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Russian troops were said to have entered the vast Azovstal steel mill in the besieged port city where around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, as well as 200 civilians including children, are reported to be inside an underground labyrinth of bunkers and corridors.
Two weeks ago, the Russian president stopped the attack on the plant, the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the largely destroyed city, and ordered his generals to instead surround it so not even a “fly” could get in.
But Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army, told Sky News on Thursday morning: “They have now come to the conclusion that they have got to have some form of victory to celebrate on Monday.
“It would appear that they have now resumed a direct attack on the steelworks in order to try to snuff out the remaining part of the resistance there so that they can claim on Monday that they have captured Mariupol and therefore they have completed their land corridor from Crimea through the Donbas into Russia proper.”
May 9 is a key date in the Russian military calendar as it marks the Nazis’ surrender in the Second World War and an annual parade is held through Moscow’s Red Square.
Lord Dannatt also believes that Mr Putin may parade Ukrainians prisoners of war through Moscow on Monday.
There are also warnings that he could order a mass mobilisation to turn his “special military operation” in Ukraine into a full-scale war, with an estimated 15,000 Russian troops having already been killed since the invasion started on February 24.
Ukrainian forces said they are fighting “difficult bloody battles” against Russian troops inside the Azovstal steelworks.
“I am proud of my soldiers who are making superhuman efforts to contain the pressure of the enemy... the situation is extremely difficult,” Denis Prokopenko, the commander of the Azov regiment, said in a video message posted on Telegram. A senior Russian official earlier denied that troops were storming the plant.
“There is no assault,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
But the Ukrainian general staff in Kyiv said: “With the support of aircraft, the enemy resumed the offensive in order to take control of the plant... trying to destroy Ukrainian units.”
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said that Russian forces were targeting the plant with artillery, tanks, aircraft, warships and “heavy bombs that pierce concrete three to five meters thick”. He added: “Our brave guys are defending this fortress, but it is very difficult.”
The United Nations and Red Cross evacuated more than 300 people from Mariupol and other areas this week.
Russia vowed to pause military activity at Azovstal to allow civilians to get out, though previously such offers have collapsed. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said his military stood ready to support a ceasefire in Mariupol.
“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters,” he said.
To the west of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces made some gains on the border of the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv, where Russian troops were reportedly trying to launch a counter-offensive, and repelled 11 Russian attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the military said.
Five people were killed and at least 25 more wounded in shelling of several eastern cities over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of “resorting to the missile terrorism tactics in order to spread fear across Ukraine”. The invasion has killed at least 221 children, said Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office.