The surrender of Ukrainian fighters hiding in a bombed-out steel plant marks the end of a destructive three-month siege.
Russia has claimed to have completely captured Mariupol in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, marking the end of a weeks-long attack that left the strategic port city in ruins.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin on Friday of the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and the city as a whole, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
“The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant… has been completely liberated,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. He said a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who had taken refuge in the steel mill had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 on Friday.
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 his possessions and also appeared to ask them to show their tattoos.
Hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Ukrainian military had told the last defenders at the steel mill that they could get out and save their lives. The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm the Russian figures on Azovstal.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not comment on Russia’s claims in its morning update on Saturday.
The abandonment of the bombed-out plant’s bunkers and tunnels by the Azov Regiment marks the end of the most destructive siege in a war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine nearly three months ago.
Much of Mariupol has been reduced to smoldering ruins, with more than 20,000 civilians feared dead.
Defending the steel mill was led by Ukraine’s Azov regiment, whose far-right origins have been exploited by the Kremlin as part of an effort to portray its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russia said the Azov commander was taken from the plant in an armored vehicle.
Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steelmaker’s defenders for war crimes and put them on trial, calling them “Nazis” and criminals. That has sparked international fears about his fate.
Much needed victory for Putin
The steel mill, which stretched across 11 square kilometers (four square miles), had been the scene of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters had held out, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the defense of the plant and save themselves.
The complete seizure of Mariupol gives Putin a much-needed victory in the war that began on February 24, a conflict that was supposed to have been a lightning conquest for the Kremlin but instead failed to take the capital of kyiv. a withdrawal of forces to refocus on eastern Ukraine, and the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Military analysts said the capture of Mariupol at this point is of mostly symbolic importance, as the city was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were trapped by the fighting there had already left.
The Kremlin had sought control of Mariupol to complete a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Ukraine seized in 2014, and free up troops to join the larger battle for Donbas. The loss of the city also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.
Mariupol endured some of the worst suffering of the war and became a global symbol of defiance. An estimated 100,000 people remained out of a pre-war population of 450,000, many trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The relentless bombardment left row upon row of buildings smashed or emptied.