stand to prevent Moscow’s complete seizure of the important port, the UN hurried Friday to rescue additional civilians from the tunnels beneath a besieged steel mill in Mariupol and the city at large.

The battle for Mariupol, the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by Russia’s onslaught, appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the battle in time to present a victory to the Russian people on Monday’s Victory Day, the country’s most important patriotic holiday.

According to Russia’s most current estimate, 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are holed up beneath the Azovstal steelworks in a complex maze of tunnels and bunkers, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. A few hundred civilians are also trapped there, according to Ukraine, and fears for their safety have escalated as the war has intensified in recent days.

The UN is undertaking a third effort to evacuate civilians from the facility and the city, according to officials. However, the organization provided no additional details about the operation on Friday, as it had done with prior ones while they were occurring.

Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, made a desperate plea for the regiment to be saved, saying they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war but would never surrender to Russia because it would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture, and death.”

Her husband and his comrades will “stand to the end without surrender” if nothing is done to save them, she told The Associated Press by phone Friday as she and families of some of the regiment’s other members drove from Italy to Poland.
“All we have to do now is save everyone’s life,” she explained.

Because people fleeing Mariupol typically have to pass through contested areas and numerous checkpoints before reaching relative safety in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, where many have gathered, it could take days to know whether the latest UN effort succeeded.

On Friday, Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, stated on Telegram that another “difficult operation to evacuate people from Mariupol and Azovstal” had been carried out, with approximately 500 civilians saved. Approximately 500 people were evacuated from the steel plant and other parts of Mariupol in two prior UN-led and Red Cross-led evacuations. It was unclear whether Yermak was implying that more people had been rescued since then.

The AP spoke with several of the plant’s evacuees about the hardships of being surrounded by death in a moldy underground bunker with limited food and water and dwindling hope. Some people expressed regret for abandoning others.

“People physically decompose as our jackets did,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who evacuated from his bunker with his wife, 8-year-old daughter, and four others, leaving 30 others behind. “They desperately need our assistance.” We have to get them out of here.”

Russian military shot on an evacuation truck on the factory’s grounds, according to fighters guarding the plant on Telegram on Friday. According to them, the car was heading near people when it was hit by shelling, and one soldier was killed and six others were injured.
Friday’s fighting was not immediately acknowledged by Moscow.

Municipal employees and volunteers cleaned up what remained of Mariupol, a city that is now under Russian control except for the steel plant, ahead of Victory Day, which commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. With a backdrop of buildings hollowed out by shelling, bulldozers cleaned up trash and civilians scoured streets. A replica of a vessel was restored, and Russian flags were hung on utility poles.

The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a critical port, allow Russia to construct a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up forces to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, Russia’s eastern industrial heartland. Its capture is also symbolic, as the city has seen some of the worst suffering and a surprising amount of resistance during the conflict.

While Russian soldiers pounded the plant, they struggled to make substantial gains elsewhere, ten weeks into a brutal war that has killed hundreds, prompted millions to flee the nation, and leveled large swathes of cities.

The general command of the Ukrainian military claimed Friday that its forces withstood 11 strikes in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, denying Putin’s aspirations following his failed attempt to grab Kyiv. Russia did not admit the losses right away.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense minister, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said on Thursday that a counteroffensive could begin to push Russian forces out of Kharkiv and Izyum, two key cities in Russia’s Donbas campaign, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for the past eight years. In recent days, Ukrainian fighters have pushed Russian troops 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Kharkiv.

According to a report released on Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, the purpose could be to pull Russian forces out of artillery range of the city, which has been hit by attacks, as well as compelling Moscow to divert troops from other regions of the front line.

According to Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, Russian forces in the Donbas are making only “plodding” progress.

According to the British Defense Ministry, Russia’s objective in the Donbas may be hampered in part by a bottleneck at the Mariupol plant. The war at the plant has cost Russia soldiers, equipment, and ammunition, according to the report. “While Ukrainian resistance continues in Avozstal, Russian losses in southern Donbas will continue to mount, thwarting their operational intentions.”

The Russians have destroyed much of Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000 people, and have trapped possibly 100,000 residents in the city for two months with little food, water, power, or heat. Civilians trapped inside the facility may have suffered far more, spending months underground without seeing daylight.

“Mariupol will never collapse,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared when asked if Russia will seize full control of the city shortly. I’m not talking about anything heroic.”

He told a group at London’s Chatham House research tank, “It is already ruined.” He also stated that he is open to talks with Russia, but that Moscow must withdraw its troops.

According to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, the Russians were able to enter into the plant on Wednesday with the help of an electrician who knew the plant’s layout and showed them the subterranean tunnels.

The Russian government has disputed that its troops stormed the factory, and has accused the fighters of stopping civilians from fleeing.

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