(CNN) – Russian forces now control most of Severodonetsk, the epicenter of the bloody battle in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Street clashes continued on Saturday in the eastern city, where Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are still fighting.
Serhiy Heidi, governor of the Luhansk region, which together make up the Donbass, said: “The situation is still difficult. The fighting continues, but unfortunately most of the city is under Russian control. Some spot battles are taking place in the streets.” neighboring Donetsk region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the fighting over the strategic city could force the outcome of the war in the east of the country.
“Severodonetsk remains the epicenter of the confrontation in the Donbass,” Zelensky said during his late-night speech on Wednesday.
“This is a very fierce, very difficult battle…perhaps one of the toughest in this entire war,” he added. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbass was decided there.”
Severdonetsk lies in the heart of Donbass, a sprawling industrial region in eastern Ukraine that has seen intermittent fighting since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized two regions there: the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
On Saturday, Hedayi said Ukraine still controlled the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, where 800 people are said to be sheltering, after a Russian-backed official claimed that Ukrainian fighters are also trapped there.
“The story about the siege of the Azot plant is a complete lie spread by Russian advocates,” Heidi said in the Telegram messaging app.
On Saturday, Rodion Miroshnik, the Russia-backed leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, said that up to 400 Ukrainian fighters are sheltering in the factory complex, hiding alongside civilians in shelters, and that negotiations are for their surrender and security. The evacuation of civilians continued.
“The fighters are trying to make demands, namely, to allow them to leave the territory of the chemical plant with the hostages and provide them with a passage to go to Lyschansk. These demands are unacceptable and will not be taken into account,” Mirosnik said.
Death toll rises in Mariupol
Further south, in Mariupol, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office reported 24 more children were killed on Saturday, following Russian shelling during a months-long siege of the southern port city.
The siege ended last month after Russian forces took control of the Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian forces had taken refuge.
This brings the total number of minors killed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine to 287, the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a post on Telegram. According to the statement, more than 492 children were injured during the war.
The statement added that these figures are not complete, as work is underway to verify the deaths of children in other places where active battles are taking place.
The office indicated that 1,971 educational institutions were damaged by the Russian bombing, and 194 of them were completely destroyed.
On May 25, an aide to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andruchenko, who also moved into Ukrainian-controlled territory, told CNN that Mariupol municipal officials believe that at least 22,000 city residents died during the three months of the war.
The news comes as the city grapples with a possible outbreak of cholera, according to a British intelligence report published on Friday.
The report said access to drinking water, internet and phone services is unreliable in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, reflecting concerns of Ukrainian officials at a time when Russia struggles to provide basic public services to the civilian population in the areas it has occupied.
“Ukraine will surely win”
With Russian forces advancing their control of key areas of Ukraine and increasing civilian casualties, Zelensky remained adamant that Ukraine would overcome the Russian invasion.
In a virtual special address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, the main defense conference in Asia, Zelensky said Ukraine would “certainly win” in its war against Russia.
“This is the confrontation between the possible, which we and many people in the world need, and the impossible, for which Russia is fighting so hard,” Zelensky said.
He added that Russia considers his country its “colony” and is doing its best to make it impossible for Ukraine to “exist freely and independently.”
“Russia wants to make it impossible for our people to use their lands, resources and water for their best interest. Russia wants to steal it, and this active plunder of the lands that they (managed) to occupy, they are taking literally everything,” added Zelensky.
“On the battlefield of Ukraine, the future rules of this world are determined along with the limits of what is possible,” Zelensky said.
“Let’s save the whole world from returning to the times when everything was decided on the basis of the so-called right of power and when it did not concern certain peoples, their ideas, and many nations,” said Zelensky.
The Ukrainian president also urged leaders to do everything necessary to “break the ability of Russia and any other country in the world to block the seas and destroy freedom of navigation.”
Failure to do so would lead to “a severe and severe food crisis and famine” in many Asian and African countries, Zelensky warned. He added that the Black Sea, through which Ukraine exported most of its food before the Russian invasion, has become the most dangerous waterway in the world.
Since the war began, Russia has prevented Ukraine from exporting goods from its ports, raising fears of a global food crisis.
Before the war, Russian and Ukrainian wheat supplies accounted for nearly 30% of global trade, and Ukraine was the world’s fourth largest corn exporter and fifth largest wheat exporter in the world, according to the US State Department. The United Nations World Food Programme, which helps fight global food insecurity, buys about half of the wheat from Ukraine each year and has warned of dire consequences if Ukrainian ports are not opened.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am grateful for your support of Ukraine, and I am grateful for your interest in Ukraine, our country. But remember that this support and concern is not only for Ukraine, but also for you,” said Zelensky.
CNN’s Kostan Nechiporenko, Johnny Hallam, Joshua Berlinger, and Maria Knight contributed to this report.