May 3 (Reuters) – Russian troops shelled and bombed the Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine’s southern port city of Mariupol on Tuesday, confirming earlier reports of strikes on the encircled plant, where the mayor said more than 200 civilians were still trapped.
According to the RIA news agency, Russia’s defense ministry said its forces had started to destroy Ukrainian firing positions established after the defenders “took advantage” of a UN-brokered ceasefire that had allowed several groups of civilians to escape the plant in the previous two days .
A Mariupol police official told the public broadcaster Suspine that Russian forces had begun trying to seize the sprawling plant, the last pocket of Mariupol still held by Ukrainian forces.
A deputy commander of the Azov regiment holed up in the steel works told the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet that the storming operation had begun after Russian aircraft bombed the site overnight.
Mariupol is a major target for Russia as it seeks to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and join up Russian-controlled territory in the south and east. The steelworks lies adjacent to southern Ukraine’s main east-west highway.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who has left the city, said more than 200 civilians were still holed up in Azovstal after UN-brokered evacuations on Sunday and Monday.
In late April, President Vladimir Putin said he had called off plans for the Russian military to storm Azovstal and said he wanted the Ukrainian forces there to be hermetically sealed off instead.
RIA cited the Russian defense ministry on Tuesday as saying: “A ceasefire was declared, civilians had to be evacuated from Azovstal territory. Azov and Ukrainian servicemen who are stationed at the plant took advantage of it. They came out of the basement, they took up firing positions on the territory and in the factory buildings.
“Now units of the Russian army and the Donetsk People’s Republic, using artillery and aviation, are beginning to destroy these firing positions.”
(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Jon Boyle and Kevin Liffey)