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Putin’s promise lasts only days as Russians renew assaults on steel works where Mariupol’s last defenders vow to fight on

© Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/ShutterstockUkrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky

Russian forces yesterday launched a major strike on the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol, the Azovstal steel plant.

The offensive comes just two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his generals not to storm the steelworks, according to the Ukrainian government. Putin’s troop resumed their bombardment of the site where hundreds of civilians – including children – are thought to be taking refuge in bomb shelters beneath the industrial complex alongside soldiers, marines and medics.

The steelworks is the last stand for Ukrainian troops inside the city which is now almost entirely occupied by Russian forces.

Ukraine’s presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said: “The enemy is trying to strangle the final resistance of the defenders of Mariupol in the Azovstal area.

“They have renewed air strikes on the plant’s territory, on the area defended by our troops, and are trying to conduct assault operations.

“Our defenders are holding out against a numerically superior enemy, despite an extremely difficult situation, and they even carry out counterattacks.”

According to Ukrainian officials, some 1,000 civilians, including women and children, remain trapped.

It comes after a video was released of the steel plant showing women and children sheltering underground saying they have seen “neither the sky, nor the sun.”

The footage, released by the Azov regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard, shows a group who have been hiding in the plant’s tunnels for up to two months.

More than 20,000 civilians have been killed in Mariupol during the two-month siege. Satellite images released this week showed what appeared to be mass graves near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians to conceal the slaughter. Ukrainian officials had said they were trying again on Saturday to evacuate women, children and older adults from Mariupol after many previous attempts failed.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is “only a beginning”.

He said Moscow wants to take over other countries after a Russian general said it wants full control over southern Ukraine.

He said: “All the nations that, like us, believe in the victory of life over death must fight with us. They must help us because we are the first in line. And who will come next?”

Later it emerged Zelensky had thanked Boris Johnson for Britain’s training members of the Ukrainian military on UK soil.

Johnson spoke to the Ukrainian president yesterday afternoon for an update on Kyiv’s conflict with Russia.

A No 10 spokesman said: “President Zelensky thanked the Prime Minister for the training of Ukrainian military personnel currently taking place in the UK.”

Meanwhile, the British ambassador to the United Nations said that Ukraine was a crime scene and Russians responsible for perpetrating “unspeakable horror” there could face Nuremberg-style war crimes trials.

Dame Barbara Woodward was speaking ahead of a meeting next week where Karim Khan QC, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), will present his findings to the UN security to counter Russian misinformation.

Woodward, 60, said: “The question then becomes first of all ending the war, which is an absolute priority, and then of course how we would run the prosecution.

“If Russia is not a party to the Rome statute which established the ICC then do we need another court, such as in the Nuremberg trials?

“We still have to resolve all of that. But all the people I talk to, including Karim Khan, are absolutely determined to see perpetrators brought to justice.”