MARIUPOL, Ukraine ( Associated Press) — Russian forces pounded the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday, shelling its downtown as residents hid in its iconic mosque and elsewhere to avoid the explosions. Fighting also raged in the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, as Russia kept up its bombardment of several resisting cities.
Mariupol has endured some of Ukraine’s worst misery since Russia invaded. Unceasing barrages have thwarted repeated attempts to bring food, water and medicine into the city of 430,000 and to evacuate its trapped civilians. More than 1,500 people have died in Mariupol during the siege, according to the mayor’s office, and the shelling has even interrupted efforts to bury the dead in mass graves.
The Ukrainian government said Saturday that the Sultan Suleiman Mosque was hit, but an unverified Instagram post by a man claiming to be the mosque association’s president said the building was spared when a bomb fell about 750 yards (700 meters) away. About 80 residents, including children, were reportedly hiding inside.
“They are bombing it (Mariupol) 24 hours a day, launching missiles. It is hatred. They kill children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during a video address.
An Associated Press journalist in Mariupol witnessed tanks fire on a nine-story apartment building and was with a group of hospital workers who came under sniper fire on Friday. A worker shot in the hip survived, but conditions in the hospital were deteriorating: electricity was reserved for operating tables, and people with nowhere else to go lined the hallways.
Among them was Anastasiya Erashova, who wept and trembled as she held a sleeping child. Shelling had just killed her other child as well as her brother’s child, Erashova said, her scalp crusted with blood.
“We came to my brother’s (place), all of us together. The women and children went underground, and then some mortar struck that building,” she said. “We were trapped underground, and two children died. No one was able to save them.”
Meanwhile, French and German leaders spoke Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a failed attempt to reach a cease-fire. According to the Kremlin, Putin laid out terms for ending the war, including Ukraine’s demilitarization and its ceding of territory, among other demands.
Ukraine’s military said Saturday that Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening the armed squeeze on the strategic port. Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Azov Sea could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Zelenskyy encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid offensive and military victory the Kremlin likely expected while planning to invade Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor.
“The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defense, no matter how difficult it may be for us,” he said. Later Saturday, Zelenskyy reported that 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have died in fighting since the Feb. 24 start of the Russian invasion.
Zelenskyy again deplored NATO’s refusal to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said Ukraine has sought ways to procure air defense assets, though he didn’t elaborate.
Zelenskyy also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping the mayor of Melitopol, a city 192 kilometers (119 miles) west of Mariupol. After residents of the occupied city demonstrated for the mayor’s release Saturday, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to heed the calls.
“Please hear in Moscow!” Zelenskyy said. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
In multiple areas around the capital, artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter as air raid sirens wailed. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian ground forces that had been massed north of Kyiv for most of the war had edged to within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the city center and spread out, likely to support an attempted encirclement.
As artillery pounded Kyiv’s northwestern outskirts, black and white columns of smoke rose southwest of the capital after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv caused hundreds of small explosions. A frozen food warehouse just outside the capital was also struck in an apparent effort to target Kyiv’s food supply.
Ukraine’s military and volunteer forces have been preparing for an all-out assault. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Thursday that about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s residents, had left and that “every street, every house … is being fortified.”
Zelenskyy said Saturday that Russia would need to carpet-bomb the Ukrainian capital and kill its residents to take the city.
“They will come here only if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
Putin held a 90-minute call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. Putin spoke about “issues related to agreements under discussion to implement the Russian demands” for ending the war, the Kremlin said without providing details.
For ending hostilities, Moscow has demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join NATO and adopt a neutral status; acknowledge the Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014; recognize the independence of separatist regions in the country’s east; and agree to demilitarize.
Zelenskyy told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday that he would be open to meeting Putin in Jerusalem to discuss an end to the war, but that there would first have to be a cease-fire. Bennett recently met in Moscow with Putin, who has ignored previous offers of talks from Zelenskyy.
Russia’s slow tightening of a noose around Kyiv and the bombardment of other cities mirror tactics that Russian forces have previously used in other campaigns, notably in Syria and Chechnya, to crush armed resistance.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among the people who had sought safety in Mariupol’s mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, which was modeled on one of the most famous and largest mosques in Istanbul.
Before Mariupol became a target of the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War II, the city promoted the white-walled building and its towering minaret as a scenic attraction.
With Mariupol’s electricity, gas and water supplies knocked out, aid workers and Ukrainian authorities described an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Aid group Doctors Without Borders said Mariupol residents are dying from a lack of medication and are draining heating pipes for drinking water.
Russian forces have hit at least two dozen hospitals and medical facilities since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the World Health Organization. Ukrainian officials reported Saturday that heavy artillery damaged a cancer hospital and several residential buildings in Mykolaiv, a city 489 kilometers (304 miles) west of Mariupol.
The hospital’s head doctor, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were in the facility during the attack, but no one was killed.
The Russian invaders appear to have struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. Still, Russia’s stronger military threatens to grind down Ukrainian forces, despite an ongoing flow of weapons and other assistance from the West for Ukraine’s westward-looking, democratically elected government.
A senior Russian diplomat warned that Moscow could attack foreign shipments of military equipment to Ukraine. Speaking Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow has warned the United States “that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move — it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets.”
Russia’s troops are likely to be bolstered soon from abroad. Denis Pushilin, the Russia-backed head of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, said Saturday that he expects “many thousands” of fighters from the Middle East to join the rebels and fight “shoulder-to-shoulder” against the Ukrainian army.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed along with many civilians. At least 2.5 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Ukrainian chief prosecutor’s office said Saturday at least 79 children have been killed and nearly 100 have been wounded. Most of the victims were in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the numbers aren’t final because active fighting continues.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv and other reporters around the world contributed.
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