Russia says its troops cleared the urban area of the key city of Mariupol and only a small contingent of Ukrainian fighters remained inside a steel factory in the besieged southern port.
Russia’s claim to have all but taken control of Mariupol – the scene of the war’s heaviest fighting and worst humanitarian catastrophe – could not be independently verified. It would be the first major city to have fallen to Russian forces since the February 24 invasion.
“The entire urban area of Mariupol has been completely cleared … remnants of the Ukrainian group are currently completely blockaded on the territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant,” said Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defence ministry’s chief spokesman.
“Their only chance to save their lives is to voluntarily lay down their arms and surrender.”
Konashenkov said 1,464 Ukrainian servicemen have already surrendered “in the course of liberation of Mariupol”.
Russia’s defence ministry said if Ukrainian forces still fighting in Mariupol lay down their arms starting at 6am Moscow time (03:00 GMT) their lives will be spared, Tass news agency reported.
In the key port city, journalists in Russian-held districts reached the steel factory, one of two metals plants where defenders have held out in underground tunnels and bunkers.
The factory was reduced to a ruin of twisted steel and blasted concrete, with no sign of defenders present. Several bodies of civilians lay scattered on nearby streets, including a woman in a pink parka and white shoes.
Someone had spray-painted “mined” on a fence by an obliterated filling station. In a rare sign of life, one red car drove slowly down an otherwise empty street, the word “children” scrawled on a card taped to the windshield.
‘Absolutely hate them’
No immediate reaction came from Kyiv to the Russian assertions.
“The situation is very difficult” in Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Ukrayinska Pravda news portal. “Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis … Nevertheless, the guys are defending themselves.”
Speaking in an online address, he accused Russia of trying to wipe out the city’s inhabitants but did not address Moscow’s claim of seizing Mariupol.
Zelenskyy threatened to withdraw from the continuing peace negotiations with Russia if Ukrainian fighters trapped in the port city are killed.
“What they are doing right now … could put a stop to any form of negotiation,” Zelenskyy said in an interview with a Ukrainian news website.
“There are troops there who absolutely hate them, and I don’t think they will let them live,” the Ukrainian leader said, referring to the fact many of the fighters in Mariupol are part of the far-right Azov Batallion.
‘23,367 irreplaceable losses’
Zelenskyy has said about 2,500-3,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed so far and as many as 20,000 Russian troops.
But Konashenkov gave a significantly higher death toll on Saturday.
“As of 16 April, the Ukrainian contingent’s casualties in Mariupol alone amounted to over 4,000 people … The Russian defence ministry possesses credible data on real losses suffered by the Ukrainian army, national guard, and foreign mercenaries, which Zelenskyy is afraid of voicing to the people of Ukraine.
“As of today, the irreplaceable losses amount to 23,367 people.”
A month and a half into President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia is trying to capture territory in the south and east after withdrawing from the north following an assault on Kyiv that was repelled at the capital’s outskirts.
Russian troops that pulled out of the north left behind towns littered with bodies of civilians.
Putin appears determined to capture more Donbas territory to claim victory in a war that has left Russia subject to increasingly punitive Western sanctions and with few allies.
Zelenskyy told Ukrainian reporters the world should prepare “in a number of ways” for the possibility Russia might use nuclear weapons. He did not give evidence for the assertion.
Last month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would resort to nuclear weapons only in the case of a “threat to the existence” of the country – and not as a result of the Ukraine conflict.