Kyiv: Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the biggest battle of the war in Ukraine, saying Russia had seized the port city of Mariupol, but US President Joe Biden expressed his doubts about the claim.
Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday (AEST) that it was “questionable whether [Putin] does control Mariupol”.
Western officials said between 5000 and 10,000 Russian troops were involved in the Mariupol operation and the failure to capture the city in the early days of the war had frustrated Russia’s efforts across the rest of the country.
“The situation in Mariupol is undoubtedly a horrific situation. The forces in Mariupol have demonstrated unbelievable ability to resist,” the official said.
“The Russians have had to move to a position whereby they’re not going to clear the industrial sector but rather they’ll try to blockade it. It’s another insight into the ferocity and effectiveness of Ukrainian resistance.”
Hundreds of fighters and civilians in dozens of bunkers were still holed up inside a huge steel works on Friday (AEST). Putin ordered his troops to blockade the complex “so that not even a fly” could escape.
Ukraine said Putin wanted to avoid a final clash with its forces in the city as he lacked the troops to defeat them.
In Washington, Biden authorised a further $US800 million ($1.08 billion) in military aid for Ukraine, including heavy artillery, as it faces a new Russian offensive in the east.
He pledged to send dozens of howitzers, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and tactical drones.
“We’re in a critical window now of time where they’re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video address to the Portuguese parliament, begged Western nations to send more weapons and to impose more economic sanctions on Moscow.
“This is just the first step (for Russia) to gain control of eastern Europe, to destroy democracy in Ukraine,” he said. “Your people, who in a few days will be celebrating the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that liberated you from dictatorship, know perfectly well what we are feeling.”
“We are fighting not only for our independence, but for our survival, for our people so that they do not get killed, tortured and raped,” Zelensky said.
He accused the Russian army of committing many atrocities in Ukraine, including in Mariupol.
Russia denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Ukraine has staged them. Moscow calls its incursion a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an illegal war of aggression.
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, has seen not only the most intense battle of the war that started when Russian forces invaded on February 24 but also its worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were cut off for nearly two months under Russian siege and bombardment.
Control of the city links territory held by separatists Russia backs in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region with Crimea, the peninsula Moscow seized in 2014.
Ukrainian fighters remained inside the Azovstal steel complex, one of the biggest metallurgical facilities in Europe, covering 11 square kilometres with huge buildings, underground bunkers and tunnels. Putin had told the defenders to lay down their weapons and surrender or die.
But in a televised meeting at the Kremlin, Putin congratulated Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian troops for having “successfully completed the combat effort to liberate Mariupol”.
This satellite photo taken on April 20 shows the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.Credit:Planet Labs/AP
He said it was unnecessary to storm the industrial zone and ordered such action to be cancelled.
“There’s no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities … Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can get through.”
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces had nevertheless tried to storm the seaport and steel plant.
While Putin claimed his first big prize since his forces were driven out of northern Ukraine last month, it falls short of the unambiguous victory Moscow has sought after months of combat in a city reduced to rubble.
“They physically cannot take Azovstal, they have understood this, they have taken huge losses there,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych told a briefing. “Our defenders continue to hold it.”
But Western officials in London warned that Putin could still win in Ukraine despite failing in his pre-war objectives.
Zelensky said 120,000 civilians were still being blocked from leaving Mariupol.
Journalists who reached Mariupol during the siege found streets littered with corpses, nearly all buildings destroyed, and residents huddled freezing in cellars, venturing out to cook scraps on makeshift stoves or to bury bodies in gardens.
Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have died in Mariupol, some buried in mass graves. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.
Shoigu told Putin that Russia had killed more than 4000 Ukrainian troops in its campaign to take Mariupol and that 1478 had given themselves up. Those figures could not be verified.
Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 1000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers needed to be brought out from the plant immediately, blaming Russian forces for the failure to establish a safe corridor that she said had been agreed.
Moscow says Russia has taken in 140,000 civilians from Mariupol in humanitarian evacuations. Kyiv says some were deported by force, in what would be a war crime.
Biden also announced plans to ban Russian-affiliated ships from US borders, adding to a host of Western sanctions on Moscow.
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