Ukraine braces for attacks, evacuates ‘all women, children and older adults’ from steel mill
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa on Saturday and bombarded a steel mill in Mariupol housing Ukrainian civilians and fighters, hoping to complete their conquest of the port city in time for Victory Day celebrations. Ukraine announced that all women, children and elderly had been evacuated from the steel plant, a key Russian war objective that has long been under siege.
In a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that has sustained the fighting into its 11th week, Ukraine’s military flattened Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the war’s first days and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counteroffensive also was advancing around the nation’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key target of Russian shelling. The Ukrainian army said it retook control of five villages and part of a sixth near hotly contested Kharkiv.
As Russia’s Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II approached, cities across Ukraine prepared for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged residents numbed by more than 10 weeks of war to heed air raid warnings.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embody the spirit of those who prevailed during the Second World War.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying “to twist history to attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine.”
“As war again rages in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement issued as the United States and United Kingdom marked the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.
The most intense battles in recent days have befallen eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are entrenched in a fierce race to capture or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has focused on claiming the industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.
Moscow’s also has sought to sweep across southern Ukraine to both cut off the country from the sea and to connect its territory to the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, long home to Russian troops. But it has struggled to achieve those objectives.
On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from aircraft hit the region of Odesa, where authorities have a curfew in place until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising over Odesa with sirens wailing in the background.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting Russian-held Snake Island in a bid to impede Russia’s efforts to control the Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.
The image corresponds with a Ukrainian military video showing a drone striking the Russian vessel, engulfing it in flames. Snake Island, located some 35 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast, figured in a memorable incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, purportedly using colorful language.
Against that backdrop, Ukrainian fighters made a final stand to prevent a complete takeover of Mariupol. Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.
New satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed vast devastation at a sprawling seaside steel mill that is the last corner of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Buildings at the Azovstal plant, including one under which hundreds of fighters and civilians are likely hiding, had large, gaping holes in the roof, according to the images shot Friday by Planet Labs PBC.
“The president’s order has been carried out: All women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal (steelworks),” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday, without elaborating. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation has been completed.”
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