Russian forces pounded the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday, bombarding its city center as residents hid in its iconic mosque and elsewhere to avoid blasts. Fighting also raged on the outskirts of the capital, Kiev, as Russia continued its bombardment of several resistant towns.
Zelensky encouraged his people to maintain their resistance, which many analysts say prevented the swift offensive and military victory the Kremlin likely expected as it planned to invade the former Soviet neighbor of the Russia.
For all the latest news, follow the Daily Star’s Google News channel.
“The fact that the entire Ukrainian people resisted these invaders has already gone down in history, but we have no right to relax our defense, however difficult it may be for us,” he said. Later Saturday, Zelensky reported that 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have died in combat since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
Zelensky again deplored NATO’s refusal to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said Ukraine had been looking for ways to procure air defenses, although it did not give details.
Zelensky also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping of the mayor of Melitopol, a town 192 kilometers (119 miles) west of Mariupol. After residents of the occupied city demonstrated on Saturday for the release of the mayor, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to respond to the appeals.
“Please listen to Moscow!” said Zelensky. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
Mariupol has endured some of Ukraine’s worst misery since the Russian invasion. Relentless blockades have thwarted repeated attempts to bring food, water and medicine to the city of 430,000 and evacuate its trapped civilians. More than 1,500 people died in Mariupol during the siege, according to the mayor’s office, and the shelling even halted efforts to bury the dead in mass graves.
Ukraine’s government said on Saturday the Sultan Suleiman Mosque was hit, but an unverified Instagram post by a man claiming to be the president of the mosque’s association said the building was spared when a bomb fell about 700 yards (700 yards). About 80 residents, including children, are believed to have hid inside.
“They are bombing it (Mariupol) around the clock, launching missiles. This is hate. They are killing children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address.
An Associated Press reporter in Mariupol witnessed tank fire on a nine-story building and was with a group of hospital workers who came under sniper fire on Friday. A worker shot in the hip survived, but conditions at the hospital were deteriorating: electricity was restricted to operating tables and people with nowhere to go lined the hallways.
Among them was Anastasiya Erashova, who was crying and shaking as she held a sleeping child. The shelling had just killed her other child as well as her brother’s child, Erashova said, her scalp covered in blood.
“We arrived at my brother’s house, all together. The women and children went into hiding, and then mortar hit that building,” she said. “We were trapped underground and two children died. No one could save them.”
Meanwhile, French and German leaders held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a ceasefire. According to the Kremlin, Putin set out the conditions for ending the war, including the demilitarization of Ukraine and its cession of territory, among other requirements.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian forces had captured the eastern outskirts of Mariupol, tightening armed pressure on the strategic port. Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Sea of Azov could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
In several areas around the capital, artillery barrages sent residents rushing to safety as air raid sirens wailed. The British Ministry of Defense said Russian ground forces which had been massed north of Kiev for most of the war had closed within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the city center and dispersed, likely to support an attempt at encirclement.
As artillery pounded the northwestern outskirts of Kiev, columns of black and white smoke rose southwest of the capital after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv caused hundreds small explosions. A frozen food warehouse just outside the capital was also hit in an apparent effort to target Kyiv’s food supply.
Ukrainian military and volunteer forces are preparing for an all-out assault. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Thursday that around 2 million people, or half of the metropolitan region’s residents, had left and “every street, every house…is being fortified.”
Zelensky said on Saturday that Russia would have to carpet bomb the Ukrainian capital and kill its inhabitants to take the city.
“They will only come here if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
Putin held a 90-minute call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. Putin raised “issues related to agreements being discussed to implement Russian demands” to end the war, the Kremlin said without providing details.
To end hostilities, Moscow demanded that Ukraine drop its NATO candidacy and adopt neutral status; recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed to Ukraine in 2014; recognize the independence of the separatist regions in the east of the country; and agree to demilitarize.
Zelensky told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday that he would be willing to meet Putin in Jerusalem to discuss ending the war, but first there would have to be a ceasefire. Bennett recently met in Moscow with Putin, who ignored previous offers of talks from Zelensky.
Russia’s slow tightening of the noose around Kiev and the bombardment of other cities reflect tactics that Russian forces have already used in other campaigns, including Syria and Chechnya, to crush armed resistance.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among those who sought refuge in the Mariupol Mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, which was inspired by the one of the most famous and largest mosques in Istanbul.
Before Mariupol became the target of Europe’s biggest land dispute since World War II, the city promoted the white-walled building and its towering minaret as a scenic attraction.
With Mariupol’s electricity, gas and water cut off, aid workers and Ukrainian authorities described an ongoing humanitarian disaster. Aid group Doctors Without Borders said Mariupol residents are dying from lack of medicine and draining heating pipes for drinking water.
Russian forces have hit at least two dozen hospitals and medical facilities since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the World Health Organization. Ukrainian officials reported Saturday that heavy artillery damaged a cancer hospital and several residential buildings in Mykolaiv, a town 489 kilometers (304 miles) west of Mariupol.
The hospital’s chief medical officer, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were at the facility during the attack, but no one was killed.
The Russian invaders seem to have struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. Yet the stronger Russian military threatens to overwhelm Ukrainian forces, despite a steady stream of weapons and other aid from the West to Ukraine’s democratically elected, west-facing government.
A senior Russian diplomat has warned that Moscow could attack foreign shipments of military equipment to Ukraine. Speaking on Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had warned the United States “that the pumping of weapons from a number of countries which it is orchestrating is not just a dangerous move – it is an action that makes these convoys legitimate targets”.
Russian troops should soon be reinforced from abroad. Denis Pushilin, the leader of a Russian-backed separatist region in eastern Ukraine, said on Saturday he expects “several thousand” fighters from the Middle East to join the rebels and are fighting “neck to neck” against the Ukrainian army.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides were reportedly killed along with many civilians. At least 2.5 million people have fled the country, according to the UN refugee agency.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said on Saturday that at least 79 children had been killed and nearly 100 injured. Most of the casualties were in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the figures are not final as active fighting continues.