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Putin says Mariupol ‘liberated’, orders troops to seal off last fighters

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Russia President Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin says Russian troops have achieved a victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war, declaring that the strategic port of Mariupol was “liberated” after some two months of siege.

The Russian leader made the announcement during a televised meeting with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin on Thursday.

An unclear number of Ukrainian soldiers holed up inside the giant fortress-like Azovstal steelworks in the city are still holding out against Russian troops.

“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary. I order you to cancel it,” Putin told Shoigu.

“There’s 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 get through,” the Russian president added.

Azovstal is one of the biggest metallurgical facilities in Europe, covering 11 sq km, with huge buildings, underground bunkers and tunnels.

Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, following Moscow’s recognition of self-declared Lugansk and Donetsk republics, collectively known as Donbass. The two breakaway regions, located in eastern Ukraine, are largely populated by ethnic Russians.

Since the onset of operation, some of the heaviest fighting between the two sides have been focused around Mariupol, located in southeastern Ukraine and on the north coast of the strategic Sea of Azov.

The fall of Mariupol, besieged by Russian troops since March 1, enables Moscow to open a land route to the Crimean Peninsula, which joined Russia in 2014.

According to an estimate by Shoigu, some 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers and fighters remained inside Azovstal. Putin called on them to lay down their weapons and surrender, saying Russia would treat them with respect, but all to no avail.

Asked about the blockade of the plant rather than storming it by Russians, Ukraine’s defense ministry spokeswoman said the move testified to Putin’s “schizophrenic tendencies.”

Thousands of Russian troops backed by artillery and rocket barrages are advancing in what Ukrainian officials have called the Battle for the Donbass.

The worst fighting of the war has been in and out of Mariupol, which was once home to 400,000 people. The ill-fated city has also been the scene of worst humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off for nearly two months. Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians during the offensive.

Shoigu told Putin that Russian troops had managed to kill more than 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers during the campaign to capture Mariupol and that 1,478 had surrendered, two of whom were British.

The Interfax news agency said on Tuesday that 120 civilians living next to the Azovstal steel plant had left via humanitarian corridors. However, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on Thursday said that an agreed humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the plant had not proceeded as planned, blaming Russian forces.

Nevertheless, Moscow says it has taken in 140,000 civilians from Mariupol in humanitarian evacuations. Kiev says those civilians were deported by force, in what would be a war crime.

Vereshchuk said 1,000 civilians and 500 injured troops needed to be brought out immediately.

Kiev: Russia admits it cannot take Azovstal

Later on Thursday, Ukraine's presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia had realized that it could not take Azovstal.

“They physically cannot take Azovstal, they have understood this. They have taken huge losses there. Our defenders continue to hold it,” he said at a briefing.

It “can also be explained by the fact that they have moved part of their forces (from Mariupol) to the north in order to reinforce the troops attempting to fulfill their main objective... advancing to the administrative boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Arestovych added.

The latest development comes as Western governments have pledged to give Ukraine more military help.

The United States, Canada, and Britain announced on Tuesday that they would send more artillery to Ukraine, while White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said new sanctions were being prepared.

US President Joe Biden is expected to announce within the coming days another military aid package for Ukraine nearly the same size as the $800-million one announced last week.

The new package would bring the total US military aid to Ukraine since Russia began its military offensive there in February to well over $3 billion. The package announced last week includes artillery systems, artillery rounds, armored personnel carriers and unmanned coastal defense boats.

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