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Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops not to storm the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged strategic city of Mariupol Thursday, even as he praised Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for the “liberation” of the city.
“I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary,” Putin told Shoigu in a televised meeting at the Kremlin. “I order you to cancel it.”
Shoigu replied, “Roger that.”
“This is a case where we must think – I mean we always must think, but in this case more so – about preserving the lives and health of our soldiers and officers,” Putin added. “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities.”
“Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through,” the president ordered. Shoigu again replied, “Roger that.”
“Once again, invite all those who have not yet laid down their arms to do so,” Putin added. “The Russian side guarantees their lives and their dignified treatment under the relevant international legal rights. All those who have been wounded will be provided with qualified medical help.”
Previously, Shoigu had told the president, “the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic have liberated Mariupol. As for today, all of Mariupol is under the control of the Russian army, the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Azovstal plant territory with the remnants of nationalists and foreign mercenaries is securely blockaded.”
“Of course, taking control of such an important centre in the south as Mariupol is a success,” Putin added. “Congratulations to you.”
Early Wednesday, the commander of a Ukrainian Marine unit made an urgent last-ditch plea for Ukrainian women and children, along with wounded marines, sheltering in the Azovstal plant to be evacuated to a neutral third country as the Russian deadline to surrender Mariupol loomed.
Moscow has given the Ukrainian forces several deadlines to surrender the plant and leave without their weapons. The latest expired at 2 p.m. Moscow time (11 a.m. GMT) on April 20.
The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works was once the site of one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe, but since the onslaught of the war more than 50 days ago it has become a symbol of the city’s resistance.
The plant’s network of underground tunnels has become home to Mariupol residents seeking shelter from the barrage of shelling and a base for several military units.
Despite weeks of intense shelling that has resulted in the death of more than 20,000 Mariupol residents according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko, Russian forces have been unable to take the strategically important city.
An advisor to the Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donetsk region said the Azovstal tunnels were a leading contributor to Russia’s failed attempts to completely besiege the city, claiming that they could withstand “even [a] nuclear strike.”
Russia launched a full-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine this week, after pivoting from broad-based attacks across the country, including a massive assault on the capital of Kyiv.
Only four buses with civilians managed to escape Mariupol on Wednesday after several unsuccessful events, Ukrainian officials said Thursday. Late Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine had liberated nearly 1,000 settlements Russian forces previously controlled earlier in the invasion.