KHARKIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces on Saturday fought to contain Russia’s offensive in the south and east of their country, where the Kremlin is seeking to seize the Donbass industrial region, and Western military analysts say Moscow’s offensive is much slower than planned.

The United Nations has continued to try to mediate the evacuation of civilians from the increasingly infernal ruins of Mariupol, a southern port city that Russia has sought to capture since the invasion of Ukraine more than nine weeks ago.

Citizens are “asked to be saved” at the steel plant, which became the last stronghold of Mariupol, Mayor Vadim Boychenko said on Friday. “There, it’s not in the days, but in the hours.” Approximately 2,000 fighters were hidden in the plant with about 1,000 civilians.

Two Ukrainian women, whose husbands are members of the Azov Regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine, said they feared the soldiers would be tortured and killed if left behind and captured by the Russians. They asked for a Dunkirk-style mission to evacuate the fighters, mentioning a World War II operation launched to rescue the besieged Allied forces in northern France.

“We can do this extraction operation … that will save our soldiers, our civilians, our children,” 27-year-old Ekaterina Prokopenko told the Associated Press. “We have to do it right now, because people are dying every hour, every second.”

In other events:

– Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk “almost every day.” However, he told China’s Xinhua state news agency that “progress has been difficult.”

– A former US Marine was killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, his family said, becoming the first known death of an American in combat. The United States has not confirmed this information.

– The mayor of Papasnaya in eastern Ukraine Mykola Khanatov says that two buses going there to evacuate residents were fired upon and communication with drivers was lost.

– Russian air defense forces found a Ukrainian military plane over the Bryansk region of Russia and tried to repel the plane. Two shells fell on the village, said the governor of the region Alexander Bahamaz. Bahamas said no one was hurt, but the oil terminal was affected.

Getting a complete picture of the deployment of the battle in the east was difficult because air strikes and artillery shelling made the movement of journalists extremely dangerous. Both Ukraine and Moscow-backed insurgents fighting in the east have also imposed severe restrictions on reporting from the war zone.

Quantitatively, Russian military forces far exceed Ukrainian ones. In the days leading up to the war, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had deployed up to 190,000 troops near the border; The standing Ukrainian army numbers about 200,000 people distributed throughout the country.

But so far Russian troops and separatist forces appear to have made little progress in the Donbas in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military power on eastern Ukraine.

Partly because of stubborn Ukrainian resistance, the U.S. believes the Russians are “at least a few days behind where they wanted to be” when they try to surround Ukrainian troops in the east, a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss assessment of the US military.

The UK Ministry of Defense offered a similar assessment in its daily assessment of the war, saying it believed Russian forces in Ukraine were likely to suffer from a “weakened morale” as well as a lack of unit-level skills and “inconsistent air support”. It was not specified on what basis the assessment was made.

Despite the nature of the struggle with village after village to win positions in the Donbass, the promised Russian offensive could still be realized. In total, the Russian army has about 900,000 people in active service. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy than Ukraine, and has tactical nuclear weapons.

In Mariupol, it was estimated that about 100,000 people were still in the city without food, water or medicine. UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the organization was in talks with authorities in Moscow and Kiev to create conditions for safe passage.

Ukraine has blamed the failure of many previous evacuation attempts to continue Russian shelling.

For those stationed at the capital’s Soviet-era Azovstal plant, an extensive underground network of tunnels and bunkers provided security from air strikes. But the situation worsened after the Russians dropped “bunkers” and other bombs on the plant, the mayor said.

Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabia TV channel that the real problem was that “humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultranationalists.”

Moscow has repeatedly stated that right-wing Ukrainians are preventing evacuations and using civilians as human shields. The claims have not been verified.

The Azov Regiment, which helps defend the metallurgical plant, has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was formed in 2014 by far-right activists at the start of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In further comments released by Xinhua on Saturday, Lavrov said Russia had evacuated more than a million people from Ukraine since the start of the war, including more than 300 Chinese civilians.

In an interview, the foreign minister did not offer any evidence to support his statement. Ukraine has accused Moscow of forcibly expelling Ukrainians from the country.

Lavrov also accused in part of the lack of progress in discussions on ending the war “militant rhetoric and inflammatory actions of Western supporters of the Kiev regime.” Russian state television in the evening shows guests proposing to Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

In his night video, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy the Donbass and all those who live there.

The constant attacks “show that Russia wants to clear this territory of all people,” he said.

“If the Russian invaders are able to implement their plans at least in part, they have enough artillery and aircraft to turn the whole Donbass into stone, as they did with Mariupol,” said Zelensky.

In a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kharkiv that is regularly shelled by Russian troops, some residents remained in their apartments despite gaping holes in the buildings. There is no water or electricity, so they gather outside to cook over an open fire.

Ukrainian reservists in a nearby basement said the Russians had fired rockets, artillery and tank fire at the buildings.

“The tank can come a short distance and fire all the ammunition in residential areas. It doesn’t matter where. It is impossible to understand where it will fire,” said Vladislav, who, like others in the unit, will only give his name.

Another reservist, nicknamed the Kid, expressed disappointment that he could do no more to stop the Russian offensive.

“I took up arms, but unfortunately I can’t catch the flying missiles with my bare hands and throw them back,” he said.

Hundreds of people were evacuated in the nearby village of Ruskaya Lozova after Ukrainian troops recaptured the city from Russian occupiers, the region’s governor said. Those who fled to Kharkiv spoke of the difficult conditions of the Russians, little water, food and electricity.

“We were hiding in the basement. It was horrible. The basement was shaking from the explosions. We were shouting, crying and praying to God,” said resident Lyudmila Bacharnikova.

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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