About 2,000 encircled militants, at Azovstal steel plant, are last Ukrainian hold-outs, Putin is told
Russian forces have fully captured the key Donbass Black Sea port-city of Mariupol, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin on Thursday. However, more than 2,000 militants, loyal to Kiev, still remain entrenched at the Azovstal steel plant in the city, he added.
Putin dubbed Shoigu’s plan of storming the area “inadvisable” and instead ordered him to “safely block” the area while extending to those inside another offer to lay down their arms. The last hold outs are cut off from supplies.
When Mariupol was encircled in early March, some 8,100 Ukrainian soldiers, foreign mercenaries, and nationalist militants – including members of the notorious Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion – remained inside, according to the minister’s estimates.
More than 1,400 militants have laid down their arms, Shoigu said, adding that over 142,000 civilians have also been evacuated from the city. It has been under siege for weeks.
Russia has twice sought to establish a humanitarian corridor for those willing to leave the plant in recent days, but both attempts failed. The Russian Defense Ministry has been calling on the remaining Ukrainian forces to lay down their arms, offering safety guarantees, if they accept the surrender proposal and halt all hostilities.
Sergey Volina, the commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marines Brigade, holed up at the plant, claimed that “hundreds” of civilians were trapped in the facility. He didn’t explain why they would voluntarily decide to hide out at a facility controlled by besieged Neo-Nazis and regular Ukrainian troops.
“We have made some 90 buses and 25 ambulances ready for them,” Shoigu said, adding that cameras have been mounted in the area to monitor the situation. “No one has left the Azovstal [plant],” he added. Some 100 civilians from other areas seized this opportunity to evacuate, the minister said.
The Russian forces have also freed all hostages held at the Mariupol port, including the crews of sea vessels, who had their communications cut off by hostage-takers, Shoigu said. The port is still closed due to the presence of mines, he added.
The Ukrainian forces holed up in the plant outlined their own conditions for leaving the location late on Wednesday. The troops indicated that they would leave the area with the support of an unspecified “third party,” Svyatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the neo-Nazi Azov regiment, said at the time. He added that they also wanted to keep their personal weapons, refusing to surrender.
Mariupol has seen some of the most intense fighting since Moscow launched its offensive.
Russia attacked the neighboring state in late February, following Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, first signed in 2014, and Moscow’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The German and French brokered protocols were designed to give the breakaway regions special status within the Ukrainian state.
The Kremlin has since demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.