Ukrainian fighters say Russian forces are storming Mariupol steel plant as civilians remain trapped

Russian soldiers are mounting an assault on the decimated steelworks plant, according to Ukrainian fighters and officials, while the western city of Lviv also came under bombardment.

Hundreds of civilians are believed to be sheltering at steel complex containing last pocket of resistance

Smoke rises from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, in this photo taken from video on Tuesday. Ukrainian fighters and officials say Russian soldiers stormed the site, where hundreds of civilians are sheltering. (The Associated Press)

Russian forces Tuesday began storming the steel mill that represented the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, its Ukrainian defenders said, while the western city of Lviv came under multiple Russian strikes at night.

Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov regiment, said the Russians were mounting a heavy assault with "the support of armoured vehicles and tanks, with attempts to land troops from boats and a large number of infantry."

The Azov regiment is a far-right armed group that was folded into Ukraine's National Guard after Russia's first invasion in 2014.

"We'll do everything that's possible to repel the assault, but we're calling for urgent measures to evacuate the civilians that remain inside the plant and to bring them safely," Palamar said on the messaging app Telegram.

He added that throughout the night, the plant was hit with naval artillery fire and airstrikes. Two civilian women were killed and 10 civilians were wounded, he said.

Smoke rises above Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol on Monday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Earlier Tuesday, Mariupol patrol police chief Mykhailo Vershinin was quoted by Ukrainian television as saying that the Russian military "have started to storm the plant in several places."

Denys Shlega, a commander of a brigade of Ukraine's National Guard also at Azovstal, also said "the enemy is trying to storm the Azovstal plant with significant forces using armoured vehicles."

The number of Ukrainian fighters holed up inside was unclear, but the Russians estimated the number at 2,000 weeks ago, and there were reports that 500 were wounded.

A few hundred civilians also remained there, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Protesters call for Ukrainian fighters to be evacuated from Mariupol's besieged Azovstal steel plant, alongside civilians. These women held a demonstration in the city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

The assault began almost two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military not to storm the plant to finish off the defenders but to seal it off.

Russia targets other cities

Russian troops also shelled a chemical plant in the eastern city of Avdiivka, killing at least 10 people, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, Donetsk's regional governor.

"The Russians knew exactly where to aim — the workers just finished their shift and were waiting for a bus at a bus stop to take them home," Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post. "Another cynical crime by Russians on our land."

Explosions were also heard in Lviv, in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The strikes damaged three power substations, knocking out electricity in parts of the city and disrupting the water supply, and wounded two people, the mayor said.

Smoke rises over the city of Lviv after a series of air strikes on Tuesday. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images)

Lviv has been a gateway for NATO-supplied weapons and a haven for those fleeing the fighting in the east.

A rocket also struck an infrastructure facility in a mountainous area in Transcarpathia, a region in far western Ukraine that borders Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, authorities said. There was no immediate word of any casualties.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian aircraft and artillery hit hundreds of targets in the past day, including troop strongholds, command posts, artillery positions, fuel and ammunition depots and radar equipment.

Ukrainian authorities said the Russians also attacked at least a half dozen railroad stations around the country.

Civilian convoy reaches safer city

Earlier on Tuesday, the United Nations confirmed that 127 civilians evacuated from the Mariupol steel plant and a nearby town over the weekend had arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia.

A woman hugs relatives after arriving by bus in Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. Thousands of Ukrainians continue to flee Russian-occupied areas. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Osnat Lubriani, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Ukraine, who travelled with the convoy, said Tuesday that those evacuated included 101 people who "could finally leave the bunkers below the Azovstal steelworks and see the daylight after two months."

Another 58 people joined the convoy in Manhush, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol.

"Over the past days, travelling with the evacuees, I have heard mothers, children and frail grandparents speak about the trauma of living day after day under unrelenting heavy shelling and the fear of death, and with extreme lack of water, food and sanitation," Lubrani said.

"They spoke of the hell they have experienced since this war started, seeking refuge in the Azovstal plant."

Lubrani said many of the evacuees had run to the steel plant for safety and got trapped.

WATCH | Ukrainian civilians reach safety from bombed Mariupol steel plant: 

Ukrainian civilians reach safety from bombed Mariupol steel plant

1 year ago
Duration 2:33
WARNING: This video contains graphic footage | Trapped for weeks, the first group of civilians have emerged safely from a steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol — a result of talks brokered by the United Nations with Russia.

One evacuee said she went to sleep at the plant every night afraid she wouldn't wake up.

"You can't imagine how scary it is when you sit in the shelter, in a wet and damp basement which is bouncing, shaking," 54-year-old Elina Tsybulchenko said upon arriving in Zaporizhzhia.

She added: "We were praying to God that missiles fly over our shelter, because if it hit the shelter, all of us would be done."

Others remain trapped in Mariupol

As many as 100,000 people overall may still be in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000. Russian forces have pounded much of the city into rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.

A worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross helps people who fled from Mariupol and other towns as they arrive in Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Greek state television that remaining civilians in the steel plant were afraid to board buses, fearing they would be taken to Russia. He said the UN assured him they could go to areas his government controls.

More than 1 million people, including nearly 200,000 children, have been taken from Ukraine to Russia, Russia's Defence Ministry said Monday, according to state-owned news agency TASS.

Defence Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said that number included 11,550 people, including 1,847 children, in the previous 24 hours, "without the participation of the Ukrainian authorities."

Those civilians "were evacuated to the territory of the Russian Federation from the dangerous regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics," and other parts of Ukraine, according to the report. No details were provided.

Zelensky said Monday that at least 220 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russian army since the war began in late February, and 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged.

Mariupol vital to Russia's renewed war effort

After failing to take Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Russia withdrew some of its forces and then said it would switch its focus to Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas.

Mariupol lies in the region, and its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere in the Donbas.

Russian shelling has decimated the southern port city of Mariupol, seen here on Tuesday, where some 100,000 civilians are believed to be trapped. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday that the U.S. believes the Kremlin also will recognize the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. Neither move would be recognized by the United States or its allies, he said.

Russia is planning to hold sham referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that would "try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy" and attach the entities to Russia, Carpenter said. He also said there were signs that Russia would engineer an independence vote in Kherson.

Mayors and local legislators there have been abducted, internet and cellphone service has been severed and a Russian school curriculum will soon be imposed, Carpenter said. Ukraine's government says Russia has introduced its ruble as currency there.

WATCH | EU holds crisis talks on Russian oil ban, U.S. vows further support to Ukraine:

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Energy ministers from European Union countries gathered to seek common ground on a Russian oil ban that’s expected to be part of the next round of sanctions against Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the U.S., officials are pledging more support to Ukraine’s military, including a massive $33-billion US military aid package awaiting congressional approval.