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Russia ramps up offensive in eastern Ukraine ahead of Victory Day parades

Kyiv says all women, children and elderly evacuated from besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol; Biden announces another military aid package worth $150 million

People clear a residential area after a Russian airstrike in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
People clear a residential area after a Russian airstrike in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AFP) — Ukraine said civilians had been evacuated from a besieged Mariupol steel plant on Saturday as Russian forces unleashed new bombardments across the country ahead of Victory Day festivities in Moscow.

The Azovstal steel mill is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city and its fate has taken on a symbolic value in the broader battle since Russia’s invasion.

“All women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Fighting continues on many fronts, and Ukraine’s defense ministry said it had destroyed another Russian vessel — a Serna-class landing craft — in the Black Sea.

“The traditional parade of the Russian Black Sea fleet on May 9 this year will be held 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 talk of a truce to allow trapped civilians to flee.

Russian self-propelled artillery vehicles roll during a dress rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will celebrate the World War II Soviet victory over Nazi Germany with a traditional Victory Day parade.

According to Russia’s defense ministry, 77 aircraft will conduct a flypast, including the rarely-seen Il-80 Doomsday plane that can withstand a nuclear attack.

Eight Mig-29 fighter jets will fly over Moscow’s Red Square forming the letter “Z” — the mark of Russia’s military assault in Ukraine.

The Russian campaign has run into tough resistance — and provoked Kyiv’s western allies into slapping sanctions on the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle.

But with Victory Day approaching, Ukrainian officials fear more intense missile and artillery bombardments and renewed assaults as Moscow scrambles for symbolic wins.

A woman looks at a crater of an explosion after a Russian airstrike in Kostyantynivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The Ukrainian rescue service said a missile hit a technical college in Kostiantynivka, in the eastern region of Donetsk, causing a fire and at least two deaths.

Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said there had been “massive bombardments” along the frontline.

Strikes were also reported in the north of Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv and in the southern city of Mykolaiv, a key Russian target.

Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive of their own.

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 the western allies, have been 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 Defence Intelligence said.

Residents look at a destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of Buzova village, west of Kyiv, on April 10, 2020. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

“It will take considerable time and expense for Russia to reconstitute its armed forces following this conflict,” it said, warning sanctions on advanced components would make it harder for Russia to re-arm.

The West, meanwhile, is stepping up arms deliveries to Ukraine’s defenders.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden announced another package of military assistance worth $150 million, including radars for detecting the source of enemy artillery fire.

This brings the total value of US weaponry sent to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began to $3.8 billion.

Biden had urged Congress to approve a further $33 billion package, including $20 billion in military aid, “to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”

The G7 leaders, including Biden, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky are to meet in a video conference on Sunday to discuss Western support for Kyiv.

First lady Jill Biden and first lady of Romania Carmen Iohannis visit a classroom at the Școala Gimnaziala Uruguay, or Uruguay School, in Bucharest Romania, on May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

Biden’s wife, US First lady Jill Biden, was in Romania, meeting Ukrainian refugees.

“You are amazingly strong,” Biden said in Bucharest after listening to mothers and children recount how they fled Russia’s invasion of their country.

“We stand with you, I hope you know that.”

Ambassadors from EU member states were to meet in Brussels on Sunday to discuss their sixth round of economic sanctions against Moscow, which this time should include a phased ban on imports of Russian oil.

Azovstal evacuation

On Friday, Zelensky said “diplomatic options” were also underway to rescue Ukrainian soldiers from the Mariupol steelworks, as civilian evacuations continued.

About 200 civilians, including children, had been thought to be trapped in the tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal, along with Ukrainian soldiers making their last stand.

Smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (AP Photo)

Russia announced a day-time ceasefire at the plant for three days starting Thursday, but the Ukrainian army said Russian “assault operations” had continued.

Ukraine’s Azov battalion, leading the defense at Azovstal, said one Ukrainian fighter had been killed and six wounded when Russian forces opened fire during an attempt to evacuate people by car.

Russia to remain ‘forever’

Taking full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and separatist regions run by Russian puppets in the east.

In those regions of Donbas, separatists said they had removed Ukrainian and English language traffic signs for Mariupol and replaced them with Russian ones.

“Russia has come back here forever,” said Denis Pushilin, head of a pro-Russian breakaway region in Donetsk.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic controlled by Russia-backed separatists, speaks to journalists in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, on April 29, 2022. (AP Photo)

In neighboring Luhansk, Ukrainian officials said on Friday that Russian forces had almost encircled Severodonetsk — the easternmost city still held by Kyiv — and are trying to storm it.

Kherson in the south remains the only significant city Russia has managed to capture since the war began.

A senior official from the Russian parliament visiting the city on Friday also emphasized that Russia would remain in southern Ukraine “forever.”

“There should be no doubt about this. There will be no return to the past,” Andrey Turchak said.

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