Planet Labs PBC via AP
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday and bombed a steel factory in Mariupol where Ukrainian civilians and fighters lived, hoping to complete their capture of the port city in time for the Victory Day celebrations. complete. Ukraine announced that all women, children and the elderly had been evacuated from the steel mill, a key Russian war target that has long been under attack.
As a sign of the unexpectedly effective defenses that have sustained the fighting into the 11th week, the Ukrainian army has taken over Russian positions on an island in the Black Sea captured in the early days of the war and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. , flattened.
Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive also advanced around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even though it remained a prime target of Russian shelling. The Ukrainian army said it recaptured control of five villages and part of a sixth near-disputed Kharkiv.
As the Russian holiday on Monday to commemorate Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II approached, cities across Ukraine were gearing up for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged residents stunned by more than 10 weeks of war to heed airstrike warnings.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embodies the spirit of those who prevailed during World War II”. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “twist history to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine”.
“As the war rages on in Europe once again, we must increase our resolve to resist those who are now trying to manipulate historical memory to realize their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement released when the United States and the United States United Kingdom Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.
The most intense fighting in recent days has taken place in eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are engaged in a fierce race to conquer or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine aimed to claim the industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupying some areas.
Moscow has also attempted to traverse southern Ukraine to both seal off the land from the sea and connect its territory to the breakaway Transnistrian region of Moldova, where Russian troops have long camped. But it struggles to achieve those goals.
On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from planes hit the Odessa region, where authorities have imposed a curfew until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke billowing over Odessa with sirens blaring in the background.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed that Ukraine has been fishing on Russian-occupied Snake Island in an attempt to hinder Russian efforts to control the Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.
The image matches a Ukrainian military video showing a drone hitting the Russian ship and going up in flames. Snake Island, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) offshore, played a part in a momentous incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, reportedly in colorful language. .
Against that background, Ukrainian fighters made a final stand to prevent a full-scale takeover of Mariupol. Securing the strategically important port of the Sea of Azov would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia had annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.
New satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed massive destruction at a sprawling steel mill on the coast, the last corner of the Ukrainian resistance in the city. Buildings at the Azovstal factory, including one where hundreds of fighters and civilians are believed to be hiding, had large, gaping holes in the roof, according to images taken Friday by Planet Labs PBC.
“The president’s order has been carried out: all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal (steel mills),” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday without elaborating. “This part of the humanitarian operation in Mariupol has been completed.”
The Russian Tass news agency had reported that 50 civilians had been evacuated from the factory on Saturday. A similar number departed Friday. The last evacuees followed some 500 others in recent days who were allowed to leave the factory and other parts of the city.
The evacuation of civilians from the factory has caught the world’s attention as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross struggle desperately to organize departures.
In recent days, fighters at the factory had described bringing out small groups of civilians who had been hiding for weeks. The fighters released a statement via social media saying that both they and the Russians used a white flag system to stop the fighting to get civilians out
But Russian forces have increased fire on the steel mill in recent days with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted missile systems, aerial bombardment and sea shelling, making evacuation operations difficult.
It remains unclear what will happen to the Ukrainian fighters there, both those still fighting and the hundreds injured. In recent days, the Ukrainian government has reached out to several international organizations to try and guarantee them safe passage.
The civilian escape is putting new pressure on Ukraine to find a way out for the fighters, who have vowed not to surrender. According to Ukrainian officials, Russian troops had already explored the factory and even reached the tangle of tunnels.
The Ukrainian government has called on international organizations to also assist in the evacuation of fighters defending the factory. According to Russia’s most recent estimate, there were about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal steel plant. They have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, though he did not name any of them.
“We are also working on diplomatic options to rescue our troops who are still in Azovstal,” he said in his overnight video address on Saturday.
The relief of those who were evacuated was tempered by the memory of those still left behind.
“They desperately need our help,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled their bunker with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others, leaving another 30 behind. “We have to get them out.”
While attacking the factory, Russian troops struggled to make significant profits elsewhere, nearly 2 1/2 months into a devastating war that killed thousands, forced millions to flee Ukraine and raze large swathes of some cities to the ground created.
Kharkiv, the first Soviet capital in Ukraine and a pre-war population of about 1.4 million, remained a prime target of Russian shelling in the northeast. But Western military analysts said Ukrainian troops are making progress in securing positions in the city.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment that the Ukrainian military could be able to “push Russian forces out of Kharkiv’s artillery range” in the coming days, marking a respite for the city offers. and a chance to build the defenders’ momentum “into a successful, wider counter-offensive”.
In other developments, a Russian missile on Saturday destroyed a Ukrainian national museum dedicated to the life and work of an 18th-century philosopher, the municipality said. It posted photos on Facebook showing the Gregory Skovoroda Museum going up in flames.
As an indication of his importance to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, Skovoroda’s effigy graces a Ukrainian banknote. The museum in Skvorodynivka is located near the Russian border in the region of Kharkiv where there was heavy fighting.
Zelenskyy said in his overnight speech that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in the fact that all countries of the free world understand what is at stake in the devastating war.
“We are defending ourselves against an attack of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that gives freedom to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is completely understandable to every society, in every corner of the world.”
Speaking at the UN Security Council in New York on Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its first statement on Ukraine, expressing “strong support” for the Secretary-General’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the 10-week-old “dispute”.
Talks to end the war have stalled. Zelenskyy said Friday he would be open to negotiations with Russia, but only if Moscow withdraws its troops from pre-invasion positions.
“In that situation, we will be able to discuss things normally,” Zelenskyy told a meeting at the London think tank Chatham House. Ukraine could then use “diplomatic channels” to regain its territory, he said.