Ukrainian fighters in the tunnels under the pulverized Mariupol steelworks resisted Russian troops on Thursday in an increasingly desperate and perhaps doomed effort to prevent Moscow from what would be its biggest success of the war to date, as that more civilians were moved to safety.
The bloody battle came amid growing suspicion that President Vladimir Putin wants to present the Russian people with a major battlefield success – or herald an escalation in the war – in time for VE Day on Monday. It is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar, marking the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.
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According to Russia’s most recent estimate, some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have holed up in tunnels and bunkers under the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, the last pocket of resistance in a city largely reduced to rubble. over the past two months.
The UN chief said another attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and the factory was completed on Thursday. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “We must continue to do everything we can to get people out of these hells.”
Later he tweeted that 500 people had been successfully freed from the factory and the area around it.
I hope continued coordination with Moscow & Kyiv will result in more humanitarian pauses to allow civilians safe passage.
In a video statement recorded Thursday from the underground bunkers, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, said “wounded soldiers are dying in agony for lack of proper care.”
The Azov Regiment is a far-right armed group that was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine after the first Russian invasion in 2014.
The defenders “will hold out until the end. They are only hoping for a miracle,” Kateryna Prokopenko said after speaking by phone with her husband, a leader of the steel defenders. “They won’t surrender.”
She said that her husband, the commander of the Azov regiment Denys Prokopenko, told her that he would love her forever.
“I’m going crazy over this. It felt like parting words,” she said.
“Imagine this hell”, says Zelensky
Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack prevented the evacuation of civilians who remained in the plant’s underground bunkers.
“Imagine that hell! And there are children there,” he said in his nightly video address Thursday night. “Over two months of constant shelling, shelling, constant death.”
Russia denies entering the factory
The Russians managed to get inside with the help of an electrician who knew the route, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
“He showed them the underground tunnels that lead to the factory,” Gerashchenko said in a video released late Wednesday. “Yesterday the Russians started storming these tunnels, using the information they received from the traitor.”
The Kremlin denied that its troops were storming the factory and demanded that the troops surrender. They refused. Russia also accused them of preventing civilians from leaving.
Ukraine pushes the Russians back to the East
Meanwhile, 10 weeks into the devastating war, the Ukrainian military claimed to have recaptured some areas in the south and repelled further attacks in the east, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize kyiv. Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village by village.
US Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces were making only “laborious” progress in Donbass.
The head of Britain’s armed forces, Chief of Defense Staff Admiral Tony Radakin, said Putin was “trying to rush to a tactical victory” ahead of VE Day. But he said Russian forces were struggling to gain ground.
Fearing further attacks around Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian town 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 southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, a key transit point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning.
In other developments, Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an interview with The Associated Press, but said he did not expect it. that the conflict “draws on”.
Lukashenko, whose country was used by the Russians as a launching pad for the invasion, said Moscow had to act because kyiv was “provoking” Russia.
But in the interview he created some distance between himself and the Kremlin, repeatedly calling for an end to the conflict and calling it a “war” – a term Moscow refuses to use. The Kremlin insists that it is a “special military operation”.