LVIV, Ukraine – Heavy fighting broke out at a destroyed steel plant in Mariupol on Thursday as Russian troops sought to finish off the city’s last defenders and complete the capture of a strategically important Ukrainian port.
The bloody battle comes amid growing suspicions that President Vladimir Putin wants to give the Russian people great success on the battlefield – or declare an escalation of the war – by Monday’s Victory Day. This is the greatest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar, which marks the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.
About 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to the latest estimates by Russia, were hidden in tunnels and bunkers under the extensive Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, the last hotbed of resistance in the city, which has largely fallen into ruin in the past two months. It was believed that several hundred civilians were trapped there.
Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, who, as deputy commander of the Azov Ukrainian Regiment, commanded defenders inside the plant, told Ukrainian television that Russian troops were at the plant for the third day and met fierce resistance.
“Heavy fighting is going on,” Palamar said.
The Russians managed to get there with the help of an electrician who knew the scheme, said the adviser of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Gerashchenko.
“He showed them the underground tunnels leading to the factory,” Gerashchenko said in a video released late Wednesday. “Yesterday, the Russians began storming these tunnels, using information they received from the traitor.”
The Kremlin has denied that its troops stormed the plant.
The fall of Mariupol would be a great success for Moscow, depriving Ukraine of a vital port, allowing Russia to build a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and freeing troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass and eastern regions. industrial region, which, according to the Kremlin, is now its main goal.
Palamar asked the whole world to put pressure on Russia to save more civilians from the metallurgical plant together with the wounded fighters. About 100 civilians were evacuated over the weekend.
“Wounded soldiers are dying in agony due to lack of proper treatment,” he said in a video.
The Kremlin demanded that the fighters surrender. They refused. Russia has also accused them of not allowing civilians.
Meanwhile, 10 weeks after the devastating war, the Ukrainian military said it had recaptured some areas in the south and repulsed other attacks in the east, further thwarting Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize Kyiv. Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village after village.
The head of the British Armed Forces, Chief of Defense Adm. Tony Radakin said Putin was “trying to rush to a tactical victory” before Victory Day. But he said that Russian forces are trying hard to gain momentum in the Donbass.
Radakin told Britain’s Talk TV that Russia was using missiles and weapons at such a rate that it was in a “logistics war” to support supplies. He added: “It will be a difficult move.”
Fearing new attacks around Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk urged residents to go to the countryside for the long weekend and warned them not to gather in public.
And the southeastern city of Zaporozhye, a key crossing point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning.
In another case, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an interview with The Associated Press, but said he did not expect the conflict to “drag on”.
Lukashenko, whose country was used by the Russians as a launching pad for the invasion, said Moscow should act because Kyiv was “provoking” Russia.
But he has also created some distance between himself and the Kremlin, repeatedly calling for an end to the conflict and calling it “war,” a term Moscow refuses to use. He insists on calling it a “special military operation.”
Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000, became a symbol of the suffering of the war. The siege of the city captured about 100,000 civilians who had little food, water, medicine and heat.
As fighting broke out there, Russian forces shelled other parts of the Donbass and continued to bombard railway stations and other facilities across the country to try to disrupt supplies of Western weapons that were crucial to Ukraine’s defense.
Ukrainian forces said they had made some progress on the border of the southern districts of Kherson and Mykolaiv and repulsed 11 Russian attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Donbass.
As a result of shelling of cities in the Donbass over the past day, five people were killed and at least 25 were injured, Ukrainian officials said. Houses and schools were damaged in the attacks.
The Washington Institute for the Study of War said Ukrainian forces had “largely halted Russia’s advance in eastern Ukraine,” and the intensification of Russian air strikes on transport infrastructure in the western part of the country failed to stop Western aid supplies to Ukraine.
Bearing in mind the problem of demining and post-war reconstruction, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the launch of a global fundraising platform called United24.
At the same time, an international donor conference was held in Poland, which raised $ 6.5 billion in humanitarian aid. The event was attended by prime ministers and ambassadors of many European countries, as well as representatives of remote countries and some companies.
In addition, the Ukrainian cabinet began developing proposals for a comprehensive post-war recovery plan, while Zelensky also called on Western allies to put forward a program similar to the Marshall Plan after World War II to help Ukraine rebuild.
Belarus announced the start of military exercises on Wednesday, raising fears that Russia’s ally could jump into the war. The UK Defense Ministry has said it does not believe the exercises pose any immediate threat to Ukraine, but that they could be used to link Ukrainian forces in the north and prevent them from joining the battle for Donbass.
Anna reported from the Ukrainian Zaporozhye. Associated Press journalists Esica Fish in Zaporizhia, Inna Varenitsa and David Keitan in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanov in Lviv, Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita Baldor in Washington and AP staff around the world.