By Natalia Zinets
About 1,000 civilians remain trapped at a steel plant where Ukrainian forces are making their last stand in the besieged city of Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, after a Russian ultimatum to surrender or die expired on Wednesday.
Zelenskiy said conditions in Mariupol, which has seen the worst fighting of the nearly eight-week long war, continued to worsen, though Reuters witnesses said a few dozen civilians managed to leave the city on Wednesday in a small bus convoy.
The United Nations said the total number of refugees who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 had now topped five million. More than half are children.
Ukraine said it had so far held off an assault by thousands of Russian troops attempting to advance in what Kyiv calls the Battle of the Donbas, a new campaign to seize two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Russia’s defense ministry said in its latest bulletin that its forces had carried out strikes on dozens of military facilities in eastern Ukraine and had shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter near the village of Koroviy Yar.
In Mariupol, once a prosperous port of 400,000 people and now a devastated wasteland where corpses lie in the streets, Russia was hitting the last main Ukrainian stronghold, the Azovstal steel plant, with bunker-buster bombs, Kyiv said.
FEW CIVILIANS EVACUATED
Mariupol city authorities had said on Wednesday they hoped to evacuate about 6,000 people under a preliminary accord with Russia – the first in weeks – on establishing a safe corridor.
But the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol, Svyatoslav Kalamar, later told Ukrainian TV that civilians were too frightened to make their way to the agreed evacuation points because Azovstal was under constant bombardment.
Kalomar said several bunkers under the plant still held about 80-100 civilians each.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said fewer buses than planned had been able to get through to pick up civilians.
“People of course gathered at the agreed meeting points, but few of them got onto the buses,” he added, providing no figures.
Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 2 p.m. Wednesday deadline that just five people in Mariupol had surrendered following Moscow’s ultimatum. The previous day, Russia said no one had responded to a similar surrender demand.
President Zelenskiy said he remained ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for safe passage for the trapped civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.
A Ukrainian marine commander, Serhiy Volny, said in a video posted online early on Wednesday that his troops may be able to hold out for only a few hours. It remained unclear on Wednesday evening how many Ukrainian forces remained in the city.
“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,” said Volny. Reuters was unable to verify the video, posted on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia has been trying to take full control of Mariupol since the war’s early 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.
Russia has so far failed to capture any of Ukraine’s largest cities in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. Moscow was forced to retreat from northern Ukraine after an assault on Kyiv was repelled last month, but has poured troops back in for an assault on the east that began this week.
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 invasion. Putin says Ukraine mistreated Russian-speakers in the Donbas, an accusation Kyiv dismisses as false.
PEACE TALKS ELUSIVE
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 Defense 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 on Wednesday of delaying the talks and changing its positions. Kyiv accuses Moscow of blocking talks by refusing humanitarian ceasefires.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has separately asked Putin and Zelenskiy to receive him to discuss steps to bring about peace, Guterres’ spokesman said.
Guterres has also called for a four-day humanitarian pause in fighting over the upcoming Orthodox Easter weekend.
Metropolitan Epifaniy of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church asked clergy and the faithful to forgo services on Easter Saturday night in areas affected by fighting, fearing the Russian bombardments will continue without respite.
President Joe Biden was due to convene top U.S. military leaders on Wednesday in an annual White House gathering that takes on special significance as the war in Ukraine enters a new phase and Washington plans more military aid.
Meanwhile, Russia test-launched its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new addition to its nuclear arsenal that Putin said had no peer and would give Moscow’s enemies something to think about.
Charles Michel, head of the European Council that groups the 27 EU member states, met Zelenskiy in Kyiv in a show of solidarity. Michel also visited the nearby town of Borodianka, where Ukraine suspects Russian troops carried out atrocities, something Moscow denies.
“History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here,” Michel wrote on Twitter.
In the latest sign of Russia’s international isolation, organizers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament banned players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s competition.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “To make sports people hostages of political intrigue is unacceptable.”