Russians Push Deeper Into Mariupol as Locals Plead for Help

LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine’s besieged and battered port city of Mariupol on Saturday, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, would mark a major battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II.

“Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said from a rubble-strewn street in a video addressed to Western leaders that was authenticated by The Associated Press.

Russian forces already have cut off the city from the Sea of Azov. Their fall would connect Crimea which Russia annexed to Russia in 2014. It also links the territories of the eastern-backed separatists with Moscow. It would mark a rare advance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance that has dashed Russia’s hopes for a quick victory and galvanized the West.

Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Saturday. “One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol’s defenders were already struggling against “the overwhelming force of the enemy” or at least 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.

“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said late Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”

Volodomir Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, has not lost his cool. He appeared in a Saturday video shot in Kyiv to protest a massive Friday rally that Russian President Vladimir Putin had attended.

Zelenskyy said Russia is trying to starve Ukraine’s cities into submission but warned that continuing the invasion would exact a heavy toll on Russia. He called on Putin to come to his rescue to avoid more bloodshed.

“The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations,” he said.

Putin lavished praise on his country’s military during the rally, which took place on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The event included patriotic songs such as “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with its opening line of “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” Putin told the cheering crowd.

The rally took place as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home, where Russian police have detained thousands of antiwar protesters.

While estimates vary on the number of Russian victims, even more conservative numbers are within the hundreds of thousands. During its war against Georgia in 2008, Russia lost 64 people during five days of fighting. Over the past 10 years, it lost approximately 15,000 Afghans and over 11,000 during years of conflict in Chechnya.

Russian forces claimed Saturday they used their latest hypersonic missile in combat for the first-time. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Kinzhal missiles decimated an underground storehouse containing Ukrainian weapons and ammunition, located in the western Ivano-Frankivsk area of Ukraine.

Russia claims that the Kinzhal is carried by MiG-31 fighter planes and has a range up to 2,000 km (about 1,250 mile) and can fly at 10 times speed of sound.

In Ukraine, violence raged across multiple fronts. U.N. agencies have recorded more than 847 deaths of civilians since the conflict began. However, they acknowledge that the true toll could be much greater. According to the U.N., more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine in search of refugee status.

According to the Kyiv region administration, Saturday saw heavy fire in Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin, which are all located north of Kyiv. It said Slavutich, located 165 kilometers (103 miles) north of the capital, was “completely isolated.”

The Kyiv police reported that seven people were killed in and five more were hurt in a mortar attack Friday in Makariv. It is a small town about 50km (30 miles) southwest of Kiev. According to them, the mortar attack caused damage and destruction of other buildings as well as destroyed many homes.

Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish 10 humanitarian corridors for bringing aid in and residents out of besieged cities — one from Mariupol and several around Kyiv and in the eastern Luhansk region, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday.

Her plans included humanitarian assistance to Kherson in southern Russia, which Russia had seized very early during the conflict.

Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations aimed at ending the conflict but remain divided over several issues, with Russia pressing for its neighbor’s demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.

In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, Putin said Ukraine was trying to “drag the negotiations by making a series of new, unrealistic proposals,” according to the Kremlin.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, meanwhile, accused Putin of using the talks as a “smokescreen” while his forces regroup. “We don’t see any serious withdrawal of Russian troops or any serious proposals on the table,” she told the Times of London.

The British Department of Defense said in its latest intelligence assessment that the Kremlin “has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of Ukrainian resistance” and “is now pursuing a strategy of attrition” that is likely to involve indiscriminate attacks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a Saturday visit to NATO ally Bulgaria, said the Russian invasion had “stalled on a number of fronts” but the U.S. had not yet seen signs that Putin was deploying additional forces.

In Ukraine, there have been attacks on hospitals, schools, buildings, and places where people seek safety.

At least 130 people survived the Wednesday bombing of a Mariupol theater that was being used a shelter, but another 1,300 were believed to be still inside, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner, said Friday.

“We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them,” Denisova told Ukrainian television.

Maxar Technologies satellite images showed that there was a line of cars leaving Mariupol, as residents tried to flee. Zelenskyy said more than 9,000 people were able to leave Friday along a route that leads 227 kilometers (141 miles) away to the city of Zaporizhzhia — which is also under attack.

The governor of southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, announced a 38-hour curfew after two missile strikes on Zaporizhzhia’s suburbs killed nine people Friday.

Russian forces have fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine’s national police said Saturday.

According to the report, the attacks using rockets and heavy guns killed or wounded many civilians. They also damaged 37 residences and facilities, including a shop center and a museum.

In the western city of Lviv, Ukraine’s cultural capital, which was hit by Russian missiles on Friday, military veterans were training dozens of civilians on how to handle firearms and grenades.

“It’s hard, because I have really weak hands, but I can manage it,” said one trainee, 22-year-old Katarina Ishchenko.


This report was contributed by Yuras Karmanau, an Associated Press journalist based in Lviv (Ukraine), and other AP journalists from around the globe.


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