Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

Mariupol appeared on the verge of falling to Russia on Tuesday as Ukraine moved to abandon the steel plant where hundreds of its fighters had held out for months under relentless bombardment in the last bastion of resistance in the devastated city.

The capture of Mariupol would make it the biggest city to be taken by Moscow’s forces yet and would give the Kremlin a badly needed victory, though the landscape has largely been reduced to rubble.

More than 260 fighters – some of them seriously wounded and taken out on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and turned themselves over to the Russian side in a deal reached by the two warring nations.

Ukrainian authorities said they were working to extract the remaining soldiers from the sprawling steel mill, though how many were still there was unclear.

Russia called the operation a mass surrender.

The Ukrainians avoided using that word and instead said its garrison had completed its mission.

“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in announcing that troops had begun leaving the mill and its warren of Cold War-era tunnels and bunkers.

A man tends to wounded people lying in hammocks on a bus.
Wounded Ukrainian servicemen receive treatment in a bus as they are being evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.(AP: Russian Defense Ministry Press Servic)

It was not clear what would happen to the fighters.

A Russian official cast doubt on whether Moscow would hand all of them back to Ukraine in a prisoner of war exchange.

The operation signaled the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of both defiance and suffering.

The Russian bombardment killed over 20,000 civilians, according to the Ukrainian side, and left the remaining inhabitants – perhaps one-quarter of the city’s pre-war population of 430,000 – with little food, water, heat or medicine.

Among the sites that Russian forces attacked were a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had sought shelter. Hundreds were reported killed there.

Gaining full control of Mariupol would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a vital port.

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