Russia claimed to have capturedon Friday in what would be his biggest victory yet in his war on . The announcement came after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to smoldering ruins, with more than 20,000 feared civilians dead.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has informed President Vladimir Putin of the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol – the last bastion of the Ukrainian resistance – and of the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the ministry as saying that a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had taken refuge in Azovstal had laid down their arms and surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.
The steel mill had been the scene of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out at the plant, provoking Russian airstrikes, artillery and tanks before their government ordered them to abandon their defense and save their lives.
The wives of the fighters who held out at the steel mill spoke emotionally about what may have been their last contact with their husbands.
Olga Boiko, the wife of a sailor, wiped away tears as she said her husband had written to her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I’ll get in touch with you and if I will. Love. kiss you. Goodbye”.
Natalia Zaritskaya, the wife of another fighter in Azovstal, said that according to the messages she had seen in the last two days, “now they are on the road from hell to hell. Every inch of this road is deadly.”
She said that two days ago, her husband reported that of the 32 soldiers he had served with, only eight survived, most seriously injured.
The complete seizure of Mariupol gives Putin a much-needed military victory in the war that began on February 24, a conflict that was supposed to be a quick and easy victory for the Kremlin but instead failed to take the capital of Kyiv. , a withdrawal of his forces to refocus on the battles in eastern Ukraine and even the sinking of the Russian flagship of his Black Sea fleet, the Moskva.
Military analysts say that the capture of the city at this point has more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were trapped by the protracted fighting have already left. gone.
Russia had sought control of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea coast, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to join the growing battle for control of the more industrial Donbas. large. region, home to an 8-year-old Moscow-backed separatist rebellion. It would also deprive Ukraine of a vital port.
The city endured some of the worst suffering of the war. An estimated 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The constant shelling has left buildings shattered and charred in row after row of destroyed apartment blocks and neighborhoods in ruins.
A maternity hospital was attacked in a deadly Russian airstrike on March 9, producing searing images of pregnant women being evacuated from the facility.
A week later, some 300 people were reported killed in a bombing of a theater where civilians were sheltering, though the real death toll could be closer to 600. Officials had written the word “CHILDREN” in Russian on the pavement. outside to try to prevent an air attack.
Long traffic jams poured out of the city, filled with evacuees fleeing past checkpoints of heavily armed Russian soldiers who had no time to search inside each vehicle in the convoys.
Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians. The images showed rows of graves extending from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, on the outskirts of the port city.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of “hiding their military crimes” in mass graves and labeled it “the new Babi Yar”, recalling the ravine in kyiv where the Nazis massacred nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews during the war. WWII.
It was not the first time that Moscow claimed to have captured Mariupol. In a joint appearance with his defense minister on April 21, Putin declared that “completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success.” Despite the fact that recalcitrant Ukrainian forces were still inside the Azovstal plant at the time, Putin ordered the army to seal off the complex “so that not even a fly gets in”.
After continuous shelling, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on May 16 that the evacuation of his forces from the bunkers and tunnels under Azovstal was done to save the lives of fighters.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It is our principle,” Zelenskyy said.
The Azovstal complex covers 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is crisscrossed by some 24 kilometers (15 miles) of tunnels and bunkers. In early May, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the plant during humanitarian ceasefires.
A civilian evacuee from Azovstal, who arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on May 3, said she went to sleep at the plant every night in fear of not waking up. “You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the bomb shelter, in a damp, wet basement, and it’s bouncing and shaking,” said 54-year-old Elina Tsybulchenko.
While Russia described the departure of troops from the steel plant as a mass surrender, the Ukrainians called it a mission accomplished.
Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the defense of Mariupol as “the Thermopylae of the 21st century,” a reference to one of the most glorious defeats in history, in which 300 Spartans held off a much larger Persian force in the 480 BC C. before finally succumbing. .
“The defenders of Azovstal foiled the enemy’s plans to seize eastern Ukraine, withdrew a large number of enemy forces and changed the course of the war,” Podolyak said.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said the Mariupol defenders gave Ukraine “vital time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from their partners. And they fulfilled all their tasks.”
The United States has gathered intelligence showing some Russian officials are concerned Russian forces in the devastated port city of Mariupol are committing serious abuses, a US official familiar with the newly declassified findings told CBS News.
Russian officials worry that the abuses will backfire and further inspire Mariupol residents to resist the. The US official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Russians, who were not identified, also fear the abuses will undermine Russia’s claim that they have liberated the Russian-speaking city.
Meanwhile, teams of war crimes investigators are hard at work across Ukraine.they hope it will lead to more prosecutions of the invading forces from Russia.