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Russian troops have full control of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and all Ukrainian fighters entrenched there have surrendered, the Russian Defense Ministry has said, as Moscow steps up its assault on eastern Ukraine.
“The territory of the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant…has been completely liberated,” the ministry said. mentioned in a statement on May 20.
He said 531 people were part of the group that surrendered most recently, bringing the total number of defenders who had surrendered in the past few days to 2,439.
The total abandonment of the factory’s bunkers and tunnels ends the most destructive siege of the war that began nearly three months ago.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said earlier that the Azovstal defenders had received a clear signal from the military command that they could get out and save their lives.
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Russia had sought control of Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, to complete a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and to release troops to join the battle for control of the Donbass region.
Russia has stepped up its assault on the region, plunging it relentlessly into what Zelenskiy says now looks like “hell”.
After more than 12 weeks of fighting since Moscow launched its invasion, Ukrainian authorities have said Russian forces’ “massive” artillery barrages continue to fire. target civil infrastructure, including residential neighborhoods.
On May 20, Zelenskiy strongly criticized one such attack, which hit a Ukrainian cultural center in the Kharkiv region.
Kharkiv Regional Governor Oleg Sinegubov said eight people were injured, including an 11-year-old girl. A local health official had previously put the number of injured at seven.
Zelenskiy posted a video on social media showing a large explosion hitting the newly renovated Palace of Culture in Lozova. The building was partly destroyed and the roof caught fire, Ukrainian emergency services reported.
“The occupiers have identified culture, education and humanity as their enemies,” Zelenskiy said. “What’s on the minds of people who choose such targets? Absolute evil, absolute stupidity.”
Sinegubov said there was no doubt Russian forces were targeting the cultural center, adding on Telegram that two of the three missiles fired were intercepted and the fire that broke out at the center was put out.
The British secret service noted May 20 in their daily report on the situation in Ukraine that after securing the strategic Sea port of Azov after a month-long siege that left the city in ruins and killed thousands of civilians, Moscow is likely to redeploy troops to help the offensive in the east.
WATCH: The widow of a Ukrainian civilian killed by the first Russian soldier to be tried for war crimes in Ukraine says he could have ‘missed’ her husband instead of carrying out orders. The Russian soldier accused of killing him pleaded guilty in a kyiv court on May 18.
The soldiers who left Azovstal, including those who were injured, were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was registering the hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who left the Azovstal factory in Mariupol as prisoners of war (POW).
The ICRC says registering combatants as prisoners of war was “essential to ensure they are considered and treated with humanity and dignity” and allows the organization to track those captured and to help them stay in touch with their families.
kyiv has expressed hope that the fighters will be exchanged for Russian prisoners, but separatist authorities in the eastern region of Donetsk have hinted that some of them may face trial.
In southeastern Ukraine, approximately 1,000 vehicles carrying Ukrainian civilians were prevented from entering Ukrainian-held territory in Zaporizhzhya. The regional military administration said on May 20 that cars full of people trying to evacuate were blocked at a Russian checkpoint in the town of Vasylivka.
“In Vasylivka, the occupiers did not allow more than 1,000 cars to enter Ukrainian-controlled territory for the fourth day in a row,” the administration said in a Telegram message, adding that there were women and children in cars, and most of them have run out of money to buy food and water.
In Luhansk, local authorities said on May 20 that indiscriminate Russian shelling had killed at least 13 civilians in the past 24 hours and caused extensive damage.
Twelve people were killed in the city of Severodonesk, where a Russian assault failed, regional governor Serhiy Hayday said. The town and city of Lysychansk is in an area where Russian troops have launched an offensive.
In Donetsk, “the Russian enemy carried out massive artillery bombardments on civilian infrastructure, including multiple rocket launchers,” the Ukrainian General Staff said in a statement.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said that as of May 20, 232 children had been killed and 427 injured since the start of the Russian invasion.
In a regular address to the nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had “completely destroyed” Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
“It’s hell out there – and that’s no exaggeration,” Zelenskiy said in his evening speech, reiterating his accusation that Russia is committing genocide, a claim Moscow has denied.
Zelenskiy also said that in the Chernihiv region north of kyiv, the village of Desna was hit by Russian missiles on May 19 and many were killed. Desna is about 70 kilometers from the border with Belarus.
Zelenskiy spoke on May 19 with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a range of issues, including financial aid to help Ukraine’s crumbling economy, agricultural exports and “the evacuation of our heroes from Azovstal”.
Shoigu said on May 20 that the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” – a Ukrainian territory recognized by Russia as independent and controlled by Moscow-backed separatists – would soon be completed.
The minister also said that Russia would bolster its western defenses with additional troops and 12 military bases in response to Sweden and Finland’s bid for NATO membership.
The two Nordic countries abandoned their longstanding neutrality this week as they formally submitted bids to join the alliance, saying the move was necessary due to security concerns sparked by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. .