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Russian forces bear down on Mariupol

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – Russian forces pummelled a hulking steel plant that held the last pocket of resistance yesterday in Mariupol, a southern Ukraine city that has suffered under siege for six weeks and whose capture would aid Moscow’s plans for a full-scale offensive in the country’s east.

With the last Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol refusing to surrender, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia “is deliberately trying to destroy everyone who is there”. He said Ukraine needs more heavy weapons from the West immediately to have any chance of saving the port city on the Sea of Azov.

“Either our partners give Ukraine all of the necessary heavy weapons, the planes, and without exaggeration immediately, so we can reduce the pressure of the occupiers on Mariupol and break the blockade,” he said, “or we do so through negotiations, in which the role of our partners should be decisive.”

Earlier, Zelenskyy had told Ukrainian journalists that the continuing siege of Mariupol, which has come at a horrific cost to trapped and starving civilians, could scuttle attempts to negotiate an end to the war.

A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had been driven out of most of the city and remained only in the Azovstal steel mill, where tunnels allow the defenders to hide and resist until they run out of ammunition.

Ukrainian emergency volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine. PHOTO: AP

The Russians already control what is left of the city after weeks of bombardment. Striking the steel plant to take the rest is part of Russia’s preparations for the anticipated assault in eastern Ukraine.

Capturing Mariupol would allow Russian forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland and the focus of the anticipated offensive.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said yesterday that Mariupol’s defenders have tied up significant Russian forces besieging the city. She described the city as a “shield defending Ukraine” that prevents the Russian troops encircling the city from advancing to other areas of the country.

Malyar said that the Russians have continued to hit Mariupol with airstrikes and appeared to be preparing an amphibious landing to beef up their forces in the city.