Bodies carpet the streets and last troops hole up in factory as Kremlin takes hold

Ukraine: Russia claims it has captured seaport in Mariupol

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The last of the surviving Ukrainian forces are now holed up in the Azovstal steel and iron plant in the southern port – surrounded by Russian forces and running out of ammunition. With the distraught mayor saying some 21,000 people are already dead in the city, with bodies “carpeting the streets”, Mariupol finally looks close to falling in what is expected to be a savage and bloody end-game battle.

As the heavily besieged city crumbles, there were growing signs yesterday that Russia may finally be close to capturing the port, which has suffered a devastating, six-week assault.

Ukrainian forces are known to be running out of all basic supplies as well as ammunition and have been forced back, with the steel plant their final fighting base.

Authorities in Kyiv believe Russia is now planning to launch an all-out attack on the Azovstal plant in the coming days.

It has become the focal point of the Kremlin’s efforts to capture Mariupol, but brave Ukrainian fighters have held out for weeks against superior numbers and equipment.

Mariupol lies between the pro-Russia breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and annexed Crimea in the south. Seizing the city has been a major goal of the Russian offensive.

The plant is now the final key operating base left for the several thousand Ukrainian fighters remaining in the besieged city.

Officially, the Ukrainian military yesterday said it was sustaining its defence and its generals were in “continuous contact” with their troops on the ground.

But the defending nation’s military hierarchy was also starting to privately concede it was likely that Russia would move to try to take full control of the city in the coming days.

As Moscow has escalated its siege in the city, it has become increasingly difficult to resupply the defending forces with food, water and ammunition – or evacuate the many wounded and innocent civilians.

Mykhaylo Podolya, an official from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, yesterday admitted: “Our soldiers remain trapped in the city and have problems with supplies.”

He added that Kyiv was monitoring the situation minute by minute.

But such are the horrors in the city, its mayor yesterday said that over 100,000 people were still waiting to be evacuated from the burnt-out ruins of the once beautiful port, which has now been all but destroyed by six weeks of heavy Russian shelling.

Vadym Boychenko said authorities had stopped counting bodies strewn across streets because of ongoing fierce urban fighting.

Mr Boychenko accused Russian forces of repeatedly blocking humanitarian convoys into the city in a bid to conceal the unfolding death and destruction.

He added that the death toll in Mariupol alone was already greater than 20,000.

Mr Boychenko also accused Russian forces of bringing mobile cremation equipment into Mariupol to dispose of the corpses of victims of the siege.

He said Vladimir Putin’s troops had also taken many bodies to a huge shopping centre where there were storage facilities and refrigerators.

The mayor said: “Mobile crematoriums have arrived in the form of trucks. You open it, and there is a pipe inside and these bodies are burned.”

Mr Boychenko spoke from Ukrainian-controlled territory outside Mariupol.

The mayor said he had several sources for his description of the alleged methodical burning of bodies by Russian forces in the city, but did not detail the sources.

Russian forces started their siege of Mariupol in early March.

The onslaught has killed tens of thousands of civilians and unleashed an appalling struggle for survival for trapped residents who remain.

Should Mariupol fall into Russian hands in the coming days, it will provide control of a clear swathe of territory connecting Moscow’s two fronts in the south and east.

It would release large numbers of forces to redeploy, and provide President Putin with a moment of strategic “victory” after a lethally shambolic first stage to his invasion.

Western officials are warning that this is an “incredibly important window” for vital support to Ukraine for Russian forces. President Zelensky has also said that he believes tens of thousands of people have likely been killed in Mariupol.

And as the battle for the city approaches an end, military strategists warned that Russia will then begin its mass assault on the Donbas in the East of Ukraine after the Easter weekend.

Officials say Russia is re-equipping its combat units and adding fresh troops.

Carlo Masala, a professor of International Politics at the Armed Forces University Munich, said Putin had used a lull in fighting to reinforce and regroup his troops.

Professor Masala, a former assistant director of research at the Nato Defence College in Rome, said the start of the attack would depend on factors like the weather.

“It’s a political question as to when this major offensive will begin – but I don’t think it will last longer than a week,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Polish, Lith-uanian, Latvian and Estonian presidents yesterday travelled to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to meet President Zelensky.

The move was a deliberate show of unity from the Baltic states and came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to Kyiv last weekend.

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