Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AFP) – The West moved to pump more billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine on Friday, as Russia moved troops liberated by the imminent fall of the devastated city of Mariupol and fighting raged in the country’s industrial heartland in the east.
Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces bombed a vital highway and continued attacks on a major city in the Luhansk region, hitting a school among other locations. Luhansk is part of the Donbas region, the eastern region in which most of the inhabitants speak Russian from its mines and coal plants, which Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to seize.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic is nearing completion,” referring to the breakaway state declared by pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and recognized by the Kremlin.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in Mariupol, the strategic port in the southern corner of Donbass, that Russian forces exhausted by their nearly three-month siege of the city may not get the time they need to regroup.
With the battle for the Azovstal steel mill that was the last stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol over, Russia continues to withdraw troops there, and its leaders are under pressure to quickly send them elsewhere in the Donbass, according to the British.
“This means that Russia will likely redistribute its forces quickly without sufficient preparation, which threatens to further drain the force,” the ministry said.
An unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers remained at the Azovstal Steel Plant. Russia said more than 1,900 have surrendered in recent days. The corpses of the soldiers who defended it while restraining the Russian troops also remained in the factory.
Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Azov regiment, who commanded the defense of the plant, called them “Falled Heroes”.
“I hope that soon the relatives and the whole of Ukraine will be able to bury the fighters with honor,” he said.
The wives of fighters who survived the steel mills spoke emotionally of what might have been their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boyko, the wife of a Marine, wiped her tears as she said her husband wrote to her on Thursday: “Hey. We’re giving up, I don’t know when and if I’ll ever reach out to you. I love you. Kiss you. Goodbye.”
Natalia Zaretskaya, the wife of another Azovstal fighter, said that based on the messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on their way from hell to hell. Every inch of this road is deadly.”
Two days ago, she said, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers who served with them, only eight survived, most of them seriously injured.
In other developments:
The Group of Seven major economies and global financial institutions agreed to provide more funds to support Ukraine’s financial conditions, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the United States, President Joe Biden was expected to sign a $40 billion package of military and economic aid to Ukraine and its allies.
– Finland’s state energy company said Russia will cut off Finland’s natural gas on Saturday, just days after Finland submitted an application to join NATO. Finland refused Moscow’s request to pay for gas in rubles. The cut is not expected to have any significant immediate effect. Finland’s YLE said natural gas made up only 6% of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020.
A captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian is awaiting his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, may be imprisoned for life.
Meanwhile, fighting intensified in the Donbass region.
Serhiy Haiday, governor of Luhansk, said the Russian forces are focusing in particular on the Lysishansk-Bakhmut highway, which is the only way to evacuate people and deliver humanitarian supplies.
“The road is very important because it is the only link with other areas of the country,” he said by email. “The Russians are trying to isolate us from it, to encircle the Luhansk region.”
Hayday added that Russian forces constantly bombarded the road from multiple directions, but Ukrainian armored vehicles were still able to cross.
Russian forces have been trying for weeks to capture Severodonetsk, a major city in the Donbass. Hayday said one of Friday’s attacks was on a school in Severodonetsk that housed more than 200 people, many of them children. He said on Telegram that three adults had been killed.
Hayday said 12 people were killed in Severodonetsk. It was not immediately clear if that included the three at the school. He added that more than 60 homes were destroyed across the region.
Russian forces now control 90 percent of Luhansk, but the attack on Severodonetsk failed — “the Russians suffered human losses and retreated,” Hayday said. His account cannot be verified independently.
Another city, Rubigny, was “completely destroyed,” Hayday said. “Her fate can be compared with the fate of Mariupol.”
Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in Donbass for the past eight years and held much of them before the Russian invasion on February 24. But efforts by Putin’s forces to seize more territory there have been slow.
In a sign of Russia’s frustration with the war, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said some top commanders have been expelled in recent weeks.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces continued to bomb targets, some of which were civilian.
In the village of Velika Kostromka, west of the Donbass, explosions in the middle of the night On Thursday, Irina Marcinyuk’s house shook to its foundations. Roofs shattered and windows shattered, causing shards of glass to fall into a wall near three sleeping children.
“There were flashes everywhere,” she said. “There was smoke everywhere.” I grabbed the children and ran toward the entrance to the house, “But the lane is no longer there. Instead, we saw the starry night.”
They ran on the way to the neighbor’s house, where they hid in the basement.
Olha Chaitanova, the village chief, said about 20 more homes were damaged and two people were slightly injured.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press journalists Juras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Jamie Kitten in Geneva, and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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