The United Nations scrambled to rescue more civilians from the tunnels beneath a besieged Mariupol steelworks and the city at large on Friday, even as militants holed up in the sprawling complex put up their last stand to ensure Moscow’s complete takeover of the strategic prevent port.
The battle for the last Ukrainian fortress in a ruined city by the Russian onslaught seemed increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the battle for Mariupol so that he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time Victory Day on Mondaythe biggest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar.
About 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to Russia’s latest estimate, are entrenched in the vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal Steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine said several hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety have increased as fighting has intensified in recent days.
“Our colleagues are currently on the ground,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said of the recent evacuation efforts. “We are at an extremely sensitive stage of this operation and are working closely with the Ukrainian and Russian authorities.
He declined to share details “for the safety of those we are trying to extract and of course for our own staff who are there.”
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, is in command Troops of the Azov regiment inside the facility, issued a desperate appeal to save the fighters. She said they were willing to go to a third country to await war but would never surrender to Russia because it would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and death.”
If nothing is done to save her husband and his men, they will “see it to the end without surrender,” she told The Associated Press on Friday as she and relatives of some other members of the regiment traveled from Italy to Poland to lead.
It could be days to know if the United Nations’ recent effort to evacuate civilians has been successful, as people fleeing Mariupol usually have to pass through contested areas and many checkpoints before arriving in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia , about 230 kilometers away, to relative safety. to the northwest.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Friday via messaging app Telegram that another “complex operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal” was carried out and nearly 500 civilians were rescued. Two previous evacuations Negotiated by the UN and the Red Cross brought about 500 people from the steel mill and other places in Mariupol. It was not clear if Yermak said more people had been saved since then.
Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors to be surrounded by death in the moldy underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People are literally rotting like our jackets,” said 31-year-old Serhii Kuzmenko, who, along with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others, fled 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’s premises. They said the car drove toward civilians when it was hit by shells, killing one soldier and injuring six.
Moscow did not immediately recognize renewed fighting there on Friday.
Russia took control of Mariupol alongside the steel mill after being bombed for two months. Before Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, municipal workers and volunteers cleared what was left of the city, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000 but is home to perhaps 100,000 civilians little food, water, electricity or heat. Bulldozers shoveled away debris, and people swept the streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings, workers repaired a model warship, and Russian flags were flown from 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 troops to fight elsewhere in Donbass, the Kremlin’s eastern industrial region says is now his main goal. Its conquest also has symbolic value, since the city was the scene of some of the worst sufferings of war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
Asked whether Russia will soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything like that.”
“It’s already devastated,” he said at a meeting at London think-tank Chatham House. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia but reiterated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
As they pounded the work, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks after a devastating war that killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and leveled large swathes of cities.
Ukrainian officials warned residents to be vigilant and heed airstrike warnings, saying the risk of massive shelling had increased with Victory Day approaching. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital.
Ukraine’s military general staff said on Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in Donbass and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions thereafter his failed attempt to capture Kyiv. Russia did not immediately acknowledge these losses.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia may struggle to implement its plan in Donbass, partly because it is deadlocked at the Mariupol plant. The fighting at the plant “had come at personnel, equipment and ammunition costs for Russia,” it said. “While Ukrainian resistance persists in Avozstal, Russian casualties will continue to mount, thwarting their operational plans in southern Donbass.”
The Ukrainian army also said it had made advances in the northeastern Kharkiv region, retaking five villages and part of a sixth.
For other developments:
– A Ukrainian army brigade said it used an American Switchblade “suicide” drone against Russian forces in what is likely Ukraine’s first documented combat use of such a weapon.
– The governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region said more than 3,500 residents of the city of Kreminna were in Russian-controlled territory when Russian forces attempted to cross the Seversky Donets River. Serhiy Haidai accused Russian troops of “terrorizing” residents “from spying on phones to forcibly disappearing Ukrainian patriots.” His statements could not be verified immediately.
– The small village of Nekhoteevk in Russia’s southern Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, was evacuated from Ukrainian territory on Friday because of shelling, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. His claims could not be immediately verified.
An earlier version of this story has been corrected to show that it was not clear if a new group of civilians had been evacuated from the facility. ___
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists 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 staffers around the world contributed to this report .
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine