Russia says it has offered Ukrainian fighters sheltering in the Azot chemical plant in the eastern Ukrainian town of Severodonetsk the chance to surrender on Wednesday.
Both the town and the Azot plant have become flashpoints of the conflict in recent weeks, with hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers holed up in the factory under intense shelling from Russian forces trying to capture the town, local authorities said.
Russia said on Tuesday it would open a humanitarian corridor on Wednesday to allow civilians to leave, and urged Ukrainian fighters to “stop their senseless resistance and lay down their arms” at the same time.
“Guided by the principles of humanity, the Russian armed forces and the formations of the Luhansk People’s Republic are ready to organise a humanitarian operation to evacuate civilians,” the Russian defence ministry said.
The humanitarian corridor will be in place between 8am (05:00 GMT) and 8pm Moscow time Wednesday, the defence ministry said, adding the evacuees would be transported to the city of Svatovo in the separatist-held region of Luhansk.
All the bridges over the Siverskyi Donets river linking Severodonetsk to Ukrainian-held territory have been destroyed.
In the statement announcing the call to surrender, Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukrainian fighters of using the civilians in the Azot plant as human shields. Moscow has made similar accusations, rejected by Kyiv, several times since it sent its troops into Ukraine in February.
Authorities in Ukraine have said that there are more than 500 civilians hiding inside Azot, adding that it was difficult to support them but there were some reserves inside the plant.
A representative of the separatist authorities in Luhansk, Vitaly Kiselyov, estimated that some 2,500 Ukrainian and foreign fighters could be holed up at the Azot plant.
The Ministry of Defence said it had informed Kyiv of its offer and urged the authorities to give the order to surrender.
The Russian army said that Ukrainian authorities requested that civilians from the Azot plant be transported to Kyiv-controlled Lysychansk but said that the evacuation there was not possible because the last bridge linking the cities had been destroyed.
The situation at the Azot (“Nitrogen”) plant echoes the battles that raged earlier in the conflict over the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian shelling. Those inside eventually surrendered and were taken into Russian custody in mid-May.
Ukraine calls for more weapons
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, once again appealed for heavy weapons from the West, criticising the “restrained behaviour” of some European leaders.
Zelenksyy, in comments to Danish journalists on Tuesday, insisted that the war could only end once Ukrainians were the only ones left on its territory.
How long that took depended “very much” on international support, and “the personalities of the leaders of European states”.
He regretted what he called, “the restrained behaviour of some leaders” which, he said, had “slowed down arms supplies very much”.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly urged the West to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine as quickly as possible.