Russia advances into Ukraine’s Donbass as Mariupol steel plant siege ends

  • Week-long siege ends in Azovstal, Russia says
  • Russia steps up offensive in Donbass
  • Zelenskiy seeks agreement to obtain Russian compensation
  • Russia halts Finnish gas flows over payment dispute

KYIV, May 21 (Reuters) – Russia has pushed for control of Ukraine’s Donbass region, claiming victory in the months-long battle for the Mariupol steel plant and launching a major offensive into remaining Ukrainian territory in the region. Luhansk province.

The last Ukrainian forces locked in the devastated Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol surrendered on Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said. This ended the most destructive siege of the war.

“The territory of the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant (…) has been completely liberated,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that 2,439 defenders had surrendered in recent days, including 531 in the final group.

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Hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the steel mill’s last defenders had been told by the Ukrainian military that they could get out and save their lives. The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm the figures on Azovstal.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not comment on Russia’s assertion in its Saturday morning update.

Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last territory under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of two provinces in southeastern Ukraine that Moscow proclaims as independent states.

Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said in a social media post on Saturday that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Sievierodonetsk, with fighting taking place on the outskirts of the city.

“The shelling continues from morning to evening and also throughout the night,” Gaidai said in a video post on the Telegram messaging app.

On Saturday morning, air raid sirens went off across much of Ukraine, including the capital region of kyiv and the southern port of Odessa.

Capturing the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, much of which constitutes Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region, would allow Moscow to claim victory after announcing last month that was now its goal.

Although they have lost ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front.

“These will be the next critical weeks of the conflict,” said Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “And it depends on their effectiveness in conquering Sievierodonetsk and the lands around it.”

The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets River form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to invade since mid-April after failing to capture kyiv.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Saturday that Russian forces were preparing to try again to cross the river, after a previous attempt earlier this month led to one of the biggest battles in the conflict to date.

BATTLE FOR MARIUPOL

The end of the siege of Mariupol was an important symbolic moment for Russia, following a series of setbacks since the invasion began on February 24, but it came at the cost of massive destruction.

Zelenskiy said the area had been “completely destroyed” by Russia and offered a formal deal with the country’s allies to get Russian compensation for damage caused by its forces. Read more

Natalia Zarytska, wife of an Azovstal fighter who surrendered, said she had not heard from him since an exchange of Telegram messages two days ago. She believed he was still alive.

“The situation is really tough and horrible and my husband is on his way from one hell to another hell, from the Azovstal steelworks to a prison, to captivity,” Zarytska said in Istanbul, where she and d Other relatives have pressured Turkey to help save the fighters.

The Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of Ukrainians who turned up at the factory as prisoners of war and kyiv says it wants a prisoner swap. Moscow says the prisoners will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have said some should be tried or even executed.

Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven out in recent weeks from the area surrounding Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and Kyiv region in late March.

But they still control much of the south and east, and the end of the fighting in Mariupol means that territory is now largely unbroken.

In a sign of Russia’s aim to bolster its war effort, Moscow’s parliament said it would consider letting Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 join the military.

Last week, Sweden and Finland also applied to join NATO, although Turkey threatened to block them, accusing the Nordic countries of harboring Kurdish militants.

Russia’s Gazprom (GAZP.MM) halted gas exports to Finland on Saturday, the Finnish gas system operator said, in the latest escalation in a dispute over energy payments with Western countries. Read more

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Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Max Hunder, Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Reuters offices; Written by Peter Graff, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Pullin; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bradley Perrett

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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