv early on in the war, Russia has refocused on the south and east of Ukraine. Taking full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and separatist, pro-Russian regions in the east. In those regions, separatists said they had removed Ukrainian and English language traffic signs for Mariupol and replaced them with Russian ones.
Locals want to see proof that “Russia has come back here forever”, said Denis Pushilin, head of a pro-Russian breakaway region in Donetsk. In neighboring Lugansk, Ukrainian officials said on Friday that Russian forces had almost encircled Severodonetsk – the easternmost city still held by Kyiv – and are trying to storm it. Kherson in the south remains the only significant city Russia has managed to capture since the war began. A senior official from the Russian parliament visiting the city on Friday also emphasized that Russia would remain in southern Ukraine “forever”. “There should be no doubt about this. There will be no return to the past,” Andrey Turchak said. – AFP