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Putin claims victory in Mariupol; Ukrainian fighters hold on

Putin claims victory in Mariupol;  Ukrainian fighters hold on
  • The fight for Mariupol was the biggest battle of the war
  • Putin says Russia “liberated” the city
  • US alleges ‘disinformation’ calls, commits to providing new military aid
  • Ukrainian forces hold out at Mariupol Steel Factory

Kyiv (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday declared victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war, declaring the “liberation” of the port city of Mariupol, even though hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians remain trapped inside a giant steel base. Works.

The United States rejected Putin’s allegations and said it believed Ukrainian forces were still in control of the city. Putin ordered his forces to surround the steel complex, where the Ukrainians had earlier been asked to either surrender or die.

Ukraine said Putin wanted to avoid a final confrontation with its forces in Mariupol, because he lacked the forces to defeat them. But Ukrainian officials also appealed for help to evacuate wounded civilians and soldiers.

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In a televised meeting in the Kremlin, Putin congratulated his defense minister and Russian forces on “successfully completing the combat effort to liberate Mariupol.”

He said that it was not necessary to break into the industrial area containing the Azovstal steel plant.

“There is no need to climb into the catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities… Close this industrial zone so that not even a fly can cross,” Putin said.

Mariupol, a major port in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, lies between Russian separatist-held areas and Crimea, which Moscow captured in 2014. Capturing the city would allow Russia to connect the two regions while it intensified its offensive in eastern Ukraine. Read more

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Even as Putin wins his first big prize since he expelled his forces from the capital, Kyiv, and northern Ukraine last month, it falls short of the clear victory Moscow sought after months of fighting in a city reduced to rubble.

In a late-night speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia was doing everything in its power to “talk about at least some victories,” including mobilizing new battalion tactical groups.

“They can only postpone the inevitable – the time when the invaders will have to leave our lands, including from Mariupol, a city that continues to resist Russia no matter what the occupiers say,” Zelensky said.

Russia describes its invasion as a “special military operation” to disarm and “disarm” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject this as a false excuse to launch a war that has killed thousands and displaced a quarter of Ukraine’s population.

Moscow has stepped up attacks in eastern Ukraine this week, launching long-range strikes on other targets including Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, where rockets killed seven people on Monday.

In response to Ukraine’s calls for new weapons, Washington on Thursday authorized another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, including heavy artillery fire. Read more

Asked about Putin’s victory announcement in Mariupol, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was “more misinformation from the outdated rules of the game.”

Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, not only experienced the fiercest battles of the war that began when Russian forces invaded on February 24, but also its worst humanitarian disaster.

Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in Mariupol. The United Nations and the Red Cross put the civilian death toll in the thousands, at least.

Journalists who arrived in Mariupol during the siege found streets littered with corpses, almost all buildings were destroyed, residents froze in cellars, and ventured out to cook excrement on makeshift stoves or to bury corpses in gardens.

Ukrainian fighters remain inside the Azovstal steel complex, one of the largest metallurgical structures in Europe, covering 11 square kilometers with massive buildings, bunkers and underground tunnels.

Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko told Reuters Thursday that only Putin can decide the fate of the 100,000 civilians still trapped in the city.

“It is important to understand that the lives that still exist are in the hands of only one person – Vladimir Putin. And all the deaths that will happen any longer will also be in his hands,” Boychenko said in an interview. Read more

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshuk said 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers should be removed from the plant immediately, blaming Russian forces for the failure to create a safe passage she said had been agreed.

Moscow says Russia has taken in 140,000 civilians from Mariupol in humanitarian evacuations. Kyiv says some were deported by force, in what could constitute a war crime.

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday proposed a four-day humanitarian truce to fight over the Orthodox Easter period. Both Ukrainians and Russians are predominantly Orthodox Christians, and they celebrate Easter Sunday on April 24.

A Ukrainian assembly of churches and religious denominations separately proposed an Easter truce, and the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church urged Ukrainians to abandon nightly Easter masses for fear of Russian bombing. Read more

On Thursday, Zelensky said Russia had “rejected the proposal for an Easter truce,” but said Ukraine still had hope during the holiday. It was not immediately clear which armistice proposal Zelensky was referring to.

There was no immediate Russian comment.

An aide to Zelensky’s chief of staff told Ukrainian television that Russian forces had captured 42 villages in the eastern Donetsk region on Thursday, but that Ukraine could retake them soon. Read more

After announcing new military aid to Ukraine, including dozens of howitzer systems, US President Joe Biden said Washington and its allies were “moving as quickly as possible” to supply Kyiv with the weapons it needs. Read more

“We are now in a critical time window in which they are going to prepare the ground for the next phase of this war,” Biden said.

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Coverage by Reuters journalists. Writing by Peter Graf, Angus McSwan, David Bronstrom and Rami Ayoub; Editing by Kevin Levy, Alexandra Hudson and Rosalba O’Brien

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.