MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Russian forces pounding the port city of Mariupol shelled a mosque that was sheltering more than 80 people, including children, the Ukrainian government said Saturday. Fighting also raged in the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and Russia kept up its bombardment of other resisting cities.
There was no immediate word of casualties from the shelling of Mariupol’s elegant, city-center mosque. The encircled city of 446,000 people has endured some of Ukraine’s worst misery since Russia invaded, with unceasing barrages thwarting repeated attempts to bring in food, water and medicine, evacuate trapped civilians and even bury the dead.
“They are bombing it (Mariupol) 24 hours a day, launching missiles. It’s hatred. They kill children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during a video address.
Mariupol, an Associated Press journalist saw tanks fire at a nine-story apartment block. He was also with a group hospital workers that came under sniper firing Friday. Although a worker was saved from a gunshot to the hip, conditions were becoming worse in the hospital. Electricity was only available for the operating rooms, while people had nowhere else to go.
AnastasiyaErashova was one of them. She wept as she held her child asleep. Shelling had just killed her other child as well as her brother’s child, Erashova said, her scalp crusted with blood.
“We came to my brother’s (place), all of us together. The women and children went underground, and then some mortar struck that building,” she said. “We were trapped underground, and two children died. No one was able to save them.”
In an attempt to find a truce, French and German leaders spoke with Vladimir Putin on Saturday. According to the Kremlin, Putin laid out terms for ending the war, including Ukraine’s demilitarization and its ceding of territory, among other demands.
Ukraine’s military said Saturday that Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening the armed squeeze on the strategic port. Russia could establish an Azov Sea land corridor from Crimea by taking Mariupol, and possibly other Azov Sea ports. This is what it took in 2014 when it seizes Ukraine.
Zelenskyy encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid offensive and military victory the Kremlin likely expected while planning to invade Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor.
“The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defense, no matter how difficult it may be for us,” he said. Zelenskyy later Saturday reported that 1300 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in combat since February 24, when the Russian invaders began.
Zelenskyy again deplored NATO’s refusal to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said Ukraine has sought ways to procure air defense assets, though he didn’t elaborate.
Zelenskyy also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping the mayor of Melitopol, a city 192 kilometers (119 miles) west of Mariupol. After residents of the occupied city demonstrated for the mayor’s release Saturday, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to heed the calls.
“Please hear in Moscow!” Zelenskyy said. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
Artillery fires sent people running for cover in multiple locations around the capital as sirens from air raid sirens hollered. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian ground forces that had been massed north of Kyiv for most of the war had edged to within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the city center and spread out, likely to support an attempted encirclement.
As artillery pounded Kyiv’s northwestern outskirts, black and white columns of smoke rose southwest of the capital after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv caused hundreds of small explosions. A frozen food warehouse just outside the capital also was struck in an apparent effort to target Kyiv’s food supply.
Ukraine’s military and volunteer forces have been preparing for an all-out assault. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Thursday that about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s inhabitants, had left and that “every street, every house … is being fortified.”
Zelenskyy stated Saturday that Russia will need to carpet bomb the Ukrainian capital, killing its inhabitants and taking control of the city.
“They will come here only if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
Putin spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday. Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, was also present. Putin spoke about “issues related to agreements under discussion to implement the Russian demands” for ending the war, the Kremlin said without providing details.
For ending hostilities, Moscow has demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join NATO and adopt a neutral status; acknowledge the Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014; recognize the independence of separatist regions in the country’s east; and agree to demilitarize.
Zelenskyy stated to Naftali Bennett, Israeli Prime Minister, that he is open to meeting Putin at Jerusalem for talks about an end to war. But that there would have to first be a cease-fire. Bennett met Putin recently in Moscow. Putin turned down previous Zelenskyy’s offers to talk.
Russia’s slow tightening of a noose around Kyiv and the bombardment of other cities mirror tactics that Russian forces have previously used in other campaigns, notably in Syria and Chechnya, to crush armed resistance.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among the people who had sought safety in Mariupol’s mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, which was modeled on one of the most famous and largest mosques in Istanbul.
The city promoted Mariupol’s white-walled structure and towering minaret before it became the target of Europe’s largest land conflict since World War II. The death toll in Mariupol passed 1,500 on Friday, from 12 days of attack, the mayor’s office said.
With Mariupol’s electricity, gas and water supplies knocked out, aid workers and Ukrainian authorities described an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Doctors Without Borders, an aid group in Ukraine said that Mariupol residents are suffering from lack of medicine and have begun to drain their heating pipes to obtain water.
According to the World Health Organization, Russian forces have attacked at least twenty-four hospitals since their February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian officials said Saturday that heavy gunfire had caused damage to a Mykolaiv cancer hospital as well as several residences in the city of Mykolaiv (489km (304 miles), west of Mariupol.
The hospital’s head doctor, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were in the facility during the attack, but no one was killed.
It appears that the Russian invasion forces have had to fight harder than anticipated against the determined Ukrainian troops. Still, Russia’s stronger military threatens to grind down Ukrainian forces, despite an ongoing flow of weapons and other assistance from the West for Ukraine’s westward-looking, democratically elected government.
Russian senior diplomat said that Moscow might attack any foreign shipment of military equipment going to Ukraine. Speaking Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow has warned the United States “that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move — it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets.”
Russia’s troops are likely to be bolstered soon from abroad. Denis Pushilin, the Russia-backed head of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, said Saturday that he expects “many thousands” of fighters from the Middle East to join the rebels and fight “shoulder-to-shoulder” against the Ukrainian army.
According to both the military and civilian sides, thousands of soldiers have been killed. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that at least 2.5million people fled the country.
The Ukrainian chief prosecutor’s office said Saturday at least 79 children have been killed and nearly 100 have been wounded. Most of the victims were in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the numbers aren’t final because active fighting continues.
Karmanau reported in Lviv, Ukraine. Felipe Dana, Andrew Drake from Kyiv, and other journalists around the globe contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine