- ‘There is no need to climb these catacombs,’ says Putin
- Ukraine seeks talks on fate of defenders and civilians
- The fight for Mariupol has been the biggest battle of the war.
kyiv, April 21 (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Thursday claimed victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war, declaring the port of Mariupol “liberated” after a nearly two-month siege, despite hundreds of defenders still took refuge inside a giant steel works
Ukraine said Putin’s attempt to avoid a final clash with his forces in the city was an admission that he lacked the forces to defeat them.
“You successfully completed the combat effort to liberate Mariupol. Let me congratulate you on this occasion, and convey my congratulations to the troops,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at a televised meeting in the Kremlin.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
“I consider the industrial zone assault project unnecessary. I order you to cancel it,” he said. “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 get through.”
The decision not to storm the Azovstal steel plant, after days of ordering its defenders to surrender or be killed, allowed Putin to claim his first grand prize since his forces were driven from northern Ukraine last month. But he falls short of the unequivocal victory Moscow sought after months of brutal fighting in a city reduced to rubble.
“Physically they cannot take Azovstal, they have understood, they have suffered huge losses there,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych told a briefing. “Our defenders continue to hold on.”
Asked to comment on Putin’s move, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman said it showed his “schizophrenic tendencies”.
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, has seen not only the most intense battle of the war, but also its worst humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off for nearly two months under siege and Russian bombardment.
Journalists who arrived during the siege found streets littered with corpses, almost all buildings destroyed and residents huddled in freezing cellars, venturing to cook leftovers on makeshift stoves or bury bodies in gardens.
Two incidents in particular have become symbols of what kyiv and the West call Russian war crimes: the bombing of a maternity hospital and, a week later, of a theater with hundreds of civilians in the basement. Moscow denies targeting civilians and, without evidence, says those incidents were faked.
Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol. He says some have been buried in mass graves, others removed from the streets by Russian forces using mobile cremation trucks to cremate the bodies. The United Nations and the Red Cross say the number of civilian casualties is still unknown, but at least in the thousands.
Shoigu told Putin that Russia had killed more than 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers in its campaign to take Mariupol and that 1,478 had surrendered. Those figures could not be verified. Two of those who surrendered are British.
Shoigu estimated that 2,000 Ukrainian fighters still remained inside Azovstal, one of Europe’s largest metallurgical facilities, covering 11 square kilometers with huge buildings, underground bunkers and tunnels.
Putin said they must lay down their arms and surrender, and that Russia will treat them with respect.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers needed to be removed from the plant immediately, blaming Russian forces for failing to establish a safe corridor that she said had been agreed upon.
Moscow says Russia has taken in 140,000 civilians from the port city in humanitarian evacuations. Kyiv says some were forcibly deported, in what would be a war crime. On Wednesday, Russia allowed some buses to leave from parts of Mariupol it controls, taking about 100 people to other parts of Ukraine.
Securing Mariupol would firmly link territory held by Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the peninsula Moscow captured in 2014.
After failing to capture kyiv last month and being forced to withdraw from northern Ukraine, Russia has regrouped to launch a major new offensive this week in the two eastern provinces known as Donbas.
Arestovych, the Ukrainian presidential adviser, said Moscow was refusing to storm the Azovstal plant in part to redeploy some of its troops north of that offensive.
Ukraine said Russian forces have so far failed to fully capture Rubizhne, a city in Donbas that has been the focus of their advance. The city of Kharkiv, near Russian supply lines to Donbas, was subjected to heavy shelling, its mayor said.
With both sides hoping for success on the Donbas battlefield, the peace talks have been shelved. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was still waiting for a response from kyiv to a proposal it had submitted; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday that he had neither seen nor heard of any such document.
British military intelligence said Russian forces were keen to demonstrate significant success by May 9, the anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in World War II, when the Russian military traditionally stages a spectacular parade in Red Square.
Russia calls its raid a “special military operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine. kyiv and its Western allies reject it as a false pretext for an illegal war of aggression.
US President Joe Biden will deliver an update on Ukraine at 9:45 a.m. (13:45 GMT) on Thursday as he works to complete a new weapons package, likely to be similar in size to one of An $800 million US weapons package announced last week, the official said.
Sign up now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Information from Reuters journalists; Written by Peter Graff; Edited by Kevin Liffey
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.