Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, issued a desperate plea to save the regiment, saying they’d be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war but would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture, and death.”

The United Nations raced Friday to rescue more civilians from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city at large, even as fighters holed up at the sprawling complex made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s complete takeover of the strategic port.

The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day, the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.

Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety has grown as the battle has grown fiercer in recent days.

Officials said Thursday that the U.N. was launching a third effort to evacuate citizens from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not divulge any new details of the operation; it has been similarly quiet about previous ones while they were ongoing.

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