ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday and shelled a beleaguered steel mill in Mariupol, hoping to complete their conquest of the port in time for Victory Day celebrations. Ukraine announced that all women, children and the elderly had been evacuated from the mill, a key Russian war objective.
In a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that sustained the fighting into its 11th week, the Ukrainian army razed Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the early days of the war and is become a symbol of resistance. Western military analysts also said a Ukrainian counteroffensive was advancing around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key Russian bombing target.
Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II has turned into a punitive war of attrition that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee their homes and destroyed large swaths of some cities. Ukraine’s leaders have warned attacks will only increase ahead of the Russian Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat 77 years ago, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged people to heed the warnings air raids.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embodied the spirit of those who prevailed in World War II.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “distort history in an attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine”.
“As war rages once again in Europe, we must strengthen our resolve to stand up to those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance 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 been in eastern Ukraine, where both sides are entrenched in a fierce battle to capture or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive has focused on the industrial region of Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.
Moscow has also sought to sweep across southern Ukraine to both cut the country off from the sea and connect its territory to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, long home to Russian troops. But he struggled to achieve those goals.
On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from planes hit the Odessa region, where authorities have put in place a curfew until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising above the city as sirens wailed.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting the Russian-held Snake Island in an attempt to obstruct Russian efforts to control the Black Sea. An image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed most of the buildings on the island had been destroyed by Ukrainian drone attacks, as well as what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the north beach of the Isle.
The image matches Ukrainian military video showing a drone hitting the Russian vessel, engulfing it in flames. Snake Island, located about 35 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast, featured in a memorable incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, allegedly using a colorful language.
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters took a final stand against a full Russian takeover of the strategically important city, which would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Ukraine in a 2014 invasion.
Satellite photos taken by Planet Labs PBC on Friday showed widespread devastation at the sprawling seaside steelworks of Azovstal, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the city. The buildings had gaping holes in the roofs, including one that probably houses hundreds of fighters.
Rescuers completed the evacuation of civilians on Saturday after a week of Russian shelling and intermittent convoys to drag 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 giving further details. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over.”
Russian news agency Tass reported that 50 civilians were evacuated on Saturday, a day after a similar number left. The latest evacuees followed around 500 others who were allowed to leave the factory and other parts of the city in recent days.
The situation at the factory has caught 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 bringing out small groups of civilians who had been hiding there for weeks. The fighters said via social media that they and the Russians had used a white flag system to stop fighting to get civilians out.
But Russian forces stepped up fire on the mill with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and shelling from the sea, making evacuation operations difficult.
Three Ukrainian fighters were killed and six others injured in Friday’s evacuation attempt. 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 remains unclear what will happen to the estimated 2,000 fighters in Azovstal, both those still fighting and the hundreds who are believed to be injured. In recent days, the Ukrainian government has contacted international organizations to try to guarantee them safe passage. The fighters have repeatedly sworn not to surrender.
Zelenskyy said on Saturday morning that “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers. He did not mention any by name, but added: “We are also working on diplomatic options.”
Russian forces probed the plant and even entered its maze of tunnels, according to Ukrainian officials.
But they have struggled to make meaningful gains elsewhere in the country.
Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine and had a pre-war population of around 1.4 million, remained a key Russian bombing target in the northeast. But Western military analysts said Ukrainian forces were making progress in securing positions around the town. The Ukrainian army said it had regained 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 latest assessment that Ukraine may be able to push Russian forces “out of Kharkiv’s artillery range in the coming days. ‘, offering City respite and an opportunity to build the defenders’ momentum ‘into a successful and wider counter-offensive’.
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.
Zelenskyy said Saturday morning that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in any country in the free world that understands what is at stake in the ruinous war.
“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything freedom gives to peoples and states,” he said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully understandable for any society, in any corner of the globe.”
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