KYIV/KHARKIV (REUTERS) - A Russian ultimatum to Ukrainian troops in Mariupol to surrender or die expired on Wednesday (April 20) afternoon with no mass capitulation, but the commander of a unit believed to be holding out in the besieged city said his forces could survive just days or hours.
Ukraine said it had so far held off an assault by thousands of Russian troops attempting to advance in what Ukrainian officials called the Battle of the Donbas, a new campaign to seize two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
“This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left,” said Major Serhiy Volyna in a video uploaded to Facebook. “The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks.”
Major Volyna spoke in front of a white brick wall in what sounded like a crowded room. Reuters could not verify where or when the video was filmed or who else might have been there.
Russia's nearly eight-week-long invasion has taken longer than many expected while still failing to capture any of the biggest cities, forcing Moscow to refocus in and around separatist regions.
In the ruins of Mariupol, site of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, Russia was hitting the last main Ukrainian stronghold, the Azovstal steel plant, with bunker-buster bombs, Kyiv said. Ukrainian officials have said women and children are trapped in bunkers under the plant.
“The world watches the murder of children online and remains silent,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
Russia has been trying to take full control of Mariupol since the war’s first days. Its capture would be a big strategic prize, linking territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 2pm (1100 GMT) Wednesday deadline that just five people had surrendered. The previous day, Russia said no one had responded to a similar surrender demand.
Ukraine announced plans to send 90 buses to evacuate 6,000 civilians from Mariupol, saying it had reached a "preliminary agreement" with Russia on a safe corridor, for the first time in weeks. But none of those earlier agreements have actually succeeded on the ground, with Moscow blocking all convoys.
Once a prosperous port of 400,000 people, Mariupol has been reduced to a blasted wasteland with corpses in the streets and residents confined to cellars. Ukrainian officials say tens of thousands of civilians have died there.
“They have left behind their homes and families,” refugee agency UNHCR head Filippo Grandi said on Twitter. “...Every new attack shatters their hopes. Only an end to the war can pave the way for rebuilding their lives.”
Russia was hitting the Azovstal steel plant, the main remaining stronghold in Mariupol, with bunker-buster bombs, a Ukrainian presidential adviser said late on Tuesday. Reuters could not verify the details.
"The world watches the murder of children online and remains silent," adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
Capturing Mariupol would link pro-Russian separatist territory with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
The battle for the Donbas region, which includes the provinces Luhansk and Donetsk, could be decisive as Russia searches for a victory to justify President Vladimir Putin’s Feb 24 invasion. Putin says Ukraine mistreated Russian-speakers in the Donbas, an accusation Kyiv dismisses as false.
Russian television showed Putin addressing a girl from Luhansk on Wednesday.
“It was the tragedy that took place in the Donbas, including in the Lugansk People’s Republic, that forced, simply forced Russia to launch this military operation, which everyone is well aware of today,” he said.
Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia was focusing on advancing towards the strategically important Donbas city of Sloviansk, but “so far they are not succeeding”. Targeting that area from several directions is part of an apparent effort to surround Ukrainian forces in the east.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted that Russia’s “military capacity has been significantly diminished”since the start of the war. “We’re defeating & will continue to defeat the occupiers!”
Peace talks have been stalled. The Kremlin accused Kyiv of delaying the talks and changing its positions. Kyiv accuses Moscow of blocking talks by refusing humanitarian ceasefires, especially to relieve besieged Mariupol.
British military intelligence said fighting in the Donbas was intensifying as Russian forces tried to break through Ukraine’s lines, and that Russia was still building up forces on Ukraine’s eastern border.
The United States, Canada and Britain said they would send more artillery weaponry.
"We will continue to provide them more ammunition, as we will provide them more military assistance," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, adding that new sanctions were being prepared.
US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new military aid package about the same size as last week's US$800 million (S$1.09 billion) one within the coming days, multiple sources told Reuters.
The United States, Canada and Britain said they would send Ukraine more artillery, while Norway said it had shipped Ukraine 100 Mistral air defence missiles.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a four-day humanitarian pause in the fighting this weekend, when Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, to allow civilians to escape and humanitarian aid to be delivered.
Ukraine said Russian forces in their new offensive had captured the town of Kreminna, an administrative centre of 18,000 people in Luhansk, one of the two Donbas provinces.
Driven back by Ukrainian forces in March from an assault on Kyiv in the north, Russia has instead poured troops into the east for the launch of what its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, confirmed was “another stage of this operation”.
Russian forces have also made long-distance strikes at other targets including the capital and Kharkiv, where at least four people were killed by missiles, authorities said on Tuesday.
In one suburban street, the body of an elderly man lay face down near a park, a ribbon of blood running into the gutter.
“He worked in security not far from here,” a resident named Maksym told Reuters. “The shelling began and everyone fled. Then we came out here, the old guy was already dead.”
Ukrainian authorities in Donetsk said three civilians had been killed and six wounded in the past 24 hours.
Overnight shelling in central Avdiivka had left part of the town without electricity, the regional administration said in a statement.
In Mariupol, scene of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe, about 120 civilians living next to the Azovstal steel plant left via humanitarian corridors, the Interfax news agency said on Tuesday, quoting Russian state TV.
Drone footage on Tuesday showed people buying food and other items at a makeshift market, as well as charging their mobile phones from a generator.
A Reuters correspondent said prices at the market were very high.
Mariupol has been besieged since the war’s early days. Tens of thousands of residents have been trapped and Ukraine believes more than 20,000 civilians have been killed there.
“The Russian army will forever inscribe itself in world history as perhaps the most barbaric and inhuman army in the world,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
“Deliberately killing civilians, destroying residential quarters and civilian infrastructure, and using all kinds of weapons, including those prohibited by international conventions,” he added in a video address.
Russia has denied using banned weapons or targeting civilians and says, without evidence, that signs of atrocities were staged.
Video released by Ukraine’s Azov battalion purported to show people living in a network beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, where they say hundreds of women, children and elderly civilians are sheltering with supplies running out.
"We lost our home; we lost our livelihood. We want to live a normal, peaceful life,” an unidentified woman says in the video.
“There are lots of children in here – they’re hungry. Get us out of here.” Reuters could not independently verify where or when the video was shot.
Kyiv and Moscow have not held face-to-face talks since March 29. Each side blames the other for their breakdown.
"It is difficult to say when the next face-to-face round of negotiations will be possible because the Russians are seriously betting on the so-called 'second stage of the special operation'," Podolyak said.
Shells and rockets also hit Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, local officials said, wrecking apartment blocks and other buildings. Four people were killed and 14 wounded, they said.