POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed it captured Mariupol on Friday in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, following a nearly three-month siege that reduced a much of the strategic port city to a smoking ruin, with more than 20,000 civilians feared dead.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
LOOK: Ukrainian fighters leave Mariupol steel plant
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced to President Vladimir Putin the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance – and the city as a whole, the report said. spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the ministry said a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been entrenched in Azovstal had laid down their arms and surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.
The steel mills had been the scene of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of underarmed fighters had held out in the factory, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire before their government ordered them to abandon its defense and save their lives.
The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a much-needed military victory in the war he started on February 24 – a conflict that was supposed to have been a quick and easy victory for the Kremlin, but which instead saw the failure to capture the capital of kyiv, a withdrawal of his forces to refocus on the battles in eastern Ukraine, and even the sinking of the Russian flagship of his Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva.
Military analysts say the capture of the city at this stage has more symbolic significance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were bound by the endless fighting are already parts.
Russia had sought control of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov coast, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and release troops to join the battle growing for control of the wider industrial Donbass. region, home to a separatist rebellion supported by Moscow for 8 years. It would also deprive Ukraine of a vital port.
The city endured some of the worst suffering of the war. An estimated 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many of whom were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The constant shelling left behind broken and charred buildings, row after row of destroyed buildings and ruined neighborhoods.
A maternity hospital was hit by a deadly Russian airstrike on March 9, producing vivid images of pregnant women being evacuated from the facility.
A week later, around 300 people were reportedly killed in a bombardment of a theater where civilians were taking refuge, although the true toll could be closer to 600. Officials had written the word “CHILDREN” in Russian on the sidewalk outside to try to prevent an air attack.
Long traffic jams of cars snaked out of town, filled with evacuees fleeing checkpoints from heavy-armed Russian soldiers who had no time to search inside each vehicle in the convoys.
Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians. The images showed rows of graves extending from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside the port city.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused Russians of ‘hiding their military crimes’ in mass graves and called him a ‘new Babi Yar’ – reminiscent of the kyiv ravine where the Nazis massacred nearly 34,000 Jews Ukrainians during World War II.
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It was not the first time that Moscow claimed to have captured Mariupol. In a joint appearance with his defense minister on April 21, Putin said “completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success.” Even though the intransigent Ukrainian forces were still inside the Azovstal plant at the time, Putin ordered the military to cordon off the complex “so that not even a fly would pass through”.
After continuous shelling, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on May 16 that the evacuation of his forces from the bunkers and tunnels under Azovstal had been done to save the lives of the fighters.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to live. This is our principle,” Zelenskyy said.
The Azovstal complex covers 11 square kilometers (4 sq mi) and is criss-crossed by approximately 24 kilometers (15 mi) of tunnels and bunkers. Earlier in May, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the factory during humanitarian ceasefires.
A civilian evacuee from Azovstal, who traveled to the Ukrainian-held town of Zaporizhzhia on May 3, said she went to sleep at the factory every night, fearing she might not wake up. “You can’t imagine how scary it is when you’re sitting in the air-raid shelter, in a damp, wet basement, and it’s bouncing and shaking,” said Elina Tsybulchenko, 54. .
While Russia described the troop departure from the steel plant as a massive surrender, the Ukrainians called it mission accomplished.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, described the defense of Mariupol as “the Thermopylae of the 21st century” – a reference to one of the most glorious defeats in history, in which 300 Spartans withstood a force Persian much more important in 480 av. BC before finally succumbing.
“Azovstal’s defenders thwarted enemy plans to seize eastern Ukraine, attracted huge numbers of enemy forces and changed the course of the war,” Podolyak said.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said the defenders of Mariupol had given Ukraine “extremely important time to form reserves, regroup forces and receive help from partners”. And they fulfilled all their tasks.
McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and other AP staff from around the world contributed.