Putin says there is no need to storm Mariupol steel plant where Ukrainians are holed up

  • Ukraine seeks talks on evacuations from Azovstal steel plant
  • The number of people who have fled Ukraine now exceeds 5 million
  • Biden delivers speech as US prepares for more help

Kyiv (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military on Thursday to cancel plans to storm the Azovstal steel plant inside the port city of Mariupol, where thousands of Ukrainian defenders and civilians are holed up.

Putin effectively declared victory in the city after nearly two months of siege, and said there was no point in trying to root out the defenders holed up inside the sprawling factory.

“I consider the storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” he told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised interview in the Kremlin. “I ask you to cancel it.”

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“There is no need to climb into the catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he said. “Close this industrial area so that not even a fly can cross.”

Shoigu estimated that 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remained inside the plant. Putin called them to surrender, saying that Russia would treat them with respect.

Overnight, Mikhailo Podolak, Ukraine’s chief negotiator, suggested talks within Mariupol itself about the fate of its last defenders.

“Without any conditions. We are ready to conduct a ‘special round of negotiations’ in Mariupol,” he wrote in a tweet late on Wednesday.

“One for one. Two for two. To save our men, Azov (battalion), military, civilians, children, alive and wounded. Everyone. Because they are ours. Because they are in my heart. Forever.”

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no giving up

The city of formerly 400,000 people on the Sea of ​​Azov, under bombardment and siege since the early days of the war, was the scene of the fiercest fighting and the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the conflict.

Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have been killed there. But Russia now says that apart from the huge steel plant, the city is effectively under its control.

The commander of the Azov Regiment refused Russia’s demands for the surrender of the defenders. In a video appeal, Svyatoslav Palamar called on “third parties” to ensure the safety of hundreds of civilians sheltering in factory bunkers.

“Let me say that we do not accept the conditions set by the Russian Federation for giving up our weapons and for our defenders to present themselves as prisoners,” Ballamard said.

Russia has blocked all efforts by Ukraine to send aid to Mariupol or buses to evacuate civilians to Ukrainian-controlled territory, and Kyiv accuses it of forcibly deporting tens of thousands of residents to Russia. Moscow says Russia has taken in 140,000 civilians in humanitarian evacuations.

Russia-backed forces on Wednesday organized a small convoy of buses to allow some residents to leave the area they control in Zaporizhia, in Ukrainian government-controlled territory.

Tamara, 64, was leaving with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and grandson to escape “this nightmare”. “We lived in the basements for 30 days,” she said, sobbing as she boarded the bus.

The number of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries rose to more than five million on Wednesday, and several million more were displaced within the country.

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Donbass batch

Mariupol is the link that Moscow needs to provide a secure connection between the territory controlled by the separatists it supports in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and the peninsula it seized in 2014.

It is also the main port of the Donbass region, two provinces that Moscow demands Ukraine cede completely to the separatists in what the Kremlin now describes as the main objective of the war.

After failing to capture Kyiv last month and forcing it to withdraw from northern Ukraine, Russia has regrouped to launch a major new offensive this week in Donbass, pushing from several directions to encircle Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine said that Russian forces have so far failed to fully capture Robyzhny, a town in the Donbass that has been the focus of its advance. Ukraine said on Tuesday that the Russians had captured the neighboring town of Kremena.

British military intelligence said the Russian forces were eager to show great success by May 9, the anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in World War II.

Putin said that the first test-fire of a Russian Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a long-awaited new addition to its nuclear arsenal, would “provide food for thought for those who, in the midst of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, are trying to threaten our country.” Read more

Russia describes its incursion as a “special military operation” to disarm and “discredit” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss this as a false excuse to launch a war of choice.

US President Joe Biden will provide an update on Ukraine at 9:45 a.m. (1345 GMT) Thursday as he works to complete a new weapons package, which is likely to be of similar size to the $800 million announced last week, in the United States. official said.

Coverage by Reuters journalists. Written by Peter Graf. Editing by Kevin Levy

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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