Russia gave holdout Ukrainian soldiers an ultimatum to lay down arms on Sunday in the pulverised southeastern 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 deadline, there was no sign of compliance by Ukrainian fighters holed up in the smouldering Azovstal steelworks overlooking the Sea of Azov.
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.
Russia said its troops had cleared the urban area of Mariupol, the main port in Donbas. It 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.
“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,” Russia’s defence ministry said.
“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 airstrikes on Mariupol continued along with assault operations near the port.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.
He said killing his troops would put paid to peace efforts.
“Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis… Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves,” he told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal.
If Russia’s capture of the port is confirmed, it would be a major strategic prize for Moscow: connecting the 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.
Russia said Ukraine had lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Mariupol as of Saturday. But Kyiv says its total troop losses nationwide so far in the war are less than that, between 2,500 and 3,000. Neither side’s figures could be verified.
It was not known how many soldiers were in the steelworks. Satellite images have shown smoke and fire coming from the area, which is riddled with tunnels underneath.
Mariupol’s defenders have included Ukrainian marines, motorised brigades, a National Guard brigade and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by far-right nationalists.
Petro Andryushchenko, an assistant to Mariupol’s mayor, said Russians were giving passes to hundreds of civilians for permission to move around central parts of the city.