Bloody battles… DPR army soldiers
Vladimir Putin’s troops forced their way into the vast compound itself for the first time, sparking fierce gun battles.
As plumes of smoke rose over the compound, the Ukrainian army said heavily armed Kremlin troops were trying to “destroy” all the remaining defending marines.
Repeated artillery fire was heard in between heavy shelling from the advancing Russian forces as they pushed into the plant – the last enclave of the devastated city still held by the Ukrainian army.
The beleaguered defending commander from the Azov regiment within the Azovstal plant – which has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance – admitted there were ongoing “heavy, bloody battles”, but gave no figure for casualties.
Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko, in a video message, said Russian troops have been fighting inside the sprawling industrial complex for two days in an all-out effort to kill or capture the last of his men.
“There are heavy, bloody battles,” Lt Col Prokopenko said.
“I am proud of my soldiers for making inhuman efforts to contain the enemy’s onslaught. I thank the whole world for the tremendous support of the Mariupol garrison.
“Our soldier deserve it. The situation is extremely difficult, but we continue to carry out the order to keep the defence despite everything.”
Ceasefire… 200 civilians are trapped in Mariupol
As the carnage unfolded, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directly appealed to the head of the United Nations to step in to help ‘save’ the lives of the remaining wounded and civilians under siege at the steel plant – the latter believed to be around 200 people, including at least 30 children.
In a phone call with the UN’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres, President Zelensky thanked the UN for the earlier successful evacuation from the steel plant this week – which saw more than 156 people taken out – but called on the UN to “assist in the further removal of all the wounded from Azovstal”.
“The lives of the people who remain there are in danger,” he warned.
President Zelensky said heavy machinery was needed to get people out of the underground shelters but this was impossible during the ongoing ferocious fighting.
The 200 civilians, many of whom are relatives of the Ukrainian soldiers defending the plant, are hunkering down in tunnels beneath the compound described by one soldier as ‘hell’.
Putin’s commanders offered the 1,500 or so Ukrainian marines defending the plant a three-day ceasefire to allow the families and non-military civilians to leave the plant safely.
But previous ceasefires in the war have seen mixed results, with Ukraine repeatedly accusing Russian forces of going back on their word and not stopping their attacks.
And today, fierce fighting continued.
A Russian official denied that troops were storming the plant, but the commander of the main Ukrainian unit inside said Russia’s soldiers had pushed into the mill’s territory.
“With the support of aircraft, the enemy resumed the offensive in order to take control of the plant,” the General Staff in Kyiv said, adding that the Russians were “trying to destroy Ukrainian units”.
Onslaught… Russian attacks continue
The US think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) also confirmed that for the first time, Russian forces had managed to push deep into the Azovstal steelworks and were now likely to be operating within the plant.
But in its overall assessment of the military situation, it added that Ukrainian defences have largely stalled Russian advances in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier, more than 300 civilians were evacuated from other parts of Mariupol and southern Ukraine on Wednesday, the UN said.
Those who have escaped told of the horrors they left behind.
A woman named Olena said: “People don´t stop crying. They’re in absolute desperation to get out of there.
“People started thinking about suicide because there’s no way out of it.”
Mark, an 11-year-old-boy, said he was scared because war planes “were always firing” and “there were bombs falling and exploding”.
“It was scary to hear all that – the whole bunker shook,” he said.
But the battle for the Mariupol steelworks has become a significant centrepiece of the war.
Heavily outnumbered and with dwindling supplies and ammunition, the Ukrainian marines have managed to keep Putin’s army at bay for more than two months.
It is the final resistance in the port that has been all but destroyed by heavy shelling.
And the Azovstal metal works remains “priority number one” for Ukraine’s political and military leadership, an adviser to the country’s defence minister admitted today.
Yuriy Sak said that efforts were still focused on defending the vast industrial complex and managing further evacuations.
“We are quietly optimistic,” he said.
“But of course we have bad experiences of Russia not honouring its commitments.”
But for Russia, completely securing the city would give Putin’s forces a land bridge from the mainland of their territory to the Crimean peninsula.
More importantly, control of the port will free up a large number of their troops who have previously been pinned down by the defenders in Mariupol.
Elsewhere, to the west of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces made some gains on the border of the southern regions of Kherson and Mykolaiv, where Russian troops were reportedly trying to launch a counter-offensive, and repelled 11 Russian attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the military said.
Five people were killed and at least 25 wounded in shelling of several eastern cities over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.
The Russian military said it had used sea and air-launched missiles to destroy electric power facilities at five railway stations across Ukraine on Wednesday.
Artillery and aircraft also struck troop strongholds and fuel and ammunition depots.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Moscow of “resorting to the missile terrorism tactics in order to spread fear across Ukraine”.
Responding to the strikes in his nightly video address, President Zelenskyy said: “All of these crimes will be answered, legally and quite practically – on the battlefield.”
The increased intensity of the attacks comes as Russia prepares to celebrate Victory Day on Monday, marking the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
The world is watching for whether President Putin will use the occasion to declare victory in Ukraine or expand what he calls the “special military operation”.
A declaration of all-out war would allow him to introduce martial law and mobilise reservists to make up for significant troop losses.