Russia unleashes rockets after Mariupol cease, EU eyes oil sanctions

Russia launched an attack on the encircled Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, Ukraine’s last redoubt in the port city, after a ceasefire broke down on Tuesday with some 200 civilians trapped underground despite a UN-brokered evacuation.

In a Telegram video, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment said that Russia pounded the steel works with naval and barrel fire through the night and dropped heavy bombs from planes.

Reuters could not independently verify his account. However, Reuters images on Monday showed volleys of rockets fired from a Russian truck-mounted launcher towards Azovstal, a sprawling Soviet-era steel works.

“As of this moment, a powerful assault on the territory of the Azovstal plant is under way with the support of armoured vehicles, tanks, attempts to land on boats and a large number of infantry,” Palamar said. He added that two civilians were killed and 10 injured, without providing evidence.

Russia has turned its fire power on Ukraine’s east and south after failing to take the capital of Kyiv in the north in March. The offensive has been met with commitments by Western powers for tougher sanctions as well as supplies of heavier weapons to Ukraine, including air defense systems and long-range artillery.

On Tuesday, the European Commission was expected to finalise a ban on buying Russian oil in an effort to squeeze Moscow’s war chest. The US Congress is considering a $33 billion military aid package, and the United Kingdom this week vowed an additional $375 million in defense assistance.

“This is Ukraine’s finest hour, (one) that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in an address to Ukraine’s parliament via videolink. He was channelling the words spoken by Winston Churchill in 1940 when Britain faced the threat of being invaded and defeated by Nazi Germany.

Russia’s defense ministry said Ukrainian forces had used the ceasefire at Azovstal to establish new firing positions, and that Russia-backed forces were now “beginning to destroy” those positions.

Further west along the Black Sea coast, high-precision missiles struck an airfield near the port of Odesa where advanced drones and ammunition supplied to Ukraine by the United States and European allies were stored, according to Russia’s defense ministry. Ukraine confirmed a missile strike in Odesa.

The war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24 is also heavily focused on the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which have been held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Russia’s troops are trying to encircle a large Ukrainian force there, attacking from three directions with massive bombardment along the front.

Pope Francis said in an interview published on Tuesday that he had asked for a meeting in Moscow with Putin to try to stop the war but had not received a response. Putin French told President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday that he was still open to dialogue with Kiev.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Putin’s policies were imperialistic, and that he would support Finland and Sweden if they decided to join NATO, as each is now considering.

“No one can assume that the Russian president and government will not on other occasions break international law with violence,” Scholz said.

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

Russia calls its actions a “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 an unprovoked act of aggression.

Mariupol

The fighting at Azovstal followed a ceasefire around the complex that allowed several groups of civilians to escape Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian fighters in recent days.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said he hoped a first column of evacuees would reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday, adding that more civilians were trapped in bunkers and tunnels under the complex and some 100,000 remained in the rest of the city.

“We will do everything possible to repel this assault…We call for immediate action to evacuate civilians from the plant’s grounds and transport them safely to Zaporizhzhia and Ukrainian-controlled territory,” Palamar said.

A Ukrainian woman evacuee from Mariupol reacts after arriving at a registration center for internally displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (REUTERS)

Under almost constant bombardment for months, Mariupol is a major target for Russia as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the sea and connect Russian-controlled territory in the south and east.

“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 by a blackened apartment block and talking over the sound of shells exploding nearby.

Some other parts of Donetsk were under fire and regional authorities were trying to evacuate civilians from frontline areas, the Ukrainian president’s office said.

Russian shelling killed at least nine civilians in Donetsk on Tuesday, the regional governor said. Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were trying to take the frontline town of Rubizhne.

Reuters could not independently verify Ukraine’s battlefield.

People take part in a rally demanding international leaders to organize a humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of Ukrainian military and civilians from Mariupol, in central Kyiv, Ukraine. (REUTERS)

EU set to shun Russian oil

In Brussels, the European Commission was expected to approve a sixth proposed package of sanctions, including a possible embargo on Russian oil. In a major shift, Germany said it was 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,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

EU countries have paid more than 47 billion euros ($47.43 billion) to Russia for gas and oil since it invaded Ukraine, according to the research organization the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

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

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