KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Mariupol appeared on the verge of falling to the Russians 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 parties. 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.
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 prewar 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. It could also free up Russian forces for fighting elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is bent on capturing.
And it would give Russia an important victory after repeated setbacks on the battlefield and diplomatic front, beginning with the abortive attempt to storm Kyiv, the capital.
Over the past few days, Sweden and Finland announced plans to apply for NATO membership, and Ukraine reported that Moscow’s forces had retreated from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in the face of counterattacks and had taken heavy losses in an Ukrainian assault on a pontoon bridge in the Donbas.
The steel plant sprawls over 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) in the otherwise Russian-held city. The soldiers who left were given pat-down searches, loaded onto buses accompanied by Russian military vehicles, and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously wounded, according to both sides.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said without evidence that there were “war criminals” among the plant defenders and that they should not be exchanged but tried.
Ukraine highlighted the role that the Azovstal fighters played in boosting Ukrainian morale and tying up Russian forces who couldn’t be deployed elsewhere.
Ukraine Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar heaped praise on the fighters and said it been impossible to liberate them “by military means.”
“Mariupol’s defenders have fully accomplished all missions assigned by the commanders,” she said.
Oleksandr Danylyuk, a Ukrainian former national security chief and finance minister, told the BBC that because Ukrainian forces were unable to reach the plant, the negotiated evacuation to Russian-controlled territory had been “the only hope” for Azovstal’s defenders.
A full negotiated withdrawal could save lives on the Russian side, too, sparing its troops from what almost certainly would be a bloody battle to wrest the labyrinth-like plant from Ukrainian control. The withdrawal could also work to Moscow's benefit by taking the world's attention off the suffering in Mariupol.
Retired French Vice Adm. Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s center for higher military studies, said Azovstal’s fall would be more of a symbolic boost for Russia than a military one, since “factually, Mariupol had already fallen.”
“Now Putin can claim a ‘victory’ in the Donbas,” Olhagaray said.
But because the Azovstal defenders' “incredible resistance" tied down Russian troops, Ukraine can also claim that it came out on top.
“Both sides will be able take pride or boast about a victory – victories of different kinds,” he said.
While the focus of the fighting has shifted eastward in the Donbas, that, too, has turned into a slog.
Strikes have also occasionally hit other areas of the country. The western city of Lviv was rocked by loud explosions early Tuesday. Witnesses counted at least eight blasts. The sky west of the city, which was under an overnight curfew, was lit up by an orange glow.
The governor of the Lviv region, Maksym Kozytskyy, said Russian strikes targeted railroad and military facilities around Yavoriv, west of the city.
The Yavoriv area, which is just a short drive from the Polish border, has been the target of previous Russian strikes apparently aimed at slowing the flow of weapons and other supplies coming from Western countries. A Russian strike in March also killed 35 people at Yaroviv military training base.
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
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Oleksandr Stashevskyi And Ciaran Mcquillan, The Associated Press