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ZAPORIZHZHIA: New satellite images show what appear to be mass graves near Mariupol, and local officials have accused Russia of burying up to 9,000 Ukrainian civilians there in a bid to cover up the massacre that took place during of the headquarters of the port city.
The footage emerged on Thursday, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the Battle of Mariupol, despite the presence of around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters who were still locked in a giant steelworks. Putin ordered his troops to cordon off the fortress “so that not even a fly would pass” instead of storming it.
Satellite imagery provider Maxar Technologies released the photos, which it said showed more than 200 mass graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians buried Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The images showed long rows of graves moving away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush.
The graves could contain up to 9,000 dead, the Mariupol city council said in a message on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday.
Boychenko called Russian actions in the town a “new Babi Yar”, a reference to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in 1941.
“The bodies of the dead were brought in by truck and simply dumped in mounds,” an aide to Boychenko, Piotr Andryushchenko, said on Telegram.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin. When mass graves and hundreds of dead civilians were discovered in Bucha and other towns around kyiv after Russian troops withdrew three weeks ago, Russian officials denied that their soldiers killed civilians there and said accused Ukraine of organizing the atrocities.
In a statement, Maxar said a review of previous images indicates the Manhush graves were dug in late March and expanded in recent weeks.
After nearly two deadly months of bombardment that has largely reduced Mariupol to a smoking ruin, Russian forces appear to control the rest of the strategic southern city, including its vital but now badly damaged port.
But a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers, according to Moscow’s estimates, stubbornly resisted the steelworks for weeks, despite beatings by Russian forces and repeated demands for surrender. About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block civilian evacuations from Mariupol.
At least two Russian attacks hit the town of Zaporizhzhia, a staging post for people fleeing Mariupol, on Thursday. No one was injured, the regional governor said.
Among those who arrived in Zaporizhzhia after fleeing the city were Yuriy and Polina Lulac, who spent nearly two months living in a basement with at least a dozen other people. There was no running water and little food, said Yuriy Lulac.
“What was happening there was so horrible you can’t describe it,” said the Russian-speaker who used a derogatory word for Russian troops, saying they were “killing people for nothing.”
“Mariupol is gone. In the courtyards there are only graves and crosses,” Lulac said.
The Red Cross said it expected to evacuate 1,500 people by bus, but the Russians only allowed a few dozen people to leave and took some people off the buses.
Dmitriy Antipenko said he mostly lived in a basement with his wife and stepfather amid death and destruction.
“In the yard there was a small cemetery and we buried seven people there,” Antipenko said, wiping away her tears.
Instead of sending in troops to finish off the Mariupol defenders inside the ironworks in a potentially bloody frontal assault, Russia apparently intends to maintain the siege and wait for the fighters to settle. surrender when they run out of food or ammunition.
In total, more than 100,000 people are believed to have been trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a population of around 430,000 before the war. More than 20,000 people were killed in the siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.
The city has drawn worldwide attention as the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, including deadly airstrikes on a maternity ward and a theater.
Boychenko dismissed any idea that Mariupol had fallen to the Russians.
“The city was, is and remains Ukrainian,” he said. “Today our brave warriors, our heroes, defend our city.”
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory to date in the war in Ukraine. This would help Moscow further secure the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequential battle now. underway for the industrial heart of eastern Ukraine, the Donbass.
In a joint appearance with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin said, “The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” and he congratulated Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted that the Azovstal Steelworks could be taken in three to four days. But Putin said it would be ‘useless’ and expressed concern for the lives of Russian troops as he decided not to send them to clean up the sprawling factory, where diehard defenders hid in a maze of underground passageways. .
Instead, the Russian leader said, the military should “block off this industrial zone so that not even a fly will pass.”
The plant covers 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is traversed by some 24 kilometers (15 miles) of tunnels and bunkers.
“The Russian agenda is no longer to capture these really tough places where Ukrainians can hold in urban centers, but to try to capture territory and also surround Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory,” he said. said retired British Rear Admiral Chris. Pary said.
For weeks, Russian officials have said that capturing the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass is the main objective of the war. Moscow’s forces this week opened the new phase of fighting along a 300-mile (480 kilometer) front between the northeast city of Kharkiv and the Sea of Azov.
While Russia has continued its heavy air and artillery attacks in these areas, it does not appear to have gained significant ground in recent days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow’s forces continued to intensify. the offense.
A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians were hampering Russian efforts to push south from Izyum.
Rockets hit a neighborhood in Kharkiv on Thursday and at least two civilians were burned to death in their car. A school and residential building were also hit, and firefighters attempted to put out a fire and search for anyone trapped.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russian troops abducted a local official leading a humanitarian convoy in the southern Kherson region. She said the Russians had offered to release him in exchange for Russian prisoners of war, but she called that unacceptable.
Vereshchuk also said efforts to establish three humanitarian corridors in the Kherson region failed on Thursday because Russian troops failed to hold their fire.
In the United States, President Joe Biden pledged an additional $1.3 billion for new weapons and economic aid to help Ukraine, and he promised to ask Congress for much more so that weapons, ammunition and cash continues to flow.