A new attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol appears to have failed, with local officials blaming Russian forces for allegedly attacking a metalworks where desperate Ukrainian defenders are holding out in the devastated southeastern port city.
The report of a new effort to storm the Azovstal plant comes two days after President Vladimir Putin claimed in a televised meeting that Russian troops would simply cordon off the facility in a bid to save Russian lives fighting for the “catacombs” below.
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Azovstal is thought to be home to around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, with much of the rest of the town already under Russian control.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, told an April 23 briefing that Russian forces had resumed the aerial bombardment of Azovstal and were attempting to storm it.
An aide to the town’s mayor said some 200 residents arrived early on April 23 for a planned evacuation, but were told by Russian troops to leave and warned them of a possible shelling.
Both sides blamed the other for previous failed attempts to evacuate civilians from the besieged city, which has been surrounded since the start of the conflict.
Elsewhere, Russian forces have stepped up their assault on eastern and southern Ukraine with “around-the-clock” shelling, dashing hopes of a ceasefire ahead of Easter Sunday on the Orthodox calendar.
In the strategic Black Sea port of Odessa, government officials mentioned a Russian missile strike hit a military installation and two residential buildings, killing at least five people and injuring 18, although reports could not immediately be confirmed.
Ukraine’s presidential office said a 3-month-old child was among those killed.
And Ukrainian governors in the east of the country reported deadly fighting and shelling overnight and throughout April 23, although some reports said Russian advances had stalled in the face of heavy Ukrainian resistance.
Kharkiv regional administration head Oleh Sinehubov said on his Telegram channel that Ukrainian forces had recaptured at least three villages near the Russian border after “fierce battles”.
British military intelligence said early April 23 that the invading Russian forces appeared to have made no major gains in the past 24 hours.
British intelligence also said Russian air and naval forces had still not established control over Ukrainian skies or seas in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.
In a video address late April 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked countries that delivered weapons to help Ukraine’s defense and said his armed forces continued to deter attacks in the east and south. from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces had stepped up their attacks along the entire eastern front line.
“The direction of Izyum, Donbass, Azov, Mariupol, the Kherson region are the places where the fate of this war and the future of our state are being decided now,” Zelenskiy said.
He also intensified warnings about Putin’s purported territorial goals elsewhere in the region, in addition to his recently stated aims to wrest and occupy eastern and southern Ukraine.
The acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, was quoted by state media on April 22 as saying that full control of southern Ukraine was a strategic goal to allow access to the region. pro-Russian secessionist Transnistria.
Minnekayev’s comments were the most detailed public description yet of Russia’s objectives in the second phase of its invasion of Ukraine and were highlighted by Kyiv as a sign that the Kremlin lied with its previous statements that Moscow has no territorial ambitions.
kyiv has also repeatedly warned that Transnistria could be used as a staging area for Russian operations against Ukraine or Moldova, which shares a border and common history with NATO member Romania.
Transnistria is a strip of territory bordering Ukraine where hundreds of Russian soldiers remain deployed despite objections from Chisinau.
Minnekayev said Russian speakers were oppressed in Transnistria. Moldova and Western leaders say this is wrong.
The Moldovan Foreign Ministry dismissed the Russian statements as “baseless” and summoned the Moscow ambassador to express Chisinau’s “deep concern”.
“Moldova (…) is a neutral state and this principle must be respected by all international actors, including the Russian Federation,” the ministry said in a statement.
In the eastern region of Luhansk, Governor Serhiy Hayday said on television on April 23 that all towns in that region were being shelled around the clock and the shelling was only intensifying.
Hayday also said via Telegram that an evacuation effort was planned from the Pokrovsk train station to help residents fleeing the Lugansk and Donetsk regions.
He also said two people were killed when the town of Popasna “made the most of” Russian shelling of residential buildings in the area, in addition to street fighting that continued for weeks.
He said Ukrainian defense forces were leaving some settlements to regroup. But Hayday insisted the moves were not a critical setback.
Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had via Telegram called on Mariupol residents to gather on a highway near a local shopping mall in hopes of escorting them safely out of town.
Several thousand residents fled the city from a pre-war population of around 500,000, but bombardments blamed on the encirclement of Russian forces frequently derailed civilian evacuations.
The Azov Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, whose forces are trapped in Azovstal, released video on April 23 of dozens of women and children they said had been living in the tunnels under the plant for months. A woman talks about her thirst for fresh air and sunshine.
Regiment commander Svyatoslav Palamar told AP the video was taken on April 21. Its contents could not initially be verified.
On April 22, new satellite images showed a second possible mass grave site in a nearby town, heightening the worst fears about the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding there since Putin’s offensive began on February 24.
Putin this week ordered Russian forces to cordon off Mariupol so “not even a fly” could enter the badly damaged city of around 500,000 before the conflict.