Ukraine evacuates civilians from steel factory

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – Russian forces fired cruise missiles into the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Saturday and bombed a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, hoping to complete their capture of the port in time for Victory Day celebrations. Ukraine announced that all women, children and older adults had been evacuated from the factory, a key Russian war objective.

As a sign of the unexpectedly effective defenses that have sustained the fighting into the 11th week, the Ukrainian military have taken over the Russian positions on an island in the Black Sea that was captured in the early days of the war and has become a symbol of resistance. shut down. Western military analysts also said a Ukrainian counter-offensive was advancing around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even though it remained a prime target of Russian shelling.

The greatest European conflict since World War II has developed into a grueling war of attrition that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee their homes and destroyed large parts of some cities. Ukrainian leaders warned that the attacks would only intensify ahead of the Russian holiday on Monday, commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat 77 years ago, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged people to heed the airstrike warnings. to take.

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 war rages again in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who are now trying to manipulate historical memory to further their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement when the United States and the United Kingdom announced the Allied victory in Europe. †

The most intense fighting in recent days has been in eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are engaged in a fierce battle to gain or regain territory. Moscow’s offensive there has targeted the industrial Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting and occupying some areas since 2014.

Moscow has also attempted to traverse southern Ukraine to both seal off the land from the sea and connect the territory to the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, where Russian forces have long resided. 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 to social media showed thick black smoke rising over the city as sirens blared.

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 photo taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed most of the island’s buildings had been destroyed by Ukrainian drone strikes, as well as what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.

The image corresponds to a Ukrainian military video in which a drone hits the Russian ship and goes 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. .

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters have taken a firm stand against an all-Russian takeover of the strategically important city, which would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which had been annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.

Satellite photos taken Friday by Planet Labs PBC showed massive destruction at the sprawling seaside steel mill in Azovstal, the last part of the Ukrainian resistance movement in the city. Buildings had gaping holes in the roofs, including one under which probably hundreds of warriors are hiding.

Rescue workers completed the evacuation of civilians on Saturday after a week of Russian shelling and on-and-off convoys to get people out of Mariupol.

“The president’s order has been carried out: all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, without elaborating. “This part of the humanitarian operation in Mariupol has been completed.”

Russia’s Tass news agency had reported that 50 civilians had been evacuated on Saturday, a day after a similar number had left. The last evacuees followed about 500 others in recent days who were allowed to leave the factory and other parts of the city.

The situation at the factory has caught the world’s attention, with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross trying desperately to organize evacuations.

In recent days, fighters inside had described bringing out small groups of civilians who had been hiding there for weeks. The fighters said via social media that both they and the Russians have used a white flag system to stop the fighting to get civilians out.

But Russian forces have increased fire on the mill with mortars, artillery, truck-mounted missile systems, aerial bombardment and sea shelling, complicating evacuation operations.

Three Ukrainian fighters were killed and six injured in Friday’s evacuation attempt. Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, said his troops had waved white flags and accused Russian troops of firing an anti-tank weapon at a vehicle.

It remains unclear what will happen to the estimated 2,000 fighters in Azovstal, both those still fighting and the hundreds believed to be injured. In recent days, the Ukrainian government has been reaching out to international organizations to try and secure safe passage for them. The fighters have repeatedly vowed not to surrender.

Zelenskyy said early Saturday that “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers. He did not name anyone, but added: “We are also working on diplomatic options.”

According to Ukrainian officials, Russian troops have investigated the factory and even stabbed it in the maze of tunnels.

But elsewhere in the country they struggled to make significant profits.

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. The Ukrainian army said it recaptured control of five villages in the area and part of a sixth.

A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment that Ukraine could be able to “push Russian forces out of Kharkov’s artillery range” in the coming days, giving a reprieve for the city. and a chance to build the defenders’ momentum “into a successful, wider counter-offensive.”

Also on Saturday, a Russian missile destroyed a national museum in the Kharkiv region dedicated to the life and work of 18th-century philosopher Gregory Skovoroda, the municipality said. It posted photos to Facebook of the building going up in flames.

Zelenskyy said early Saturday that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all countries of the free world because they understand what is at stake in the devastating war.

“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that gives freedom to people and states,” he said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is completely understandable to every society, in every corner of the world.”

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