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Vladimir Putin’s troops have threatened to shoot civilians in the besieged city of Mariupol if they do not wear white ribbons on their clothes.
Russia has been accused of forcing civilians to wear the white ribbons, a symbol of the Russian army, so that they become ‘bait’ for Ukrainian snipers – and in turn help Putin’s men find out where the snipers are hidden.
Petro Andriushchenko, the advisor to the Mayor of Mariupol, said on Telegram: ‘The occupiers no longer ‘mildly’ propose that civilians wear white ribbons to mark themselves out – they have turned to direct threats to open fire on anyone seen on the street without such ribbons.
‘Russians are gradually turning the city into a true ghetto for Ukrainians, at the same time using civilians as bait to detect hotspots.’
The disturbing development comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenenksy today said he is ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe passage of civilians and Ukrainian troops who remain in Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko on Wednesday urged civilians to flee Mariupol as Ukraine announced plans to send 90 buses to evacuate 6,000 people from the city, saying it had reached a ‘preliminary agreement’ with Russia on a safe corridor for the first time in weeks. But none of those earlier agreements have actually succeeded on the ground, with Moscow blocking all convoys.
Zelensky said the situation in the city, where 100,000 people remain, is worsening and hundreds who are understood to be wounded are not able to access medical supplies.
Ukrainian troops who are holed up in the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, the last major Ukrainian pocket of resistance in the strategic port city, today ignored a second Russian ultimatum to surrender or die.
Serhiy Volyna, who is among Ukrainian marines defending the city from Russian advances, today warned his troops are facing their ‘last days, if not hours’ after they refused to lay down their arms.
Volyna said Putin‘s soldiers are outnumbering them ten to one and pleaded for help evacuating wounded civilians.
Thousands of civilians and troops are now barricaded in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol as Russia intensifies its offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Volyna, from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, urged world leaders to help the civilians – including women and children – and Ukrainian soldiers to flee and take them to safety on the territory of a third state.
An advisor to the mayor of Mariupol described a ‘horrible situation’ in the encircled complex and reported that up to 2,000 people – mostly women and children – are without ‘normal’ supplies of drinking water, food, and fresh air.
Vladimir Putin’s troops have threatened to shoot civilians in the besieged city of Mariupol if they do not wear white ribbons on their clothes. Pictured: A man and a child cycle past burnt out buses in Mariupol on Tuesday
A Russian tank with the notorious ‘Z’ marking is seen in front of a damaged apartment building in Mariupol on Tuesday
Residents sit on benches amid ruins in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Tuesday
Serhiy Volyna, who is among Ukrainian marines defending Mariupol from Russian advances, said Vladimir Putin’s soldiers are outnumbering them 10 to one and pleaded for help evacuating wounded civilians
Thousands of civilians and troops are now barricaded in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, the last major Ukrainian pocket of resistance in the strategic port city, as Russia intensifies its offensive in eastern Ukraine. Pictured: Smoke rises from the steel plant on Tuesday
Evacuees wait before boarding a bus to leave the city during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port of Mariupol on Wednesday
Evacuees wait before boarding a bus to leave the city of Mariupol on Wednesday
The disturbing development comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenenksy today said he is ready to swap Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe passage of civilians and Ukrainian troops who remain in Mariupol
Volyna made the ‘appeal for our lives’ just before the deadline for Ukrainian soldiers defending Mariupol to surrender expired on Wednesday afternoon with no mass capitulation.
Moscow, in its latest ultimatum issued in its battle to capture Mariupol, demanded the city’s defenders to surrender on Wednesday by 1400 Moscow time (1100 GMT). Russia’s defence ministry said a humanitarian corridor would be opened for Ukrainian soldiers who laid down their arms.
Russian-backed separatists claimed five Ukrainian soldiers had laid down their arms and left the Azovstal plant and more than 140 civilians had been evacuated. There was no confirmation of this from Kyiv.
Ukrainian troops who have defended the city for seven weeks are still continuing to defend the steel plant where hundreds of civilians are seeking shelter from relentless Russian bombardment.
Mariupol, which has been encircled by Russian troops for weeks, has seen the fiercest fighting and most comprehensive destruction since Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.
Volyna said in a video: ‘This is our appeal to the world. This could be the last appeal of our lives. We are probably facing our last days, if not hours.
‘The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one. They have advantage in the air, in artillery, in their forces on land, in equipment and in tanks.
‘We are only defending one object – the Azovstal plant where, in addition to military personnel, there are also civilians who have fallen victim to this war.
‘We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the procedures of ‘extraction’ and take us to the territory of a third party state.’
Ukraine has said its soldiers barricaded in the steel plant will continue to defy Russia’s demand for them to lay down their arms today.
Kyiv said Russia was hitting the steel plant with bunker-buster bombs.
