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Ukraine gets warplanes from unidentified source; besieged Mariupol faces ‘last days’

Fighting intensifies in country’s east as Russian forces press their offensive

A serviceman of the Donetsk People's Republic militia walks past a damaged mosque during heavy fighting in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
A serviceman of the Donetsk People's Republic militia walks past a damaged mosque during heavy fighting in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AFP) — Ukraine received fighter jets to help resist the Russian invasion, as Moscow intensified its offensive in the east where a besieged officer in Mariupol warned Wednesday his forces were facing their “last days, if not hours.”

The West has responded to a renewed Russian push into the Donbas region with fresh weapons for Kyiv and a push to increase “Moscow’s international isolation.”

The Pentagon said that Ukraine had recently received fighter planes and parts to bolster its air force, declining to specify the number of aircraft and their origin.

Kyiv has asked its Western partners to provide MiG-29s, which its pilots already know how to fly and a handful of Eastern European countries have.

Control of Donbas and the besieged southern port of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean peninsula that it annexed in 2014, depriving Ukraine of much of its coastline.

In the latest ultimatum issued in its battle to capture Mariupol, Moscow issued another call for the city’s defenders to surrender on Wednesday by 2 p.m. Moscow time and announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor for any Ukrainian troops who agreed to lay down their arms.

Damaged and burned vehicles are seen at a destroyed part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant, as smoke rises from the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal during heavy fighting, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

As the deadline approached, a commander in the besieged Azovstal power plant issued a desperate plea for help, saying his marines were “maybe facing our last days, if not hours.”

“The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one,” Serhiy Volyna from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade said.

“We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the procedure of extraction and take us to the territory of a third-party state.”

Thousands of troops and civilians remain holed up in the plant.

An advisor to the mayor of Mariupol described a “horrible situation” in the encircled complex and reported that up to 2,000 people — mostly women and children — are without “normal” supplies of drinking water, food, and fresh air.

But during an interview broadcast on CNN Tuesday, Pavlo Kyrylenko — who oversees the Donetsk region’s military administration — insisted Mariupol remained contested.

“The Ukrainian flag is flying over the city,” he said. “There are certain districts where street fighting is continuing. I can’t say the Russians are controlling them.”

‘We are bombed everywhere’

Elsewhere on the front lines, Ukraine’s defense ministry reported its troops had beaten back a Russian attack in the city of Izium, south of the partly blockaded second city of Kharkiv.

In the town of Novodruzhesk, 65-year-old resident Nadya said, “We are bombed everywhere.”

“It’s a miracle that we’re still alive,” she said, her voice trembling.

“We were lying on the ground and waiting. Since February 24, we’ve been sleeping in the cellar.”

A man named Sergiy walks through the debris of his destroyed home in Novodruzhesk village, on April 18, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Kyiv also claimed enemy losses in a Ukrainian counter-attack near the town of Marinka in Donetsk.

The governor of the eastern Luhansk region Sergiy Gaiday said Ukrainian forces were holding their ground in the face of heavy fighting.

“We have positional battles in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna. The enemy cannot do anything though. They are losing people and equipment there,” Gaiday said.

“Our guys are shooting down drones there. Shooting down planes on the border of the Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, so they are holding on.”

Ukrainian soldiers stand on their armored personnel carrier, not far from the front-line with Russian troops, in Izium district, Kharkiv region, on April 18, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)

Russian forces, meanwhile, said “high-precision air-based missiles” hit 13 Ukrainian positions in parts of Donbas while other airstrikes “hit 60 military assets,” including in towns close to the eastern front line.

‘War crime’

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he launched the so-called military operation in Ukraine in February to save Russian speakers in the country from a “genocide” carried out by a “neo-Nazi” regime.

But his forces have faced allegations of war crimes — most recently from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said Tuesday that Putin was responsible for atrocities in Ukraine.

“The killing of thousands of civilians as we have seen is a war crime for which the Russian president bears responsibility,” Scholz said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on February 15, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also denounced Russia’s ongoing offensive, and issued calls for a four-day truce to mark the Orthodox Holy Week.

“Instead of a celebration of new life, this Easter coincides with a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine,” Guterres told reporters.

“The intense concentration of forces and firepower makes this battle inevitably more violent, bloody and destructive.”

Guterres for a “humanitarian pause” from Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday on April 24.

“Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

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