- The fight for Mariupol was the biggest battle of the war
- Putin says Russia “liberated” the city
- The United States sends newly developed “stealth” drones to Ukraine
Kyiv (Reuters) – Ukrainian fighters cling to their last stronghold in Mariupol on Friday after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the biggest battle of the war and declared the port city liberated after weeks of relentless bombing.
But the United States disputed Putin’s claims and said it believed Ukrainian forces were still in control of the city. Putin orders his troops to besiege a giant steel factory where the Ukrainians stand steadfast, after turning down an ultimatum to surrender or die.
Ukraine said Putin wanted to avoid a final confrontation with its forces in Mariupol, because he lacked the forces to defeat them. But Ukrainian officials also appealed for help to evacuate wounded civilians and soldiers.
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In a televised meeting in the Kremlin, Putin congratulated his defense minister and Russian forces on the “combat effort to liberate Mariupol” and said it was not necessary to storm the industrial zone containing the Azovstal steel plant.
“There is no need to climb into the catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities… Close this industrial zone so that not even a fly can cross,” Putin said.
Mariupol, a major port in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, lies between Russian separatist-held regions and Crimea, which Moscow captured in 2014. Capturing the city would allow Russia to connect the two regions. Read more
Even as Putin wins his first big prize since he expelled his forces from the capital, Kyiv, and northern Ukraine last month, it falls short of the clear victory Moscow sought after months of fighting in a city reduced to rubble.
In a late-night speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia was doing everything in its power to “talk about at least some victories,” including mobilizing new battalion tactical groups.
“They can only postpone the inevitable – the time when the invaders will have to leave our lands, including from Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia no matter what the occupiers say,” Zelensky said.
The steel complex is one of the largest metallurgical structures in Europe, covering an area of 11 square kilometers of massive buildings, underground bunkers and tunnels.
British military intelligence said a full-fledged Russian attack on the station would likely mean heavy losses to the Russians and that Putin’s decision to blockade it would free forces elsewhere in the east.
Russia intensified its attacks in eastern Ukraine this week and launched long-range strikes on other targets including Kyiv and the western city of Lviv.
The Ukrainian General Staff said that Russian forces have intensified their attacks along the entire front line in the east and are trying to launch an offensive in the Kharkiv region in the northeast.
British military intelligence also reported heavy fighting in the east as Russian forces attempted to advance towards settlements but said they had suffered losses early in the war and were sending equipment to Russia for repair.
Russia describes its invasion as a “special military operation” to disarm and “disarm” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject this as a false excuse to launch a war that has killed thousands and displaced a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
The United States authorized another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine on Thursday, including heavy artillery and newly-disclosed “Ghost” drones that were destroyed after attacking their targets. Read more
“We are now in a critical period of time when they will set the stage for the next phase of this war,” US President Joe Biden said.
Asked about Putin’s victory announcement in Mariupol, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was “more misinformation from the old rules of the game.”
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, not only experienced the fiercest battles of the war that began when Russian forces invaded on February 24, but also its worst humanitarian disaster.
Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed there. The United Nations and the Red Cross put the civilian death toll in the thousands, at least.
Journalists who arrived in Mariupol during the siege found the streets littered with corpses, almost all buildings destroyed, and the inhabitants crammed into cellars, venturing out to cook scraps or bury corpses in gardens.
Mariupol’s mayor, Vadim Boychenko, told Reuters that only Putin could decide the fate of the 100,000 civilians trapped in the city.
“The souls that are still in the hands of only one person, Vladimir Putin. All the deaths that will happen from now on will be in his hands as well,” Boychenko said in an interview. Read more
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshuk said 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers should be removed from the plant immediately, blaming Russian forces for the failure to create a safe passage she said had been agreed.
Russia says it has taken in 140,000 civilians from Mariupol in humanitarian evacuations. Ukraine says some have been forcibly removed, in what could constitute a war crime.
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Coverage by Reuters journalists. Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Percelle; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Kim Coogill
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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