Russia’s seizure of Mariupol steel plant raises concerns among captured Ukrainian defenders

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s claimed seizure of a Mariupol steel plant that has become a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-desired victory in the war he has started, ending a siege three months that left the city in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared dead.

After the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last Ukrainian fighters from miles of underground factory tunnels, concern has grown for Ukrainian defenders who are now prisoners in Russian hands. .

Denis Pushilin, the leader of a region in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said on Saturday that Ukrainians, considered heroes by their fellow citizens, were sure to be brought to justice for their wartime actions.

“I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand for it from ordinary people, from society and, probably, from the sensible part of the world community,” Russian news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.

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Russian officials and state media have tried to label the fighters who locked themselves in the Azovstal steelworks as neo-Nazis and criminals. Among the more than 2,400 defenders of the plant were members of the Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins were seized upon by the Kremlin as part of an effort to make its invasion a battle against influence Nazi in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to seize Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last stronghold against Ukrainian resistance, and thus fulfill Moscow’s long-sought goal of control the strategic port city.

The Ukrainian army this week told the fighters holed up in the factory, hundreds of them wounded, that their mission was over and they could get out. He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

An end to the Battle of Mariupol would help Putin offset some bitter setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take control of Ukraine’s capital kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance which blocked an offensive in eastern Ukraine.

It also reinforces Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge between Russia and the Donbass region to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The impact on the wider war remained uncertain. Many Russian troops had already been redeployed from Mariupol elsewhere in the conflict, which began when Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported on Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special operations base in the Black Sea region of Odessa as well as a large cache of weapons supplied by the West in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.

In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including in the Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka regions.

After failing to capture kyiv, Russia focused its offensive on the industrial heartland in the east of the country. Russian-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbass region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control.

People ride bicycles in the street as smoke rises above a factory of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on May 2 2022. Photo by Alexander Ermoshenko/REUTERS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would not launch a counterattack on Russian territory, but stressed that the Donbass region remains sovereign vis-à-vis Ukraine.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Zelenskyy said his forces were fighting to ‘liberate our territory’ and the price of ‘tens or hundreds of thousands of lives’ was too high. to give it back.

He pressured Western countries to set up multiple rocket launcher systems, which he said ‘stand still’ in other countries but are ‘key’ to Ukraine’s success .

US President Joe Biden on Saturday signed a new aid injection of $40 billion for Ukraine, half of which is for military assistance. Portugal has also pledged up to 250 million euros in financial support, as well as continued deliveries of military equipment.

Mariupol, which is part of Donbass, was blocked at the start of the war and became a chilling example for people in the rest of the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.

The coastal steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been a battleground for weeks. Attracting Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of underarmed Ukrainian fighters resisted using airdrops before their government ordered them to abandon the factory.

Zelenskyy revealed in an interview published on Friday that Ukrainian helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to transport medicine, food and water to the steelworks, as well as recover bodies and rescue injured fighters. .

A “very large” number of pilots died during the missions, he said. “These are absolutely heroic people, who knew it would be difficult, knew flying would be next to impossible,” Zelenskyy said.

Russia claimed that the commander of the Azov regiment was taken from the factory in an armored vehicle due to local residents’ alleged hatred of him, but no evidence of Ukrainian antipathy towards the nationalist regiment emerged.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released a video of Russian troops arresting Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the date, location and conditions of the video.

With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the shelling of a maternity ward and theater where hundreds of civilians had gathered. refugees.

Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the factory during humanitarian ceasefires and spoke of the terror of relentless shelling and damp conditions underground.

READ MORE: Russia claims to have taken full control of Mariupol in its biggest victory of the war

It is estimated that 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided there before the war remain. Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.

An aide to the mayor of Mariupol said on Saturday that Russian forces were blocking all roads from the city and warned displaced residents not to return to collect their belongings.

“As of today, any evacuation from the city becomes impossible until the opening of separate corridors,” Pedro Andryushchenko wrote on Telegram.

The managing director of Metinvest, a multinational that owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke about the devastation of the city in an interview published Saturday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“The Russians are trying to clean it (the city) to hide their crimes,” said Metinvest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov, quoted by the newspaper. “Residents are trying to make the city work, to make the water work again.”

“But the sewage system is damaged, there has been flooding and infections are to be feared” from drinking the water, he said.

The Ilyich steel plant still has infrastructure intact, but if the Russians try to operate it, the Ukrainians will refuse to resume work there, Ryzhenkov said.

“We will never work under Russian occupation,” he said.

McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and other AP staff from around the world contributed.


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