Ukraine has rejected Moscow’s ultimatum to surrender the besieged port city of Mariupol and accused Vladimir Putin’s forces of illegally deporting thousands of children to Russia.
As Moscow stepped up one of the most destructive assaults of an invasion that has already displaced 10mn civilians, Kyiv said Russia had deported 2,389 children.
The Donetsk People’s Republic, the Moscow-backed separatist group, said it had evacuated close to 100 children from Mariupol to Bezimenne, a town near the Ukraine-Russia border. Neither claim could be independently verified.
Russia’s military had given Ukraine until 5am on Monday to respond to its surrender terms for Mariupol, which demanded fighters lay down arms and warned local officials they would face “military tribunals” if they resisted.
Russia entered the 26th day of its invasion still struggling to take control of any of Ukraine’s biggest population centres or make significant territorial advances, particularly in the north.
The continued fighting will set the backdrop for a busy week of diplomacy in Europe, including summits for the leaders of the EU, the Nato alliance and the G7 heads of government. Joe Biden, US president, will also visit Poland on Friday, according to US officials.
Capturing Mariupol would give the Russians control of a swath of Ukraine’s southern coast along the strategically important Sea of Azov, and potentially allow Moscow to release troops tied up in the siege for other offensive operations. Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, said “heroic” efforts to hold the city were “saving Kyiv, Dnipro and Odesa”.
Mariupol’s status is a sticking point in peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, because it is part of the Ukrainian-held territory claimed by Russia-backed separatists, according to two people briefed on the negotiations. The Kremlin on Monday played down progress in talks, claiming there had been “no substantial movement”.
The port city has been laid to waste by Russian heavy weapons, with whole neighbourhoods left unrecognisable under relentless artillery fire since late February. More than 200,000 residents remain trapped, with no electricity, gas or water in sub-zero temperatures, struggling daily to find food.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has accused Russian forces of deliberately targeting civilians in the city, including by bombing an art school on Sunday where hundreds of women, children and elderly people had been taking shelter.
“People were hiding there. Hiding from shelling, from bombing. There were no military positions,” Zelensky said in the early hours of Monday. “There were about 400 civilians, mostly women and children, the elderly. They are under the debris. We don’t know how many are alive at the moment.”
Russian shelling continued overnight across the country as local authorities worked to evacuate more civilians from frontline areas. In a sign of Moscow’s intent to keep up pressure on Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities said shells hit a big shopping centre on the outskirts of the capital overnight, killing at least eight people.
About 10mn civilians have been displaced within Ukraine since the start of the conflict, including 3.4mn who have fled the country, according to the UN. More than 2mn mainly women and children have crossed the border to Poland.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed Kyiv was using “Nazis”, “foreign mercenaries” and “bandits” to hold up to 130,000 civilians hostage in Mariupol. It has denied any responsibility for the civilian casualties in the city and blamed them on “provocations” by Ukrainian nationalists.
An assistant to Mariupol’s mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, told Human Rights Watch on Sunday that “more than 3,000 civilians may have died since the fighting began”, but added that the exact number was unclear. Local authorities reported that at least 80 per cent of the city’s residential buildings were damaged or destroyed, the HRW report said.
In Mariupol, the situation “has become so dramatic, that despite unsecured corridors, people started to find their ways out of the city”, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Financial Times.
Ukraine’s military reported a relative lull in Russian attacks over the weekend, noting a decrease in the number of fighter jet sorties. It claimed to be continuing counter-attacks, including through air strikes on the Russian positions and supply lines.
A UK intelligence update said Russian forces driving west from Crimea towards Odesa were still attempting to circumvent Mykolayiv, but had made “little progress over the past week”.
Russia launched a missile strike overnight on a military training centre in the Rivne area of northwestern Ukraine, which Moscow claimed was for “foreign mercenaries” and Ukrainian troops. A missile attack last week on a base near the Polish border, used in the past by western military instructors, was widely perceived as a warning to the Nato alliance.
Meanwhile, Russia has warned its relations with the US are “on the brink of collapse” after Biden called president Vladimir Putin a “murderous dictator”, “war criminal” and “pure thug”.
Russia’s foreign ministry summoned John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Moscow, for a démarche and note of protest on Monday that warned the US president’s comments about Putin were “unacceptable”.