By JON GAMBRELL and CARA ANNA
LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Heavy fighting raged Thursday at the besieged steel plant in Mariupol, as Russian forces attempted to finish off the city’s last-ditch defenders and complete the capture of the strategically vital port.
The bloody battle came amid growing suspicions that President Vladimir Putin wants to present the Russian people with a major battlefield success — or perhaps announce an escalation of the war — in time for Victory Day on Monday. That is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar, marking the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany.
Ten weeks into a devastating war, Ukraine’s military claimed Thursday it recaptured some areas in the south and repelled other attacks in the east, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village by village, as Moscow struggles to gain momentum in the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas. Russia switched its focus to that region — where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for years — after a stiffer than expected resistance bogged its troops down and thwarted its initial goal of overrunning the capital.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he hadn’t expected the Russian offensive to “drag on this way.” Some Russian troops used ally Belarus as a launch pad for the invasion on Feb. 24, and Lukashenko publicly supported the operation.
“But I am not immersed in this problem enough to say whether it goes according to plan, like the Russians say, or like I feel it,” the authoritarian leader said.