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“Castle in a city”: Ukrainians cling to a steel plant in Mariupol

"Castle in a city": Ukrainians cling to a steel plant in Mariupol

(Reuters) – Explosions and smoke this week rocked a steelmaking district in besieged Mariupol, where dwindling Ukrainian forces are holed up as Russia tries to take full control of its largest city yet.

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Mills, one of Europe’s largest, became a fitting stronghold of the apocalypse for the outnumbered and besieged Ukrainian forces seven weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.

To the east of the southern port devastated by weeks of bombing, the factory is located in an industrial estate overlooking the Sea of ​​Azov and covering more than 11 square kilometers (4.25 sq mi), containing countless buildings, blast furnaces and railroad tracks.

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“The Azovstal plant is a huge area with many buildings that the Russians (Ukrainian forces) simply cannot find,” said Oleh Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based military analyst.

“That’s why (the Russians) started talking about trying a chemical attack, this is the only way to get them out of the fire,” Zhdanov said.

Ukraine said it was checking unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons in Mariupol. Russia-backed separatists have denied using chemical weapons. Read more

In peacetime, the Azovstal iron and steel works annually pumped 4 million tons of steel, 3.5 million tons of hot metal and 1.2 million tons of rolled steel.

Like other Illich Steel and Iron Works in the city, Azovstal is owned by Metinvest, the group controlled by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.

A Russian separatist deputy commander said on Russian state television on Monday that Moscow had captured 80% of the port, but resistance continued and that Ukrainian forces had all tried to “break out towards the Azovstal plant”.

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He described the factory as “a fortress in a city”.

Among the city’s defenders were the Ukrainian Marines, motorized brigades, the National Guard Brigade, and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by the far-right nationalists that was later incorporated into the National Guard.

It is the Azov Regiment, the destruction of which is among Moscow’s war goals, is most prominently associated with Azovstal and one of its founders, Andrei Beltsky, also called the “Azov fortress”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the invasion as a “special operation” to “disarm and disarm Ukraine” but Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unjustified war of aggression.

“Azov is already on the territory of Azovstal,” said military analyst Sergei Zgorets. “These are vast areas with sprays that cannot be destroyed from the air, which is why the Russians use heavy bombs.”

More than 1,000 soldiers of the 36th Ukrainian Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, have surrendered in Mariupol, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday, although Ukraine has not confirmed this.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Aristovich later said that members of the 36th Marine Brigade managed to hack a “highly dangerous maneuver” to join the Azov regiment.

“The 36th Brigade has avoided being torn apart and now has serious additional opportunities and basically a second chance,” he said.

The lack of mobile phone and Internet reception in the city means that information is scarce. Ukraine has maintained strict control over things like the numbers of troops that could jeopardize its defense.

Biletskiy from Azov told the Ukrainian NV news site on March 20 that Ukraine had a total of 3,000 fighters defending the city against up to 14,000 Russians.

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Difficulty of occupation

US private satellite company Maxar was able to look at the battles raging from space on Tuesday.

“Smoke and fire were observed coming from a number of buildings throughout the western and eastern parts of the city as well as in and near the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works Plant – the site of ongoing battles between Russian and Ukrainian forces,” the statement said.

A security source from the European Union told Reuters that it was difficult to say how long the Ukrainians could hold and also difficult for Russia to occupy the entire city because of the industrial parks. “There are underground tunnels under the steel plant.”

The source added that “Mariopol is very important for Putin because after the victory there (and the surrender of the Azov forces) he can claim that the ‘de-Nazification’ was a success.”

Russia plans to celebrate the victory in the city on May 9, the date on which Moscow celebrates the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II with an annual parade on Red Square, an aide to the mayor of Mariupol said on Wednesday.

Zhdanov, a military analyst, said he sees little opportunity for Ukrainian forces from abroad to break through the Russian blockade.

“How many supplies the defenders have and how long they can hold is anyone’s guess. But they have no other way out. They are surrounded on all sides, they have to stand to the end. If they surrender, they won’t,” he said.

(Reporting by Natalia Zenets) Additional reporting by Pavel Politiuk. Editing by Grant McCall

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