Ukraine on Saturday attempted to evacuate more civilians from a beleaguered steel mill in Mariupol as Russian forces launched fresh bombardments across the country ahead of Victory Day festivities in Moscow.
The Azovstal steelworks is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city and its fate has taken on symbolic value in the wider battle since the Russian invasion.
Fighting continues on many fronts and Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it destroyed another Russian warship, a Serna-class landing craft, in the Black Sea.
“The traditional parade of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on May 9 this year will take place near Snake Island at the bottom of the sea,” the ministry added. Russia did not immediately confirm the incident.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry had earlier said Russian forces had resumed their assault on the Azovstal site, despite talks of a truce to allow trapped civilians to flee the compound.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said rescuers would try to evacuate more civilians on Saturday.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin will celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II over Nazi Germany with a traditional Victory Day parade.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, 77 aircraft will perform a flypast, including the rarely seen Il-80 Doomsday aircraft, which can withstand a nuclear attack.
Eight Mig-29 fighter jets will fly over Moscow’s Red Square forming the letter “Z” – the hallmark of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine.
The campaign has been met with fierce resistance – and has prompted kyiv’s Western allies to impose massive economic sanctions on the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle.
But with VE Day fast approaching, Ukrainian officials fear more intense missile and artillery bombardment and fresh assaults as Moscow scrambles for token victories.
Ukraine’s rescue service said a missile hit a technical college in Kostiantynivka, eastern Donetsk region, causing a fire and at least two deaths.
Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said there had been “massive shelling” along the frontline.
Strikes were also reported in northern Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv and in the southern town of Mikoleyev, a key Russian target.
Ukrainian forces launched their own counter-offensive.
– Bridges down –
According to the Defense Ministry, Russian troops were forced to demolish three road bridges near Tsyrkuny and Ruski Tyshky outside Kharkiv, to slow the Ukrainian advance.
According to British intelligence, Ukrainian forces equipped with high-end weaponry by Western allies, were able to destroy at least one of Russia’s most advanced tanks, the T-90M.
“The conflict in Ukraine is taking a heavy toll on some of Russia’s most capable units and most advanced capabilities,” UK Defense Intelligence said.
“It will take a lot of time and money for Russia to rebuild its armed forces after this conflict,” he said, warning that sanctions on advanced components would make it more difficult for Russia to re-arm.
The West, meanwhile, is stepping up arms deliveries to Ukraine’s defenders.
US President Joe Biden on Friday announced another military assistance package worth $150 million, including counter-artillery radars used to detect the source of enemy fire.
This brings the total value of US weapons sent to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion to $3.8 billion.
Biden had urged Congress to approve a new $33 billion package, including $20 billion in military aid, “to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
G7 leaders, including Biden, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are due to meet by videoconference on Sunday to discuss Western support for Kyiv.
And Biden’s wife, US First Lady Jill Biden, is in Romania to meet with US troops and Ukrainian refugees.
Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, who has completed a four-day visit to Ukraine, including areas just outside Kyiv, condemned the “staggering” violations of human rights by the Russian forces.
His visit showed “the extent of these gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law, with mounting evidence of arbitrary killings, torture and large-scale enforced disappearances”.
The organization, which protects human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, expelled Russia in March.
– Evacuation of Azovstal –
On Friday, Zelensky said “diplomatic options” were also underway to rescue Ukrainian soldiers from Mariupol steelworks, as civilian evacuations continued.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 50 people had been evacuated from the site, including 11 children.
He added that they had been handed over to the UN and the Red Cross, which are taking part in the operation, and that the “humanitarian operation” would continue on Saturday.
It is believed that around 200 civilians, including children, are trapped in the tunnels and bunkers under Azovstal, along with Ukrainian soldiers making their last stand.
Russia announced a daytime ceasefire at the plant for three days from Thursday, but Ukraine’s military said Russian “assault operations” continued by land and air.
The Ukrainian Azov Battalion, leading the defense in Azovstal, said one Ukrainian fighter was killed and six wounded when Russian forces opened fire during an attempt to evacuate people by car.
– Russia will remain “forever” –
Since failing to take kyiv at the start of the war, Russia has refocused on southern and eastern Ukraine.
Taking full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the separatist and pro-Russian regions in the east.
In those areas, the separatists said they removed Ukrainian and English language road signs for Mariupol and replaced them with Russian ones.
Residents want to see proof that “Russia is back here forever,” said Denis Pushilin, head of a pro-Russian separatist region in Donetsk.
In nearby Lugansk, Ukrainian officials said Friday that Russian forces had nearly surrounded Severodonetsk – the easternmost town still held by kyiv – and were trying to storm it.
Kherson in the south remains the only major city that Russia has managed to capture since the start of the war.
A senior Russian parliament official visiting the city on Friday also stressed that Russia would stay “forever” in southern Ukraine.
“There should be no doubt about it. There will be no turning back,” said Andrey Turchak.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)