An adviser to Ukraine’s presidential office says Russian forces are attacking a steel plant that is the last defence stronghold of Ukrainian forces in the strategic port city of Mariupol.
Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said during a briefing on Saturday that Russian forces have resumed airstrikes on the Azovstal iron and steel works and were trying to storm it.
“The enemy is trying to completely suppress resistance of the defenders of Mariupol in the area of Azovstal,” Arestovich said.
Arestovich’s statement came two days after Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the whole of Mariupol, with the exception of Azovstal, had been “liberated” by the Russians.
Putin ordered the Russian military not to storm the plant and instead to block it off in an apparent attempt to stifle the remaining pocket of resistance there.
Ukrainian officials have estimated that about 2,000 of their troops are inside the plant, along with about 1,000 sheltering in the facility’s underground tunnels.
Arestovich said the Ukrainian fighters were still holding on despite the resumed attacks and were trying to counter them.
Women and children are said to be holding out in the underground bunkers of the steel complex. In a video released by Ukraine’s Azov Battalion on Saturday, they said they wanted to return home to their families.
The video showed women wearing the Azovstal uniform design, which Reuters verified, matched in file images. Reuters could not independently verify where or when the video was shot.
Mariupol has been reduced largely to smoking rubble by weeks of bombardment, and Russian state TV showed the flag of the pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the city’s highest point, its TV tower. It also showed what it said was the main building at the Azovstal steel plant in flames.
Under cover of darkness, Ukrainian forces have managed to deliver weapons to the besieged steelworks via helicopter, said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.
Russian troops, meanwhile, continue to fight for full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. They seek to secure “a land route between these territories and the occupied Crimea” by wiping out the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, Ukraine’s General Staff said in its morning update.
Ukrainian forces over the past 24 hours repelled eight Russian attacks in the two regions, destroying nine tanks, 18 armoured units and 13 vehicles, a tanker and three artillery systems, the General Staff said.
“Units of Russian occupiers are regrouping. Russian enemy continues to launch missile and bomb strikes on military and civilian infrastructure,” the General Staff said on its Facebook page.
‘Not all survived’
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said on Saturday that two people were killed by Russian shelling in the city of Popasna.
“In addition to the fact that street fighting continues in the city for several weeks, the Russian army constantly fires at multi-storey residential buildings and private houses,” Haidai wrote on the messaging app Instagram. “Just yesterday, local residents withstood five enemy artillery attacks. Not all survived,”
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said despite their increased activity, “Russian forces have made no major gains in the last 24 hours as Ukrainian counterattacks continue to hinder the efforts.”
Russia still has not established air or sea control due to Ukrainian resistance, and despite the Russian president’s declaration of victory in Mariupol, “heavy fighting continues to take place, frustrating Russian attempts to capture the city, thus further slowing their desired progress in the Donbas,” the Ministry of Defence said.
Overall, the Kremlin has thrown more than 100,000 troops and mercenaries from Syria and Libya into the fight in Ukraine and is deploying more forces in the country every day, Danilov said.
“We have a difficult situation, but our army is defending our state,” he said.
2nd apparent mass grave site seen
The latest satellite photos from Maxar Technologies revealed what appeared to be a second mass grave site near Mariupol. The site at a cemetery in the town of Vynohradne has several newly dug parallel trenches measuring about 40 metres long, Maxar said in a statement.
A day earlier, Maxar released photos of what appeared to be rows upon rows of more than 200 freshly dug mass graves next to a cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol. That prompted Ukrainian accusations that the Russians are trying to conceal the slaughter of civilians in the city.
“This confirms again that the occupiers arrange the collection, burial and cremation of dead residents in every district of the city,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said on the Telegram messaging app.
The Ukrainians estimated that the graves seen in the photos released on Thursday could hold 9,000 bodies.
The Kremlin did not respond to the satellite pictures.
More than 100,000 people — down from a pre-war population of about 430,000 — are believed trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heat, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in the nearly two-month siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Most attempts to evacuate civilians from the city have failed because of what the Ukrainians said was continued Russian shelling.