POKROVSK, Ukraine – Russia’s defense chief said the country’s forces had taken full control of the Mariupol steel plant, which was the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
It would mark the end of a nearly three-month-long siege that reduced much of Mariupol to rubble and left more than 20,000 people dead.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin on Friday that the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol had been “completely liberated” from Ukrainian fighters.
There is no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — The West moved to pour billions more in aid to Ukraine on Friday as Russia moved troops liberated by the impending fall of the pulverized city of Mariupol and fighting raged in the industrial heart of the country to the east.
Russian forces shelled a vital highway and continued their attacks on a key town in the Lugansk region, hitting a school among other sites, Ukrainian authorities said. Luhansk is part of Donbass, the eastern expanse of mostly Russian-speaking coal mines and factories that Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to capture.
“The liberation of the Lugansk People’s Republic is coming to an end,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, referring to the breakaway state proclaimed by pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and recognized by the Kremlin.
In Mariupol, the strategic port in the southern corner of Donbass, Russian troops exhausted from their nearly three-month siege of the city may not have time to regroup, the British Ministry of Defense said.
With the end of the battle for the Azovstal steelworks which represented the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, Russia continues to withdraw its forces there, and their commanders are under pressure to quickly send them elsewhere in Donbass. , according to the British.
“This means that Russia is likely to redistribute its forces quickly without adequate preparation, which risks causing further force attrition,” the ministry said.
An undisclosed number of Ukrainian soldiers remained at the Azovstal Steel Plant. Russia said more than 1,900 people had surrendered in recent days. Also left at the factory were the bodies of the soldiers who had defended it while pinning down the Russian forces.
Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Azov regiment, which led the defense of the plant, called them “fallen heroes”.
“I hope that soon relatives and all of Ukraine will be able to bury the fighters with honors,” he said.
The wives of fighters who resisted the steelworks spoke fondly of what might have been their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she said her husband wrote to her on Thursday: “Hello. We are surrendering, I don’t know when I will contact you and if I will at all. Love you. I kiss you goodbye.
Natalia Zaritskaya, wife of another fighter in Azovstal, said that based on messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on their way from hell to hell. Every centimeter of this path is deadly.”
She said two days ago her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers he had served with, only eight had survived, most of them seriously injured.
In other developments:
— Major Group of Seven economies and global financial institutions have agreed to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s finances, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the United States, President Joe Biden was to sign a $40 billion military and economic aid package to Ukraine and its allies.
– Russia will cut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday, Finland’s national energy company announced, just days after Finland applied to join NATO. Finland had refused Moscow’s request to pay for the gas in rubles. The cut should have no major immediate effect. Natural gas accounted for just 6% of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020, Finnish broadcaster YLE said.
— A captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian was awaiting his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. sergeant. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, faces life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, fighting intensified deeper in the Donbass.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said Russian forces were particularly concentrated on the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, the only route to evacuate people and deliver humanitarian supplies.
“The road is extremely important as it is the only connection with other parts of the country,” he said by email. “The Russians are trying to cut us off, to encircle the Luhansk region.”
Russian forces constantly bombarded the road from several directions, but Ukrainian armored transports were still able to pass, Haidai added.
Troops from Moscow have been trying for weeks to seize Severodonetsk, a key city in Donbass. One of Friday’s attacks targeted a school in Severodonetsk that housed more than 200 people, including many children, Haidai said. Three adults were killed, he said on Telegram.
Twelve people were killed in Severodonetsk, Haidai said. It wasn’t immediately clear if that included the three at school. In addition, more than 60 houses were destroyed across the region, he added.
Russian forces now control 90% of Luhansk, but the attack on Severodonetsk failed — “the Russians suffered personnel casualties and withdrew,” Haidai said. His account could not be independently verified.
Another town, Rubizhne, was “completely destroyed”, Haidai said. “Its fate can be compared to that of Mariupol.”
Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbass for the past eight years and held out a considerable part of it before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. But efforts by Putin’s troops to take more territory there have been slow.
In a sign of Russia’s frustration with the war, some senior commanders have been fired in recent weeks, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine continued to fire on targets, some of them civilians.
In the village of Velyka Kostromka, west of Donbass, explosions in the middle of the night shook Iryna Martsyniuk’s house to its foundations on Thursday. The roof frame shattered and windows shattered, sending shards of glass into a wall near three sleeping children.
“There were flashes everywhere,” she said. “There was smoke everywhere.” She grabbed the children and ran towards the entrance of the house, “but the hallway was no longer there. Instead, we saw the starry night.”
They ran down the road to a neighbour’s house, where they hid in the basement.
About 20 other houses were damaged and two people were slightly injured, said Olha Shaytanova, the village chief.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and other AP staff from around the world contributed.
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