The Azovstal steel plant, a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, has fallen completely under the control of Russian troops, Moscow has announced. Last week, 2,439 Ukrainian fighters surrendered, although a group of more than 500 servicemen decided to remain inside the steelworks. Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky ordered the last of the Azovstal fighters to surrender a few days ago. "Ukraine needs its heroes alive," he said.
In a video showing a line of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen, the Russian defence ministry has announced that the plant's underground facilities, where for months thousands of soldiers and civilians resisted the Russian offensive, came "under the full control of the Russian armed forces". This brings to an end one of the most brutal sieges of the invasion in Ukraine.
Similarly, the seizure of Azovstal is a major victory for the Kremlin. By gaining control of the coastal town of Mariupol, Moscow has strengthened its grip on the land corridor from Crimea - annexed by Russia in 2014 - to the Donbas. The seizure of the city on the Sea of Azov also represents Moscow's second major conquest since it seized Kherson, also on the Azov in early March.
The Ukrainian authorities, for their part, stress the great bravery and courage of the Ukrainian fighters. Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko assured that the defence of the steel mill would be taught in military schools in the future, Reuters reports. "Those inside had no drinking water, only enough food for one meal a day and practically no medical supplies," he said.
"The senior military leadership has issued an order to save the lives and health of the garrison's servicemen and the completion of the city's defence," said Azov Battalion commander Denys Prokopenko, who praised Ukraine's 86-day defence against Russia.
Another video with Azovstal defenders. Russians are undressing them looking for nazi tattoos. Don't think they found any. pic.twitter.com/ss8GANfPQ1— Dmitri ?? (@mdmitri91) May 20, 2022
The Azovstal resistance has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance against Russia. Equally, the West has praised the steadfastness of the fighters even in the appalling conditions they faced. "Do you know what it's like to amputate a limb without anaesthetic? What you see in Hollywood horror movies is nothing compared to what the Azovstal defenders saw and endured," Gerashchenko added.
Zelensky also recounted how many air force pilots tried to move supplies to the last Azovstal defenders. "Pilots intervened for several weeks knowing that 90 per cent of them would not return. They were going there to bring food, water, weapons and pick up the wounded. We lost many. They are heroes," he said.
We’re going to establish the Battle of Azovstal Memorial Museum in there when this is over pic.twitter.com/dRf8CrETcY— Illia Ponomarenko ?? (@IAPonomarenko) May 20, 2022
Following Azovstal's surrender, which Kiev calls a "rescue", Ukraine hopes to organise a prisoner-of-war exchange. Russia considers many of the soldiers at the plant to be "neo-Nazi" fighters, as a significant number were part of the Azov Battalion. For this reason, Russian politicians such as Vyacheslav Volodin have called for them to be tried on Russian territory "for their crimes in the Donbas", reports EFE.
The Russian military authorities have not specified the precise destination of the prisoners, although in previous days some of the Azovstal defenders were transferred to Russian territory and others to the area controlled by pro-Russian militias in the Donetsk region, the news agency adds.
After months of heavy shelling, the 11 square kilometre Azovstal plant joins the ruins of the rest of the city of Mariupol, where 90% of the infrastructure has been destroyed according to Ukrainian sources. The town has been one of the worst hit by the war and more than 20,000 civilians are feared dead.
Having taken the plant and the city, Russia is redoubling its efforts to conquer territory in the Donbas, a region "completely destroyed" by the Russian army, according to Zelensky. As fighting rages in the east, the US Senate has approved a $40 billion package of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.