Russia’s defence ministry today announced a ceasefire around the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and claimed it would allow civilians to evacuate from the industrial area that has been sheltering the remaining Ukrainian resistance in the port city.
Russian troops ‘from 14:00 Moscow time (1100 GMT) on April 25, 2022, will unilaterally stop any hostilities, withdraw units to a safe distance and ensure the withdrawal of’ civilians’, the ministry said.
The mammoth steel plant, which has a sprawling maze of underground channels. has remained the last bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic Sea of Azov port city.
Ukrainian officials have said that up to 1,000 civilians have sheltered there. They have repeatedly urged Russia to offer them a safe exit.
The Russian defence ministry said any civilians trapped at the facility could leave in whichever direction they chose.
Defiant Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the steelworks have refused to surrender Mariupol despite being surrounded by Russian forces as the bodies of dead civilians continue to pile up.
A Ukrainian solider from the Azov Battalion and civilians gather on Orthodox Easter Sunday in Mariupol on April 24
Russia claimed last week it had ‘liberated’ Mariupol as Vladimir Putin savagely ordered the military to seal off all routes out of the plant ‘so that even a fly cannot pass through’, effectively condemning those inside to their deaths.
‘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.
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.
On Thursday, three school buses carrying evacuees arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia after leaving Mariupol and crossing through Russian-held territory.
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 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!’
A part of a destroyed tank and a burned vehicle sit in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Saturday
Mariupol, 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 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.
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 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.