(KYIV, Ukraine) — Satellite images released Thursday showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying up to 9,000 Ukrainian civilians there in an effort to conceal the slaughter taking place in the siege of the port city.
These images were released hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Battle for Mariupol. This was despite an estimated 2000 Ukrainian fighters still hiding at a steel mill. Putin ordered his troops not to storm the stronghold but to seal it off “so that not even a fly comes through.”
Maxar Technologies, a satellite image provider, released photos showing more than 200 mass graves located in Mariupol. Officials from Ukraine claim that the Russians are burying Mariupol citizens who died in fighting. Images showed rows of long-lasting graves that extended from an existing cemetery outside Mariupol, Manhush.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush.
According to the Mariupol City Council, graves may contain as many as 9000 dead.
Boychenko labeled Russian actions in the city as “the new Babi Yar,” a reference to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in 1941.
“The bodies of the dead were being brought by the truckload and actually simply being dumped in mounds,” an aide to Boychenko, Piotr Andryushchenko, said on Telegram.
No immediate response was received by the Kremlin. Russian officials claimed that the Russian soldiers did not kill civilians in Bucha or other Kyiv towns after they had been withdrawn.
Maxar released a statement stating that an examination of images from the past indicates the Manhush graves were dug late March and have been expanded over the course of the last couple of weeks.
Russian forces now appear to have control over the remaining strategic city of southern Russia, which includes its port, vital and badly damaged, after nearly two months of deadly bombardment.
But a few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Moscow’s estimate, have stubbornly held out for weeks at the steel plant, despite a pummeling from Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender. Ukrainian officials estimate that there were around 1,000 civilians also held captive at the steel plant.
Russia appears to be preparing to hold the siege, waiting for fighters to surrender if they are starved or run out of ammunition and troops instead of sending in reinforcements.
Boychenko refuted any idea that Mariupol fell into Russian hands.
“The city was, is and remains Ukrainian,” he declared. “Today our brave warriors, our heroes, are defending our city.”
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory yet of the war in Ukraine. It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequential battle now underway for Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas.
Putin was concerned about the safety of Russian troops when he decided not to send them into the Azovstal steel plant. There, the die-hard defenders had been hiding in an underground maze.
At a joint appearance with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin declared, “The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” and he offered congratulations to Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted the steel plant could be taken in three to four days, but Putin said that would be “pointless.”
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader said. “Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly comes through.”
This plant is 11 km2 (4 mi2) in area and includes 24 km (15 miles) of tunnels, bunkers and other infrastructure.
“The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centers, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” retired British Rear Adm. Chris Parry said.
Russian officials for weeks have said capturing the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas is the war’s main objective. Moscow’s forces opened the new phase of the fighting this week along a 300-mile (480-kilometer) front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea.
While Russia continued heavy air and artillery attacks in those areas, it did not appear to gain any significant ground over the past few days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow’s forces were still ramping up the offensive.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians were hindering the Russian effort to push south from Izyum.
Two civilians died in their cars after rockets were fired on Thursday at Kharkiv. The rockets also struck a school, as well as a residence. Firefighters attempted to put out the flames and rescue anyone still trapped.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, claimed that Russian troops had kidnapped an official in southern Kherson who was leading a humanitarian convoy. Although she claimed that the Russians had offered her to release him for Russian prisoners-of-war, she called it unacceptable.
Vereshchuk stated that efforts to set up three humanitarian corridors for the Kherson area failed because Russian troops didn’t hold their fire.
In the meantime, Western countries rushed into Ukraine to assist it in countering the offensive from the east.
The U.S. president Joe Biden has announced $800 million more in military aid, which includes heavy artillery and 144,000 rounds ammunition. But he also warned that the $13.6 billion approved last month by Congress for military and humanitarian aid is “almost exhausted” and more will be needed.
Mariupol had approximately 430,000 people before World War II. More than 100,000 were thought to be trapped without food or water. According to Ukrainian authorities, the siege has resulted in more than 20,000 deaths.
This city is known for being the site of terrible suffering during the conflict, with airstrikes against a hospital and theater.
Russia is being accused by Ukraine of repeatedly launching attacks on the city in order to stop civilian evacuations. At least two Russian bombers attacked Zaporizhzhia in Russia on Thursday. This is the place where people fled Mariupol. The regional governor stated that no one had been injured.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said that Russia probably wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
“This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date,” the ministry said.
In other developments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Ukrainians living in areas of southern Ukraine under Russian control not to provide Russians with their IDs, which he said could be used “to falsify a so-called referendum on our land” to create a Moscow-friendly government.
“This is a real possibility,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation. “Beware.”
This report was contributed by Mstyslav Chernov, Felipe Dana, and Yesica Fisch, Associated Press journalist in Kharkiv (Ukraine); Danica Kirka, London; Robert Burns, and Aamer Madhani, AP staff around the globe.
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