The mayor of Mariupol pleaded Friday for a “full evacuation” of the shattered southern Ukrainian port city as Russia reported striking dozens of military targets in the sprawling eastern battle zone overnight.
Ukraine’s military command said its troops continued to harry the forces that Russia has been massing for a full-scale assault on the Donbas region, the industrial heartland where Moscow already holds sway. Both sides said this week a new phase of combat had begun in the region, encompassing the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that “helping” those provinces – taken to mean seizing them – is now his main aim.
On Friday, a senior Russian military official suggested that his government’s goals were much broader. Cmdr. Rustam Minnekayev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Russia was seeking to extend its grip across Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, including the prized port of Odesa, as a link to a pro-Russian separatist part of neighboring Moldova. It was not immediately clear, however, whether he was stating official Kremlin policy.
With the war in its ninth week and many eastern towns and cities in ruins, Ukrainian officials voiced fresh dismay over foundering efforts to get civilians out of harm’s way.
The deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said Friday that Russia had not agreed to any new organized evacuations of civilians from a string of ravaged eastern cities, including Mariupol, which sits in Ukraine’s southeastern corner.
“I appeal to all those who are waiting for the evacuation: be patient,” she wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “Please hold on.”
In Geneva, the United Nations’ human rights chief called on both sides to respect international human rights law, but reserved harsh criticism for Russia amid mounting evidence of atrocities by its forces, including the indiscriminate bombing of populated areas and attacks on civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and schools.
“Over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Her office has logged the deaths of 2,345 civilians. “We know the actual numbers are going to be much higher as the horrors inflicted in areas of intense fighting, such as Mariupol, come to light,” Bachelet said.
On Friday, which for Eastern rite Christians was Good Friday, Ukrainian families inside and outside the main battle zone prepared as best they could to observe Easter Sunday.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight address to the nation, urged his compatriots to draw what strength and comfort they could from one of the most important holidays of the Christian calendar.
“Unfortunately, Russia rejected the proposal to establish an Easter truce,” he said.
Meanwhile on Friday, burials – in cemeteries and backyards – continued at a steady pace in the town of Bucha, where hundreds of dead civilians were found this month after Russian forces left the area.
In Lysychansk, one of the few remaining cities in Luhansk province still under Ukrainian control, vendors set up a makeshift market where people could procure some of the ingredients for a traditional holiday meal: cheeses, kasha grains and traditional Ukrainian cured pork.
Russia said earlier it had taken over the neighboring city of Rubizhne, but clashes continued, and Ukraine said the city had not changed hands. Columns of smoke rose above the city center, and the sounds of artillery, heavy cannons and small-arms fire continued for hours Friday.
“It hasn’t stopped for three days now, day and night,” said a pensioner living in a dacha in the town of Pryvillia, which overlooks Rubizhne. Giving only her first name, Tanya, she said two of her neighbors’ houses had been destroyed.
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In Mariupol, where Russia is claiming military victory despite the holdout presence of hundreds of Ukrainian troops and some civilians in a giant steel plant, tens of thousands of residents remain trapped in the city in desperate conditions, according to municipal authorities.
Russia, in a statement from its Defense Ministry, offered Friday to let civilians leave the plant in Mariupol, but only if troops inside surrendered, which they have repeatedly refused to do in recent days.
City officials estimate that 20,000 people have died during a siege that began in the war’s earliest days, and new satellite imagery has provided evidence of mass graves being filled on Mariupol’s outskirts.
The city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said on national television Friday that about 100,000 people – less than a quarter of the city’s prewar population – remained and must be brought to safety.
“We need only one thing: the full evacuation of the population,” said the mayor, who is not currently in the city.
After stinging setbacks elsewhere for the Russian military – including its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, and the loss of its Black Sea flagship to a Ukrainian missile attack – analysts said Putin probably hoped to avoid heavy troop losses that would likely have been incurred by storming the Azovstal steel plant.
The vast complex is laced with tunnels and bunkers. Putin ordered Thursday that the stronghold be blockaded so tightly that “not even a fly” could enter, while portraying the battle for Mariupol as a victory for Moscow. Blockading rather than attempting to overrun the facility would free up some Russian forces for deployment elsewhere in the east, a British military assessment said Friday.
In his overnight address, Zelensky scoffed at Putin’s victory claim, calling Mariupol “a city that continues to resist Russia, despite everything the occupiers say.”
The Pentagon’s view is in line with Ukraine’s: The city is still not fully under Russian control.
“We still assess that Mariupol is contested, that it hasn’t been taken by the Russians and that there’s still an active Ukrainian resistance,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Friday.
Zelensky also predicted that Russian forces would try to hold rigged referendums in occupied areas, aimed at pushing a false claim that Ukrainian citizens living there prefer to be under Moscow’s rule. Russia held such a referendum after seizing and annexing the Crimean peninsula eight years ago.
He said attempted annexations in the regions of Kherson or Zaporizhzhia would lead to crippling new Western sanctions.
“You will make your country as poor as Russia hasn’t been since the 1917 civil war,” Zelensky said, addressing Putin and his constituents. “So it is better to seek peace now.”
The US and European allies have stayed mainly united on sanctions against Russia, even at risk of damage to their own economies. But those risks were thrown into sharp relief when Germany’s central bank warned Friday that a cutoff of Russian natural gas could cause Germany’s economic output to fall by up to 5%.
Consumers would bear the brunt of higher consumer prices, and the country could even tip into recession, the Bundesbank said.
Bulos reported from Lysychansk, King from Berlin and Cole from Bucha. Times staff writer Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles contributed to this report.