All remaining women, children and elderly men have finally been evacuated from the besieged steel works in the Black Sea port of Mariupol that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Hundreds of civilians had been holed up for weeks in the vast Soviet-era Azovstal mill where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters have been engaged in a last stand to prevent the final takeover of the city.
Videos sent out showed people, including young children, enduring horrific conditions and running out of food and medicine. The announcement last night by Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, of their rescue came after a week of on-off convoys.
“The president’s order has been carried out: all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from Azovstal,” she said, without providing details. “This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation has been completed.”
The operation was co-ordinated by the United Nations and Red Cross after previous attempts to negotiate the civilians’ safe release had ended in failure. “We were losing hope that we would ever get out,” one woman told the BBC.
Russian forces have besieged the plant for weeks, demanding the surrender of its defenders from the Azov battalion. It is the last part of the city not under Kremlin control. Built to withstand a nuclear explosion, its network of underground bunkers and tunnels made it the perfect hideout but the siege had gone on for so long that those sheltering were running out of food and many were sick. Now, with civilians gone, the Russians are expected to pound it mercilessly.
It remains unclear what will happen to the Azov fighters remaining there, hundreds of whom are believed to be wounded. The fighters have vowed not to surrender but their wives, girlfriends and mothers have appealed for them to be allowed out. The Ukrainian government has asked international organisations to try to secure safe passage for them.
Capturing Mariupol is important to Russian troops because it will allow them to complete a land bridge between Crimea and the Donbas region and give them full control of 80 per cent of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline. But in their quest to do so they are thought to have destroyed more than 90 per cent of the city, causing the Ukrainian defence ministry to liken it to Guernica, the Basque city whose devastation by German bombers in the Second World War was depicted by Picasso.
One of the worst atrocities of the ten-week war took place when Russians bombed a theatre in Mariupol where hundreds of families had been sheltering, killing an estimated 600 people. The theatre was attacked even though a message outside announced the presence of children there.
President Putin may be hoping to be able to announce the capture of the city at tomorrow’s Victory Day, the annual military celebration to mark the end the Second World War.
Others believe that he is planning to use the May 9 holiday to redefine the war in Ukraine with a formal declaration of war and general mobilisation of forces.
Ukrainian officials are jittery about the commemoration; air sirens rang repeatedly over the capital yesterday, with President Volodymyr Zelensky warning civilians not to ignore them.
Fighting is intense in the eastern Donbas region. But Ukrainian troops have succeeded in pushing back Russian forces near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said that Zelensky and his people “embody the spirit of those who prevailed during the Second World War”. He accused Putin of trying “to twist history to attempt to justify his unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine”.