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Russia hits Ukraine’s east

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – Russian forces unleashed airstrikes on the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the besieged city of Mariupol and pressed their advance on towns across the country’s east, Ukraine’s military said yesterday.

As the war, which has ground to a stalemate, wrought more death and upheaval, its globe-shaking repercussions spread, with Finland announcing plans to end decades of neutrality and seek NATO membership.

NATO’s support of Ukraine – particularly by supplying weapons – has been critical to Kyiv’s surprising success in stymieing Russia’s invasion, which began on February 24. Many observers thought Moscow’s larger and better-armed military would be hard to stop, but the Ukrainians have bogged Russian troops down and thwarted their goal of overrunning the capital.

Still, the war has unleashed staggering destruction, killed thousands and forced millions from their homes, while shattering Europe’s sense of post-Cold War stability. It has prompted NATO to send troops and weapons to fortify the alliance’s eastern frontier and led Sweden and Finland to reconsider longstanding opposition to joining the trans-Atlantic alliance, whose members are committed to mutual defence.

In Mariupol, which has seen some of the worst destruction of the war, Ukraine offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of badly wounded fighters trapped inside the Azovstal steel mill, the last redoubt of Ukrainian forces in the ruined city.

A family takes a photo on top of a destroyed Russian tank, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. PHOTO: AP

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that negotiations were underway to release the wounded. She said there were different options, but “none of them is ideal”.

Russia’s forces have taken control of the rest of the city, which they besieged for weeks, as residents ran short of food, water and medicine. Many thousands have fled, saying almost nothing remains of the port city, but an adviser to the Mariupol mayor said Russian forces have now blocked all evacuation routes.

Petro Andriushchenko said there are few apartment buildings fit to live in, and some remaining residents are cooperating with occupying Russian forces in exchange for food, though he did say yesterday the troops have resumed water supplies to two neighbourhoods as a test.

“The occupiers turned Mariupol into a medieval ghetto,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko in comments published by City Hall, as he called for a complete evacuation of the city. Officials said in recent weeks that about 100,000 residents could still be trapped in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000.

Russian and Ukrainian authorities have periodically agreed to cease-fires to evacuate residents, and repeatedly blamed each other when those efforts failed. Andriushchenko’s allegations could not be independently confirmed.

In the wake of their failure to take Kyiv, Russian forces pulled back and regrouped – and switched their focus to Ukraine’s Donbas, an eastern industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for years.