By ADAM SCHRECK
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Satellite images released on Thursday showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, and local authorities have accused Russia of burying up to 9,000 Ukrainian civilians there in an effort to cover up the massacre that took place during the siege. port city. .
The images came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol, despite the presence of some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters who were still locked in a giant steel plant. Putin ordered his troops not to storm the fortress, but to seal it “so that not a fly could pass.”
Satellite imagery provider Maxar Technologies released the photos, which it said showed more than 200 mass graves in a city where Ukrainian officials say Russians were burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The images showed long rows of graves stretching from an existing cemetery in the city of Manhush, outside Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko has accused Russians of “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush.
The graves could hold up to 9,000 dead, Mariupol City Council said Thursday in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
Boychenko described Russian actions in the city as “the new Babi Yar”, a reference to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which about 34,000 Ukrainian Jews died in 1941.
“The bodies of the dead were brought by truck and were simply thrown into mounds,” Boychenko’s aide, Piotr Andryushchenko, told Telegram.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin. When mass graves and hundreds of civilians were found dead in Bukha and other cities around Kiev after Russian troops withdrew three weeks ago, Russian officials denied that their soldiers had killed civilians there and accused Ukraine of organizing the atrocities. .
In a statement, Maxar said a review of previous images indicates that the graves in Manhush were excavated in late March and enlarged in recent weeks.
After nearly two months of lethal bombing that has largely reduced Mariupol to a smoldering ruin, Russian forces appear to be in control of the rest of the strategic southern city, including its vital but now heavily damaged port.
But thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, according to Moscow estimates, stubbornly resisted for weeks in the steel industry, despite the blows of Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender. About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.
Instead of sending troops to kill defenders in a potentially bloody frontal assault, Russia apparently intends to hold the siege and wait for fighters to surrender when they run out of food or ammunition.
Boychenko rejected any idea that Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.
“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 greatest victory in the Ukrainian war. It would help Moscow secure more of the coast, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and release more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequent battle now under way. Eastern industrial core of Ukraine, the Donbas.
Putin expressed concern about the lives of Russian troops in deciding not to send them to clean up the Azovstal steel plant, where staunch defenders hid in a maze of underground passages.
In a joint appearance with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin declared: “The completion of the fighting work to liberate Mariupol is a success” and congratulated Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted that the steel plant could be completed in three to four days, but Putin said it would be “useless.”
“There is no need to climb these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader said. “Block this industrial area so that not a fly can pass.”
The plant occupies 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is lined with about 24 kilometers (15 miles) of tunnels and bunkers.
“The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where Ukrainians can resist in urban centers, but to try to capture territory and also to surround Ukrainian forces and declare a great victory,” retired British Rear Admiral Chris. said Parry.
Russian officials have been saying for weeks that capturing the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas is the main goal of the war. Moscow forces opened a new phase of fighting this week along a 300-mile (480-kilometer) front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Sea of Azov.
Although Russia has continued with heavy air and artillery attacks in those areas, it has not appeared to gain any significant ground in recent days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow forces were still intensifying the offensive.
A senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians were obstructing Russia’s effort to push south from Izyum.
The rockets hit a Kharkiv neighborhood on Thursday and killed at least two civilians in their cars. A school and a residential building were also affected, and firefighters tried to put out a fire and look for someone who had been trapped.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russian troops had abducted a local official leading a humanitarian convoy in the southern Kherson region. She said the Russians offered to release him in exchange for Russian prisoners of war, but she called it unacceptable.
Vereshchuk also said efforts to establish three humanitarian corridors in the Kherson region failed on Thursday because Russian troops could not withstand the fire.
Meanwhile, Western nations rushed to pour heavy weapons into Ukraine to help it counter the offensive in the east.
U.S. President Joe Biden has announced an additional $ 800 million in military assistance, including heavy artillery, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and drones. But he also warned that the $ 13.6 billion approved last month by Congress for military and humanitarian aid is “almost exhausted” and more will be needed.
In all, more than 100,000 people were believed to be trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of 430,000. More than 20,000 people died in the siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.
The city has caught worldwide attention as the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war, including deadly airstrikes on a maternity ward and a theater.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block civilian evacuations of the city. On Thursday, at least two Russian attacks hit the town of Zaporizhzhia, a transit station for people fleeing Mariupol. No one was injured, the governor said.
Among those who arrived in Zaporizhzhia after fleeing Mariupol were Yuriy and Polina Lulac, who spent almost two months living in a basement with at least a dozen other people. There was no running water and little food, Yuriy Lulac said.
“What was happening there was so horrible that it cannot be described,” said the native Russian, who used a derogatory word for Russian troops, saying they were “killing people for nothing.”
“Mariupol is gone. There are only graves and crosses in the courtyards,” Lulac said.
The Red Cross said it hoped to evacuate 1,500 people by bus, but that the Russians only allowed a few dozen to get out and took some people off the buses.
Dmitriy Antipenko said he lived mostly in a basement with his wife and father-in-law amid death and destruction.
“In the courtyard there was a small cemetery and there we buried seven people,” Antipenko said, wiping away the tears.
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Philip Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staff members around the world.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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