As many as 60 people were feared to have been killed in the Russian bombing of a village school in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, the regional governor said on Sunday.
Russian forces also continued shelling the Azovstal steelworks, last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in the ruined southeastern port city of Mariupol, where soldiers from the Azov regiment vowed to keep on fighting.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said the school in Bilohorivka, where about 90 people were sheltering, was hit on Saturday by a Russian bomb that set the building ablaze for four hours.
“Thirty people were evacuated from the rubble, seven of whom were injured. Sixty people were likely to have died,” Gaidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app, adding that two dead bodies had been found.
Reuters could not immediately verify his account.
Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of targeting civilians in the war, which Moscow denies.
In Mariupol, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment pleaded with the international community to help evacuate wounded soldiers from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
“We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar told an online news conference.
In a week-long operation brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), scores of civilians who had taken refuge in the plant’s underground shelters have been evacuated.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on Saturday that more than 300 civilians had been rescued and authorities would now focus on trying to evacuate the wounded and medics. Other Ukrainian sources have cited different figures.
Russian-backed separatists said a total of 145 people, including 24 children, were evacuated on Sunday from Mariupol to the village of Bezimenne, about 40km (25 miles) east, in the area they control.
That number was in addition to 182 evacuees who had arrived at Bezimenne earlier in the operation, according to figures given by the separatists. They said those who wished to go to areas controlled by Ukraine were handed over to UN and ICRC representatives.
In the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230km northwest of Mariupol, dozens of people who had fled the port city and nearby occupied areas on their own or with the help of volunteers waited to be registered in a car park set up to welcome evacuees.
“There’s lots of people still in Mariupol, who want to leave but can’t,” said history teacher Viktoria Andreyeva, 46, who said she had only just reached Zaporizhzhia after leaving her bombed home in Mariupol with her family in mid-April.
“The air feels different here, free,” she said in a tent where volunteers offered food, basic supplies and toys to the new arrivals, many of whom were traveling with small children.
In an emotional address on Sunday for Victory Day, when Europe commemorates the formal surrender of Germany to the Allies in World War Two, Zelensky said that evil had returned to Ukraine with the Russian invasion, but his country would prevail.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says he launched on Feb 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and its allies say Russia launched an unprovoked war.
Mariupol is key to Moscow’s efforts to link the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014, and parts of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since then.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said on Telegram he visited Mariupol on Sunday, the country’s most senior government figure to set foot in the city after weeks of Russian bombardment.
Khusnullin, who is in charge of construction and urban development, visited the commercial port there and said it should be used to bring in building materials to restore the city, according to the Russian defence ministry’s Zvezda TV channel.
Western show of support
US President Joe Biden and other G7 leaders were to hold a video call with Zelensky on Sunday in a show of unity ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on Monday.
US First Lady Jill Biden made an unannounced stop in Ukraine on Sunday, visiting a school that is serving as a temporary shelter and meeting her Ukrainian counterpart Olena Zelenska, according to a report by a Washington Post reporter shared with other media organisations.
“I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the US stand with the people of Ukraine,” Biden said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also in Ukraine, making an unannounced visit to the town of Irpin, its mayor said on Telegram.
Putin sent Victory Day messages to separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk, saying Russia was fighting shoulder to shoulder with them and likening their joint efforts to the war against Nazi Germany. “Victory will be ours,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin press release on Sunday.
Russia’s efforts have been stymied by logistical and equipment problems and high casualties in the face of fierce resistance.
Putin will preside on Monday over a parade in Moscow’s Red Square of troops, tanks, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, making a speech that could offer clues on the future of the war.
“They (the Russians) have nothing to celebrate tomorrow,” said US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on CNN. “They have not succeeded in defeating the Ukrainians. They have not succeeded in dividing the world or dividing Nato.”