ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The United Nations raced Friday to rescue more civilians from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city at large, even as fighters holed up at the sprawling complex made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s complete takeover of the strategic port.
The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day, the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety has grown as the battle has grown fiercer in recent days.
Officials said Thursday that the U.N. was launching a third effort to evacuate citizens from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not divulge any new details of the operation; it has been similarly quiet about previous ones while they were ongoing.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, issued a desperate plea to save the regiment, saying they’d be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war but would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture, and death.”
If nothing is done to save them, her husband and his men will “stand to the end without surrender,” she told The Associated Press by phone Friday as she and relatives of some of the other members of the regiment drove from Italy to Poland.
“We just need to save everyone’s life,” she said.
It could takes days to know whether the latest U.N. effort succeeded, since people escaping Mariupol typically have to pass through contested areas and many checkpoints before reaching relative safety in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, where many have gathered.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said Friday on the Telegram messaging app that another “complex operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal” was conducted and that nearly 500 civilians were rescued. Two previous evacuations negotiated by the U.N. and the Red Cross brought roughly 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. It was not clear if Yermak was saying more people had since been rescued.
Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the moldy, underground bunker with little food and water and diminishing hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said 31-year-old Serhii Kuzmenko, who fled along with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They need our help badly. We need to get them out.”
Fighters defending the plant said Friday on Telegram that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant’s grounds. They said the car was moving toward civilians when it was hit by shelling, and that one soldier was killed and six were wounded.
Moscow didn’t immediately acknowledge renewed fighting there Friday.
Ahead of Victory Day — which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany — municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what remains of Mariupol, a city that is now under Russia’s control apart from the steel plant. Bulldozers scooped up debris and and people swept streets — with a backdrop of buildings hollowed out by shelling. Workers repaired a model of a warship, and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective. Its capture also holds symbolic value since the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
While they pounded away at the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks into a devastating war that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee the country and flattened large swaths of cities.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his abortive attempt to seize Kyiv. Russia gave no immediate acknowledgement of those losses.
Ukraine’s chief of defense Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, meanwhile, said Thursday that a counteroffensive could begin to push Russian forces away from Kharkiv and Izyum — two cities key to the Russian campaign in the Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years. Already, Ukrainian fighters have driven Russian troops some 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv in recent days.
The goal could be to push Russian forces out of artillery range of the city, which has been pummeled by strikes, as well as forcing Moscow to divert troops from other areas of the front line, according to an assessment from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War on Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces are making only “plodding” progress in the Donbas.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia may be struggling to execute its plan in the Donbas partly because it’s bogged down at the plant in Mariupol. The fighting at the plant “has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia,” it said. “Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Avozstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas.”
The Russians have pulverized much of Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000, and a two-month siege that has trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water, electricity or heat. Civilians sheltering inside the plant have perhaps suffered even more — hunkering underground without seeing daylight in months.
Asked whether Russia would soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything.”
“It is already devastated,” he told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia, but repeated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
The Russians managed to get inside the plant Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the plant’s layout and showed them the underground tunnels, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.
The Kremlin has denied its troops were storming the plant, and Russia has also accused the fighters of preventing the civilians from leaving.
An earlier version of this story was corrected to show that it wasn’t clear if a new group of civilians had been evacuated from the plant.
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Trisha Thomas in Rome, Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.