Ukraine evacuates civilians from besieged steel plant

ZAPORIZHZHIA, UKRAINE (AP) — Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday and shelled a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, hoping to complete the seizure of the port in time for the Victory Day celebrations. Ukraine announced that all women, children and elderly people had been evacuated from the mill, a key objective of the Russian war.

In a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that has sustained the fighting in its 11th week, Ukraine’s army razed Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the early days of the war and has become a symbol of endurance. Western military analysts also said a Ukrainian counteroffensive was advancing around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key target of Russian bombing.

The largest European conflict since World War II has turned into a war of attrition that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee their homes and destroyed large swathes of some cities. Ukrainian leaders warned attacks would only increase in the run-up to Russia’s Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat 77 years ago, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urging people to heed warnings of air strikes.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embodied the spirit of those who prevailed during World War II.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “twist history to try to justify his brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine.”

“As war breaks out again in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who now seek to manipulate historical memory to further their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement as the United States and the United Kingdom marked the Allied victory. in Europe. .

The heaviest fighting in recent days has taken place in eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are entrenched in a fierce battle to capture or recapture territory. Moscow’s offensive there has been focused on the industrial Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.

Moscow has also sought to sweep southern Ukraine to cut off the country from the sea and connect its territory with the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, long home to Russian troops. But he has struggled to achieve those goals.

On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from planes fell in the Odessa region, where authorities have a curfew until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke billowing over the city as sirens wailed.

Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting the Russian-controlled Snake Island in an attempt to impede Russia’s efforts to control the Black Sea. An image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed that most of the island’s buildings had been destroyed by Ukrainian drone strikes, as well as what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s north beach.

The image corresponds to a Ukrainian military video showing a drone hitting the Russian ship and engulfing it in flames. Snake Island, located about 35 kilometers (20 miles) offshore, featured in a memorable incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, allegedly using colorful language.

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters made a last stand against Russia’s complete takeover of the strategically important city, which would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.

Satellite photos taken on Friday by Planet Labs PBC showed extensive devastation at the Azovstal coastal steel plant, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the city. The buildings had holes in their roofs, including one under which hundreds of fighters are probably hiding.

Rescuers ended the evacuation of civilians on Saturday after a week of Russian shelling and intermittent convoys to get people out of Mariupol.

“The president’s order has been carried out: all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, without elaborating. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation has been completed.”

Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev also confirmed the evacuations.

The Russian news agency Tass had reported that 50 civilians were evacuated on Saturday, a day after a similar number left. The latest evacuees followed roughly 500 others who were allowed to leave the plant and other parts of the city in recent days.

The situation at the plant has drawn the world’s attention, with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross desperately trying to organize evacuations.

In recent days, fighters inside had described pulling out small groups of civilians who had been hiding there for weeks. The fighters said via social media that both they and the Russians have used a white flag system to stop the fighting and remove civilians.

But Russian forces have intensified fire on the plant with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and gunfire from the sea, hampering evacuation operations.

Three Ukrainian fighters were killed and six more were wounded during Friday’s attempted evacuation. Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, said his troops waved white flags and accused Russian forces of firing an anti-tank weapon at a vehicle.

It is unclear what will happen to the estimated 2,000 fighters in Azovstal, both those still in combat and the hundreds believed to be wounded. In recent days, the Ukrainian government has contacted international organizations to try to guarantee them safe passage. The fighters have repeatedly promised not to surrender.

Zelenskyy said early Saturday that “influential states” were involved in the efforts to rescue the soldiers. He did not mention any of them by name, but added: “We are also working on diplomatic options.”

Russian forces have investigated the plant and even reached its maze of tunnels, according to Ukrainian officials.

But they struggled to make significant gains in other parts of the country.

Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine and had a prewar population of around 1.4 million, remained a key target of Russian bombing in the northeast. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday that the Russian military also hit large arms shipments from the United States and other Western countries with Iskander missiles in the region. His claims could not be independently verified.

But Western military analysts said Ukrainian forces were making progress in securing positions around the city. The Ukrainian military said it had retook control of five villages in the area and part of a sixth.

A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment Ukraine could push Russian forces “out of Kharkiv artillery range in the coming days,” providing breathing space. for the city and an opportunity to turn the defenders’ momentum “into a successful and broader counteroffensive”.

Also on Saturday, a Russian missile destroyed a national museum in the Kharkiv region dedicated to the life and work of 18th-century philosopher Gregory Skovoroda, the local council said. He posted photos on Facebook showing the building engulfed in flames.

And in another eastern region, Luhansk, Governor Serhiy Haidai said two boys, ages 11 and 14, were killed by Russian shelling in the town of Pryvillia, while two girls, ages 8 and 12, and a 69-year-old woman were killed. wounds.


Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.


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