May 20 (Reuters) – Russia’s defense ministry on Friday said the last group of Ukrainian forces holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works had surrendered, marking an end to a weeks-long attack that left the city in ruins.

The full abandonment of the bunkers and tunnels of the bombed-out plant by the Azov Regiment means an end to the most destructive siege of a war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine nearly three months ago.

“The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant … has been completely liberated,” the ministry said in a statement. It said the group that had surrendered comprised 531 people.

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A defense ministry video purporting to show the surrender showed a line of unarmed men approaching Russian soldiers outside the plant and giving their names. The Russians then carefully searched each man and their possessions and also appeared to be asking the defenders to show their tattoos.

Moscow calls the Azov Regiment “Nazis”. The unit, formed in 2014 as a militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist, and Ukraine says it has been reformed from its radical nationalist origins.

“The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces,” said the Russian statement, adding that a total of 2,439 defenders had surrendered in the past few days.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has told President Vladimir Putin that both Mariupol and the steel plant have been fully liberated, it said.

Ukraine ordered the garrison to stand down on Monday. Hours before the Russian announcement, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the defenders had been told by Ukraine’s military that they could get out and save their lives.

Kyiv calls the defenders heroes, saying their dogged stand helped tie down Russian forces and allow Ukraine to succeed elsewhere on the battlefield.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine’s air force had tried to fly in supplies to Mariupol but had been beaten back, taking major losses.

“A very large number of our pilots died, sadly,” he told Ukrainian television. “They were absolutely heroic people who knew it was hard, that to fly in there was almost impossible, to fly to Azovstal with medicine, food, water, and to bring back bodies and the wounded.”

Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said the defense of the plant would be taught in military schools for years to come. Those inside had no clean water, only enough food for one meal a day, and virtually no medical supplies, he said.

“Do you understand what it is to amputate a limb without anesthetic? What you see in Hollywood horror movies is nothing compared to what the defenders of Azovstal saw and endured,” he told Ukrainian television before the Russian announcement.

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Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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