Ukrainians grow desperate for rescue in Mariupol as Russian advance held off

Ukrainian forces fought Saturday to hold off a Russian advance aimed at capturing an eastern industrial region along with Ukraine’s last holdout in the southern city of Mariupol, where fighters and civilians hiding under a damaged steel mill endure agonizing conditions.

The United Nations continued trying to broker an evacuation of civilians from the sprawling Soviet-era plant and other bombed-out ruins of Mariupol, a port city that Russia has sought to capture and subjected to heavy bombardment since it invaded Ukraine more than nine weeks ago .

There are up to 1,000 civilians at the city’s Azovstal steelworks, according to Ukrainian officials, who have not said how many fighters remained in the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces. The Russians put the number of Ukrainian soldiers at the plant at about 2,000.

Video and images shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters there showed unidentified wounded men with stained bandages in need of changing; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.

Treating injured at steel plant

A skeleton medical staff was treating at least 600 wounded people, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard. The regiment is a far-right armed group that was folded into the country’s national guard after Russia’s first invasion in 2014.

In the video the women shared, the wounded men tell the camera they eat once a day and share as little as 1.5 litres of water a day among four. Supplies inside the surrounded facility are depleted, they said.

This recent but undated photo was provided to The Associated Press on Friday by the wife of a member of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard showing a woman comforting a wounded man inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. (The Associated Press)

The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the footage, which the women said was taken in the last week in the warren of passageways beneath the steel mill.

One shirtless man spoke in obvious pain as he described his wounds: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “was hanging on the flesh.”

“I want to tell everyone who sees this: If you will not stop this here, in Ukraine, it will go further, to Europe,” he said.

The Soviet-era steel plant has a vast underground network of bunkers able to withstand airstrikes. But the situation has grown more dire after the Russians dropped “bunker busters” and other bombs.

Above ground, Mariupol’s residents picked through their ruined houses looking for their belongings and continued to cook in the streets on Friday. Furniture was piled outside burned-out apartment buildings as people ventured out in the spring sunshine, and explosions could be heard in the background.

Kindergarten teacher Natalia Kalugina, 64, prepares to cook pancakes in the street in Mariupol on Friday. She says her brother’s house in the city was destroyed by shelling. (Reuters)

Kindergarten teacher Natalia Kalugina, 64, cooked curd pancakes on the street. She said she had found the shelling scary.

“I still cannot laugh. It’s only tears. My brother’s house was destroyed by shelling,” she said.

100,000 believed trapped in Mariupol

In the bombed-out city, about 100,000 people were believed trapped with little food, water or medicine.

“Locals who manage to leave Mariupol say it is hell, but when they leave this fortress, they say it is worse,” Mayor Vadym Boichenko said.

United Nations spokesperson Farhan Haq said the organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv to create safe passage.

This time, “we hope there’s a slight touch of humanity in the enemy,” the mayor said. Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.

WATCH | Russian missile strikes rock Kyiv, fighting intensifies in Eastern Ukraine:

Russian missile strikes rock Kyiv, fighting intensifies in Eastern Ukraine

Russia blasted the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv with missiles during a visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. On the eastern front, Russian troops are trying to surround and defeat Ukrainian forces battered by heavy fighting. 2:34

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that the real problem is that “humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultra-nationals.” Moscow has repeatedly claimed right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields.

In other developments:

  • A Russian missile attack destroyed the airport runway in Odesa, Ukraine’s third-most populous city and a key Black Sea port, the Ukrainian army said. Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported that “several” explosions were heard in Odesa on Saturday, prompting local authorities to advise residents to shelter in place.
  • The mayor of town of Popasna in Eastern Ukraine, Nikolai Khanatov, said two buses that were headed there to evacuate residents were fired upon Friday and that contact with the drivers has been lost.
  • Ukrainian forces are cracking down on people accused of helping Russian troops. In the Kharkiv region alone, nearly 400 have been detained under anti-collaboration laws enacted after Moscow’s Feb. 24 attack.
  • The international sanctions imposed on the Kremlin over the war are squeezing the country. The Russian Central Bank said Russia’s economy is expected to contract by up to 10 per cent this year, and the outlook is “extremely uncertain.”
  • Russian forces have stolen “several hundred thousand tons” of grain in the areas of Ukraine they occupy, Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotskiy, said on Saturday.
  • Ukraine carried out a prisoner exchange with Russia on Saturday, with seven soldiers and seven civilians coming home, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in an online posting. One of the soldiers was a woman who is five months’ pregnant, she added. She did not say how many Russians had been transferred.

Only minor gains for Russia

Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in the east has been difficult because bombings and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

But so far, Russia’s troops and the separatist forces appeared to have made only minor gains.

An air crew member pushes 155-mm shells ultimately bound for Ukraine onto a C-17 aircraft for transport at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Friday. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

In part because of the strength of Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes the Russians are “at least several days behind where they wanted to be” as they try to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east, said the senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the American Military’s assessment.

As Russian troops try to move north out of Mariupol so they can advance on Ukrainian forces from the south, their progress has been “slow and uneven and certainly not decisive,” the official said.

The British Defense Ministry offered a similar assessment, saying it believes Russian forces in Ukraine are likely suffering from “weakened morale,” along with a lack of unit-level skills and “inconsistent air support.”

Russian forces have “been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from the failed advances in northeast Ukraine,” the ministry said in a tweet on Saturday as part of a daily report on the war. It did not say on what basis it made the evaluation.

Zelensky: ‘Russia wants to empty this territory’

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy the Donbas and all who live there.

The constant attacks “show that Russia wants to empty this territory of all people,” he said.

WATCH | What happened in Week 10 of Russia’s attack on Ukraine:

What happened in Week 10 of Russia’s attack on Ukraine

Russia warned the West against provoking a Third World War if leaders continue to intervene in Ukraine, while top officials from the US and the United Nations visited Kyiv and assessed the horrors of mass gravesites east of the capital. The Kremlin also cut off natural gas to Bulgaria and Poland. Here’s a recap of the war in Ukraine from April 23 to 29. 4:43

“If the Russian invaders are able to realize their plans even partially, then they have enough artillery and aircraft to turn the entire Donbas into stones, as they did with Mariupol.”

Ukrainian troops in the Luhansk region of the Donbas repulsed an attack by Russian airborne troops and killed most of their unit, the governor said.

Cleanup crews prepare to work at the site of an explosion in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on Friday. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

“Only seven of the invaders survived,” Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Friday on the Telegram messaging app. The claim could not immediately be confirmed.

He did not say where the attack took place but said Russian forces were preparing for an attack on Severodonetsk, northwest of Luhansk.

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