Ukrainian authorities braced for an expected intensification of Russian attacks ahead of the Victory Day holiday on May 9, while officials on both sides said the civilian evacuation of a besieged steel factory in Mariupol had been completed, although the fate of the remaining fighters there is unclear.
Ukrainian officials declared on May 7 that all women, children, and elderly people had been evacuated from the massive Azovstal steel plant that has been under attack for weeks by Russian forces amid the ruins of the port city.
“The President’s order has been carried out: All women, children, and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a statement on social media.
“This part of the Mariupol humanitarian mission has been completed,” she added without elaborating.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy later said that a “second stage” of the evacuation would now take place, with the wounded and medical personnel being take out.
He said work would continue on May 8 to secure on all humanitarian corridors to allow those in and around the city who want to leave to get a way out. He added that Kyiv was attempting to get the last fighters out of the steel plant, but that it “was extremely difficult.”
Fears are rising that a final, bloody showdown between the Ukrainian fighters and Russian troops could ignite if the defenders are not allowed to be evacuated from the factory.
The evacuation of the Azovstal steel mill intensified over the past two days, even as Russia has continued to batter the facility and the strategic city, which is now mainly in ruins.
Russia is seeking to complete its takeover of the region and build a land bridge between Crimea — which it illegally annexed in 2014 – and territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Mariupol has taken the worst of the fighting in Ukraine since Russian troops were forced to retreat around Kyiv and other cities in the north.
Before the weekend, an estimated 200 civilians had been hiding within the massive steel plant along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders.
The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have desperately been attempting to organize evacuations from the site.
Russian officials also later issued a statement saying that the civilian evacuation of the steel plant had been completed.
The fate of the fighters remains unclear.
Russia, meanwhile, claimed its Iskander missiles destroyed a Ukrainian cache of weaponry that had been supplied by the United States and Europe and that high-precision missiles had destroyed Ukrainian aircraft at airfields in the Artsyz, Odesa, and Voznesensk regions.
Oleskiy Arestovych, a top adviser to Zelenskiy, claimed on May 7 that Ukraine had made battlefield advances in the east, just two days before Russia holds ceremonies to mark Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on May 9 will be closely watched to see if he will announce a general mobilization or some other major strategic shift, in a bid to turn the tide of the war, now in its 73rd day.
The top human rights representative of the Council of Europe has deplored Moscow’s actions in its invasion, saying that every Ukrainian who has suffered human rights violations at Russian hands deserves justice.
“Each of them deserves justice and must not be forgotten,” Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement following a four-day visit to Kyiv, adding that the extent of human rights violations was “staggering.”
In the early weeks after the February 24 invasion, Russian forces were thwarted in their attempts to seize Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, suffering heavy losses of personnel and equipment. Commanders then later withdrew units from areas near Kyiv and repositioned them to the Donbas.
Russia’s last official tally of its military deaths was 1,351. Western officials, however, say the toll is at least 15,000, and Ukrainian officials claim the tally exceeds 20,000. Zelenskiy said last month that between 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed, though that figure is believed to be an undercount.
Ukraine’s General Staff, meanwhile, said in its daily assessment that Russian activity was relatively quiet overnight, limited to military reconnaissance and artillery fire.
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Near Izyum, where there has been major back-and-forth fighting, drones were repeatedly detected overflying defense positions, the report said. Kharkiv was also hit by artillery.
Kherson, which is located north of Crimea, well outside of the Donbas, has been contested for weeks now, though Russian forces have claimed control of the region’s main city, and a top Russian politician visited Kherson city on May 6.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on May 6 that its forces were continuing to advance on positions in the Donbas, and had destroyed an ammunition depot in Kramatorsk and shot down two Ukrainian warplanes.
On May 7, the ministry said its forces hit 18 Ukrainian military facilities overnight, including three ammunition depots near the port city of Odesa. It also said Russian forces destroyed a stockpile of military equipment from the United States and European countries near a railway station in the Kharkiv region.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov was quoted by Russian media as saying that “a heavy concentration of weapons and combat hardware delivered from the U.S. and Western countries, as well as military personnel of the 58th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of Ukraine’s armed forces, have been eliminated with Iskander operational-tactical missile systems” near railway stations in the Kharkiv region.
It wasn’t clear what the weaponry was exactly, or when it might have been delivered and the claims could not be independently confirmed.
Ukrainian military officials confirmed on May 7 that at least four Russian cruise missiles had been fired into the Odesa region and the city’s main airport. Local officials said a curfew would be set in the region from 10 p.m. on May 8 until 5 a.m. on May 9.
Ukraine’s successes against Russian forces have been due in large part to the major supplies of weaponry provided by the United States and Europe– weaponry that increasingly includes offensive armaments like heavy artillery, howitzers, and tanks.
Russia has repeatedly warned NATO that its weapons supply convoys could be targeted, but has so far not taken any steps to do that.
Russian forces had been closing in on the last contingent of Ukrainian troops holding out at the sprawling Azovstal steel works factory’s extensive tunnels and bunkers in the port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials said on May 6 that several dozen civilians were evacuated from Azovstal, while at least another 50 reportedly left early on May 7 before Vereshchuk’s announcement that all women, children, and the elderly had left the site.
Separately, the Ukrainian military said on May 7 that it had destroyed a Russian landing ship near Snake Island in the Black Sea, hitting it with an armed drone. There was no immediate comment from Russia.
In mid-April, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, sank near Snake Island after being hit by what was believed to have been a Ukrainian missile. Russia denies a missile strike, saying only that a fire onboard caused the ship to sink.
For the first time since the invasion, the UN Security Council approved a brief resolution expressing “deep concern” about the situation in Ukraine.
However, the text, which was adopted on May 6 with Russia’s vote, did not mention a “war,” “conflict,” or “invasion” — as many council members call Russia’s military action — or a “special military operation” as Moscow refers to it.
“The Security Council expresses deep concern regarding the maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine,” it read.
With reporting by AP and dpa