Russian troops issued a new ultimatum for Ukrainian troops in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel mill to surrender on Wednesday after they ignored Tuesday’s deadline.
The deputy commander of the Azov regiment, who was among the troops remaining in Mariupol, said the Russian military dropped heavy bombs on the steel plant, which has been a strong fighting position for Ukrainian defenders. Russian bombs threaten to flatten what is left of the plant.
The Russian Defense Ministry said those who surrender will be allowed to live and given medical treatment.
Ukrainian troops did not immediately respond to Wednesday’s ultimatum, but they have repeatedly vowed not to give up. The mayor on Wednesday told residents to leave via bus in an agreed upon humanitarian corridor.
The sprawling steel plant in Mariupol covers over 4 square miles and includes a network of tunnels. Reuters, citing the Mariupol city council, reports more than 1,000 civilians and Ukrainian troops are in the mill. According to Russian estimates, the plant holds a few thousand Ukrainian troops.
The complex is likely the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged city of Mariupol. Capturing the city is key to Russia’s goals, as it would secure a land corridor from Russia to the occupied territory of Crimea.
Moscow’s attacks on Mariupol are part of its new wartime strategy: pivoting to a heavy offensive in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbasparts of which were controlled by Russian-backed forces prior to the invasion.
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Russian troops were advancing towards Zaporizhzhia with battles occurring within the region, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.
The head of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, Oleksandr Starukh, described the new advance as “a massive offensive,” according to state news agency Ukrinform. The city’s regional council also warned of the Russian advance, CNN reported.
Starukh said the area around the town of Polohy had worsened with daily attacks, Ukrinform reported, while the regional council said Russian troops were making advances in the direction of nearby Huliaipole and Pokrovske, CNN reported.
The city of Zaporizhzhia is part of a humanitarian evacuation route from Mariupol that deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said would take place Wednesday.
Remaining residents in the port city of Mariupol should leave as Russian forces encircle the last pocket of Ukrainian defense inside the Azovstal steel mill, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said Wednesday.
Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Facebook a humanitarian corridor for women, children and older people had been agreed upon. Boychenko said buses, including one that would pick up residents near the steel mill, would be used in the evacuation. Prior attempts relied on private cars as buses were unable to access to besieged city on the Sea of Azov.
“Do not be frightened and evacuate to Zaporizhzhia, where you can receive all the help you need – food, medicine, essentials – and the main thing is that you will be in safety,” Boychenko wrote in a statement issued by the city council.
More than 400,000 people lived in Mariupol before the Russian invasion, with at least half having since fled, Boychenko said. Russian shelling for weeks has left the city flattened and citizens without food or water.
The attacks, southwest of Donetsk and south of Izyum, have come as Russia continues to add to its forces in Ukraine and resupply those already inside the country, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.
The Russians inserted two battalion tactical groups into Ukraine in the last day, to increase the number to 78, the official said. Russian battalions vary in size from about 800 to 1,000 troops.
Both Ukrainian and Russian officials acknowledged Tuesday the war had entered a new phase. Ukraine’s military said “the occupiers made an attempt to break through our defenses along the entire frontline,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the goal was “full liberation” in Donetsk and Luhansk.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called for a four-day pause in hostilities in Ukraine to observe Holy Week in the Orthodox Christian tradition.
Guterres said the pause should begin Thursday and said it was even more necessary given the intensified attacks in eastern Ukraine this week.
“The onslaught and terrible toll on civilians we have seen so far could pale in comparison to the horror that lies ahead. This cannot be allowed to happen, “Guterres told reporters, urging Russians and Ukrainians” to silence the guns and forge a path to safety for so many at immediate risk. “
Asked about Guterres’ proposal at a UN Security Council meeting Tuesday, Russian deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said he was “skeptical,” but that the decision would be up to Russia’s leaders.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; The Associated Press