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A sprawling steel factory becomes fortress for Ukrainians’ last stand in Mariupol

A sprawling Soviet-era steel mill with underground bunkers that is sheltering thousands of soldiers and civilians stands as the last Ukrainian redoubt in the ravaged city of Mariupol, where the battle by Russian forces to take full control of the city appears to be entering its final stages.

Russian commanders said Tuesday that they were beginning their assault on the Azovstal steel plant, where the remaining Ukrainian soldiers defending the besieged port city have been joined by 1000 or more civilians, Ukrainian officials said. The Russians launched a new round of artillery barrages and issued the latest in a series of ultimatums to the fighters in the factory to surrender.

The Azovstal metallurgical plant is seen on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Russia.Credit:AP

But the Azovstal plant makes for a formidable fortress, an immense industrial complex of thick concrete and walls, steel doors and reinforced underground warrens. Yan Gagin, who identified himself as Russia adviser in the Donetsk People’s Republic, a self-declared government in eastern Ukraine backed by the Kremlin, said in a broadcast report that the steel factory was designed to withstand a nuclear war.

“It is basically a city under a city,” he said, conceding that the Russian campaign to seize the plant had been significantly hampered by the sophisticated network of passages, rooms and communication systems connecting the basement levels of the plant.

Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats project at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “I assume the Russians are going to throw everything they have at this, to eliminate this pocket,” but added that doing so could cost them dearly. “You’d be surprised at how well people can survive big bombs in a facility like that,” he said.

A spokesperson for Metinvest, the company that owns the mill, said that the bunkers beneath it were used as shelters by steelworkers in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists tried to seize Mariupol.

The Azovstal Steel and Iron Works in January before the invasion.Credit:Bloomberg

“Ever since the first invasion, we’ve kept the bunkers in good order and supplied with food and water,” said Galina Yatsura, who heads international communications for Metinvest, adding that the shelters can house up to 4000 people and are stocked with enough food and water to last three weeks.

Russia’s Defence Ministry called a cease-fire for Wednesday in the area of the plant to allow civilians to leave, Russian state media reported. However, previous attempts to suspend fighting have fallen through.

The plant stretches across more than six square kilometres, a complex of buildings, smokestacks, blast furnaces and stacks of coiled and plate steel, and it has its own port facilities on the Sea of Azov.

One of the largest metal mills in Europe, it produced about 4.3 million tons of steel annually before the Russian invasion, with most of it sent by ship to European customers, according to Metinvest, a steel and mining conglomerate owned by Ukraine’s richest man, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.

The network of underground passages and rooms, which is now pivotal to the survival of the holed-up soldiers and civilians, was originally built to transport equipment among buildings and to access the undersides of ground-level machinery for maintenance, according to Metinvest. There was no planned military use for the tunnels before the war, the company said.

The steel mill has been under heavy bombardment, a Ukrainian commander, Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, said Monday in a video recorded at the factory. “They use free fall bombs, rockets, bunker-buster bombs, all varieties of artillery, both ground and naval for indiscriminate attacks,” he said.

Another Ukrainian officer in Mariupol, Major Sergiy Volyna, wrote on Telegram, “We are ready to fight to the last drop of blood.” Volnya appealed to the United States and its European allies to provide Ukrainian forces with more heavy weapons. “We must know that the world has done everything possible for this.”

The Azovstal factory buildings in Mariupol after fighting. Credit:AP

The Russians are trying to establish uncontested control of a swath of territory linking the separatist-held regions of Donbas, in southeastern Ukraine, to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. The holdouts in Mariupol are the last substantial obstacle left in the region.

Russian forces have had the city, a major port, under siege since last month, bombarding much of it to rubble and slowly tightening their grip.

The fight over the Azovstal steel plant recalls one of the great struggles of World War II, the battle for the Stalingrad Tractor Factory as Nazi Germany’s forces attempted to capture that city. Thousands of German and Soviet soldiers died there, as did many civilians, before the Soviets ultimately prevailed.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Kagan said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a sprawling, heavy industrial complex, it’s going to make a good fighting position for defenders.”

Ukraine’s intelligence service wrote in a statement Monday that the Russians were preparing to use 3-tonne bombs on the plant in an effort to raze it completely. Moscow is “not deterred by the fact that civilians have taken refuge in the plant,” the service said in a statement.

A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Russia’s estimate, remained holed up at a mammoth steel mill in Mariupol,the last known pocket of resistance in the devastated southern port city.Credit:AP

The plant was first established by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and rebuilt after World War II. It is a labyrinth of rail systems, workshops, blast furnaces and warehouses, with many of the buildings made of thick concrete and designed to withstand high temperatures.

If Russia succeeds in flattening the complex’s buildings, it is not clear how many people hunkered underground might survive. Eventually, though, they would run out of provisions, and the Ukrainians have warned repeatedly that the Russians might use chemical weapons to force them out or kill them.

In the confusion of the siege, it was difficult to get a clear picture of what was happening inside the factory. But according to Yatsura, a number of employees remain there. They had stayed after the invasion began to prepare the complex’s bomb shelters and eliminate hazardous materials.

Clearing the plant could hold particular symbolic value for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has justified his invasion with the false claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that he is rooting them out. The plant’s defenders include members of the Azov Battalion, a force that does include far-right soldiers, some of them foreign, including white supremacists and people who have been described as fascists.

Russia’s siege of the city of Mariupol has been brutal.Credit:AP

Capturing the Azovstal plant would also give the Russians better access to the region’s railway system and seaport.

How long the Ukrainian defenders can stave off the Russian invaders there will depend in large part on how many people are inside and how well sustained they are. Piotr Andryushchenko, an aide to Mayor Vadym Boychenko of Mariupol, said the Ukrainian army had arranged two operations over the past two weeks to bring food to the plant; he did not say how that was accomplished. But the situation will likely grow more dire, he said, as Russian troops have blocked anyone, including civilians, from entering or leaving the city.

“These people, many wanted to avoid being displaced or deported, so they found protection with our troops, in the basement of the plant,” said Andryushchenko, who, like the mayor, left the city weeks ago.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Sunday that its forces had completely surrounded the steel plant and that the Ukrainian forces holding out “forbade negotiations about surrendering,” citing an intercepted radio transmission.

“In reality it is not surrounded,” Andryushchenko, the aided to Mariupol’s mayor, said on Monday. “For the past few days our troops have been engaged in intense street fighting throughout Levoberezhny,” referring to the district around the plant. He said the majority of the fighting was taking place along a main road, called Tahanrozka, that led from the plant to the outskirts of the city.

The Azovstal metallurgical plant is seen on the outskirts of Mariupol.Credit:AP

Outside the plant, he said, Russian soldiers were forcing civilians to register for “mobile passes” at an office close to the line of fighting, about 5 km from the steel plant. The office had been installed last week by Konstantin Ivashchenko, who was recently named the “new mayor” of Mariupol by the Kremlin-backed separatists.

The passes, the existence of which has also been reported by Mariupol’s police, are required for residents to walk outside.

Civilians are required to wear white bands on their arms and legs. Russian soldiers typically wear such bands, he said, raising the possibility that they are intentionally endangering the Ukrainian civilians.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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