The Ukrainian forces that held out determinedly at a Mariupol steel mill against Russian troops were a mix of experienced soldiers, border guards, a controversial national guard regiment and volunteers who took up arms in the weeks before the Russian invasion.
As Ukraine works to evacuate the last fighters from the plant, in what Russia calls a mass surrender, it describes them as heroes who have done their grueling task.
Here is a look at these Ukrainian forces and what they have achieved:
WHO ARE THE DEFENDERS OF MARIUPOL?
The fighters still holding out in Azovstal come from a variety of different military and police units, according to Ukrainian officials.
There is the Azov Regiment, which is part of the National Guard of Ukraine; the 36th Special Marine Brigade of the Naval Forces of Ukraine; the 12th Brigade of the National Guard; there are also the border guards, the policemen and the territorial defense squads formed shortly before the war by those who knew how to shoot a gun.
These forces defended Mariupol from the beginning of the Russian invasion. Marines from the 36th Brigade had occupied the city port and another large plant in Mariupol for more than a month, until they ran out of supplies and ammunition.
They moved to the Azovstal steel mill to join the Azov Regiment, a national guard unit with roots in the far right, and some of them were captured by the Russians.
The total number of fighters hiding in the plant’s maze of tunnels and bunkers spread over some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) at the height of the siege was unclear, though Russia claimed there were more than 2,000.
WHY DOES RUSSIA LABEL THEM ‘NATIONALISTS’?
Russian officials and state media take issue with the Azov Regiment. It derives from a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades raised to bolster Ukraine’s underfunded and questionably directed armed forces in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine.
That conflict erupted after mass protests ousted Ukraine’s Kremlin-leaning president.
The Azov Battalion drew its initial fighters from far-right circles and drew criticism for its tactics.
Azov fighters reject accusations of nationalism and radicalism. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the regiment currently in Azovstal, said in a recent interview that he prefers the term “patriotism.”
WHAT HAVE DEFENDERS ACHIEVED?
Ukrainian officials repeatedly emphasized the role Azovstal fighters have played in defending Mariupol.
“Ukrainian troops in Mariupol have already performed a feat, attracting the elite forces of the Russian army and significantly slowing down the advance of the Russians in the southeast,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, we have bought critically important time to form reserves, regroup forces and receive help from our partners,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday. “The defenders of Mariupol have fully accomplished all the missions assigned by the commanders.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in turn, said that while the defenders of the plant are ending their fight, the move is correct and humane: “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It is our principle”.
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