MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces pounding the port city of Mariupol shelled a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, the Ukrainian government said Saturday. Fighting also raged on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, as Russia’s expanding invasion bombarded other resisting cities into rubble.
There was no immediate word of casualties from the shelling of Mariupol’s elegant, city-center mosque. The encircled city of 446,000 people has suffered some of the greatest misery from Russia’s war in Ukraine, with unceasing barrages thwarting repeated attempts to bring in food and water, evacuate trapped civilians and to bury all of the dead.
An Associated Press journalist witnessed tanks firing on a 9-story apartment building in the city and was with a group of hospital workers who came under sniper fire on Friday. A worker shot in the hip survived, but conditions in the hospital were deteriorating: electricity was reserved for operating tables, and people with nowhere else to go lined the hallways.
Among them was Anastasiya Erashova, who wept and trembled as she held a sleeping child. Shelling had just killed her other child as well as her brother’s child, Erashova said, her scalp crusted with blood.
“We came to my brother’s (place), all of us together. The women and children went underground, and then some mortar struck that building,” she said. “We were trapped underground, and two children died. No one was able to save them.”
Ukraine’s military said Saturday that Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening the armed squeeze on the strategic port. Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Azov Sea could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid offensive and military victory the Kremlin likely expected while planning to invade Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor.
“The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defense, no matter how difficult it may be for us,” he said. Later Saturday, Zelenskyy reported that 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have died in fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Zelenskyy also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping the mayor of Melitopol, a city 192 kilometers (119 miles) west of Mariupol. After residents of the occupied city demonstrated for the mayor’s release Saturday, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to heed the calls.
“Please hear in Moscow!” Zelenskyy said Saturday. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
In multiple areas around the capital, artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter and air raid sirens wailed. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian ground forces massed north of Kyiv for most of the war had edged to within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the city center and also spread out, likely to support an attempted encirclement.
As artillery pounded Kyiv’s northwestern outskirts, black and white columns of smoke rose southwest of the capital after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv caused hundreds of small explosions. A frozen food warehouse just outside the capital also was struck in an apparent effort to target Kyiv’s food supply.
Ukraine’s military and volunteer forces are preparing for a feared all-out assault. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has said that about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s inhabitants, have left and that “every street, every house … is being fortified.”
Maintaining his forceful portrait of his country, Zelenskyy said Russia would need to carpet-bomb the Ukrainian capital and kill its residents to take the city.
“They will come here only if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a 90-minute call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. Putin spoke about “issues related to agreements under discussion to implement the Russian demands” for ending the war, the Kremlin said without providing details.
The Kremlin said Putin also told Macron and Scholz about video calls between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators over the past few days. The Russian leader also repeated his allegation that Ukrainian forces using civilians as shields had thwarted efforts to evacuate civilians from combat zones.
Russia’s slow tightening of a noose around Kyiv and the bombardment of other population centers with artillery and air strikes mirror tactics that Russian forces have previously used in other campaigns, notably in Syria and Chechnya, to crush armed resistance.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among the people who had sought safety in Mariupol’s mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, which was modeled on one of the most famous and largest mosques in Istanbul.
Before Mariupol became a target of the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War II, the city promoted the white-walled building and its towering minaret as a scenic attraction. The death toll in Mariupol passed 1,500 on Friday, from 12 days of attack, the mayor’s office said.
With electricity, gas and water supplies knocked out, aid workers and Ukrainian authorities described an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in the surrounded and shelled city. Aid group Doctors Without Borders said residents are dying for lack of medication and draining heating pipes for drinking water.
Russian forces have hit at least two dozen hospitals and medical facilities since they invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the World Health Organization. Ukrainian officials reported Saturday that heavy artillery damaged a cancer hospital and several residential buildings in Mykolaiv, a city 489 kilometers (304 miles) west of Mariupol.
The hospital’s head doctor, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were in the facility during the attack but no one was killed.
Russia’s invaders have struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, said Saturday that a Russian general was killed in fighting for Mariupol. Maj. Gen. Andrei Kolesnikov would be the third Russian general reported killed in action since the war started.
Kolesnikov’s death was not confirmed by the Russian military, which has kept a lid on information about its losses.
Still, Russia’s stronger military threatens to grind down the defending forces, despite an ongoing flow of weapons and other assistance from the West for Ukraine’s westward-looking, democratically elected government.
A senior Russian diplomat warned that Moscow could target foreign shipments of military equipment to Ukraine. Speaking Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow has warned the United States “that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move, it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets.”
Russia’s troops are likely to see their ranks bolstered soon from abroad. Denis Pushilin, the Russia-backed head of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, said Saturday that he expects “many thousands” of fighters from the Middle East to join the rebels and fight “shoulder-to-shoulder” against the Ukrainian army.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s said Friday that Russian authorities received requests from over 16,000 people from the Middle East who are eager to join the Russian military action in Ukraine. He added that many of them previously fought together with Russia against the Islamic State group.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides of the war in Ukraine are believed to have been killed along with many civilians. At least 2.5 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Ukrainian chief prosecutor’s office said Saturday at least 79 children have been killed and nearly 100 have been wounded since the start of the war. Most of the victims were in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the numbers aren’t final because active fighting continues.
As the conflict drags on, the United Nations is seeking agreement with Ukraine and Russia for establishing aid delivery corridors in Ukraine. Amin Awad, the U.N.’s crisis coordinator for Ukraine, told The Associated Press that progress was being mad,e but he expressed frustration over slow implementation.
Earlier attempts to establish evacuation routes from Mariupol failed under ongoing shelling. Russian forces are also blockading Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Ukraine’s emergency services reported Saturday that the bodies of five people – two women, a man and two children – were pulled from a Kharkiv apartment building struck by shelling.
On the economic and political front, the U.S. and its allies have moved to further isolate and sanction the Kremlin. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. will dramatically downgrade its trade status with Russia and ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds.
The move to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” status was taken in coordination with the European Union and Group of Seven countries.
“The free world is coming together to confront Putin,” Biden said.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, and other reporters around the world contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Mstyslav Chernov And Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press