ussia claims it has almost captured Mariupol but Ukrainian forces are managing to maintain their presence at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant – their last remaining stronghold in the besieged city.
The Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, a top ally of Vladimir Putin, suggested early on Thursday the steel plant would fall by lunchtime after troops inside refused to surrender.
But Mr Putin, in a Kremlin meeting with Sergei Shoigu, his defence minister, gave the order to call off a plan to storm it, saying it was better to save the lives of Russian soldiers and wait while Ukrainian forces ran out of supplies.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” Mr Putin said in a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “I order you to cancel it.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities.
“Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through.”
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk demanded Russia urgently allow the evacuation of civilians and wounded soldiers via a humanitarian corridor from the steelworks.
“There are about 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers there. They all need to be pulled out of Azovstal today,” she said in an online post.
Mr Shoigu had earlier told Mr Putin that more than 2,000 Ukrainian fighters were still holed up in the plant and that it might take three or four days to take control of the facility.
He claimed the rest of the city had been “liberated”, which Mr Putin hailed as a “success”.
Leaving the factory in Ukrainian hands denies Russia the ability to declare complete victory in Mariupol.
Its capture has strategic importance, as it would allow Mr Putin’s troops to create a land bridge to link annexed Crimea to separatist territories in the Donbas region.
It would also have symbolic importance for Mr Putin’s regime, as British officials believe it is seeking to show “significant successes” before May 9 – the date which marks Nazi Germany’s surrender in WW2.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv was coming under intense Russian bombardment on Thursday, according to its mayor.
“Huge blasts, the Russian Federation is furiously bombing the city,” Ihor Terekhov said in a televised address.
He said that around 1 million people remain in the northeastern city, while about 30 per cent of the population have evacuated–mainly women, children and the elderly.