- The fight for Mariupol was the biggest battle of the war
- Putin says Russia “liberated” the city
- The United States sends newly developed “stealth” drones to Ukraine
Kyiv/MARIPOL (Reuters) – Russia launched its new offensive in eastern Ukraine on Friday as teams of volunteers collected corpses from the rubble in the port city of Mariupol after Moscow declared victory there despite the steadfastness of Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian General Staff said that Russian forces have intensified their attacks along the entire front line in the east of the country and are trying to launch an offensive in the Kharkiv region, north of the Donbas region, Russia’s main target.
Russia says it won the Battle of Mariupol, the biggest battle of the war, after it made the decision not to try to root out the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still holed up in massive steelworks that take up much of the city centre.
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Kyiv says 100,000 civilians are still inside the city, and need to be completely evacuated. It says Moscow’s decision not to storm the Azovstal steel plants is evidence that Russia lacks the strength to defeat the Ukrainian defenders.
In a Russian-controlled part of the city, the cannons were largely silent and stunned residents as they ventured out onto the streets against the backdrop of charred apartment buildings and wrecked cars. Some of them carried bags and household items.
Volunteers in white suits and masks hauled the rubble, collected the bodies from inside the apartments, and loaded them into a truck bearing the letter “Z”, the symbol of the Russian invasion.
Space commercial company Maxar said images from space showed newly excavated mass graves on the outskirts of the city. Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the city during nearly two months of Russian bombardment and siege.
The United Nations and the Red Cross say the number of civilian deaths is still unknown, but at least in the thousands. Russia denies targeting civilians and says it saved the city from nationalists.
In Zaporizhzhia, where 79 residents of Mariupol arrived in the first convoy of buses that Russia allowed to leave for other parts of Ukraine, Valentina Andrushenko wept as she recalled the ordeal of the siege.
“They (the Russians) have been bombing us since day one. They are destroying everything. Just wipe everything,” she said of the city.
Kyiv said no new evacuations were planned for Friday. Moscow says it has relocated 140,000 Mariupol residents to Russia; Kyiv says many of them were forcibly deported in what could be considered a war crime.
We need only one thing – the complete evacuation of residents. About 100 thousand people remained in Mariupol, said the mayor of the city, Vadim Boychenko, who is no longer inside Mariupol.
Western countries believe President Vladimir Putin is desperate to show his victory after his forces were defeated last month in an attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv.
In a late-night speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was doing everything it could “to talk about at least some victories”.
“They can only postpone the inevitable – the time when the invaders will have to leave our lands, including from Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia no matter what the occupiers say,” Zelensky said.
The deputy commander of the Russian Central Military District said that Russia plans to take full control of Donbass and southern Ukraine as part of the second phase of its military operation.
Russia plans to establish a land corridor between Crimea and the Black Sea peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and the Donbass, Interfax news agency quoted Rustam Minkayev as saying.
Abandoning the attempt to defeat the last Ukrainian defenders at Mariupol – the main port of Donbass – frees up more Russian forces for the main military effort, an attack from several directions on the towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, to cut off the main Ukrainian military force in the east.
At a televised meeting in the Kremlin on Thursday, Putin congratulated his defense minister and Russian forces on the “combat effort to liberate Mariupol” and said it was not necessary to storm the Azovstal plant.
“There is no need to climb into the catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities… Close this industrial zone so that not even a fly can cross,” Putin said.
The Kremlin leader, who has rarely appeared in public in recent weeks, spoke hesitantly, barely above a whisper, squeezing the end of the table tightly with one hand throughout the 10-minute video the Kremlin released.
British Military Intelligence also reported heavy fighting in the east as Russian forces attempted to advance towards the settlements, but said the Russians were suffering losses early in the war and were sending equipment to Russia for repair.
Russia describes its invasion as a “special military operation” to disarm and “disarm” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject this as a false excuse to launch a war that has killed thousands and displaced a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
The United States authorized another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine on Thursday, including heavy artillery and newly-disclosed “Ghost” drones that were destroyed after attacking their targets. Read more
“We are now in a critical time window where they will set the stage for the next phase of this war,” US President Joe Biden said.
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Coverage by Reuters journalists. Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Percelle; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Angus McSwan
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