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‘Thank you to everyone who fights for Ukraine,’ Zelenskyy says from Snake Island to mark 500th day of war

Saturday marks the 500th day of the Russian invasion, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke from Snake Island, which became the symbol of his country's resilience. Zelenskyy also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who expressed support for Ukraine joining NATO.

Reclaiming Snake Island proof Ukraine will regain 'every bit of its territory': president

Man sits in front of flags

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday marked the 500th day of war in Ukraine by hailing the country's soldiers, in a video from a Black Sea island that became the symbol of Ukraine's resilience in the face of the Russian invasion.

Speaking from Snake Island, Zelenskyy, wearing a black hoodie and camouflage bullet-proof vest, laid flowers to honour those who defended the island and thanked all of the soldiers who have fought for Ukraine since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

Zelenskyy said reclaiming control of the island "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 in the video posted on his Telegram channel.

"Thank you to everyone who fights for Ukraine."

To the people of Ukraine: Your strength, courage, and resilience are inspiring. As we mark 500 days since Russia’s full-scale invasion, I want to be very clear: Canada’s support for you remains steadfast. And we’ll continue to make sure you have what you need to win this war.

—@JustinTrudeau

It was unclear when the video was made. Zelenskyy was returning from a visit to Turkey on Saturday.

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.

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 custody. 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.

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.

Island a symbol of defiance

Russian forces took control of Snake Island — which overlooks sea lanes to Odesa, Ukraine's main Black Sea port — on the day Moscow launched the invasion.

The tiny stone island took on legendary significance for Ukraine's resistance to the Russian invasion, when troops reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The Ukrainian soldiers defending the island famously defied the order, with one of them radioing back, "Russian warship, go f–k yourself."

The phrase became a national slogan for Ukraine, depicted on billboards, T-shirts and eventually a postage stamp.

Soldiers feed cats

Snake Island's Ukrainian defenders were captured by the Russians 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.

"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," Zelenskyy said. "We will definitely win."

Battles rage in Ukraine's east, south

Intense battles continued to rage on Saturday in the country's east and south as Ukrainian forces pressed their attacks against multi-layered Russian defences in the initial stages of their counteroffensive.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said a Russian rocket strike on the town of Lyman killed eight civilians and wounded 13 others early Saturday.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, 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.

WATCH | Russian missiles hit apartment building in Ukraine, killing at least 6:

Russian missiles strike Ukrainian apartment building, killing at least 6

2 days ago

Duration 1:57

At least six people are dead after Russian missiles hit an apartment building in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and authorities warn there could still be people trapped in the rubble.

The ministry said a private residence, a shop and a few cars were damaged in the attack on Lyman, which sits just a few kilometres from the front line, where Russian troops have recently intensified fighting in the forests of Kreminna.

Britain's Ministry of Defence 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 Ukrainian forces have made steady gains to both the north and south of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, 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."

The Russian military has insisted that it has successfully fended off Ukrainian attacks in various sections of the front and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.

The Russian Defence Ministry on Saturday released footage of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visiting firing ranges where volunteer soldiers are being trained.

Pitched battles along the front line are raging as NATO leaders are set to meet in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, 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.

Zelenskyy meets Erdogan in Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support early Saturday for Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying it deserves to join the alliance.

He made the comment at a joint news conference with Zelenskyy, who visited Turkey as part of a European tour to rally support for Ukraine's entry into the military alliance after the war with Russia comes to an end.

Two men shake hands

Ahead of the NATO summit, the United States has announced that it will provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, a move that U.S. 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 Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the U.S. move, saying the delivery of cluster munitions will help the country deoccupy its territories while saving the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

Reznikov vowed that Ukraine will use the munitions only for the deoccupation of its territory and will not fire them at Russia's proper territory. Reznikov also noted that the Ukrainian military will not use cluster munitions in urban areas to avoid hurting civilians, adding that they will be put to action in the field to "break through the enemy defence lines with minimum risk for the lives of our soldiers."

With files from Reuters

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