LVIV, Ukraine – During a relentless bombardment and a Russian blockade, the main port of Mariupol endures, but a lack of weapons and supplies could weaken the resistance that has thwarted the Kremlin’s invasion plans.
More than six weeks after the Russian siege began, Ukrainian troops continue to fight the far superior Russian forces in fierce fighting in the midst of the ruins of what was once a busy city on the Azov Sea.
The mayor says an estimated 120,000 people remain in the city, out of Mariupol’s pre-war population of about 450,000.
The Ukrainian struggle has weakened Moscow’s design, tied up significant Russian forces and delayed a planned offensive in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbas. The Kremlin hopes an attack in the east could turn the battlefield’s fortunes on Russia after a humiliating mistake in quickly storming the capital Kiev.
Mariupol has been a key target for Russia since the start of the invasion on 24 February. Occupation of the city would allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014 and deprive Ukraine of a large port and valued industrial assets.
Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, described the situation in Mariupol as “complicated”, saying fighting was continuing in industrial areas and the port, and that Russia was using a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber for the first time to attack. the city.
The giant Azovstal steelworks and other facilities have been badly damaged by the Russian bombing, which has flattened large parts of Mariupol, randomly hit homes, hospitals and other public buildings and killed thousands.
The victims include about 300 people who were killed in last month’s Russian airstrikes at the Mariupol Drama Theater, which was used as a shelter and had the word “CHILDREN” printed in Russian in large white letters on the sidewalk outside to ward off airstrikes.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko told the Associated Press that at least 21,000 people were killed in Mariupol with corpses “covered with blankets through the streets.” He said the Russians deployed mobile cremation equipment to methodically dispose of the bodies to conceal evidence of the massacre and prevent international organizations from documenting “the horrors for which the Russian army is responsible.”
The bodies of more than 900 civilians have been found in the region around Kiev following the withdrawal of Russian forces, said Andriy Nebytov, head of the regional police force, adding that many were “simply executed.” The death toll is double what was announced almost two weeks ago, a discovery that has led to global outrage and accusations from Ukrainians and the West that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Moscow deployed warriors from Chechnya, known for their savagery, to wage street fighting in Mariupol. Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov has repeatedly boasted on his messaging app channel of defeating Ukrainians in Mariupol, but the fight continues.
Boychenko said several Ukrainian units are still fighting in Mariupol, including the 36th Marine Brigade, Interior Ministry troops, border guards and the National Guard’s Azov regiment, which Russia designates as a special villain because of its extreme right-wing ideology.
The Azov Regiment, an experienced volunteer force widely regarded as one of the country’s most capable units, defends the Azovstal facility, which covers an area of nearly 11 square kilometers (over 4.2 square miles). It has exploited the plant’s extensive network of concrete buildings and underground facilities to repel sustained Russian attacks.
The 36th Marine Brigade maintained defensive positions at the Azovmash and Zavod Ilyicha factories until it ran out of supplies and ammunition and made a desperate attempt to break through the Russian blockade earlier in the week.
In a post on the brigade’s Facebook page, one of its officers described how “for more than a month, Marines have been fighting without replenishing ammunition, food and water supplies.”
“The wounded accounted for almost half of the brigade’s strength, but those who still had their limbs and were able to walk reported back to service,” it read.
Boychenko said some of the Marines managed to join the Azov Regiment, while others were captured by the Russians. He gave no speech.
The Russian military said Thursday that a total of 1,160 Ukrainian Marines surrendered this week, a claim that could not be independently verified.
As Ukrainian troops continue to offer fierce resistance in Mariupol, fears have grown that the outraged Russians could resort to chemical weapons to deal with the remaining pockets of resistance at the Azovstal factory and other areas of the city.
Eduard Basurin, a Russian-allied separatist official in eastern Ukraine, appeared to be calling for that Monday, telling Russian state television that Russia-backed forces should block all exits from the factory and then “use chemical troops to smoke them.” out of there. ” He later said no chemical weapons were used.
The Azov Regiment claimed Monday, without providing evidence, that a drone had dropped a toxic substance at its positions but sustained no serious injuries. A Ukrainian defense official said the attack may have involved phosphorus munitions.
Ukrainian authorities have said the Russians have blocked humanitarian convoys from reaching Mariupol and kept it without food, water and electricity since the siege began. Russian troops have rejected buses sent to evacuate residents, but about 150,000 have been able to flee the city in their own vehicles.
Boychenko said at least 33,500 and possibly up to 50,000 Mariupol residents had been taken to “filtering camps” in the separatist-controlled east before being forcibly deported to remote, economically depressed areas of Russia.
Mariupol has experienced communication interrupted since the beginning of the siege, and when the Russians moved to conquer parts of the city, they launched radio broadcasts to brainwash the population.
“They unleashed propaganda and told people that Kyiv and other cities have been conquered and they have been abandoned,” Boychenko said.
The continued fighting has forced the Russian military to keep a significant number of troops in the city, delaying the eastern offensive.
“As long as the street fighting is going on, Russia will not be able to remove troops from Mariupol and deploy them to other areas, including the Donbas,” Oleh Zhdanov, an independent military expert, told the AP.
‘The Ukrainian troops in Mariupol are still carrying out their main task by diverting the Russian forces from other areas. Mariupol remains an important symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. “
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine