Russian forces have resumed their assault on a sprawling steelworks in the devastated Ukrainian port of Mariupol, using planes to pound Ukrainian fighters holding on there.
A senior Ukrainian official, meanwhile, said a renewed effort to evacuate civilians from the grounds of the Azovstal steel plant had been hampered by Russian fire despite a UN-brokered ceasefire. It is estimated that 200 civilians are hiding in the complex, along with no less than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters.
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The Ukrainian General Staff said in its May 6 daily assessment that the Russians were using aircraft in the new assault on the factory.
“There are a lot of wounded, but they don’t surrender,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on May 5. “They hold their positions.”
Mariupol itself was largely leveled by weeks of street-to-street fighting and heavy shelling. Azovstal has become a last bulwark for Ukrainian troops struggling to prevent a complete defeat of the city by the Russians.
The fighting comes as Russia continues its offensive in eastern Donbass, an offensive that has been slow and without major advances as Ukrainian forces have blocked Russian moves and even regained territory.
The fight for Azovstal also comes amid speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants a battlefield triumph he can showcase on May 9, when Russia marks VE Day, the anniversary of the defeat. of Nazi Germany.
“Russia’s renewed efforts to secure Azovstal and complete the capture of Mariupol are likely linked to the upcoming May 9 VE Day commemorations and Putin’s desire for token success in Ukraine,” the UK ministry said. of the defense. mentioned in its daily assessment of May 6.
“This effort has cost Russia personnel, equipment and ammunition. As Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian casualties will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbass,” it said. the Ministry.
Losing Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port on the Sea of Azov. It would also give Russia the chance to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass.
Ukrainians locked in the labyrinthine tunnels and industrial infrastructure of Azovstal posted videos and photographs on social media, appealing to the international community.
Soldiers are “dying in pain” for lack of proper care, Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, said in a May 5 video address. He pleaded for international aid to evacuate injured civilians and combatants.
Andriy Yermak, one of Zelenskiy’s top advisers, said on May 6 that nearly 500 civilians had been evacuated from the Azovstal town and factory as part of a United Nations-led effort.
“The next stage of rescuing our people from Azovstal is underway right now. Information on the results will be provided later,” Yermak said. said in a message on Telegram May 6. kyiv “will do everything to save all its civilians and soldiers”.
However, Mariupol authorities later said Russian forces fired on a vehicle involved in the evacuation, killing at least one Ukrainian fighter and injuring six.
Russia did not immediately comment. Russian news agency RIA said its correspondent saw a bus with 12 civilians leaving the Azovstal compound, but the reports could not immediately be confirmed.
Russia’s renewed offensive in Donbass – now in its third week – has been slow, amid stubborn defense by Ukrainian forces that are increasingly equipped with heavy artillery and powerful anti-tank weaponry and anti-aircraft supplied by NATO members.
Germany, which is under pressure at home and abroad to increase its supplies of equipment, said on May 6 that it would supply seven self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine after reversing its policy of not sending heavy weapons in war zones.
Earlier, Berlin announced that it would also send “Gepard” anti-aircraft systems.
The Donbass offensive came after a thwarted campaign by Russian forces north of kyiv in the first weeks of the war. The withdrawal of Russian troops from places like Bucha, near kyiv, has led to a cascade of witness reports that claim Russian units committed atrocities that could amount to war crimes.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said on May 6 that there was compelling evidence that Russian troops had committed war crimes, including extrajudicial executions of civilians, while occupying an area outside the Ukrainian capital in February and March. Civilians also suffered abuses such as “reckless shooting and torture”, says the group.
Russian troops committed “a host of apparent war crimes” in Bucha, including “numerous unlawful killings”, most of them near the intersection of Yablunska and Vodoprovidna streets, according to the report.