In its biggest victory yet, Russia claims to capture Mariupol

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — In what would be its biggest victory to date in the war with Ukraine, Russia claimed to have captured Mariupol after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the city strategic port to a smoldering ruin, with more than 20,000 civilians feared dead.

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, said spokesman Igor Konashenkov on Friday.

There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.

According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the ministry said a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had been locked up in the steelworks had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.

Upon surrendering, the troops were taken prisoner by the Russians, and at least some were taken to a former penal colony. Others were reportedly hospitalized.

The defense of the steelworks had been led by the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins were seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to turn its invasion into a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. . Russia said Commander Azov was taken from the factory in an armored vehicle.

Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel plant’s defenders for war crimes and bring them to justice, calling them “Nazis” and criminals. This sparked international fears about their fate.

The steelworks, which spanned 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been the scene of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the factory’s defense and flee.

The complete takeover of Mariupol gives Putin a much-needed victory in the war he started on February 24 – a conflict that was supposed to have been a whirlwind conquest for the Kremlin, but which instead saw the failure of the capture of the capital of kyiv, a retreat refocusing forces on eastern Ukraine and the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Military analysts said the capture of Mariupol at this stage was of mostly symbolic significance, as the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied up in the fighting had already left.

In other developments on Friday, the West moved to pour billions more in aid to Ukraine, and fighting raged in Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine that Putin is determined to capture.

Russian forces shelled a vital highway and continued their attacks on a key town in the Lugansk region, hitting a school among other sites, Ukrainian authorities said. Luhansk is part of Donbass.

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 release troops to join the larger battle of Donbass. The loss of the city also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.

Mariupol endured some of the worst suffering of the war and became a global symbol of defiance. About 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many of whom were left without food, water, heat or electricity. The relentless shelling left rows upon rows of broken or hollowed out buildings.

A maternity hospital was hit by a deadly Russian airstrike on March 9, producing vivid images of pregnant women being evacuated from the location. A week later, around 300 people were reported killed in a bombardment of a theater where civilians were taking refuge, although the true toll could be closer to 600.

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 the humanitarian ceasefires and spoke of the terror of the relentless shelling, the damp conditions underground and the fear of not being able to survive. come out alive.

As the end neared in Azovstal, the wives of fighters who resisted the steelworks told what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.

Olga Boiko, wife of a sailor, wiped away tears as she said her husband wrote to her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will contact you and if I will at all. I like You. Kisses. Goodbye.”

Natalia Zaritskaya, wife of another Azovstal fighter, said that based on messages she had seen over the past two days, “Now they are on the way from hell to hell. Every inch of this path is deadly.

She said two days ago her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers he had served with, only eight had survived, most of them seriously injured.

While Russia described the troops’ departure from the steel plant as a massive surrender, the Ukrainians called it mission accomplished. They said the fighters blocked forces from Moscow and hampered their attempt to seize the east.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described Mariupol’s defense as “21st century Thermopylae” – a reference to one of the most glorious defeats in history, in which 300 Spartans withstood a much larger Persian force in 480 BC. before finally succumbing.

In other developments Friday:

– Zelenskyy said Russia should be made to pay for every house, school, hospital and business it destroys. He called on Ukraine’s partners to seize Russian funds and assets under their jurisdiction and use them to create a fund to compensate those who suffered.

Russia “would feel the true weight of every missile, every bomb, every shell it fired at us,” he said in his nightly video address.

— Major Group of Seven economies and global financial institutions have agreed to provide more money to bolster Ukraine’s finances, bringing the total to $19.8 billion. In the United States, President Joe Biden was to sign a $40 billion military and economic aid package to Ukraine and its allies.

– Russia will cut off natural gas to Finland on Saturday, Finland’s national energy company announced, just days after Finland applied to join NATO. Finland had refused Moscow’s request to pay for the gas in rubles. The cut should have no major immediate effect. Natural gas accounted for just 6% of Finland’s total energy consumption in 2020, Finnish broadcaster YLE said.

— A captured Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian was awaiting his fate in Ukraine’s first war crimes trial. sergeant. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, faces life imprisonment.

— Russian lawmakers have proposed a bill to lift the 40-year-old age limit for Russians who volunteer for military service. Currently, all Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 must undergo a year of service, although many receive academic deferments and other exemptions.

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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.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Bonny J. Streater