Russia has claimed to have fully captured Mariupol in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, marking an end to a weeks-long attack that left the strategic port city in ruins.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin on Friday the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, and the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
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“The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant … has been completely liberated,” the defence ministry said in a statement. It said a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been holed up at the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.
A defence ministry video purporting to show the surrender showed a line of unarmed men approaching Russian soldiers outside the plant and giving their names. The Russians then carefully searched each man and their possessions and also appeared to be asking them to show their tattoos.
Hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the last defenders at the steelworks had been told by Ukraine’s military that they could get out and save their lives. The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm the Russian figures on Azovstal.
Ukraine’s General Staff of Armed Forces did not comment on Russia’s claims in its morning update on Saturday.
The abandonment of the bunkers and tunnels of the bombed-out plant by the Azov Regiment means an end to the most destructive siege of a war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine nearly three months ago.
Much of Mariupol has been reduced to a smoking ruin, with more than 20,000 civilians feared dead.
The defence of the steel mill had been led by Ukraine’s Azov regiment, whose far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russia said the Azov commander was taken away from the plant in an armoured vehicle.
Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel mill’s defenders for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals. That has stirred international fears about their fate.
Badly needed victory for Putin
The steelworks, which sprawled across 11 square kilometres ( four square miles), had been the site of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian air raids, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the plant’s defence and save themselves.
The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a badly needed victory in the war he began on February 24 – a conflict that was supposed to have been a lightning conquest for the Kremlin but instead has seen its failure to take the capital of Kyiv, a pullback of forces to refocus on eastern Ukraine, and the sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Military analysts said Mariupol’s capture at this point is of mostly symbolic importance, since the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the fighting there had already left.
The Kremlin had sought control of Mariupol to complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to join the larger battle for the Donbas. The city’s loss also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.
Mariupol endured some of the worst suffering of the war and became a worldwide symbol of defiance. An estimated 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows upon rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.