Pressure from Russian forces mounted Saturday on Ukrainians hunkered down in Bakhmut, as residents attempted to flee with help from troops who Western analysts say may be preparing to withdraw from the key eastern stronghold. A woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of the city in Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them. A Ukrainian army representative who asked not to be named for operational reasons told The Associated Press that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave Bakhmut by vehicle and that people had to flee on foot instead. Bakhmut has for months been a prime target of Moscow’s grinding eastern offensive in the war, with Russian troops, including forces from the private Wagner Group, inching ever closer. An AP team near Bakhmut on Saturday saw a pontoon bridge set up by Ukrainian soldiers to help the few remaining residents reach the nearby village of Khromove. Later they saw at least five houses on fire as a result of attacks in Khromove. Also Read: A year into Ukraine war, bodies dug up in once occupied town Ukrainian units over the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to U.K. military intelligence officials and other Western analysts. The U.K. defense ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut’s northern suburbs. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv's actions may point to a looming pullout from parts of the city. It said Ukrainian troops may “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut,” while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west. Capturing Bakhmut would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the Donetsk region. Civilians spoke about daily struggles as the fighting raged on nearly nonstop, reducing much of Bakhmut to rubble. Husband and wife Hennadiy Mazepa and Natalia Ishkova, who chose to remain in the city, said they lack food and basic utilities. “Humanitarian (aid) is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas," Ishkova told AP on Saturday. “I pray to God that all who remain here will survive,” she added. At the United Nations on Friday, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said U.N. humanitarian staff reported “intensive hostilities” near Bakhmut and the few humanitarian partners on the ground were focusing on evacuating the most vulnerable. Also Saturday, Russia’s defense chief traveled to eastern Ukraine to inspect troops and award them with state decorations, the Defense Ministry said. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited a command post where he was briefed by regional commander Rustam Muradov, according to a video published by the ministry. It did not disclose the command post's location. Elsewhere, Ukraine’s emergency services reported in the morning that the death toll from a Russian missile strike that hit a five-story apartment building in southern Ukraine on Thursday rose to 11. Emergency services said in an online statement that rescuers pulled three more bodies from the wreckage overnight, some 36 hours after a Russian missile tore through four floors of the building in the riverside city of Zaporizhzhia. A child was among those reported killed, and the rescue effort was ongoing. Russian shelling on Saturday also killed two residents of front-line communities in the surrounding Zaporizhzhia region, the local military administration reported. A 57-year-old woman and a 68-year-old man also died in Nikopol, a town farther west near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as Russian forces fired artillery shells and rockets at Ukrainian-held territory across the Dnieper river, regional Gov. Serhiy Lysak reported. In the western city of Lviv, hundreds of kilometers from the front lines, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Saturday with the head of the European Union parliament. Hours earlier, Zelenskyy held talks with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and top European legal officials on how to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine. In a joint press briefing with Zelenskyy, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said that “all those responsible” for suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, must be brought to justice before a durable peace is achieved. Metsola voiced support for the EU’s announcement Thursday that an international center for the prosecution of the crime of aggression — the act of invading another country — would be set up in The Hague. She also called for Ukraine to start negotiations on joining the 27-nation bloc as early as this year and urged Western nations to keep arming Kyiv as it battles Russian forces in the east and south. The EU agreed in June to put Ukraine on a path toward membership, setting in motion a process that could take years or even decades. However, Moscow’s invasion and Ukraine’s request for fast-track consideration have lent urgency to the negotiations. “Ukraine’s future is in the European Union. We will walk all the way with you,” Metsola said on Twitter late Friday.
