Russian forces tighten noose around Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol
Another attempt to extricate civilians failed because of continued fighting
Russian forces tightened the noose around the defenders holed up on Wednesday in a mammoth steel plant that represented the last known Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol, as a fighter apparently on the inside warned in a video plea for help: "We may have only a few days or hours left."
With the holdouts coming under punishing new bombing attacks, another attempt to extricate civilians trapped in the pulverized port city failed because of continued fighting.
Ukraine said the Russians dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of the sprawling Azvostal steel plant, believed to be the last pocket of resistance in the city.
A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by the Russians' estimate, remained in the plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers spread out across about 11 square kilometres. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said about 1,000 civilians were also trapped there.
A Ukrainian posted a video plea on Facebook urging world leaders to help evacuate people from the plant, saying, "We have more than 500 wounded soldiers and hundreds of civilians with us, including women and children."
The officer, who identified himself as Serhiy Volynskyy of the 36th Marine Brigade, said: "This may be our last appeal. We may have only a few days or hours left." The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
The Russian side issued a new ultimatum to the defenders to surrender, but the Ukrainians have ignored all previous demands.
- PhotosUkrainian family who made daring escape from Mariupol among 5 million who have now fled country
All told, more than 100,000 people were believed trapped with little if any food, water, medicine or heat in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the latest effort to open a safe corridor for women, children and the elderly to escape failed because the Russians did not observe a ceasefire. Many previous such agreements have fallen apart because of continued fighting.
The Kremlin's stated goal is the capture of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking eastern region that's partly held by Moscow-backed separatists.
Mariupol, Ukraine's 10th-largest city and located in the Donbas, came under attack from Russian forces almost immediately after the invasion began on Feb. 24.
Its capture would be a big strategic prize, linking the Donbas with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014, and give President Vladimir Putin a badly needed victory two months into the war, after the botched attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.
Russians make gains
The Luhansk governor said Russian forces now control 80 per cent of the region, which is one of two regions that make up the Donbas. Before the invasion, the Kyiv government controlled 60 per cent of the Luhansk region.
Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians have strengthened their attacks there. After seizing Kreminna, Haidai said the Russians now are threatening the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna and he has urged all residents to evacuate immediately.
The Donetsk region, also part of the Donbas, has seen extremely heavy fighting as well — particularly around the port city of Mariupol.
Kremlin claims ICBM launch
The Russian Defence Ministry reported the first launch of its new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile. Putin said this weapon is unique and will make those who threaten Russia "think twice."
The ministry said the missile was launched Wednesday from the Plesetsk launch facility in northern Russia and its practice warheads hit designated targets at the Kura firing range on the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula.
The Sarmat is a heavy missile, intended to replace the Soviet-made Voyevoda missile which was code-named Satan by the West. Putin said it can penetrate any prospective missile defence.
Putin called this "a big, significant event" for Russia's defence industry. He said the Sarmat will ensure Russia's security from external threats and "make those who, in the heat of frantic, aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country, think twice."
Russia relies on land-based ICBMs as the core of its nuclear deterrent, and is counting on the Sarmat for decades to come. The U.S. has its own nuclear-capable ICBMs, but recently called off a test to avoid escalating tensions.
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the state Roscosmos agency that oversees the missile factory building the Sarmat, described Wednesday's test as a "present to NATO" in a comment on his messaging app channel.
UN chief wants meeting with Putin, Zelensky
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wants to meet with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine in Moscow and Kyiv to press for peace.
He made the request by letter Tuesday to Zelensky and Putin, asking to "discuss whatever urgent steps can be taken to stop the fighting."
As of Wednesday, his spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the UN has received no response.
Guterres called Tuesday for a four-day "humanitarian pause" in hostilities from Thursday through Sunday, the Orthodox Easter holiday, to allow for evacuating civilians and providing aid.
The UN leader has faced questions about whether he would get involved personally. His spokesperson said Guterres "has been doing what he thinks is most practical and the best way forward."
Meanwhile, the Kremlin's spokesperson says Russia has presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands as part of peace talks and is now awaiting a response from Kyiv.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said Kyiv was reviewing the proposals.
Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Russia has passed on a draft document containing "absolutely clear, elaborate wording" to Ukraine and now "the ball is in their court, we're waiting for a response."
Peskov didn't give further details. He blamed Ukraine for the slow progress, claiming Kyiv constantly deviates from confirmed agreements. "The Ukrainians do not show a great inclination to intensify the negotiation process," he said.
Ukraine presented Russia with its own draft last month in Istanbul. Moscow has long demanded, among other things, that Ukraine drop any bid to join NATO. Ukraine has said it would agree to that in return for security guarantees from a number of other countries.
Millions of refugees
The United Nations' refugee agency says that more than five million people have now fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.
The Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Wednesday put the total number of refugees at 5.01 million.
More than half of the total, over 2.8 million, fled at least at first to Poland. Although many have stayed there, an unknown number have traveled onward. There are few border checks within the European Union.
UNHCR said on March 30 that four million people had fled Ukraine. The exodus was somewhat slower in recent weeks than at the beginning of the war.
In addition to the refugees, the UN says that more than seven million people have been displaced within Ukraine.
Ukraine had a pre-war population of 44 million.
With files from Reuters