After widespread weekend reports confirming that all Ukrainian civilians who had been trapped inside Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have been evacuated, leaving an estimated few hundred Ukrainian fighters who have vowed to 'fight to the end', it appears the final bloody showdown for the large besieged complex has begun.
Ukraine's defense ministry says Russia has commenced "storming operations" against the plant aimed at wresting its last Ukrainian defenders from its cavernous underground confines.
"Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk gave no further details but said, without providing evidence, that there could be future attacks by Russian bombers," Al Jazeera writes.
On prior reports that Russian forces had stormed the plant when civilians were still inside, the Kremlin vehemently denied the Ukrainian government claims.
On Sunday the last wave of some 300 civilians successfully evacuated based on a temporary ceasefire brokered with the help of the UN and Red Cross reached Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Ukraine's President Zelensky at the same time called on the international community to pressure Russia into allowing the remaining trapped fighters to leave. “We took all civilians out of the Azovstal plant and are now preparing for the second stage of the evacuation mission to evacuate those who are wounded and medics,” Zelensky said. “Of course, we are working on evacuating our military, all the heroes who are defending Mariupol.”
But Russia says the militants that remain are part of the neo-Nazi Azov battalion, and has even alleged there are Western mercenaries among them. The defense ministry has also previously stated they have been issued multiple chances to surrender by laying down their arms and emerging.
Invaders again launched an assault on Azovstal, after the UN convoy left the Donetsk region, said Andryushchenko, adviser of mayor of Mariupol— ТРУХА⚡️English (@TpyxaNews) May 9, 2022
"In particular, they made an attempt to break through the bridge, which was the evacuation gate. Unsuccessfully," Andryushchenko said. pic.twitter.com/lPsRv49iYs
An Azov spokesman, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar was cited over the weekend as saying “We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,” and further: “We don’t have much time, we are coming under intense shelling.”
Reports of heavy Russian shelling on the steel plant have persisted, but as for whether or not Russian forces have begun storming it, this remains unconfirmed. So far the Russian strategy has appeared to be simply seal off the complex, allowing the trapped militants no exit, while waiting them out as they run low on food and ammo, struggling to survive.