Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the Battle of Mariupol on Thursday, even as he ordered his troops not to risk storming the giant steelworks where the city’s last Ukrainian defenders were entrenched in a maze of underground passages.
Instead, Putin ordered his forces to seal off the Azovstal plant “so that not even a fly would get through.”
After nearly two months of bombardment that has 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, according to Moscow’s estimate, stubbornly resisted the sprawling factory for weeks, despite beatings by Russian forces and repeated demands for surrender.
About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.
Instead of sending in troops to finish off the defenders in a potentially bloody frontal assault, Russia apparently intends to hold the siege and wait for the fighters to surrender when they run out of food or ammunition.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko dismissed any idea that Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.
“The city was, is and remains Ukrainian,” he said. “Today our brave warriors, our heroes, defend our city.”
Putin’s comments came as satellite images showed more than 200 new graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians buried Mariupol residents killed in the fighting.
The images, from Maxar Technologies, show long rows of graves extending from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol.
Mr Boychenko accused the Russians of “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in Manhush.
In a message on Telegram, the city council quoted Boychenko as calling the site “the new Babi Yar”.
The Mariupol city council said up to 9,000 civilians could be buried in mass graves in Manhush.
“The greatest war crime of the 21st century was 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 around the world. We must stop the genocide by all possible means.
The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin’s biggest victory to date in the war in Ukraine.
This would help Moscow further secure the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequential battle now. underway for the industrial heart of eastern Ukraine, the Donbass.
In a joint appearance with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin said, “The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success,” and he congratulated Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted the steel plant could be taken in three to four days, but Putin said it would be “unnecessary”, expressing concern for the lives of Russian soldiers.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader said. “Block off this industrial zone so that not even a fly can pass.”
The factory covers four square miles and is criss-crossed by approximately 15 miles of tunnels and bunkers.
For weeks, Russian officials have said that capturing the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass is the main objective of the war.
Moscow’s forces opened the new phase of fighting this week along a 300-mile front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Sea of Azov.
While Russia has continued its heavy air and artillery attacks in these areas, it does not appear to have gained significant ground in recent days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow’s forces continued to intensify. the offense.
Rockets hit a neighborhood in Kharkiv on Thursday and at least two civilians were burned to death in their car. A school and an apartment building were also affected.
Western nations, meanwhile, rushed to dump heavy weapons on Ukraine to help counter the eastern offensive.
US President Joe Biden has announced additional military aid of $800m (£612m), including heavy artillery, 144,000 rounds and drones.
But he also warned that the $13.6bn (£10.4bn) approved last month by the US Congress for military and humanitarian aid is “almost exhausted” and more will be needed.
In total, more than 100,000 people are believed to have been trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a population of around 430,000 before the war.
The city has drawn worldwide attention as the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, including deadly airstrikes on a maternity ward and a theater.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block civilian evacuations from the city. At least two Russian attacks hit the town of Zaporizhzhia, a staging post for people fleeing Mariupol, on Thursday, but no one was hurt, the regional governor said.
In the continuing war of sanctions and counter-sanctions between Russia and the West, Moscow announced that it had banned US Vice President Kamala Harris, tech billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and 27 other prominent Americans, including foreign commentators, to enter Russia.
The move was a response to the Biden administration’s “widening anti-Russian sanctions,” Moscow said in a statement, and targeted people it said were shaping a “Russophobic narrative.”