Kyiv, April 23 (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 location of high 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 Mariupol except for the Azovstal plant and as Russia’s military pounded other cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine. Officials reported that Russia fired at least six cruise missiles at the Black Sea port city of Odesa, killing five people.
The fate of the Ukrainians holed up 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 shattered Mariupol 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.
Associated Press journalists also observed shelling in residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and in Sloviansk, a town in northern Donbas. The AP witnessed two soldiers arriving at the town’s 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 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.
Mariupol, a 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 and killed an estimated 20,000 people there.
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.
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 Mariupol, with 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. 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 the video was shot 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 elicited criticism for some of its tactics.
The footage of Azovstal 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.
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 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 conceal the slaughter taking place there.
The Kremlin hasn’t responded to the satellite images.
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.”
Ukrainian officials had said they were trying again Saturday to evacuate women, children and older adults from Mariupol after many previous attempts failed. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the messaging app Telegram that the effort was to get underway at midday, but it wasn’t clear how the new assault on the plant would affect any possible evacuation.
Russian state TV showed the flag of the pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the city’s highest point, its TV tower. It also showed what it said was the main building at in flames.
On Saturday, Russian forces also fired at least six cruise missiles at Odesa, said Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister. 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 a 3-month-old baby was among the five people killed in the missile attack.
In the Donbas, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Saturday that two people were killed by Russian shelling in the city of Popasna. Separately, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov reported that two people were killed and 19 more wounded by the Russian shelling.
Synehubov said that over the past day, the Russian forces fired at the region’s civilian infrastructure 56 times. Fierce Ukrainian counterattacks nonetheless slowed the Russian offensive in the east, Ukrainian and British officials said Saturday.
Russia still has 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 their desired progress in the Donbas,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.