KYIV, Ukraine —
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded Thursday for a cease-fire to allow the evacuation of civilians trapped in a sprawling complex of underground bunkers and tunnels beneath a Mariupol steel plant, where fighters continue to try to fend off the Russian troops who have taken over the rest of the city.
As the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine entered its 11th week, Zelensky said time was needed “to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters” in Mariupol, the southern city whose bombardment and intense suffering have become a symbol of the human costs of the war.
“In the present conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” Zelensky said in an early morning address, adding that 344 people were evacuated from Mariupol in a second round of rescues Wednesday and taken to Zaporizhzhia, around 140 miles northwest. At least hundreds remained trapped.
The president asked for more help from the United Nations, which has joined the International Red Cross to usher civilians to safety from the Azovstal steel plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city.
Ukraine reported more attacks Thursday in the east along a crescent-shaped, 300-mile-long front line in the Donbas region. In the Luhansk area, an official reported that Russian troops shelled 24 times on Wednesday. Posting on Telegram, regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the attacks hit homes, killing five people and injuring 25.
But Kyiv said its forces had regained control of “several settlements” on the border between two key southern districts, Kherson and Mykolaiv. Kherson was the first major city to fall to the Russians and remains in their hands. The Ukrainian-held city of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, has been a bulwark against Russian forces moving toward the principal seaport of Odesa.
Ukraine’s military said it had also retaken Staryi Saltiv, about 27 miles northeast of Kharkiv, the nation’s second-largest city, which lies near the northeast border with Russia.
Russia claimed overnight to have killed 600 Ukrainian fighters, saying it hit an airfield in the Kirovohrad region in central Ukraine and an ammunition depot in Mykolaiv. Ukraine did not comment on the claim, which could not be independently verified.
Mariupol, a strategic prize that would allow Moscow to stitch together a land corridor connecting Russia, Crimea and western Ukraine, has been the site of some of the war’s biggest tragedies and the subject of some of its most forceful negotiations. The once-thriving city of about 430,000 people has lost more than three-quarters of its population — contributing to the millions of displaced Ukrainians — with its mayor and city leaders operating from outside its borders.
Moscow said that for three days beginning Thursday it would open a humanitarian corridor for civilian evacuations from the besieged steel plant. Russia appears eager to proclaim victory in Mariupol before Monday, when President Vladimir Putin is expected to participate in a major annual ceremony commemorating Russia’s role in defeating the Nazis during World War II.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western reports of Russia using the holiday to launch increased attacks and strengthen its troop presence in Ukraine were “nonsense.” Before the war began Feb. 24, he had described U.S. warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as false “hysteria.”
Bedraggled civilians who have made their way from the Mariupol steelworks to Ukrainian-held territory in recent days have recounted a terrifying ordeal punctuated by heavy bombardment, with food, water and medical care almost impossible to obtain.
Ukrainian officials said a bloody battle for the plant was continuing, with Russian forces having penetrated the complex Wednesday. The plant sits above a vast multi-story tangle of tunnels and below-ground bunkers dating back to the Soviet era.
A Mariupol mayoral aide, Petro Andryushchenko, described “nonstop shelling and assault, even at night with the adjustment of fire from drones. In some areas, hostilities are already beyond the fence of the plant.” He said “the last 11 square kilometers of freedom” in Mariupol — about four square miles, the area covered by the plant on the Sea of Azov — had been turned into “hell.”
Ukrainian authorities Thursday reported 629 child casualties — including 221 deaths — in fighting to date, warning that the tally was low because full information is not available from Russian-held areas. Altogether, official military and civilian casualty numbers for both nations have exceeded 15,000.
In its daily analysis Thursday, the British Defense Ministry suggested that new military exercises announced by Russian ally Belarus would be used to “to fix Ukrainian forces in the north, preventing them from being committed to the battle for the Donbas.” The ministry said it did not expect Belarus, whose territory Russia used to stage its invasion, to join in fighting.
With Western officials and leaders in both nations signaling that the war could drag on for months, international sanctions on Russia have increased each week, largely focused on oligarchs, banks and the energy industry.
The chief executive of the European Union said Wednesday that the bloc should ban Russian oil imports, a proposal that would require unanimous approval from the union’s 27 member nations. The ban would take months to implement and likely include exemptions for Hungary and Slovakia. A similar move against Russian natural gas imports is also on the table.
EU officials met Thursday to discuss the proposed oil ban. A deal could be finalized this week.
King reported from Kyiv and Kaleem from London.