Ukraine yesterday vowed to ‘fight to the end’ as a Russian ultimatum for the last remaining Ukrainian forces in Mariupol to surrender expired yesterday.
“The city still has not fallen,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told BBC. “There’s still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end.
Moscow on Saturday issued an ultimatum to the fighters, urging them to lay down their arms by 6:00 am Moscow time (0300 GMT) and to evacuate before 13:00 pm.
Several hours after the deadline, there was no sign of compliance by Ukrainian fighters holed up in the smouldering Azovstal steelworks overlooking the Sea of Azov.
Russia said its troops had cleared the urban area of Mariupol, the main port in Donbas. The city has seen some of the fiercest fighting and worst civilian suffering since the Feb. 24 invasion, with bodies littering destroyed streets and thousands hunkered down in atrocious conditions underground.
The steelworks, one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants with a maze of rail tracks and blast furnaces, has become a last stand for the outnumbered defenders.
It was not known how many soldiers were in the steelworks.
Having failed to overcome Ukrainian resistance in the north, the Russian military has refocused its ground offensive on the eastern Donbas region while maintaining long-distance strikes elsewhere including the capital Kyiv.
Lamenting an “Easter of War” during an address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis pleaded for an end to the bloodshed and implicitly criticized Russia.
“May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of the cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged,” he said, thanking those who had taken in some 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia on Saturday of “deliberately trying to destroy everyone” in Mariupol and said his government was in touch with the defenders. But he did not address Moscow’s claim that Ukrainian forces were no longer in urban districts.
Zelensky said that if Russian forces kill Kyiv’s troops remaining to defend the city, then a fledgling negotiation process to end nearly two months of fighting would be ended.
If Russia’s capture of the port is confirmed, it would be a major strategic prize for Moscow: connecting territory it holds in Donbas with the Crimea region it annexed in 2014.
Russia calls its action a special military operation to demilitarise Ukraine and clear out what it calls dangerous nationalists backed by an expansionist Nato military alliance. The West and Kyiv accuse President Vladimir Putin of unprovoked aggression.
With fighting raging in the east, Deputy Prime Minister Vereshchuk said that humanitarian corridors allowing civilians to flee would not open yesterday after failing to agree terms with Russian forces.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were more reports of sporadic Russian strikes around major popular centres.
In Kyiv, renewed Russian air strikes hit an armaments factory, despite Moscow shifting its military focus to gaining control of the eastern Donbas region and forging a land corridor to already-annexed Crimea.
“During the night, high-precision, air-launched missiles destroyed an ammunitions factory near the settlement of Brovary, Kyiv region,” Russia’s defence ministry said, the third such air strike near the capital in as many days.
Besides fresh attack on Kyiv, Russian artillery attacked multiple neighbourhoods in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, killing 5 people and wounding 31 including four children, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said.
Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the first European leader to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in person since the invasion began, said he thinks the Russian president believes the war is necessary for his country’s security.
“I think he is now in his own war logic,” Nehammer said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press”, portions of which were released Saturday.
“I think he believes he is winning the war.”
Russia warned the United States this week of “unpredictable consequences” if it sends its “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine, as Zelensky has requested.
Its defence ministry claimed Saturday to have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane in the Odessa region, carrying weapons supplied by Western nations.