MARIUPOL, Ukraine – Charred buildings, sunken ships and scattered shrapnel in the port of Mariupol remain a stark reminder of a siege endured by the Ukrainian city recently captured by Moscow during a military campaign in its pro-Western neighbour.

AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN


After nearly two months, the fighting in the battered city and its strategic port has mostly stopped, but the sound of explosions still echoes from the Azovstal steel plant: the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in the city.

President Vladimir Putin last week ordered a blockage of the steelworks, where several hundred Ukrainian solider and civilians remain sheltered in a maze of Soviet-era underground tunnels, including those requiring medical attention.

From Mariupol’s port, AFP heard heavy shelling coming from Azovstal on Friday morning and mid-afternoon, during a media trip organised by the Russian army.

In the early afternoon, explosions were only a few seconds apart — some more powerful than others — and grey smoke occasionally rose into the sky above the huge industrial zone.

– De-mining –
Life appears to have come to a halt in Mariupol’s once bustling port, which bears the scars of some of the heaviest fighting seen in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s military operation on February 24.

In the port area on the shores of the Sea of Azov, the majority of administrative buildings have been severely damaged, their walls charred and crumbling.

Rolls of copper that according to their export labels were bound for Israel, lie abandoned. A few steps away, shipping containers lie ripped open — their cargo spilling out onto the ground.

But the danger is far from over for the city that was once home to around half a million people, as de-mining operations are underway in the port, with missile fragments scattered on the ground.

“The waters of the port and the port itself have been mined. We are carrying out de-mining operations to secure them,” said Sergei Neka, a senior official with the Emergency Situations Ministry of the pro-Russian separatist authorities.

At the end of the dock, two men in heavy suits work to disarm underwater mines and rockets brought up by divers. Once they are neutralised, they are taken away by a military truck.

A little further on, a few men with shovels walk alongside an excavator towards one of the many destroyed buildings.

Several ships have sunk and remain stranded in the port, including a cargo boat and a Ukrainian military command ship, destroyed in the siege.