People fleeing the village of Ruska Lozova wait at a check point in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Friday. Hundreds of residents were evacuated to Kharkiv from the neighboring village, which had been under Russian occupation for more than a month. (Philippe Dana, The Associated Press)
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KHARKIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces battled village after village on Saturday to repel a Russian advance across the east of the country, while the United Nations worked to broker the evacuation of civilians from the last defensive stronghold in the ruins of the bombed-out port city of Mariupol.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and up to 1,000 live under a A sprawling Soviet-era steel millAccording to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine did not say how many fighters were also at the plant, which is the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but Russia put the number at about 2,000.
Russian state media reported on Saturday that 25 civilians had been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plants, although there was no confirmation from Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency of the United Nations. It said 19 adults and six children had been evacuated, but gave no further details.
A senior official in the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit that defends the plant, said 20 civilians were evacuated during the ceasefire, though it was not clear if he was referring to the same group that Russian news reports were referring to.
“These are women and children,” Svyatoslav Balamar said in a video broadcast on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We do not know why they were not taken and evacuated to the territory controlled by Ukraine.”
Video and photos from inside the factory, shared by two Ukrainian women with The Associated Press Husbands were among the fighters Refusing to surrender there, he showed unidentified men with stained bandages; Others had open wounds or had limbs amputated.
The women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard, said a large medical staff was treating at least 600 wounded. They said some wounds were rotting from gangrene.
The men in the video said they only eat once a day and share at least 50 ounces of water a day between four people, and that supplies inside the besieged facility have run out.
One of the shirtless men appeared to be in pain as he described his wounds: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “was hanging over the body”.
“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you do not stop this here, in Ukraine, he will go further, to Europe,” he said.
The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women said was taken last week in the maze of hallways and bunkers beneath the factory.
She urged the women to evacuate the Ukrainian fighters along with the civilians, warning that they could be tortured and executed if captured. “The lives of the soldiers are also important,” Yulia Fedosyuk told the Associated Press in Rome.
In his nightly video address on Saturday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned to Russian to urge Russian forces not to fight in Ukraine, saying that their generals expect thousands more of them to die.
The president accused Moscow of recruiting new soldiers “with little motivation and little combat experience” so that units destroyed early in the war can be put back into battle.
“Every Russian soldier can still save his life,” Zelensky said. “It is better for you to survive in Russia than to die on our land.”
In other developments:
- Ukrainian Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said in televised statements that Russian forces confiscated hundreds of thousands of tons of grain in the territories under their control. Ukraine is a major producer of grain, and the invasion has driven up world prices and raised concerns about shortages.
- The Ukrainian military said a Russian missile attack destroyed the runway of the airport in Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major port on the Black Sea.
- The head of the Kyiv regional police force said the bodies of three men were found buried in a forest near the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. And Andrei Nebitov wrote on Facebook that the men, whose bodies were found on Friday, were tortured before being shot in the head. Ukrainian officials claimed that the retreating Russian forces carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are talking “almost every day”. But he told the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, “Progress has not been easy.”
- Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said: “We know that (the buses) arrived in the town and then came under fire from the enemy saboteur. A reconnaissance group.”
Getting a full picture of the ongoing battle in eastern Ukraine was difficult because air strikes and artillery shelling made the movement of journalists so dangerous. Also, both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have imposed severe restrictions on coverage from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts noted that the offensive in the Donbass region, which includes Mariupol, was much slower than planned. So far, it appears that Russian forces and the separatists have made only slight gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military power in the east.
Numerically, the Russian military manpower greatly exceeds the workforce in Ukraine. In the days before the start of the war, Western intelligence estimated that Russia was stationed near the border with as many as 190,000 soldiers. The number of permanent military forces of Ukraine is about 200,000, spread throughout the country.
However, partly because of the toughness of the Ukrainian resistance, the US believes the Russians are “at least several days behind where they want to be” as they attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east, a senior US defense official said. On condition of anonymity to discuss the US military’s assessment.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, the Russian offensive could still intensify and bypass the Ukrainians. Altogether, the Russian army numbers about 900,000 personnel on active duty. Russia also has a much larger air and sea power.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s huge warehouses mean Ukraine’s needs are nearly inexhaustible.
Mariupol officials described severe shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world body was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kiev, but could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation efforts “due to the complexity and fluidity of the operation”.
“There are, at the moment, high-level engagements going on with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure that you can rescue civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant,” Abreu told The Associated Press. He did not confirm that a video posted on social media purporting to show UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has blamed the failure of several previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian bombing.
Contribution: John Gambrel, Jurass Karmanau, Lolita C. Baldur, Mstislav Chernov, Ysica Fish, Trisha Thompson and AP staff around the world
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