KYIV – The last Ukrainian troops surrendered to the collapsed Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol on Friday, Russia’s defense ministry said, ending Moscow’s most destructive blockade of the war and fighting for control of the Moscow Donbass region.
Hours before Russia’s announcement on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the last of the steelworkers had been told by the Ukrainian military that they could come out and save their lives.
Russia says the latest group has 531 members who have resigned. A total of 2,439 defenders have surrendered in the past few days, the ministry said in a statement.
Ukrainians did not immediately confirm the figures.
Russia has also launched what appears to be a major offensive to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-controlled territory in the province of Luhansk, with Moscow declaring it an independent state, one of two southeastern Ukrainian provinces.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said in his telegram that “the Russian army has started a very intensive destruction of the city of Siviarodnetsk, the intensity of the shelling has doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying houses”.
“We don’t know how many people have died, because it’s impossible to go through every apartment and see it,” he said.
The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lyshchansk on the other side of the Siverskiy Donets River have been trying to occupy the Russian capital Kyiv since mid-April after forming the eastern part of a Ukrainian-occupied pocket.
Ukraine’s General Staff said it had repulsed an attack on Siviarodonetsk, which it described as a major Russian operation on an extended section of the frontline.
Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, which some military analysts see as a major push to achieve the scale-down war goal of more territory occupied by pro-Russian rebels.
“This will be critical in the next few weeks of the conflict,” said Matthew Bullegu, an expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. “And it depends on how effective they are in conquering the lands of Sieverodonetsk and its environs.”
In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would end soon.
The end of the siege of Mariupol was an important symbolic moment for Russia, after several catastrophes since the invasion began on 24 February, but it came at the cost of mass destruction.
Zelensky described the situation in Donbass, including Luhansk and the neighboring Donetsk province where Mariupol is located, as “hell” and said the region had been “completely destroyed” by Russia.
Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim a victory after announcing last month that it was now its intention. It took a major step toward that goal this week, when Ukraine’s main Donbass port instructed the garrison in Mariupol to stop.
Natalia Zaritska, the wife of an Azvastal fighter who surrendered, said she had not heard from him since the telegram was exchanged two days ago. He believed that he was still alive.
“The situation is really difficult and terrible and my husband is on the verge of captivity from one hell to another, from the Azovstal steel plant to a prison,” Zaritska said in Istanbul, where he and other relatives lobbied to help save Turkey. Warrior
The Red Cross says it has registered hundreds of Ukrainians who have surrendered as prisoners of war at the plant, and Kiev says it wants a prisoner exchange. Moscow has said the detainees will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying that some should be tried or even executed.
In Ukraine, Russian forces have been evacuated from the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in recent weeks, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and Kyiv region in late March.
But they still control a large part of the south and east, and the end of the war in Mariupol means that the region is now largely untouched.
As a sign of Russia’s goal of escalating its war effort, Moscow’s parliament has said it will consider allowing Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 to join the military.
Last week, Sweden and Finland also applied to join NATO, although Turkey has threatened to block them, accusing the Nordic countries of harboring Kurdish militants.
A few weeks after the threat of retaliation, Putin said this week that neither Finnish nor Swedish NATO membership represents a threat unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nonetheless, Shoigu said Friday that Moscow plans to strengthen its forces nearby in response to its new threats.
(Reporting by Natalia Genetes, Max Hender, Tom Balmforth in Kiev and Reuters Bureau; by Peter Graf and Patricia Zengarley; Editing by Nick McPhee and Rosalba O’Brien)