KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces in Ukraine attempted to storm a steel mill housing soldiers and civilians in the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday as they attempted to crush the last corner of resistance in a place of deep symbolic and strategic value for Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
The reported assault on the eve of Orthodox Easter came after the Kremlin claimed its army had seized the entire destroyed city, except for the Azovstal factory, and Russian forces pounded other cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine.
A 3-month-old baby was among six people killed when Russia fired cruise missiles at the Black Sea port city of Odessa, officials said.
The fate of the Ukrainians at the sprawling seaside steelworks was not immediately clear; Earlier on Saturday, a Ukrainian military unit released a video believed to have been taken two days earlier in which women and children locked underground, some for two months, said they longed to see the sun.
“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.
As the battle for the port continued, Russia claimed to have taken control of several villages elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region and destroyed 11 Ukrainian military targets overnight, including three artillery depots. Russian attacks have also hit populated areas in Ukraine.
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Associated Press reporters also observed shelling in residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city; regional governor reported Oleh Sinehubov said that three people were killed. In the Luhansk region of the Donbass, Governor Serhiy Haidai said six people died in the shelling of a village, Gorskoi
In Sloviansk, a city in the northern Donbass. The AP saw two soldiers arrive at the city hospital, one of them fatally wounded. Nearby, a small group of people gathered outside a church, where a priest blessed them with water on Holy Saturday.
While British officials said the Russians had not gained significant ground, Ukrainian officials announced a nationwide curfew ahead of Easter Sunday, a sign of the disruption of the war and the threat to the whole from the country.
Mariupol, part of the industrial region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass, has been a key Russian target since the start of the February 24 invasion and has taken on outsized 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.
Occupying Mariupol would deprive 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. The separatists backed by the Russia control parts of Donbass.
An adviser to Ukraine’s presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovich, told a briefing on Saturday that Russian forces had resumed airstrikes on the Azovstal factory and were trying to storm it. A direct attempt to take the plant would represent a reversal of an order Russian President Vladimir Putin had given two days earlier.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin on Thursday that all of Mariupol, except Azovstal, had been “liberated” by the Russians. At the time, Putin ordered him not to send Russian troops into the plant, but rather to block the facility, an apparent attempt to starve the Ukrainians and force them to surrender.
Ukrainian officials estimated that around 2,000 of their troops were inside the plant along with the civilians sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels. Arestovic said Ukrainian forces were trying to counter the new attacks.
Earlier Saturday, the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, which has members locked in the factory, released images of around two dozen women and children. The contents could not be independently verified.
If authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life was like for civilians still trapped in Mariupol’s underground bunkers. The video 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.
The regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told the AP that the video was shot on Thursday. 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 drew criticism for some of its tactics.
According to Ukrainian authorities, more than 100,000 people – against a pre-war population of around 430,000 – are trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heating, according to Ukrainian authorities, who estimate that more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the city during the Russian blockade.
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 cover up the massacre taking place there.
The Kremlin did not respond to satellite images.
Ukrainian officials had said they would try again on Saturday to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Mariupol. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram that the effort was to start at noon.
Like previous plans to get the civilians out of town, this one failed. Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, said Russian forces had not allowed buses organized by Ukraine to take residents to Zaporizhzhia, a town 227 kilometers (141 miles) to the northwest.
“At 11 a.m., at least 200 residents of Mariupol gathered near the Port City shopping center, awaiting evacuation,” Andryushchenko said on the Telegram messaging app. “The Russian army drove up to the residents of Mariupol and ordered them to disperse, because now there will be shelling.”
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At the same time, he said, Russian buses gathered about 200 meters away. Residents who boarded were told they were being taken to separatist-occupied territory and were not allowed to disembark, Andryushchenko said. His account could not be independently verified.
During the attack on Odessa, the Russians fired at least six missiles, Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs. Defense forces fended off some of the rockets, but at least one landed and exploded, he said.
“City residents heard explosions in different areas,” Gerashchenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Residential buildings were affected. We already know a victim. He burned in his car in a courtyard of one of the buildings.
Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak later reported that the 3-month-old baby was among five people killed in the missile attack.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced all victims of war, noting that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his death by crucifixion.
“We believe in the victory of life over death,” he said. “As fierce as the fighting is, death has no chance of defeating life. Everybody knows that. Every Christian knows that.
Fisch reported from Sloviansk, 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.