Russia strikes near Ukraine’s capital; mosque reported hit

LVIV, Ukraine – Russian forces pounding the port city of Mariupol shelled a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, the Ukrainian government said Saturday as fighting also raged on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.

There was no immediate word of casualties from the shelling of the mosque. Mariupol has seen some of the greatest misery from Russia’s war in Ukraine as unceasing barrages have thwarted repeated attempts to bring in food and water and to evacuate trapped civilians.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey said that a group of 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, were among the people who had sought safety in the mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana.

Elsewhere, air raid sirens rang out across the capital region and artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter. Fighting erupted in multiple areas around Kyiv.

Russia’s slow, grinding apparent attempt to encircle the city and the bombardment of other population centers with artillery and air strikes mirror tactics that Russian forces have previously used in other campaigns, notably in Syria and Chechnya, to crush armed resistance.

Artillery pounded Kyiv’s northwestern outskirts. To the city’s southwest, two columns of smoke – one black and one white – rose in the town of Vaslkyiv after a strike on an ammunition depot. The strike on the depot caused hundreds of small explosions from detonating ammunition.

As of Friday, the death toll in Mariupol passed 1,500 during 12 days of attack, the mayor’s office said. A strike on a maternity hospital in the city of 446,000 this week that killed three people sparked international outrage and war-crime allegations.

The ongoing bombardment forced crews to stop digging trenches for mass graves, so the “dead aren’t even being buried,” the mayor said. An Associated Press photographer captured the moment when a tank appeared to fire directly on an apartment building, enveloping one side in a billowing orange fireball.

Russian forces have hit at least two dozen hospitals and medical facilities since they invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the World Health Organization. Ukrainian officials reported Saturday that heavy artillery damaged a cancer hospital and several residential buildings in Mykolaiv, a city 489 kilometers (304 miles) west of Mariupol.

The hospital’s head doctor, Maksim Beznosenko, said several hundred patients were in the facility during the attack but no one was killed.

The invading Russian forces have struggled far more than expected against determined Ukrainian fighters. But Russia’s stronger military threatens to grind down the defending forces, despite an ongoing flow of weapons and other assistance from the West for Ukraine’s westward-looking, democratically elected government.

The conflict has already sent 2.5 million people fleeing the country. Thousands of soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed along with many Ukrainian civilians.

On the ground, the Kremlin’s forces appeared to be trying to regroup and regain momentum after encountering tough resistance and amassing heavy losses over the past two weeks. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia is trying to reset and “re-posture” its troops, gearing up for operations against Kyiv.

“It’s ugly already, but it’s going to get worse,” said Nick Reynolds, a warfare analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Russian forces were blockading Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, even as efforts have been made to create new humanitarian corridors around it and other urban centers so aid can get in and residents can get out.

Ukraine’s emergency services reported Saturday that the bodies of five people – two women, a man and two children – were pulled from an apartment building that was struck by shelling in Kharkiv,

The Russians’ also stepped up attacks on Mykolaiv, located 470 kilometers (292 miles) south of Kyiv, in an attempt to encircle the city.

As part of a multi-front attack on the capital, the Russians’ push from the northeast appeared to be advancing, a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to give the US assessment of the fight. Combat units were moved up from the rear as the forces advanced to within 30 kilometers (18.6 miles miles) of Kyiv.

New commercial satellite images appeared to capture artillery firing on residential areas that stood between the Russians and the capital. The images from Maxar Technologies showed muzzle flashes and smoke from big guns, as well as impact craters and burning homes in the town of Moschun, 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) from Kyiv, the company said.

Residents in a devastated village east of the capital climbed over toppled walls and flapping metal strips in the remnants of a pool hall, restaurant and theater freshly blown apart by Russian bombs.

With temperatures sinking below freezing, villagers quickly spread plastic wrap or nailed plywood over blown-out windows of their homes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “created this mess, thinking he will be in charge here,” 62-year-old Ivan Merzyk said. He added: “We are not going away.”

On the economic and political front, the US and its allies moved to further isolate and sanction the Kremlin. President Joe Biden announced that the US will dramatically downgrade its trade status with Russia and ban imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds.

The move to revoke Russia’s “most favored nation” status was taken in coordination with the European Union and Group of Seven countries.

“The free world is coming together to confront Putin,” Biden said.

With the invasion in its 16th day, Putin said Friday that there had been “certain positive developments” in ongoing talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators. He gave no details.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on video to encourage his people to keep fighting.

“It’s impossible to say how many days we will still need to free our land, but it is possible to say that we will do it,” he said from Kyiv.

Zelenskyy said authorities were working on establishing 12 humanitarian corridors and trying to ensure food, medicine and other urgently needed basics get to people across the country.

He also accused Russia of kidnapping the mayor of one city, Melitopol, calling the abduction “a new stage of terror.” The Biden administration had warned before the invasion of Russian plans to detain and kill targeted people in Ukraine. Zelenskyy himself is a likely top target.

American defense officials said Russian pilots are averaging 200 sorties a day, compared with five to 10 for Ukrainian forces, which are focusing more on surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and drones to take out Russian aircraft.

The US also said Russia has launched nearly 810 missiles into Ukraine.

Until recently, Russia’s troops had made their biggest advances on cities in the east and south while struggling in the north and around Kyiv. They also have started targeting areas in western Ukraine, where large numbers of refugees have fled.

Russia said Friday it used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in the western cities of Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk “out of action.” The attack on Lutsk killed four Ukrainian servicemen, the mayor said.

Russian airstrikes also targeted for the first time Dnipro, a major industrial hub in the east and Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, with about 1 million people. One person was killed, Ukrainian officials said.

In images of the aftermath released by Ukraine’s emergency agency, firefighters doused a flaming building, and ash fell on bloodied rubble. Smoke billowed over shattered concrete where buildings once stood.

The United Nations political chief said the international organization had received credible reports that Russian forces were using cluster bombs in populated areas. International law prohibits the use of bombs, which scatter smaller explosives over a wide area, in cities and towns.

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Associated Press journalists Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, and other reporters around the world contributed.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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