US President Joe Biden announced another military assistance package for Ukraine as dozens of civilians were evacuated from the defeated Mariupol steelworks, the last pocket of resistance against Russian troops in the port city.
Valued at $ 150 million, the latest security assistance would include artillery ammunition and radar, Biden said, as the country prepares for a new bombardment by Moscow forces before May 9, the day that Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II.
A senior US official said the aid included counter-artillery radars used to detect the source of enemy fire and electronic jamming equipment.
The new batch on Friday brings the total value of US weapons sent to Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion to $ 3.8 billion.
The president urged Congress to further approve a huge $ 33 billion package, including $ 20 billion in military aid, “to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
The Pentagon meanwhile has denied reports that it helped Ukrainian forces sink the Russian warship Moskva in the Black Sea last month.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States “was unaware” of the plan to hit the ship, which sank leaving an unclear number of dead or missing Russian sailors.
While providing Ukraine with military aid, the United States has tried to limit knowledge of the full scope of its assistance to avoid provoking Russia into a wider conflict beyond Ukraine.
Biden, other G7 leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will virtually meet on Sunday to discuss Western support for Kiev.
Zelensky said Friday that “diplomatic options” were also underway to rescue Ukrainian soldiers from the Mariupol steelworks, while civilian evacuations continued.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 50 people were evacuated from the site, including 11 children.
He added that they have been handed over to the United Nations and the Red Cross, who are assisting in the operation, and that the “humanitarian operation” will continue on Saturday.
An estimated 200 civilians, including children, are still trapped in Soviet-era tunnels and bunkers beneath the vast Azovstal factory, along with a group of Ukrainian soldiers making their last stand.
Russia announced a daytime ceasefire at the plant for three days starting Thursday, but the Ukrainian military said Russian “assault operations” continued by land and air.
Ukrainian Azov battalion, head of defense in Azovstal, said a Ukrainian fighter was killed and six injured when Russian forces opened fire while attempting to evacuate people by car.
Azov battalion leader Andriy Biletsky wrote on Telegram that the situation at the plant was critical.
“The bombings don’t stop. Every minute of waiting costs the lives of civilians, soldiers and the wounded. “
May 9 fears
Ten weeks after a war that killed thousands, destroyed cities and uprooted more than 13 million people, defeating the resistance in Azovstal and taking full control of Mariupol in a strategic position would be a major victory for Moscow.
It would also be a symbolic success ahead of May 9, when Russia celebrates the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Ukrainian officials believe Moscow is planning a military parade on May 9 in Mariupol, although the Kremlin has denied such plans.
Officials also said they expect the anniversary to coincide with an escalation of the war across the country.
“In the next few days, there is a high probability of rocket fire in all regions of Ukraine,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a statement on social media.
“Be careful and follow the safety rules in wartime.”
The eastern city of Odessa will also impose a longer curfew from May 8-9, its mayor said, as will Poltava in the country’s center.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki he noted that the G7 meeting will take place one day before “Victory Day” and the leaders will demonstrate “unity in our collective response”.
“While (Russian President Vladimir Putin) expected to march through the streets of Kiev, obviously that’s not what is going to happen,” Psaki said.
Russia will remain “forever”
Since it failed to take Kiev early in the war, Russia refocused its offensive on the south and east of Ukraine.
Taking full control of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the pro-Russian separatist regions to the east.
In those regions, separatists claimed to have removed Ukrainian and English language road signs for Mariupol and replaced them with Russian ones.
Locals want to see proof that “Russia is back here forever,” said Denis Pushilin, head of the breakaway Donetsk region.
In nearby Lugansk, Ukrainian officials said on Friday that Russian forces have nearly surrounded Severodonetsk – the easternmost city still held by Kiev – and are attempting to storm it.
Kherson in the south remains the only significant city that Russia has managed to capture since the start of the war.
A senior Russian parliament official visiting the city on Friday also stressed that Russia would remain in southern Ukraine “forever”.
“There should be no doubt about that. There will be no return to the past, “said Andrey Turchak.
On Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its first declaration on Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
He supported Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ efforts to find a “peaceful solution” to the war, but stopped short of supporting a mediation effort he led.
Russia then vetoed a resolution condemning the invasion and calling on Moscow to bring its army back to Russian soil.
Ukraine’s Western allies have backed Kiev with financial and military assistance and slapped unprecedented sanctions on Russia.
As European countries tried to crack down on Russian activities abroad, Italian authorities seized a mega yacht as it was rumored that it might also belong to the Russian president.
“Scheherazade”, valued at an estimated $ 700 million, was the subject of an investigation into its ownership by the Guardia di Finanza, which helped “establish significant economic and commercial ties” between the ship owner and ” illustrious personalities of the Russian government “.
Researchers from the anti-corruption foundation of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny connected the yacht to Putin.
But the European Commission’s proposal to gradually ban all 27 members of the EU from importing oil from Russia – a move that would have been the most difficult so far – was dealt a severe blow on Friday when Hungary said it overstepped the red line and having to be sent back.