Russia has urged Ukrainian forces in the port city of Mariupol to lay down their arms and surrender in exchange for safe passage out of town, but officials in Kyiv immediately rejected the offer as out of the question.
Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev said on Sunday that Moscow would allow two corridors out of the coastal city, heading east towards Russia and west to other parts of Ukraine.
He gave Mariupol until 5am on Monday (02:00 GMT) to respond to the offer, saying a “terrible humanitarian catastrophe has developed” in the besieged city, where fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces have trapped residents without food, water or power.
“All who lay down their arms are guaranteed safe passage out of Mariupol,” he said, without saying what action Russia would take if the offer was rejected.
The Russian Ministry of Defence, addressing Mariupol authorities on messaging app Telegram, said the officials “now have the right to make a historic choice” and warned they could face a military tribunal if they sided with what it described as “criminals”.
But Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk rejected the demand.
“There can be no question of any surrender, laying down of arms. We have already informed the Russian side about this,” she told the news outlet Ukrainska Pravda.
“I wrote: ‘Instead of wasting time on eight pages of letters, just open the corridor.’”
In a video on Telegram, Vereshchuk added that the Russians “continue to behave like terrorists”.
“They say they agree on the humanitarian corridor and in the morning, shell the place for evacuation,” she said.
‘Every house became a target’
Mariupol, a city of 400,000 people, has suffered some of the heaviest bombardments since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. City officials say at least 2,300 people have died, some buried in mass graves.
Mariupol Mayor Piotr Andryushchenko also rejected the Russian demand for surrender, saying in a Facebook post he did not need to wait until morning to respond and cursing at the Russians, according to the news agency Interfax Ukraine.
Moscow’s call for surrender came hours after Ukrainian authorities said the Russian military bombed an art school in Mariupol that was sheltering hundreds of people. There was no immediate word on casualties in the school attack.
Speaking in a video address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that about 400 civilians were taking shelter at the art school in the besieged Azov Sea port city when it was struck by a Russian bomb.
“They are under the rubble, and we don’t know how many of them have survived,” he said. “But we know that we will certainly shoot down the pilot who dropped that bomb, like about 100 other such mass murderers whom we already have downed.”
The raid on the art school was the second time in less than a week that officials reported an attack on a public building where Mariupol residents had taken shelter.
On Wednesday, a bomb hit a theatre where more than 1,000 people were believed to be sheltering.
Ukrainian officials have not given an update on the search of the theatre since Friday, when they said at least 130 people had been rescued and another 1,300 were trapped by rubble.
Officials say fighting continued in the city on Sunday, and tearful evacuees who managed to make it to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, about 1,100km (680 miles) away, described how “battles took place over every street”.
“Every house became a target,” said Olga Nikitina, who was embraced by her brother as she got off the train in Lviv. “Gunfire blew out the windows. The apartment was below freezing.”
Maryna Galla, who narrowly escaped with her 13-year-old son, said she huddled in the basement of a cultural centre along with about 250 people for three weeks without water, electricity or gas.
“We left [home] because shells hit the houses across the road. There was no roof. There were people injured,” Galla said, adding that her mother, father and grandparents stayed behind and “don’t even know that we have left”.
Greece’s consul general in Mariupol, the last European Union diplomat to evacuate the city, said it was joining the ranks of places known for having been destroyed in wars.
“What I saw, I hope no one will ever see,” Manolis Androulakis said as he arrived in the Greek capital, Athens.
The fall of Mariupol would allow Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine to link up. And in recent days, Russian troops have entered Mariupol.
But Western military analysts say that even if the surrounded city is taken, the troops there may be too depleted to help secure Russian breakthroughs on other fronts.
“The block-by-block fighting in Mariupol itself is costing the Russian military time, initiative, and combat power,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a briefing.
In a blunt assessment, the think tank concluded that Russia has failed in its initial campaign to swiftly take the capital of Kyiv and other major cities, stalling its invasion and making a bloody stalemate likely.
United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also said Ukrainian resistance means Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “forces on the ground are essentially stalled”.
“It’s had the effect of him moving his forces into a woodchipper,” Austin told the CBS television network on Sunday.