Ukraine commander, surrounded by Russians, describes life inside besieged Mariupol plant

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MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — The commander of Ukrainian forces’ last stronghold in the southern port city of Mariupol, surrounded by Russians and subjected to a constant barrage of fire, said Tuesday that his soldiers will not surrender.

In his most extensive comments to Western media, Major Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, whose forces have been holding out in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works against a Russian force that vastly outnumbers them, told The Washington Post that his soldiers would continue “to conduct combat operations and to complete our military tasks as long as we receive them.”

“We will not lay down our weapons,” Volyna said.

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Speaking over a crackling connection made possible by satellite, he said his forces would not repeat the mistake made by others of trusting Russian guarantees of safe passage, only to see the Russians break their word and open fire.

“No one believes the Russians,” he said.

Volyna made an impassioned plea to world leaders, especially President Biden, to conduct an “extraction” in which a third country would assure the security of troops and civilians leaving Mariupol.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense issued a deadline earlier Tuesday for the Ukrainians to give up their arms and exit the iron and steel plant.

Volyna, who has fought in Mariupol since the start of the Russian invasion, gave a rare glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and hundreds of civilians, including women and children, sheltering inside the steel plant that has caught the world’s attention as the fall of the city looms.

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Capturing Mariupol would be a significant victory for Russia, which has withdrawn from several towns around the capital, Kyiv, and suffered the sinking of one of its most important warships, the Moskva.

It would also provide Russia with a land bridge between the Russian-controlled territory of Crimea and the Donbas region in the east, where Moscow is now focusing its offensive.

Volyna said the Russians “constantly use aviation, artillery and naval artillery of various systems” and “try to conduct assault actions with the cover of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles” to break through the Ukrainians’ defenses.

He said the plant held at least 500 wounded people, including civilians.

“It’s in the basement where people just rot. There is no medication,” he said. The fighters and civilians inhabit an underground system of tunnels that allows them to protect injured civilians and provide minimal medical care.

He declined to disclose the number of fighters in the plant, which also includes members of the Azov regiment, apart from Ukraine’s national guard and policemen and border guards.

What is happening in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city under Russian siege?

He called the situation “tragic” and “critical,” and “appealed very strongly” to Biden to help save the soldiers and civilians who had “fallen into this trap.”

He said this could be through a military operation “with all necessary military means,” or a political agreement, with a second country or a “nonmilitary organization” guaranteeing the Ukrainians’ safe passage.

“We very much hope that President Biden will hear us and help resolve our situation,” Volyna said. “We believe that this is one of the few people who can really influence and solve this situation in a short time.”

The Soviet-era iron and steel plant, one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe, stretches over four square miles along the city’s waterfront. It now serves as a fortresslike shelter. Before becoming a key battleground, it played a dominant role in the city’s economy, providing livelihoods to tens of thousands of people.

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With no assistance and cut off from the outside world, the soldiers and civilians are relying on each other to survive. Volyna is sleeping two to three hours a night in a wet basement alongside his comrades.

“We save water together, we support each other, try to help each other as much as possible,” he said. “Everyone is ready to continue as one.”

He said morale among the soldiers remains high: “We are aware of everything, and we understand everything calmly and we continue to carry out combat missions.”

The shelling, he said, is “’round-the-clock.”

Ukrainian officials including President Volodymyr Zelensky and Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko have said the Russian aggression in Mariupol has resulted in up to 20,000 civilians killed since the beginning of the invasion. They have said Russian troops have targeted unarmed residents and blocked humanitarian aid efforts.

On Tuesday, Volyna described a city “demolished from the face of the earth.” Scores of people lay under the rubble of burned houses and bombed-out buildings. Crosses have sprouted in courtyards and on walls, and makeshift graves have pocked the city, harrowing reminders of the loss of human life.

“What is happening here is beyond basic human comprehension,” he said.

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