By Pavel Polityuk
Russian and Ukrainian forces fought for control of the port city of Mariupol on Sunday, local authorities said, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to Israel for help in pushing back the Russian assault on his country.
In the latest in a series of appeals he has made for help from abroad, Zelenskiy addressed the Israeli parliament by video link and questioned Israel’s reluctance to sell its Iron Dome missile defense system to Ukraine.
“Everybody knows that your missile defense systems are the best… and that you can definitely help our people, save the lives of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian Jews,” said Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish heritage.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has held numerous calls with both Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to end the conflict.
Mariupol has suffered some of the heaviest bombardment since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Many of its 400,000 residents remain trapped in the city with little if any food, water and power.
Fighting continued inside the city on Sunday, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said, without elaborating.
The Russian governor of Sevastopol, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, said on Sunday that Post Captain Andrei Paliy, deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, had been killed during fighting in Mariupol.
Capturing Mariupol would help Russian forces secure a land corridor to the Crimea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The city council said on its Telegram channel late on Saturday that several thousand residents had been “deported” to Russia over the past week. Russian news agencies said buses had carried hundreds of people Moscow calls refugees from Mariupol to Russia in recent days.
Speaking to CNN, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield called the deportation accounts “disturbing” and “unconscionable” if true, but said Washington had not yet confirmed them.
Russian forces bombed an art school on Saturday in which 400 residents were sheltering, but the number of casualties was not yet known, Mariupol’s council said.
Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
Zelenskiy said the siege of Mariupol was a war crime.
“To do this to a peaceful city… is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” he said late on Saturday.
Putin says Russia’s “special operation” is aimed at disarming Ukraine and rooting out dangerous nationalists. Western nations call it an aggressive war of choice and have imposed punishing sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy.
Ukraine and its Western backers say Russian ground forces have made few advances in the last week, concentrating instead on artillery and missile strikes.
Zelenskiy’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said there had been a relative lull over the past 24 hours, with “practically no rocket strikes on (Ukrainian) cities”. He said front lines were “practically frozen”.
The U.N. refugee agency said 10 million people had now been displaced across Ukraine, including some 3.4 million who have fled to neighboring countries such as Poland. Officials in the region said they were reaching capacity to comfortably house refugees.
‘WHAT ARE THEY DOING HERE?’
The U.N. human rights office said at least 902 Ukrainian civilians had been killed as of midnight Saturday, though it says the real toll is probably much higher. Ukrainian prosecutors said 112 children had been killed.
“I want the war to be over, I want them (Russian forces) to leave Ukraine in peace,” said Margarita Morozova, 87, who survived Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad in World War II and has lived in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, for the past 60 years.
“Ukraine is an independent country. What are they doing here?”
Russia’s defense ministry said cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, as well as hypersonic missiles from Crimean airspace.
Hypersonic missiles travel faster than five times the speed of sound and their speed, maneuverability and altitude make them difficult to track and intercept.
Russia deployed them for the first time in Ukraine on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, in a strike which Moscow said destroyed an underground depot for missiles and aircraft ammunition.
In the southern city of Kherson, a video clip obtained by Reuters showed dozens of protesters, some wrapped in Ukraine’s blue and yellow national flag, chanting “Go home” in Russian at two military vehicles bearing Russian markings. The vehicles turned and left the area.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, which like Israel has tried to mediate, said Russia and Ukraine were getting closer to agreement on “critical” issues.
Kyiv and Moscow reported some progress last week toward a political formula that would guarantee Ukraine’s security, while keeping it outside NATO – a key Russian demand – though each side accused the other of dragging things out.
Russian forces have also taken heavy losses, and long columns of troops that bore down on the capital Kyiv have been halted in the suburbs. Ukraine’s military said on Sunday Moscow’s combat losses included 14,700 personnel and 476 tanks.
Russia last acknowledged on March 2 that nearly 500 of its soldiers had been killed. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the death count.
In an interview with CNN, Zelenskiy reiterated that he was ready for talks with Putin and that the war would not end without negotiations.
“So, I think that we have to use any format, any chance in order to have the possibility of negotiating, the possibility of talking to Putin,” he said. “But if these attempts fail, that would mean that this is a Third World War.”