Russia says no escape for last defenders of Ukrainian port, prepares for new offensive

KYIV/LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russia said it had taken control of the port in Mariupol on Wednesday and that more than 1,000 Ukrainian marines had surrendered in the southeastern Ukrainian city, whose capture would free up forces for a wider offensive.

The capture of the Azovstal industrial district, where the marines have been holed up, would give the Russians full control of Mariupol, Ukraine’s main Sea of Azov port, reinforce a southern land corridor and expand its occupation of the country’s east.

Surrounded and bombarded by Russian troops for weeks and the focus of some of the heaviest fighting in the war, Mariupol would be the first major city to fall since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Russia’s defence ministry said 162 officers were among 1,026 soldiers of the 36th Marine Brigade who had surrendered to Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces near the Illich Iron and Steel Works in Azovstal.

Russian television showed pictures of what it said were marines giving themselves up, many of them wounded.

The defence ministry later said Mariupol’s trade seaport was under full control and remnants of Ukrainian forces were blocked and unable to escape, Interfax news agency reported.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were attacking Azovstal and the port, but a defence ministry spokesman said he had no information about any surrender.

Reuters journalists accompanying Russian-backed separatists saw flames billowing from the Azovstal area on Tuesday, a day after Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade said its troops had run out of ammunition.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ardent supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged remaining Ukrainians trapped in Azovstal to surrender.

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“Within Azovstal at the moment there are about 200 wounded who cannot receive any medical assistance,” Kadyrov said in a Telegram post. “For them and all the rest it would be better to end this pointless resistance and go home to their families.”

WEAPONS APPEAL

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed in Mariupol and Russia has been massing thousands of troops in the area for a new assault, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

“We have destroyed more Russian weapons and military equipment than some armies in Europe currently possess. But this is not enough,” he said in an online video, adding that if Ukraine did not get more tanks, jets, and missile systems, other countries in Europe would be the next targets of Russia.

The United States, France and Germany all pledged to send more weapons, with U.S. President Joe Biden listing artillery systems, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

Ukraine accuses Russia of blocking aid convoys to civilians marooned in Mariupol. Its mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said Russia had brought in mobile crematoria “to get rid of evidence of war crimes” – a statement that was not possible to verify. Moscow has blamed Ukraine for civilian deaths and accused Kyiv of denigrating Russian armed forces.

Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine has seen more than 4.6 million people flee abroad, killed or wounded thousands and left Russia increasingly isolated on the world stage.

In the village of Lubianka northwest of Kyiv, from where Russian forces had tried and failed to subdue the capital before being driven away, a message to Ukrainians had been written on the wall of a house that had been occupied by Russian troops.

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“We did not want this … forgive us,” it said.

The Kremlin says it launched a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “liberate” Ukraine, a message villagers said had been repeated to them by the Russian troops.

“To liberate us from what? We’re peaceful…We’re Ukrainians,” Lubianka resident Viktor Shaposhnikov said.

FOUR PRESIDENTS IN KYIV

The presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became the latest in a string of European politicians to visit Kyiv but Germany’s president did not join them as he had planned. Zelenskiy said there had been no official approach and one of his officials denied a newspaper report he had rejected the visit due to Steinmeier’s recent good relations with Moscow.

The Kremlin denounced Biden’s description of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine as amounting to genocide, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying this was unacceptable coming from the leader of a country he said had committed crimes of its own.

An initial report by a mission of experts set up by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe documents a “catalogue of inhumanity” by Russian troops in Ukraine, according to the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE.

“This includes evidence of direct targeting of civilians, attacks on medical facilities, rape, executions, looting and forced deportation of civilians to Russia,” Michael Carpenter said.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and has said Ukrainian and Western allegations of war crimes are fabricated.

The Kyiv district police chief said 720 bodies had been found in the region around the capital from where Russian forces had retreated, with more than 200 people missing.

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan said after visiting Bucha, a town where bound bodies of people apparently shot at close range were found, that Ukraine was a “crime scene” and this was within ICC jurisdiction.

“We have to pierce the fog of war to get to the truth,” Khan said on Twitter.

The major of the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest, said bombing had increased significantly on Wednesday and satellite photos from Maxar technology showed long columns of armoured vehicles in the region.

At least seven people were killed, including a two-year-old boy, and 22 wounded in Kharkiv over the past 24 hours and Ukrainian forces shot down two Russian planes attacking towns in the region, regional Governor Oleh Synehubov said earlier.

Reuters could not immediately verify his statement, but filmed people in Kharkiv quietly carrying bodies from an apartment block hit by shelling. A woman sat sobbing by the body of her son, lying on the floor in the room she said she had implored him to leave before a second explosion killed him.

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