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Ukrainian Zelenskyy challenges as Russia withdraws from Kharkiv

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Fresh off his country’s Eurovision win, defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pledged Sunday morning to one day hold the song contest in the beleaguered city of Mariupol, which is nearly entirely in Russian hands except for a loyal group of a few hundred Ukrainian fighters who continue to hold out in a steel mill.

Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra won the popular competition with their song “Stefania,” which became a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and their victory lifted their spirits.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Zelenskyy said on Facebook. “Next year, Ukraine will host Eurovision!”

The group made an impassioned plea during the show to help fighters still at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city, and Zelenskyy said “one day” the contest would be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.

President’s optimistic words come as Russian troops pull out of Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, after bombarding it for weeks, and forces in Moscow continue to fight a fierce battle for the industrial heartland from the east of the country.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces are now withdrawing from the northeastern city to focus on protecting supply routes, while launching mortars, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern region of Donetsk with the aim of “exhausting the Ukrainian forces and destroying the fortifications”.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new long-term phase of the war”.

Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped strip of territory in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which make up the eastern Donbass region, along the border of the industrial region where Ukraine is fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

In the southern Donbass, the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov is now largely under Russian control, except for the few hundred soldiers who remain in the steel plant.

A convoy of 500 to 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of town could have reached the Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured soldiers from the steelworks. .

After failing to capture kyiv after the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his attention east to the Donbass, aiming to encircle the most experienced and best-equipped Ukrainian troops, and seize territory still under the control of Ukraine.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel in the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems like a back and forth without major breakthroughs on either side.

Russia captured some villages and towns in Donbass, including Rubizhne, which had a population of around 55,000 before the war.

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also advanced in the east, retaking six towns or villages over the past day. In his evening speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbass remains very difficult” and that Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious”.

“Step by step,” Zelenskyy said, “we are forcing the occupiers out of Ukrainian land.”

Kharkiv, which lies near the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has endured weeks of heavy shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a key military objective early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.

Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, then driving them out of the city, as they did Russian forces trying to seize Kyiv. “

Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no bombing attacks on Kharkiv over the past day.

He added that Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least early April.

Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russia’s advance, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. independent Ukrainian.

“The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is being decided – there are around 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.

However, Russian forces suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of approximately 1,000 soldiers.

The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure on Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine”.

Putin justified the war in Ukraine by saying it was a response to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But the invasion is raising fears in other countries on Russia’s flank that they could be next, and last week Finland’s president and prime minister said they were in favor of joining. NATO. Swedish officials are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether they will apply to join the Western military alliance.

In a phone call on Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there was no security threat to Finland and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and would “negatively affect Russian-Russian relations.” Finnish”.

Potential offers from the Nordic nations were thrown into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not of a favorable view”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish Foreign Minister, this weekend in Germany.

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Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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