By Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine said Russian forces were pummelling a steel works in Mariupol on Tuesday where a local official said at least 100 civilians were still holed up with the last fighters defending the strategic southern city.
Earlier reports by Russian and Ukrainian officials had indicated that all civilians had been evacuated from the sprawling Azovstal plant after spending weeks cowering in shelters alongside the fighters.
Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov, has endured the most destructive fighting of the war in Ukraine. Kyiv says it is likely that tens of thousands of people have been killed there since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and the Azovstal steel plant is the last part of the city still held by Ukrainian fighters.
“In addition to the military, at least 100 civilians remain in the (Azovstal) shelters. However, this does not reduce the intensity of attacks by the occupiers,” Mariupol mayoral aide Petro Andryushchenko wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Reuters was unable to verify the situation at the plant. Russia did not immediately comment on his remarks and has denied targeting civilians.
The Russian defence ministry said on Saturday an operation to evacuate civilians from Azovstal was complete and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv would now try to secure the evacuation of the wounded.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Mariupol last month after weeks of siege and heavy bombardment but said it was not necessary to storm the steel works.
Ukraine says the bombardment of the plant has continued and that Russia was using tanks and artillery in “storming operations” on Monday.
“In Mariupol, the enemy continues to destroy the infrastructure of the Azovstal plant with artillery and air strikes. Hostilities continue,” the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said on Tuesday.
The Azov Regiment, which is holding out in Azovstal, said on the Telegram messaging app that in the past 24 hours, 34 Russian aircraft had flown over the plant including 8 sorties by strategic bombers. It said the plant had come under fire from the Russian navy and from tanks, artillery fire and rockets.
Reuters was unable to verify the Azov Regiment’s report.
In the latest appeal for help in saving lives in Mariupol, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church urged Putin in a letter to let more civilians and fighters leave the city.
The church said Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Onufriy had recalled Nazi Germany’s World War Two siege of Leningrad – now St Petersburg – which Putin’s mother survived.
Onufriy said “the residents of Mariupol and its defenders are in the same situation today.”
(Reporting By Natalia Zinets, Editing by Timothy Heritage)