Russian forces have pushed deeper into Ukraine’s besieged and battered port city of Mariupol where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more help.
The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, would mark a crucial battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside key cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II.
“Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said on Saturday from a rubble-strewn street in a video addressed to Western leaders.
Russian forces have already cut the city off from the Sea of Azov, and its fall would link Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in the east.
“[There is] street fighting in the city centre,” Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, was quoted as saying by the BBC.
“There are tanks… and artillery shelling, and all kinds of weapons fired in the area. Our forces are doing everything they can to hold their positions in the city but the forces of the enemy are larger than ours, unfortunately.
“There isn’t a small piece of land in the city that doesn’t have signs of war,” he said.
Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Saturday.
“One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol’s defenders were already struggling against “the overwhelming force of the enemy” or at least 100km (60 miles) away.
“There is currently no military solution to Mariupol,” he said late on Friday. “That is not only my opinion, that is the opinion of the military.”
Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelenskyy has remained defiant, appearing in a video early on Saturday shot on the streets of the capital Kyiv to denounce a huge rally a day earlier in Moscow that Russian President Vladimir Putin attended.
Zelenskyy said Russia is trying to starve Ukraine’s cities into submission but warned that continuing the invasion would exact a heavy toll on Russia.
He also repeated his call for Putin to meet with him to prevent more bloodshed.
“The time has come to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia’s costs will be so high that you will not be able to rise again for several generations,” he said.
UN bodies have confirmed more than 847 civilian deaths since the war began, though they concede the actual toll is likely much higher. The UN said more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.