STORY: President Vladimir Putin claimed victory in the biggest battle of the Ukraine war on Thursday (April 21), declaring the port of Mariupol "liberated" after nearly two months of siege.
He called off plans to storm the vast Azovstal steel plant, which covers more than four miles, where hundreds of defenders are still holding out. He said they'd be hermetically sealed in instead.
Putin's declaration of victory lets him claim his first big prize since his forces were driven out of northern Ukraine last month after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.
This was Putin in a meeting with his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, at the Kremlin.
"I consider the proposed storming of the industrial zone unnecessary. I order you to cancel it (SHOIGU SAYING: "Roger that") This is a case where we must think - I mean we always must think, but in this case more so - about preserving the lives and health of our soldiers and officers. There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities. Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through."
Ukraine's presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said Russia decided to blockade the Azovstal plant because it sustained huge losses there and could not take it by force.
Putin called on the remaining Ukrainian fighters in Azovstal to lay down their arms, saying Russia would treat them with respect and provide medical assistance.
Shoigu said more than 2,000 fighters are holed up there, and called Azovstal the de facto headquarters of the far-right nationalist Azov battalion.
Moscow has promised to destroy the battalion, which is now incorporated into Ukraine's national guard.
On Tuesday (April 19), an Azov commander, apparently holed up at the plant, rejected Russia's call to surrender but urged that the civilians with them be rescued.
A few dozen evacuees left Mariupol by bus on Wednesday (April 20), with more evacuations expected.
But Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said an agreed humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the factory had not worked as planned, blaming Russian forces.
She said 1,000 civilians and 500 wounded soldiers needed to be brought out immediately.
Capturing Mariupol is central to Moscow's plans to cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and forge a land bridge connecting Russian-annexed Crimea to Russia.
It has seen the worst fighting of the war and its worst humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off under siege.