Ukrainian forces prepared to defend their final stronghold in the devastated city of Mariupol, desperate to deny Russia a symbolic victory.
Ukrainian forces prepared to defend their final stronghold in the devastated port city of Mariupol on Sunday, desperate to deny Russia a symbolic victory on the eve of Moscow’s Victory Day celebrations.
Shelling and missile attacks have intensified in preparation for the World War II anniversary, and rescuers are searching for 60 Ukrainian civilians feared killed in the shelling of a village school.
President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the anniversary of the end of the World War by comparing Ukraine’s battle for national survival to the region’s war of resistance against its former Nazi occupiers.
“Decades after World War II, darkness has returned to Ukraine and it has become black and white again,” Zelensky said, in a monochrome social media video filmed against the backdrop of a bombed-out apartment block.
“Evil has returned, in a different uniform, under different slogans, but with the same purpose,” he warned, trying to reverse the “anti-Nazi” rhetoric of Russian leader President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Russia was preparing for a Victory Day parade designed to associate its neighbor’s invasion with national pride in Germany’s defeat by the Soviet Union.
Zelensky was also due to meet with G7 leaders via video conference to discuss the crisis, and European diplomats were working out the details of their latest sanctions package against Moscow.
On the ground, the key battles were being fought in eastern Ukraine.
Civilians have now been evacuated from Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, leaving a small force of defenders holed up in its extensive network of underground tunnels and bunkers.
The complex, the last focus of the Ukrainian resistance in the port city, has acquired a symbolic value.
“The enemy is trying to wipe out the defenders of Azovstal, they are trying to do it before May 9 to give Vladimir Putin a gift,” Zelensky aide Oleksiy Arestovych warned.
Taking full control of Mariupol would also allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and pro-Russian separatist-run regions in the east.
In one of those regions, Luhansk, Ukrainian forces are now mounting a last-ditch defense of the city of Severodonetsk, once an industrial city of 100,000 people, now Russia’s next target.
In the same region, Governor Sergiy Gaiday said 60 civilians were feared dead after a school in Bilogorivka village was hit in an airstrike.
“The bombs fell on the school and unfortunately it was completely destroyed. There were a total of 90 people, 27 were saved, ”he said on Telegram.
“Sixty people who were at the school are most likely dead.” Rescuers were unable to work overnight due to the threat of new strikes, but resumed work on Sunday.
Rescuers were also searching for survivors in the neighboring village of Shepilivka after an attack hit a house where 11 people were sheltering in the basement, Gaiday said.
Civilians fleeing Mariupol describe passing through Russian “leak” sites where several evacuees told AFP they were questioned, frisked, fingerprinted and had their phones and documents checked.
“They asked us if we wanted to go to Russia … or stay and rebuild the city of Mariupol,” said Natalia, an evacuee from Azovstal, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be published.
“But how can I rebuild it? How can I go back there if the city of Mariupol no longer exists? Russia’s campaign has met stiff resistance and has galvanized kyiv’s Western allies to impose potentially devastating sanctions on the Russian economy and Putin’s inner circle.
International efforts to pressure the Russian leader continue, with G7 leaders including US President Joe Biden set to speak with Zelensky on Sunday to discuss Western support for kyiv.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will host the video call and Zelensky will “participate and report on the current situation,” spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said.
More sanctions or at least a tightening of the wide range of economic punishments already inflicted on Russia are expected to be discussed.