‘The world watches the murder of children online and remains silent,’ presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.
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 and hit an ‘improvised’ hospital.
Serhiy Taruta, the former governor of the Donetsk region and a Mariupol native, also reported the bombing of the hospital, where he said 300 people, including wounded troops and civilians with children, were sheltered.
It comes as Russia intensified its offensive in the east of Ukraine. Control of Donbas and Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean peninsula that it annexed in 2014, depriving Ukraine of much of its coastline.
Ukrainian official Pavlo Kyrylenko, who oversees the Donetsk region’s military administration, insisted Mariupol remained contested.
‘The Ukrainian flag is flying over the city,’ he said. ‘There are certain districts where street fighting is continuing. I can’t say the Russians are controlling them.’
Offering some respite, Kyiv said early Wednesday it had agreed with Russian forces to open a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly to leave Mariupol west to the Ukraine-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia.
‘We have managed to get a preliminary agreement on a humanitarian corridor for women, children and elderly persons,’ Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.
Vereshchuk told civilians to gather at 2pm (1100 GMT) for the evacuations heading to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia.
But she warned that ‘with regard to the very difficult security situation, changes may occur during the corridor’.
Dozens of civilians managed to board a small convoy of buses in Mariupol that then departed from a planned evacuation point to Ukraine-controlled territory, two Reuters witnesses said.
Kyiv said early Wednesday it had agreed with Russian forces to open a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly to leave Mariupol west to the Ukraine-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia. Pictured: Evacuees wait before boarding a bus to leave the city of Mariupol on Wednesday
Evacuees wait before boarding a bus to leave the city of Mariupol following Russian shelling on Wednesday
Dozens of civilians managed to board a small convoy of buses in Mariupol that then departed from a planned evacuation point to Ukraine-controlled territory, two Reuters witnesses said
Local residents carry belongings past a building destroyed by Russian bombs in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Tuesday as they try to flee the city
Mariupol, which has been encircled by Russian troops for weeks, has seen the fiercest fighting and most comprehensive destruction since Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24
A residential building in Mariupol has been split in half as a result of Russian shelling on Tuesday
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko urged locals to leave the city, though previous such agreements have fallen apart, with Russians preventing buses meant to pick up evacuees from entering the city or shelling escape routes.
‘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 wrote in a statement issued by the city council.
Boychenko asked people who had already left Mariupol to contact relatives still in the city and urge them to evacuate. He said 200,000 people had already left the city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000.
Boychenko said buses would be used for the evacuation and one pickup point will be near the Azovstal steel mill, where a Ukrainian police official has said civilians, including children, are sheltering among the city’s last known defenders.
Many previous evacuation efforts relied on civilians using private cars after efforts to bring buses from Ukraine-held territory into the city failed. But with fuel supplies and the number of such vehicles dwindling in the city, that is becoming increasingly difficult.
Vereshchuk previously said no agreement had been reached with Russia on an evacuation route on each of the past three days. There was no immediate confirmation from the Russian side.
Ukrainian politician Dmytro Gurin, who is from Mariupol, expressed his scepticism that Russia would allow civilians to leave the city.
‘Of course we all want this humanitarian corridor to start working but I’m pretty pessimistic about it,’ he said.
A former resident of Mariupol said that people in the city are nervous about leaving because they fear other areas of Ukraine are being bombed just as much.
‘They think that what is happening in Mariupol [is] happening everywhere,’ Roman Skyliarov told the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme. ‘They don’t have full information at all because they don’t have internet.’
Meanwhile, Zelenksy said on Wednesday that European Union membership is a ‘priority’ for Ukraine during a joint press conference with visiting EU chief Charles Michel.
‘Regarding our future membership in the EU, it is a priority for our state, for the strength of our people, those who are ready to defend our land against Russian invaders even without arms,’ Zelensky said.
Elsewhere on the front lines, Ukraine’s defence ministry reported its troops had beaten back a Russian attack in the city of Izium, south of the partly blockaded second city of Kharkiv.
Ukrainian forces were also able to hold back attempts to advance along its 300 mile front line and managed to retake the town of Marinka in Donetsk. Kyiv said it had claimed enemy losses during the Ukrainian counter-attack near the town.
In the town of Novodruzhesk, 65-year-old resident Nadya said: ‘We are bombed everywhere.’
‘It’s a miracle that we’re still alive,’ she said, her voice trembling.
‘We were lying on the ground and waiting. Since February 24, we’ve been sleeping in the cellar.’
The governor of the eastern Lugansk region Sergiy Gaiday said Ukrainian forces were holding their ground in the face of heavy fighting.
‘We have positional battles in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna. The enemy cannot do anything though. They are losing people and equipment there,’ Gaiday said.
