Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa on Saturday and bombarded a steel mill in Mariupol housing Ukrainian civilians and fighters, hoping to complete their conquest of the port city in time for Victory Day celebrations.
Ukraine announced that all women, children and elderly had been evacuated from the steel plant, a key Russian war objective that has long been under siege.
In a sign of the unexpectedly effective defence that has sustained the fighting into its 11th week, Ukraine’s military flattened Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the war’s first days and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
A Russian airstrike targeted a residential area in the Donetsk region.Credit:
Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive also was advancing around the nation’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key target of Russian shelling. The Ukrainian army said it retook control of five villages and part of a sixth near hotly contested Kharkiv.
As Russia’s Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II approached, cities across Ukraine prepared for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged residents numbed by more than 10 weeks of war to heed air raid warnings.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that Zelensky and his people “embody the spirit of those who prevailed during the Second World War.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying “to twist history to attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine.”
“As war again rages in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement issued as the United States and United Kingdom marked the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.
This satellite image shows a bridge repeatedly targeted by Russian missile strikes outside of Odesa.Credit:
The most intense battles in recent days have befallen eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are entrenched in a fierce race to capture or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has focused on claiming the industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.
On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from aircraft hit the region of Odesa, where authorities have a curfew in place until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising over Odesa with sirens wailing in the background.
Satellite photos analysed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting Russian-held Snake Island in a bid to impede Russia’s efforts to control the Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.
Against that backdrop, Ukrainian fighters made a final stand to prevent a complete takeover of Mariupol. Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.
New satellite photos analysed by the AP showed vast devastation at a sprawling seaside steel mill that is the last corner of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Buildings at the Azovstal plant, including one under which hundreds of fighters and civilians are likely hiding, had large, gaping holes in the roof, according to the images.
Evacuating civilians from the plant has drawn the world’s attention, with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross desperately trying to organise departures.
A man who was evacuated from the steel mill in Mariupol is given a warm meal. Credit:AP
In recent days, fighters inside the plant had described bringing out small groups of civilians who had been hiding for weeks. The fighters issued a statement via social media saying both they and the Russians have used a white flag system to halt fighting in order to get civilians out.
But Russian forces have intensified fire on the steel mill in recent days with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and shelling from the sea, making evacuation operations difficult.
The Ukrainian government has called on international organisations to also help evacuate the fighters defending the plant. By Russia’s most recent estimate, roughly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained at the Azovstal steelworks. They have repeatedly refused to surrender.
The relief of those who have been evacuated was tempered by the memory of those still left behind.
“They need our help badly,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, leaving behind another 30. “We need to get them out.”
In other developments, a Russian missile on Saturday destroyed a Ukrainian national museum dedicated to the life and work of an 18th-century philosopher, the local council said.
Zelensky said in his nightly address that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all the countries of the free world understanding what is at stake in the ruinous war.
“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that freedom gives to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully comprehensible for any society, in any corner of the globe.”
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