MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Thursday hailed Russia’s “liberation” of Mariupol after Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told him Moscow controlled the Ukrainian port city apart from the giant Azovstal steel plant.
Taking full control of Mariupol on the Azov Sea would be a major strategic victory for Russia, helping it to connect annexed Crimea to the territories of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“Mariupol has been liberated,” Shoigu told Putin during a televised meeting. “The remaining nationalist formations took refuge in the industrial zone of the Azovstal plant.”
Shoigu said around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers remained inside the plant, where the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance has been sheltering, using the facility’s network of underground tunnels.
Putin said the “liberation” of Mariupol was a “success” for Russian forces, but ordered Shoigu to call off the planned storming of the Azovstal industrial area, dismissing it as “impractical”.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities. Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can escape,” Putin said.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in the city, which was besieged by Russian troops for over a month, with little access to food, water and with no electricity.
Meanwhile, four buses carrying evacuees from Mariupol have left the besieged and destroyed port city, the Ukraine government said.
“Four evacuation buses managed to leave the city yesterday through the humanitarian corridor,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on social media, adding that evacuations of women, children and the elderly would continue Thursday.
“The security situation is difficult. Things may change,” she added.
Battle of the Donbas
Elsewhere in the east, Ukraine said it had held off an assault by Russian forces attempting to advance in what Kyiv calls the Battle of the Donbas, a new campaign to seize two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Russia’s forces had carried out strikes on dozens of military facilities in the east and had shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter near the village of Koroviy Yar, its defence ministry said.
British military intelligence said Russian forces were keen to demonstrate significant success by a May 9 commemoration of World War Two, and were providing close air support for the offensive in the east where Russian forces were advancing towards the town of Kramatorsk.
Putin said the first test launch on Wednesday of Russia’s Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new and long-awaited addition to its nuclear arsenal, would “provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country.” Russia calls its incursion a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for a war of choice.
The West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and given Ukraine extensive support, including arms.
US President Joe Biden will deliver an update on Ukraine at 1345 GMT as he works to complete a new arms package, which is likely to be a similar size to an $800 million one announced last week, a US official said.
G7 finance ministers at a meeting on Wednesday said Russia should no longer participate in international forums, including G20, International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings this week.
Top officials from Britain, the United States and Canada walked out on Russia’s representatives at a Group of 20 meeting in Washington, exposing deep divisions in the bloc of major economies.