(KYIV, Ukraine) — Ukrainian fighters who were holed up in a massive steel plant in the last known pocket of resistance inside the shattered city of Mariupol ignored a surrender-or-die ultimatum from Russia on Sunday and held out against the capture of the strategically vital port.
The fall of Mariupol, the site of a merciless 7-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Moscow’s biggest victory of the war and free up troops to take part in a potentially climactic battle for control of Ukraine’s industrial east.
Russia would be able to capture the city in the south to secure the land corridor to Crimea Peninsula. Russia seized the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. It also could deprive Ukraine a key port and valuable industrial assets.
Russia estimates that about 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers and 400 foreign mercenaries were killed by Russia’s missiles and rockets as they crashed into parts of other countries. The sprawling Azovstal steel plant covers over 11 km (4 miles) and is intertwined with tunnels.
Many Mariupol civilians, including children, are also sheltering at the Azovstal plant, Mikhail Vershinin, head of the city’s patrol police, told Mariupol television on Sunday. They are fleeing from Russian bombardment and any Russian troops occupying their territory, he said.
Moscow had given the defenders a midday deadline to surrender and “keep their lives,” but the Ukrainians rejected it, as they’ve done with previous ultimatums.
“We will fight absolutely to the end, to the win, in this war,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal vowed on ABC’s “This Week.” He said Ukraine is prepared to end the war through diplomacy if possible, “but we do not have intention to surrender.”
Concerning besieged Mariupol it appeared that there was no hope of Ukrainian troops rescuing the city anytime soon. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the remaining Ukrainian troops and civilians in Mariupol are basically encircled. He said they “continue their struggle,” but that the city effectively doesn’t exist anymore because of massive destruction.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent Easter greetings via Twitter, saying: “The Lord’s Resurrection is a testimony to the victory of life over death, good over evil.”
If Mariupol falls, Russian forces there are expected to join an all-out offensive in the coming days for control of the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin is bent on capturing after failing in its bid to take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
The relentless bombardment and street fighting in Mariupol have killed at least 21,000 people, by the Ukrainians’ estimate. One of the casualties of the Russian airstrikes was the destruction of a Mariupol maternity facility. In addition, about 300 people died in an attack on a theater that civilians used as shelter.
Out of an estimated 450,000 inhabitants, 100,000 people remained. They were trapped in Mariupol without heat, electricity, food or water in an enslaving siege, which has left it the site of some the most horrific sufferings of war.
“All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, said in announcing the latest ultimatum.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti captured drone footage that showed tall smoke plumes rising from the steel complex. It is located on the outskirts of bombed out city on the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine” as Russian troops prepare for battle in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory.
Russian forces, meanwhile, carried out aerial attacks near Kyiv and elsewhere in an apparent effort to weaken Ukraine’s military capacity ahead of the anticipated assault.
After the humiliating sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet last week in what the Ukrainians boasted was a missile attack, the Kremlin had vowed to step up strikes on the capital.
Russia claimed Sunday it attacked an ammunition plant in Kyiv with precision-guided rockets overnight. This was the third strike of this nature within as few days.
Also overnight, there were explosions in Kramatorsk. Kramatorsk is an eastern city where rockets last month claimed at least 57 lives at a train station that was crowded with people trying to flee the Russian attack.
At least five people were killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Sunday, regional officials said. Broken glass and debris from the barrage crashed into buildings, leaving streets littered with rubble and even part of one rocket.
Igor Terekhov (Kharkiv mayor), in an emotional address on Orthodox Palm Sunday lashed out at Russian forces, blaming them for the continued bombing campaign.
And Zelenskyy, in his nightly address to the nation, called the bombing in Kharkiv “nothing but deliberate terror.”
According to a regional official from eastern Ukraine, at least two civilians were injured when Russian troops fired on residential structures in Zolote near the Donbas front.
Zelenskyy stated that Russian forces in southern Ukraine are committing torture and kidnappings and called for the international community to take action with stronger sanctions and more weapons.
“Torture chambers are built there,” he said in his address. “They abduct representatives of local governments and anyone deemed visible to local communities.”
Malyar, the Ukrainian deputy defence minister said the Russians were continuing to attack Mariupol by airstrikes. He suggested that they could be getting prepared for an amphibious land to support their ground troops.
The looming offensive in the east, if successful, would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a vital piece of the country and a badly needed victory that he could sell to the Russian people amid the war’s mounting casualties and the economic hardship caused by the West’s sanctions.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who met with Putin in Moscow this week — the first European leader to do so since the invasion Feb. 24 — said the Russian president is “in his own war logic” on Ukraine.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Nehammer said he thinks Putin believes he is winning the war, and “we have to look in his eyes and we have to confront him with that, what we see in Ukraine.’’
Chernov reported on Kharkiv. This report was contributed by Yesica Fisch, Kramatorsk (Ukraine), and Associated Press journalists from around the globe.
Read More From Time