The Ukrainian port of Mariupol withstands all odds


LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – Under relentless bombardment and a Russian blockade, the vital port of Mariupol is holding out, but shortages in arms and supplies could weaken the resistance that has thwarted the Kremlin’s invasion plans.

More than six weeks into the Russian siege, Ukrainian troops battle vastly superior Russian forces in fierce battles amid the ruins of a once-bustling city on the Azov Sea.

The mayor says an estimated 120,000 people remain in the city, from Mariupol’s pre-war population of about 450,000.

The Ukrainian struggle has thwarted Moscow’s plans, tied down significant Russian forces and delayed a planned offensive in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbass. The Kremlin hopes an attack in the east could reverse Russia’s fate on the battlefield after it humiliatingly failed to quickly storm the capital Kyiv.

Mariupol has been a key target for Russia since the invasion began on February 24. The city’s capture would allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a key port and valuable industrial assets.

The huge Azovstal Steelworks and other facilities were badly damaged by the Russian bombardment, which leveled much of Mariupol, hitting homes, hospitals and other public buildings indiscriminately and killing thousands.

The casualties include about 300 people killed last month in the Russian airstrike on the Mariupol drama theater, which was used as a shelter and had the word “CHILDREN” printed in large white letters in Russian on the sidewalk outside, to avoid an airstrike to fend off

Mayor Vadym Boychenko told The Associated Press that at least 21,000 people were killed in Mariupol, with the bodies “paved through the streets.” He said the Russians used mobile cremators to systematically dispose of the bodies to hide evidence of the massacre and prevent international organizations from “documenting the horror for which the Russian army is responsible.”

The discovery of hundreds of civilian bodies, some tied, in the Kyiv suburbs following a withdrawal from the area has fueled global outrage and accusations from Ukrainians and the West that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.

Moscow sent fighters from Chechnya, known for their ferocity, to fight street battles in Mariupol. Moscow-backed Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov has repeatedly bragged about defeating the Ukrainians in Mariupol on his messaging app channel, but the fight continues.

Boychenko said several Ukrainian units are still fighting in Mariupol, including the 36th Marine Brigade, Interior Ministry troops, border guards and the National Guard’s Azov regiment, which singles out Russia as a particular villain for its far-right ideology.

A veteran volunteer force widely regarded as one of the most capable units in the country, the Azov Regiment defends the Azovstal Works, which covers an area of ​​almost 11 square kilometers (over 4.2 sq mi). It has taken advantage of the plant’s extensive network of concrete buildings and underground facilities to fend off continuous Russian attacks.

Maintaining defensive positions at the Azovmash and Zavod Ilyicha factories until running out of supplies and ammunition, the 36th Marine Brigade made a desperate attempt to breach the Russian blockade earlier this week.

In a post on the brigade’s Facebook page, one of its officers described how “for more than a month, the Marines have been fighting without replenishing ammunition, food and water.”

“The wounded made up nearly half the brigade’s strength, but those who still had their limbs and could walk reported back to duty,” it said.

Boychenko said that some marines managed to join the Azov regiment, while others were captured by the Russians. He didn’t give any numbers.

The Russian military said Thursday a total of 1,160 Ukrainian marines surrendered this week, a claim that has not been independently verified.

As Ukrainian troops continue to put up fierce resistance in Mariupol, there are growing fears that disgruntled Russians may resort to chemical weapons to combat remaining pockets of resistance at the Azovstal plant and other parts of the city.

Eduard Basurin, a Russia-allied separatist official in eastern Ukraine, appeared to be calling for Monday and told Russian state television that Russian-backed forces should block all exits from the factory and then “deploy chemical troops to fumigate them there.” Later he said no chemical weapons were used.

The Azov regiment claimed Monday, without providing any evidence, that a drone dropped a poisonous substance on its positions, but caused no serious injuries. A Ukrainian defense official said phosphorus munitions may have been involved in the attack.

Ukrainian authorities said the Russians prevented humanitarian convoys from reaching Mariupol and kept it without food, water and electricity since the siege began. Russian troops have turned back buses sent to evacuate residents, but around 150,000 managed to flee the city in their own vehicles.

Boychenko said at least 33,500 and possibly as many as 50,000 Mariupol residents were taken to “filtration camps” in the separatist-controlled east before being forcibly sent to remote, economically weak areas of Russia.

Mariupol has faced disruptions in communications since the siege began, and when the Russians captured parts of the city, they launched radio broadcasts to brainwash the population.

“They unleashed propaganda and told people that Kyiv and other cities were taken and abandoned,” Boychenko said.

The ongoing fighting has forced the Russian military to keep significant numbers of troops in the city, delaying the eastern offensive.

“As long as the street fighting continues, Russia cannot withdraw troops from Mariupol and deploy them to other areas, including Donbass,” Oleh Zhdanov, an independent military expert, told the AP.

“Ukrainian troops in Mariupol are still performing their main task, distracting Russian forces from other areas. Mariupol remains an important symbol of the Ukrainian resistance.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war at The Ukrainian port of Mariupol withstands all odds

Joel McCord

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