Russian forces in Ukraine attempted on Saturday to storm a steelworks housing soldiers and civilians in the southern city of Mariupol in a bid to crush the last pocket of resistance in a place of deep symbolic and strategic value for Moscow, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that he would meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in kyiv on Sunday. The White House declined to comment.
Speaking at a press conference, Zelenskyy gave few details on the logistics of the meeting, but said he expected concrete results – “not just gifts or some kind of cake, we expect specific things and specific weapons”.
The reported assault on the steel plant on the eve of Orthodox Easter came after the Kremlin claimed its army had seized the entire destroyed city, except for the Azovstal plant, and that Russian forces shelled other towns and villages in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Elsewhere in the country, 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 war started when this baby was a month old. Can you imagine what is happening? Zelensky said. “They’re just bastards. … I have no other words for it, just bastards.
The fate of the Ukrainians in the sprawling, beleaguered seaside steelworks of Mariupol 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.
Russia said it took control of several villages elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region and destroyed 11 Ukrainian military targets overnight, including three artillery depots. Russian attacks also hit populated areas.
Associated Press reporters observed shelling in residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city; Regional Governor Oleh Sinehubov said three people were killed. In the Donbass region of Luhansk, Governor Serhiy Haidai said six people died in the shelling of a village, Gorskoi.
In Sloviansk, a city in northern Donbass, AP saw two soldiers arrive at the hospital, one of whom was fatally injured. Nearby, a small group of people gathered outside a church where a priest blessed them with holy water on Holy Saturday.
While British officials said Russian forces had not gained significant new 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 country.
Mariupol has been a key Russian objective since the start of the invasion on February 24 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.
It would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere and establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014. Russian-backed separatists control parts of Donbass.
An adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office, Oleksiy Arestovich, said Russian forces had resumed airstrikes on the Azovstal factory and were also trying to storm it, in an apparent reversal of tactics. Two days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had given the order not to send troops but rather to blockade the factory.
Ukrainian officials estimated that around 2,000 of their soldiers were inside the plant, along with civilians sheltering in its underground tunnels.
Earlier Saturday, the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, which has members locked in the factory, released the video of around two dozen women and children. Its contents could not be independently verified, but if authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life was like for civilians trapped underground.
The video shows soldiers giving candy to children who respond 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 AP the video was shot on Thursday. The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was formed by far-right activists in 2014 at the start of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and drew criticism for some of its tactics.
It is believed that more than 100,000 people – against a pre-war population of around 430,000 – remained in Mariupol with little food, water or heating. Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the city.
Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be two recently excavated mass graves next to cemeteries in two towns near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians to cover up the ongoing massacre. was taking place there. The Kremlin has not commented on the footage.
Another attempt to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Mariupol failed on Saturday. 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.”
At the same time, he said, Russian buses gathered about 200 meters (yards) 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, Russian troops fired at least six missiles, according to Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister.
“Residents of the city heard explosions in different areas,” Gerashchenko said via Telegram. “Residential buildings were affected. We already know a victim. He burned in his car in a courtyard of one of the buildings.
Zelenskyy’s press conference took place at a kyiv metro station, where he stopped at one point as a train rumbled past. The metro system, which includes the deepest station in the world, attracted widespread attention at the start of the war when hordes of people took refuge there, fearing that the city center would be bombed.
Regarding the planned visit of American officials on Sunday, Zelenskyy said: “I believe that we can obtain from the United States agreements or part of this package on the armament of Ukraine that we have agreed on more early. Separately, we have strategic questions about security guarantees, which it is time to discuss in detail, because the United States will be one of these leaders of security countries for our state.
Also on Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Zelenskyy and promised more drones, vehicles and anti-tank missiles.
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.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine