Ukraine continues to hold Mariupol steel plant, fending off Putin victory in port city

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to risk more losses by storming the giant steel plant containing the last Ukrainian holdouts in the city.

Biden pledges millions more in weapons to Ukraine to help counter new Russian offensive in the east

An emergency management specialist pauses while searching for the bodies of people killed in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The latest:

  • Putin claims Mariupol win but won't storm Ukrainian holdout.
  • Mariupol mayor rejects claim of Russian victory, says city 'is and remains Ukrainian.'
  • Canadian premiers, mayors, head of CBC all banned from visiting Russia in latest round of sanctions.
  • Ukraine says Russian troops continue to mount assaults across the east in push to take Donbas region.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to risk more losses by storming the giant steel plant containing the last Ukrainian holdouts in the city.

Instead, he directed his forces to seal off the Azovstal plant "so that not even a fly comes through."

After nearly two lethal months of bombardment that have largely reduced Mariupol to a smoking ruin, Russian forces appear to control the rest of the strategic southern city, including its vital but now badly damaged port.

But 2,000 Ukrainian troops, by Moscow's estimate, have stubbornly held out for weeks at the sprawling plant, despite a pummeling from Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender. About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.

Smoke rises above the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on Wednesday. The plant is the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the city after a nearly two-month siege by Russian forces. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

But on Thursday, as he has done before, Putin seemed to shift the narrative and declared victory without taking the plant, which covers 11 square kilometres and is threaded with some 24 kilometres of tunnels and bunkers. 

"The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success," he said in a joint appearance with his defence minister. "Congratulations."

A heavily damaged residential building is seen in Mariupol Thursday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukraine scoffed at the idea of a Russian victory.

"This situation means the following: They cannot physically capture Azovstal. They have understood this. They suffered huge losses there," said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Mayor Vadym Boychenko rejected any notion that Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.

"The city was, is and remains Ukrainian," he declared. "Today our brave warriors, our heroes, are defending our city."

Putin's comments came as satellite images showed more than 200 new graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians have been burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The imagery, from Maxar Technologies, shows long rows of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol.

WATCH | Putin claims Russian forces have 'liberated' Mariupol:   

Putin claims Mariupol ‘liberated,’ Ukrainian civilians train for conflict

2 years ago
Duration 2:47
Featured VideoRussian President Vladimir Putin declared the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol ‘liberated’ by his troops, despite ordering a blockade at a nearby steel plant ‘so that a fly cannot pass through.’ Elsewhere in Ukraine, civilians are stepping up to train for battle against Russian forces.

As many as 9,000 bodies in mass grave

Boychenko accused the Russians of "hiding their military crimes" by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush. He said in a Telegram post Thursday evening that as many as 9,000 civilians could be buried in a mass grave in the village.

"The greatest war crime of the 21st century has been committed in Mariupol. This is the new Babi Yar," Boychenko said, referring to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in 1941.

"Then Hitler killed Jews, Roma and Slavs. And now Putin is destroying Ukrainians. He has already killed tens of thousands of civilians in Mariupol," he added. "This requires a strong reaction from the entire world. We need to stop the genocide by any means possible."

These before-and-after satellite images show an overview of a cemetery and expansion of new graves in Manhush, near Mariupol, on March 19 and April 3. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin's biggest victory yet of the war in Ukraine. It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and allow Putin to shift more forces to the larger battle now underway for Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.

By painting the mission in Mariupol a success, Putin may be seeking to take the focus off the site, which has become a global symbol of defiance. Even without the plant, the Russians appear to have control of the rest of the city and its vital port, though that facility seems to have been extensively damaged.

"The Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centres, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory," retired British rear admiral Chris Parry said.

Putin's order may mean that Russian officials are hoping they can wait for the defenders to surrender after running out of food or ammunition. The bombardment of the plant could well continue.

U.S. to provide more weapons aid to Ukraine

Western nations, meanwhile, rushed to pour heavy weapons into Ukraine to help it counter the new offensive in the east.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million US in military assistance for Kyiv, including heavy artillery, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and drones.

But he also warned that the $13.6 billion US approved last month by the U.S. Congress for military and humanitarian aid is "almost exhausted" and more will be needed.

Zekensky has urged Western countries to speed up the deliveries of weapons to help Ukraine fend off the Russian offensive.

"The occupiers continue to do everything possible to give themselves a reason to speak about at least some kind of victory," Zelensky said late Thursday in his nightly video address to the nation. "They are building up their forces, bringing in new tactical battalions and trying even to begin a so-called 'mobilization' in the regions they occupy in Ukraine."

Zelensky also warned those living in areas of southern Ukraine under the control of Russian troops not to provide them with their IDs, which he said could be used "to falsify a so-called referendum on our land" to create a Moscow-friendly government.

Earlier Thursday, at a joint appearance with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin offered congratulations to Shoigu.

"I consider the proposed storming of the industrial area pointless. I order to abort it," Putin responded, saying he was concerned about "preserving the life and health of our soldiers and officers."

"There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities," the Russian leader went on. "Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly comes through."

All told, more than 100,000 people were believed trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of about 430,000.

The city has seized worldwide attention as the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war, including deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theatre.

Evacuees board a bus to leave Mariupol on Wednesday. Ukrainian officials said four buses with civilians managed to escape from the city on Wednesday after several unsuccessful attempts. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
An elderly woman from Mariupol, fleeing from the Russian attacks, looks out a bus window after arriving at a refugee centre in Zaporizhzhia, Thursday. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country and others are pressuring Russia to allow civilians out of Mariupol and to stop striking potential evacuation routes.

Four buses with civilians managed to escape the city on Wednesday after several unsuccessful attempts, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

Attacks hit Zaporizhzhia

Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block civilian evacuations from the city. On Thursday, at least two Russian attacks hit the city of Zaporizhzhia, a way station for people fleeing Mariupol, though no one was wounded, the regional governor said.

Parry called the decision about the steel plant a change in "operational approach" as Russia tries to learn from its failures in the eight-week conflict, which began with expectations of a lightning offensive that would quickly crush Ukraine's outgunned and outnumbered forces and capture Kyiv. Instead, Moscow's troops became bogged down by unexpectedly tenacious resistance with ever-mounting casualties and retreated from the capital.

WATCH | Watching the horrors happening in Mariupol from afar:   

Daughter unable to reach mother in Mariupol

2 years ago
Duration 3:26
Featured VideoA Ukrainian woman living in New York says 'it's beyond painful,' that she hasn't been able to contact her mother in Mariupol since March 2. 'It feels like a knife stabbing my heart,' she says.

For weeks now, Russian officials have said capturing the Donbas, Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial east, is the war's main goal. Moscow's forces opened a new phase of the war this week — a deadly drive along a front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Azov Sea — to do just that.

"They've realized if they get sort of held up in these sort of really sticky areas like Mariupol, they're not going to cover the rest of the ground," Parry said.

In Luhansk, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, the governor said Russian forces control 80 per cent of his region. Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60 per cent of Luhansk.

Britain's Defence Ministry said that Russia likely wants to demonstrate significant successes ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

"This could affect how quickly and forcefully they attempt to conduct operations in the run-up to this date," the ministry said.