“In Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure,” Zelensky said in a statement. “There’s hell, and that’s not an exaggeration. The brutal and absolutely pointless bombing of Severodonetsk … 12 dead and dozens wounded in just one day. The bombing and shelling of other cities, the air and missile strikes of the Russian army — all this is not just hostilities during the war.”
Zelensky’s comments come as the United Nations and the European Union investigate areas in Ukraine once occupied by Russian troops for evidence of war crimes. This week, one 21-year-old Russia soldier entered a guilty plea for killing an unarmed civilian.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu pushed back on Zelensky’s assertion Friday, pointing to its efforts to clear civilians from Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant it has attacked for months. Shoigu said 177 civilians had been evacuated from the plant last week.
“I vouch that the Russian armed forces are doing everything to prevent deaths among the civilian population,” Shoigu said, according to CNN. “Since the beginning of the special military operation, more than 1.37 million people have been evacuated from the dangerous regions of the people’s republic, as well as from Ukraine to Russia.”
The Russian defense ministry said Friday it has taken into custody nearly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters from the steel plant and its troops continued to take control of the sprawling facility.
The massive factory was the last stronghold of Ukrainian soldiers in the city destroyed by Russia over nearly three months of fighting. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it continues to process the Ukrainians as prisoners of war, but some in Russia have called them war criminals who should stand trial and possibly be sent to prison.
The British Defense Ministry said Friday that once Russia has secured Mariupol, it will likely send its forces to reinforce operations in the Donbas, where they have struggled. It said an unknown number of Ukrainian fighters remain in the plant.
“Staunch Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol since the start of the war means Russian forces in the area must be re-equipped and refurbished before they can be redeployed effectively,” the British Ministry of Defense said on Twitter. “This can be a lengthy process when done thoroughly.”
On the battlefield, Russia continued to ratchet up attacks in pine forests and rolling hills around the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk on Friday. Russian artillery fired into the city and nearby areas had killed 12 civilians and damaged more than 60 buildings over the past day, said the governor of the Luhansk Province.
Russia also carried out 13 other attacks on Ukrainian positions in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.