For more than seven weeks, invading Russian forces have been getting closer to the center of Mariupol, lashing out with bombs, artillery and missiles fired from the Black Sea, razing apartment blocks, hospitals and other structures.

More than 400,000 city dwellers were locked down before the invasion, and since early March they have been living without electricity, water, communications or modern medical facilities. After shops were looted, many people ran out of food and medicine. Others cook over an open fire.

Looking at it all, analysts point out that the Ukrainian army’s firepower greatly outstrips the Russians and predict the city will fall.

But Ukrainian troops — from the military, border guards and the right-wing nationalist paramilitary Azov Battalion — persevered. They took refuge underground in Mariupol’s sprawling Soviet-era enterprise, including the Azovstal steel plant and parts of the seaport with its extensive network of tunnels.

In recent days, the end of the siege seems to be getting closer. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the city had been cleared of Ukrainian militants, except for some who remained blocked in Azovstad. After midnight, it demanded their surrender.

The military claims of Russia and Ukraine during the war cannot be independently verified.

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The capture of Mariupol would give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s beleaguered Ukrainian campaign a huge boost, as it would allow Moscow to complete a land bridge between Crimea and its southern Ukrainian city. It will also free up resources for Moscow’s anticipated offensive in the Donbass.

For Ukrainians, holding on to Mariupol has become a symbol of the country’s resistance to an invasion that has killed thousands of civilians and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.

Azov’s Telegram channel released a video last week in which Denys Prokopenko, commander of the city’s Azov regiment, said that “those who really chose the path of war” were still defending the city. He condemned those who surrendered for choosing the “path of shame”.

In the video, Prokopenko sits on a brick wall next to 36th Marine Brigade Commander Serhii Volyna. He said the two groups successfully joined forces to defend Mariupol.

Denis Prokopenko and Serhii Volyna

Mariupol Azov Regiment Commander Denis Prokopenko and 36th Marine Brigade Commander Shershi Wallina © YouTube

In an interview with Ukrainian media on Saturday, President Vladimir Zelensky admitted that the situation in Mariupol had “absolutely not improved”, with its troops blocked and many injured and dead. However, he added: “The boys are defending themselves heroically.”

Igor Jaworski, a pensioner who was evacuated by bus from Mariupol to Zaporozhye in the north on Saturday, said the troops were fighting well, “but they need help — military help”.

Fleeing residents, humanitarian workers and other Ukrainians with ties to the Mariupols painted a picture of troops still holding out in Azovstadt and the port area.

Azov’s founder Andriy Biletsky told the FT he believed Mariupol had fewer than 4,000 soldiers at the start of the invasion, of which about 2,000 were still active in the city, including those from the force’s 36th Brigade Ukrainian Marine Corps soldier. Large numbers of Azov fighters, soldiers of the 56th Infantry Brigade, as well as border guards and volunteer soldiers.

“As for how they survived, Mariupol is a big city with a lot of large buildings made of reinforced concrete and steel, and a lot of underground passages,” he said. “It all adds up to a little bit of help.”

Andrei Biletsky
About 2,000 soldiers are still active in Mariupol, Azov founder Andriy Biletsky said © Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

The fighters are struggling with scarce food and drinking water, he said. Ukrainian helicopters dropped emergency supplies, including weapons and medicines, via “air bridges,” but he did not say whether they were still doing so.

Doctors and nurses are helping out, but they work underground, like all of Mariupol, and lack drugs such as antibiotics and anesthetics, Biletsky said. “This has resulted in large numbers of people dying or amputating after gangrene, just like in the 19th century,” he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry and pro-Russian commentators said on April 13 that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines had surrendered and released a video showing dozens of them clasping their hands behind their heads.

However, Oleksi Arestovich, an adviser in Zelensky’s office, said the number of surrenders was “much smaller,” adding that some marines had already joined the Azov force.

After midnight on Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry demanded that the troops still insisting on surrendering in Mariupol “take into account the catastrophic situation at the Azov Star Metallurgical Plant and follow purely humanitarian principles”. It said the lives of all who lay down their arms would be saved.

Azovstal Factory
Some Ukrainian troops seek refuge at the Azovstal factory © Anatoliy Zhdanov/Kommersant/Eyevine

Confirming the facts is difficult in a locked-down city with few journalists and severely compromised communications. Despite connectivity issues, residents – thought to be as many as 100,000 – shared reports and images on social media.

In Saturday’s interview, Zelensky cited an estimate by the Mariupol regional government that estimated about 20,000 civilians died, but noted that the officials who made the calculations were not in the city.

Ukraine’s president has accused Russia of refusing to comply with Mariupol’s humanitarian corridor agreement in talks brokered by Turkey. “To be honest, I don’t trust Russian negotiators,” he said.

The ICRC left Mariupol on March 15 after conditions became “impossible”, said Alyona Synenko, the organization’s spokesman. With no agreement between the warring sides, the ICRC has been trying to evacuate the population safely through humanitarian corridors, but on 6 April it managed to get more than 1,000 people out of the convoy.

Ukrainian charities rent private buses and find volunteer drivers willing to risk Russian bombing and rescue people trapped in cities. According to Zaporozhye volunteers, Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces in Mariupol have been giving false information to residents trying to escape, warning them not to enter Ukrainian territory.

“They said, ‘Your people will be arrested at the checkpoint and taken into the army,'” said volunteer Oleksandr Sosnovskyi. “They want to evacuate them to Russia.”

An evacuee holds a cat while waiting to board a bus leaving Mariupol
An evacuee holds a cat as he waits to board a bus leaving Mariupol on April 5 © Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

According to Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights monitor, more than 135,000 people from Mariupol have crossed the border into Russia since the war began.

On the Ukrainian territory of Zaporozhye, large shops and garden centers on the outskirts have been converted into medical facilities to receive people from war zones.

Children arriving at the center typically suffer from dehydration, diarrhea and abdominal pain, while adults suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, said Wilson Bernales, a volunteer doctor from Las Vegas. “Besides that, they’re all crying over the loss of their home.”

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