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Siege ends at Ukraine's Mariupol steelworks, Russia seeks control of Donbas

A view shows Azovstal steel mill during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

The last Ukrainian forces holed up in Mariupol's smashed Azovstal steelworks surrendered on Friday, Russia's defense ministry said, ending the most destructive siege of the war as Moscow fought to cement control over the Donbas region.

Hours before Russia's announcement on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the last defenders at the steelworks had been told by Ukraine's military that they could get out and save their lives.

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, sit in a bus upon their arrival under escort of the pro-Russian military in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Russia said there were 531 members of the last group that had given up. "The territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant... has been completely liberated," the ministry said in a statement, adding that a total of 2,439 defenders had surrendered in the past few days.

The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm those figures.

Russia also launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the province of Luhansk, one of two southeastern Ukrainian provinces Moscow proclaims as independent states.

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, sit in a bus upon their arrival under escort of the pro-Russian military in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

"The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house," Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said on his Telegram channel.

"We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment," he said.

The city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lyshchansk across the Siverskiy Donets river form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket Russia has been trying to overrun since mid-April after failing to capture the capital Kyiv.

Service members of pro-Russian troops guard a road near a bus carrying Ukrainian soldiers, who surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel mill in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, outside Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine's general staff said it had pushed back an offensive on Sievierodonetsk, part of what it described as major Russian operations along a stretch of the frontline.

Despite losing ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front, in what some military analysts view as a major push to achieve scaled-down war aims of capturing more territory claimed by pro-Russian rebels.

"This will be the critical next few weeks of the conflict," said Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London's Chatham House think tank. "And it depends on how effective they are at conquering Sievierodonetsk and the lands across it."

A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles drives along a road in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict near Mariupol in the Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

In Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the "liberation of the Luhansk People's Republic" would be over soon.

The end of the Mariupol siege was an important symbolic moment for Russia, after a series of setbacks since the invasion began on Feb. 24, but it came at the cost of massive destruction.

Zelenskiy described the conditions in the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk province where Mariupol is located, as "hell" and said the region had been "completely destroyed" by Russia.

A convoy of Russian armoured vehicles drives along a road in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict near Mariupol in the Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

VICTORY

Capturing Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim a victory after announcing last month that this was now its objective. It achieved a major step towards that goal this week, when Ukraine ordered the garrison in Mariupol, the main Donbas port, to stand down.

Natalia Zarytska, wife of an Azovstal fighter who surrendered, said she had not heard from him since a Telegram message exchange two days ago. She believed he was still alive.

Service members of pro-Russian troops are seen atop an armoured vehicle on a road in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict near Mariupol in the Donetsk region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

"The situation is really hard and horrible and my husband is on the way from one hell to another hell, from Azovstal steel plant to a prison, to captivity," Zarytska said in Istanbul, where she and other relatives lobbied Turkey to help save the fighters.

The Red Cross said it has registered hundreds of Ukrainians who surrendered at the plant as prisoners of war and Kyiv says it wants a prisoner swap. Moscow says the prisoners will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have been quoted as saying some must be tried or even executed.

Russian forces in Ukraine have been driven in recent weeks from the area surrounding Ukraine's second largest city Kharkiv, their fastest retreat since being forced out of the north and the Kyiv region at the end of March.

A local resident walks near a building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

But they still control a large swathe of the south and east, and the end of fighting in Mariupol means that territory is now largely unbroken.

In a sign of Russia's aim to boost its war effort, the parliament in Moscow said it would consider letting Russians over 40 and foreigners over 30 join the military.

The past week has also seen Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO, although Turkey has threatened to block them, accusing the Nordic countries of harbouring Kurdish militants.

A boy walks amidst debris near a residential building destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

After weeks of threatening to retaliate, Putin said this week Finnish or Swedish NATO membership did not represent a threat unless the alliance sends new weapons or troops. Nevertheless, Shoigu said on Friday Moscow planned to beef up its forces nearby in response to what he called new threats.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Max Hunder, Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Macfie and Rosalba O'Brien)

A destroyed Russian military helicopter is seen near the town of Makariv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Marius Bosch
A girl stands on a destroyed Russian tank in the village of Dmytivka, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv region, Ukraine May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Marius Bosch
A tank drives at a road, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Slatyne village in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
View of a damaged building after it was struck, by what was reported to be an air strike, during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Bakhmut, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released May 19, 2022 Donetsk Region Police/Handout via REUTERS
Police officers help rescue people from the rubble after an air strike, during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Bakhmut, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released May 19, 2022 State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS
Remains of a school destroyed amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine are pictured, in Avdiivka, Donetsk Region, Ukraine in this still image released on May 18, 2022. Head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration Pavlo Kyrylenko/Handout via REUTERS