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Russia has claimed to have captured Mariupol in what would be its biggest victory yet in its war with Ukraine, after a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of the strategic port city to a wreckage, and feared the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians.

Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin of the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – the last stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance – and the city as a whole. There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine.

Service members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, sit in a bus upon their arrival under the escort of the pro-Russian army in the Olinivka settlement in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. (Reuters)

Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency quoted the ministry as saying that a total of 2,439 Ukrainian fighters who were holed up in steel plants had surrendered since Monday, including more than 500 fighters on Friday. During their surrender, the troops were captured by the Russians, and at least some of them were transferred to a former criminal colony. Others were said to have been taken to hospital.

The defense of the steel plant was led by the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, whose far-right assets had been seized by the Kremlin as part of an attempt to portray its invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russia said the Azov commander was removed from the factory in an armored vehicle.

The Russian authorities threatened to investigate and bring to trial some of the steel plant’s defenders for war crimes, calling them “Nazis” and criminals. This has raised international concerns about their fate. The steel mills, which spanned an area of ​​11 square kilometres, have been the site of fierce fighting for weeks. The dwindling group of superior fighters held out, provoking Russian air strikes and artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the factory’s defense and save themselves.

The complete capture of Mariupol gives Putin a much-needed victory in the war he began on February 24 – a conflict that was supposed to have been a blitzkrieg of the Kremlin but which instead saw the failure to capture the capital of Kyiv, which led to a withdrawal to refocus on Eastern Ukraine, the sinking of the lead ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Military analysts said that the capture of Mariupol at this point is of mostly symbolic significance, since the city was already under Moscow’s control, and most of the Russian forces that had been constrained by the fighting there had already left.

The Kremlin has sought to gain control of Mariupol to complete a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free troops to join the larger battle in the Donbass. The city’s loss also deprives Ukraine of a vital seaport.

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