KYIV, UKRAINE – Russian forces pressured a stubborn pocket of resistance in Mariupol amid renewed hopes on Wednesday for an evacuation of thousands of civilians from the shattered port city which is a key battleground in the new attack on Moscow to take control of the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.
In addition to pounding Mariupol, Russian forces have intensified their attacks along a boomerang-shaped front hundreds of kilometers long in what is known as the Donbass, home to coal mines, metallurgical plants and factories vital to the Ukrainian economy.
If successful, the offensive would give President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory after Moscow forces’ failed attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv, and stronger-than-expected resistance in the nearly two-month war. .
Ukrainian troops said on Tuesday that the Russian army dropped heavy bombs to flatten what remained of a sprawling steel factory – believed to be the last bastion of troops defending Mariupol – and hit a makeshift hospital where hundreds of people were staying. Reports cannot be independently confirmed.
Elsewhere, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday its forces were continuing intense attacks on Ukrainian targets, hitting 1,053 with artillery and 73 with airstrikes. Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov also said there had been missile strikes on concentrations of Ukrainian troops and vehicles in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. These claims could not be independently verified.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian army said in a statement that the takeover of the Azovstal steel plant and thus the complete capture of Mariupol remained a top priority for Russia. But he added that Moscow’s forces continued to mount offensives across the east as his forces probed weak points in Ukraine’s defensive lines.
A siege of Mariupol since the early days of the war has leveled much of the city on the Sea of Azov and inflicted some of the most dramatic suffering of the conflict, which has also driven more than 5 million people to flee the country. .
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said there was a ‘preliminary’ agreement to open a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly to leave Mariupol and head west to the controlled city of Zaporizhzhia by Ukraine on Wednesday afternoon.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko has urged residents to leave the city, although previous such agreements have crumbled, with Russians preventing buses meant to pick up evacuees from entering the city or bombing the roads. evacuation.
“Do not be afraid and evacuate to Zaporizhzhia, where you can get all the help you need – food, medicine, basic necessities – and the main thing is that you will be safe,” he wrote. in a statement issued by the city council.
Boychenko asked people who had already left Mariupol to contact relatives still in the city and urge them to evacuate. He said 200,000 people had already left the city, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000.
Boychenko said buses would be used for the evacuation and a pick-up point would be near the Azovstal steelworks, where a Ukrainian police official said civilians, including children, were housed some of the city’s last known defenders.
Many earlier evacuation efforts relied on civilians using private cars after efforts to bring buses from Ukrainian-held territory into the city failed. But with the fuel supply and the decrease in the number of these vehicles in the city, it becomes more and more difficult.
There was no immediate confirmation of the evacuation from the Russian side, which on Wednesday issued a new ultimatum to the Ukrainian defenders to surrender. The Ukrainians ignored previous requests to leave the sprawling steelworks maze of tunnels and bunkers.
The Russian Defense Ministry said those who surrendered would be allowed to live and receive medical treatment.
The capture of Mariupol has strategic and symbolic value for both sides. The scale of the suffering there has made it a focal point of the war for many outside Ukraine, and Russia’s difficulty in capturing it permanently is a prime example of how a force Ukrainian sub-army thwarted troops from Moscow.
The fall of Mariupol would also deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula that Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014, and also free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbass. .
A few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Russians’ estimate, remained entrenched in the steelworks.
The deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which was among the troops remaining in Mariupol, said the Russian army dropped heavy bombs on the steel plant and hit an “improvised” hospital.
Serhiy Taruta, the former governor of the Donetsk region and a native of Mariupol, also reported the shelling of the hospital, where he said 300 people, including wounded soldiers and civilians with children, were housed.
Both sides described intensified assaults along a broad eastern front that began on Monday as a new phase in the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian military was throwing everything it had into the battle, with most of its combat-ready forces now concentrated in Ukraine and just across the Russian border.
“They pushed almost everyone and everything capable of fighting us against Ukraine,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation.
Despite claims that they only strike military sites, the Russians continue to target residential areas and kill civilians, he said.
“The Russian army in this war will forever go down in world history as the most barbaric and inhumane army in the world,” Zelenskyy said.
He also said the Kremlin did not respond to a proposal to exchange Viktor Medvedchuk, the imprisoned leader of a pro-Russian party, for Mariupol defenders.
A few weeks ago, after Russia’s failed attempt to take kyiv, the Kremlin said its main objective was the capture of the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
Military experts said the Russians’ objective was to encircle Ukrainian troops from the north, south and east. Moscow has sent thousands more troops to southern and eastern Ukraine in recent days, including foreign fighters, according to Western officials.
Eyewitness accounts and reports from officials gave an overview of the extent of the Russian advance. But independent reporting in parts of Donbass held by Russian forces and separatists is very limited, making it difficult to know what is happening in many places on the ground.
Western countries, meanwhile, are increasing their donations of military supplies to Kyiv.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days that will include additional artillery and ammunition, according to a US official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke under cover of ‘anonymity.
Canada and the Netherlands also planned to send more heavy weapons, their prime ministers said.
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff around the world.
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