‘Our guys are shooting down drones there. Shooting down planes on the border of the Lugansk and Kharkiv regions, so they are holding on.’
In Kharkiv, at least four people were killed and three wounded in a Russian attack on a residential area of the city.
An explosion also rocked Kramatorsk, killing at least one person and wounding three.
In the southern city of Bashtanka, an unspecified number of people were wounded when Russian forces shelled the hospital, destroying the reception area and the dialysis unit, the head of the regional council, Hanna Zamazeeva, said on Facebook.
A local resident pushes a dog in a pram past a building destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol on Tuesday
A view shows buildings damaged during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Mariupol on Tuesday
Meanwhile Ukraine received fighter jets to help resist the Russian invasion. The Pentagon said that Ukraine had recently received fighter planes and parts to bolster its air force, declining to specify the number of aircraft and their origin.
Kyiv has asked its Western partners to provide MiG-29s, which its pilots already know how to fly and a handful of Eastern European countries have.
The eastern cities of Kharkiv and Kramatorsk also came under deadly attack. Russia said it struck areas around Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro west of the Donbas with missiles.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the targets included troop concentrations and missile-warhead storage depots, in or near several cities or villages. Those claims could not be independently verified.
Russian troops managed to take control of the eastern city of Kreminna after hours of relentless bombing, as gunfights between Putin’s men and battling Ukrainian forces continue.
‘Control over the city of Kreminna is lost, street fights are taking place,’ Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had begun ‘the battle for the Donbas’.
Russian forces are now advancing to the nearby towns of Zarichne and Tors’ke and have reached the outskirts of Lozove in eastern Ukraine.
Britain’s defense ministry said Russian attacks on cities across Ukraine are an attempt to disrupt the movement of Ukrainian reinforcements and weapons to the east.
While Russian air operations in northern Ukraine are likely to remain at a low level following the withdrawal of forces from the Kyiv region, there is still a risk of ‘precision strikes against priority targets throughout Ukraine,’ the ministry says.
In a briefing released late Tuesday, the ministry said Ukrainian forces had repelled ‘numerous attempted advances’ by Russian troops as shelling and attacks increased along the line of control that has separated Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years.
‘Russia’s ability to progress continues to be impacted by the environmental, logistical and technical challenges that have beset them so far, combined with the resilience of the highly motivated Ukrainian armed forces,’ the ministry said.
Both Ukraine and Russia have described the assault that began Monday as a new phase of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russian military was throwing everything it has into the battle, with most of its combat-ready forces now concentrated in Ukraine and just across the border in Russia.
‘They have driven almost everyone and everything that is capable of fighting us against Ukraine,’ he said in his nightly video address to the nation.
Despite claims that they are hitting only military sites, the Russians continue to target residential areas and kill civilians, he said.
‘The Russian army in this war is writing itself into world history forever as the most barbaric and inhuman army in the world,’ Zelenskyy said.
He also said the Kremlin has not responded to a proposal to exchange Viktor Medvedchuk, the jailed leader of a pro-Russia party, for the Mariupol defenders.
Weeks ago, after the abortive Russian push to take Kyiv, the Kremlin declared that its main goal was the capture of the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
A Russian victory in the Donbas would deprive Ukraine of the industrial assets concentrated there, including mines, metals plants and heavy-equipment factories.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessments of the war, said the Russians had added two more combat units, known as battalion tactical groups, in Ukraine over the preceding 24 hours. That brought the total units in the country to 78, all of them in the south and the east, up from 65 last week, the official said.
That would translate to 55,000 to 62,000 troops, based on what the Pentagon said at the start of the war was the typical unit strength of 700 to 800 soldiers. But accurately determining Russia’s fighting capacity at this stage is difficult.
A European official, likewise speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said Russia also has 10,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters in the Donbas. They are a mix of mercenaries from Russia’s private Wagner Group and Russian proxy fighters from Syria and Libya, according to the official.
While Ukraine portrayed the attacks on Monday as the start of the long-feared offensive in the east, some observers noted that an escalation has been underway there for some time and questioned whether this was truly the start of a new offensive.
The U.S. official said the offensive in the Donbas has begun in a limited way, mainly in an area southwest of the city of Donetsk and south of Izyum.
Justin Crump, a former British tank commander now with the strategic advisory company Sibylline, said the Ukrainian comments could, in part, be an attempt to persuade allies to send more weapons.
‘What they’re trying to do by positioning this, I think, is… focus people’s minds and effort by saying, `Look, the conflict has begun in the Donbas,” Crump said. ‘That partly puts pressure on NATO and EU suppliers to say, `Guys, we’re starting to fight now. We need this now.”
President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new weapons package in the coming days that will include additional artillery and ammunition, according to a U.S. official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Canada and the Netherlands also planned to send more heavy weapons, their prime ministers said.