Ukraine says civilians evacuated from Mariupol steel plant

Ukraine announced on Saturday that all women, children and the elderly had been evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks, the last piece of territory under Ukrainian control in the shattered southern port city of Mariupol, as Ukrainian towns remained on the alert for a great Russian celebration of military victory and new fighting broke out along the eastern front lines.

“The president’s order has been carried out,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine. post on the Telegram messaging app, offering few additional details. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over.”

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.

More than 5.8 million refugees fled the fighting in Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in late February, according to the United Nations, and Jill Biden, visiting Romania on Saturday, praised her government and those of other frontline states for welcoming those trying to escape the war.

“I think this is really, unfortunately, just the beginning – just the beginning,” she said of the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. The first lady spoke in Bucharest, Romania, on the second day of a four-day trip to Romania and Slovakia, two countries bordering Ukraine.

In an operational report on Saturday morning, Ukraine’s military said its troops were conducting a counteroffensive near Kharkiv and that Russian forces had blown 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 batter the city, which was home to nearly 1.5 million people. before Russia launched its unprovoked invasion.

Ukraine too claimed Saturday destroying a Russian Serna-class landing craft in the Black Sea with a drone strike, a claim that could not immediately be verified. Last month, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet was sunk by what Russia said was an accidental munitions explosion and Ukraine – backed by Western military officials – said it was of a Ukrainian missile strike.

Meanwhile, Russia fired six cruise missiles at the southern port city of Odessa. According to a statement from the Odessa City Council, four missiles hit a private furniture company and destroyed high-rise buildings in a residential area, and two missiles hit the runway and flight control of Odessa airport. No casualties were reported.

“The enemy continues not only the physical destruction of the infrastructure in the region, but also the psychological pressure on the civilian population,” the operational command of the Ukrainian army (South) said. post on the Telegram messaging app after the attack. “The Ukrainian nation is unbreakable.”

After a series of bitter setbacks for Russia, Ukraine fears that Moscow will unleash in frustration. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his late-night video address on Friday, implored Ukrainians to exercise caution this weekend ahead of Russia’s annual 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 sirens of air raids”, 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 partly 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 that it had destroyed a cache of American and European allied weapons near a railway station in the Kharkiv region. He also said Russian forces struck 18 military installations overnight, including Odessa ammunition depots. The claims could not immediately be independently verified.

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

(Alexei Alexandrov / Associated Press)

In Mariupol, the evacuation of the last women, children and elderly people from the giant Azovstal factory, where hundreds of civilians sheltered underground for weeks with Ukrainian troops, marked the end of a long and tense rescue. Fifty more civilians were brought in on Friday, Vereshchuk said, after a rescue effort was 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. Armed 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 its military vacation.

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

Times writer Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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