A Russian ultimatum for the last remaining Ukrainian troops holding out in the besieged port city of Mariupol to surrender has passed, as Moscow edged closer to full control of the city in what would be its biggest capture since it invaded Ukraine in February.
The city has been facing a humanitarian catastrophe for weeks, as Russian tanks advanced towards the centre, razing neighbourhoods along the way. The number of civilians killed in the siege is unknown. The Ukrainian-controlled council has accused Russian soldiers of collecting bodies and incinerating them in a mobile crematorium.
On Saturday night the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, described the situation in the city as “inhuman” and accused Russia of “deliberately trying to destroy everyone” there.
In a possible acknowledgment that Russia was close to taking the city, he said Ukrainian troops controlled only a small part of Mariupol and faced much larger Russian numbers.
The situation was “very difficult” in Mariupol, Zelenskiy told the Ukrayinska Pravda news portal. “Our soldiers are blocked; the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis … Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves.”
Having failed to overcome Ukrainian resistance in the north, the Russian military has refocused its ground offensive on the eastern Donbas area while maintaining long-distance strikes elsewhere including the capital, Kyiv.
Russia gave remaining Ukrainian soldiers a 6am Moscow time (3am GMT) deadline to lay down their arms and a 1pm (10am GMT) deadline to evacuate, which passed without any sign of compliance by Ukrainian fighters holed up in the smouldering Azovstal steelworks.
The steelworks, one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants with a maze of rail tracks and blastfurnaces, has become a last stand for the outnumbered defenders.
The Russian defence ministry spokesperson, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said the Russian military had learned from intercepted communications that the Ukrainian military command had banned its troops from surrendering. “All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed,” Konashenkov said.
The city has seen some of the fiercest fighting and worst civilian suffering since the invasion on 24 February, with bodies littering destroyed streets and thousands hunkered down in atrocious conditions underground.
The fall of Mariupol, the largest trading port in the Azov Sea from which Ukraine exports grain, iron and steel, and heavy machinery, would be an economic blow to Ukraine and a symbolic and strategic victory for Russia, connecting territory it holds in Donbas with the Crimea region it annexed in 2014.
Zelenskiy said that if Russian forces killed Kyiv’s troops remaining to defend the city, then a fledgling negotiation process to end nearly two months of fighting would be ended. “The destruction of all our guys in Mariupol – what they are doing now – can put an end to any format of negotiations,” he said.
Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said the city was on “the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe” and warned the country was compiling evidence of alleged Russian atrocities there.
“We will hand everything over to The Hague. There will be no impunity,” he said.
Ukrainian authorities have urged people in Donbas to move west to escape a large-scale Russian offensive to capture Donetsk and Luhansk.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were more reports on Sunday of sporadic Russian strikes around major popular centres, after the humiliating loss of Russia’s Moskva warship in the Black Sea last week.
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. It was the third attack in as many days on targets around Kyiv: on Friday, Russian forces destroyed a plant that allegedly produced one of the missiles used to sink the Moskva, and on Saturday, Russian rockets allegedly hit a military hardware factory in the capital’s Darnytskyi district.
In the north-east, Russian artillery pounded multiple neighbourhoods in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The city’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said three people were killed and 34 wounded in strikes on Saturday.
Despite the desperate situation in Mariupol, Ukraine said it was holding off Russian forces in other parts of the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Sunday, Ukrainian police in Donetsk said that over the past 24 hours, Russian forces had opened fire from tanks, multiple rocket launchers and heavy artillery on 13 settlements under Ukrainian control, killing two civilians.