The Russian army has taken control of Ukraine’s besieged port city of Mariupol, Russia’s defense minister said Thursday.
“Mariupol has been liberated by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the forces of the People’s Militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Sergey Shoygu said at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Shoygu called Mariupol “the capital of nationalist Azov battalion,” referring to the far-right group fighting in the ranks of Ukraine’s army.
He called the city “a powerful, fortified area, equipped with a large number of heavy weapons and military equipment.”
The defense minister alleged that the Ukrainian forces were using civilians as human shields, but the Russian side “took all measures to preserve the lives of civilians.”
Shoygu suggested that the Azovstal plant, the last bastion of Ukrainian troops be stormed, but Putin said it should be besieged.
Thousands of people were trapped in Mariupol over the past several days with little food or water as Russian forces besieged the city.
With rights group having no access to the city, a UN team reported that it has growing evidence of mass graves in Mariupol.
“We have got increasing information on mass graves that are there,” the UN’s Matilda Bogner said last month, saying some of the evidence came from satellite images.
Since Russia began its war on Feb. 24, the civilian death toll in Ukraine has climbed to 2,224, while 2,897 others have been injured, according to UN estimates, with the true figure feared to be much higher.
More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled to other countries, with over 7 million more internally displaced, said the UN refugee agency.