Russia-Ukraine War: Ukrainian steel mill bombed; Zelenskyy meets with US officials, including Blinken

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russian forces called in airstrikes on a besieged steel factory in the southern city of Mariupol to try to drive out the last Ukrainian troops who were in the strategic port, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday, while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was will meet Kyiv with two top American officials.

Zelenskyy gave few details about the logistics of his planned talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the 60th day since Russia invaded Ukraine. But he told reporters he expected Americans to come and bring “not just presents or any cakes, we expect certain things and certain weapons.”

The visit by senior US officials to the Ukrainian capital would be the first since the invasion began on February 24. During a visit to Poland in March, Blinken briefly set foot on Ukrainian soil to meet with the country’s foreign minister. Zelenskyy’s last face-to-face meeting with a US leader was on February 19 in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris.

The meeting was to take place while Ukrainians and Russians were celebrating Orthodox Easter, an occasion that Zelenskyy emphasized the allegorical importance of for a nation ravaged by nearly two months of war.

RELATED: Pope Francis makes Easter plea for peace in Ukraine, citing nuclear risk

“The great holiday today gives us great hope and unshakable belief that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death and therefore Ukraine will surely win!” he said, speaking from on Sunday of the old St. Sophia Cathedral.

Russia has been attempting to take Mariupol for nearly two months, and the Sea of ​​Azov city has endured some of the worst hardships of the war. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere, and establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow captured in 2014.

About 2,000 soldiers have been fighting doggedly to hold the last Ukrainian outpost in the city, the Azovstal Steel Works, whose labyrinthine tunnel system is also home to civilians.

Russian forces have continued to ravage the plant, hitting it with airstrikes including from long-haul aircraft, said Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman for the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on Sunday.

Mariupol was blocked for most of the war. Ukrainian officials have said they expect to find thousands of dead civilians and evidence of war crimes there when the fighting ends. Satellite images have apparently shown mass graves being dug in towns west and east of Mariupol.

RELATED: Possible mass graves near Mariupol as Russia attacks in the east

On the last day, Russia also stepped up attacks elsewhere in the eastern Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some areas before the war and the Russians are aiming to seize full control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.

Shtupun said Russian forces have stepped up attack operations on the cities of Popasna and Severodonetsk in Luhansk and Kurakhiv in Donetsk. Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said Sunday that a Russian barrage on Saturday killed eight people and wounded two others.

The Russians also shelled the Dnipro region west of the Donbass, where at least one person was killed by a Russian missile, according to regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko.

Russia has withdrawn troops from Kyiv and the north of the country to feed into the Donbass offensive, but Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that Ukrainian troops have repelled numerous attacks over the past week.

“Although Russia has made some territorial gains, Ukrainian resistance has been strong on all axes and inflicted significant costs on Russian forces,” the ministry said in an intelligence update.

“Poor Russian morale and limited time to recover, re-equip and reorganize forces from previous offensives are likely to hamper Russian combat effectiveness,” it said.

In attacks on the eve of Orthodox Easter, Russian forces bombed cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine. A three-month-old baby was among eight people killed when Russia fired cruise missiles at the Black Sea port city of Odessa, officials said. Zelenskyi said 18 others were injured.

“The war started when this baby was a month old. Can you imagine what is happening?” Zelenskyj said. “They’re just bastards. … I have no other words for it, just bastards.”

Ukraine’s military said Saturday it had destroyed a Russian command post in Kherson, a southern city that fell to Russian forces earlier in the war.

The command post was hit on Friday, killing two generals and seriously wounding another, Ukraine’s military intelligence said in a statement. The Russian military did not comment on the claim, which could not be confirmed.

If true, at least nine Russian generals have been killed since the invasion began, according to Ukrainian reports.

On Saturday, the Azov regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard, whose members are holed up at the Mariupol Steel Plant, released video of around two dozen women and children seeking refuge there. Its content could not be independently verified, but if authentic, it would be the first video testimony of what life was like for the civilians trapped there underground.

The video shows soldiers giving candy to children who respond with punches. A young girl said she and her relatives “have not seen the sky or the sun” since leaving home on February 27.

The regiment’s deputy commander, Sviatoslav Palamar, told the AP the video was shot on Thursday. The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was formed by far-right activists in 2014 at the start of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and has drawn criticism for some of its tactics.

More than 100,000 people – up from a pre-war population of about 430,000 – are believed to remain in Mariupol with scarce food, water or heat. Ukrainian authorities estimate that over 20,000 civilians were killed in the city.

Another attempt to evacuate women, children and older adults from Mariupol failed on Saturday. Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor, said Russian forces did not allow buses organized by Ukraine to take residents to Zaporizhia, a town 141 miles northwest.

Fisch reported from Sloviansk, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Inna Varenytsia in Kviv, and Associated Press staff around the world contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Russia-Ukraine War: Ukrainian steel mill bombed; Zelenskyy meets with US officials, including Blinken

Dais Johnston

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