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Ukrainian troops trapped in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and their families have issued a desperate plea for help, appealing to world leaders, the pope and even Tesla chief Elon Musk to evacuate them.
Natalia Zarytska, the wife of one of the soldiers holed up in the steel plant and surrounded by Russian forces, said “hundreds of wounded people” were suffering in inhumane conditions.
“They have no legs, no arms and no anaesthetic. It’s total agony,” Zarytska said during a press conference in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon. “There is shelling from the sea, from the air and from the ground … This is the biggest tragedy of the 21st century. My husband, when he calls me, he describes the situation there as apocalyptic.”
The fighters trapped in Azovstal have also directly called on world leaders to intervene.
“In these inhumane conditions, I turn to the pope, to world leaders and diplomats around the world,” Serhiy Volynskyi, the commander of the Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, wrote on Facebook Thursday. He also appealed to Musk.
“People say you come from another planet to teach people to believe in the impossible,” Volynskyi tweeted directly at the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, who has given Ukraine his Starlink satellite internet terminals. “Our planets are next to each other, as I live where it is nearly impossible to survive. Help us get out of Azovstal to a mediating country. If not you, then who? Give me a hint,” Volynskyi said.
Mariupol mayoral aide Petro Andryushchenko said Russian forces were carrying out a ground operation with the aim of seizing the Azovstal site, noting: “The main goal is to block the exits from the underpass system. Some traitors pointed them out to the enemy.”
According to the authorities in Kyiv, there are around 500 wounded soldiers and officers trapped in Azovstal, sheltering in the plant’s sprawling underground passages. Azovstal is the last pocket of resistance in the strategic port city of Mariupol, which is perched on the Sea of Azov.
On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 300 civilians had been evacuated from the plant, thanks to joint efforts by Ukrainian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations.
“We have evacuated almost all civilians from Azovstal,” Zelenskyy said. “Of course, we are also working to evacuate our military,” he added, conceding that this task “is extremely difficult.”
The families of the trapped soldiers are seeking further action.
During Thursday’s press conference, they appealed for help from world leaders, especially Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a key mediator between Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mustafa Jemilev, a leader of the Crimean Tatars who left the Crimean peninsula after Russia annexed it in 2014, said Ankara had offered to send an evacuation ship with Turkish observers to the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk, to which the Mariupol defenders could be transferred by bus.
“Turkey would guarantee that the fighters would remain in Turkey until the end of the war,” Jemilev said at Thursday’s press conference.
But Ankara said the Russian defense ministry had refused to accept its offer, insisting the Ukrainian troops must surrender instead.
Ukrainian Deputy PM Iryna Vereshchuk said on Wednesday that the Ukrainian forces in Azovstal had refused to surrender to the Russians. Vereshchuk added that Kyiv had asked Moscow to swap injured Ukrainian soldiers for Russian prisoners of war, but “There is no agreement yet. Negotiations are continuing.”