Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy says victory in his country’s ongoing war with Russia will ultimately come through a diplomatic settlement.
“The victory will be difficult, it will be bloody and in battle, but its end will be in diplomacy. I am very convinced of this,” Zelenskyy said in a Ukrainian television interview late Friday. “There are things that we can't bring to an end without sitting at the negotiation table.”
The Ukraine leader also said his country is attempting to recover fighters who surrendered to Russian forces after weeks of fighting at the Azovstal steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol.
“Everything will depend on (the responsibilities) the U.N., the Red Cross and the Russian Federation took on themselves, that they (the fighters) all will be in safety, waiting for one or the other exchange format,” he said. He said Ukraine’s intelligence service is making preparations “for a dialogue and an exchange."
Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly three months ago, on February 24.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that both the Azovstal steel plant and Mariupol have been "fully liberated," according to a statement Friday by Russia's Defense Ministry.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine that Mariupol was fully under Russian control.
The port city is the scene of the war's bloodiest siege, with Russian forces bombarding it for nearly three months. Much of Mariupol has been reduced to rubble, and more than 20,000 civilians are feared dead.
Ukrainian fighters hiding out in the city's steelworks plant engaged in heavy fighting with Russian forces for several weeks. Earlier this week, however, Ukrainian officials ordered the garrison to stand down to save the fighters’ lives.
The evacuation of the last fighters from the Azovstal steel plant, their number unclear, follows the surrender of almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers in recent days, according to the Russian defense minister.
The commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment, key to helping defend the plant, said efforts to remove the dead from the battle scene were also underway.
Battle for the East
In other developments Friday, Russia stepped up its assault on eastern Ukraine, using artillery, rocket launchers and aircraft to pound the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk; destroying houses in residential districts; and killing civilians, according to Ukrainian civilian and military officials.
President Zelenskyy described the conditions in the Donbas region, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk, as "hell" and said the region had been "completely destroyed" by Russia's invasion. He accused Russian forces of attempting to kill as many Ukrainians and do as much damage as possible.
The governor of Ukraine's Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said on Telegram that Russia attacked a school in the city of Severodonetsk on Friday. He said the school was sheltering more than 200 people, many of them children.
The Donbas has been President Putin's focus since his troops failed to take the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war.
Russia's defense minister said Friday, "the liberation of the Luhansk People's Republic is nearing completion."
Russian progress in the Donbas is slow and uneven and behind where Moscow wants it to be, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Every day in the region, there are "hamlets, towns and villages that are changing hands" between Russia and Ukraine, he added.
New G-7 support
The finance ministers of the Group of Seven nations have pledged $19.8 billion to support Ukraine's finances during Russia's invasion, a statement from the group said Friday.
The G-7, an organization of leaders from some of the world's largest economies — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — said the funds will be used to help Ukraine "close its financing gap and continue ensuring the delivery of basic services to the Ukrainian people."
"While also addressing Ukraine's humanitarian and other material needs, we recognize, in particular, Ukraine's urgent short-term financing needs," the statement said, adding that the proposed $19.8 billion amount is "in addition to recent announcements on further military and humanitarian support."
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The House of Representatives voted in favor of the package last week.
U.S. President Joe Biden signed the measure Saturday.
President Zelenskyy called the aid package "a manifestation of strong leadership and a necessary contribution to our common defense of freedom."
In another development, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration is authorizing $100 million more in military aid to Ukraine. The package of aid includes 18 more howitzers and 18 vehicles to move them, as well as three counter-artillery radars, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Russia has said it will cut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday. The move comes after Finland and Sweden applied for membership in the NATO alliance, driven by security concerns in the wake of Russia's Ukraine invasion.
The Kremlin said it was bolstering its forces on Russia's western border, saying that moves by Finland and Sweden to join NATO were part of an increase in military threats.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press and Reuters.