Ukrainian fighters battling Russian forces in the tunnels beneath Mariupol’s immense steel plant have refused to surrender in the face of relentless attacks, with the wife of one commander saying they have vowed to “stand till the end”.
- Ukraine says Russia has resumed assault operations to take control of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant
- Attempts to evacuate people trapped inside the surrounded plant continue
- Several cities across Ukraine have announced curfews or warned residents to leave for the countryside until after Russia’s Victory Day
The fight in the last Ukrainian stronghold of the strategic port city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to present the Russian people with a battlefield triumph — or announce an escalation of the war — in time for Victory Day on Monday.
“They won’t surrender,” Kateryna Prokopenko said on Thursday after speaking by phone to her husband, a leader of the steel plant defenders.
She said her husband, Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, told her he would love her forever.
“I am going mad from this. It seemed like words of goodbye,” she said.
The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on Friday that “the blockade of units of the defence forces in the Azovstal area continues” and that the Russians, with aviation support, had resumed assault operations to take control of the sprawling plant.
Monday’s Victory Day is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar, marking the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany.
But as long as Ukrainians resist the takeover of the plant, “Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in an assessment.
‘Just imagine this hell!’
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, were holed up in a maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks.
A few hundred civilians were also believed trapped there.
“There are many wounded [fighters]but they are not surrendering,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
“They are holding their positions.”
“More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death.”
The Russians managed to get inside the plant on Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the layout, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.
“He showed them the underground tunnels which are leading to the factory,” Mr Gerashchenko said in a video.
Mr Zelenskyy said the attack was preventing the evacuation of the remaining civilians, even as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said another attempt was underway.
Ukraine has appealed to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to help evacuate the remaining fighters holed up in the vast steelworks.
Ukraine’s Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories said it had written to the medical charity and asked it to assess the fighters’ physical and mental conditions, collect evidence of the conditions they were in and provide medical assistance to “Ukrainians whose human rights have been violated by the Russian Federation”.
The Kremlin denied its troops were storming the plant and demanded the Ukrainians surrender.
The trapped Ukrainians refused.
Russia also accused the fighters of preventing the civilians from leaving.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective.
Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, pleaded on Ukrainian TV for the evacuation of civilians and wounded fighters from the steelworks, saying soldiers were “dying in agony due to the lack of proper treatment”.
More than 100 civilians were rescued from the steelworks over the weekend. But many previous attempts to open safe corridors from Mariupol have fallen through, with Ukraine blaming shelling and firing by the Russians.
Russians ‘unsure’ if Victory Day parade will go ahead in Mariupol
The Kremlin said on Friday it did not know whether there would be a parade in Mariupol on May 9 to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, but that the time for celebrating Victory Day there would come.
Russian forces say they have captured Mariupol despite ongoing resistance in the Azovstal plant.
“The time will come to mark Victory Day in Mariupol,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a briefing on Friday, when asked about plans for May 9 in territory recently seized by Russian-backed forces.
Fearful of new attacks surrounding Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk urged residents to leave for the countryside over the long weekend and warned them not to gather in public places.
And the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia, a key transit point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening through Tuesday morning.
Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000, has come to symbolise the misery inflicted by the war.
The siege of the city has trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water, medicine or heat.