KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – Moscow said nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Russian-held Mariupol as it shored up a key gain in the south, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
Ukraine has ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, but the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remains unresolved.
Top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city were still inside the plant, according to the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin was quoted by local news agency DNA as saying on Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.
“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”
Russia’s TASS news agency on Thursday cited Pushilin as saying more than half of the Ukrainian fighters inside the steelworks had now left.
Ukraine and Russia have given conflicting accounts. Ukraine confirmed the surrender of more than 250 on Tuesday but did not say how many more were inside.
Russia said on Wednesday an additional 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total number to 959. Its defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.
Mariupol is the biggest city Russia has captured so far and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the invasion it began on Feb. 24.
Since then, Russian attacks have reduced cities and towns to ruins, thousands have been killed and more than six million people have fled to neighbouring countries.
Moscow has focused on the southeast in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalisation, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday. Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.
Moscow, which denies targeting civilians, says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext for invasion.
On the battle front, Russian forces pressed their main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the eastern Donbas region which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Ukraine’s general staff said in a statement on Thursday that Russia’s attacks were focused on the Donetsk region. Russian forces “suffered significant losses” around Slovyansk to the north of Donetsk.
Police said on Telegram on Thursday that two children had been killed in the Donetsk city of Lyman in a direct hit on a residential building.
Ukrainian forces shelled a border village in Russia’s western region of Kursk at dawn on Thursday, killing at least one civilian, regional governor Roman Starovoit said.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said on Telegram that four people had been killed and three wounded in the shelling of the city of Sievierodonetsk, urging people to take shelter if they decide not to leave. He said that earlier this week there had been protests in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk by families of people forcibly mobilised.
Reuters was unable to verify the reports.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian saboteurs had blown up railway tracks ahead of an armoured train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.
“The partisans got it, although they did not blow up the armoured train itself,” he said in a video posted on social media, contradicting an earlier statement from Ukraine’s territorial defence force that the train had been blown up.
Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday. Russia had threatened retaliation, but Putin said on Monday NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.
Russia could, however, cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, Finland’s state-owned energy provider Gasum said.
The European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027.
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