Russian missile strikes hit Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other cities on Saturday, as Moscow said its troops had cleared the urban area of Mariupol and only a small contingent of Ukrainian fighters remained inside a steelworks in the besieged southern port.
Russia’s claim to have all but taken control of Mariupol, scene of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, could not be independently verified. It would be the first major city to have fallen to Russian forces since the February 24th invasion.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday the situation in the besieged port of Mariupol remained extremely severe and Kyiv was in touch with city's defenders every day.
Mr Zelenskiy, speaking in an online address, accused Russia of trying to wipe out the city's inhabitants but did not address Moscow's claim earlier in the day that its troops had cleared the entire urban area of Mariupol of Ukrainian forces.
Earlier on Saturday, Mr Zelenskiy told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal “the situation is very difficult” in Mariupol. “Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis ... Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves.”
As Russia launched more long-range attacks following the sinking of its Black Sea fleet’s flagship, Moscow said its warplanes had struck a tank repair factory in Kyiv. An explosion was heard and smoke rose over the southeastern Darnytskyi district. The mayor said at least one person was killed 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 and serves as a haven for refugees and international aid agencies.
In the port city of Mariupol, Reuters journalists in Russian-held districts reached the Ilyich steelworks, 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 Russian defence ministry said its troops had “completely cleared” Mariupol’s urban area of Ukrainian forces and blockaded the “remnants” in the Azovstal steelworks, RIA news agency said. It said that as of Saturday, Ukrainian forces in the city had lost more than 4,000 people, RIA added.
There was no immediate reaction from Kyiv to the Russian claims.
The governor of Kharkiv province in the east said at least one person had been killed and 18 were injured in a missile strike.
Smoke billowed from burning cars and the remains of what appeared to be an office building at the scene of an attack in the city as rescuers cleared mounds of debris that blocked the road outside.
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.
Kyiv and Washington say the ship, whose sinking has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance, was hit by Ukrainian missiles. Moscow says it sank after a fire and that its crew of around 500 were evacuated.
Russia’s defence ministry published video of the head of the navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, meeting on a parade ground with about a hundred sailors it said were members of the crew.
A month and a half into president Vladimir Putin's invasion of 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.
Russian troops that pulled out of the north left behind towns littered with bodies of civilians, evidence of what US president Joe Biden this week called genocide – an attempt to erase Ukrainian national identity.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says the aim of its “special military operation” is to disarm its neighbour, defeat nationalists and protect separatists in the southeast.
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.
The owner of both of the giant steelworks in Mariupol, 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.
In the front-line Luhansk town of Lysychansk, civilians crouched and then fled for safety from incoming shells as thick smoke rose from a blackened shop and burned-out cars.
Ukraine gained the upper hand in the early phase of a war, in part by successfully deploying mobile units armed with anti-tank missiles supplied by the West against Russian armoured convoys confined to roads by muddy terrain.
But Mr 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.
Mr Zelenskiy told Ukrainian reporters the world should prepare “in a number of ways” for the possibility Russia might use nuclear weapons. He did not give evidence for the assertion.
Last month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would resort to nuclear weapons only in the case of a “threat to the existence” of the country – and not as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
An advisor to Mr 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.
The Russian defence ministry said its anti-aircraft systems in the Odesa region shot down a Ukrainian transport plane delivering weapons supplied by Western governments. It did not provide any evidence. There was no immediate comment from Kyiv.
Mr 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 casualties since March 25th, 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. – Reuters