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Ukrainians grow desperate for rescue in Mariupol as Russian advance held off – CBC.ca

Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to hold back a Russian advance through the country’s east, while the United Nations worked to broker a civilian evacuation from the last Ukrainian stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol.

ukraine crisis mariupol

Social worker Oksana Khvostenko, 47, stands near her heavily damaged house in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Friday. Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian planes continued to launch strikes on the city, focusing on the Azovstal steel plant where troops and civilians are sheltering. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to hold back a Russian advance through the country’s east, while the United Nations worked to broker a civilian evacuation from the last Ukrainian stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol.

An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and up to 1,000 are living beneath a sprawling Soviet-era steel plant, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine has not said how many fighters are also in the plant, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000.

Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian planes had continued to launch strikes on Mariupol, focusing on the Azovstal steelworks.

Meanwhile, Russian state news outlets reported that 25 civilians had been evacuated from the steel plant, although there was no confirmation from the UN or Ukrainian officials. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said 19 adults and six children were brought out of the plant, but it gave no further details.

ukraine crisis satellite

A satellite image shows an overview of the Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port city of Mariupol. (Maxar Technologies/Handout/Reuters)

Video and images from inside the plant, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters refusing to surrender 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 shared by the women, 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.

russia ukraine war

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.

City officials in Mariupol have described dire shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesperson Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv but that he could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation effort “because of the complexity and fluidity of the operation.”

“There is, right now, ongoing, high-level engagements with all the governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure that you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant,” Abreu told The Associated Press. He would not confirm video posted on social media that claimed to show UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.

PHOTO GALLERY | What’s happening in Ukraine on Day 66 of invasion: 

Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.

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:

  • The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest not far from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the head of Kyiv’s regional police force said. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, had been tortured before they were shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.
  • A Russian rocket 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.
  • Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk “almost every day.” However, he told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that “progress has not been easy.”
  • Two buses that went to evacuate residents from the town of Popasna in Eastern Ukraine were fired upon, and contact with the organizers was lost, Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said.
  • Russian forces have stolen “several hundred thousand tonnes” 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 airstrikes 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 Western military analysts suggested that Moscow’s offensive in the eastern Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russia’s troops and Moscow-backed separatist forces appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in Eastern Ukraine.

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

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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

Numerically, Russia’s military manpower vastly exceeds Ukraine’s. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated Russia had positioned near the border as many as 190,000 troops; Ukraine’s standing military is about 200,000, spread throughout the country.

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 U.S. defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the American military’s assessment.

With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s promised offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy than Ukraine.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armouries mean Ukraine’s needs are nearly inexhaustible.

“We need an unlimited number of weapons,” Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.

ukraine crisis demonstration mariupol

Women cry at a rally in central Kyiv on Saturday to demand that world leaders organize a humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of Ukrainian military and civilians from Mariupol. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

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.

“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.”

Meanwhile, lines formed at gas stations in Kyiv, Dnipro and other cities as Ukraine faced fuel shortages because Russia has destroyed its fuel infrastructure and blocked ports, Zelensky said. He said there were “no immediate solutions” to the shortages but hoped the situation would improve in the next week or two.

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

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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 U.S. 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