The Russian assault on the last defenders at Mariupol’s steelworks will continue to hold back its plans to control the Donbas region, according to the UK Ministry of Defense.
It is estimated around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are underneath the Azovstal plant – the last pocket of resistance in a city almost completely destroyed.
A few hundred civilians are also thought to be trapped, although Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said more than 150 people from the plant and more than 300 people from the suburbs had been evacuated this week.
The ground assault on the steelworks continued for a second day on Thursday, the MoD said in its latest update.
It said the renewed attacks were probably an attempt by President Putin to finally capture Mariupol and have a “symbolic success” ahead of Russia’s Victory Day commemorations on 9 May.
However, it said the steelworks battle had come at a “personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia” and that, as long as Ukraine holds out, the losses will “continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas”.
Russia recently launched a new push to take the eastern Donbas region after pulling out of areas around the capital Kyiv.
Capturing Mariupol would free up troops to bolster that goal.
Speaking in the early hours of Friday, President Zelenskyy said Russia was continuing to hammer the steelworks despite the presence of civilians, who are trapped in awful conditions.
“Currently, Russian shelling and assault of Azovstal do not stop, but civilians still need to be taken out – women, children, many children who are still there,” he said.
“Just imagine this hell. And there are children.
“More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death nearby.”
He praised the city’s Ukrainian defenders, saying that many of them are wounded “but they do not give up – they are holding positions”.
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Steelworks fighters will ‘stand till the end’
Kateryna Prokopenko, wife of Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, told the Associated Press that her husband and others fighting for the city would “stand till the end.”
“They only hope for a miracle,” she said after speaking with him by phone. “They won’t surrender.”
She said her husband had told her he would love her forever, adding: “I am going mad from this. It seemed like words of goodbye.”
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry, said that the Russians were storming the tunnels, with the help of a “betrayer” – a Ukrainian electrician who worked at the site and knew the layout.
Russia has denied its troops are storming the plant. It previously said it would only try to seal off the area.
Before the war, Mariupol had a population of about 400,000, but this has fallen to around 100,000 in recent weeks, with those remaining facing a daily struggle with severe shortages of food, clean water, and electricity.
Aid has not been able to reach the city and evacuating civilians has been extremely difficult.
Taking the strategically-important port city would give Russia its first major success in a war that has seen its military fail to gain the upper hand against ferocious Ukrainian defence.
Ten weeks in, Ukraine said late on Thursday that it had made gains on the borders of Kherson and Mykolaiv in the south, and repelled Russian attacks in the east.