Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Mariupol defenders hold out

- By Jon Gambrell and Cara Anna

LVIV, UKRAINE >> Ukrainian fighters in the tunnels underneath Mariupol's pulverized steel plant held out against Russian troops Thursday in an increasing­ly desperate and perhaps doomed effort to deny Moscow what would be its biggest success of the war yet: the full capture of the strategic port city.

The bloody battle came amid growing speculatio­n that President Vladimir Putin wants to present the Russian people with a battlefiel­d triumph — or announce an escalation of the war — in time for Victory Day on Monday. That is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar, marking the Soviet Union's triumph over Nazi Germany.

Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia's most recent estimate, were holed up at Mariupol's sprawling Azovstal steelworks, the last pocket of resistance in a city largely reduced to rubble over the past two months. A few hundred civilians were also believed trapped there.

Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, a leader of the steel plant's defenders, said that in a call with her husband from inside, he told he would love her forever.

“I am going mad from this. It seemed like words of goodbye,” she said.

Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the regiment, told Ukrainian TV that Russian troops were inside the plant for a third day and were meeting fierce resistance. “Heavy fighting is underway,” he said.

The Russians managed to get inside with the help of an electricia­n who knew the layout, said Anton Gerashchen­ko, an adviser to Ukraine's Internal Affairs Ministry.

“He showed them the undergroun­d tunnels which are leading to the factory,” Gerashchen­ko said in a video posted late Wednesday. “Yesterday, the Russians started storming these tunnels, using the informatio­n they received from the betrayer.”

The Kremlin denied its troops were storming the plant.

The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective.

Palamar pleaded for the evacuation of civilians and wounded fighters from the steelworks, saying soldiers were “dying in agony due to the lack of proper treatment.”

The Kremlin has demanded the troops surrender. They have refused. Russia has also accused them of preventing the civilians from leaving.

The defenders will “stand till the end. They only hope for a miracle . ... They won't surrender,” the Azov commander's wife said.

The head of the United Nations said another attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and the plant was underway. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “We must continue to do all we can to get people out of these hellscapes.”

More than 100 civilians were rescued from the steelworks over the weekend. But many previous attempts to open safe corridors from Mariupol have fallen through, with Ukraine blaming shelling and firing by the Russians.

Meanwhile, 10 weeks into the devastatin­g war, Ukraine's military claimed it recaptured some areas in the south and repelled other attacks in the east, further frustratin­g Putin's ambitions after his abortive attempt to seize Kyiv. Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting village by village.

The head of Britain's armed forces, Chief of the Defense Staff Adm. Tony Radakin, said Putin is “trying to rush to a tactical victory” before Victory Day. But he said Russian forces are struggling to gain momentum in the Donbas.

Radakin told British broadcaste­r Talk TV that Russia is using missiles and weapons at such a rate that it is in a “logistics war” to keep supplied. He added: “This is going to be a hard slog.”

Fearful of new attacks surroundin­g Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk urged residents to leave for the countrysid­e over the long weekend and warned them not to gather in public places.

And the southeaste­rn city of Zaporizhzh­ia, a key transit point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening through Tuesday morning.

In other developmen­ts, Belarus' authoritar­ian president, Alexander Lukashenko, defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine in an interview with The Associated Press but said he didn't expect the conflict to “drag on this way.”

 ?? ALEXEI ALEXANDROV — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Smoke rises from the Metallurgi­cal Combine Azovstal in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.
ALEXEI ALEXANDROV — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Smoke rises from the Metallurgi­cal Combine Azovstal in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday.

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