Russia bombarded eastern Ukraine Sunday, including a steel factory in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with two top American officials in Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Ukrainian officials said Russian forces launched a new airstrike on the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holed up and defiantly refusing Russian demands to surrender.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a tight blockade of the facility that Russian forces have struggled to take over from perhaps thousands of Ukraine fighters and civilians who have remained in control of the plant with its labyrinth of tunnels and passageways.
Zelenskyy announced the visit of Blinken and Austin to the Ukrainian capital Saturday evening, although Washington declined to confirm the trip of what would be the highest-ranking officials to go to Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor two months ago.
Late Sunday, the Ukraine president's office announced that Blinken and Austin were meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
In a lengthy Saturday night news conference in a Kyiv subway station, Zelenskyy said he was looking for the Americans to produce results, both in terms of arms and security guarantees.
"You can't come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” he said. U.S. President Joe Biden in each of the last two weeks has approved $800 million in shipments of more arms for Ukraine, along $500 million in economic assistance.
With congressional approval for military assistance for Ukraine nearly exhausted, Biden said he would seek approval for more aid, part of the West’s arming of Ukraine in its fight against Russia that falls short of sending troops to fight alongside Ukrainian forces.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly pleaded for more heavy weapons, including long-range air defense systems, as well as warplanes.
Zelenskyy’s meeting with Austin and Blinken took place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter. Zelenskyy is Jewish, but speaking from Kyiv's ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, he cited Ukrainians’ wishes for the holiday.
"The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win!" he said.
But the Russian bombardment remains a constant threat for Ukraine. The Russian military reported that it hit 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, mostly in the eastern Donbas industrial region, and destroyed 26 Ukrainian military sites, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Sunday that it is “deeply alarmed by the situation in Mariupol, where the population is in dire need of assistance.” The ICRC said, “Immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access is urgently required to allow for the voluntary safe passage of thousands of civilians and hundreds of wounded out of the city, including from the Azovstal plant area.”
After the Blinken-Austin visit, Zelenskyy is set to meet Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The U.N. chief is scheduled to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara Monday and Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.
British officials said Saturday that Russian troops haven’t gained significant new ground despite announcing a renewed offensive along the eastern front, while Ukraine declared a nationwide curfew ahead of Orthodox Easter on Sunday.
Ukraine said Russian forces obstructed attempts to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol.
"The evacuation was thwarted," Mariupol city official Petro Andryushchenko said on Telegram, adding that about 200 people gathered at the government-appointed evacuation meeting point, but that Russian forces "dispersed" them.
Other residents were told to board buses destined for Russian-controlled Dukuchayevsk, which is about 80 kilometers to the north, Andryushchenko said.
Russia fired at least six cruise missiles at the Black Sea port city of Odesa on Saturday, killing eight people including a 3-month-old baby, Ukraine officials said. Russia’s defense ministry said its troops conducted a missile strike on a depot in Odesa that contained weapons sent to Ukrainian troops by the United States and European countries.
Ukraine officials said Saturday that 21,600 Russian troops have died in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy renewed his call for a meeting with Putin to "put an end to the war."
“I think that whoever started this war will be able to end it," Zelenskyy said in the Saturday news conference, adding that he was "not afraid to meet" with Putin if it would lead to a peace deal between their two countries.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.