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Russian forces push to take key port of Odesa as fighting near Kyiv rages

A woman stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin, outside Kyiv, on 4 March  2022.

Russian ground forces began their long expected move to push west towards the key port of Odesa in the south of Ukraine with an assault of the shipbuilding centre of Mykolaiv, as the area around the capital Kyiv came under fresh heavy attack.

Mykolaiv, where Ukrainian officials say they repelled a Russian attack, is seen as the next key stepping stone for Russian forces on the road to Odesa, which came under naval shell fire on Friday, after taking the key southern city of Kherson earlier this week.

The latest fighting came as local authorities in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv raised the death toll from an airstrike that hit streets and residential buildings to forty-seven people.

“On 3 March, 47 people were killed by a Russian airstrike on a residential area in Chernihiv,” local authorities said on Facebook.

As battles involving airstrikes and artillery continued on Friday across the country, including northwest of the capital Kyiv and the north-eastern cities of Kharkiv and Okhtyrka.

Loud explosions could be heard in Kyiv throughout Friday, where thick plumes of black smoke towered over the capital’s northwestern outskirts. A Russian airstrike on a rural residential about 6 miles from Kyiv ‘s outskirts killed at least seven people on Friday, including two children.

“I don’t know what the tanks are doing because they can’t cross the river into Kyiv,” local security guard Vasyl Prikhodko said.

“They are shooting at things. Then they are rolling back. Maybe they are just trying to scare us,” the 47-year-old said.

On Friday, church bells and air raid sirens rang out across the deserted central streets of Kyiv, with the only signs of life queues outside pharmacies. The city continues to empty out as more and more people flee before the Russian assault intensifies.

With shocking images on television from Kharkiv, Mariupol and Chernihiv, Kyiv residents have decided not to wait for the same carnage to come to them.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, claimed this week that Ukrainian officials have foiled three assassination plots against president Volodymyr Zelenskiy had been foiled by Ukrainian forces.

However, Yevgeny Ptashnik, commander of the territorial defence unit guarding the government quarter in central Kyiv, said he doubted the plots were real. “For Putin it’s very important to take our president alive,” he claimed, citing Putin’s shock at the execution of Muammar Gaddafi.

He commended Zelenskiy’s bravery for staying in central Kyiv rather than fleeing to a bunker somewhere in the west of the country. “This is the difference between us and others. We don’t hide, we stay strong until the end,” he said.

As the war has taken an ever more horrific turn almost by the day, eyewitness reported dead lying in the streets of Volnovakha near Donetsk.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian efforts to take Mykolaiv while artillery defended Odessa from repeated attempts by Russian ships to fire on the major Black Sea port.

In a sign of the mounting pressure on Ukrainian forces, not least in the south, who are under siege in cities across the country, the flagship of the country’s naval fleet – the Hetman Sahaidachny – was scuttled at the shipyard in Mykolaiv where it was undergoing repairs, to prevent it from being seized by Russian forces.

Another strategic port, Mariupol on the Azov Sea, was “partially under siege,” said officials with Ukrainian forces were pushing back efforts to surround the city where civilians described increasingly desperate conditions.

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. The battles have knocked out the city’s electricity, heat and water systems, as well as most phone service, officials said.

With the conflict in Ukraine, which was triggered by Russia’s invasion last week, seeing spiralling violence amid accusations of potential Russian war crimes in their assault on Ukrainian cities.

In a further sign of the widening scope of the conflict, Ukraine’s state emergency agency issued mass text messages Friday with advice on what to do in case of an explosion.

Putin’s forces have brought their superior firepower to bear over the past few days, launching hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites and making significant gains in the south, including taking the port of Kherson, the first major city to fall.

The Russian campaign, which has seen civilian centres threatened with devastation, has so far been most successful in the south where the Kremlin’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula has given it logistical advantage in the country’s south.

With 1.2 million people already displaced, long queues of cars were heading to the Moldova border, most from Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia.

Severing Ukraine’s access to the Black and Azov seas would deal a crippling blow to its economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor to Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014.

As the war has driven ever larger numbers to flee the country, many fleeing had to walking long distances.

Walking the final 14 miles to Ukraine’s border and to safety, Ludmila Sokol was moved by the mounds of clothes and other personal effects that many people discarded as they fled the fighting before her.

“You should have seen things scattered along the road,” said the gym teacher from Zaporizhzhia. “Because the further you carry things, the harder it is.”

Like more than 1 million others, she’s grappling with the pain of leaving everything behind.

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