Ukrainian fighters who were holed up in a massive steel plant in the last known pocket of resistance inside the shattered city of Mariupol ignored a surrender-or-die ultimatum from Russia on Sunday and held out against the capture of the strategically vital port.
The fall of Mariupol, the site of a merciless 7-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Moscow’s biggest victory of the war and free up troops to take part in a potentially climactic battle for control of Ukraine’s industrial east.
Capturing the southern city would also allow Russia to fully secure a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a major port and its prized industrial assets.
As its missiles and rockets slammed into other parts of the country, Russia estimated that 2,500 Ukrainian troops and about 400 foreign mercenaries were dug in at the sprawling Azovstal steel mill, which covers more than 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) and is laced with tunnels.
Many Mariupol civilians, including children, are also sheltering at the Azovstal plant, Mikhail Vershinin, head of the city’s patrol police, told Mariupol television on Sunday. He said they are hiding from Russian shelling, and from any occupying Russian soldiers.
Moscow had given the defenders a midday deadline to surrender and “keep their lives,” but the Ukrainians rejected it, as they’ve done with previous ultimatums.
“We will fight absolutely to the end, to the win, in this war,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal vowed on ABC’s “This Week.” He said Ukraine is prepared to end the war through diplomacy if possible, “but we do not have intention to surrender.”
As for besieged Mariupol, there appeared to be little hope Sunday of military rescue by Ukrainian forces anytime soon. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the remaining Ukrainian troops and civilians in Mariupol are basically encircled. He said they “continue their struggle,” but that the city effectively doesn’t exist anymore because of massive destruction.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent Easter greetings via Twitter, saying: “The Lord’s Resurrection is a testimony to the victory of life over death, good over evil.”
If Mariupol falls, Russian forces there are expected to join an all-out offensive in the coming days for control of the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin is bent on capturing after failing in its bid to take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
The relentless bombardment and street fighting in Mariupol have killed at least 21,000 people, by the Ukrainians’ estimate. A maternity hospital was hit by a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.
An estimated 100,000 remained in the city out of a prewar 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 suffering of the war.
“All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, said in announcing the latest ultimatum.
Drone footage carried by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti showed towering plumes of smoke over the steel complex, which sits on the outskirts of the bombed-out city, on 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 mostly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory.