by ELENNA BECATOROS and JOHN gambrel
Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine ( Associated Press) — A new international effort began on Friday to rescue more civilians from tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city, even as fighters hiding in the sprawling compound scuttled Moscow. Made his last stand to stop Toto. Strategic port acquisition.
Fighting in the last Ukrainian stronghold of a Russian-ravaged city appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the fight for Mariupol so that he can bring victory to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day. , the largest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.
According to Russia’s most recent estimate, about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are hiding in a vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks – and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there – and as fighting has intensified in recent days, fears for their safety have only increased.
United Nations officials announced on Thursday it was launching a third effort to evacuate civilians from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not disclose any new details of the operation; It has been similarly quiet about the previous ones while they were walking. And it could take days to know the consequences as those escaping Mariupol generally had to travel about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, before reaching relative safety in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhya, disputed areas and One has to pass through several checkpoints, where many have gathered.
The head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andrey Yermak, said Friday on the Telegram messaging app, “We have launched another phase of a complex operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal.” “I can say that we managed to evacuate about 500 civilians.”
Two previous evacuations negotiated by the United Nations and the Red Cross brought in about 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. It was not clear whether Yermak was saying that more people had since been rescued.
Fighters guarding the plant said on Telegram that Russian troops fired at an evacuation vehicle that was moving through the area of the plant.
“The car was moving towards civilians to evacuate them from the plant area. As a result of the shelling, 1 soldier was killed and 6 were injured, ”the message of the Azov regiment said.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the renewed fighting there on Friday.
Before Victory Day – which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany – municipal workers and volunteers cleaned the remains of Mariupol, a city under Russian control, in addition to a steel plant. Bulldozers picked up the debris and people were washed away in the streets – buildings hollowed out by shelling in the background. Workers repair a model of a battleship, and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of an important port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass, the eastern industrial region. What the Kremlin says is now its main purpose. Its capture also holds symbolic value as the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.
As they moved to the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks in a devastating war that killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and large areas of cities. leveled off.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank that he was open to talks with Russia, but reiterated that Moscow should withdraw its forces.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s military said on Friday that its forces thwarted 11 attacks in the Donbass and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after a failed attempt to capture Kyiv . Russia made no immediate acknowledgment of those losses.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense chief, General Valery Zaluzny, said on Thursday that a retaliation could begin to push Russian forces away from Kharkiv and Izium – two cities crucial to the Russian campaign in the Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatist Ukrainian troops fighting with. for eight years. Already, Ukrainian fighters have driven Russian troops about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv in recent days.
The goal may be to push Russian forces out of the artillery range of the city, which has been hit by the attacks, as well as forcing Moscow to withdraw troops from other areas of the front line, according to the Washington-based institute. According to one estimate. War study on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces were only “making progress” in the Donbass, while the institute said their operations were “ineffective” and had not achieved any significant regional gains in the past 24 hours.
The British Defense Ministry said in an assessment on Friday that Russia is struggling to partially execute its plan in the Donbass, as it is stuck at the Mariupol plant.
It said the fighting at the plant “came at the expense of Russia’s personnel, equipment and weapons.” “While Ukrainian resistance in Avozhstal continues, Russian losses will continue to build up and frustrate its operational plans in the southern Donbass.”
Ukrainians say Russian troops have stormed the steelworks and are also hitting it from the air, but the wife of a plant’s commander said they would not surrender.
“They only hope for a miracle,” said Katarina Prokopenko on Thursday after talking to her husband Denis Prokopenko on the phone.
The Russians have crushed much of Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000, and a two-month siege that has left perhaps 100,000 civilians trapped with little food, water, electricity or heat. Citizens sheltering inside the plant have probably suffered even more damage – living underground for months without seeing daylight.
Asked if Russia would soon take full control of the besieged port city of Mariupol, Zelensky said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything else.”
“It’s already devastated,” he told the London meeting by video.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, said the Russians managed to get inside the plant on Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the layout.
“He showed them underground tunnels leading to the factory,” Gerashchenko said in a video.
The Kremlin has denied that its troops were attacking the plant, and Russia has also accused fighters of preventing civilians from leaving.
Over 100 civilians were rescued from the steelworks over the weekend; A few days later several hundred more people were evacuated from the city and surrounding areas. But several previous attempts to open safe corridors from Mariupol have failed, with Ukraine blaming the shelling and firing by the Russians.
On Thursday, a US official said the US shared intelligence with Ukraine about the location of a Russian flagship ahead of the mid-April strike, one of Moscow’s biggest failures in the war.
The US provided “a range of intelligence” that included the locations of the warships, which were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, the official said, adding that the missile cruiser Moskva The decision to target was entirely Ukraine’s decision.
This story has been corrected to show that it is unclear whether a new group of citizens has already left the plant. ,
Gambrel reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Trisha Thomas in Rome, Yesika Fisch in Zaporizhzhya, Inna Varenitsia and David Keaton in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. in Washington. Baldor and Associated Press employees around the world contributed to this report.
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