Russia-Ukraine war bloodiest fight closes as Ukrainian warriors emptied from Mariupol steel plant

Ukraine accused Russia of launching a new offensive against its pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, but Moscow denied this.

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that Russian warplanes had not bombed or attacked Ukrainian forces in the past 24 hours, and blamed the Ukrainian government for starting the latest escalation of violence in the separatist east.

The Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly accused Moscow of supporting and arming the separatists. Moscow has denied this.

A separate but related battle continues for Mariupol, where pro-Russia separatists are said to be bringing artillery fire on the city’s airport, which lies on the northern outskirts. A checkpoint on the approaches to the city has been the focus of deadly fighting in recent days.

“The situation is very bad,” said one pensioner, who did not give his name.

The fighting has displaced more than 24,000 people. The UN refugee agency is unable to confirm the total number of people affected by the latest escalation in fighting, but has “observed dramatic escalation of hostilities in the Donetsk and Luhansk.

Separatist forces had previously allowed some evacuations, including women and children, to leave Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, amid accusations of the worst atrocities against civilians since the conflict began.

But there was no word on any evacuations being allowed as the separatist leadership had promised to do “whatever it takes” to save Mariupol.

The full scale of what happened to the steel plant has not been fully realized: many of the steelworkers have been evacuated but the violence is far from over. The battle for the plant, the biggest steel producer in the east, was “unusually fierce,” one Ukrainian security source said. Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces had pinned down the workers on the site, the source added. A “large number” of attackers were killed, and the Ukrainian forces had also taken dozens of prisoners. An AFP journalist saw Ukrainian troops enter the plant and secure it early on Wednesday. “The situation is totally under control,”

It was not possible to independently verify the source of the information, which is also not known to Kiev.

About 10,000 people, including 5,000 Ukrainians, remain trapped inside the city of 900,000 people, which has been besieged by pro-Russian forces since Friday. Fighting flared on Sunday night, as the two sides jostled for control of two of the city’s strategic areas – Donetsk airport and Donetsk central district – where more than 200 pro-Russia militants were holed up.

Overnight Ukrainian government officials reported six deaths – three Ukrainian soldiers and three civilians – at the airport.

Markian Lubkivsky, the deputy prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, denied that the movement had lost any significant amount of manpower on Sunday night.

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