Russia demands Ukrainian surrender in Mariupol

Pro-Russian Chechen Republic fighters walk in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 15, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russia gave holdout Ukrainian soldiers an ultimatum on Sunday (April 17) to lay down arms in the pulverised south-eastern port of Mariupol which Moscow said its forces nearly completely controlled in what would be its biggest capture of the nearly two-month war.

Several hours after the 0300 GMT (11am Singapore time) deadline there was no sign of compliance by Ukrainian fighters holed up in the vast Azovstal steelworks overlooking the Sea of Azov.

Having failed to overcome Ukrainian resistance in the north since President Vladimir Putin’s Feb 24 invasion, the Russian military has refocused on the eastern Donbass region where Mariupol is the main port.

The Russian Defence Ministry said its troops had cleared the urban area of Mariupol, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting and worst civilian suffering with bodies littering 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.

“The Russian Armed Forces offer the militants of nationalist battalions and foreign mercenaries from 06:00 (Moscow time) on April 17, 2022, to stop any hostilities and lay down their arms,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed that their lives will be spared,” it said, offering the defending “remnants” a four-hour window to leave the plant without arms or ammunition.

There was no immediate response from Kyiv to the ultimatum, though Ukraine’s military said Russian air strikes on Mariupol continued along with assault operations near the port.

“The situation is very difficult” in Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal. “Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis... Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves.”

Elsewhere around Ukraine, there were reports of more Russian long-range strikes on Sunday.

Local media reported an explosion in the capital Kyiv, though deputy mayor Mykola Povoroznyk said air defence systems had thwarted Russian attacks. The mayor of Brovary city, close to Kyiv, said a missile attack had damaged infrastructure.

And Russia said it had destroyed an ammunition factory near the capital, according to the RIA news agency.

On Saturday, Moscow said its warplanes had struck a tank repair factory in Kyiv.

An explosion was heard and smoke rose over the southeastern Darnytskyi district. The mayor said at least one person was killed and medics were fighting to save others.

The Ukrainian military said Russian warplanes that took off from Belarus had fired missiles at the Lviv region near the Polish border and four cruise missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defences.

The western city, relatively unscathed so far, has served as a haven for refugees and international aid agencies.

Twisted steel, blasted concrete

In Mariupol, Reuters journalists reached the giant Illich steelworks, one of two metals plants where defenders had held out in underground tunnels and bunkers. Moscow claimed to have captured it on Friday.

The factory was reduced to a ruin of twisted steel and blasted concrete, with no sign of defenders present. Several bodies of civilians lay scattered on nearby streets.

The Russian defence ministry said its troops had “completely cleared” Mariupol’s urban area of Ukrainian forces and blockaded the “remnants” in the Azovstal steelworks, RIA news agency said. It said that as of Saturday, Ukrainian forces in the city had lost more than 4,000 personnel.

Zelensky accused Russia of “deliberately trying to destroy everyone” in Mariupol and said his government was in touch with the defenders. He did not address Moscow’s claim that Ukrainian forces were no longer in urban districts.

The governor of Kharkiv province in the east said at least one person was killed and 18 injured in a missile strike.

Smoke billowed from burning cars and the remains of what appeared to be an office building in the city.

In Mykolaiv close to the southern front, Russia said it had struck a military vehicle repair factory.

The attacks followed Russia’s announcement on Friday it would intensify long-range strikes in retaliation for unspecified acts of “sabotage” and “terrorism”, hours after it confirmed the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.

Kyiv and Washington say the ship, whose sinking has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance, was hit by Ukrainian missiles.

Moscow says it sank after a fire and its crew of around 500 were evacuated.

Russia’s Defence Ministry published video of the head of the navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, meeting on a parade ground with about a hundred sailors it said were members of the crew.

Russia's biggest prize

If Mariupol falls it would be Russia’s biggest prize of the war so far. It is the main port of the Donbass, a region of two provinces in the southeast which Moscow demands be fully ceded to separatists.

Ukraine says it has so far held off Russian advances elsewhere in the Donbass regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where at least one person was killed in shelling overnight.

Ukraine gained the upper hand in the early phase of a war, in part by successfully deploying mobile units armed with anti-tank missiles supplied by the West against Russian armoured convoys confined to roads by muddy terrain.

But Putin appears determined to capture more Donbass territory to claim victory in a war that has left Russia subject to increasingly punitive Western sanctions and with few allies.

The European Union’s forthcoming round of sanctions on Russia will target banks, including Sberbank, as well as oil, the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

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