Russia unleashed heavy artillery barrages against several Ukrainian positions in the south and east of the country, amid conflicting claims as to whether Russian forces were attempting to storm the last Ukrainian positions in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
While Ukrainian officials and fighters claimed that Russian troops had entered the southern city’s labyrinthine industrial zone and that heavy fighting was taking place inside, the Kremlin denied that its troops had entered and said that humanitarian corridors to evacuate trapped civilians were operating there on Thursday.
Ukrainian fighters inside Azovstal said they were fighting “difficult and bloody battles” inside the plant, according to Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov regiment.
Ukraine’s military staff said the assault on the factory had air support, and footage released by Russian-backed fighters appeared to show smoke and flames engulfing it.
However, when asked to comment on the claim that Russian troops had broken into the factory’s territory, official Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred journalists to President Vladimir Putin’s previous order not to not storm the factory.
Asked about a New York Times report that US intelligence helped Ukraine kill a number of Russian generals, Peskov said: “The US, Britain, NATO, in their together pass intelligence…to the Ukrainian Armed Forces on a permanent basis.
“Coupled with the flow of weapons these countries are sending to Ukraine, these are all actions that do not contribute to the speedy completion of the operation,” he said.
Peskov’s comments came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said civilians should be dug into bunkers under the steelworks which are littered with concrete debris.
Ukrainian officials believe around 200 civilians remain trapped with fighters in the sprawling Soviet-era complex’s network of underground bunkers.
Having failed to capture the capital, kyiv, in the first weeks of an invasion that killed thousands and destroyed towns and villages, Russia stepped up its attacks in the south and east. east of Ukraine.
Putin called off plans for an assault on the factory last month, asking his defense minister to shut it down instead.
The Russian Defense Ministry added on Thursday that its artillery hit several Ukrainian positions and strongholds overnight, saying it killed 600 fighters.
The Defense Ministry also said its missiles destroyed aircraft equipment at Kanatovo airfield in central Ukraine’s Kirovohrad region and a major ammunition depot in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
Russian claims of hundreds of Ukrainian deaths were impossible to verify and mirror statements by Ukrainian and Russian officials in recent days, both claiming heavy enemy casualties.
Both Ukraine and Russia said fighting had been intense in the south and east over the past day.
Although it is difficult to assess the exact number of casualties, senior Western officials who recently briefed reporters have suggested that Russian casualties may have diminished somewhat since the heavy casualties suffered during the failed campaign to take Kyiv.
There are also suggestions that Ukrainian casualties could increase under the intense Russian artillery bombardment that marked Moscow’s conduct in the latter phase of the war.
As Ukraine’s Western allies rush to supply kyiv with artillery systems and shells to counter those from Russia, the conflict in Ukraine appears to be turning into a bitter artillery duel between the two sides, the Russian advances being limited to a small number of kilometers each day.
Despite allegations of Ukrainian counter-offensives in the east, these appear to have been limited in scope, with an adviser to Zelenskiy saying that Ukraine was unlikely to launch a significant counter-offensive before mid-June. , while she hopes to have received more weapons from her allies. .
While senior Western officials have spoken openly of their desire to leave Russia “weakened” by its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin on Thursday accused the West of preventing a “swift” end to Russia’s military campaign.
The wives of at least two Ukrainian soldiers inside Azovstal traveled to Rome, pleading with the international community for an evacuation of the soldiers there, arguing that they deserve the same rights as civilians.
Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Ukrainian plant commander, said she had not heard from him for more than 36 hours before finally hearing from him on Wednesday.
If the Azovstal fighters were captured, it is unclear whether Russia would honor its commitments under international law regarding prisoners of war, given its alleged past violations of the rules governing wartime conduct and the lack of evidence of his treatment of captured Ukrainian troops.