Russia’s defence ministry has set another deadline for Ukrainian soldiers in the strategic southeastern city of Mariupol to surrender, saying the lives of the troops inside a steelworks will be spared if they stop what it called “senseless resistance”.
“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed to remain alive,” the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that troops would be able to withdraw from the steel plant between 2pm and 4pm Moscow time (11:00-13:00 GMT) “without exception, without any weapons and without ammunition”.
A similar surrender-or-die demand went unanswered on Sunday, a day after the Russian army claimed to have “completely cleared” the city.
Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region, said on Tuesday assault groups had moved into the Azovstal steel plant in a bid to uproot the Ukrainian troops.
Later in the day, the defence ministry said Russian forces had opened a humanitarian corridor so that Ukrainian troops who agreed to lay down their arms could leave the embattled city.
“The Russian armed forces opened a humanitarian corridor for the withdrawal of Ukrainian military personnel who voluntarily laid down their arms and militants of nationalist formations,” the ministry said, adding the safe corridor was opened at 2pm (11:00 GMT).
There was no immediate comment by Ukrainian authorities.
Mariupol’s city council said at least 1,000 civilians are hiding in shelters beneath the vast steel plant, which contains myriad buildings, blast furnaces and rail tracks.
Russia denied reports that there are women, children and other civilians there and called upon Kyiv to “exercise reason”.
“We once again call on the Kyiv authorities to show reason and give the corresponding orders to fighters to cease their senseless resistance,” the defence ministry said.
“But, understanding that they will not get such instructions and orders from the Kyiv authorities, we call on [the fighters] to voluntarily take this decision and to lay down their arms.”
Major Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade, which is still fighting in Mariupol, appealed for help on Monday in a letter to Pope Francis.
“This is what hell looks like on earth … It’s time [for] help not just by prayers. Save our lives from satanic hands,” he said in the letter, according to excerpts that Ukraine’s Vatican ambassador posted on Twitter.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 were killed.
Russia said Ukraine had lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Mariupol as of Saturday. However, Kyiv says its total troop losses nationwide so far in the war are between 2,500 and 3,000.
Zelenskyy announced late on Monday that Russia had launched its anticipated new offensive that is focused on eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that his forces were “gradually implementing our plan to liberate” Ukraine’s east.
“We are taking measures to restore peaceful life,” he said in a televised meeting with Russian military commanders.
Some of the heaviest fightings of the Russian campaign have focused around Mariupol, a key Sea of Azov port city that has been the site of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Tens of thousands of residents have been trapped in Mariupol with no access to food or water and bodies littering the streets. Ukraine believes more than 20,000 civilians have died there.
Capturing it would link pro-Russian separatist territory with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014, and free the besieging troops to attack elsewhere in the Donbas.