The fall of Mariupol, the site of a ruthless 7-week siege that has turned much of the city into a smoking wreck, would be Moscow’s biggest victory in the war and it would release troops to take part in a potentially top battle for industrial control. East of Ukraine.
The occupation of the southern city will also allow Russia to fully secure a land route to the Crimean peninsula, which it occupied from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a major port and valuable industrial assets.
As its missiles and rockets landed elsewhere in the country, Russia estimated that 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers and about 400 foreign mercenaries had dug into the vast Azovstal steel plant, which covers more than 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is equipped with .
Many Mariupol residents, including children, are also sheltered at the Azovstal plant, Mikhail Versinin, the city’s patrol chief, told Mariupol television on Sunday. He said they were hiding from Russian bombing and any Russian occupation soldiers.
Moscow had given the defenders a noon deadline to surrender and “hold on to their lives”, but the Ukrainians rejected it, as they had done in previous ultimatums.
“We will fight to the end for victory in this war,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Smihal vowed on ABC’s “This Week.” He said Ukraine was ready to end the war through diplomacy, if possible, “but we have no intention of giving up.”
As for the besieged Mariupol, there seemed to be little hope on Sunday for a military rescue by Ukrainian forces soon. Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the remaining Ukrainian troops and civilians in Mariupol were largely surrounded. He said that “they are continuing their struggle”, but that the city essentially no longer exists due to the mass destruction.
The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent wishes for Easter via Twitter, saying: “The Resurrection of the Lord is a testimony to the victory of life over death, good over evil.”
If Mariupol falls, Russian forces there are expected to launch a full-scale offensive in the coming days to take control of Donbass, the eastern industrial area the Kremlin wants to seize after failing to seize Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Cruel bombings and street battles in Mariupol have killed at least 21,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates. A maternity hospital was hit by a deadly Russian airstrike in the first weeks of the war and about 300 people were killed by the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking refuge.
It is estimated that 100,000 remained in the city from 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 of the war.
“Anyone who continues the resistance will be destroyed,” said Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, announcing the latest ultimatum.
Shots from a drone broadcast by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti showed high plumes of smoke over the steel complex, which is located on the outskirts of the bombed city in the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine” as Russian troops prepare for battle in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory.
Russian forces, meanwhile, have launched airstrikes near Kyiv and elsewhere in an apparent attempt to weaken Ukraine’s military capability ahead of the impending attack.
Following the humiliating sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship last week in what the Ukrainians boasted was a rocket attack, the Kremlin had pledged to intensify its attacks on the capital.
Russia said Sunday it had attacked an ammunition factory near Kyiv overnight with precision-guided missiles, the third such strike in several days.
Explosions were also reported overnight in Kramatorsk, the eastern city where rockets killed at least 57 people earlier this month at a train station full of civilians trying to flee before the Russian attack.
At least five people were killed in Russian bombings in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, on Sunday, regional officials said. The barrage crashed into apartment buildings, leaving streets strewn with broken glass and other debris, including part of at least one rocket.
Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov, in a passionate speech celebrating Orthodox Orthodox Sunday, criticized Russian forces for not abandoning the bombing campaign on such a sacred day.
And Zelensky, in his night speech to the nation, described the bombing in Kharkov as “nothing more than deliberate terrorism.”
A regional official in eastern Ukraine said at least two people had been killed when Russian forces opened fire on homes in the town of Zolote, near the front line in Donbas.
Zelensky said Russian troops in parts of southern Ukraine were carrying out torture and abductions, and called on the public to respond with more weapons and tougher sanctions.
“Torture wards are being built there,” he said in his speech. “They kidnap representatives of local governments and anyone deemed visible in local communities.”
Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said the Russians had continued to strike Mariupol with airstrikes and could be preparing for an amphibious landing to bolster their ground troops.
The impending attack on the east, if successful, would give Russian President Vladimir Putin a vital part of the country and a much-needed victory that could sell to the Russian people amid the growing losses of the war and the economic hardship caused by the sanctions of the West.
Austrian Chancellor Carl Nehammer, who met with Putin in Moscow this week – the first European leader to do so since the February 24 invasion – said the Russian president was “in his own war logic” for Ukraine.
In an interview with NBC “Meet the Press”, Nehammer said that he believes that Putin believes that he is winning the war and “we have to look him in the eye and we have to deal with it, what we see in Ukraine.”
Chernov reported from Kharkov. Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.
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