Ukraine says it is mounting a counteroffensive near the northeast metropolis of Kharkiv

As Ukrainian towns and cities gasp ahead of a major Russian celebration of military victory, fresh fighting erupted along eastern front lines on Saturday as authorities stepped up efforts to snatch civilians from the last slice of territory under Ukrainian control in the broken port city of Mariupol.

At the same time, the Ukrainian military said its troops managed to repel forces from Moscow from some artillery positions near Kharkiv, the country’s second city. Located at the northeast end of the combat zone, just 25 miles from the Russian border, the city has been under constant bombardment since the early days of the war.

In an operational report on Saturday morning, Ukraine’s military said its troops were conducting a counteroffensive near Kharkiv and that Russian forces blew up three road bridges in an attempt to slow that push.

While the city itself remained in Ukrainian hands throughout the war, the Russian military used captured outlying areas as a base from which to beat Kharkiv, home to almost 1.5 million people before the February 24 invasion.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his late-night video address on Friday, implored Ukrainians to exercise caution this weekend ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on Monday. On Saturday, more soldiers than usual could be seen patrolling the streets of kyiv, the capital.

“I ask all our citizens – especially these days – not to ignore the air raid sirens,” Zelensky said. “Please, this is your life, your children’s life.”

In a show of support for Ukraine, leaders of the world’s seven largest advanced economies, including the United States, will hold video consultations with Zelensky on Sunday.

President Biden will participate in Group of Seven talks with the Ukrainian leader, which are in part intended to underscore shared resolve in response to the 10-week war, the White House has said. The G-7 also includes Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Italy.

There is expected to be plenty of belligerent Kremlin rhetoric associated with the holiday, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, but Ukraine is also prepared for potentially punitive strikes. on civilian areas, or a new effort by Moscow to seize the military initiative. in what Western analysts and military officials describe as a brutal but hesitant offensive.

In an analysis published on Saturday, British military intelligenceWe cited “a heavy toll for some of Russia’s most capable units” in the fighting to date. Plagued by supply line problems, heavy casualties and low troop morale, the Russian command last month halted an attempt to seize kyiv and turned its attention to the eastern front.

“It will take a lot of time and money for Russia to rebuild its armed forces after this conflict,” said the British assessment.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that monitors developments on the battlefield, in its latest assessment highlighted the Ukrainian counteroffensive outside Kharkiv, saying Ukrainian troops “could succeed in pushing the Russian forces out of artillery range” of the city ahead. days.

In the ongoing battle for control of territory in the eastern region of Donbass, Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that its troops had repelled eight Russian attacks in the past 24 hours. Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up what it says are attacks targeting Ukrainian infrastructure and weapons supplied by the West.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday it had destroyed a cache of US and European allied weapons near a railway station in the Kharkiv region. He also said Russian forces struck 18 military installations overnight, including three ammunition depots outside the Black Sea port of Odessa. The claims could not immediately be independently verified.

Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, said renewed efforts would be made on Saturday to evacuate civilians from the giant Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians have taken shelter for weeks with Ukrainian troops. Ukraine said around 50 civilians were evacuated on Friday.

A man and girl are escorted to a bus after leaving the Azovstal factory in Mariupol on Friday.

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Friday’s evacuees included women, children and the elderly, adding that the operation would continue on Saturday. She said the rescue effort had been slowed by Russian violations of a local ceasefire.

In his overnight speech, Zelensky said a diplomatic effort was underway to save the steel mill’s Ukrainian military defenders from a feared massacre. Forces inside the complex have so far rejected Russian demands for surrender, but officials fear Moscow wants the steelworks razed as a token prize before VE Day.

Zelensky said “influential intermediaries are involved, influential states,” in a bid to broker a deal, but gave no details.

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