Russia says it has “liberated” the strategic port city of Mariupol, apart from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant which Ukrainian forces have made their last stronghold.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin on Thursday that the Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian forces and hundreds of civilians have been holed up, was “securely blocked” while the rest of the city was “liberated”, which Putin hailed as “success”, according to The Associated Press news agency.
Putin told Shoigu that the military should not storm the site, and blockade the steelworks instead.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities. Block off this … area so that not even a fly can escape,” Putin said during the televised meeting.
Putin also called on Ukrainian fighters at the site to surrender, saying Russia would treat them with respect and would provide medical assistance to those injured.
It is unclear how many soldiers are at the site. According to some estimates, as many as 2,000 soldiers remain at Azovstal.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister called on Moscow to facilitate the evacuation of what she said were 500 wounded soldiers and about 1,000 civilians.
“I urge world leaders and the international community to focus now their efforts exactly on Azovstal. Now this is a key point and a key moment for humanitarian efforts,” Iryna Vereshchuk said in a post on Facebook.
Mariupol has witnessed intense fighting during the weeks-long war, and its capture has strategic and symbolic importance.
Much of the city has been reduced to a smoking ruin in a nearly two-month siege, with tens of thousands of people feared dead.
Its definitive fall would enable the Kremlin to create a land bridge between Russia and the annexed Crimean Peninsula, while Russian troops could move elsewhere in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Pro-Russian separatists already control swaths of territory in the Donbas, where they set up two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in early 2014.
In recent days, Russia launched a new offensive aimed at seizing the area in its entirety.