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Ukraine repulses Russian attacks; A battle broke out at the Mariupol plant

LVIV, Ukraine – On Thursday, the Ukrainian military said it had recaptured some areas in the south and repulsed Russian attacks in the east when a bloody battle unfolded at a steel plant in Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops hid in tunnels and bunkers, repelling Russian pressure.

After ten weeks of devastating war, Ukrainian and Russian troops are fighting village after village, and Moscow is trying to gain momentum in the eastern industrial center of Donbass. Russia has shifted its focus to the region, where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for years, after tougher-than-expected resistance has delayed its troops and thwarted its original goal of capturing the capital.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, President Alexander Lukashenko said he did not expect the Russian offensive to be “delayed”. Some Russian troops used allied Belarus as a launching pad for the February 24 invasion, and Lukashenko publicly supported the operation.

“But I am not immersed enough in this problem to say whether it is going according to plan, as the Russians say, or how I feel,” said the authoritarian leader. He added that the use of nuclear weapons would be “unacceptable”, but could not say whether Russia had such plans.

In addition to heavy shelling of the Donbass, Russian forces also continued to bombard railway stations and other facilities across the country – part of an effort to disrupt supplies of Western weapons that were crucial to Ukraine’s defense.

Ukrainian forces said on Thursday that 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. The attacks damaged homes and schools.

Air raid sirens sounded in the country’s cities on Wednesday night, while Russian attacks were registered near Kyiv, the capital; in Cherkasy and the Dnieper in central Ukraine; and in Zaporozhye in the southeast. In Dnipro, authorities said a railway facility had been damaged after several previous attacks on railway stations across the country. The sirens sounded again early Thursday in the western city of Lviv, which was a gateway to Western weapons and served as relative protection for people fleeing fighting further east.

An assessment by the Washington Institute for War Studies says that Russian troops are being recruited with all their might.

“Ukrainian defense has largely halted Russia’s advance in eastern Ukraine,” it said late Wednesday.

“Russian forces have stepped up air strikes on transport infrastructure in western Ukraine (on Wednesday), but are still unable to block Western aid supplies to Ukraine,” the statement added.

The sharpest example of how Ukrainian forces have slowed Russia’s progress is that Ukrainian militants clung to the large Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, the last hotbed of resistance in a city otherwise controlled by Moscow.

“With the support of aviation, the enemy resumed the offensive to take control of the plant,” – said on Thursday at the General Staff of the Ukrainian military. A stream of black smoke rose over the plant on Wednesday.

The Ukrainians said that Russian forces had advanced along the perimeter of the station and also bombed it from above. The Kremlin has denied a ground attack.

The commander of the Ukrainian regiment “Azov”, which defends the plant Denis Prokopenko, in a video released on Wednesday, said that the invasions continue the second day, “and there are heavy, bloody fighting.”

The fall of Mariupol will deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to create a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas.

The city, and the plant in particular, became a symbol of the suffering of war. The Russians destroyed most of Mariupol in a two-month siege that resulted in civilians seizing little food, water, medicine and heat. Perhaps even more affected were civilians who hid inside the plant. About 100 of them were evacuated last weekend – for the first time in recent months, some saw the light of day.

The Russian government has said it will open another evacuation corridor from the plant at certain hours from Thursday to Saturday. But there was no immediate confirmation of these agreements by other parties, and many previous Kremlin assurances failed, and Ukrainians blame the Russians for continuing the fighting.

It is unclear how many Ukrainian fighters are still on the plant, but the Russians have estimated the figure at about 2,000 in recent weeks, with 500 reportedly wounded. There are also several hundred civilians, the Ukrainian side said this week.

The United Nations said more than 300 civilians were evacuated on Wednesday from Mariupol and other nearby communities. The evacuees arrived in Zaporozhye, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, where they received humanitarian aid.

“Many came only with the clothes they were wearing, and now we will support them in this difficult time, including much-needed psychological support,” said Asnat Lubrani, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Belarus announced the start of military exercises on Wednesday. A high-ranking Ukrainian official said the country would be ready to act if Belarus joined the fight.

The UK Defense Ministry said Thursday that it does not believe the exercises currently pose a threat to Ukraine, but that Moscow is likely to use them “to consolidate Ukrainian forces in the north, not allowing them to be loyal to the battle for Donbass.”

In addition to arms supplies to Ukraine, Europe and the United States have tried to punish Moscow with sanctions, targeting the country’s vital energy sector. On Wednesday, a senior European Union official called on the 27-nation bloc to ban imports of Russian oil, which is a major source of revenue.

The proposal requires the unanimous approval of EU countries and is likely to be hotly debated. Hungary and Slovakia have already said they will not participate in any oil sanctions, but they may be released.

The EU is also talking about a possible embargo on Russian natural gas. The bloc has already approved the cessation of coal imports.

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