The Kremlin denied that Russian forces were attacking the plant earlier Wednesday, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying “there is no assault,” according to Russian state news agency RIA.
Kyiv’s defense ministry said that Moscow was attempting to increase the tempo of its recent offensive in the east of the country, in which fully capturing Mariupol could be a significant symbolic moment.
The dire reports on the status of Ukraine’s last forces in Mariupol come two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the city and ordered his troops not to storm the plant but to seal it off so nothing could get in or out.
Videos from remaining fighters and accounts from evacuees who made it out of Azovstal have painted a desperate picture of endless Russian bombardment, wounded people with no access to medicine, and dwindling food supplies.
Fighters from the Azov Regiment, an experienced volunteer force with neo-Nazi roots that has been defending the steel plant, regularly post videos on social media describing the Russian attacks and the conditions inside the site.
On Tuesday the Azov regiment said in a video on Telegram that Russian forces had launched a “powerful assault.”
“As of this moment a powerful assault on the territory of the Azovstal plant is underway, with the support of armored vehicles, tanks, attempts to land by boat and a large number of infantry,” the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, Svyatoslav Palamar, said in the video.
Ukraine and international aid agencies had been negotiating the release of civilians and said they hoped to get more out in the coming days.
Artem Grudinin and Reuters contributed.