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An armoured vehicle drives through Mariupol during fighting in the Ukraine-Russia conflict in this April 12 2022 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO
An armoured vehicle drives through Mariupol during fighting in the Ukraine-Russia conflict in this April 12 2022 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO

Russian forces fired rockets at a besieged steel works in Ukraine’s southern port city of Mariupol under thick black smoke. Officials say 200 civilians are trapped at the plant despite evacuations.

Russia’s offensive to capture Ukraine’s east and south after failing to take the capital of Kyiv has prompted commitments by Western powers to supply heavier weapons to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the European Commission is expected to finalise a ban on buying Russian oil in an effort to squeeze Moscow’s war chest.

The US Congress is considering a $33bn military aid package, and the UK this week vowed an additional $375m in defence assistance.

Reuters images showed volleys of rockets fired from a Russian truck-mounted launcher towards the sprawling Soviet-era steel complex from the outskirts of Russian-occupied Mariupol on Monday.

The attack followed a UN-brokered ceasefire around the complex that enabled groups of civilians to escape Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian fighters in recent days. It was not immediately clear if new fighting was preventing more evacuations.

Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said he hoped a first column of evacuees would reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. More civilians are trapped in bunkers and tunnels under the complex. and about 100,000 remain in the rest of the city, he said.

“You wake up in the morning and you cry. You cry in the evening. I don’t know where to go at all,” said Mariupol resident Tatyana Bushlanova, sitting at a blackened apartment block and talking over the sound of shells exploding nearby.

Mariupol is a major target for Russia as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and connect Russian-controlled territory in the south and east.

Russian bombardments since troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 have flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 5-million to flee the country.

The war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted to the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which were already held by Russian-backed separatists.

Russia’s troops are trying to surround a big Ukrainian force there, attacking from three directions with a bombardment on the front. Russia says its actions in Ukraine are  “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists.

Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is unprovoked aggression. Western allies of Ukraine have stepped up supplies of increasingly heavy weapons.

Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska asked the West to maintain its support. We ask you not to stop, to accelerate the pace of heavy weapons provision,” she said on British television, adding that she had not seen the president since the start of the invasion.

Pope Francis said in an interview published on Tuesday that he asked for a meeting in Moscow with Putin to try to stop the war, but had no response. French President Emmanuel Macron's office said he will speak with Putin on Tuesday.

EU sanctions

In Brussels, the European Commission is expected to finalise a proposed sixth package of EU sanctions against Russia on Tuesday, including possibly an  embargo on buying Russian oil. In a major shift, Germany said it is prepared to back an immediate oil embargo.

Kyiv says Russia’s energy exports to Europe, so far largely exempt from international sanctions, are funding the Kremlin war effort.

“This package should include clear steps to block Russia’s revenues from energy resources,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.

EU countries have paid more than €47bn to Russia for gas and oil since it invaded Ukraine, according to research organisation the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Ambassadors from EU countries will discuss the proposed sanctions when they meet on Wednesday. Putin responded with retaliatory economic sanctions against “unfriendly” foreign states on Tuesday.

The pope said that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had told him Russia planned to end the war on May 9, which Russia celebrates as “Victory Day”, marking Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this week that Moscow would not rush to meet that symbolic date.

Trail of destruction 

Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, was under bombardment, as it has been since the early days of the invasion, the Ukrainian military said on Tuesday.

Giving an update on the battle front, Ukraine’s general staff said its forces are  defending the approach to Kharkiv from Izyum, a town on Donets River, about 120km to the southeast, as the enemy left a trail of destruction in Luhansk province.

Other areas of Donetsk are under constant fire. Regional officials are trying to evacuate civilians from frontline areas. Russian shelling killed at least three civilians in the town of Vuhledar, said the Ukrainian president’s office.

The Ukraine military said Russian forces were trying to take the front-line town of Rubizhne. Reuters could not verify Ukraine’s battlefield accounts independently.

Heavy clashes were taking place around Popasna in Luhansk. Shelling was so intense that bodies cannot be recovered, said regional governor Serhiy Gaidai.

​“I don’t even want to speak about what’s happening with the people living in Popasna, Rubizhne and Novotoshkivske right now. These cities simply don’t exist any more. They have completely destroyed them.”

Reuters

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