By ELENA BECATOROS and JON GAMBRELL
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Dozens of Ukrainians were feared dead Sunday after a Russian bomb flattened a school sheltering about 90 people in its basement, while Ukrainian troops refused to surrender at a besieged steel plant that Moscow’s invading forces sped to seize before Russia’s Victory Day holiday.
The governor of Luhansk province, one of two areas that make up the eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas, said the school in the village of Bilohorivka caught fire after Saturday’s bombing. Emergency crews found two bodies and rescued 30 people, he said.
“Most likely, all 60 people who remain under the rubble are now dead,” Gov. Serhiy Haidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app. Russian shelling also killed two boys, ages 11 and 14, in the nearby town of Pryvillia, he said.
The largest European conflict since World War II has developed into a punishing war of attrition due to the Ukrainian military’s unexpectedly effective defense. Since failing to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Moscow’s forces have attacked cities, towns and villages in eastern and southern Ukraine but not gained much ground, according to Western military analysts.
To demonstrate success in time for Victory Day on Monday, the Russian military worked to complete its takeover of Mariupol, which has been under relentless assault since the start of the war. The sprawling seaside steel mill where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters made a last stand is the only part of the city not under Russian control.
All the remaining women, children and older civilians who were sheltering with the fighters in the Azovstal plant were evacuated Saturday. The Ukrainian troops rejected deadlines given by the Russians who said the defenders could leave with their lives if they laid down their arms.
Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian National Guard battalion holding the steel mill, told an online news conference Sunday that the site was targeted overnight by three fighter jet sorties, artillery and tanks.
“We are under constant shelling,” he said, adding that Russian infantry tried to storm the plant — a claim Russian officials denied in recent days – and to lay landmines.
Palamar said there was a “multitude of casualties” at the plant.
Lt. Illya Samoilenko, another member of the Azov Regiment, said there were a “couple of hundred” wounded soldiers at the plant, but he declined at the same news conference to reveal how many abled-body fighters also remained in the plant.
He described the situation as dire because they didn’t have life-saving equipment in their tunnels. He also said fighters had to dig out people by hand when some bunkers collapsed under the Russian shelling.
“The truth is, we are unique because no one expected we would last so long,” Samoilenko said. “Surrender for us is unacceptable because we cannot grant such a gift to the enemy.”
After rescuers evacuated the last civilians, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was trying to secure humanitarian corridors for residents of Mariupol and surrounding towns to leave.
The Ukrainian government has reached out to international organizations to try to secure safe passage for the fighters remaining in the plant’s underground tunnels and bunkers.
The Ukrainian leader was expected to hold online talks Sunday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden and leaders from other Group of Seven countries. The meeting is partly meant to display unity among Western allies on Victory in Europe Day, which marks Nazi Germany’s 1945 surrender.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a surprise visit to Irpin Sunday, which had been damaged by Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv at the start of the war, according to Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne and Irpin Mayor Olexander Markushyn.
Markushyn posted images of Trudeau on social media, saying that the Canadian leader was shocked by the damage he saw at civilian homes.
Canadian officials said the prime minister would meet with Zelenskyy and “reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people.”
Zelenskyy also met Sunday with the German parliament speaker, Bärbel Bas, in Kyiv to discuss further defense assistance as well as sanctions against Russia, according to Zelenskyy’s press office.
Trudeau is the latest Western leader to visit Ukraine to offer their support to the war-ravaged country. The prime ministers of the U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia traveled there earlier, as did the U.N.’s secretary-general.
U.S. first lady Jill Biden also made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine Sunday for a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with Zelenskyy’s wife, first lady Olena Zelenska. They visited a village school as Russia pressed its punishing war in the eastern regions.
Elsewhere, on Ukraine’s coast, explosions echoed again Sunday across the major Black Sea port of Odesa, which Russia struck with six cruise missiles on Saturday, while rocket fire damaged some 250 apartments, according to the city council.
Ukrainian leaders warned that attacks would only worsen in the lead-up to Victory Day, the May 9 holiday when Russia celebrates Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945 with military parades. Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to want to proclaim some kind of triumph in Ukraine when he addresses the troops on Red Square on Monday.
Zelenskyy released a video address Sunday marking the day of the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago, drawing parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the evils of Nazism.
The black-and-white video, published on social media, showed Zelenskyy standing in front of a ruined apartment block in Borodyanka, one of the Kyiv suburbs pummeled before Russian troops withdrew from the capital region weeks ago.
“Every year, on May 8, along with the whole civilized world, we pay our respects to everyone who defended the planet against Nazism during World War II,” Zelenskyy said, adding that prior generations of Ukrainians understood the significance of the words “Never again,” a phrase often used as a vow to never allow a repeat of the horrors of the Holoucaust.
“We knew the price our ancestors have paid for this wisdom. We knew how important it was to protect it and pass it on to our descendants. … But we hadn’t any notion that our generation will witness the abuse of these words,” he said.
In neighboring Moldova, Russian and separatists troops were on “full alert,” the Ukrainian military warned. The region has increasingly become a focus of worries that the conflict could expand beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Pro-Russian forces broke off the Transnistria section of Moldova in 1992, and around 1,500 Russian troops have been stationed there since, ostensibly as peacekeepers. Those forces are on “full combat readiness,” Ukraine said, without giving details on how it came to the assessment.
Vadim Krasnoselsky, the president of the unrecognized territory, denied those claims, saying it “does not pose a threat to neighboring states, observes neutrality and remains committed to the principle of resolving all issues at the negotiating table.”
Moscow has sought to sweep across southern Ukraine both to cut off the country from the Black Sea and to create a corridor to Transnistria. But it has struggled to achieve those objectives.
In a sign of the dogged resistance that has sustained the fighting into its 11th week, Ukraine’s military struck Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the war’s first days and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed Ukraine targeting Russian-held Snake Island in a bid to impede Russia’s efforts to control the sea.
A satellite image taken Sunday morning by Planet Labs PBC showed smoke rising from two sites on the island. On the island’s southern edge, a fire smoked next to debris. That corresponded to a video released by the Ukrainian military showing a strike on a Russian helicopter that had flown to the island.
The most intense combat in recent days has taken place in eastern Ukraine. A Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv, a city in the northeast that is the country’s second-largest, “is making significant progress and will likely advance to the Russian border in the coming days or weeks,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.
The Washington-based think tank added that “the Ukrainian counteroffensive demonstrates promising Ukrainian capabilities.”
However, the Ukrainian army withdrew from Luhansk province’s embattled city of Popasna, Haidai, the regional governor, said Sunday. In a video interview posted on his Telegram channel, Haidai said that Kyiv’s troops had “moved to stronger positions, which they had prepared ahead of time.”
Rodion Miroshnik, a representative of the pro-Kremlin, separatist Luhansk People’s Republic, said its forces and Russian troops had captured most of Popasna after two months of fierce fighting.
The Russia-backed rebels have established a breakaway region in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, which together make up Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas. Russia has targeted areas still under Ukrainian control.
One million residents in Luhansk, including those in separatist-held territory, were left without running water Sunday after Russian shelling damaged a local water utility, the region’s Ukrainian governor wrote on social media.
To the west in Dnipropetrovsk province, the governor said a 12-year-old boy was killed by a cluster munition that he found after a Russian attack. An international treaty bans the use of those kind of explosives, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed the agreement.
The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said the boy was the sixth local child killed by cluster munitions.
“This war is treacherous,” he wrote on social media. “It is near, even when it is invisible.”
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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