Russian forces stormed the vital port of Odessa, Ukrainian officials said Tuesday, as part of an apparent attempt to disrupt supply lines and arms deliveries. On the other side of the south coast, they have hammered a steel mill where Ukrainian fighters are denying Moscow complete control of another critical port.
Days after the dramatic rescue of what some officials say were the last civilians trapped at the Mariupol factory, authorities said about 100 were still bombed in the network of underground tunnels. The strikes come as the horrific toll of the war continued to take shape, with Ukrainians saying they had found the bodies of 44 civilians in the rubble of a building in the northeast that was destroyed weeks ago.
The Ukrainian army said on Tuesday that Russian forces fired seven rockets from the air at the crucial Black Sea port city of Odessa a day earlier, hitting a shopping center and warehouse. One person was killed and five were injured, the army said.
Ukraine claimed that at least some of the ammunition used dates back to the Soviet era, making them unreliable in targeting. But the Center for Defense Strategies, a Ukrainian war-monitoring think tank, said Moscow did use some precision weapons against Odessa: Kinzhal, or “Dagger,” hypersonic air-to-surface missiles.
Ukrainian, British and US officials are warning that Russia is rapidly depleting its stock of precision weapons and may not be able to build more any time soon, raising the risk of more inaccurate missiles being used as the conflict continues.
Since President Vladimir Putin’s forces failed to take Kiev in the early days of the war, he has said his focus is on the eastern industrial heart of the Donbas country – but one general has suggested that the Moscow’s goals also are to cut off Ukraine from the entire Black Sea coast.
That would give the country a patch of territory connecting Russia to both the Crimean peninsula, which it conquered in 2014, and Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova.
Even if it falls short in its goal of separating Ukraine from the Black Sea coast – and it doesn’t seem to have the strength to do so – the ongoing missile strikes on Odessa reflect the city’s importance as a strategic transport hub. The Russian army has repeatedly attacked the city’s airport, claiming it destroyed several batches of Western weapons essential to Ukraine’s resistance.
Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port, is also a major gateway for grain shipments, and its blockade by Russia is already a threat to global food supplies. And the city is also a cultural jewel, loved by both Ukrainians and Russians, and targeting also has a symbolic meaning.
The strikes came on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his country’s biggest patriotic holiday without boasting of major new battlefield successes. On Monday, he saw troops march in formation and watch military equipment roll by in a Victory Day parade in 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 troops have spent weeks trying to end resistance from Ukrainian defenders who are taking their last stand.
Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the city’s mayor, estimates in a social media post that at least 100 civilians are trapped in underground bunkers at the Azovstal mill. Ukrainian and Russian authorities said a convoy over the weekend led a third evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the factory to safety in a government-controlled city.
Separately, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Tuesday those civilians were people “that the Russians did not select” for evacuation. It wasn’t immediately clear how the two officials knew, and the fighters still at the factory have yet to confirm.
Earlier, Ukrainian and Russian officials had said all civilians had been evacuated from the factory.
As Russian forces struggle to gain ground in the Donbas, military analysts suggest attacking Odessa could serve to raise concerns over southwestern Ukraine, forcing Kiev to station more troops there. That would pull them away from the Eastern Front, as the city’s military counter-offensive would take place near the city of Kharkov, aiming to push the Russians back over the border there.
Kharkiv and the surrounding area have been under constant attack from Russia since the start of the war in late February. Dozens of bodies were found in a five-storey building that collapsed in March in Izyum, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Kharkiv, the regional government’s head Oleh Synehubov said in a social media post on Tuesday.
“This is another terrible war crime committed by the Russian occupiers against the civilian population!” said Synehubov.
Izyum is on an important route to the eastern industrial region of the Donbas, now the center of the Russian war in Ukraine. Synehubov did not specifically say where the building was.
Also on Tuesday, the Ukrainian military warned that Russia could target the country’s chemical industry. The claim was not immediately explained in the report. But during the war, Russian shelling was more likely to target oil depots and other industrial sites.
Meanwhile, satellite photos Monday showed intense fires in Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine. The cause of the fires was not immediately clear. However, images from Planet Labs showed thick smoke rising east of Vasylivka, a city flanked by nature reserves.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed two ships off Ukraine’s Snake Island on Monday afternoon.
One of the ships seen in Planet Labs PBC images turned out to be a landing craft. Ukraine has recently taken Russian positions there on several occasions, suggesting that Russian forces may be trying to reman or remove personnel from the Black Sea island.
In Washington, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan order to restart the World War II “lend-lease” program that helped defeat Nazi Germany to bolster Kiev and Eastern European allies.
Elsewhere on the diplomatic front, Western powers continued to rally around the embattled Kiev government. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to Bucha, a suburb of Kiev, where the bodies of many civilians were found – some killed at close range – after Russian troops withdrew last month.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said he spoke 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 Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and AP employees around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine