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Russia advances in Donbas as Azovstal siege ends

STORY: Russia has claimed victory in a months-long battle for Mariupol's Avostal steel plant, taking it a step nearer to its goal of controlling Ukraine's Donbas region.

The last Ukrainian forces holed up in Azovstal surrendered on Friday (May 20), Russia's defense ministry said, ending the bloodiest siege of the war.

They were seen arriving on buses in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk.

Ukraine's General Staff of Armed Forces did not comment on Russia's claim in its morning update.

Meanwhile, Moscow launched what appeared to be a major assault to seize the last Ukrainian-held territory in Luhansk, part of the southeastern Donbas. Russian-backed separatists already controlled swathes of territory there before the Feb. 24 invasion.

Luhansk's regional governor said on social media early on Saturday (May 21) that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Sievierodonetsk, with fighting taking place on the outskirts of the city.

Ukraine's General Staff of Armed Forces did not comment on Russia's claim in its morning update.

The end of fighting in Mariupol, the biggest city Russia has captured so far and the main port for the Donbas, gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a rare victory after a series of setbacks.

Putin says Russian troops are undertaking a "special military operation" to demilitarise Ukraine and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists. Western countries call it an unprovoked war of aggression.

Moscow also halted gas exports to Finland on Saturday, in an escalation of an energy payment dispute with Western nations.

It had rejected Russian demands to pay for the gas in roubles because of Western sanctions.

The move comes days after Finland and Sweden decided to apply to join the NATO military alliance, a decision spurred by the Ukraine war.

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