Fierce fighting broke out at the Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Thursday despite a Russian pledge for a daytime cease-fire to allow more of the 200 civilians trapped in the facility to be safely evacuated.
Russian forces control all but the steel works in the devastated city on the north coast of the Sea of Azov that has been repeatedly targeted by Russia during its 10-week offensive. About 100 civilians have been evacuated from the industrial facility in recent days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin assured Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a phone call that Moscow’s forces were prepared to allow safe passage for those trapped in the steel plant, with daytime pauses in fighting through Saturday.
But Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, a deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment, said in a video posted online, “Heavy, bloody fighting is going on. Yet again, the Russians have not kept the promise of a cease-fire and have not given an opportunity for the civilians who seek shelter ... in basements of the plant to evacuate.” It was not clear from where he was speaking.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych also said new fighting had erupted at the steel works but gave no details. Russia's military did not immediately comment.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an early morning address Thursday, said a long cease-fire was needed to evacuate Mariupol’s remaining civilians.
“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters. In the present conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed skepticism about Russia’s commitment to a cease-fire.
“What we have consistently seen, and we’ve seen this even in recent days, is the tendency on the part of the Russian Federation to embrace a so-called humanitarian pause to cloak itself in the guise of an actor that has humanitarian concerns only to quickly and promptly resume shelling and violence, including against civilians who are trapped in besieged areas, including in Mariupol.”
The United Nations said Wednesday that the more than 300 civilians evacuated from Mariupol, Manhush, Berdiansk, Tokmak and Vasylivka were receiving humanitarian assistance in Zaporizhzhia.
“While this second evacuation of civilians from areas in Mariupol and beyond is significant, much more must be done to make sure all civilians caught up in fighting can leave, in the direction they wish,” said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
Elsewhere, both Ukraine and Russia said fighting had been heavy across southern and eastern Ukraine over the past day. Ukrainian authorities reported shelling in particular of towns near the frontline that divides territory it controls in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions from land held by Russian-backed separatists.
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko told The Associated Press he did not think Russia’s military action in Ukraine would “drag on this way,” but he accused Ukraine of “provoking Russia” and being uninterested in peace talks. Russian forces used Belarus as a staging point ahead of their February 24 invasion, operating under the pretext of military exercises as Putin denied he would attack Ukraine.
Belarus launched its own military exercises this week, but Lukashenko said they posed no threat.
“We do not threaten anyone, and we are not going to threaten and will not do it,” Lukashenko told the news agency. “Moreover, we can’t threaten — we know who opposes us, so to unleash some kind of a conflict, some kind of war here in the West is absolutely not in the interests of the Belarusian state. So, the West can sleep peacefully.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that with the drills ongoing, Russia is likely to “inflate the threat posed to Ukraine” by Belarus in order to keep more Ukrainian forces in the northern part of the country and not deploying to eastern Ukraine where Russians are focusing their attacks.
But a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that Russian military progress in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region was “stalled ... very slow and uneven.”
Russia has been launching about 40 to 50 missile strikes a day but is “still wary” of flying inside Ukraine. Russian forces have been meeting stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces as they attempt to advance toward Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, the official said.
Air raid sirens went off Wednesday night across Ukraine, with attacks reported near Kyiv, in Cherkasy and Dnipro in central Ukraine, and in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.
Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Press and Reuters.