Mariupol’s Azvestal Iron and Steel Works and its underground tunnel network have for weeks served as a shelter and final holdout for about 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, many of whom belong to the Azov Regiment, one of Ukraine’s most skilled – and controversial – military units.
Mariupol officials said about 1,000 civilians were hiding in the underground network in mid-April. All women, children and the elderly were trapped for weeks in an intense Russian offensive before being evacuated earlier this month. Those who built it for safety described the brutality of their long siege in cold and fetal bunkers, where they lived without sunlight and food and water supplies were cut off.
How a Mariupol steel factory became a holdout for the resistance of the city
The Russian bombing of the Azovstal plant seems to have continued in recent days. Telegram videos of pro-Russian and pro-Kiev officials posted over the weekend show white, bright flaming weapons raining down on trees. The type of ammunition could not be independently verified, but a British military expert told Reuters it looked like an attack with phosphorus or incendiary weapons.
Ukrainian officials reached a ceasefire agreement with the Russian military on Monday, with dozens of buses seen leaving the plant. Complex transfers are being made with the help of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malir, said 53 seriously injured soldiers had been taken to a hospital in the nearby city of Novorossiysk, which is controlled by Russian-backed separatists. He said another 211 people had been taken to another Russian-linked village, Olenivka. Moscow and Kyiv are brokering a prisoner exchange to secure their release.
Malir said officials were still working to rescue the remaining soldiers, although it was unclear how many were still inside. Ukrainian authorities said last week that the plant had about 1,000 holdout fighters.
For Mariupol, the battle is one of the bloodiest and most high-profile of the war. Russia has destroyed a city in the southeastern Black Sea, where a population of about 450,000 was growing rapidly. At first, Moscow forces surrounded Mariupol, detached it from water and electricity, and bombed it incessantly, leaving much of the city in ruins.
In the scene of the Mariupol Theater tragedy, Russia is ready for a parade
Losing Mariupol is a significant blow for Kiev. This allowed Russia to build a vital land bridge across Crimea, a peninsula annexed from Ukraine in 2014, with Russian-controlled territories east of Ukraine.
But Ukraine’s military leaders say their troops there have given the Russians enough time to buy important time to fight elsewhere. And Western officials have noted that, with the exception of Mariupol, Russia has failed to make significant gains in eastern Ukraine despite concentrating its resources there for weeks.
Ukraine’s military command said in an update on Monday that it had received “critical time” to build reserves, reorganize its forces and seek assistance from partners.
“Mariupol defenders are the heroes of our time,” Command wrote. “They will go down in history forever.”
Adam Taylor, Niha Masih and Louisa Lovelock contributed to this report.