© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Russian missile cruiser Moskva is moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine May 10, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
By Pavel Polityuk and Elizabeth Piper
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine said on Friday it was trying to break Russian forces’ siege of Mariupol, with fighting raging around the city’s Illich steel works and port, while the capital Kyiv was rocked by some of the most powerful explosions in two weeks.
Russia said it had struck overnight what it said was a factory in Kyiv that made and repaired anti-ship missiles, in apparent retaliation for the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet, on Thursday.
Ukraine said one of its missiles had caused the Moskva to sink, in a powerful symbol of its resistance to a better-armed foe. Moscow said the ship sank while being towed in stormy seas after a fire caused by an explosion of ammunition.
The United States believes the Moskva was hit by two Ukrainian missiles and that there were Russian casualties, though numbers were unclear, a senior U.S. official said on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Russia has previously said more than 500 sailors on board the Moskva were evacuated after the blast. Neither that assertion nor the U.S. estimate could be independently verified.
Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, has seen the worst fighting of the war. Home to 400,000 people before Russia’s invasion, it has been reduced to rubble in seven weeks of siege and bombardment, with tens of thousands still trapped inside. Thousands of civilians have died there.
“The situation in Mariupol is difficult and hard. Fighting is happening right now. The Russian army is constantly calling on additional units to storm the city,” defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
“But as of now the Russians haven’t managed to completely capture it,” he told a televised briefing.
Motuzyanyk said Russia had used long-range bombers to attack Mariupol for the first time since its Feb. 24 invasion, and that elsewhere Russian forces were concentrating efforts on seizing the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna in Ukraine’s east.
Moscow has said its main war aim is to capture the Donbas, an eastern region of two provinces that are already partly held by the Russian-backed separatists, after its invasion force was driven from the outskirts of Kyiv earlier this month.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that 2,864 people had been evacuated from conflict areas on Friday, including 363 people from Mariupol who used their own transport.
Mariupol is Russia’s main target in the Donbas and Moscow has said it hopes to seize it soon, which would make it the only big city it has captured so far.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had captured the Illich steel works. The report could not be confirmed. Ukrainian defenders are mainly believed to be holding out in Azovstal, another huge steel works.
Both plants are owned by Metinvest – the empire of Ukraine’s richest businessman and backbone of Ukraine’s industrial east – which told Reuters on Friday it would never let its enterprises operate under Russian occupation.
“We believe in the victory of Ukraine and plan to resume production after the end of hostilities,” Metinvest told Reuters in a statement, adding its sites were damaged but that it was impossible to say by how much while fighting still continued.
Motuzyanyk called Russia’s loss of the Moskva significant. But he said he was not authorised to give information on the factory near Kyiv which Moscow said its missiles had struck.
The Moskva was by far Russia’s largest vessel in the Black Sea fleet, equipped with guided missiles to shoot down planes and attack the shore, and radar to provide air defence cover for the fleet.
Moscow has used its naval power to blockade Ukrainian ports and threaten a potential amphibious landing along the coast. Without its flagship, its ability to menace Ukraine from the sea could be crippled.
No warship of such size has been sunk during conflict since Argentina’s General Belgrano, torpedoed by the British in the 1982 Falklands war.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces would step up strikes on Kyiv.
“The number and scale of missile strikes on targets in Kyiv will increase in response to any terrorist attacks or acts of sabotage on Russian territory committed by the Kyiv nationalist regime,” the Russian Defence Ministry said.
Kirill Kyrylo, 38, a worker at a car repair shop in the Ukrainian capital, said he had seen three blasts hit an industrial building across the street, causing a blaze that was later put out by firefighters.
“The building was on fire and I had to hide behind my car,” he said, pointing out the shattered glass of the repair shop and bits of metal that had flown over from the burning building.
Moscow reported that Russian villages in the Belgorod region near the border had been hit by Ukrainian shelling. Attacks in the area, a major staging ground for Russia’s invasion, could not be confirmed.
Russia initially described its aims in Ukraine as disarming its neighbour and defeating nationalists there.
Kyiv and its Western allies say those are bogus justifications for an unprovoked war of aggression that has driven a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes and led to the deaths of thousands.
The Washington Post reported that Moscow had sent a diplomatic note to the United States warning of “unpredictable consequences” unless Washington halts weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Russia said it had expelled 18 employees of the European Union’s delegation to Moscow in retaliation over Brussels’ expulsion of 19 Russians earlier this month.