KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine: Russian air raids and missile strikes hit Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other major cities on Saturday as Moscow launched more long-range attacks following the sinking of its Black Sea Fleet’s flagship.
In the besieged port of Mariupol, scene of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, Russian troops pressed their advances, hoping to make up for their failure to capture Kyiv by seizing their first big prize of the war.
“The situation is very difficult” in Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal. “Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis...Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves.” Moscow said its warplanes had struck a tank repair factory in Kyiv. An explosion was heard and smoke seen in the southeastern Darnytskyi district. The mayor said at least one person had died and medics were fighting to save others.
The Ukrainian military said Russian warplanes that took off from Belarus had fired missiles at the Lviv region near the Polish border and four cruise missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defences.
The western city has been relatively unscathed so far in the conflict and serves as a haven for refugees and international aid agencies.
In Mariupol, Reuters journalists in Russian-held districts reached the Ilyich steel works, one of two metals plants where defenders have held out in underground tunnels and bunkers.
Moscow claimed to have captured it on Friday.
The factory was reduced to a ruin of twisted steel and blasted concrete, with no sign of defenders present. Several bodies of civilians lay scattered on nearby streets, including a woman in a pink parka and white shoes.
Someone had spraypainted “mined” on a fence by an obliterated filling station. In a rare sign of life, one red car drove slowly down an otherwise empty street, the word “children” scrawled on a card taped to the windshield.
The governor of Kharkiv province in the east said at least one person had been killed and 18 were injured in a missile strike. In Mykolaiv, a city close to the southern front, Russia said it had struck a military vehicle repair factory.
The attacks followed Russia’s announcement on Friday that it would intensify long-range strikes in retaliation for unspecified acts of “sabotage” and “terrorism”, hours after it confirmed the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.
A month and a half into President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, Russia is trying to capture territory in the south and east after withdrawing from the north following an assault on Kyiv that was repelled at the capital’s outskirts.
‘EVACUATE WHILE STILL POSSIBLE’
If Mariupol falls it would be Russia’s biggest prize of the war so far. It is the main port of the Donbas, a region of two provinces in the southeast which Moscow demands be fully ceded to separatists.
Ukraine’s defence is concentrated around Azovstal, another huge steel works that has yet to yield.
The owner of both of Mariupol’s giant steel factories, Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, vowed to rebuild the city.
“Mariupol has been and will always be a Ukrainian city,” Akhmetov told Reuters.
Ukraine says it has so far held off Russian advances elsewhere in the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where at least one person was killed in shelling overnight.
But an advisor to Zelenskiy said the country needed a swifter supply of weapons from its European Union partners.
“Ukraine needs weapons. Not in a month. Now,” Mykhailo Podolyak said in a Twitter post.
Ukraine gained the upper hand in the early phase of a war.
It has successfully deployed mobile units armed with anti-tank missiles supplied by the West against Russian armoured convoys confined to roads by muddy terrain.
But Putin appears determined to capture more Donbas territory to claim victory in a war that has left Russia subject to increasingly punitive Western sanctions and with few allies.
Zelenskiy said about 2,500-3,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed so far and up to 20,000 Russian troops.
Moscow has given no updates on its military casualties since March 25, when it said 1,351 had died. Western estimates of Russian losses are many times higher, while there are few independent estimates of Ukraine’s losses.
Ukraine says civilian deaths are impossible to count, estimating at least 20,000 killed in Mariupol alone.
Overall, around a quarter of Ukrainians have been driven from their homes, including a tenth of the population that has fled abroad.
Despite the Russian attacks, in a sign of the improved situation in Kyiv, the Italian and French embassies both restarted working in the capital for the first time since the early days of the war, their ambassadors said.