Fears grow for Mariupol fighters after Russia claims to have taken Azovstal steelworks
Mariupol, the city which came to symbolise Ukrainian resistance is now in the hands of the Russians, both Moscow and Kyiv have confirmed. Rachel Younger reports from Ukraine with more of the day's top news
Concern is growing for the more than 2,400 Ukrainian fighters who are now in Russian hands after the invading forces claimed the besieged Mariupol steel works is now fully under their control.
Late on Friday, Russia claimed its forces had taken full control of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol that was the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Kyiv has confirmed that all the fighters have surrendered.
It is thought the plant is now empty of fighters and civilians, marking the end of a nearly three-month siege that reduced much of Mariupol to ruins and left more 20,000 people feared dead.
Some have been taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin on Friday that the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol has been “completely liberated” from Ukrainian fighters.
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Russia’s claimed seizure of the plant - which came to symbolise Ukrainian resistance - gives President Putin a sorely needed victory in the war he began, capping a nearly three-month siege that left a city in ruins.
Ukraine hopes the captured fighters - who are now prisoners of war - could be returned in a prisoner swap.
However, Denis Pushilin, the Head of the Donetsk People's Republic - an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists - said on Saturday that the Ukrainians considered heroes by their fellow citizens were sure to face a tribunal in Russia for their wartime actions.
It is not clear what the fighters would be put on trial for, given that it was Russia who launched the invasion.
Russian officials and state media repeatedly have tried to characterise the fighters who holed up in the Azovstal steel plant as neo-Nazis. Among the plant’s more than 2,400 defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, a national guard unit with roots in the far right, but are now part of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Russia also regards the Azov Regiment as a terrorist organisation and has branded the fighters as "neo-Nazis", with the chair of the state Duma saying they cannot be handed over.
As the end drew near at the steel plant, the families of fighters who had held out told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands, partners, sons and brothers.Olga Boiko, the wife of a marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband sent to her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.”
Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters.
After Russian forces were pushed back from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the Siverskyi Donets river has become the new frontline.
On Friday, Dan Rivers reported from Ukraine alongside News Editor Jonathan Wald and the rest of our team on the ground: Kenny Fillingham , Krystyna Fedosyeyeva and Max Olshyn
The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim of capturing Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last holdout of Ukrainian resistance, and with it completing Moscow’s long-sought goal of controlling the city, home to a strategic seaport.
Ukraine’s military this week told the fighters holed up in the plant, hundreds of them wounded, that their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
The end of the battle for Mariupol would help President Putin offset some stinging setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy’s flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance that has stalled an offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The ending of the siege of the Azovstal plant also frees up Russian troops to be redeployed elsewhere in Ukraine.
Taking Mariupol furthers Russia’s quest to create a land bridge from Russia via much of the separatist Donbas area bordering Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy revealed tha helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to ferry in medicine, food and water to the steel mill as well as to retrieve bodies and rescue wounded fighters.
A “very large” number of the pilots died on their daring missions, he said.
“They are absolutely heroic people, who knew that it would be difficult, knew that to fly would be almost impossible."
Also on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude to his US counterpart, Joe Biden, who signed off on a fresh, $40 billion (£32 billion) infusion of aid for the war-ravaged nation. Half of the funding provides military assistance.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens American commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion (£10.9 billion).
The new legislation will provide $20 billion (£16 billion) in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion (£6.4 billion) in general economic support, $5 billion (£4 billion) to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion (£800 million) to help refugees.
Unusually, the bill was flown out to South Korea, where Mr Biden is in the middle of a trip to Asia, so that it could be signed by the president.
Also on Saturday, Russia halted gas exports to neighboring Finland, a highly symbolic move that came just days after the Nordic country announced it wanted to join NATO and marked a likely end to Finland’s nearly 50 years of importing natural gas from Russia.
The measure taken by the Russian energy giant Gazprom was in line with an earlier announcement following Helsinki’s refusal to pay for the gas in rubles as Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded European countries do since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The announcement follows Moscow’s decision to cut off electricity exports to Finland earlier this month and an earlier decision by the Finnish state-controlled oil company Neste to replace imports of Russian crude oil with crude oil from elsewhere.