ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces pounded away at the vital port of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday, as part of an apparent effort to disrupt supply lines and weapons shipments. On the other end of the southern coast, they hammered a steel plant where Ukrainian fighters are denying Moscow full control of another critical port.
Days after the dramatic rescue of what some officials said were the last civilians trapped at the plant in Mariupol, authorities said about 100 were still believed to be in the network of underground tunnels under bombardment. The strikes come as the grisly toll of the war continued to take shape, with the Ukrainians saying they found the bodies of 44 civilians in the rubble of a building in the northeast that was destroyed weeks ago.
The Ukrainian military said Tuesday that Russian forces fired seven missiles a day earlier from the air at the crucial Black Sea port of Odesa, hitting a shopping center and a warehouse. One person was killed and five were wounded, the military said.
Ukraine alleged at least some of the munitions used dated back to the Soviet era, making them unreliable in targeting. But the Center for Defense Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank tracking the war, said Moscow did use some precision weapons against Odesa: Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” hypersonic air-to-surface missiles.
Ukrainian, British and American officials warn Russia is rapidly using up its stock of precision weapons and may not be able to quickly build more, raising the risk of more imprecise rockets being used as the conflict grinds on.
Ever since President Vladimir Putin‘s forces failed to take Kyiv in the early days of the war, he has said his focus is the country’s eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas - but one general has suggested Moscow’s aims also include cutting Ukraine off from its entire Black Sea coast.
That would give it a swath of territory that would link Russia to both the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014, and Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova.
Even if it falls short in the goal of severing Ukraine from the Black Sea Coast - and it appears to lack the forces to do so - continuing missile strikes on Odesa reflect the city’s importance as a strategic transport hub. The Russian military has repeatedly targeted the city’s airport and claimed that it has destroyed several batches of the Western weapons that have been key to Ukraine’s resistance.
Odesa, Ukraine‘s largest port, is also a major gateway for grain shipments, and Russia‘s blockade of it is already threatening global food supplies. And the city is also a cultural jewel, dear to Ukrainians and Russians alike and targeting carries symbolic significance as well.
The strikes came the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his country’s biggest patriotic holiday without being able to boast of major new battlefield successes. On Monday, he watched troops march in formation and military hardware roll by in a Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate the Soviet Union’s role in the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany.
A symbol of Russia‘s difficulties is the city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have sought for weeks to end the resistance of Ukrainian defenders making their last stand.
Petro Andryushchenko, advisor to the city’s mayor, estimated in a social-media post that at least 100 civilians remain trapped in underground bunkers in the Azovstal mill. Ukrainian and Russian authorities previously said a convoy over the weekend led a third evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the mill to safety in a government-controlled city.
Separately, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said Tuesday that those civilians were people “that the Russians have not selected” for evacuation. It wasn’t immediately clear how the two officials knew that, and the fighters still at the plant were yet to confirm it.
Earlier, Ukrainian and Russian officials had said all civilians had been evacuated from the plant.
With Russian forces struggling to gain ground in the Donbas, military analysts suggest that hitting Odesa might serve to stoke concern about southwestern Ukraine, thus forcing Kyiv to station more forces there. That would pull them away from the eastern front as its military stages counteroffensives near the city of Kharkiv, aiming to push the Russians back across the border there.
Kharkiv and the surrounding area has been under sustained Russian attack since the beginning of the war in late February. Dozens of bodies were found in a five-story building that collapsed in March in Izyum, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Kharkiv, Oleh Synehubov, the head of the regional administration, said Tuesday in a social media message.
“This is another horrible war crime of the Russian occupiers against the civilian population!” said Synehubov.
Izyum lies on a key route to the eastern industrial region of the Donbas, now the focus of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Synehubov did not say specifically where the building was.
Also Tuesday, the Ukrainian military warned that Russia could target the country’s chemical industries. The claim wasn’t immediately explained in the report. But Russian shelling has previously targeted oil depots and other industrial sites during the war.
Meanwhile, satellite photos showed intense fires in Russian-held territory in southern Ukraine on Monday. A cause for the fires wasn’t immediately clear. However, Planet Labs images showed thick smoke rising to the east of Vasylivka, a city which is flanked by nature preserves.
Also, satellite pictures analyzed by The Associated Press showed two ships off Ukraine’s Snake Island on Monday afternoon.
One of the ships seen in the images from Planet Labs PBC appeared to be a landing craft. Ukraine has repeatedly struck Russian positions there recently, suggesting Russian forces may be trying to re-staff or remove personnel from the Black Sea island.
In Washington, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan measure to reboot the World War II-era “lend-lease” program, which helped defeat Nazi Germany, to bolster Kyiv and Eastern European allies.
Elsewhere on the diplomatic front, Western powers continued to rally around Kyiv’s embattled government. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where the bodies of many civilians were found - some killed at short range - after Russian forces withdrew last month.
The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said he was speaking with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of the most Putin-friendly leaders in the European Union, who has resisted calls from many bloc members to ban oil imports from Russia.
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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