A view shows damaged buildings, with the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in the background, in the southern port city of Mariupol on April 19, 2022.
CNN  — 

After almost three months of intense bombardment, thousands of reported deaths and countless tales of horror and starvation, the battle for the city of Mariupol is nearing its conclusion.

Ukraine’s military announced late Monday that its forces had completed their “combat mission” at the sprawling Azovstal steelworks plant, which was for weeks the last major holdout in a city otherwise occupied by Russian troops. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated from the facility and efforts were underway to evacuate those still inside.

Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. It was there that Russia carried out deadly strikes on a maternity ward and the bombing of a theater where hundreds of civilians had sought refuge from the violence.

Now there are fears that evidence of further atrocities may be lost forever.

Before the Kremlin took control of Mariupol, the city council accused Russian forces of trying to erase evidence, using mobile crematoria to dispose of bodies and identifying witnesses to any “atrocities” through filtration camps. CNN could not verify that claim.

“Murderers are covering their tracks,” the council alleged.

The Kremlin has denied many of these claims, including using filtration camps to cover up wrongdoing and targeting civilians in Mariupol.

A symbol of resistance

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks. While most of the city had already fallen, its defenders held out at Azovstal, where as many as 1,000 civilians had taken shelter at one point. Ukrainian officers described a bleak situation inside the steel plant, as stocks of food and water dwindled and hundreds of wounded were stranded without proper medical care.

A drone image released by the Mariupol City Council on Monday, April 18, shows a large plume of smoke rising from the Azovstal steel plant.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously said that “tens of thousands” have died in Mariupol, while the regional military governor last month said those killed numbered as many as 22,000 – though death tolls are difficult to verify in the fog of war. Mariupol’s mayor has estimated that 90% of the city’s infrastructure has been damaged, 40% of it beyond repair.

Images of Mariupol’s destruction have become symbols of the Kremlin’s use of indiscriminate firepower in Ukraine, drawing stark visual parallels with the leveling of cities like Syria’s Aleppo or the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Russian forces are seen on the streets of Mariupol on April 15, 2022.

Controlling Mariupol is key to Russian efforts to take the wider Donbas region – beyond the separatist-controlled territories – according to Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.

“It’s unrealistic to declare control of the Donbas without actual control over its major cities,” he told CNN in an email last month.

Kofman said the fall of Mariupol should free up manpower and logistics for the Kremlin’s campaign in the rest of Donbas.

But keeping the city under Moscow’s thumb will also take substantial resources. Russia likely needs all the troops it can muster for its offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it has refocused its military efforts after pulling back from other parts of the country.

Artillery fire and air strikes are continuing along the front lines in Luhansk and Donetsk, but the Ukrainian military says it is repelling Russian attempts to gain territory.

A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses in Mariupol on April 19, 2022.