Onslaught at 'full strength' at Mariupol steel works as Ukrainian civilians remain trapped

Wife of Ukrainian commander inside steel plant says: “I am going mad from this. It seemed like words of goodbye.

ITV News' Rebecca Barry reports

The onslaught on a steel mill in Mariupol, where hundreds of Ukrainians are holed up in the city's last pocket of resistance, continues at "full strength."

ITV News has been told the situation at the Azovstal plant "gets more critical" as the Russian military abandons assurances of a ceasefire meant to allow hundreds of civilians to evacuate.

The steel plant now represents the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol.

Images released by Russian media channels showcased shocking scenes of destruction in the region.

Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, a leader of the steel plant's defenders, said that in a call with her husband from inside, he told he would love her forever.

“I am going mad from this. It seemed like words of goodbye,” she said.

The city's head of police patrol Mykhailo Vershynin, speaking from the steel plant, said: "The situation is getting worse, it gets more critical.

"The onslaught on the plant is at its full strength, and mind that Russians promised the ceasefire, but they didn’t stick to their promise.

"As is usual here, the storm groups went on attack. It is really hard to restrain them at this range. It’s constant artillery fire, it is constantly, and the connection is very unstable.

"That’s why we can disappear sometimes."

Mykhailo Vershynin described a dire situation.

The Russian government said on the Telegram messaging app that it would open a route for evacuation from the plant between 8am and 6pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Previous assurances from the Kremlin have fallen through and, as fighting continues, it appears unlikely a ceasefire would be implemented on Thursday.

It was unclear how many Ukrainian fighters are still inside the sprawling plant, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were reported to be wounded. A few hundred civilians also remained there, the Ukrainian side said.

More than 300 civilians were evacuated from the facility in Mariupol on Wednesday, the Red Cross said, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy putting the figure at 344.

In his nightly video address, Mr Zelenskyy said these are in addition to the more than 150 people who were evacuated earlier this week from the bunkers under the city’s steel plant. 

He also confirmed work was ongoing to reach an agreement to save those remaining at Azovstal, including women and children.

The Ukrainian army has however claimed that Russian troops have made “unsuccessful” attempts to advance in the eastern Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.

A Facebook post published Thursday afternoon on the official profile of the Ukrainian General Staff says the Russians also continue to launch missile strikes on transport facilities in order to prevent the movement of humanitarian cargo and military-technical assistance.

Video, thought to have been filmed on Wednesday, shows explosions at the industrial complex

Over the weekend, more than 100 people - including women, the elderly and 17 children - were evacuated from the plant during a cease-fire in an operation overseen by the UN and the Red Cross, but attacks on the plant soon resumed.

The evacuees have been taken to the town of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometres) to the northwest of Mariupol, where they were receiving humanitarian assistance.

To help with rebuilding the country and humanitarian aid, Ukraine’s government has launched a global fundraising platform so individuals can donate directly.

President Zelenskyy announced the initiative, called United24, on Thursday.

The United States and Europe, among others, have offered billions in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Last week, US President Joe Biden asked Congress for $33 billion (£26 billion) to bolster Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

Boris Johnson spoke with President Zelenskyy on Thursday.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the prime minister hailed Ukraine's "democratic values" and their importance in opposing "Russia's failing autocracy."

The pair have agreed to talk again in the coming days and plan to discuss further developments on the battlefield and the Ukrainian armed forces needs.

Fighting village by village

Ten weeks into a devastating war, Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village by village, as Moscow struggles to gain momentum in the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas.

Russia switched its focus to that region - where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for years - after a stiffer-than-expected resistance bogged its troops down and thwarted its initial goal of overrunning the capital, Kyiv.

In addition to heavy shelling of the Donbas, Russian forces also kept up their bombardment of railway stations and other supply-line targets across the country - part of an effort to disrupt the supply of Western arms.

Ukrainian forces said Thursday they made some gains on the border of the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv and repelled 11 Russian attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas.

Five people were killed and at least 25 more wounded in shelling of cities in the Donbas over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said. The attacks damaged houses and a school as well.

Lukashenko admits war 'dragging on'

Belarus’ authoritarian leader, meanwhile, defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said he was doing “everything” to stop the war, in a sit-down interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.

President Alexander Lukashenko also said that he didn’t think Russia’s "operation" in Ukraine would "drag on this way."

"But I am not immersed in this problem enough to say whether it goes according to plan, like the Russians say, or like I feel it. I want to stress one more time, I feel like this operation has dragged on,” Mr Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko blamed Ukraine. Credit: AP

He also alleged that Ukraine was “provoking Russia” and insisted that Belarus stands for peace.

“We categorically do not accept any war. We have done and are doing everything now so that there isn’t a war. Thanks to yours truly, me that is, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have begun,” he said.

On Wednesday, heavy fighting raged at the steel works.

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A Russian official denied that Moscow’s troops were storming the plant, but the commander of the main Ukrainian military unit inside said Russian soldiers had pushed into the mill’s territory.

Mariupol, and the plant in particular, have come to symbolise the misery inflicted by the war.

The Russians have pulverised most of the city in a two-month siege that has trapped civilians with little food, water, medicine or heat.

The city’s fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula - which it seized from Ukraine in 2014 - and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas.