Ukrainian commander pleads for evacuation of troops, civilians from Mariupol factory

Smoke rises from Russian bombing at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops fighting and civilians are sheltering. Credit: the Guardian

A senior commander of Ukrainian marines has called for a third country to urgently evacuate troops and civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, southern Ukraine, which has been under heavy Russian bombardment for weeks. The plea comes as Ukrainian troops in the besieged port city launch a final stand against Russian troops, who are closing in while supplies run out.

In an exclusive phone call with CNN, Maj. Serhii Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Separate Marine Brigade, spoke of the desperate situation for those trapped inside the steelworks — both troops and civilians — many of whom are wounded, as they face relentless bombing from Russian forces who have “completely surrounded” them.

“I have a statement to the world. It may be my last statement because we have only a few days — or even hours — left. We appeal to world leaders to apply the extraction procedure to the military of the Mariupol garrison, to the civilians who are with us here at the plant. We ask you to take us to the territory of a third country and provide us with security.”

In recent weeks, the massive Azovstal steel factory has become a primary target for Russian troops in the area, after Ukrainian forces withdrew into defensive positions around the plant’s vast facilities, where they are reportedly outnumbered 10 to 1.

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“We are completely surrounded. There are about 500 wounded military, it is very difficult to provide them with medical care. They literally rot. There are civilians on the territory. They are also suffering from explosions, blasts on them, next to them. They [the Russians] use heavy aircraft bombs against us and strike with artillery.”

The commander did not give an official figure for how many people are inside the compound. But Ukrainian officials say at least hundreds of civilians have been sheltering in the plant’s basements, while some experts speculate as many as 1,000 residents could be inside.

“If the world hears us, if the world leaders hear us, we very much hope so, and the extraction procedure will be carried out, then everyone will understand the quantitative composition of the people who were in captivity.”

Volyna also called on specific world leaders whom he thinks may have the power to carry out such an emergency evacuation of trapped Ukrainian troops and civilians from the steelworks “in the shortest possible time” to avoid complete destruction.

“We appeal to absolutely all world leaders: Whoever will be able to make such commitments, whoever will be able to succeed in the short term in agreeing on such a procedure. We know that there are some developments and talks with the Turkish side that it is acting as a guarantor. Probably the United States, because we believe that this is a very powerful state with a strong leader, [President Joe] Biden, and that he can personally resolve this issue in the shortest possible time. Or this issue can be resolved with his help in a short time.”

Indeed, time is running out for the Ukrainians fighting and sheltering at the massive steelworks. A Mariupol police official reported that food and water was increasingly limited as Russia continues its bombing. Volyna lamented the fact that Russian troops outnumber them “dozens of times” and have total advantage in artillery, equipment, manpower and the air.

“We fight to the last, but we have very little time left.”


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Jay Shine

A longtime expat in Asia with a degree in journalism and creative writing. Highlights include writing for Condé Nast Traveller and Apple Music. In his spare time, Jay enjoys writing poetry, brewing traditional Chinese tea and lounging with his calico soi cat, Almond.

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