President says Kiev needs foreign help to rescue trapped holdouts in Black Sea port city
It is still possible to rescue Ukrainian fighters trapped in Mariupol, but Kiev will need foreign help to do so, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday. Meanwhile, Russia declared the city to be completely cleared of troops loyal to Kiev, with only a few die-hards left at the Azovstal factory complex.
“There is a military way” to unblock Mariupol, Zelensky told local media during a press conference with the prime ministers of Spain and Denmark in Kiev.
“We need to prepare for it. We are preparing to be strong, but here we need the help of our partners. It’s difficult, by ourselves,” he added.
Earlier on Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that the Azov Sea port is fully in the hands of Russian and Donetsk People’s Republic troops, with the exception of a surrounded group holed up at the Azovstal steel plant. Shoigu estimated their number to be around 2,000.
Some 8,100 Ukrainian troops, militants and mercenaries were in Mariupol when it was surrounded last month, the defense minister said, and 1,478 of them have surrendered.
Shoigu said it would take 3-4 days to clear the factory. However, Putin told told the minister not to storm the facility, in order to save Russian lives. Instead, he instructed, it should be sealed so that nothing and no one can get in – or out.
Mariupol was the stronghold of “Azov,” a volunteer regiment created after the 2014 coup in Kiev that openly embraced Nazi symbolism. It was subsequently integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine and has units across the country.
Trapped “Azov” fighters have refused Russian offers to surrender, insisting they be allowed to keep their weapons and asking to be airlifted to another country instead. The government in Kiev has reportedly forbidden them from surrendering, insisting they need to fight to the last man.
Russia attacked the neighboring state in late February, following Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, first signed in 2014, and Moscow’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The German- and French-brokered protocols were designed to give the breakaway regions special status within the Ukrainian state.
The Kremlin has since demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.