KYIV (REUTERS) - Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the south-eastern port city of Mariupol has emerged as one of the most heavily bombarded by Russian forces.
The city, which was once home to at least 400,000 people, has been reduced to a wasteland.
Here are some reasons why the capture of Mariupol is of great importance to Russia.
Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to build a land bridge linking the two pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk with Crimea, which Russia occupied and annexed in 2014. It would also give Russia full control of the Sea of Azov as it aims to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. Russia already controls the Black Sea port of Kherson, about 380km from Mariupol, and Crimea's Black Sea ports.
Mariupol is an important hub for the Ukrainian economy, as the port is used to export iron, steel, grain and heavy machinery, which are important sources of income for the Ukrainian government. The city is also home to Illich Iron and Steel Works, Ukraine's second-largest metallurgical plant, and Azovstal Iron and Steel, one of the country's largest steel rolling mills. Mariupol has deeper berths than any other Ukrainian port in the region. Its control could help Russia move equipment, goods and personnel between Russia, Donbas and Crimea more quickly and easily.
The fall of Mariupol would be a huge boost to Russian forces as it would be the first major city they take control of. Russia has already gained control of Kherson, but that city is of less strategic importance and was less heavily defended. To the Ukrainians, the fall of Mariupol would be a major blow militarily, economically and psychologically as the city has become a symbol of resistance in the unequal fight between the two sides.
Mariupol's defenders have included Ukrainian marines, motorised brigades, a National Guard brigade and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by far-right nationalists. One of the declared goals of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special operation" in Ukraine was to "deNazify" Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian leaders have described this as an excuse for an unprovoked act of aggression, but if the Azov forces are defeated, Mr Putin is likely to see it as a turning point and show his people he has achieved at least one of the aims of the invasion.