‘Fierce street fights’ continue in Ukraine’s East amid concerns over grain in occupied regions

The latest:

  • Zelensky calls for a new round of ‘even stronger’ EU sanctions against Russia.

  • Ukrainians in occupied southern regions handed Russian passports.

  • Nearly 800 children have been killed or injured in the war, Ukraine says.

  • Civilian killed in Odesa beach explosion amid growing concerns over mines.

Ukraine remains in control of the Azot chemical plant in the eastern city of Severodonetsk — where hundreds of civilians are sheltering amid bitter fighting — the region’s governor said on Saturday, after a Russia-backed separatist claimed 300 to 400 Ukrainian fighters were also trapped there.

Weeks of fighting for Severodonetsk, a small city in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, has pulverized sections of the town and has been some of the bloodiest since Moscow began its invasion on Feb. 24.  Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk make up the Donbas, a region that has become the focus of Russia’s advance in Eastern Ukraine.

“The information about the blockade of the Azot plant is a lie,” Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app. “Our forces are holding an industrial zone of Severodonetsk and are destroying the Russian army in the town.”

Ukraine has said some 800 people were hiding in several bomb shelters underneath the Azot plant, including about 200 employees and 600 residents of Severodonetsk.

Smoke rises from the Severodonetsk Azot plant in this still image obtained from a handout video released on Thursday. (Luhansk Region Police/Reuters)

Rodion Miroshnik, a Russian-backed representative of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, said late on Saturday that some civilians had started to leave and that Ukrainian forces may be holding several hundred civilians “hostage.”

Earlier, he said 300 to 400 Ukrainian fighters were blockaded on the grounds of the plant along with civilians.

Gaidai said earlier that Russian forces controlled most of the city, although Ukraine controlled the Azot plant.

In a short video address late on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that while “fierce street fights continue in Severodonetsk,” the Ukrainian military was gradually liberating territory further west in the Kherson region and had had some successes in Zaporizhzhia too.

“We are definitely going to prevail in this war that Russia has started,” he told a conference in Singapore via video link earlier in the day. “It is on the battlefields in Ukraine that the future rules of this world are being decided.”

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.

The battle for Severodonetsk recalls weeks of bombardment of the southern port city of Mariupol, which was reduced to ruins before Russian forces took control of it last month.

Moscow turned to expanding control in the eastern Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists had already held a swathe of territory since 2014, after being forced to scale back its initial more sweeping campaign goals.

It calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression to capture territory.

Zelensky presses for more EU sanctions on Russia

During a visit to Kyiv by the European Union’s top official, Zelensky called for a new round of “even stronger” EU sanctions against Russia.

Zelensky called for the new sanctions to target more Russian officials, including judges, and to hamper the activities of all Russian banks, including gas giant Gazprom’s bank, as well as all Russian companies helping Moscow “in any way.”

He spoke during a brief press appearance with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the heavily guarded presidential office compound in Ukraine’s capital. Von der Leyen was on her second visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbour.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, is seen with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv on Saturday. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

The pair discussed Ukraine’s aspirations for EU membership. Zelensky, speaking through a translator, said Ukraine “will do everything” to integrate with the bloc.

“Russia wants to divide Europe, wants to weaken Europe,” he said.

Von der Leyen said the EU’s executive arm was “working day and night” on an assessment of Ukraine’s eligibility as an EU candidate. The goal is to have the review ready to share with the bloc’s 27 existing members by the end of next week.

Zelensky and some EU supporters want Ukraine admitted to the EU quickly. Von der Leyen described the membership process as “a merit-based path” and appealed for Ukraine to strengthen its rule of law, fight corruption and modernize its institutions.

She praised Ukraine’s “strength and resilience” in the face of Russia’s “horrible and atrocious” invasion and said the EU would assist with the country’s reconstruction.

Russia sets up company to sell Ukrainian grain

Russian-installed officials in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region have set up a company to buy up local grain and resell it on Moscow’s behalf, a local representative told the Interfax news agency on Saturday.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of stealing Ukraine’s grain and causing a global food crisis that could cause millions of deaths from hunger.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of Zaporizhzhia’s pro-Russian provisional administration, said the new state-owned grain company has taken control of several facilities.

Anti-tank obstacles are seen on a wheat field in Ukraine’s southern Mykolaiv on Saturday. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

He said “the grain will be Russian” and “we don’t care who the buyer will be.”

It was not clear if the farmers whose grain was being sold by Russia were getting paid. Balitsky said his administration would not forcibly appropriate grain or pressure producers to sell it.

The head of Ukraine’s presidential office accused Russia’s military of shelling and burning grain fields ahead of the harvest. Andriy Yermak alleged Moscow is “trying to repeat” a Soviet-era famine which claimed the lives of over three million Ukrainians in 1932-33.

WATCH | Ukraine grain exports obstructed by Russian invasion: 

Ukraine grain exports obstructed by Russian invasion

More than 20 million tonnes of harvested Ukrainian grain is stuck inside the country because of Russia’s blockade of major ports.

“Our soldiers are putting out the fires, but [Russia’s] ‘food terrorism’ must be stopped,” Yermak wrote Saturday on Telegram.

The accuracy of his and Balitsky’s claims could not be independently verified.

Russian passports for Ukraine residents

Russian forces occupying parts of southern Ukraine began handing out Russian passports to local residents Saturday.

In the Kherson region, 23 residents accepted Russian passports, including the new Moscow-installed governor, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

“For me, this is a truly historic moment. I have always thought that we are one country and one people,” the news agency quoted the governor, Volodymyr Saldo, as saying.

WATCH | Kherson residents describe strict conditions: 

Residents of Russian-controlled city of Kherson describe strict conditions

Tens of thousands of residents of Russian-controlled city of Kherson in southern Ukraine have fled since the beginning of Moscow’s invasion. Those who remain say there are consequences for defying Russia.

Russian forces also started awarding passports in the occupied city of Melitopol, according to Russian state news agency TASS agency. A Telegram post by TASS cited a Russian-installed local official as the original source of the information.

It did not specify how many residents had requested or received Russian citizenship.

Melitopol is located outside of the Donbas in the region of Zaporizhzhia, which is still held partly by Ukraine.

Death toll among children

Nearly 800 children have been killed or injured in Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian authorities said Saturday.

According to a statement by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, at least 287 children died as a result of military activity, while at least 492 more have been injured.

The statement stressed the figures were not final and said they were based on investigations by juvenile prosecutors.

The office said children in Ukraine’s Donetsk province suffered the most, with 217 reported killed or injured, compared with 132 and 116, respectively, in the Kharkiv and Kyiv regions.

Civilian killed in beach explosion

Officials in the city of Odesa said Saturday that a man was killed by an explosion while visiting a beach on the Black Sea, where mines are a growing concern.

The city council said via Telegram that the man was there with his wife and son, despite warnings to stay away from beaches in the area. He was testing the water’s temperature and depth when the explosion occurred.

Russia and Ukraine each have accused the other of laying mines in the Black Sea.