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Russia ‘restarts bombing’ of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks where thousands of civilians are sheltering



Ukraine has accused Russia of resuming air strikes on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, days after Vladimir Putin said he had ordered troops not to storm the plant.

Oleksiy Arestovych, Ukraine’s presidential adviser, said on Saturday morning that the Kremlin was “trying to finally suppress the resistance of Mariupol’s defenders in the Azovstal steelworks, which has become the last stronghold for defenders of the region.

“They resumed air strikes on the territory of the plant, on the defense lines of our troops and are attempting to carry out assault operations,” he said in an address to the nation.

Mr Arestovych added that Ukrainian troops in the industrial site were “holding on” and had even launched counterattacks against Russia.

Ukraine also accused Russia of launching airstrikes on the southern port city of Odesa, in an apparent renewed attack along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

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More than 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and as many as 1,000 civilians remain holed up in a vast network of underground passages and bunkers inside the Azovstal plant.

Putin earlier this week said he had ordered the military to call off an assault on the steelworks, claiming that Russia had “liberated” Mariupol.

The Russian leader said he had instructed Sergei Shoigu, the Kremlin’s defence minister, to blockade the industrial plant so that not even “a fly” could pass unnoticed. He said that anyone who surrendered would be treated well.

Ukraine has resisted the calls, with President Volodmyr Zelensky vowing that his troops would not give in to Mr Putin’s demands.

Ukrainian troops and leaders from the Azov battalion sheltering inside the steelworks have instead called for an international evacuation effort, warning that they may be facing their “last days, if not hours”.

It comes as Ukrainian officials released a video this morning showing life inside the Azovstal steel plant for thousands of civilians.

Women and children told how they were running out of food and water after almost two months underground. One child can be heard in the video saying that she hasn’t “seen the sun or sky” for almost eight weeks.

“On 27 February, my mother, my grandmother and I left our house,” she said. “We want to get out of here very much. We want it to be safe for us, so no-one is hurt, and then live in safety.”

Viktor Macha, an industrial photographer who documented the Azovstal plant in 2016, told i that life inside the “cold, dark, dusty” steelworks would be a living “nightmare” for those trapped there.

“It’s a very industrial environment. It’s certainly nowhere you’d like to bring your wife and kids,” he said.

Sergei Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, warned that civilians in the industrial site, including the families of steelworkers and Mariupol fighters, needed urgent supplies.

“They have an absolute lack of everything. A lack of water, food, medicines, help, and Russia totally blocks everything, any humanitarian help or evacuation,” he said.

The Azovstal plant was originally constructed in the early Soviet era and was later rebuilt after being destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Mariupol in the 1940s.

It now stretches four square miles along the city’s waterfront, making it one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe, and is designed to withstand a nuclear assault.

Yan Gagin, an adviser with the pro-Moscow separatist group the Donetsk People’s Republic, said last week that Russian forces were facing difficulty seizing the site because it was “basically a city under a city”.

Russia was thought to have called off plans to storm Mariupol’s steelworks in order to redeploy troops elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, as the battle for Donbas rages on.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence said that initial plans to take the industrial plant by force would have been likely to result in “significant Russian casualties” that would “further decrease their overall combat effectiveness”.

President Putin is understood to have shifted a dozen crack military units from Mariupol to eastern Ukraine in recent days.

The move had initially raised hopes of improved evacuation prospects for the estimated 100,000 civilians still trapped in Mariupol without food, water, heating or electricity.

However, humanitarian corridors may have been hampered by renewed shelling around the Azovstal plant.

Evacuations from the besieged city were due to restart at 9am GMT today. It is not known whether they have been successful. Ukraine has previously been forced to call off evacuation efforts because of Russian shelling along humanitarian corridors.

Russia was also accused of launching missile strikes on the southern port city of Odesa on Saturday, disrupting Easter celebrations for Orthodox Christians. Five people were reportedly killed in the attack, including a three-month-old infant.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Russia launched at least six missiles on the southern port city on Saturday. He said Ukrainian forces were able to shoot down several missiles but at least one landed and exploded.

Locals reported being forced to leave behind their Easter celebrations and head to nearby bomb shelters as air raid sirens rang out across the city.

Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba said the missile strike, which is thought to have hit a residential building, was an attempt to stoke “terror”.

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