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KYIV, Ukraine: Witnesses said multiple explosions believed to be caused by missiles hit the western Ukrainian city of Lviv early Monday as the country braced for a widespread Russian assault in ballast.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to “fight absolutely to the end” in strategically vital Mariupol, where the crumbling port city’s last known pocket of resistance was locked in a sprawling steelworks intertwined with tunnels.
Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine were less affected by the fighting than other parts of the country, and the city was considered a relatively safe haven.
Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said on Facebook that five missiles hit the city and emergency services were responding to the blasts. He said more details would follow.
With missiles and rockets hitting various parts of the country, Zelensky accused Russian soldiers of torture and kidnappings in areas they control.
The fall of Mariupol, which was reduced to rubble after a seven-week siege, would give Moscow its greatest victory of the war. But a few thousand fighters, according to Russian estimates, were clinging to the giant 11-square-kilometre (4-square-mile) Azovstal steelworks.
“We will fight absolutely to the end, to victory, in this war,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal promised Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program. He said Ukraine was ready to end the war through diplomacy if possible, “but we have no intention of surrendering.”
Many Mariupol civilians, including children, also took refuge at the Azovstal plant, Mikhail Vershinin, head of the city’s police patrol, told Mariupol TV. He said they are hiding from Russian bombings and Russian soldiers.
Capturing the city on the Sea of ​​Azov would free up Russian troops for a new offensive aimed at taking control of the Donbass region in Ukraine’s industrial east. Russia would also fully secure a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, depriving Ukraine of a major port and valuable industrial assets.
Russia is determined to capture Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory, after its failed attempt to take the capital, kyiv.
“We are doing everything to ensure the defense” of eastern Ukraine, Zelensky said in his nightly address to the nation.
As for beleaguered Mariupol, there seemed little hope of military rescue by Ukrainian forces any time soon. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were essentially surrounded. He said they were “continuing their struggle”, but the city effectively no longer existed because of the massive destruction.
Relentless shelling and street fighting in Mariupol has killed at least 21,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates. A maternity hospital was hit by a deadly Russian airstrike in the first weeks of the war, and around 300 people were reportedly killed in the bombardment of a theater where civilians had taken refuge.
About 100,000 people remained in the city out of a pre-war population of 450,000, trapped without food, water, heat or electricity.
Drone footage transmitted by Russian news agency RIA-Novosti on Sunday showed miles and miles of shattered buildings and, on the outskirts of the city, the steel complex, from which towering plumes of smoke.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine”.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have carried out airstrikes near kyiv and elsewhere in an apparent effort to weaken Ukraine’s military capability ahead of the planned assault on Donbass.
After the humiliating sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet last week in what Ukrainians claimed was a missile attack, the Kremlin pledged to step up strikes on the capital.
Russia said on Sunday it had attacked a munitions factory near kyiv overnight with precision-guided missiles, the third such strike in as many days. Explosions were also reported in Kramatorsk, the eastern city where rockets earlier this month killed at least 57 people at a train station crowded with civilians trying to evacuate ahead of the Russian offensive.
At least five people were killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, on Sunday, regional officials said. The dam hit apartment buildings. The streets were littered with broken glass and other debris.
Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov, in an impassioned speech marking Orthodox Palm Sunday, lambasted Russian forces for not halting the bombing campaign on such a holy day.
Zelensky called the Kharkiv bombing “nothing but deliberate terror”.
In his nightly address to the nation, Zelensky also called for a stronger response to what he said was brutality by Russian troops in parts of southern Ukraine.
“Torture chambers are built there,” he said. “They are kidnapping local government officials and anyone considered visible to local communities.”
He again urged the world to send more weapons and apply tougher sanctions against Moscow.
Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said the Russians were pounding Mariupol with airstrikes and could prepare for an amphibious landing to reinforce their ground troops.
The impending offensive in the east, if successful, would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory to sell to the Russian people amid mounting war casualties and economic hardship caused by Western sanctions.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who met Putin in Moscow last week – the first European leader to do so since the February 24 invasion – said the Russian president was “in his own logic of war” against Ukraine . In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Nehammer said he thinks Putin believes he’s winning the war, and “we have to look him in the eye and we have to confront him with what we see in Ukraine”.
Zelensky also celebrated Easter on Sunday, saying on Twitter, “The resurrection of the Lord is a testimony to the victory of life over death, of good over evil.”