Russia claims victory over Mariupol steelworks

Russia has intensified its offensive in the Donbas region as Putin's forces claimed victory at Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks, ending a weeks-long siege

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The last Ukrainian forces holed up in Mariupol's smashed Azovstal steelworks surrendered on Friday, Russia's defense ministry said, ending the most destructive siege of the war as Moscow fought to cement control over the Donbas region.

Hours before Russia's announcement on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the last defenders at the steelworks had been told by Ukraine's military that they could get out and save their lives.

Russia said there were 531 members of the last group that had given up. "The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant... has been completely liberated," the ministry said in a statement, adding that a total of 2,439 defenders had surrendered in the past few days.

The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm those figures.

A tank which was destroyed in the southern port city of Mariupol
A tank which was destroyed in the southern port city of Mariupol

Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the province of Luhansk, one of two southeastern Ukrainian provinces Moscow proclaims as independent states.

The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lyshchansk across the Siverskiy Donets river form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.

Ukraine's general staff said it had pushed back an offensive on Sievierodonetsk, part of what it described as major Russian operations along a stretch of the frontline.

Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, in what some military analysts view as a major push to achieve scaled-down war aims of capturing more territory claimed by pro-Russian rebels.

Local residents near a block of flats heavily damaged
Local residents near a block of flats heavily damaged

"This will be the critical next few weeks of the conflict," said Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London's Chatham House think tank. "And it depends on how effective they are at conquering Sievierodonetsk and the lands across it."

In Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the "liberation of the Luhansk People's Republic" would be over soon.

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

Zelenskyy described the conditions in the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk province where Mariupol is located, as "hell" and said the region had been "completely destroyed" by Russia.