Russia claims it fully captured the strategically valuable port city of Mariupol after seizing the Azovstal steel plant, one of the last remaining holdouts of Ukrainian resistance in the city.
The last of the Ukrainian soldiers in the besieged steel plant surrendered, and the facility has been "completely liberated," the Russian Ministry of Defense declared Friday, potentially marking one of the Kremlin's most significant victories during the war to date.
RUSSIA CLAIMS OVER 900 UKRAINIAN TROOPS SURRENDER FROM AZOVSTAL, COMMANDERS REFUSE
"The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces," the ministry said in a statement, per Reuters.
Some 531 Ukrainian fighters that had been holed up in the facility surrendered Friday, and 2,439 have surrendered since Monday, the ministry claimed. The Kremlin also released video purportedly showing a group of unarmed Ukrainians approaching Russian soldiers seemingly to surrender. So far, Ukrainian officials have not confirmed Russia's claim.
Several hours before Russia's announcement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said soldiers at the plant had been told by the Ukrainian military they could leave the facility, the Guardian reported.
Zelensky has hailed the Ukrainian fighters at the plant as heroes. In Russia, however, many of the captured Azovstal fighters have been branded as Nazis and could face trial for purported war crimes. Russia maintains that the captured soldiers will be treated in line with international norms, but some international organizations seem less convinced. On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross requested access to prisoners of war in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin previously proclaimed victory over Mariupol on April 21. He demanded Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the plant surrender, but they refused to do so for weeks. Ukrainian rescue efforts brokered by the United Nations and the ICRC had commenced in early May, but sporadic fighting stymied those efforts. On May 7, Ukraine claimed it evacuated all female, children, and elderly civilians from the facility, with hundreds of male fighters remaining.
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Mariupol had been one of the first major Ukrainian cities to be encircled by Russian forces when the war broke out in February. Ukrainian and Russian forces had been locked in a nearly three-month-long standoff at the facility.