LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian missiles struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Monday, killing at least seven people, Ukrainian officials said, as troops from Moscow stepped up strikes on infrastructure for an all-out assault on the east.
Plumes of thick, black smoke rose above the city after a series of explosions shattered windows and started fires. Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine have seen only sporadic strikes for nearly two months of warfare and have become a relatively safe haven for people in parts of the country where fighting has been heaviest.
LOOK: Russian forces regroup in the east, leaving destruction in their path
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, meanwhile, has vowed to “fight absolutely to the end” in strategically vital Mariupol, where the last known pocket of resistance after a seven-week siege has holed up in a steel factory sprawling lined with tunnels. Russia has repeatedly urged forces there to lay down their arms, but those who remained ignored an ultimatum on Sunday to surrender or die.
Seven people were killed and 11 injured in missile fire overnight, according to Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi and regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy. The governor said the Russian strikes hit three military facilities and an auto mechanic shop. He said among the injured was a child and emergency crews were battling fires caused by the strikes.
A hotel housing Ukrainians who had fled fighting further east was among buildings badly damaged in the attack, the mayor said.
“The nightmare of war caught up with us even in Lviv,” said Lyudmila Turchak, 47, who fled the eastern city of Kharkiv with two children. “There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe.”
A powerful blast also rocked Vasylkiv, a town south of the capital of kyiv that is home to a military airbase, residents said. Video posted on social media sites showed smoke in the area after the explosion. It was not immediately known what had been hit and there was no official confirmation from authorities.
Military analysts say Russia is stepping up strikes against arms factories, railways and other infrastructure targets across Ukraine to exhaust the country’s ability to withstand a major ground offensive in Donbass , the mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland of Ukraine.
The Russian military said its missiles hit more than 20 military targets in eastern and central Ukraine in the past day, including ammunition depots, command headquarters and troop groups and vehicles. Meanwhile, he said artillery hit another 315 Ukrainian targets and warplanes carried out 108 strikes against Ukrainian troops and military equipment. The claims could not be independently verified.
General Richard Dannatt, a former British army chief, told Sky News the strikes were part of a “softening up” campaign by Russia ahead of a planned ground offensive in Donbass.
The Ukrainian government halted civilian evacuations for a second day on Monday, saying Russian forces were shelling and blocking humanitarian corridors.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine had negotiated the passage of towns and villages in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, including Mariupol and other parts of Donbass. The government of Luhansk region in Donbass said four civilians trying to flee were shot dead by Russian forces.
Russia is determined to capture Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory, after its bid to seize the capital failed.
“We are doing everything to ensure the defense” of eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday in his nightly address to the nation.
The impending offensive in the east, if successful, would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory amid mounting war casualties and economic hardship caused by Western sanctions.
The capture of Mariupol is considered a key step in the preparations for any eastern assault, as it would free Russian troops for this new campaign. The city’s fall to the Sea of Azov would also give Russia its biggest military victory of the war, giving it full control of a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized in 2014. and depriving Ukraine of a major and popular port. industrial assets.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine”.
The city was reduced to rubble in the siege, but a few thousand fighters, according to Russia’s estimates, cling to the giant 11 square kilometer (4 square mile) Azovstal steelworks.
“We will fight absolutely to the end, to victory, in this war,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Shmyhal promised on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. He said Ukraine was ready to end the war through diplomacy if possible, “but we have no intention of surrendering.”
The relentless shelling of Mariupol – including a maternity ward and a theater where civilians were sheltering – as well as street fighting have killed at least 21,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates. About 100,000 people remain in the city out of a pre-war population of 450,000, trapped without food, water, heat or electricity.
A pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was arrested last week for treason has appeared in a video offering himself in exchange for the evacuation of trapped civilians from Mariupol.
Ukraine’s state security services released the video of Viktor Medvedchuk, the former leader of a pro-Russian opposition party with personal ties to Putin.
It was unclear if Medvedchuk was speaking under duress.
After the humiliating sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet last week in what Ukrainians claimed was a missile attack, the Kremlin pledged to step up strikes against the Ukrainian capital.
Ukraine says it hit Russian warship Moskva with two Neptune missiles; Russia only said it sank while being towed after a fire. Russia said its crew had been evacuated, but their fate remained uncertain. Footage released by the Russian military on Sunday showed the commander of the Russian navy inspecting rows of sailors, identified as being from the ship, in the home port of Moskva in Sevastopol in Crimea. It is not known how many sailors were in the group.
Recent airstrikes have also hit kyiv and the eastern city of Kharkiv, where shelling on Monday left at least three people dead and three injured, according to AP journalists on the spot. One of the dead was a woman who appeared to be going out to fetch water in the rain. She was found lying bloodied with a can of water and an umbrella by her side.
At least five people were killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, on Sunday, regional officials said.
Zelenskyy called Sunday’s bombing in Kharkiv “nothing but deliberate terror”.
Zelenskyy also called for a stronger international response to what he called brutality by Russian troops in parts of southern Ukraine, where he accused them of torture and kidnappings. He urged the world to send more weapons and apply tougher sanctions against Moscow.
Putin repeated his insistence that the “blitz” of Western sanctions against Russia had failed. The Russian leader said the West had failed to “turn the economic and financial situation upside down, cause panic in the markets, the collapse of the banking system and shortages in the shops”, although he acknowledged a sharp rise in consumer prices in Russia, saying they rose 17.5% in April.
Associated Press reporters Nico Maounis and Philip Crowther in Lviv contributed to this report, as did other AP staff around the world.