Russia Pummels Besieged Azovstal Steel Plant

Ukraine’s last bastion in Mariupol is a deep labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers that makes assaulting the complex extremely treacherous.

byHoward Altman| PUBLISHED May 5, 2022 8:39 PM
Russia Pummels Besieged Azovstal Steel Plant
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The battle for the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol rages on as Russian forces continue their assault on the sprawling industrial facility.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the United Nations Security Council that a third wave of evacuations was underway.

“The assault on Azovstal continues!,” the Azov Regiment said on its Telegram channel Thursday morning. “Defenders keep the plant under the heavy fire. The enemy uses aircraft, artillery and infantry.”

The Pentagon Thursday afternoon said the plant was still being defended by Ukrainians.

"We still see Mariupol under siege from bombardment, through airstrikes predominantly," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday afternoon. "We still assess that Ukrainian soldiers are still at that plant- they've said it themselves - and are still resisting."

Most of the Russian ground forces that had been committed to the siege of Mariupol have left and moved to the north, Kirby said.

However, "a small number - roughly the equivalent of a couple of battalion tactical groups - are still in and around Mariupol," he said. "At this time, predominantly, the activity is largely through airstrikes in and around Mariupol and certainly at the Azovstal plant."

The Azovstal plant is being pummeled by Russian aircraft and artillery fire. And while Ukrainian defenders have reported Russian ground incursions into the plant, its maze of underground tunnels - designed to withstand a nuclear attack - make such attempts a dangerous gambit.

The Russians were able to enter the plant because a staff member tipped them off, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry, said on his Telegram channel.

“A staff member at Azovstal betrayed Ukraine and told russians [sic] about underground tunnels that lead to the plant,” he wrote Wednesday. “That's why they launched their attack yesterday and currently the russians [sic] are trying to force their way onto Azovstal territory.”

But the Azovstal defenders were able to push them back, Gerashchenko wrote Thursday.

“According to Olexiy Arestovych, the defenders of Azovstal in Mariupol have pushed back and restored the integrity of their defense,” he wrote. “The situation, however, is critical.”

Maxar satellite imagery closer view of the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Satellite image (c) 2022 Maxar Technologies).

Azovstal, he wrote, “still shelters many civilians and has about 500 wounded soldiers in the field hospital on the premises.”

Arestovych “added that President Zelenskyy uses all the diplomatic leverages to stop the assault,” Gerashchenko wrote.

A doctor treating patients inside the plant called for help evacuating civilians and the wounded military personnel, he wrote. 

“The doctor that helps wounded people on 'Azovstal' recorded a video message regarding the situation on the plant,”
wrote Gerashchenko.

"I've never seen death before the war. I worked in an ambulance. But now, in 2022, it's painful to see how people die on our hands from festering wounds due to the lack of antibiotics - says the doctor.”

Gerashchenko also said the doctor “addressed Turkish authorities with an urge to help take out civilians and military.”

Earlier in the day, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, Deputy Commander of the Azov Regiment, called on the “world community to evacuate civilians.”

In the message, also posted on the Azov Regiment’s Telegram page, Palamar called on "the Supreme Commander-in-Chief" [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] to “take care of the wounded soldiers who are dying in agony from improper treatment.”

Palamar asked for “the opportunity to pick up the bodies of soldiers so that Ukrainians can say goodbye to their heroes. Respond appropriately to a critical situation in which the enemy does not adhere to any ethical norms, conventions or laws, destroying people in front of the whole world, guided by permissiveness and impunity!"

In response to a query delivered over a social media app on Thursday, Bohdan Krotevych, a major in the National Guard of Ukraine and chief of staff of the Azov Regiment, described the defense of Azovstal.

“Hard,” he told The War Zone.

Bohdan Krotevych, a major in the National Guard of Ukraine and chief of staff of the Azov Regiment, in the Azovstal steel plant. (Photo courtesy of Borden Krotevych).

On Wednesday, he told The War Zone that “Russians are assaulting Azovstal.”

In an exclusive interview with The War Zone on April 29, Krotevych said about 2,000 Ukrainian troops and about 300 civilians were holed up in the complex warren of underground bunkers and connecting tunnels below the plant. Among them are some 60 children, ranging in age from four months to 15 years, Krotevych said.

You can read that interview here.

A third evacuation effort was underway Thursday.

“A third operation is underway – but it is our policy not to speak about the details of any of them before they are completed to avoid undermining possible success,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the United Nations Security Council on Thursday.

Guterres met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and “stressed the imperative of enabling humanitarian access and evacuations from besieged areas, including first and foremost, Mariupol.”

He “strongly urged the opening of a safe and effective humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to reach safety from the Azovstal plant.” 

A short time after that meeting, Guterres said he received confirmation of an agreement in principle

“We immediately followed up with intense preparatory work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) along with Russian and Ukrainian authorities,” he said. 

The objective was to “initially enable the safe evacuation of those civilians from the Azovstal plant and later the rest of the city, in any direction they choose, and to deliver humanitarian aid.”

The efforts had “some measure of success,” said Guterres.

“Together, the United Nations and the ICRC are leading a humanitarian operation of great complexity – both politically, and in terms of security.”  

It began, he said, on April 29 “and has required enormous coordination and advocacy with the Russian Federation and Ukrainian authorities”

So far, “two safe passage convoys have been successfully completed,” said Guterres. 

The first was May 3, in which 101 civilians were evacuated from the plant along with 59 more from a neighboring area.

The second, completed on May 4, evacuated more than 320 civilians from the city of Mariupol and surrounding areas. 

Many thousands more are thought to still be in the demolished city. As for the souls still holding out in the depths of the giant industrial complex that is the Azovstal plant, only time will tell their fate. But based on the factors at hand, that time looks increasingly limited.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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