Ukrainians Say Russia Attacking Mariupol Holdouts; Odesa Hit In Missile Attack

A new attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol appears to have failed, with local officials laying the blame on Russian forces who reportedly attacked a metals plant where desperate Ukrainian defenders are holding out in the devastated southeastern port city.

The report of a fresh effort to storm the Azovstal plant comes two days after President Vladimir Putin claimed in a televised meeting that Russian troops would merely seal off the facility in an effort to save Russian lives fighting for the "catacombs" underneath.

Azovstal is thought to be sheltering about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, with much of the rest of the city already under Russian control.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukraine's president, told a briefing on April 23 that Russian forces had resumed bombardment from the air of Azovstal and were trying to storm it.

An aide to the city mayor said some 200 residents had arrived early on April 23 for a planned evacuation but were told by Russian troops to leave and warned of possible shelling.

Both sides have blamed the other for previous failures of attempts to evacuate civilians from the besieged city, which has been encircled since early in the conflict

Elsewhere, Russian forces intensified their assault on eastern and southern Ukraine with "around-the-clock" shelling, dashing hopes for a cease-fire as Easter Sunday approached on the Orthodox calendar.

In the strategic Black Sea port of Odesa, government officials said a Russian missile strike hit a military facility and two residential buildings, killing at least five people and injuring 18, although the reports could not immediately be confirmed.

The Ukrainian presidential office said a 3-month-old child was among those killed.

And Ukrainian governors in the eastern part of the country reported deadly fighting and shelling overnight and throughout April 23, although some reports indicated Russian advances had stalled in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance.

The head of the Kharkiv regional administration, Oleh Sinehubov, said on his Telegram channel that Ukrainian forces had retaken at least three villages near the Russian border after "fierce battles."

British military intelligence said early on April 23 that Russian invasion forces appeared to have made no major gains in the past 24 hours.

U.K. intelligence also said Russian air and naval forces still had not established control of Ukraine's skies or seas in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.

In a video address late on April 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked countries that have delivered weapons to help Ukraine's defense and said its armed forces continued to deter attacks in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Ukraine's General Staff has said Russian forces increased attacks along the entirety of the front line in the east.

"The Izyum direction, Donbas, Azov, Mariupol, Kherson region are the places where the fate of this war and the future of our state is being decided now," Zelenskiy said.

He also intensified warnings of Putin's alleged territorial aims elsewhere in the region in addition to its freshly stated goals of wresting away and occupying eastern and southern Ukraine.

The acting commander of Russia's Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, was quoted by official state media on April 22 as saying that full control of southern Ukraine was a strategic goal to allow access to Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester.

Minnekayev's comments were the most detailed public description yet of Russia's goals in the second phase of its invasion of Ukraine and were highlighted by Kyiv as a sign that the Kremlin has been lying with its previous statements that Moscow has no territorial ambitions.

Kyiv has also repeatedly warned that Transdniester could be used as a staging area for Russian operations against Ukraine or Moldova, which shares a border and a common history with NATO member Romania.

Transdniester is a sliver of territory that borders Ukraine where hundreds of Russian troops remain deployed over Chisinau's objections.

Minnekayev said Russian speakers were oppressed in Transdniester. Moldova and Western leaders say that is untrue.

Moldova's Foreign Ministry rejected the Russian statements as "unfounded" and summoned Moscow's ambassador to express Chisinau's "deep concern."

" a neutral state and this principle must be respected by all international actors, including the Russian Federation," the ministry said in a statement.

In the eastern Luhansk region, Governor Serhiy Hayday said on television on April 23 that all of that region's cities were being shelled around the clock, and that the bombardment was only intensifying.

Hayday also said via Telegram that an evacuation effort was planned from the Pokrovsk railway station to help residents fleeing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

He also said two people were killed when the city of Popasna "got the most" of the Russian shelling of residential buildings in the region, in addition to street fighting that has continued for weeks.

He said Ukrainian defense forces were leaving some settlements in order to regroup. But Hayday insisted the movements were not a critical setback.

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk had called via Telegram for people in Mariupol to gather on a highway near a local shopping center in hopes of escorting them safely out of the city.

Many thousands of residents have fled the city of a prewar population of around 500,000 people, but bombardment blamed on encircling Russian forces has frequently derailed civilian evacuations.

The Ukrainian National Guard's Azov Battalion, whose forces are trapped in Azovstal, released video on April 23 of dozens of women and children who they said had been living in the tunnels beneath the plant for months. One woman talks about yearning for fresh air and sunshine.

The regiment's commander, Svyatoslav Palamar, told AP the video was filmed on April 21. Its contents could not initially be verified.

On April 22, new satellite images showed a second possible mass grave site in a nearby town, compounding the worst fears about the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding there since Putin's offensive began on February 24.

Putin issued an order this week for Russian forces to seal off Mariupol so that "not even a fly" could penetrate into the badly damaged city of around 500,000 people before the conflict.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Russian services, Reuters, AFP, and AP