Mariupol ultimatum passes as hundreds shelter in steel mill

KYIV — The deadline for a Russian ultimatum demanding the surrender of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol has passed with no signs that troops have complied.

The last Ukrainian resisters, who would be accompanied by 1,000 civilians, took refuge in the huge Azovstal steelworks in the city.

Moscow’s ultimatum comes as the local Ukrainian commander warned his troops could only hold out for “days or hours”.

But kyiv says there is a tentative deal to save some civilians in the city.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Facebook that women, children and the elderly would be allowed to leave Mariupol under the deal.

The city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, told state television that Ukraine hopes to send 90 buses to evacuate around 6,000 people on Wednesday. He said around 100,000 people remained stranded in Mariupol.

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works – a massive 10 km2 factory southeast of the city – became the last center of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol.

As Russian forces slowly advanced through the heart of Mariupol, the sprawling compound became home to thousands of Ukrainian troops, including fighters from the Azov Battalion – a controversial National Guard unit linked to the far-right.

The site is a mass of tunnels and workshops, and offers a natural advantage to defenders.

Yan Gagin, an official in the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, told Russian news channel RIA Novosti over the weekend that there was “basically another city” under the plant.

Russia bombarded the factory with artillery and air raids, and Moscow issued two demands for troops to surrender. An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was targeting defenders with bunker busters – colossal bombs designed to penetrate thick armor and kill targets underground.

This is the second ultimatum facing the Ukrainian factory troops this week. Despite this and the vicious nature of the Russian siege, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said no soldiers surrendered when a similar ultimatum expired on Monday.

It is not known how many Ukrainian soldiers remain in the town, but in a video message sent to the BBC, local navy commander Major Serhiy Volyna said around 500 wounded soldiers were being treated at the steelworks.

Major Volyna, who leads the 36th Marine Battalion, said his troops were low on supplies and the video marked “our last address in the world. It may be our last”.

He said Russian forces outnumbered his own “tens of times” and that while Ukrainian morale remains high, Moscow’s forces “predominate in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in machines and chariots”.

Meanwhile, the deputy mayor of Mariupol warned that the factory’s basic supplies were nearly exhausted.

“They have an absolute lack of everything. A lack of water, food, medicine, aid, and Russia is totally blocking everything, any humanitarian aid or evacuation,” Serhiy Orlov told the Newshour program. BBC.

Olena Nikulina’s cousin is fighting with Ukrainian forces in Mariupol. She said her last contact with him was on March 8, when he told her his unit had ‘very little food and medical supplies – and it’s getting harder and harder to treat wounded soldiers’. .

Ukrainian officials say around 100,000 civilians remain in the town, which was almost completely leveled by Russian bombardment.

While several previous attempts to organize humanitarian corridors from the city have failed, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of bad faith in the negotiations and of refusing to guarantee the respect of ceasefires. But Ms Vereshchuk said Moscow had agreed to allow 6,000 people to evacuate the city on Wednesday.

She called on people wishing to leave Mariupol to gather at 2 p.m. local time (1100 GMT), where a bus convoy will take them to western Ukraine.

But she warned the security situation could mean “changes may occur” during the evacuation.

Ukraine has previously alleged that Russia forcibly evacuated thousands of Ukrainian civilians from the city to Russia.

U.S. defense officials said on Tuesday that about 76 battalion tactical groups – combined Russian armour, infantry and air defense units – are operating inside Ukraine, of which about 12 are focused on assault on Mariupol.

If the city were to fall, it would free up around 10,000 troops to take part in the refocused Russian assault on the Donbass region and allow Moscow to link its forces on the annexed Crimean peninsula with separatist forces to the east.

If Mariupol were seized, Russia would also find itself with full control of the Sea of ​​Azov, cutting off its maritime trade and further isolating it from the world.

The fall of Mariupol would also present President Vladimir Putin with a major propaganda opportunity.

His forces captured only one major Ukrainian city – Kherson – and seizing Mariupol would allow the Kremlin to show its people that Russia was achieving its goals and making progress.

Capturing the Azov Battalion would also allow Mr Putin to play into his baseless narrative that the Ukrainian government was overrun by ‘Nazis’. —BBC