Ukraine rejects Russia’s ultimatum to hand over Mariupol

Ukraine has rejected Russia’s ultimatum to hand over the besieged port city of Mariupol as Moscow stepped up one of the most destructive attacks of an invasion that has already displaced 10 million civilians.

The Russian military gave Ukraine until 5am Monday to respond to its terms of surrender for Mariupol, which called for militants to lay down their arms and local officials warned they would face “military tribunals” if they resist .

The exchange on the strategically important city came as Russia entered the 26th day of its invasion and was still struggling to seize control of one of Ukraine’s largest population centers or make significant territorial advances, particularly in the north.

The ongoing fighting sets the backdrop for a busy week of diplomacy in Europe, including summits for EU, NATO and G7 leaders. US President Joe Biden will also visit Poland on Friday, according to US officials.

The capture of Mariupol would give the Russians control of part of Ukraine’s southern coast along the strategically important Sea of ​​Azov and potentially allow Moscow to free troops tied up in the siege for other offensive operations.

The status of Mariupol is a sticking point in Kyiv-Moscow peace talks as it is part of Ukrainian-held territory claimed by Russia-backed separatists, according to two people briefed on the negotiations.

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, rejected Russia’s offer, saying: “There can be no talk of surrender [Mariupol] and laying down of arms”. “We have already informed the Russian side about this,” she told news site Ukrainska Pravda, while urging Russia to open safe corridors for civilians to flee.

The port city was devastated by Russian heavy weapons, with entire districts unrecognizable under relentless artillery fire since the end of February. More than 200,000 residents are trapped without electricity, gas or water in sub-zero temperatures and struggle to find food every day.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has accused Russian forces of targeting civilians in the city, including by bombing an art school on Sunday where hundreds of women, children and the elderly had taken shelter.

“People hid there. Hide from grenades and bomb attacks. There were no military positions,” said Zelenskyy in the early hours of Monday morning. “There were about 400 civilians, mostly women and children, elderly people. You are under the rubble. We don’t know how many are alive at the moment.”

Ukrainian officials said they plan to send 50 buses to evacuate more people from Mariupol, one of several efforts across the country to help civilians flee frontline areas. Zelenskyi added that 4,000 residents of Mariupol were evacuated to the city of Zaporizhia on Sunday.

Around 10 million civilians have been displaced inside Ukraine since the conflict began, including 3.4 million who have fled the country, according to the United Nations. More than 2 million, mostly women and children, have crossed the border into Poland.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed Kyiv used “Nazis”, “foreign mercenaries” and “bandits” to hold up to 130,000 civilians hostage in Mariupol. It denies any responsibility for the civilian casualties in Mariupol and blames them on “provocations” by Ukrainian nationalists.

Petro Andryushchenko, an assistant to the city’s mayor, told Human Rights Watch Sunday that “more than 3,000 civilians may have died since the fighting began,” but added that the exact number is unclear. Local authorities reported that at least 80 percent of the city’s residential buildings were damaged or destroyed.

In Mariupol, the situation “became so dramatic that people began to find their way out of the city despite unsecured corridors,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Financial Times.

The Ukrainian military reported a relative lull in Russian attacks over the weekend and noted a drop in the number of fighter jets deployed. It claimed to continue counterattacks, including airstrikes on the Russian positions and supply lines.

An update from British intelligence says Russian forces driving west from Crimea towards Odessa were still attempting to bypass Mykolaiv but had made “little progress over the past week”.

The defense ministry added that a naval blockade of Ukraine’s coast “is likely to exacerbate the humanitarian situation” by preventing “essential supplies” from reaching civilians.

The attack on Mariupol has intensified as Russia and Ukraine continue negotiations to end the war, with Turkish officials involved in mediation claiming the two sides are nearing an agreement.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said that “the parties are close to reaching an agreement on fundamental issues.” “It is not so easy to negotiate or come to an agreement during war when civilians are dying. But I want to say that there is a dynamic,” he said.

Kyiv and its western allies fear Russia may buy time in peace talks to replenish Moscow’s forces and launch a broader offensive.

Zelenskyy raised the prospect of further peace talks in the city of Jerusalem after speaking to Israel’s Knesset via video call on Sunday.

Zelenskyi said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was “trying to find a way to negotiate with Russia,” adding “so that sooner or later we start talking to Russia, maybe in Jerusalem.” This is the right place to find peace. If it is possible.” Ukraine rejects Russia’s ultimatum to hand over Mariupol

Adam Bradshaw

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