Russia claims to have captured Mariupol, its biggest victory in its war with Ukraine, after a nearly three-month siege that turned most of its strategic port city to smoking ruins, which could kill more than 20,000 civilians.
Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had reported to President Vladimir Putin that the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol had been completely liberated.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the defense ministry as saying that a total of 2,439 Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the steel mill had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 since Friday.
When they surrendered, the army was taken prisoner by the Russians, and at least some were taken to their former prisons. The rest were reported to have been hospitalized.
The defense of the steelworks was led by the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, which took control of the far-right organization by the Kremlin in an effort to invade Ukraine into a battle against Nazi influence. Russia said that commander Azov was driven out of the factory in his armored car.
Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the ironworks’ advocates for war crimes, bring them to trial, and brand them “Nazis” and criminals. It aroused international fears about their fate.
The 11 sq km (4 sq mi) steel mill was the site of several weeks of fierce battles. The shrinking thirteen fighters were holding out, and they launched Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire before the Russian government ordered them to give up their factory defenses and save themselves.
Mariupol’s full takeover gives Putin a much-needed victory in the war he started on February 24. The conflict was the Kremlin’s lightning conquest, but instead was forced to retreat after an unsuccessful attempt to retake the capital of Kyiv. The decline of troops to refocus on eastern Ukraine and the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Military analysts say at this point the fall of Mariupol was mostly symbolic. Because the city was already under effective control of Moscow, and most of the Russian troops bound by battle there had already left.
In other developments on Friday, the West moved to provide billions of dollars more aid to Ukraine, and fierce battles are raging in Donbas, an industrial center in eastern Ukraine that Putin is trying to take over.
Ukrainian authorities say Russian troops have hit schools, among other locations, as they bombard major highways and continue their attacks on major cities in the Luhansk region. Luhansk is part of Donbas.
The Kremlin tried to take control of Mariupol in an attempt to complete the land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free the army to participate in the bigger battle for Donbas. The loss of the city also deprives Ukraine of an important port.
Mariupol endured the worst of the war and became a symbol of worldwide resistance. About 100,000 people remained from the pre-war population of 450,000, and many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Rows of buildings were shattered or hollowed out by merciless artillery fire.
On March 9, a Russian obstetrics and gynecology hospital was hit by a fatal Russian airstrike, leaving horrific images of pregnant women evacuating from the hospital. A week later, the actual death toll could be close to 600, but it is reported that around 300 people were killed in a bombing at a theater where civilians were being evacuated.
Satellite imagery in April showed what appeared to be a large tomb just outside Mariupol. There, local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that the withdrawal of his troops from miles of tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal was done to save the lives of fighters.
Hundreds of civilians were evacuated from factories during the humanitarian armistice earlier this month, speaking of fears of constant bombardment, damp conditions underground and fears of not being able to survive.
As the end drew near in Azovstal, the wives of the warriors who were holding out at the iron mill said they were afraid of their final contact with their husbands.
Marine Corps wife Olga Boiko wiped away tears Thursday when she said her husband had written her a letter. you. kiss me hi.”
Natalia Zaritskaya, the wife of another warrior from Azovstal, said according to messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on the road from Hell to Hell. Every part of this road is deadly.”
She said two days ago, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers he served with, only eight survived, most of them seriously injured.
Russia described the troops leaving the steel mill as a massive surrender, while Ukraine called it mission accomplished. They said the fighters had tied up Moscow’s troops and thwarted their attempts to take control of the east.
Zelensky’s advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, described Mariupol’s defenses as “The Thermopylae of the 21st Century”. surrender.
Another development Friday:
— Zelensky said Russia must pay for every home, school, hospital and business it destroys. He urged Ukrainian partners to confiscate Russian funds and property under their jurisdiction and use them to create funds to compensate those affected.
“Russia will feel the true weight of every missile, every bomb, every shell fired at us,” he said in a nightly video speech.
— The G7 major economies and global financial institutions have agreed to provide more money to strengthen Ukraine’s finances, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the United States, President Joe Biden is expected to sign a $40 billion military and economic assistance package to Ukraine and its allies.
— Russia will shut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday, days after Finland applied for NATO membership, Finland’s state-owned energy company said. Finland rejected Moscow’s request to pay gas in rubles. This cutoff is not expected to have an immediate impact. According to Finnish broadcaster YLE, natural gas will only account for 6% of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020.
— A Russian soldier arrested for killing a civilian awaits his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, could face life in prison.
— Russian lawmakers have proposed a bill to lower the age limit for Russians to apply for military service to 40. Currently, all Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to complete one year of military service, but many receive university deferrals and other waivers.
Violent fighting broke out on Friday in Donbas, home to mostly Russian-speaking coal mines and factories.
Luhansk Governor Serhi Haidai said Russian forces had bombarded the Lisichansk-Bahmut highway from multiple directions, aiming to evacuate people and deliver humanitarian supplies as the only way.
“The Russians are trying to block us there to besiege the Luhansk region,” he said in an email.
Moscow’s military has also been working for weeks to capture Sevedonetsk, the key city of Donbas, and at least a dozen people were killed on Friday, Haidai said. Schools protecting more than 200 people were damaged and more than 60 homes were destroyed, he added.
However, he said the Russians suffered losses in the attack on Sevedonetsk and were forced to retreat. His account cannot be independently verified.
Another city, Rubizhne, was “totally destroyed,” Haidai said. “Its fate can be compared to that of Mariupol.”