The factory was shrouded in white smoke or fog. Passers-by had a sweet taste in their mouths. And then: legs “like cotton wool”, tinnitus, palpitations. A sick civilian in Mariupol says he barely managed to return to the air raid shelter: “and that was ten meters.” His older mother suffered a heart attack and had to be resuscitated several times, he says. And the third person, a soldier, was not well.
The pictures were taken by the Azov Battalion, which is defending the city of Mariupol in the south of Ukraine. According to Commander Denis Prokopenko, Russian troops used a “poisonous substance”, probably a chemical weapon, last Monday. According to a military doctor – his name is not mentioned – in Mariupol the symptoms indicate the use of “very toxic suffocating substances”. Both Kyiv and the West reacted with concern to the report, but so far it has not been confirmed that it was actually a chemical weapon.
“There is a theory that it is phosphorus ammunition,” said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar. Phosphor grenades are used, among other things, to set smoke curtains and block the view of the enemy. But white phosphorus not only causes severe burns, the substance is also toxic. Both the British, Americans and the Ukrainian government have indicated they are conducting further investigations.
The incident happened in huge melting furnaces ‘Azovstal’ east of the center of Mariupol. Russian soldiers and pro-Russian militias have been trying to take over the steel plant in recent days, but Ukrainian soldiers have been stubbornly resisting.
At least 10,000 civilians killed
For the Russians to really use chemical weapons, the ‘red line’ would be crossed again, the British Secretary of Defense said: “The use of chemical weapons will not go unnoticed.”
The fact is that for weeks now, Russian sieges have been crossing the border in their attempts to take Mariupol. In recent weeks, the city has been largely reduced to ashes by artillery shelling and aerial bombardment. The hospital and maternity hospital were shelled, and the theater in Mariupol was bombed, where hundreds of civilians took refuge. Mayor Vadym Bojchenko said that at least 10,000 citizens of the city were killed, and that the number of dead could reach 20,000 because “the streets are full of corpses”. In recent weeks, attempts to evacuate civilians into the Ukrainian hinterland have failed because convoys have been shelled. At the same time, a large part of the population was deported to Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky spoke on Tuesday about the deportation of “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainian citizens from Donbas. However, there are still about 120,000 civilians in Mariupol – probably in terrible conditions.
Until Mariupol is finally occupied, the Russians are losing valuable people and equipment every hour
After a week of fighting, Russian forces occupied the ports of Mariupol and most of the city. According to the US Institute for War Studies (ISW), Ukrainian defenders – in addition to the Azov 36th Marine Brigade – have two more ‘pockets’ in their hands: an urban area west of the city and a wide industrial zone stretching from Azovstal by the sea to factories. Azovmash ‘in the north of the city. The factory halls were built of reinforced concrete and therefore almost invincible to the enemy. By comparison, in the fall of 1942, the German Wehrmacht took more than five weeks to occupy the industrial area of Stalingrad from the Red Army.
On Monday, the Ukrainian Marine Brigade complained in a statement about the lack of support from Kiev. “For more than a month, the Marines fought without supplies of ammunition, food and water, drank from ponds and died in the bushes,” the statement said. Kyiv Post Facebook page of the unit. So far, half of the brigade has been killed or wounded. But neither the Marines nor the Azov Battalion have so far been interested in giving up – although President Zelensky had previously acquitted Mariupol’s defenders of the responsibility to fight to the death. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday morning the surrender of 1,026 soldiers from the 36th Marine Corps – a report not yet confirmed by the Ukrainian side.
Also read: It is certain that the battle for Donbass will be fierce and bloody
Perhaps capturing Mariupol could cost many more days – and even worse for Russia – the lives of many soldiers. Now that Moscow has given up fighting in northern Ukraine, troops can be brought east for a decisive battle in Donbas. Armored vehicles belonging to Russian airborne units that had previously taken part in the fighting north of the Ukrainian capital have already been spotted east of Kharkov on their way to the battlefield. But until Mariupol is finally occupied, the city on the south wing will continue to tie up troops and the Russians will lose valuable people and equipment every hour.
Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the Donetsk ‘people’s militia’, said there would be no more attempts to seize Azovstal’s factories – that would only lead to additional losses. According to Basurin, “chemical troops” had to “evaporate” the defenders.
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC on the morning of April 13, 2022