Ukraine's Zelensky says siege of Mariupol 'a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come'

Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine's besieged and battered port city of Mariupol on Saturday, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

Russian forces move deeper into strategic port city; UN says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine

Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine's besieged and battered port city of Mariupol on Saturday, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war's worst suffering, would mark a major battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since the Second World War.

"Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the Earth," Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said from a rubble-strewn street in a video addressed to Western leaders that was authenticated by The Associated Press.

Details also began to emerge Saturday about a rocket attack that killed as many as 40 marines in the southern city of Mykolaiv on Friday, according to a Ukrainian military official who spoke to The New York Times.

Russian forces have already cut off Mariupol from the Sea of Azov, and its fall would link Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to eastern territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in the east. It would mark a rare advance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance that has dashed Russia's hopes for a quick victory and galvanized the West.

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Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said. "One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed," he  said in televised remarks.

The Mariupol city council claimed hours later that Russian soldiers had forcibly relocated several thousand city residents, mostly women and children, to Russia. It didn't say where in Russia and The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the claim.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol's defenders were already struggling against "the overwhelming force of the enemy" and that "there is currently no military solution to Mariupol."

Russian troops accused of war crimes

Zelensky said early Sunday that the siege of Mariupol would go down in history for what he said were war crimes committed by Russian troops.

"To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come," he said in a video address to the nation.

Despite the siege in Mariupol, many remained struck by Ukraine's ability to hold back its much bigger, better-armed foe. The United Kingdom's Defence Ministry said Ukraine's airspace continued to be effectively defended.

"Gaining control of the air was one of Russia's principal objectives for the opening days of the conflict and their continued failure to do so has significantly blunted their operational progress," the ministry said on Twitter.

Rescuers carry a Ukrainian soldier saved from debris following a Russian rocket attack in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, on Saturday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

In Mykolaiv, rescuers searched the rubble of the marine barracks that was destroyed in an apparent missile attack Friday. The region's governor said the marines were asleep when the attack happened.

It isn't clear how many marines were inside the barracks when the missile struck and rescuers were still searching the rubble for survivors the following day. But a senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity to reveal sensitive information, estimated that as many as 40 marines were killed, which would make it one of the deadliest known attacks on Ukrainian forces of the war.

Zelensky calls for talks with Putin

Zelensky has remained defiant, appearing in a video early Saturday shot on the streets of the capital, Kyiv, to denounce a huge Friday rally in Moscow attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky said Russia is trying to starve Ukraine's cities into submission but warned that continuing the invasion would exact a heavy toll on Russia. He also repeated his call for Putin to meet with him to prevent more bloodshed.

"The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia's costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations," he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv early Saturday in this image from video. Zelensky said Russian forces are blockading the largest cities in Ukraine with the goal of creating such miserable conditions that Ukrainians will co-operate. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/The Associated Press)

Putin appeared Friday at a rally where he lavished praise on his country's military.

"We have not had unity like this for a long time," Putin told the cheering crowd.

The rally took place as Russia has faced heavier-than-expected losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home, where Russian police have detained thousands of anti-war protesters.

Russia says it deployed hypersonic missile

Estimates of Russian deaths vary widely, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands. Russia had 64 deaths in five days of fighting during its 2008 war with Georgia. It lost about 15,000 in Afghanistan over 10 years and more than 11,000 over years of fighting in Chechnya.

The Russian military said Saturday that it used its latest hypersonic missile for the first time in combat. Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Kinzhal missiles destroyed an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine.

Russia has said the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 2,000 kilometres and flies at 10 times the speed of sound.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Saturday the U.S. couldn't confirm the use of a hypersonic missile.

Hundreds of civilians killed

United Nations bodies have confirmed more than 902 civilian deaths since the war began on Feb. 24, though they concede the actual toll is likely much higher. The UN says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees; UNICEF says they include more than 1.5 million children.

The northwestern Kyiv suburbs of Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin and Moshchun were under fire Saturday, the Kyiv regional administration reported, and Slavutich, 165 kilometres north of the capital, was "completely isolated."

Evacuations from Mariupol and other besieged cities proceeded along eight of 10 humanitarian corridors, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, and a total of 6,623 people left.

Waiting to board a bus at a triage centre near the Moldova-Ukraine border on Saturday, a Ukrainian woman named Irina said she decided to leave home in Mykolaiv this week after a loud explosion shook the walls, waking her young daughter.

"Can you imagine the fear I had, not for me but for my child?" said Irina, who didn't provide her last name. "So we made decision to arrive here, but I don't know where we are going, where we'll stay."

People gather in a basement, used as a bomb shelter, during an air raid in Lviv on Saturday. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Vereshchuk said planned humanitarian aid for the southern city of Kherson, which Russia seized early in the war, could not be delivered because the trucks were stopped along the way by Russian troops.

Diplomatic efforts

Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations aimed at ending the conflict but remain divided over several issues, with Russia pressing for its neighbour's demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.

Putin spoke by phone Saturday for a second time this week with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. The Kremlin said Putin "outlined fundamental assessments of the course of the talks between Russian and Ukrainian representatives," while Bettel informed him about "contacts with the leadership of Ukraine and other countries."

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Putin of using the talks as a "smokescreen" while his forces regroup. "We don't see any serious withdrawal of Russian troops or any serious proposals on the table," she told the Times of London.

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U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a Saturday visit to NATO ally Bulgaria, said the Russian invasion had "stalled on a number of fronts" but that the U.S. had not yet seen signs that Putin was deploying additional forces.

Shelters bombed

Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked. At least 130 people survived the Wednesday bombing of a Mariupol theatre that was being used a shelter, but another 1,300 were believed to be still inside, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament's human rights commissioner, said Friday.

"We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them," Denisova told Ukrainian television.

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies released Saturday confirmed earlier reports that much of the theatre was destroyed. It also showed the word "CHILDREN" still written in Russian in large white letters outside the building.

This satellite image, taken Saturday, shows the aftermath of an airstrike on Mariupol's theatre. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

Southern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region announced a 38-hour curfew after two missile strikes killed nine people Friday.

Russian forces have fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine's national police said Saturday.

Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, and at least 37 residential buildings and facilities were damaged including a school, a museum and a shopping centre.

In the western city of Lviv, Ukraine's cultural capital, which was hit by Russian missiles on Friday, military veterans were training dozens of civilians on how to handle firearms and grenades.

"It's hard, because I have really weak hands, but I can manage it," said one trainee, 22-year-old Katarina Ishchenko.