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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Ryan Merrifield

Zelensky visits island where soldiers told Russian warship to go 'f*** itself'

Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked the 500th day of the war today by hailing the country's soldiers in a video.

The Ukrainian President made a surprise visit to Snake Island, in the Black Sea, which became the symbol of his nation's resilience in the face of the invasion.

Russia took control of the island on February 24, 2022 - the day Moscow launched its war - in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa, Ukraine's biggest port and the headquarters of its navy.

Defending troops there reportedly received a demand from a warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer, during a radio exchange which later went viral, came back: "Go f*** yourself."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered his nightly address to the nation from Snake Island (Zuma Press/PA Images)

The words were then immortalised as a national slogan, appearing on T-shirts and billboards. The island's Ukrainian defenders were captured but later freed as part of a prisoner exchange.

After the island was taken, the Ukrainian military heavily bombarded the small Russian garrison there, forcing the Russians to pull back on June 30, 2022.

The Russian retreat reduced the threat of a seaborne Russian attack on Odesa and helped pave the way for a deal to resume Ukrainian grain exports.

Today, Zelenskyy honoured the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the island and all other defenders of the country, saying that reclaiming control of it "is a great proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory".

"I want to thank - from here, from this place of victory - each of our soldiers for these 500 days," Zelenskyy said. "Thank you to everyone who fights for Ukraine!"

He announced that five commanders of the defence of the Azovstal steel plant, a gruelling months-long siege early in the war, were returning on the plane with him.

Zelensky looks on as he lays flowers during his visit to Snake Island (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

The sprawling steelworks was the last bastion of resistance as Russian forces took control of the port city of Mariupol.

Its defenders became renowned among Ukrainians for holding out in wretched conditions in the plant's tunnels and corridors.

Azovstal's more than 2,000 defenders left the steelworks in mid-May 2022 and were taken into Russian captivity.

The five leaders, some of whom were part of the Azov national guard regiment that Russia denounces as neo-Nazi, were freed in a September prisoner swap and taken to Turkey.

Zelensky left a message on a sign during his visit (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

Under the exchange, the leaders were to remain in Turkey until the end of the war under the Turkish president's protection.

There was no immediate official explanation from Ankara or Kyiv about why they were allowed to return to Ukraine.

Zelenskyy said: "Let the freedom that all our heroes of different times wanted for Ukraine and that must be won right now be a tribute to all those who gave their lives for Ukraine.

"We will definitely win!"

Zelensky shaking hands with a commander of defenders of the Azovstal steel plant Denys Prokopenko (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

Intense battles are continuing to rage today in the country's east and south as Ukrainian forces press their attacks against multi-layered Russian defences in the initial stages of their counteroffensive.

Ukraine's interior ministry said that a Russian rocket strike on the town of Lyman killed eight civilians and wounded 13 others earlier today.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the eastern Donetsk region, posted images showing some of the dead, including a body lying under a bicycle and body fragments on the pavement next to a damaged vehicle, saying that "the Russian terrorists are continuing to strike civilians in Donetsk".

Lyman is a few miles from the front line, where Russian troops have recently intensified fighting in the forests of Kreminna.

Zelensky hugging a commander of defenders of the Azovstal steel plant Svyatoslav Palamar (UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER)

The U.K. Ministry of Defense said in its latest intelligence update that the eastern town of Bakhmut that was captured by the Russians in May has seen some of the most intense fighting along the front during the last week.

It said that Ukrainian forces have made steady gains to both the north and south of Bakhmut, noting that "Russian defenders are highly likely struggling with poor morale, a mix of disparate units and a limited ability to find and strike Ukrainian artillery".

Amid the fighting, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of planning to sabotage the Russia-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is Europe's largest, fueling fears of a radiation catastrophe.

Ukraine's military intelligence claimed Saturday that Russian troops have planted more mines around the plant, a claim that couldn't be independently verified.

The head of the United Nations nuclear agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said on Friday that the International Atomic Energy Agency experts had recently gained access to more of the site, including the cooling pond and fuel storage areas, and found no mines there.

Grossi said he was still pushing for access to the rooftops of reactors where Ukrainian officials accused Russia of planting explosives.

On Saturday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was shown visiting firing ranges where volunteer soldiers are being trained, a trip that comes two weeks after an abortive mutiny launched by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner troops marched on Moscow in a bid to oust Shoigu.

Prigozhin agreed to end the mutiny, which represented the biggest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his more than two decades in power, in exchange for an amnesty for himself and his troops and permission to move to Belarus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Getty Images)

On Saturday, Russian messaging app channels ran comments by one of Wagner's commanders, Anton Yelizarov, who said that the mercenaries had taken leave but would eventually deploy to Belarus.

Pitched battles along the front line in Ukraine are raging as NATO leaders are set to meet in Vilnius for a two-day summit next week to offer more help in modernizing Ukraine's armed forces, create a new high-level forum for consultations and reaffirm that it will join their alliance one day.

Ahead of the NATO summit, the U.S. has announced that it will provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, a move that President Joe Biden described as a "difficult decision." Two-thirds of NATO members have banned the munitions, which have a track record of causing many civilian casualties, but the U.S. sees their delivery as a way to help bolster Ukraine's offensive and push through Russian front lines.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the U.S. move, saying that the delivery of cluster munitions would help the country de-occupy its territories while saving the lives of the Ukrainian soldiers.

Reznikov vowed that Ukraine would use the munitions only for the de-occupation of its territory and would not fire them at Russia's proper territory. He also noted that the Ukrainian military would not use cluster munitions in urban areas to avoid hurting civilians.

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