Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said 156 civilians were successfully evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol – Copyright AFP Marty MELVILLE

Joshua Melvin with Daphne Rousseau in Donbas

Russian forces have launched a major assault on the holdout Azovstal steel plant in the devastated port city of Mariupol while pounding sites across eastern Ukraine, as the European Union moves to punish Moscow with oil sanctions.

Three months into the war, Moscow has focused its fresh offensive on Ukraine’s east and south, while Western allies continue to provide Kyiv with cash and weapons in a bid to force Russian leader Vladimir Putin to pull back.

In one of a series of assaults Tuesday, 21 civilians were killed and another 28 wounded in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, local authorities said.

Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said 10 of the 21 dead were killed in the shelling of the Avdiivka coke plant, one of Europe’s largest, calling it the highest daily death toll since a Russian strike on a train station in Kramatorsk about a month ago.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky, meanwhile, said more than 150 people had been successfully extracted in Mariupol evacuation operations. 

“Today, 156 people arrived in (the Ukrainian-held city) Zaporizhzhia. Women and children. They have been in shelters for more than two months,” Zelensky said in a daily address.

Further evacuations from the city were to take place Wednesday with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross, a Mariupol mayoral adviser said.

But Osnat Lubrani, UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, has warned there “may be more civilians who remain trapped” in the immense underground galleries of the Azovstal steelworks.

As Russia’s renewed campaign in eastern Ukraine intensified, EU officials on Tuesday handed a draft plan to member states on a new package of sanctions aimed at Moscow.

But several EU officials and European diplomats in Brussels told AFP there were divisions, with at least one member state jockeying to opt out of an oil embargo.

Ambassadors from the 27 European Union countries will meet Wednesday to give the plan a once-over, and it will need unanimous approval before going into effect.

– Civilians reach safety –

Azovstal evacuees who emerged from a caravan of white buses in Zaporizhzhia were met at a makeshift reception centre by crying loved ones and dozens of journalists.

“Under permanent fire, sleeping on improvised mats, being pounded by the blast waves, running with your son and being knocked to the ground by an explosion — everything was horrible,” evacuee Anna Zaitseva told reporters. 

“We are so thankful for everyone who helped us. There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us,” Zaitseva said, holding her six-month-old baby in her arms.

Elyna Tsybulchenko, 54, who worked at the site doing quality control before the war trapped her there, described days and nights of endless barrages.

“They bombed like every second… everything was shaking. Dogs barked and children screamed,” she told AFP. “But the hardest moment was when we were told our bunker would not survive a direct hit.”

The Russian army confirmed its forces and pro-Moscow separatists were targeting Azovstal with artillery and planes in the wake of the evacuation, accusing members of Ukraine’s Azov battalion and other troops of using the pause in fighting to take up combat positions.

Mariupol was now largely calm elsewhere, AFP journalists saw on a recent press tour organised by Russian forces, with the remaining locals emerging from hiding to a ruined city.

– Battle for democracy –

The war in Ukraine has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 13 million, creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Western countries have responded by backing Ukraine with cash and increasingly heavy weaponry while imposing unprecedented sanctions against Russia.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday framed the war as a historic battle for democracy in a speech to workers at a factory producing Javelin missiles, which have wreaked havoc on Russian tanks.

“These weapons touched by the hands, your hands, are in the hands of Ukrainian heroes, making a significant difference,” Biden said at the Lockheed Martin facility in Troy, Alabama.

Reprising one of his presidency’s core themes, Biden said the fight by democratic Ukraine against Putin’s Russia was a front in a wider contest between democracies and autocracies worldwide, including China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping had told him that democracies can no longer “keep up,” Biden said.

Ukraine is the “first” battle to “to determine whether that’s going to happen,” he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday pledged another 300 million pounds ($376 million, 358 million euros) in military aid, as he became the first foreign leader to address Ukraine’s parliament since the conflict began.

Speaking via video link, he evoked Britain’s fight against the Nazis in World War II in hailing Kyiv’s resistance as its “finest hour”, and vowed to help ensure “no one will ever dare to attack you again”.

– Deadly strikes –

Since abandoning early attempts to capture Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Russian forces have shifted to the east, including largely Russian-speaking areas, and the south.

In the town of Lyman, Ukrainian soldiers told AFP they had rigged with explosives a railway bridge over the Donets river and were awaiting orders to blow it up.

“It’s never easy to destroy one of your own pieces of infrastructure. But between saving a bridge or protecting a city, there’s no question at all,” said one, going by the nom de guerre of “The Engineer”.

Russia’s defence ministry, meanwhile, said its forces had struck a logistics centre at a military airfield in the region around the Black Sea port of Odessa, used for the delivery of foreign-made weapons.

Storage facilities containing Turkey’s Bayraktar drones as well as missiles and ammunition from the United States and Europe had been destroyed, it said.

A rocket strike also knocked out power in part of Lviv, the western city near Poland that has turned into a haven for the displaced due to its comparative calm, Mayor Andriy Sadovy said on Twitter. 

Missiles also struck far to the country’s west in Transcarpathia, a region bordering Hungary that has largely been spared to date, Victor Mykyta, head of the local military administration, said. 

Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Russian troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.

But in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, Putin accused Ukrainian forces of committing war crimes and claimed the EU was “ignoring” them, according to the Kremlin.

The United States warned Monday that Moscow was preparing imminently to annex the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, planning to “engineer referenda” to join Russia sometime in mid-May.

Pro-Russian separatists in the two regions declared independence in 2014, but Moscow has so far stopped short of formally incorporating them as it did that year with the Crimean peninsula. 


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