Rebellious Zelensky vows to host the song contest in the besieged city of Mariupol

Rebellious Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to one day host the Eurovision Song Contest in the embattled city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely in Russian hands, save for a tight-knit group of a few hundred Ukrainian fighters holding out in a steel factory.

Kraine’s Kalush Orchestra won the competition with its song Stefania, which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and the victory was a morale booster.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” said Mr Zelensky on Facebook. Ukraine will host the Eurovision Song Contest next year.

The band made a passionate plea during the show to help the fighters who are still at the Azovstal steel mill in the port city, and Mr. Zelensky said the match will be held “one day” “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.

The president’s optimistic words come as Russian troops pull out of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after bombing it for weeks, and Moscow’s forces continue to be engaged in a long-running battle for eastern industrial heart of the country.

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Volodymyr Zelensky said Eurovision will one day be hosted in Mariupol, the city currently under siege by Russian forces (AP)

The Ukrainian army said Russian forces are now withdrawing from the northeastern city to focus on guarding supply routes while launching mortar, artillery and air strikes in the eastern region of Donetsk in an attempt to “extend Ukrainian forces”. destroy wells and fortifications”.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.

Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped area in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk territories, which are part of the eastern Donbas region, along the border of the industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

In the southern Donbas, the Azov seaport of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, with the exception of the few hundred men still in the factory.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of the city reportedly could reach the Ukrainian-occupied city of Zaporizhzhya on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured troops at the steel factory. †

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Ukrainian soldiers patrol near Kharkiv as Russian troops withdraw from area (Felipe Dana/AP)

After Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to take Kiev after the February 24 invasion, he shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, aiming to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops and gain territory. to conquer what is still under Ukraine.

Air strikes and artillery shelling make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move east, hindering attempts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems like a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.

Russia has conquered several towns and cities in the Donbas, including Rubizhne, which had a population of about 55,000 before the war.

Zelensky said Ukrainian forces have also made progress in the east by retaking six towns or villages in the past day.

In his late night speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and that Russian troops are “still trying to at least be somewhat victorious”.

But he said: “Step by step, we are forcing the residents to leave the Ukrainian country.”

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Ukraine’s entry by Kalush Orchestra has become a popular anthem during the war (Luca Bruno/AP)

Kharkiv, near the Russian border and just 80 kilometers southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been subject to heavy shelling for weeks. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a major military target earlier in the war, as Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.

Ukraine “seems to have won the battle of Kharkov,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

“Ukrainian troops prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then expelled them from all over the city, as they did with Russian troops attempting to take Kiev.”

Mr Putin has justified the war in Ukraine by claiming it is a response to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But the invasion has scared other countries along Russia’s flank that they could be next, and last week Finland’s president and prime minister said they were in favor of seeking NATO membership.

Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether or not to apply to join the Western military alliance.

In a telephone conversation on Saturday, Mr Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and “adversely affect Russian-Finnish relations” .

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