Ukraine steelmen hold their ground as frontline marches towards port

Tue Sep 2, 2014 11:11pm EDT
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By Aleksandar Vasovic

MARIUPOL Ukraine (Reuters) - The war is being fought just over the hills. Civilians have started to flee the city. But the men of the vast Ilyich iron and steel works in the Ukrainain port of Mariupol are still in place, pouring molten steel, running the rolling mill and pledging to defend their factory and town from an onslaught by pro-Russian rebels.

Mariupol, a port of around half a million people, is the next big city in the path of advancing rebels, who opened a new front and scattered Ukrainian troops along the coast of the Azov Sea last week with what Kiev says is help from the Russian army.

Moscow denies sending troops and tanks to help the rebels, despite what Kiev and its Western allies say is overwhelming evidence.

The port is a strategic link between the rebel-held regional capital Donetsk to the north, the sea, and the land route to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.

Pro-Russian separatists took over buildings in the city in April when they rose up against Kiev. But metalworkers took to the streets in June, joining police patrols to help sweep the rebels out, the start of a government fightback that had continued until the rebel advance last week.

"We got organized, we resisted and we won," said smelter production manager Alexander Ilarionov, adding that most workers were ready to defend the plant and the city once again.

The plant is owned by Metinvest, the industrial conglomerate of Rinat Akhmetov, by far Ukraine's richest man, whose decision to send his workers to help chase away rebels was one of the first important signs that Kiev had a chance of reasserting control over rebel territory.

Most people here identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians, although they speak Russian as their native language. Residents now seem firmly with Kiev - although the opinions heard on the streets in eastern Ukraine have been known to depend on which side's armed men are in control.   Continued...

Steelworkers take a break at the Ilich iron and steel plant in the southern coastal town of Mariupol, September 2, 2014.   REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko