Russia closes in on Mariupol as part of eastern Ukraine offensive

1. Ukraine
Two men look at their relatives about to leave by train at Slovyansk central station, in the Donbass region on April 12, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: AFP)
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Russian troops aimed to take control of the city of Mariupol on Tuesday, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine, as defending forces tried desperately to hold them back.اضافة اعلان

Russia is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Moscow-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the strategically located city, once home to more than 400,000 people.

“It is likely that in the future the enemy will try to take control of the city of Mariupol, capture Popasna, and launch an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove in order to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk region,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Facebook.

The Russian defense ministry said its army had thwarted an attempt to break the siege with “airstrikes and artillery fire” at a factory in a northern district of the city.  

But the Ukrainian army insisted that “the defense of Mariupol continues”.

In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelensky made another plea to his allies for more weapons to boost the defense of the city.

“We are not getting as much as we need to end this war sooner. To completely destroy the enemy on our land... in particular, to unblock Mariupol,” he said.

He made a similar appeal for military assistance to South Korea’s National Assembly earlier in the day, telling lawmakers Russia had “completely destroyed Mariupol and burned it to ashes” killing “at least tens of thousands of people”.

Chemical weapons allegations

Late Monday, Britain said it was trying to verify reports that Russia had also used chemical weapons in the city.

Western officials have previously expressed concerns that as the conflict drags into its seventh week, Russia could resort to such extreme measures.

Ukrainian lawmaker Ivanna Klympush said Russia had used an “unknown substance” and that people were suffering from respiratory failure.

But deputy defense minister Ganna Maliar said the purported chemical attack was more likely phosphorous munitions.

“Officials conclusions will be made later,” she told Ukrainian television.

Eduard Basurin, a senior official in the separatist area of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, has spoken of the possibility of such arms being used in Mariupol but insisted on Tuesday that “no chemical weapons have been used” in the city.  

Elsewhere in the east, heavy bombardment continued as civilians were urged to flee ahead of an expected Russian troop surge in the region.

Russian forces are reinforcing around the Donbas region, notably near the town of Izyum, but have not yet launched a full offensive, Pentagon officials said Monday.

They reported a Russian convoy had been observed heading for Izyum, an hour’s drive north of Kramatorsk, saying it appeared to be a mix of personnel carriers, armored vehicles, and possible artillery.

President Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia’s own security was at stake in Donbas, after talks at the Russian spaceport in Vostochny with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

“What we are doing is helping people — rescuing them on the one hand and on the other taking measures to assure Russia’s security,” he said, according to Russian news agencies.

Ukraine’s defense ministry said it believed a major assault would happen soon.

“We don’t know precisely when, but the preparation is almost over,” spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told a briefing on Monday. 

Such signs of a build-up in Donbas suggest hopes of an imminent diplomatic solution remain slim.

Meanwhile, the toll on towns previously occupied by Russian forces during their month-long offensive to take Kyiv was still coming to light.

AFP saw the bodies of three men in civilian clothes exhumed from gardens in Andriivka, 33 kilometers west of the capital as relatives gathered to learn the fate of their kin.

UN Security Council (UNSC) officials on Monday called for an investigation into violence against women during the conflict.

“This war must stop. Now,” Sima Bahous, director of the UN women’s agency, told the Council.

“We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence. These allegations must be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability.”

The UNSC will hold another meeting next week on the humanitarian situation there, in a bid to keep pressure on Russia despite its veto power over the body, diplomats said.

More than 4.5 million Ukrainian refugees have now fled their country, the UN refugee agency said — 90 percent of them women and children.

The war has displaced more than 10 million people overall.

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