FILE PHOTO: Members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps fight against Russian troops in Zaporizhzhia region

Ukraine readies for increased attacks ahead of Russia’s Victory Day

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The war in Ukraine wracked the country’s southern coast Saturday as Russian forces fired cruise missiles at the city of Odesa and bombarded a steel mill housing Ukrainian civilians and fighters, hoping to complete their conquest of the port of Mariupol in time for Victory Day celebrations.

However, in a sign of the unexpectedly effective defense that has sustained the fighting into its 11th week, Ukraine’s military flattened Russian positions on a Black Sea island that was captured in the war’s first days and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive also was advancing around the nation’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as it remained a key target of Russian shelling. The Ukrainian army said it retook control of five villages and part of a sixth near hotly contested Kharkiv.

As Russia’s Monday holiday commemorating Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II approached, cities across Ukraine prepared for an expected increase in Russian attacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged residents numbed by more than 10 weeks of war to heed air raid warnings.

An aerial view shows Ukrainian UAV Bayraktar targeting Russian landing craft vessel at Zmiinyi Island

An aerial view shows Ukrainian UAV Bayraktar targeting Russian landing craft vessel at Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukraine, in this still image from a handout video released by Press service of Ukrainian Ground Forces on May 7, 2022. Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via Reuters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday that Zelenskyy and his people “embody the spirit of those who prevalied during the Second World War.” He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying “to twist history to attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine.”

“As war again rages in Europe, we must increase our resolve to resist those who now seek to manipulate historical memory in order to advance their own ambitions,” Blinken said in a statement issued as the United States and United Kingdom marked the Allied victory in Europe 77 years ago.

The most intense battles in recent days have befallen eastern Ukraine, where the two sides are entrenched in a fierce race to capture or reclaim territory. Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine has focused on claiming the industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014 and occupy some areas.

Moscow’s also has sought to sweep across southern Ukraine to both cut off the country from the sea and to connect its territory to the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, long home to Russian troops. But it has struggled to achieve those objectives.

On Saturday, six Russian cruise missiles fired from aircraft hit the region of Odesa, where authorities have a curfew in place until Tuesday morning. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising over Odesa with sirens wailing in the background.

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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 Black Sea. A satellite image taken early Saturday by Planet Labs PBC showed what appeared to be a Serna-class landing craft against the island’s northern beach.

The image corresponds with a Ukrainian military video showing a drone striking the Russian vessel, engulfing it in flames. Snake Island, located some 35 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast, figured in a memorable incident early in the war when Ukrainian border guards stationed there defied Russian orders to surrender, purportedly using colorful language.

Against that backdrop, Ukrainian fighters made a final stand to prevent a complete takeover of Mariupol. Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.

New satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed vast devastation at a sprawling seaside steel mill that is the last corner of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Buildings at the Azovstal plant, including one under which hundreds of fighters and civilians are likely hiding, had large, gaping holes in the roof, according to the images shot Friday by Planet Labs PBC.

The bombardment of the steel mill intensified in recent days despite a Russian pledge for a temporary cease-fire to allow civilians inside to escape. Russia has used mortars, artillery, truck-mounted rocket systems, aerial bombardment and shelling from sea to target the facility.

Rescuers sought to evacuate more civilians on Saturday after a week of on-and-off convoys to get people out of Mariupol. Dozens of civilians were delivered Friday to the care of United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives, Russian and Ukrainian officials confirmed.

The latest evacuees followed roughly 500 others who were allowed to leave the plant and other parts of the city in recent days.

Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal mill have repeatedly refused to surrender but acknowledged Saturday using white flags to help evacuate civilians from the site. The fighters issued a statement via social media saying both they and the Russians have used a white flag system to halt fighting in order to get civilians out.

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They said the Saturday incident marked the fourth time they raised the flags for that purpose. The statement followed comments attributed to a commander on the Russian side there suggesting the Ukrainians were using the white flag for negotiations with their attackers.

The Ukrainian government has called on international organizations to also help evacuate the fighters defending the plant. By Russia’s most recent estimate, roughly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained at the Azovstal steelworks. They have repeatedly refused to surrender.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.

“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still at Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address early Saturday.

The relief of those who have been evacuated was tempered by the memory of those still left behind.

“They need our help badly,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-yer-old daughter and four others from their bunker, leaving behind another 30. “We need to get them out.”

While they pounded away at the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere nearly 2 1/2 months into a ruinous war that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee Ukraine and flattened large swaths of some cities.

Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine and had a pre-war population of about 1.4 million, remained a key target of Russian shelling in the northeast. But Western military analysts said Ukrainian forces were making progress in securing positions around the city.

A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said in its most recent assessment that Ukraine’s military may be able to push Russian forces “out of artillery range of Kharkiv in the coming days,” providing a respite for the city and an opportunity to build the defenders’ momentum “into a successful, broader counteroffensive.”

In other developments, a Russian missile on Saturday destroyed a Ukrainian national museum dedicated to the life and work of an 18th-century philosopher, the local council said. It posted photographs on Facebook showing the Gregory Skovoroda museum engulfed in flames.

As an indication of his importance to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, Skovoroda’s likeness adorns a Ukrainian banknote. The museum in Skovorodynivka lies near the Russian border in the Kharkiv region where fighting has been fierce.

Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all the countries of the free world understanding what is at stake in the ruinous war.

“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that freedom gives to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully comprehensible for any society, in any corner of the globe.”

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At the United Nations in New York, the U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted its first statement on Ukraine, expressing “strong support” for the secretary general’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the 10-week old “dispute.”

Talks to end the war have stalled. Zelenskyy said Friday that he would be open to negotiations with Russia, but only if Moscow withdraws its forces to pre-invasion positions.

“In that situation, we will be able to start discussing things normally,” Zelenskyy told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. Ukraine could then use “diplomatic channels” to regain its territory, he said.

Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Inna Varenytsia and 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.