MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces pounded the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday, shelling its downtown as residents hid in its iconic mosque and elsewhere to avoid the explosions. Fighting also raged in the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, as Russia kept up its bombardment of other cities throughout the country.
Mariupol has endured some of Ukraine’s worst punishment since Russia invaded. Unceasing barrages have thwarted repeated attempts to bring food, water and medicine into the city of 430,000 and to evacuate its trapped civilians. More than 1,500 people have died in Mariupol during the siege, according the mayor’s office, and the shelling has even interrupted efforts to bury the dead in mass graves.
The Ukrainian government said Saturday that the Sultan Suleiman Mosque was hit, but an unverified Instagram post by a man claiming to be the mosque association’s president said the building was spared when a bomb fell about 750 yards (700 meters) away. About 80 residents, including children, were reportedly hiding inside.
A Ukrainian official said Russian soldiers pillaged a humanitarian convoy that was trying to reach Mariupol and blocked another. And Ukraine’s military said Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening their siege of the strategic port. Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Azov Sea could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
“They are bombing it (Mariupol) 24 hours a day, launching missiles. It is hatred. They kill children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during a video address.
An Associated Press journalist in Mariupol witnessed tanks fire on a nine-story apartment building and was with a group of hospital workers who came under sniper fire on Friday. A worker shot in the hip survived, but conditions in the hospital were deteriorating: electricity was reserved for operating tables, and people with nowhere else to go lined the hallways.
Among them was Anastasiya Erashova, who wept and trembled as she held a sleeping child. Shelling had just killed her other child as well as her brother’s child, Erashova said, her scalp crusted with blood.
“We came to my brother’s (place), all of us together. The women and children went underground, and then some mortar struck that building,” she said. “We were trapped underground, and two children died. No one was able to save them.”
In Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, bodies lay out in the open Saturday on streets and in a park.
“When I woke up in the morning, everything was covered in smoke, everything was dark. We don’t know who is shooting and where,” resident Serhy Protsenko said as he walked through his neighborhood as explosions sounded in the distance. “We don’t have any radio or information.”
Some Irpin residents sheltered in a pitch-dark basement, unsure where they could go or how they would get food if they left. Others toted luggage across planks across a waterway where a bridge had been damaged.
Meanwhile, French and German leaders spoke Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a failed attempt to reach a cease-fire. According to the Kremlin, Putin laid out terms for ending the war, including Ukraine’s demilitarization and its ceding of territory, among other demands.
Zelenskyy encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid military victory the Kremlin likely expected.
“The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defense, no matter how difficult it may be,” he said. Later Saturday, Zelenskyy reported that 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers had died since the Russian invasion began Feb. 24.
Zelenskyy again deplored NATO’s refusal to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said Ukraine has sought ways to procure air defense assets, though he didn’t elaborate. U.S. President Joe Biden announced another $200 million in aid to Ukraine, with an additional $13 billion included in a bill that has passed the House and should pass the Senate within days.
Zelenskyy also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping the mayor of Melitopol, a city 192 kilometers (119 miles) west of Mariupol. After residents of the occupied city demonstrated for the mayor’s release Saturday, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to heed the calls.
“Please hear in Moscow!” Zelenskyy said. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
In multiple areas around the capital, artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter as air raid sirens wailed. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces that had been massed north of Kyiv had edged to within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the city center and spread out, likely to support an attempted encirclement.
Ukraine’s military and volunteer forces have been preparing for an all-out assault. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Thursday that about 2 million people, half the metropolitan area’s inhabitants, had left and that “every street, every house … is being fortified.”
Zelenskyy said Saturday that Russia would need to carpet-bomb Kyiv and kill its residents to take the city.
“They will come here only if they kill us all,” he said. “If that is their goal, let them come.”
Putin held a 90-minute call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. Putin spoke about “issues related to agreements under discussion to implement the Russian demands” for ending the war, the Kremlin said without providing details.
For ending hostilities, Moscow has demanded that Ukraine drop its bid to join NATO and adopt a neutral status; acknowledge the Russian sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014; recognize the independence of separatist regions in the country’s east; and agree to demilitarize.
Zelenskyy told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday that he would be open to meeting Putin in Jerusalem to discuss an end to the war, but that there would first have to be a cease-fire. Bennett recently met in Moscow with Putin, who has ignored previous offers of talks from Zelenskyy.
As U.S. and Western corporations announced they are leaving Russia over the invasion, Putin threatened to seize their assets.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among the people who had sought safety in Mariupol’s mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana, which was modeled on one of the most famous and largest mosques in Istanbul.
Before Mariupol became a target of the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War II, the city promoted the white-walled building and its towering minaret as a scenic attraction.
With Mariupol’s electricity, gas and water supplies knocked out, aid workers and Ukrainian authorities described an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Aid group Doctors Without Borders said Mariupol residents are dying from a lack of medication and are draining heating pipes for drinking water.
Russian forces have hit at least two dozen hospitals and medical facilities, according to the World Health Organization.
The Russian invaders appear to have struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. Still, Russia’s stronger military threatens to grind down Ukrainian forces, despite an ongoing flow of weapons and other assistance from the West for Ukraine’s westward-looking, democratically elected government.
A senior Russian diplomat warned that Moscow could attack foreign shipments of military equipment to Ukraine. Speaking Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow has warned the United States “that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move — it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets.”
Thousands of soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed along with many civilians, including at least 79 Ukrainian children, its government says. Most victims were in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the numbers aren’t final because the fighting is ongoing.
At least 2.5 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Felipe Dana, Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Andrew Drake in Kyiv and other reporters around the world contributed.
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