Ukrainian troops mount last-ditch stand in Mariupol’s tunnels

For more than seven weeks, invading Russian forces have come close to the center of Mariupol as they fired it from the Black Sea with bombs, artillery and missiles, turning apartment blocks, hospitals and other buildings into rubble.

Residents of the blocked city, which numbered more than 400,000 before the invasion, have been living without electricity, water, communication or modern medical treatment since early March. Many people have run out of food and medicines after looting the shops. Others cook communal meals over an open fire.

Throughout all this, analysts have reported that Ukraine’s military had been largely outnumbered by the Russians and predicted that the city would fall.

But Ukrainian troops – from the military, border guards and right-wing, nationalist paramilitary Azov battalions – have been left out. They have taken underground refuge in Mariupol’s Soviet-era enterprises, including the Azovstal steel works, and parts of the port, which have an extensive network of tunnels.

In recent days, the end of the siege is drawing to a close. On Saturday, Russia’s defense ministry claimed the city had been freed from Ukrainian fighters, with some still blocked in Azovstal. After midnight, it demanded that they surrender.

Russian and Ukrainian military claims made during the war could not be independently verified.

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The capture of Mariupol would provide a major lift to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s struggling Ukraine campaign, allowing Moscow to complete a land bridge between Crimea and its occupied cities in southern Ukraine. It would also free up resources for the expected invasion of Moscow in the Donbass.

For Ukrainians, the capture of Mariupol has become a symbol of the nation’s resistance against an invasion that has killed thousands of civilians and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.

Azov’s Telegram channel released a video last week in which Denis Prokopenko, the commander of the city’s Azov regiment, said that “real men who chose the path of war” were still defending the city. He condemned those who surrendered to choose the “path of shame”.

In the video, shot against a brick wall, Prokopenko was seated next to Serhi Volina, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade. He said the two groups have successfully joined forces to defend Mariupol.

Denis Prokopenko and Serhi Volinas

Denis Prokopenko, Commander of the Azov Regiment of Mariupol with Serhi Volina, Commander of the 36th Marine Brigade © YouTube

President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged in an interview with Ukrainian media on Saturday that the situation in Mariupol was “definitely not improving”, with its forces blocked off and several wounded and killed. However, he added: “The boys are heroically defending themselves.”

Igor Yavorsky, a pensioner who was evacuated on Saturday by bus from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhya in the north, said soldiers were fighting well “but they need help – military help”.

Residents, humanitarian workers and other Ukrainians in contact with people in Mariupol painted a picture of a force still in Azovstal and the port area.

Azov’s founder Andrey Biletsky told the Financial Times that he believed that from just 4,000 troops in Mariupol at the start of the invasion, about 2,000 remained active in the city, including Ukrainian marines from the force’s 36th Brigade. A large number of Azov fighters, soldiers of the 56th Infantry Brigade, as well as border guards and volunteer fighters.

“How do they survive, Mariupol is a big city, and there are a large number of large buildings made of reinforced concrete and steel, and a large number of underground passages,” he said. “It helps a little bit all together.”

Andrey Biletsky
Azov founder Andrey Biletsky said about 2,000 troops remained active in Mariupol © Serhi Nuzenko / Reuters

He said the fighters were struggling for scarce food and drinking water. Ukraine’s helicopters had removed emergency provisions, including weapons and drugs, via an “air bridge”, although they did not say whether they were still doing so.

Biletsky said doctors and nurses were helping, but working underground throughout Mariupol, with a shortage of medicines, including antibiotics and anesthetics. “This results in the death of a large number of people or gangrene followed by amputation, as was the case in the 19th century,” he said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry and pro-Russian commentators claimed on April 13 that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines had surrendered, releasing a video showing dozens of them holding hands behind their heads.

However, Oleksiy Erestovich, an adviser in Zelensky’s office, said that the number of those who surrendered was “very small”, adding that some of the marines had joined with the Azov forces.

After midnight on Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry demanded that the troops still surrender in Mariupol, “taking into account the appalling situation that developed at the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant, as well as being guided by purely humanitarian principles” He is going”. It says that those who lay down arms will be spared.

Azovstal Plant
Some Ukrainian soldiers have sought refuge at the Azovstal plant | © Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant / Ivine

In a blocked city with few journalists and highly damaged communications, it is difficult to verify the facts. The residents who remained, whose number is believed to be up to 100,000, have shared reports and pictures on social media despite connectivity problems.

In his interview on Saturday, Zelensky cited an estimate by Mariupol’s regional administration that around 20,000 civilians were killed, but noted that the counting officer was not in the city.

Ukraine’s president accused Russia of refusing to comply with an agreement by Turkey for humanitarian corridors from Mariupol during talks. “I honestly don’t trust Russian negotiators,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross left Mariupol on March 15 after circumstances made “impossible”, said Alyona Sinenko, a spokeswoman for the group. The ICRC has struggled to evacuate residents through humanitarian corridors due to a lack of agreement between the warring parties, but on 6 April managed to evacuate more than 1,000 people in a convoy.

Ukraine’s charitable groups have hired private buses and found volunteers willing to risk Russian bombing and rescue people trapped in the city. According to volunteers in Zaporizhzhya, Russian and pro-Russian separatist troops in Mariupol have misinformed residents trying to escape, warning them not to enter Ukrainian territory.

“They say, ‘Your men will be arrested at checkpoints and taken to the army,'” said a volunteer, Oleksandr Sosnovsky. “They want to evacuate them to Russia.”

An evacuation holds a cat while waiting to board the bus from Mariupolo
An evacuation cat catches up while waiting to board the bus leaving Mariupol on 5 April © Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

According to Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Human Rights Lyudmila Denisova, more than 135,000 Mariupol people have been relocated across the border to Russia since the start of the war.

In Ukrainian territory in Zaporizhzhia, a suburban megastore and garden center has been converted into a medical facility to receive people arriving from war zones.

According to Wilson Burnless, a volunteer therapist in Las Vegas, children attending the center typically suffer from dehydration, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and adults suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. “Plus, they’re all crying because they’ve lost their home.”

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