KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are pressing their offensive in the eastern Donbas region in an attempt to fully seize Ukraine’s industrial heartland but have made little headway as fierce Ukrainian counterattacks have slowed their efforts, Ukrainian and British officials said Saturday.
Russia continues to fight for full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk areas that make up the Donbas and seeks to secure “a land route between these territories and the occupied Crimea,” including by wiping out the last pocket of resistance in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine’s General Staff said.
Ukrainian forces over the past 24 hours repelled eight Russian attacks in the two regions, destroying nine tanks, 18 armored units and 13 vehicles, a tanker and three artillery systems, the General Staff said.
“Units of Russian occupiers are regrouping. Russian enemy continues to launch missile and bomb strikes on military and civilian infrastructure,” the General Staff said on its Facebook page.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Saturday that two people were killed by Russian shelling in the city of Popasna.
He said an evacuation train for residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk areas was expected to leave Saturday from the eastern city of Pokrovsk bound for the western city of Chop, near Ukraine’s border with Slovakia and Hungary.
“In addition to the fact that street fighting continues in the city for several weeks, the Russian army constantly fires at multistory residential buildings and private houses,” Haidai wrote on the messaging app Instagram. “Just yesterday, local residents withstood five enemy artillery attacks…. Not all survived,”
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said despite their increased activity “Russian forces have made no major gains in the last 24 hours as Ukrainian counter-attacks continue to hinder the efforts.”
Russia still has not established air or sea control due to Ukrainian resistance, and despite President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of victory in Mariupol, “heavy fighting continues to take place, frustrating Russian attempts to capture the city, thus further slowing their desired progress in the Donbas,” the Ministry of Defense said.
Ukrainian officials were trying again Saturday to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Mariupol after many previous attempts failed. The effort was to get underway at midday “if everything goes according to plan,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on the messaging app Telegram.
Russia has pulled a dozen crack military units from Mariupol to bolster the offensive elsewhere in the Donbas, while other troops continue to keep the remaining Ukrainian troops in the city pinned in the Azovstal steelworks, the last remaining stronghold, Ukrainian officials said.
Putin is said to have ordered his forces not to storm the plant to finish off the defenders but to seal it off instead in an apparent bid to force them to surrender.
Russian forces have been pummeling the 2,000 Ukrainian fighters still holed up inside, the mayor’s office reported on Friday.
“Every day they drop several bombs on Azovstal,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor. “Fighting, shelling, bombing do not stop.”
Mariupol has been reduced largely to smoking rubble by weeks of bombardment, and Russian state TV showed the flag of the pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the city’s highest point, its TV tower. It also showed what it said was the main building at Azovstal steel plant in flames.
Under cover of darkness, Ukrainian forces have managed to deliver weapons to the besieged steelworks via helicopter, said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
Overall, the Kremlin has thrown more than 100,000 troops and mercenaries from Syria and Libya into the fight in Ukraine and is deploying more forces in the country every day, Danilov said.
“We have a difficult situation, but our army is defending our state,” he said.
Mariupol has taken on outsize importance in the war. Capturing it would deprive the Ukrainians of a vital port and complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin seized from Ukraine in 2014.
It would also allow Putin to throw more of his forces into the potentially climactic battle for the Donbas and its coal mines, factories and other industries, or what the Kremlin has now declared to be its main objective.
The latest satellite photos from Maxar Technologies revealed what appeared to be a second mass grave site near Mariupol. The site at a cemetery in the town of Vynohradne has several newly dug parallel trenches measuring about 40 meters (131 feet) long, Maxar said in a statement.
A day earlier, Maxar released photos of what appeared to be rows upon rows of more than 200 freshly dug mass graves next to a cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol. That prompted Ukrainian accusations that the Russians are trying to conceal the slaughter of civilians in the city.
“This confirms again that the occupiers arrange the collection, burial and cremation of dead residents in every district of the city,” Andryushchenko said on the Telegram messaging app.
The Ukrainians estimated that the graves seen in the photos released Thursday could hold 9,000 bodies.
The Kremlin did not respond to the satellite pictures.
More than 100,000 people — down from a prewar population of about 430,000 — are believed trapped in Mariupol with little food, water or heat, and over 20,000 civilians have been killed in the nearly two-month siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.
Most attempts to evacuate civilians from the city have failed because of what the Ukrainians said was continued Russian shelling.
By DAVID KEYTON and YESICA FISCH Associated Press
Fisch reported from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Inna Varenytsia in Kviv and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff members around the world.