Mariupol defenders dig for last stand as Russia ‘screens’ men

An ultimatum given by the Russian Ministry of Defense to the last Ukrainian troops still fighting in the port city has come and gone. The battle continues.

Heavy fighting continued in Mariupol on Monday, according to Petro Andriushchenko, adviser to the city’s mayor.

He said Russian forces had started issuing passes to move around the city and announced that entry and exit routes would be closed on Monday, warning that men remaining in the city would be ” filtered”.

That claim could not be independently verified, but Andriushchenko and other Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were shelling the factory in Azovstal, one of the city’s last strongholds still under Ukrainian control. The Russian army claims to have blocked the Ukrainian forces there.

The Azovstal Ironworks is a sprawling industrial complex in the southeast corner of Mariupol. The complex covers an area of ​​over four square miles and employed over 10,000 people. It is not known how many Ukrainian soldiers are still in the factory.

The commander of the Ukrainian navy unit in the city said Mariupol was “what hell on earth looks like”.

“At [Azovstal] factory, women with children and babies live in bunkers. In hunger and cold. Every day being targeted by enemy aircraft. The wounded are dying every day because there is no medicine, no water, no food,” Major Serhii Volyna, commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, said in an open letter to the pope. Francis and published Monday on the Ukrainska Pravda website.

“The time has come when praying is no longer enough,” he added. The pope denounced war and called for peace in his Easter blessing on Sunday.

Smoke rises above the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol on April 18, 2022.
An aerial view taken on April 12, 2022 shows the city of Mariupol during the Russian military invasion launched on Ukraine.

Retired Lt. Gen. and CNN military analyst Mark Hertling said Mariupol was a key logistics hub. Its strategic position on the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov makes it a key target. Taking it would allow Russia to create a continuous land bridge from Donbass to Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014.

“It not only has roads, but also railroads and ports,” Hertling said. “There are roads going in all directions, this road in the east goes to Rostov-on-Don inside Russia, the roads in the north and northeast go to Luhansk and Donetsk, the roads to the northwest go to Zaporizhzhia and the roads to the south go down to the port city of Berdyansk.

“This next phase of the war is going to be a fight for logistics. So Mariupol is a city of crucial importance in the Eastern region, it’s the one they all fought. Both sides fought to control the roads, the other to prevent the control of the road when you go north.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the situation in Mariupol “inhuman” and said Russia was “trying to destroy everyone there”.

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Speaking to CNN last week, he said no one knew how many civilians had died in Mariupol. “Several thousands, tens of thousands, were forced to evacuate towards the Russian Federation and we don’t know where they are, they left no documentary trace,” Zelensky said.

As fighting continued in Mariupol, it also intensified in other parts of the country. Ukrainian officials in the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions reported heavy shelling by Russian forces on Monday, acknowledging a withdrawal from an important city but saying they had successfully repelled Russian attacks elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the western city of Lviv, seen as a haven due to its proximity to the border, was also attacked on Monday. Maksym Kozytskyy, Lviv’s regional military governor, said three missile strikes hit warehouses not used by the military and a fourth hit a tire repair shop. Seven people died, he said.

A destroyed residential building in Mariupol.

Strategic city, almost extinct

Mariupol has become a symbol of the terrifying brutality of Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine. But it is also the symbol of the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians against a much more powerful enemy.

It was never a particularly picturesque city, its skyline dominated by steel mills, chemical plants and a port with a shipyard. But it has seen major improvements in recent years. Money flowed in and the quality of life improved. Parks have been newly landscaped and small pockets transformed into cool urban hangouts.

With the improvements came a sense of pride among its residents. The city was flourishing. Just weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, residents of Mariupol were nervous, but didn’t believe – or perhaps didn’t want to – believe that their hometown was in real danger.

Now it’s all gone.

The vast majority of the southern city was destroyed or badly damaged. Photos and drone footage show that there are hardly any streets untouched by war. The incessant bombardments have made it uninhabitable.

Many of its monuments have disappeared, such as the famous drama theater which was razed by Russian bombs last month. Its streets, where small cafes and trendy restaurants were beginning to flourish, are covered with debris and dust.

An estimated 100,000 people remain in Mariupol and its immediate surroundings. They have no way out.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Mike Pratt, Yulia Kesaieva and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.