By Reuters and published by Financial Post
Kyiv – Russian forces bombarded areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region from land and air on Friday, destroying houses in residential districts and killing a number of civilians, Ukrainian officials said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the assaults had turned the Donbas into “hell.”
In the southern port city of Mariupol, scene of the war’s bloodiest siege, the last heavily wounded fighters from hold-out Ukrainian units had been evacuated from their bastion, the Azovstal steelworks, their commander said.
It was not clear if the remaining defenders there had definitively laid down their arms.
The Kremlin meanwhile said it was bolstering its forces on Russia’s western border, saying that moves by Finland and Sweden to join Nato were part of an increase in military threats.
As the war neared its three-month mark, the Ukrainian military said massive artillery barrages, including from multiple rocket-launchers, had hit civilian infrastructure in the Donbas region bordering Russia.
Russian aircraft had also struck targets, the general staff said in a statement.
“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said via his Telegram channel.
Earlier reports had put the civilian death toll in the Luhansk area of the Donbas at 13 in the past day, with 12 of them in Sievierodonetsk, which lies on a river about 110 km (70 miles) northwest of the regional capital.
“The Donbas is completely destroyed,” President Zelenskiy said on Thursday night. “It is hell there – and that is not an exaggeration.”
Reuters could not independently verify the reports and Russia denies targeting civilians.
In Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would be completed soon.
An industrial region, Donbas comprises the Donetsk and Luhansk areas, parts of which were already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists before the war. Shoigu said Russian troops and separatist militias were expanding their control there.
In the weeks of warfare pitting Russia’s military might against dogged Ukrainian resistance, thousands of people have been killed and whole urban areas shattered in the gravest crisis in Europe in decades.
Almost a third of Ukraine’s people have fled their homes, including more than 6 million who have left the country, while others remain trapped in cities pulverised by Russian bombardments.
Analysts say that while Russian forces have advanced in Luhansk, they have made less progress in Donetsk. They have also been pushed back from the city of Kharkiv, north of the Donbas and close to the Russian border.
British military intelligence said on Friday Russia is likely to further reinforce its operations in the Donbas once it finally secures Mariupol – scene of a weeks-long siege and Moscow’s biggest success in a campaign of mixed fortunes.
Putin calls the invasion a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists – an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
In a sign of Russia’s need to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider a bill to allow Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to sign up for the military.
British military intelligence said as many as 1,700 soldiers were likely to have surrendered at the plant. Russian Defence Minister Shoigu put the number of those laying down their arms at about 2,000.
Ukrainian officials, who have tried to arrange a prisoner swap, have declined to comment on the number, saying it could endanger rescue efforts.
The commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment said on Friday all civilians and wounded Ukrainian fighters had now been evacuated from Azovstal.
“The heavily wounded received the necessary assistance and they were evacuated, to be later exchanged and delivered to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Commander Denys Prokopenko said in a video message.
The process of removing the dead was still under way.
“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honour,” Prokopenko said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of prisoners from Azovstal now held by Russia, but it has not given a precise number.
The Group of Seven rich nations on Thursday agreed to provide Ukraine with $18.4 billion to make up revenues as the war wrecks its economy.
The US Senate approved nearly $40 billion in new aid, by far the largest US aid package to date.
The White House is also working to get advanced anti-ship missiles to Ukraine to help defeat Russia’s naval blockade, which has largely stopped Ukraine’s food exports.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using food as a weapon, holding “hostage” supplies for millions around the world. The war has caused global prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel and fertiliser to soar.
The European Union said it is looking into ways of using the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, while the United States has not ruled out possibly placing sanctions on countries that purchase Russian oil.
Top: A soldier of the National Guard of Ukraine holds a weapon during a tactical training, as the Russian invasion in Ukraine continues, in the Transcarpathian region, Ukraine, on May 19, 2022. Photo: Reuters and published by Indian Express
First insert: Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, sit in a bus upon their arrival under escort of the pro-Russian military in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine on May 20, 2022. Photo: Reuters and published by the Indian Express
Second insert: Destruction in Severodonetsk, Ukraine, on May 19. Photo: Serhii Hayday/Telegram and published by CNN
Third insert: A Ukrainian soldier with a mortar team in the village of Pytomnyk, outside Kharkiv, fires on a Russian position 3km away. Photo: NYTIMES and published by The Straits Times
Fourth insert: Amidst the war, as homes are bombed and lives lost, residents are trying to find moments of normalcy. Local resident Anatolii Virko plays a piano outside a house likely damaged after a Russian bombing in Velyka Kostromka village, Ukraine on May 19, 2022. Photo: AP and published by Indian Express
Home Page: A destroyed Russian tank in the village of Mala Rogan in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on May 16. Photo: Aziz Karimov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images and published by CNN
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder in Kyiv and a Reuters journalist in Mariupol; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Stephen Coates and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)