Reuters-By Pavel Polityuk
An armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops moves along a road during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov
KYIV/MARIUPOL, April 22 (Reuters) – Moscow wants to take full control over southern Ukraine, a Russian general said on Friday, a statement Ukraine said gave the lie to Russia’s previous assertions that it had no territorial ambitions.
Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, was quoted by Russian state news agencies as saying full control over southern Ukraine would give it access to a breakaway, Russian-occupied part of Moldova in the west.
That would cut off Ukraine’s entire coastline and mean pushing hundreds of miles west beyond current lines, past the major Ukrainian cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa.
Moscow says it is conducting a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and liberate its population from people it calls dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies call Russia’s invasion an unjustified war of aggression.
“They stopped hiding it,” Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Twitter. Russia had “acknowledged that the goal of the ‘second phase’ of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Imperialism as it is.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment when asked if Russia had expanded the goals of its operation and how Moscow saw the political future of southern Ukraine.
A senior EU official said the next couple of weeks were likely to be decisive.
“This is not a fairy tale with an imminent happy ending. I think we are likely to see a very significant increase in the intensity of Russian military attacks in the east, I think we are likely to see an intensification of Russian military attacks along the coast,” the official told reporters.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces had increased attacks all along the frontline in the east and were trying to mount an offensive in the Kharkiv region, north of their main target, the Donbas.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had captured a large arms depot in the Kharkiv region. It also reported hitting dozens of targets in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions on Friday.
In Kharkiv city, Russian shellfire hit the main Barabashovo market. Ambulance services said there had been casualties but no details were available yet. A wedding hall and a residential building were also struck.
In Geneva, the United Nations human rights office said there was growing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including indiscriminate shelling and summary executions. It said Ukraine also appeared to have used weapons with indiscriminate effects.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says, without evidence, that signs of atrocities committed by its soldiers were faked. Ukraine has previously said it will punish any soldiers found to have committed war crimes. The government did not respond immediately to the U.N. human rights office remarks.
Russia said on Thursday it had won the war’s biggest fight – the battle for Mariupol, the main port of the Donbas, after a nearly two-month siege.
President Vladimir Putin said the army would not try to root out thousands of Ukrainian troops still holed up in a huge steel works there but would barricade them inside. On Friday Russia’s defence ministry said they remained “securely blockaded”.
Washington dismissed Russia’s announcement.
“We still assess that Mariupol is contested, that it hasn’t been taken by the Russians and that there’s still an active Ukrainian resistance,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told CNN.
In a Russian-held section of the city, the guns had largely fallen silent and dazed-looking residents ventured out into streets on Thursday to a background of charred apartment blocks and wrecked cars. Some carried suitcases.
Volunteers in white hazmat suits and masks roved the ruins, collecting bodies from inside apartments and loading them on to a truck marked with the letter “Z”, symbol of Russia’s invasion.
Maxar, a commercial satellite company, said images from space showed freshly dug mass graves on the city’s outskirts.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have died in the city during Russia’s bombardment and siege and says 100,000 civilians are still there and need full evacuation.
Relatives of Mariupol residents feared the worst. Sofia Telehina said her grandmother had cried constantly when they last spoke by phone and said everything was bombed to pieces. “Since then I’ve not been able to reach her.”
In Zaporizhzhia, where 79 Mariupol residents arrived in the first convoy of buses permitted by Russia to leave for other parts of Ukraine, Valentyna Andrushenko held back tears as she recalled the ordeal under siege.
“They (Russians) were bombing us from day one. They are demolishing everything,” she said of the city.
Moscow says it has taken 140,000 Mariupol residents to Russia. Kyiv says many of these were forcibly deported in what would be a war crime.
In a late-night address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia was doing all it could “to talk about at least some victories” after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.
“They can only postpone the inevitable – the time when the invaders will have to leave our territory, including from Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia regardless of what the occupiers say,” Zelenskiy said.
Minnekayev, the Russian general, said Russian speakers were oppressed in Transdnistria, a Russian-occupied breakaway part of Moldova on Ukraine’s southwestern border. Moldova and Western leaders say that is untrue.
Moscow gave the same justification for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in Donbas. Ukraine says it fears Moscow might try to organise fake independence votes in southern areas as it did in the east and Crimea.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will visit Moscow on Tuesday to discuss urgently bringing peace to Ukraine, a spokesperson said, adding that Guterres might also visit Kyiv.
Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Reuters journalists in Mariupol, Issam Abdallah in Zaporizhzhia, Oleksandr Lapshyn in Kharkiv Writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones
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