‘US missiles with a 100-mile range’ are used in first strikes to retake Mariupol

Published by The Mail on Sunday (26th February, 2023)

Ukraine has launched a series of surprise attacks on Russian troops and supply lines in Mariupol – the first strikes on the city since it fell to the Kremlin last May after a brutal three-month siege that left the key port in ruins.

There were at least 18 strikes last week over three successive days – the most recent on Friday night – in a significant ratcheting up of Ukrainian efforts to retake its captured southern corridor, the strip of coastal land that links to Crimea.

There is speculation the explosions – which took place amid Kyiv’s warnings of a Russian offensive to coincide with the war’s first anniversary – may have involved newly donated long-range US rockets with a range of almost 100 miles.

Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, said: ‘Our military destroys Russian terrorists who invaded our city called Mariupol. And believe me, distance is not of great importance to us today.’

Analysts believe the new initiative heralds the launch of Ukrainian efforts to drive a wedge through to the coast between Russian forces in the east and south of the country. There is talk of a major spring offensive once their military is boosted by Western weapons.

Moscow has turned Mariupol into a significant garrison for its forces, believing that the Sea of Azov port was too far away to be hit by the nearest Ukrainian forces, about 60 miles away in the fiercely contested mining town of Vuhledar.

Mariupol sources say the attacks, targeted with the aid of local sympathisers, hit ammunition dumps, fuel depots and a military barracks based in a steel plant, resulting in 50 Russian casualties in the first wave of explosions on Wednesday.

There were 12 reported strikes that day, then five the following day – including at least two more on the Illich steel and iron works and one near the airport. Another explosion took place at about 10.30pm on Friday.

Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol. said: ‘I am absolutely happy. We worked hard with our resistance inside Mariupol for this attack. This is a step towards the de-occupation of Mariupol. Any Ukrainian should be happy.’

Another local official said Russian targets were also struck in the villages of Yalta and Yurivka, about 20 miles along the coast from Mariupol, where there is a ‘large concentration of occupiers’.

Oleg Zhdanov, a former Ukrainian artillery colonel and leading defence analyst, said: ‘What we are seeing in Mariupol is a systematic destruction of logistics supplies for the Russians. It looks like the same as we did before retaking Kherson.’

A Ukrainian counter-offensive liberated Kherson four months ago in a major blow for Vladimir Putin’s claims to have annexed the entire region, although the city remains under frequent shelling from Russian forces.

Zhdanov said Mariupol was a key Russian hub for troops, weapons, ammunition, fuel and food. ‘Liberation is not only possible but inevitable. ‘The only question is what weapon was used to reach Mariupol. We can only guess.’

Intelligence sources in Kyiv declined to discuss the attacks. Previously, Ukraine has used drones, special forces operatives and groups of local partisans to strike deep behind enemy lines and even sites inside Russia.

Last summer, the momentum of the war shifted after the US started supplying multiple-rocket launchers known as HIMARS, which fire satellite-guided rockets with a top range of 50 miles – more than anything Ukraine previously possessed.

Earlier this month Washington announced that it would almost double Kyiv’s strike range with the supply of the ground-launched small diameter bomb, a precision-guided rocket that can be launched in any weather and defeat electronic jamming.

Russian propagandists claimed these bombs were used in the Mariupol attacks – although the strikes could have involved long-range kamikaze drones already used for attacks on bases in Crimea and Russian airfields.

After the first attack last week, Russian-appointed officials sought to reassure residents by claiming their air defences had shot down two Ukrainian drones.

Almost half a million people lived in the industrial port of Mariupol before the war, but following Russia’s bombardments that flattened much of the city, it is thought only about 90,000 Ukrainians remain under occupation.

Moscow is believed to have brought in about 40,000 civilians, many from central Asia, to clear the wreckage and cover up war crimes. Ukrainian symbols are being ripped down while Russian education, passports and television have been imposed.

Mykhailo Dianov, a Ukrainian marine who took part in the siege’s brutal final battles at Azovstal steel plant, said Mariupol could be easily recaptured since their forces know all the bunkers, entrances and loopholes in the defences. ‘The only difficulty is that civilians remain there,’ he said.

One 18-year-old student, who stayed to care for his elderly grandmother, claimed to have heard the explosions. ‘The Russians did not expect it. They keep saying that it’s all good, that there were drones and they just shot them down, but my house was shaking,’ he said.

An elderly woman in Mariupol said Russia failed to deliver on pledges to residents – including to fix a huge hole in her roof caused by their bombardment. ‘They lied to us,’ she said. ‘They don’t even pay the pensions on time. Life got much worse.

‘A year ago we had everything. Yes, it was not perfect, but we had food and heating and there were all the products in the shops. I miss Ukrainian shops – it’s expensive and the choice is so poor and no one has money.’

‘I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. I just know that I had a better life. I was hoping Russia would do more for us.’

General Valery Zaluzhny, head of Ukraine’s armed forces, says that he promised a four-year-old boy they will liberate Mariupol this year. Perhaps those strikes last week is the start of keeping that promise.

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