News Id: 844519

Ukrainian commander in Mariupol says forces ‘facing last days, if not hours’

Marine commander appeals for help as another Russian ultimatum calling for remaining troops in city to surrender expires.

THE GUARDIAN:  Marine commander appeals for help as another Russian ultimatum calling for remaining troops in city to surrender expires.

A Ukrainian marine commander fighting in Mariupol has said his forces are “maybe facing our last days, if not hours”, as another Russian ultimatum to the remaining Ukrainian troops in the besieged port city to surrender or die expired with no mass capitulation.

“The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one,” Serhiy Volyna, a commander from the 36th separate marine brigade, said in a video message posted on Facebook. “We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the procedure of extraction and take us to the territory of a third-party state.”

Vastly outnumbered Ukrainian forces have formed a stubborn pocket of resistance in the Azovstal iron and steelworks – a sprawling mass of tunnels and workshops spread over four square miles in the south-east of the city and the last holdout of troops defending Mariupol.

Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 2pm (11am GMT) Wednesday deadline that just five people had surrendered. Similar surrender demands earlier this week were ignored.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said an estimated 1,000 civilians were sheltering at the plant. He said he remained ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for safe passage for the trapped civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukrainian troops said on Tuesday the Russian military had dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of the plant and hit a makeshift hospital where hundreds were staying.

Serhiy Taruta, the former governor of Donetsk and a Mariupol native, said 300 people, including wounded troops and civilians with children, were sheltering at the hospital. The reports could not be independently verified by the Guardian.

Moscow is edging closer to full control of the city in what would be its biggest prize since it invaded Ukraine in February. Relentless bombardment and street fighting have left much of it pulverised, killing at least 21,000 people by Ukrainian estimates. Those who haven’t managed to flee have been trapped for weeks without power, running water and other supplies.

Ukraine announced plans on Wednesday morning to send 90 buses to evacuate 6,000 civilians from Mariupol, saying it had reached a “preliminary agreement” with Russia on a safe corridor, for the first time in weeks. None of those earlier agreements succeeded on the ground, with Moscow blocking the convoys.

On Wednesday evening the Donetsk regional governor said fewer buses than planned had reached the city. “People of course gathered at the agreed meeting points, but few of them got on to the buses,” Pavlo Kyrylenko said, providing no figures.

Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said on Wednesday that 100,000 civilians remained in the city, and that about 40,000 civilians had been forcibly moved to Russia or Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine.

Boychenko urged residents to leave if they could. “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,” he said.

The fall of Mariupol, the largest trading port in the Azov Sea from which Ukraine exports grain, iron, steel and heavy machinery, would be an economic blow to Ukraine and a symbolic victory for Russia. The town is a large port city and a base for Ukrainian armed forces. Taking control would give Moscow a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea.

The long-anticipated large-scale military operation in the Donbas and second phase of the war began on Monday with Russian forces carrying out one of the biggest barrages of missile strikes since the beginning of the invasion.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia was focusing on advancing towards the strategically important Donbas city of Sloviansk, but “so far they are not succeeding”.

So far, according to Ukrainian officials, the frontline in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas is holding. The Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov described Kreminna in northern Luhansk – which was seized by Russian forces on Tuesday – as a “weak spot”.

Moscow’s troops frequently attack Ukrainian positions from all sides, said Zhdanov, and were occupying jumping-off points on three sides of the Donbas region: north, east and south.

The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, said Russian forces may be able to take some territory because of superior numbers and artillery.

It stressed, however: “Russian operations are unlikely to be dramatically more successful than previous major offensives around Kyiv. The Russian military is unlikely to have addressed the root causes – poor coordination, the inability to conduct cross-country operations, and low morale – that impeded prior offensives.”

On the diplomatic front, a UN spokesperson said on Wednesday that the UN secretary general António Guterres has asked to meet Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy in their respective capitals.

The UN has been largely marginalised in the crisis, in part because the war has divided the UN security council permanent members: the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia. China has refused to condemn the invasion, depicting Russia as a victim of western efforts to weaken it.

On Tuesday a group of more than 200 former senior UN officials wrote to Guterres, warning him that unless he did more personally to take a lead in trying to mediate a peace in Ukraine, the UN risked not just irrelevance, but its continued existence.