Ukraine said it would make a fresh attempt on Saturday to evacuate civilians from Mariupol, the devastated port city largely controlled by Russian forces, as hopes for a weekend truce during Orthodox Easter faded.
The war enters its third month on Sunday with civilians continuing to pay a heavy price amid the ongoing fighting.
“Today we will again try to evacuate women, children and the elderly,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram.
The call came a day after a“the second phase of the special operation” — as Moscow terms its invasion of Ukraine — had begun, with the aim of controlling a huge, strategic part of Ukrainian territory.
“One of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine,” Major General Rustam Minnekaev said on Friday.
The announcement marked far wider war goals than what Moscow previously stated.
Russian forces, which withdrew from around Kyiv and the north of Ukraine after being frustrated in their attempts to take over the capital, already occupy much of the eastern Donbas region and the south.
Minnekaev said their focus was now to “provide a land corridor to Crimea,” which Russia annexed in 2014, and towards a breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova, Transnistria, where the general claimed Russian-speaking people were “being oppressed.”
The Moldovan government has been rattled by the Russian attack on its neighbor, with Moldovans fearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin could potentially then move further West.
Moldova has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the war broke out on February 24. Its government has condemned Russia’s war and submitted a bid to join the European Union along with Georgia and Ukraine. It is also seeking the EU’s support in handling the influx of refugees and calling on the bloc to step up support for the country.
Ukrainian authorities have vowed to fight on and drive the Russian troops from their land, but they also sought an Easter pause.
“Unfortunately, Russia rejected the proposal to establish an Easter truce,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this week.
In his regular Friday night address, Zelenskyy said the Russian general’s comments were a clear articulation of Moscow’s goals.
“This only confirms what I have already said multiple times: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was intended only as a beginning,” he said.
Ukraine’s government, emboldened by an influx of Western weaponry, said its beleaguered forces were still holding out inside a sprawling steelworks in the razed port city of Mariupol.
The Kremlin has claimed the “liberation” of Mariupol, which is pivotal to its war plans nearly two months after President Vladimir Putin ordered the shock invasion of Russia’s Western-leaning neighbor.
Forces “who laid down their arms are guaranteed life”
In a phone call to Putin, EU chief Charles Michel appealed for humanitarian access to Mariupol, which has been largely destroyed by weeks of intense Russian bombardment.
“Strongly urged for immediate humanitarian access and safe passage from Mariupol and other besieged cities all the more on the occasion of Orthodox Easter,” Michel tweeted.
Putin however accused Kyiv of refusing to allow its troops to surrender in Mariupol.
“All servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces, militants of the national battalions and foreign mercenaries who laid down their arms are guaranteed life,” Putin told Michel, the Kremlin said.
CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported Friday that thousands of Ukrainians remained trapped inside a steel plant in Mariupol, surrounded by forces loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who earlier claimed victory in the city. Ukrainian officials said 100,000 people could still be stuck in Mariupol, which has been the site of some of the worst fighting in the war.
Russia’s defense ministry earlier said it was ready to observe a humanitarian pause if Kyiv’s troops surrendered.
“The enemy’s offensive operation in the south hinges on Mariupol. The enemy is trying to focus all its efforts on it,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern region of Donetsk, told AFP.
Near the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, a smattering of residents still held out amid frequent bouts of shelling.
After two months of sustained Russian artillery fire, the hamlet of Lysychansk, located just 9 miles from Russian ground forces, has largely turned into a ghost town.
Only a small sheltered market in the center of town is still operating, providing food and other supplies after the town’s other market was bombed.
“Everyone, this is going to end badly,” said an elderly woman in line for vegetables, fearing a targeted strike by Russian forces similar to a deadly train station rocket attack in the nearby town of Kramatorsk on April 8 that killed at least 52 people.
In Severodonetsk, just 6 miles from Russian positions, the city’s volunteers and medical personnel continue to hold the fort in a local hospital that is littered with broken windows and some floors are plunged into darkness.
Shelling resumed recently, and the city is likely to soon be surrounded by advancing Russian troops.
“We will stay here until the last patient,” says Roman Vodianik, the hospital’s chief, whose office is decorated with Orthodox Christian icons.
Russia’s change of strategic focus to southern and eastern Ukraine saw invading forces leave behind a trail of indiscriminate destruction and civilian bodies around Kyiv, including in the commuter town of Bucha.
A United Nations mission to Bucha documented “the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians there”, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
Its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said Russian forces had “indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes”.
Ukrainian officials say the bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been retrieved from areas around Kyiv.