As the last civilians were evacuated from Mariupol’s embattled steel plant, leaders of the remaining Ukrainian fighters holed up there took to Zoom to issue a defiant message: They will fight to the end.
“We will always fight, as long as we are alive, for justice,” Azov’s deputy commander, Capt. Sviatoslav “Kalina” Palamar, said in an unusual news conference from within the Azovstal steel plant.
Russian forces continued to besiege the steel plant into Sunday with airstrikes; artillery bombardment; tank, drone and sniper fire, as well as infantry assaults, the fighters said.
“We are under constant shelling, so we need to begin,” Palamar warned at the start of a nearly two-hour news conference streamed online from their underground bunker.
Kyiv’s defense of Mariupol appeared to be nearing an end over the weekend as more than 300 civilian women, children and elderly people were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant - the last holdout for the city’s resistance - though the two fighters said they could not confirm that every single civilian had been evacuated from the plant.
The fighters - sounding determined to fight on yet bitter at having been all but abandoned by the world except in spirit - renewed calls for more aggressive action to lift the siege.
“Literally, two days ago, during the so-called cease-fire, three of our servicemen died,” Palamar said, adding that six more were wounded while transporting civilians from the plant. “This is the price for the evacuation of the civilians from the territory of the factory.”
Palamar also estimated that “a couple of hundreds” of civilians made it out, and some were taken to Russian-controlled territory.
“This is joy through tears,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “We are shouting out for help.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a day earlier said diplomatic efforts were underway to try to free the fighters, medics and the wounded - though he acknowledged that this would be “extremely difficult.”
“We need to ensure that they can leave [Azovstal] ... in dignity,” Palamar said.
Palamar and Lt. Illia Samoilenko are members of the Azov Regiment, a nationalist group that is part of Ukraine’s national guard and has been defending the steel plant for weeks, mostly in its dark and dingy subterranean levels. They vowed to hold out with the water, provisions and weapons on hand.
Samoilenko said the garrison sees no other choice, given reports of Russia’s mistreatment of prisoners of war.
“Surrender for us is unacceptable,” Samoilenko said. “Being captured means being dead.”
He held little hope of a breakout to Ukrainian lines more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
Ukrainian intelligence officials have said Russia is planning to hold a parade in Mariupol on Monday to celebrate its gains in the war against Ukraine - on the occasion of Victory Day, the commemoration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany during World War II - and has enlisted residents to clear debris, bodies and munitions from the streets in exchange for food ahead of the celebrations.
In his nightly address on Saturday, Zelensky said Ukraine is working on a plan to evacuate the troops and secure humanitarian corridors for the residents of Mariupol and surrounding settlements.
“We are now preparing the second stage of the evacuation mission, the wounded and medics. ... We are also working to evacuate our military. All heroes who defend Mariupol,” he said.
Russia is still aiming to capture the plant, which would give Moscow full control over Mariupol, allowing it to establish a land bridge with annexed Crimea.
Samoilenko hailed the “heroes” fighting alongside him to defend Mariupol and said “a lot of people gave up their lives for this city, for the country, for the people of Ukraine.”
He said members of his regiment could have left when Russian forces began to encircle the city, but they chose to stay. “We did not have an order to take the full command of the defense of Mariupol, but this decision was made because nobody could do this,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Rachel Pannett, Bryan Pietsch and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.