Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his forces not to storm the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, but instead to block it “so that not even a fly comes through.”
- Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been holed up inside the massive Azovstal steel plant
- Russia says the plant has now been “securely blocked”
- Azovstal’s defenders have repeatedly ignored calls to surrender
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said the rest of the city beyond the sprawling steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are sheltering, had been “liberated”, a phrase Russian officials use to describe the areas of Ukraine they have seized.
Earlier, Ukrainian defenders inside the plant had warned they were outnumbered and running out of supplies.
Leaving the plant in Ukrainian hands means Russia is unable to declare complete victory in Mariupol, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
The city’s capture would have both strategic and symbolic importance.
The definitive fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula and free up Russian troops to move elsewhere in the Donbas.
Ukrainian officials have not yet commented on Mr Putin’s remarks, but Mr Shoigu said the plant was “securely blocked”.
The comments suggest a change in strategy for Russian forces who had previously seeming determined to take control of the entire city.
Soldiers, civilians sheltering from bombs in tunnels and bunkers
Earlier, Ukrainian authorities said four buses had managed to evacuate civilians from Mariupol, but thousands more remained trapped in the city that has been reduced to a smoking ruin.
Ukraine said the Russians began dropping heavy bunker-busting bombs to flatten what was left of the Azovstal steel plant earlier this week.
By Russia’s estimate, a few thousand Ukrainian troops remained in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 11 square kilometres.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped in the plant.
One Ukrainian who is reportedly in the plant posted a video on Facebook urging world leaders to help evacuate people from the plant, saying: “We have more than 500 wounded soldiers and hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children.”
The officer identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade and warned: “This may be our last appeal. We may have only a few days or hours left.”
Russia has repeatedly issued ultimatums to the defenders to surrender, but they have been ignored.
More than 100,000 people are believed to still be Mariupol with little if any food, water, medicine or heat.
The city’s pre-war population was around 400,000 people.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Twitter that he and other Ukrainian negotiators were ready to hold talks without conditions to save the lives of trapped Mariupol defenders and civilians.
There was no immediate response from Russia.
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