By ELENA BECATOROS, OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN
POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s defense chief says the country’s forces have taken full control of the steel plant in Mariupol that was the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
That would mark the end of a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of Mariupol to ruins and left over 20,000 people feared dead.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin on Friday that the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol has been “completely liberated” from Ukrainian fighters.
There is no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — The West moved to pour billions more in aid into Ukraine on Friday, as Russia shifted troops freed up by the imminent fall of the pulverized city of Mariupol and fighting raged in the country’s industrial heartland in the east.
Russian forces shelled a vital highway and kept up attacks on a key city in the Luhansk region, hitting a school among other sites, Ukrainian authorities said. Luhansk is part of the Donbas, the mostly Russian-speaking eastern expanse of coal mines and factories that Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on capturing.
“The liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic is nearing completion,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared, referring to the breakaway state proclaimed by pro-Moscow separatists in 2014 and recognized by the Kremlin.
In Mariupol, the strategic port in the southern corner of the Donbas, Russian troops worn down by their nearly three-month siege of the city may not get the time they need to regroup, Britain’s Defense Ministry said.
With the battle winding down for the Azovstal steel plant that represented the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, Russia is continuing to pull back forces there, and their commanders are under pressure to quickly send them elsewhere in the Donbas, according to the British.
“That means that Russia will probably redistribute their forces swiftly without adequate preparation, which risks further force attrition,” the ministry said.
An undisclosed number of Ukrainian soldiers remained at the Azovstal steel plant. Russia said more than 1,900 had surrendered in recent days. Also remaining at the plant were the bodies of soldiers who defended it while tying down Russian forces.
Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of the plant, called them “fallen heroes.”
“I hope soon relatives and the whole of Ukraine will be able to bury the fighters with honors,” he said.
Wives of fighters who held out at the steelworks spoke emotionally about what may have been their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she said that her husband had written her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.”
Natalia Zaritskaya, wife of another fighter at Azovstal, said that based on the messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on the path from hell to hell. Every inch of this path is deadly.”
She said that two days ago, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers with whom he had served, only eight survived, most of them seriously wounded.
In other developments:
— The Group of Seven major economies and global financial institutions agreed to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s finances, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the U.S., President Joe Biden was expected to sign a $40 billion package of military and economic aid to Ukraine and its allies.
— Russia will cut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday, the Finnish state energy company said, just days after Finland applied to join NATO. Finland had refused Moscow’s demand that it pay for gas in rubles. The cutoff is not expected to have any major immediate effect. Natural gas accounted for just 6% of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020, Finnish broadcaster YLE said.
— A captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian awaited his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, could get life in prison.
Meanwhile, fighting intensified deeper in the Donbas.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, said Russian forces were especially focused on the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, the only road for evacuating people and delivering humanitarian supplies.
“The road is extremely important because it’s the only connection to other regions of the country,” he said via email. “The Russians are trying to cut us off from it, to encircle the Luhansk region.”
Russian forces shelled the road constantly from multiple directions, but Ukrainian armored transports were still able to get through, Haidai added.
Moscow’s troops have been trying for weeks to seize Severodonetsk, a key city in the Donbas. One of Friday’s attacks was on a school in Severodonetsk that was sheltering more than 200 people, many of them children, Haidai said. Three adults were killed, he said on Telegram.
Twelve people were killed in Severodonetsk, Haidai said. It was not immediately clear if that included the three at the school. In addition, more than 60 houses were destroyed across the region, he added.
Russian forces now control 90 percent of Luhansk, but the attack on Severodonetsk failed — “the Russians suffered personnel losses and retreated,” Haidai said. His account could not be independently verified.
Another city, Rubizhne, has been “completely destroyed,” Haidai said. “Its fate can be compared to that of Mariupol.”
Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for the past eight years and held a considerable swath of it before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. But the effort by Putin’s troops to take more territory there has been slow-going.
In a sign of Russia’s frustration with the war, some senior commanders have been fired in recent weeks, Britain’s Defense Ministry said.
Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine continued to blast away at targets, some of them civilian.
In the village of Velyka Kostromka, west of the Donbas, explosions in the middle of the night Thursday shook Iryna Martsyniuk’s house to its foundations. Roof timbers splintered and windows shattered, sending shards of glass into a wall near three sleeping children.
“There were flashes everywhere,” she said. “There was smoke everywhere.” She grabbed the children and ran toward the home’s entrance, “but the corridor wasn’t there anymore. Instead, we saw the starry night.”
They ran down the road to a neighbor’s home, where they hid in the basement.
Around 20 other houses were damaged and two people were lightly wounded, said Olha Shaytanova, head of the village.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
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