Russia moves its forces for the battle in the heart of Ukraine

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By DAVID KEYTON and YESICA FISCH

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An adviser to Ukraine’s presidential office says Russian forces are attacking a steel mill that is the last defense bastion of Ukrainian forces in the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Oleksiy Arestovich, adviser to the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, told a briefing on Saturday that Russian forces had resumed airstrikes on Azovstal and were trying to storm it.

“The enemy is trying to completely suppress the resistance of the Mariupol defenders in the Azovstal region,” Arestovich said.

Arestovich’s statement came two days after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that all of Mariupol except Azovstal had been ‘liberated’ by the Russians .

Putin ordered the Russian military not to storm the factory and blockade it in an apparent attempt to snuff out the remaining pocket of resistance there.

Ukrainian officials estimated that around 2,000 of their troops were inside the plant and around 1,000 were sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels.

Arestovich claims that the Ukrainian fighters are still holding out despite renewed attacks and are even trying to counter them.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Women and children sheltering in a steel mill in the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol said they longed to see the sun, according to video released Saturday, as Russian troops continued their offensive in the eastern region of Donbass against fierce resistance.

The Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, which has members locked in the Azovstal steelworks along with other soldiers and civilians, released images of around two dozen women and children, some of whom said they had been in the factory’s underground tunnels for two months. .

The regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told The Associated Press that the video was shot on Thursday. The contents could not be independently verified. Ukrainian and Russian authorities said the Azovstal plant was the last defense bastion in Mariupol, which has been under siege since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We want to see peaceful skies, we want to breathe fresh air,” one woman said in the video. “You just have no idea what it means to us to just eat, drink sweet tea. For us, that’s already happiness.

According to Ukrainian authorities, more than 100,000 people – compared to a pre-war population of around 430,000 – are trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heating. Authorities estimated on Friday that around 1,000 civilians remained trapped in Azovstal along with around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters.

Footage showed soldiers giving candy to children who responded with punches. A young girl says she and her loved ones “have not seen the sky or the sun” since leaving home on February 27.

“We really want to get out of here safely, so that no one gets hurt,” pleads the young girl.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Mariupol earlier this week and ordered his forces not to storm the steel mill but to cordon it off in an apparent attempt to starve the Ukrainians and force them to return. The southern city is of strategic importance to Moscow and has become a symbol of Ukraine’s fierce resistance to invasion.

More than 20,000 civilians were killed in Mariupol during the nearly two-month siege. Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians to cover up the massacre taking place there.

Ukrainian authorities tried again on Saturday to evacuate women, children and elderly people from Mariupol after many previous attempts had failed. The effort was due to start at noon “if all goes according to plan,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia has withdrawn a dozen elite military units from Mariupol to bolster the offensive elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region, while other troops continue to keep remaining Ukrainian troops in the city stuck in the factory, Ukrainian officials said.

In Donbass, Russian troops continued their offensive in an attempt to fully seize Ukraine’s industrial heartland, but made little progress as fierce Ukrainian counterattacks slowed their efforts, Ukrainian officials said on Saturday. and British.

In the past 24 hours, Ukrainian forces repelled eight Russian attacks in the two regions, destroying nine tanks, 18 armored units and 13 vehicles, one tanker and three artillery systems, the Ukrainian General Staff said.

“The units of the Russian occupiers are regrouping. The Russian enemy continues to launch missiles and shelling military and civilian infrastructure,” the General Staff said on its Facebook page.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Saturday that two people had been killed by Russian shelling in the town of Popasna. Separately, Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram on Saturday that two people had been killed and 19 others injured by Russian shelling. Synehubov said that over the past day, Russian forces fired 56 times at civilian infrastructure in the region.

“In addition to the fact that street fighting continues in the city (of Popasna) for several weeks, the Russian army constantly fires at multi-storey residential buildings and private houses,” Haidai wrote on the app. Telegram messaging. “Just yesterday, local residents withstood five enemy artillery attacks. … Not all of them survived,”

The UK Ministry of Defense said that despite their increased activity, “Russian forces have made no major gains in the past 24 hours as Ukrainian counterattacks continue to hamper efforts.”

Russia has still 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 down their desired advancement in the Donbass.” said the Ministry of Defense.

Overall, the Kremlin has thrown more than 100,000 troops and mercenaries from Syria and Libya into the fight in Ukraine and is deploying more forces in the country every day, Danilov said.

“We have a difficult situation, but our army is defending our state,” he said.

In western Ukraine, regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy announced a curfew for the Lviv region ahead of Orthodox Easter. Kozytskyy cited “new information” and said the curfew would run from 11 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sunday, then daily between those times until further notice.

“Unfortunately, the enemy does not have such a concept of a major religious holiday,” Kozytskyy wrote.

Mariupol assumed an outsized importance in the war. Capturing it would deprive the Ukrainians of a vital port and allow Russia to create a land corridor with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Taking control of the city would also allow Putin to throw more of his forces into the potentially decisive battle for Donbass and its coal mines, factories and other industries.

The city was reduced largely to smoldering rubble after weeks of shelling, and Russian state TV 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 in flames.

Under cover of darkness, Ukrainian forces managed to deliver weapons to besieged steel mills by helicopter, said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

Latest satellite photos from Maxar Technologies revealed what appeared to be a second mass grave site near Mariupol. The site of a cemetery in the town of Vynohradne has several newly dug parallel trenches measuring about 40 meters (131 feet) long, Maxar said in a statement.

Earlier, Maxar posted photos of what appeared to be rows upon rows of more than 200 freshly dug mass graves next to a cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol. This prompted Ukrainians to accuse the Russians of trying to cover up the massacre of civilians in the city.

“This again confirms that the occupiers are organizing the collection, burial and cremation of deceased residents in all areas of the city,” Andryushchenko said on the Telegram messaging app.

Ukrainians estimated that the graves seen in photos released Thursday could contain 9,000 bodies.

The Kremlin did not respond to satellite images.

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Fisch reported from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Inna Varenytsia in Kviv, and Associated Press staff around the world contributed to this story.

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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