Ukrainian soldiers holed up in a steel factory in the shattered city of Mariupol have ignored a Russian surrender-or-die ultimatum as Moscow appeared poised for a strategic victory in the southeastern port city.
The fall of Mariupol, the site of a merciless seven-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Russia’s biggest conquest of the war and free up troops to take part in the battles for control of Ukraine’s industrial east.
Capturing the city would also allow Russia to fully secure a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a major port and its prized industrial assets.
The Russian Armed Forces, who claimed the city has been “completely cleared”, issued an ultimatum on Saturday, urging their opponents to lay down their arms by 6am Moscow time (03:00 GMT) on Sunday and to evacuate before 1pm.
Several hours after the deadline passed on Sunday, there was no sign of compliance by Ukrainian fighters holed up in the smouldering Azovstal steel works, one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the remaining Ukrainian forces in Mariupol were still fighting.
“The city still has not fallen,” Shmyhal told ABC’s This Week programme on Sunday. “We will fight absolutely to the end, to the win, in this war.”
He said Ukraine is prepared to end the conflict through diplomacy if possible, “but we do not have intention to surrender”.
Russia estimated that 2,500 Ukrainian troops and about 400 foreign mercenaries were dug in at the Azovstal plant, which covers more than 11 square kilometres (four square miles) and is laced with tunnels.
Many Mariupol civilians, including children, are also sheltering at the plant, Mikhail Vershinin, head of the city’s patrol police, told Mariupol television on Sunday.
He said they are hiding from Russian shelling, and from any occupying Russian soldiers.
Al Jazeera could not verify the claim.
No humanitarian corridors
Drone footage carried by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti showed towering plumes of smoke over the steel complex, which sits on the outskirts of the city, on the Sea of Azov.
The relentless bombardment and street fighting in Mariupol have killed at least 21,000 people, by the Ukrainians’ estimate. Images from the city show bodies littering destroyed streets as smoke and fire rise from pulverised buildings.
An estimated 100,000 people remained in the city of a pre-war population of 450,000, trapped without food, water, heat or electricity in a siege that has made Mariupol the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said humanitarian corridors allowing civilians to flee did not open on Sunday after failing to agree on terms with Russian forces.
“We have not been able to agree with the occupiers on a ceasefire on the evacuation routes. That is why, unfortunately, we are not opening humanitarian corridors today,” she wrote in a statement on social media.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described the situation in Mariupol as “inhuman” and said: “Russia is deliberately trying to destroy everyone who is there.”
He also threatened to withdraw from peace talks with Russia if Ukrainian troops in the city are killed.
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.
Refocus on eastern provinces
Despite the desperate situation in Mariupol, Ukraine said it was holding off Russian forces in other parts of the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which before the invasion were already partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
On Sunday, police in the Donetsk region said that over the past 24 hours Russian forces opened fire on 13 settlements under Ukrainian control, killing two civilians.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were more reports on Sunday of Russian strikes around major population centres.
Local media reported an explosion in 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.
Russia said it had destroyed an ammunition factory near the capital, according to the RIA news agency.
Shelling in Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, killed five people and injured 13, Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne reported.
“This is nothing but deliberate terror: mortars, artillery against ordinary residential quarters, against ordinary civilians,” Zelenskyy said on Sunday.
As clean-up operations continued in areas where the Russians have retreated, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman said almost all high-rise buildings in the town of Okhtyrka were unfit for occupation.
The State Emergency Service said 41 bodies had been recovered in the town of Borodyanka.
Most Ukrainians celebrate Orthodox Easter next Sunday, but in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv where Ukraine accuses Russia of killing dozens of civilians, some 50 people attended a church service, carrying pussy willow and praying for the dead.
Russia denies targeting civilians and has called images from Bucha fake.
“I just prayed today to stop crying,” said resident Evgeniya Lebedko after the service. “We have survived these horrors and we are constantly crying.”
At the Vatican, Pope Francis pleaded for an end to the bloodshed and lamented the “Easter of war” during his address in Saint Peter’s Square after Mass.
“May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of the cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged,” he said.