KYIV: Russian missile strikes hit Ukraine's capital Kyiv and other cities on Saturday (Apr 16), as Moscow said that its troops had cleared the urban area of Mariupol, and that only a small contingent of Ukrainian fighters remained inside a steelworks in the besieged southern port.
Russia's claim to have all but taken control of Mariupol, the scene of the war's heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, could not be independently verified. It would be the first major city to have fallen to Russian forces since the Feb 24 invasion.
"The situation is very difficult" in Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal. "Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis ... Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves."
As Russia launched more long-range attacks following the sinking of its Black Sea fleet's flagship, Moscow said that its warplanes had struck a tank repair factory in Kyiv.
An explosion was heard and smoke rose over the south-eastern Darnytskyi district. The mayor said that at least one person was killed and medics were fighting to save others.
The Ukrainian military said that Russian warplanes that took off from Belarus had fired missiles at the Lviv region near the Polish border and that four cruise missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defences.
The western city has been relatively unscathed so far, and serves as a haven for refugees and international aid agencies.
In the port city of Mariupol, Reuters journalists in Russian-held districts reached the Ilyich steelworks, one of two metals plants where defenders have held out in underground tunnels and bunkers. Moscow claimed to have captured it on Friday.
The factory was reduced to a ruin of twisted steel and blasted concrete, with no sign of defenders present. Several bodies of civilians lay scattered on nearby streets, including a woman in a pink parka and white shoes.
Someone had spraypainted "mined" on a fence by an obliterated filling station. In a rare sign of life, one red car drove slowly down an otherwise empty street, the word "children" scrawled on a card taped to the windshield.
The Russian Defence Ministry said that its troops had "completely cleared" Mariupol's urban area of Ukrainian forces and blockaded the "remnants" in the Azovstal steelworks, RIA news agency said.
It said that as of Saturday, Ukrainian forces in the city had lost more than 4,000 people, RIA added.
Later on Saturday, Zelenskyy accused Russia of "deliberately trying to destroy everyone" in Mariupol and said that his government was in touch with the defenders. But he did not address Moscow's claim that Ukrainian forces were no longer in urban districts.
The governor of Kharkiv province in the east said that at least one person had been killed and 18 injured in a missile strike.
Smoke billowed from burning cars and the remains of what appeared to be an office building at the scene of an attack in the city as rescuers cleared mounds of debris that blocked the road outside.
In Mykolaiv, a city close to the southern front, Russia said that it had struck a military vehicle repair factory.
The attacks followed Russia's announcement on Friday that it would intensify long-range strikes in retaliation for unspecified acts of "sabotage" and "terrorism", hours after it confirmed the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.
Kyiv and Washington say the ship, whose sinking has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance, was hit by Ukrainian missiles. Moscow says it sank after a fire and that its crew of around 500 were evacuated.
Russia's Defence Ministry published video of the head of the navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, meeting on a parade ground with about a hundred sailors it said were members of the crew.
A month and a half into President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Russia is trying to capture territory in the south and east after withdrawing from the north following an assault on Kyiv that was repelled in the capital's outskirts.
Russian troops that pulled out of the north left behind towns littered with bodies of civilians, evidence of what United States President Joe Biden this week called genocide - an attempt to erase Ukrainian national identity.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says that the aim of its "special military operation" is to disarm its neighbour, defeat nationalists and protect separatists in the south-east.
"MARIUPOL WILL ALWAYS BE UKRAINE"
If Mariupol falls, it would be Russia's biggest prize of the war so far. It is the main port of the Donbas, a region of two provinces in the south-east which Moscow demands be fully ceded to separatists.
The owner of both of the giant steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, vowed to rebuild the city. "Mariupol has been and will always be a Ukrainian city," Akhmetov told Reuters.
Ukraine says it has so far held off Russian advances elsewhere in the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where at least one person was killed in shelling overnight.
In the frontline Luhansk town of Lysychansk, civilians crouched and then fled for safety from incoming shells as thick smoke rose from a blackened shop and burned-out cars.
Ukraine gained the upper hand in the early phase of the war, in part by successfully deploying mobile units armed with anti-tank missiles supplied by the West against Russian armoured convoys confined to roads by muddy terrain.
But Putin appears determined to capture more Donbas territory to claim victory in a war that has left Russia subject to increasingly punitive Western sanctions and with few allies.
The Ukrainian military command in the east of the country, where Kyiv says it expects a major assault, said in a Facebook post that it had repelled 10 attacks on Saturday, destroying 15 tanks, 24 other armoured vehicles and three artillery systems. Reuters could not independently verify the report.
Zelenskyy told Ukrainian reporters that the world should prepare "in a number of ways" for the possibility that Russia might use nuclear weapons. He did not give evidence for the assertion.
Last month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons only in the case of a "threat to the existence" of the country - and not as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
An adviser to Zelenskyy said that the country needed a swifter supply of weapons from its European Union partners. "Ukraine needs weapons. Not in a month. Now," Mykhailo Podolyak said in a Twitter post.
The Russian Defence Ministry said that its anti-aircraft systems in the Odessa region shot down a Ukrainian transport plane delivering weapons supplied by Western governments. It did not provide any evidence. There was no immediate comment from Kyiv.
Zelenskyy said that about 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed so far, and up to 20,000 Russian troops.
Moscow has given no updates on its casualties since Mar 25, when it said that 1,351 had died. Western estimates of Russian losses are many times higher, while there are few independent estimates of Ukraine's losses.
Ukraine says that civilian deaths are impossible to count, estimating that at least 20,000 have been killed in Mariupol alone.
Overall, around a quarter of Ukrainians have been driven from their homes, including a tenth of the population that has fled abroad.