Contact has been lost with Ukrainian troops staging a last stand inside Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, the mayor of the devastated port city has said, as more civilians fled the city on evacuation buses.
Vadym Boichenko told Ukrainian television “we have no way of knowing what’s going on, whether they are safe or not” after weeks of brutal bombardment that have reduced much of the city to rubble.
It is not known whether any of the civilians trapped in the works, where about 200 people – including 30 children – remain, were among those who got out.
The convoy of evacuation buses, organized by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, was heading for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, said the governor of Donetsk province, Pavlo Kyrylenko, but was not expected to arrive on Wednesday.
The Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik said 156 people had managed to leave Mariupol and reach the relative safety of Zaporizhzhia, 140 miles (230km) away, on Tuesday after at least 20 failed attempts to evacuate civilians from the Azovstal site.
She told Sky News the main goal of aid workers “is to make sure we get out all the children”, adding: “It’s about 30 children who are still there. The most complicated step would be with the wounded soldiers, because Russia is not allowing them to get out.”
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the remaining Ukrainian forces in the plant were “securely blocked along the entire perimeter”. He claimed repeated proposals to “release civilians and lay down their arms” had been ignored.
Ukraine on Wednesday accused Moscow of planning to stage a military parade in Mariupol on 9 May, when Russia traditionally celebrates its victory over the Nazis in the second world war with processions in dozens of cities.
“Mariupol will become a center of ‘celebration’,” Ukraine’s military intelligence said in a statement on social media. “The central streets of the city are urgently being cleaned of debris, bodies and unexploded ordnance.”
It said an official from Russia’s presidential administration had already arrived in the city, now almost entirely under Russian control, for a “large-scale propaganda campaign. Russians will be shown stories of locals’ ‘joy’ at meeting the occupiers.”
Azovstal evacuates who arrived in Zaporizhzhia were emotional. “We are so thankful for everyone who helped. There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us,” said Anna Zaitseva, holding her six-month-old baby.
Elyna Tsybulchenko, 54, said Russian forces “bombed like every second.” “Everything shook. Dogs barked and children screamed,” she told Agence France-Presse. “The hardest moment was when we were told our bunker would not survive a direct hit.”
After failing to capture Kyiv, Moscow has refocused its efforts on gaining full control of Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up the eastern Donbas region, and securing a southern land corridor via Mariupol to occupied Crimea.
Ukraine’s defense ministry said Russia was raising the tempo of its offensive and that it had conducted nearly 50 airstrikes on Tuesday. A ministry spokesperson, Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, said artillery bombardments and airstrikes were also continuing on the Azovstal plant.
The Kremlin’s official spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied Ukrainian reports that Moscow’s forces were trying to storm the plant. “The order was publicly given by [Vladimir Putin] to cancel the storming,” Peskov said. “There is no storming.”
On Wednesday both sides reported Russian strikes on key transport infrastructure around the western city of Lviv, near Poland, and in Transcarpathia, bordering Hungary.
There were also fears the conflict could spill over into neighboring Moldova. The European Council president, Charles Michel, offered the republic the EU’s “full solidarity” and support. “We plan to significantly increase our support to Moldova by providing its armed forces with additional military equipment,” he said during a visit.
Russia’s defense ministry said it had disabled six railway stations in eastern Ukraine used to supply Ukrainian forces with western-made weapons; hit 40 Ukrainian military targets including four ammunition and arms depots; and fired two cruise missiles at military targets from a submarine in the Black Sea.
Moscow had deployed 22 battalion tactical groups near the eastern Ukrainian town of Izium, apparently in a drive to capture the nearby cities of Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk in Donbas, British military intelligence said.
Shoigu said his forces would consider Nato transport units carrying weapons in Ukraine as targets to be destroyed. The alliance has said individual member states are sending military supplies, but not troops.
The defense ministry of neighbouring, pro-Russia Belarus has announced military drills, saying they posed no threat, but Ukraine’s border service said it could not exclude the possibility Belarusian forces might join Russia’s assault. “We are ready,” a spokesperson said.
Ukraine remains defiant. “Russia struggles to advance and suffers terrible losses,” the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted. “Thus the desperate missile terror across Ukraine. But we are not afraid and the world should not be afraid either.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism