Defiant Ukrainians holed up inside the Azovstal steelworks are refusing to surrender Mariupol despite being surrounded by Russian forces as the bodies of dead civilians continue to pile up.
Russia claimed yesterday it had ‘liberated’ the besieged port city as Putin savagely ordered to seal off all routes out of the plant ‘so that even a fly cannot pass through’, effectively condemning those inside to their deaths.
But today, Captain Svyatoslav Palamar from the Azov Battalion insisted: ‘I always say that as long as we are here, Mariupol remains under control of Ukraine.’
Volodymyr Zelensky echoed the remarks in an overnight address, saying Mariupol ‘continues to resist’ the invading forces.
Palamar’s comments are the first to emerge from inside the steelworks, the last remaining bastion of resistance in the city which has been razed to the ground, since Putin claimed victory yesterday.
He described the chilling sight inside Azovstal and its labyrinthine tunnels where scores of dead civilians are trapped in bunkers and under collapsed buildings after taking refuge there from the constant shelling.
The soldier told the BBC: ‘All the buildings in the territory of Azovstal are practically destroyed. They drop heavy bombs, bunker-busting bombs which cause huge destruction. We have wounded and dead inside the bunkers. Some civilians remain trapped under the collapsed buildings.’
A pro-Russian troop stands in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol where hundreds of Ukrainians are trapped
Captain Svyatoslav Palamar from the Azov Battalion insisted: ‘I always say that as long as we are here, Mariupol remains under control of Ukraine’
Russian military vehicles move on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol
Palamar’s comments are the first to emerge from inside the steelworks, the last remaining bastion of resistance in the city which has been razed to the ground
Volodymyr Zelensky echoed the remarks in an overnight address, saying Mariupol ‘continues to resist’ the invading forces
Palamar said the civilians are in separate basements to the fighters, each full of 80 to 100 people, as he claimed there were ‘enough to repel attacks’ stationed inside.
Some buildings inside the plant have been destroyed by shelling meaning soldiers are unable to reach the trapped civilians, with entrances blocked by huge immovable concrete slabs.
He said: ‘We keep in touch with those civilians who stay in places that we can get to. We know that there are small children there as young as three months old.’
The Azov fighter desperately appealed for safe evacuation routes out of the steelworks and urged a third country to act as a guarantor to ensure their safety after Russians repeatedly broke agreed ceasefires.
The neo-Nazi Azov battalion formed as a volunteer paramilitary militia in 2014 to fight Russians in the Donbas and has been accused of its own war crimes.
But in a last ditch battle to defend Azovstal, the Ukrainian marines joined forces with the far-right fighters.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin hailed the ‘liberation’ of Mariupol as a ‘success’ for Russian forces, and ordered a siege of the Azovstal plant.
‘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 escape,’ Putin said.
The British Ministry of Defence said today: ‘Putin’s decision to blockade the Azovstal steel plant likely indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol and free up Russian forces to be deployed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.’
There are at least 500 wounded soldiers inside the plant needing medication and surgery including amputations, while a number of elderly civilians are also in need of urgent treatment.
‘They have almost no food, water, essential medicine,’ Ukraine’s foreign ministry said.
Zelensky added last night: ‘In the south and east of our country, the occupiers continue to do everything to have a reason to talk about at least some victories.
Service members of pro-Russian troops, including fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works
Fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, led by Russia’s State Duma member Adam Delimkhanov, patrol the besieged port city
People walk past cars damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol
An armoured convoy of pro-Russian troops waving Russian flags moves towards Mariupol yesterday which Putin claims he has ‘liberated’
Local residents stand near emergency management specialists, who transport the bodies of civilians killed in the city
‘They can only delay the inevitable – the time when the invaders will have to leave our territory, in particular Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia, despite everything the occupiers say.’
Meanwhile, fresh satellite footage has revealed the extent of the carnage wrought by Putin’s forces in the city.
The imagery, obtained by Maxar Technologies, appears to show a dramatic expansion of mass graves which were dug on the edge of the port city in March to accommodate the victims of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns.
Analysis of a series of images taken from mid-March to mid-April suggests the site, which lies just 12 miles from the centre of Mariupol, now contains more than 200 new graves, according to Maxar.
On Thursday, three school buses carrying evacuees arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia after leaving Mariupol and crossing through Russian-held territory.
‘I don’t want to hear any more bombing,’ said Tatiana Dorash, 34, who arrived with her six-year-old son Maxim.
She said all they wanted now was a quiet night and ‘a bed to sleep in’.
Ukrainian officials had hoped to evacuate many more civilians, but accused Russian forces of targeting a route used by fleeing civilians.
‘We apologise to the people of Mariupol who waited for evacuation today with no result,’ Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on Telegram.
‘Shelling started near the collection point, which forced the corridor to close. Dear Mariupol residents, know, as long as we have at least some opportunity, we will not give up trying to get you out of there! Hold on!’
The mayor of Mariupol made a new appeal today for the ‘full evacuation’ of the city.
‘We need only one thing – the full evacuation of the population. About 100,000 people remain in Mariupol,’ Mayor Vadym Boichenko said on national television.
Boichenko, who is no longer in Mariupol, did not provide any update on any fighting in or around the city on the Sea of Azov., but said that Russian forces are making a ‘mockery’ of those left.
Boichenko told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that Putin alone can decide the fate of the civilians still trapped in Mariupol.
Boichenko has said tens of thousands of residents have been killed. The figure cannot be verified. Russia denies targeting civilians.
The city, which was a bustling metropolis home to some 400,000 people prior to Russia’s invasion in late February, has been utterly obliterated by eight weeks of constant bombardment.
The first satellite image, taken on March 19, 2022, shows a cemetery on the outskirts of Mariupol. A large empty field can be seen nearby the graves on the right. But the second image, taken on April 3, clearly shows several rows of freshly-dug mass graves running along the length of the field by the cemetery. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Mariupol after eight weeks of constant Russian bombardment
This image, taken on March 26, shows the expansion of the mass grave site in progress. Weeks before the horrors of Bucha and other towns north of Kyiv were discovered when Russian forces withdrew in early April, the citizens of Mariupol had already been forced to excavate vast swathes of land to clear their streets of the bodies
A local resident pushes a dog in a pram past a building destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 19, 2022
Emergency management specialists transport the body of a person killed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 21, 2022
Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, as people cannot bury their dead because of heavy shelling by Russian forces
Putin today cruelly instructed his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to command troops to seal off all routes out of the Azovstal steel plant – effectively condemning the Ukrainian fighters and civilians trapped within to a slow and painful death from thirst, hunger and exhaustion
A satellite image taken on March 19 shows a large field on the outskirts of Mariupol completely bare, yet just one week later on March 26, several graves appear to have been dug.
A third picture, taken on April 3, shows several rows of freshly-dug graves stretching across the length of the field, symbolising the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the sheer extent of the civilian casualties.
Weeks before the horrors of Bucha and other towns north of Kyiv were discovered when Russian forces withdrew in early April, the citizens of Mariupol had already been forced to excavate vast swathes of land to clear their streets of the bodies.
Russia launched a savage campaign of air and missile attacks on Mariupol just days after the invasion began – a tactic its forces have continued without reprieve ever since.
The port’s strategic significance meant it quickly became a high priority target for Russia in the early days of the war.
Mariupol is the biggest Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov and the main port serving the industries and agriculture of eastern Ukraine.
Russia launched a savage campaign of air and missile attacks on Mariupol just days after the invasion began – a tactic its forces have continued without reprieve ever since
On the eve of the war, it was the biggest city still held by Ukrainian authorities in Luhansk or Donetsk, the two eastern provinces known as the Donbas that Moscow has demanded Ukraine cede to pro-Russian separatists.
Control of Mariupol means Russia commands the entire coastline of the Sea of Azov, and has a secure overland route linking the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized and annexed in 2014, with mainland Russia and the parts of eastern Ukraine held by separatists.
It links up two of the main axes of Russia’s invasion, and frees Russian forces to join the main offensive being waged against the bulk of Ukraine’s army in the east.
The city’s capture has both strategic and symbolic importance, boosting Putin’s hopes to demonstrate major success by Russia’s Victory Day on May 9, with operations set to ramp up to coincide with the celebrations, the British MoD said today.
But if Putin’s forces eventually erase all resistance in the port and claim it as their own, they will be left with a smouldering shell of a city.
Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boychenko said earlier this month that more than 90 per cent of the urban centre’s infrastructure has been damaged, with more than 40 per cent ‘unrecoverable’.
Boychenko also said more than 10,000 civilians are believed to have died in the Russian attacks.
Investigations are on-going into war crimes in the city, with two attacks – one on a maternity ward and another on a theatre where hundreds of civilians were taking shelter at the time – of particular focus.
After Defence Minister Shoigu (pictured right today) told Vladimir Putin (pictured left) that Russia’s forces controlled the city – apart from the Azovstal steel plant – the Russian president hailed the ‘successful liberation’ of Mariupol
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered the Russian military to cancel plans to storm a Mariupol steelworks. Pictured: Smoke rises above Azovstal steelworks, in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this still image obtained from a recent drone video posted on social media
Meanwhile, Putin’s troops were ordered to shoot civilians in the city if they do not wear white ribbons on their clothes.
Russia was accused of forcing civilians to wear the white ribbons, a symbol of the Russian army, so that they become ‘bait’ for Ukrainian snipers – and in turn help Putin’s men find out where the snipers are hidden.
Petro Andriushchenko, the advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram: ‘The occupiers no longer ‘mildly’ propose that civilians wear white ribbons to mark themselves out – they have turned to direct threats to open fire on anyone seen on the street without such ribbons.
‘Russians are gradually turning the city into a true ghetto for Ukrainians, at the same time using civilians as bait to detect hotspots.’
The disturbing development came as Zelensky said he was ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe passage of civilians and Ukrainian troops who remain in Mariupol.
Around the Ukrainian capital meanwhile, the grim task of exhuming and cataloguing bodies left behind after Russia’s withdrawal continued.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, visiting Borodianka near the capital, said he was ‘shocked to witness the horror and atrocities of Putin’s war’.
Ukrainian officials say more than 1,000 civilians bodies have been retrieved from areas around the capital, and they are working with French investigators to document alleged war crimes.
‘It’s all being investigated,’ Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv regional military administration told reporters. ‘There is no final number of civilians killed.’
‘The forensic experts are now examining the bodies, but what we saw was hands tied behind the back, their legs tied and shot through the limbs and in the back of the head,’ he said.
And US private satellite imagery website Maxar released photos that it said showed a ‘mass grave’ on the northwestern edge of Manhush, 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Mariupol.
The violence has displaced more than 7.7 million people internally, with over five million fleeing to other countries, according to UN estimates, in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
But returns have also accelerated in recent weeks, reaching over one million, according to a spokesman for Kyiv’s border force, despite the risk.
In the village of Moshchun, northwest of Kyiv, returnees must sign waivers acknowledging the risk of death or maiming by leftover munitions.
Olena Klymenko was willing to take the risk and return to the site of her destroyed home as de-mining efforts continued in the village.
‘We found a booby trap in our garden. It seems it was disarmed. We don’t know,’ she told AFP.
‘Still, we need to look for our stuff.’