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Russia shifts some elite units from Mariupol to new battlegrounds in Ukraine

Russia shifted a dozen elite military units from the shattered port city of Mariupol to eastern Ukraine and pounded away at cities across the region, Ukrainian authorities said Friday, as the two sides hurtled toward what could be an epic battle for control of the country's industrial heartland.

Ukraine still contesting Mariupol, despite Russian president's claim of victory

Russia shifted a dozen elite military units from the shattered port city of Mariupol to eastern Ukraine and pounded away at cities across the region, Ukrainian authorities said Friday, as the two sides hurtled toward what could be an epic battle for control of the country's industrial heartland.

In Mariupol, reduced largely to smoking rubble by weeks of bombardment, Russian state TV showed the flag of the pro-Moscow Donetsk separatists raised on what it said was the city's highest point, its TV tower. It also showed what it said was the main building at Mariupol's besieged Azovstal steel plant in flames.

The Kremlin has thrown more than 100,000 troops and mercenaries from Syria and Libya into the fight in Ukraine and is deploying more forces in the country every day, said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council.

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"We have a difficult situation, but our army is defending our state," he said.

Russian forces pummeled an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters holed up inside the sprawling Azovstal plant, the last known pocket of resistance in the strategic southern port city, the mayor's office reported.

The Azovstal steel plant is seen in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

"Every day they drop several bombs on Azovstal," said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor. "Fighting, shelling, bombing do not stop."

A day earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the battle for Mariupol despite the steel-mill holdouts. He ordered his forces not to storm the plant to finish off the defenders, but to seal it off instead — an apparent bid to force them to surrender.

Mariupol has taken on an outsized importance in the war. Capturing it would deprive the Ukrainians of a vital port and would complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

It would also enable Putin to throw more of his forces into the potentially climactic battle for the Donbas and its coal mines, factories and other industries, or what the Kremlin has now declared to be its main objective.

Danilov reported that some 12 to 14 of Russia's elite military units have, in fact, left Mariupol and begun moving to the east to take part in the fighting there.

Damaged residential buildings and cars are seen in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

"It will now be difficult for our forces, because our guys in Mariupol were taking [those units] on themselves. It is their courage and feat," he said.

Danilov also said Kyiv was able to deliver weapons via helicopter, at great risk under cover of night, to the Mariupol steelworks, which have been bombarded for weeks.

Putin said Russia gave Ukrainian forces inside the plant the option to surrender, with guarantees to keep them alive, and offered "decent treatment and medical care," according to an account of a phone call with European Council President Charles Michel, provided by the Kremlin.

A resident walks past destroyed buildings in Mariupol. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

"But the Kyiv regime does not allow them to take this opportunity," Putin charged.

More than 100,000 people — down from a pre-war population of about 430,000 — are believed trapped in the city with little food, water or heat, and more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in the nearly two-month siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Repeated attempts to evacuate civilians from the city have failed because of what the Ukrainians said was continued Russian shelling.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said no humanitarian corridors for civilian evacuations would be open in Ukraine on Friday because it was too dangerous. She urged civilians to "be patient" and "hang in there."

Battle over east, south

Numerous cities and villages came under bombardment in the Donbas — the industrial region in the east that the Kremlin has declared the new, main theatre of war — as well as in the Kharkiv region just to the west, and in the south, authorities said.

Days into the Russian offensive to take the east, the campaign has yet to become a full-out assault, with military analysts saying Moscow's forces are still ramping up and have yet to achieve any major breakthroughs in the Donbas or gain any significant ground.

But shelling attacks killed three civilians in a small town and two villages on Friday in the Donetsk region, which is part of the Donbas, the regional governor posted on a messaging app. Pavlo Kyrylenko said the Russians opened fire on at least 20 settlements in the region.

Slovyansk, a city of about 100,000 in Eastern Ukraine, came under fire during the night, according to the mayor, who said no injuries were reported but urged residents to leave via bus convoy. In Rubizhne, Russian fire prevented attempts to bring buses in, the regional governor said.

Intensive shelling was also heard overnight in Kharkiv, a northeastern city that lies outside the Donbas but is seen as one of the gateways the Russians intend to use to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas from the north, south and east.

People walk near an apartment on fire after it was hit by Russian bombardment in Kharkiv on Friday. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, senior Russian military official Rustam Minnekayev publicly outlined Russian war aims that appeared to be wider than what the Kremlin has stated in recent weeks. Russia's forces aim to take full control of not just Eastern Ukraine, but southern too, he said.

He said such a move would open the way to the nation of Moldova, where Russia backs the breakaway region of Transnistria. The Moldovan government strongly criticized Minnekayev's comments.

In his nightly video address, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky warned: "The Russian invasion of Ukraine was assumed to be just the beginning; further, they want to grab other countries."

Moscow says 1 killed in flagship sinking

Russia now says one service member was killed and 27 others were left missing after the fire onboard the warship Moskva, which sank a week ago following what the Ukrainians boasted was a missile attack.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Friday that 396 others were rescued.

Shortly after the episode, the ministry said the entire crew of the ship, which was presumed by the media to be about 500 people, had been rescued. The ministry offered no explanation for the contradicting reports.

The loss of the guided missile cruiser — the flagship of Russia's Black Fleet — was a humiliating setback for Moscow.

Russia on Friday did not acknowledge an attack on the ship. It continued to say a fire broke out after ammunition detonated, without offering any details about what caused the detonation.

Peace talks 'ground to a halt'

In other developments, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks between the two countries have "ground to a halt" because Moscow hasn't received a response from Kyiv to its latest proposals, the details of which have not been released.

Putin's lead negotiator at the talks, Vladimir Medinsky, said he held several lengthy conversations Friday with the head of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no details.

Satellite photos released Friday by Maxar Technologies revealed what appeared to be a second mass grave site excavated recently near Mariupol. The site at a cemetery in the town of Vynohradne has several newly dug parallel trenches measuring about 40 metres long, Maxar said in a statement.

These before-and-after satellite images show an overview of a cemetery and expansion of new graves near Vynohradne, approximately 12 kilometers east of Mariupol on March 22 and April 15. (Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press)

A day earlier, Maxar made public satellite photos of what appeared to be rows upon rows of more than 200 freshly dug mass graves next to a cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol. That prompted Ukrainian accusations that the Russians are trying to conceal the slaughter of civilians in the city.

"This confirms again that the occupiers arrange the collection, burial and cremation of dead residents in every district of the city," Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor, said on the Telegram messaging app.

The Ukrainians estimated that the graves seen in the photos released on Thursday could hold 9,000 bodies. The Kremlin did not respond to the satellite pictures.

The UN Human Rights office again condemned the Russian invasion.

"Over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said.

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