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Russian forces launch new attacks in eastern Ukraine as EU weighs oil sanctions

Multiple explosions and rising smoke are seen around an industrial compound in Mariupol, in this screengrab from video released on March 22, 2022. (By Reuters)

Russian forces have reportedly launched a series of fresh assaults on different sites in eastern Ukraine, as Moscow's offensive against the former Soviet country continues.

Russian forces resumed attacks on the Azovstal steel complex, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the besieged southern city of Mariupol on Tuesday, as over a hundred civilians who had been trapped in the site for weeks were finally brought to safety.

Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov military unit, said, "A powerful assault on the territory of the Azovstal plant is underway with support from armored vehicles and tanks."

Russian forces are also attempting "to land a large number of infantry by boat," he said, calling for "immediate" efforts to evacuate remaining civilians.

The Russian military has confirmed its forces were targeting Azovstal with artillery and planes in the wake of the evacuation, accusing Azov members and other Ukrainian troops of using a pause in fighting to take up combat positions.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky said in a daily address that more than 150 people had been successfully extracted in evacuation operations in Mariupol.

"Today, 156 people arrived in (the Ukrainian-held city) Zaporizhzhia. Women and children. They have been in shelters for more than two months," Zelensky said.

"We are so thankful for everyone who helped us. There was a moment we lost hope, we thought everyone forgot about us," evacuee Anna Zaitseva told AFP after arriving in the city of Zaporizhzhia, while holding her six-month-old baby in her arms.

She also warned that there "may be more civilians who remain trapped" in Azovstal.

A Mariupol mayoral adviser said further evacuations from the city were to take place Wednesday with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross.

On April 25, Russia announced a ceasefire around the giant fortress-like Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol to allow a civilian evacuation from the flashpoint industrial area. It is estimated by Moscow that some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and fighters are holed up inside the steel plant. Hundreds of civilians are reportedly sheltering with the Ukrainian troops inside.

Those who still remain holed up in Azovstal's underground bunkers are believed to be running out of water, food, and medicine.

The ill-fated city has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between the two sides since the onset of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine in late February.

Mariupol is now largely calm, according to AFP journalists who were on a recent press tour organized by Russian forces, with the remaining locals emerging from hiding to a ruined city.

Earlier in the day, the  governor of the Donetsk region Pavlo Kyrylenko said that Russian attacks on the Avdiivka coke plant had killed 21 civilians and injured 27, adding that the figure was the highest daily death toll in nearly a month.

In a post on Telegram, regional governor Serhiy Haida said attacks and shelling had also intensified in Ukraine's eastern separatist region of Luhansk, with the most difficult area being Popasna, where it was impossible to organize evacuations.

"There are no safe cities in Luhansk region," he said.

Moscow is pushing for complete control of the Donbass region, where pro-Russia forces held parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces even before the Russian military operation.

The latest developments come as the European Union (EU) is moving to punish Moscow with oil sanctions over its offensive against Ukraine, while Western countries continue to provide Kiev with cash and weapons to hold off Russia's advance. EU officials on Tuesday handed a draft plan to member states on a new package of sanctions aimed at Moscow.

But several EU officials and European diplomats in Brussels told AFP there were divisions, with at least one member state jockeying to opt out of an oil embargo.

Ambassadors from the 27 EU countries will meet Wednesday to deliberate the plan, and it will need unanimous approval before going into effect.

Putin announced the military offensive in Ukraine on February 24.

Western countries have responded by backing Ukraine with cash and increasingly heavy weaponry while imposing sanctions against Russia.

On Tuesday, the UK promised to supply another £300 million in military aid to Ukraine. The UK has previously dispatched around £450 million in military equipment to Kiev in several stages.

The US Congress is also considering a $33-billion military aid package for Ukraine.

Putin has urged the West to halt its arms deliveries to Ukraine to help end ongoing atrocities in the former Soviet country.

The conflict in Ukraine has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 13 million, creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

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