Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said the southeastern city of Mariupol has been “liberated” except for the Azovstal steel plant, where the Russian military estimates are about 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers.
In a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin called off a planned assault on the Azovstal steel plant, which has a sprawling network of underground tunnels. Putin said assaulting the plant wasn’t worth risking the lives of Russian soldiers. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” he said.
Instead of the assault, Putin ordered the steel plant to be put under blockade so “not even a fly comes through.” Putin also said to offer the Ukrainian forces another chance to surrender.
“Offer anyone, who has not laid down their arms yet, to do that,” Putin said, according to RT, adding that those who surrender will be spared their lives. According to Ukrainian officials, there are also civilians trapped at the steel plant.
Among the Ukrainian forces holding out in the plant is the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, which is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. In comments to The Washington Post, Svyatoslav Palamar, Azov’s deputy commander, rejected Putin’s claims of victory in Mariupol but also admitted his troops needed to be evacuated.
“There’s no strength to support the garrison and Mariupol … We insist on the help of a third country to guarantee the safe exit of the garrison, to the territory of a third country,” Palamar said.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials offered to hold special talks with Russia to reach a deal on evacuating the Ukrainian troops and civilians that are still in Mariupol.