Russia launched an attack on the encircled Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, Ukraine's last redoubt in the port city, after a ceasefire broke down on Tuesday with some 200 civilians trapped underground despite a UN-brokered evacuation.
In a Telegram video, Capt Sviatoslav Palamar of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment said that Russia pounded the steel works with naval and barrel artillery through the night and dropped heavy bombs from planes.
Reuters could not independently verify his account. However, Reuters images on Monday showed volleys of rockets fired from a Russian truck-mounted launcher towards Azovstal, a sprawling Soviet-era steel works.
“As of this moment, a powerful assault on the territory of the Azovstal plant is under way with the support of armoured vehicles, tanks, attempts to land on boats and a large number of infantry,” Capt Palamar said. He added that two civilians were killed and 10 injured, without providing evidence.
“The enemy is trying to storm the Azovstal plant with significant forces using armoured vehicles. Our fighters are repelling all attacks,” Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard who is also currently at Azovstal, said.
Russia has turned its fire power on Ukraine's east and south after failing to take the capital of Kyiv in the north in March. The offensive has been met with commitments by western powers for tougher sanctions as well as supplies of heavier weapons to Ukraine, including air defence systems and long-range artillery.
On Tuesday, the European Commission was expected to finalise a ban on buying Russian oil in an effort to squeeze Moscow's war chest. The US Congress is considering a $33 billion (€31bn) military aid package, and the UK this week vowed an additional £300 million (€356m) in defence assistance.
“This is Ukraine’s finest hour, [one] that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come,” British prime minister Boris Johnson said in an address to Ukraine’s parliament via videolink. He was channelling the words spoken by Winston Churchill in 1940 when Britain faced the threat of being invaded and defeated by Nazi Germany.
Russia’s defence ministry said Ukrainian forces had used the ceasefire at Azovstal to establish new firing positions, and that Russia-backed forces were now “beginning to destroy” those positions.
Further west along the Black Sea coast, high-precision missiles struck an airfield near the port of Odesa where advanced drones and ammunition supplied to Ukraine by the US and European allies were stored, according to Russia’s defence ministry. Ukraine confirmed a rocket strike in Odesa.
The war launched by Russian president Vladimir Putin on February 24th is also heavily focused on the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which have been held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
Russia’s troops are trying to encircle a large Ukrainian force there, attacking from three directions with massive bombardment along the front.
Pope Francis said in an interview published on Tuesday that he had asked for a meeting in Moscow with Mr Putin to try to stop the war but had not received a response. Mr Putin told French president Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday that he was still open to dialogue with Kyiv.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said Mr Putin’s policies were imperialistic, and that he would support Finland and Sweden if they decided to join Nato, as each is now considering.
“No one can assume that the Russian president and government will not on other occasions break international law with violence,” Mr Scholz said.
Russian bombardments since troops invaded Ukraine have flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than five million to flee the country.
Russia calls its actions a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
The fighting at Azovstal followed a ceasefire around the complex that allowed several groups of civilians to escape Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian fighters in recent days.
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said he hoped a first column of evacuees would reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday, adding that more civilians were trapped in bunkers and tunnels under the complex and some 100,000 remained in the rest of the city.
“We will do everything possible to repel this assault . . . We call for immediate action to evacuate civilians from the plant’s grounds and transport them safely to Zaporizhzhia and Ukrainian-controlled territory,” Capt Palamar said.
Under almost constant bombardment for months, Mariupol is a major target for Russia as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the sea and connect Russian-controlled territory in the south and east.
"You wake up in the morning and you cry. You cry in the evening. I don't know where to go at all," said Mariupol resident Tatyana Bushlanova, sitting by a blackened apartment block and talking over the sound of shells exploding nearby.
Some other parts of Donetsk were under fire and regional authorities were trying to evacuate civilians from frontline areas, the Ukrainian president’s office said.
Russian shelling killed at least nine civilians in Donetsk on Tuesday, the regional governor said. Ukraine's military said Russian forces were trying to take the frontline town of Rubizhne.
Reuters could not independently verify Ukraine’s battlefield accounts. – Reuters/AP