UN pushes to see civilians evacuated from pummelled port city of Mariupol

The United Nations doggedly sought to broker an evacuation of civilians from the increasingly hellish ruins of Mariupol on Friday, while Ukraine accused Russia of showing its contempt for the world organization by bombing Kyiv while the UN leader was visiting the capital.

Ukraine says Russia has shown contempt for UN by bombing Kyiv during UN chief's visit

Social worker Oksana Khvostenko, 47, stands near her house, which has been heavily damaged during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in the southern port city of Mariupol, on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The United Nations doggedly sought to broker an evacuation of civilians from the increasingly hellish ruins of Mariupol on Friday, while Ukraine accused Russia of showing its contempt for the world organization by bombing Kyiv while the UN leader was visiting the capital.

The mayor of Mariupol said the situation inside the steel plant that has become the southern port city's last stronghold is dire, and citizens are "begging to get saved." Mayor Vadym Boichenko added: "There, it's not a matter of days. It's a matter of hours."

Ukraine's forces, meanwhile, fought to hold off Russian attempts to advance in the south and east, where the Kremlin is seeking to capture the country's industrial Donbas region.

Artillery fire, sirens and explosions could be heard in some cities.

A man carries some belonging with him Friday as he walks away from a building that was damaged by airstrikes in Kyiv. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

In other developments:

  • A former U.S. Marine was killed while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, his family said. The U.S. has not confirmed the report.
  • Ukrainian forces are cracking down on people accused of helping Russian troops. In the Kharkiv region alone, nearly 400 have been detained under anti-collaboration laws enacted after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.
  • The international sanctions imposed on the Kremlin over the war are squeezing the country. The Russian Central Bank said Russia's economy is expected to contract by up to 10 per cent this year, and the outlook is "extremely uncertain."

On Thursday, Russia launched a missile attack on a residential highrise and another building in Kyiv, shattering weeks of relative calm in the capital following Russia's retreat from the region early this month.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, centre, stands on the side of a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Thursday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty said one of its journalists, Vira Hyrych, was killed in the bombardment. Ten people were wounded, one of them losing a leg, authorities said.

The missile strike came barely an hour after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a news conference with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Kyiv residents leave their apartment building on Friday after it was destroyed by Russian shelling. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

"This says a lot about Russia's true attitude toward global institutions, about attempts of Russian authorities to humiliate the UN and everything that the organization represents," Zelensky said late Thursday in his nightly video address to the nation. "Therefore, it requires corresponding powerful response."

A 'middle finger' from Putin: Kyiv mayor

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the attack was Russian President Vladimir Putin's way of giving "his middle finger" to Guterres.

In an apparent reference to the Kyiv bombing, Russia's military said it had destroyed "production buildings" at the Artem defence factory.

The missile strike came just as life in Kyiv seemed to be getting back a little closer to normal, with cafés and businesses starting to reopen and growing numbers of people going out to enjoy the arrival of spring.

Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst and head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center think-tank, said the Kyiv attack carried a message: "Russia is sending a clear signal about its intention to continue the war despite the international pressure."

Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in the east has been difficult, because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have also introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

A man in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, removes debris from his house, which was damaged by a missile attack, as Russia's invasion continued on Thursday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

But so far, Russia's troops and the separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains.

In the gutted city of Mariupol, around 100,000 people were believed trapped with little food, water or medicine. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders and 1,000 civilians were holed up at the Azovstal steel plant.

The Soviet-era steel plant has a vast underground network of bunkers able to withstand airstrikes. But the situation has grown more dire after the Russians dropped "bunker busters" and other bombs.

"Locals who manage to leave Mariupol say it is hell, but when they leave this fortress, they say it is worse," said Boichenko, the mayor.

UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said the organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv to create safe passage.

Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.

This time, "we hope there's a slight touch of humanity in the enemy," the mayor said.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that the real problem is that "humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultra-nationals." Moscow has repeatedly claimed right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields. 

Rocket strikes and fighting

Also Friday, two towns in Ukraine's central Dnipropetrovsk region were hit by Russian rockets, the regional governor said. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage.

Fighting could be heard from Kramatorsk to Sloviansk, two cities about 18 kilometres apart in the Donbas. Columns of smoke rose from the Sloviansk area and neighbouring cities. At least one person was reported wounded in the shelling.

WATCH | Russian missile strikes rock Kyiv, fighting intensifies in Eastern Ukraine:

Russian missile strikes rock Kyiv, fighting intensifies in Eastern Ukraine

4 months ago
Duration 2:34
Russia blasted the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv with missiles during a visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. On the eastern front, Russian troops are trying to surround and defeat Ukrainian forces battered by heavy fighting.

In his nightly video address, Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy the Donbas and all who live there.

The constant attacks "show that Russia wants to empty this territory of all people," he said.

"If the Russian invaders are able to realize their plans even partially, then they have enough artillery and aircraft to turn the entire Donbas into stones, as they did with Mariupol."

A senior U.S. defence official said the Russian offensive is going much slower than planned in part because of the strength of Ukrainian resistance.

The U.S. believes the Russians are "at least several days behind where they wanted to be" as they try to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military's assessment.

Firefighters try to put out a fire following an explosion in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 28. Russia mounted attacks across a wide area of Ukraine on Thursday, bombarding Kyiv during a visit by the head of the United Nations. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

The governor of Russia's Kursk region said that a border post came under mortar fire from Ukraine and that Russian border forces returned fire. He said there were no casualties on the Russian side.

In the village of Ruska Lozava, near Kharkiv, hundreds of people were evacuated after Ukrainian forces retook the city from Russian occupiers. according to the Kharkiv regional governor.

Those who fled to Kharkiv spoke of the dire conditions they faced while under Russian control, with little water, food and no electricity.

"We were hiding in the basement; it was horror. The basement was shaking from the explosions, we were screaming, we were crying and we were praying to God," said Ludmila Bocharnikova.

A video posted by Ukraine's Azov battalion — a far-right armed group that was folded into Ukraine's National Guard after Russia's first invasion in 2014 — showed troops raising the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag over the government building in the centre of the village, though fighting continued on the outskirts.