Renewed efforts to rescue civilians from increasingly dire conditions in besieged and bombarded Ukrainian cities were underway Wednesday. Days of shelling have largely cut residents of the southern city of Mariupol off from the outside world and forced them to scavenge for food and water. Meanwhile, the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear site was knocked off the power grid Wednesday and forced to switch onto generators. That raised alarm about the plant's ability to keep its nuclear fuel safely cool, though the U.N. nuclear watchdog said it saw “no critical impact on safety” from the power cut. Authorities announced another cease-fire to allow civilians to escape from Mariupol, Sumy in the northeast, Enerhodar in the south, Volnovakha in the southeast, Izyum in the east, and several towns in the region around the capital, Kyiv. Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors have largely failed due to attacks by Russian forces, and there were few details on Wednesday's new effort. It was not clear if anyone was able to leave Mariupol, but some people did start streaming out of Kyiv's suburbs, even as air raid sirens repeatedly went off in the capital and explosions could be heard there. Mariupol, which nearly half of the population of 430,000 is hoping to flee, has been surrounded by Russian forces for days. Corpses lie in the streets, and people break into stores in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands huddle in basements, sheltering from the Russian shells pounding this strategic port on the Azov Sea. “Why shouldn’t I cry?” resident Goma Janna demanded as she wept by the light of an oil lamp below ground, surrounded by women and children. “I want my home, I want my job. I’m so sad about people and about the city, the children.” READ: Russia-Ukraine war: Chernobyl site knocked off power grid Thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in two weeks of fighting since President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded. The U.N. estimates that more than 2 million people have fled the country, the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II. The crisis is likely to get worse as Russian forces step up their bombardment of cities throughout the country in response to stronger than expected resistance from Ukrainian forces. Russian losses have been “far in excess” of what Putin and his generals expected, CIA Director William Burns said Tuesday. An intensified push by Russian forces could mean “an ugly next few weeks,” Burns told a congressional committee, warning that Putin was likely to "grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that fighting continues northwest of Kyiv. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol are being heavily shelled and remain encircled by Russian forces. Adding to the dire humanitarian conditions were concerns about the safety of the Chernobyl plant, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986. Russian forces seized plant last week, and on Wednesday all its facilities were without power, the Ukrainian grid operator Ukrenerho said, citing the national nuclear regulator. The diesel generators have fuel for 48 hours. Without power, the “parameters of nuclear and radiation safety” cannot be controlled, Ukrenerho said. But the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency later said that while the development violates a “key safety pillar on ensuring uninterrupted power supply,” it sees “no critical impact on safety.” A reactor at Chernobyl exploded and caught fire in 1986. The plant was shut down in 2000, but the deserted site still stores spent nuclear fuel from Chernobyl and other nuclear plants around Ukraine. Experts have warned of catastrophic consequences if the war disrupts power to pumps that keep the radioactive fuel cool. It was at least the third time that the Russian offensive raised the specter of a nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, Russian forces are placing military equipment on farms and amid residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukraine’s general staff said. In the south, Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of a half-million people, it said. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is building up defenses in cities in the north, south and east, and forces around Kyiv are “holding the line” against the Russian offensive. That resistance is stiffer than many expected — and Western nations are rushing now to bolster their force. Ukraine's president has pleaded repeatedly for warplanes to counter Russia's significant air power, but Western countries have disagreed over how best to do that amid concerns it could raise the risk of the war expanding beyond Ukraine. Poland late Tuesday offered to give the U.S. 28 MiG-29 fighter planes for Ukraine's use. U.S. officials said that proposal was “untenable,” but they would continue to consult with Poland and other NATO allies. READ: Russia-Ukraine war: Shelling and evacuation efforts ongoing In addition to material support for Ukraine, Western countries have sought to pressure Russia through a series of punishing sanctions. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden upped the ante further, saying said the U.S. would ban all Russian oil imports, even if it meant rising costs for Americans. Energy exports have kept a steady stream of cash flowing to Russia despite otherwise severe restrictions that have largely cut its economy off from the world. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and General Electric all announced that they’re temporarily suspending business in the country, furthering that isolation. The moves have done little to blunt the conflict so far. A series of air raid alerts Wednesday morning urged residents of the capital to go to bomb shelters amid fears of incoming missiles. Associated Press reporters later heard explosions. Such alerts are common, though irregular, keeping people on edge. Kyiv has been relatively quiet in recent days, though Russian artillery has pounded the outskirts of the city. On those outskirts, police officers and soldiers helped elderly residents from their homes on Tuesday. People crowded together under a destroyed bridge before crossing a river on slippery wooden boards as they tried to escape Irpin, a town of 60,000 that has been targeted by Russian shelling. Kyiv regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians was growing in the capital, with the situation particularly critical in the city’s suburbs. “Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,” he said. Amid the bombardments, authorities have tried repeatedly to evacuate civilians, but many attempts have been thwarted by Russian shelling. One evacuation did appear successful on Tuesday, with Ukrainian authorities saying 5,000 civilians, including 1,700 foreign students, had managed to escape from Sumy, an embattled northeastern city of a quarter-million people. That corridor was to reopen for 12 hours on Wednesday, with the buses that took people southwest to the city of Poltava the day before returning to pick up more refugees, regional administration chief Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said. Priority was being given to pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and the disabled. In the south, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline in an effort to establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. That has left Mariupol encircled by Russian forces. On Tuesday, an attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine failed, with Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces fired on the convoy before it reached the city. Natalia Mudrenko, a senior member of Ukraine’s UN Mission, told the Security Council that the people of Mariupol have “been effectively taken hostage” by the siege. Her voice shook with emotion as she described how a 6-year-old died shortly after her mother was killed by Russian shelling. “She was alone in the last moments of her life,” she said. Theft has become widespread in the city as beleaguered residents search for food, clothes, even furniture. Some residents are reduced to scooping water from streams. Authorities say they plan to start digging mass graves for the dead. With the electricity out, many people rely on their car radios for information, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Ludmila Amelkina, who was walking along an alley strewn with rubble and walls pocked by gunfire, said the destruction had been devastating. “We don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have medicine. We’ve got nothing,” she said, looking skyward.