The United Nations scrambled Friday to rescue more civilians from tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city at large, even as fighters holed up in the sprawling compound made their last stand to prevent Moscow from taking full control of the site. strategic port.
The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian attack seemed increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time. for Monday’s Victory Day. , the largest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers below the Azovstal steel mill, and have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety have grown as the fighting has grown fiercer in recent days.
Authorities said Thursday that the UN was launching a third effort to evacuate citizens from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not release new details of the operation; he has been similarly quiet about the previous ones while they were ongoing.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, made a desperate plea to save the regiment, saying they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war, but that they would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and death”.
If nothing is done to save them, her husband and his men “will hold out to the end without giving up,” she told The Associated Press by phone Friday as she and relatives of some of the other members of the regiment drove from Italy to Poland.
“We just need to save everyone’s life,” he said.
It could take days to know whether the latest UN effort was successful, as people fleeing Mariupol usually have to pass through disputed areas and many checkpoints before reaching relative safety in the U.S.-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest. , where many have gathered.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on the Telegram messaging app on Friday that another “complex operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal” had been carried out and almost 500 civilians had been rescued. Two previous evacuations negotiated by the UN and the Red Cross brought some 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. It was not clear if Yermak was saying that he had since rescued more people.
Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the musty underground bunker with little food and water and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They urgently need our help. We have to get them out.”
Fighters defending the plant said on Telegram on Friday that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant grounds. They said the car was moving toward civilians when it was hit by shelling, with one soldier killed and six wounded.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the renewed fighting there on Friday.
Ahead of Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what remains of Mariupol, a city now under Russian control as well as the steel plant. Bulldozers scooped up rubble and people swept the streets, with a backdrop of buildings gouged out by shelling. Workers repaired a model of a warship and Russian flags were raised on utility poles.
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 in other parts of Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the The Kremlin says that is now its main target. His capture also has symbolic value, as the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.
As they pounded the plant, Russian forces were struggling to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks after a devastating war that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and leveled large swaths of cities.
The general staff of the Ukrainian army said on Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further thwarting Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize kyiv. Russia did not immediately acknowledge those losses.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi said on Thursday that a counteroffensive could begin to draw Russian forces away from Kharkiv and Izyum, two key cities for the Russian campaign in Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists they have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years. Ukrainian fighters have already pushed Russian troops some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv in recent days.
The goal could be to push Russian forces out of artillery range in the city, which has been hit by the attacks, as well as to force Moscow to divert troops from other areas of the front line, according to an assessment by the Institute of Washington for Defense. the War Study on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces are only making “slow” progress in the Donbas.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia may be struggling to execute its plan in the Donbas in part because it is bogged down at the Mariupol plant. The fighting at the plant “has come at a cost to Russia in personnel, equipment and ammunition,” he said. “While the Ukrainian resistance continues in Avozstal, the Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbass.”
The Russians have pulverized much of Mariupol, which before the war had a population of more than 400,000, and a two-month siege that has left some 100,000 civilians trapped with little food, water, electricity or heating. Civilians sheltering inside the plant may have suffered even more, crouching underground without seeing the light of day for months.
Asked if Russia would soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything.”
“It’s already devastated,” he told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia, but reiterated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
The Russians managed to enter the plant on Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the layout of the plant and showed them the underground tunnels, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
The Kremlin denied its troops were storming the plant, and Russia also accused the fighters of preventing civilians from leaving.
An earlier version of this story was corrected to show that it was unclear if a new group of civilians had been evacuated from the plant. ___
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Trisha Thomas in Rome, Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report. office.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine