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KVIV: Russia gave recalcitrant Ukrainian soldiers an ultimatum on Sunday to lay down their arms in the pulverized southeast port of Mariupol which Moscow said its forces almost completely control in what would be its biggest capture of the war up close two months.

Several hours after the 03:00 GMT deadline, there was no sign of compliance from the Ukrainian fighters entrenched in the vast steelworks of Azovstal overlooking the Sea of ​​Azov.

Having failed to overcome Ukrainian resistance in the north since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion on February 24, the Russian army has refocused on the eastern region of Donbass where Mariupol is the main port.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops had cleared the urban area of ​​Mariupol, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting and worst civilian suffering with bodies littering the streets and thousands of people cowering in atrocious conditions under earth.

The steelworks, one of the largest metallurgical works in Europe with a maze of railway lines and blast furnaces, has become a last bastion for the outnumbered defenders.

“The Russian Armed Forces offer militants of nationalist battalions and foreign mercenaries from 06:00 (Moscow time) on April 17, 2022, to stop all hostilities and lay down their arms,” ​​the Defense Ministry said in a statement. a statement.

“All those who lay down their arms are guaranteed that their lives will be spared,” he said, offering defending “remainders” a four-hour window to leave the factory without arms or ammunition.

There was no immediate response from kyiv to the ultimatum, although the Ukrainian military said Russian airstrikes on Mariupol continued alongside assault operations near the port.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday accused Russia of “deliberately trying to destroy everyone” in Mariupol and said his government was in contact with the defenders. But he did not respond to Moscow’s assertion that Ukrainian forces were no longer in urban districts.

He said killing his troops would end peace efforts.

“Our soldiers are blocked, the wounded are blocked. There is a humanitarian crisis… Nevertheless, the guys are fighting back,” he told the Ukrainska Pravda news portal.

If Russia’s capture of the port is confirmed, it would be the first major Ukrainian city to fall since the invasion and a strategic prize for Moscow: linking the territory it holds in the Donbass to the Crimean region it has annexed in 2014.

Russia calls its action a special military operation aimed at demilitarizing Ukraine and eliminating what it calls dangerous nationalists.

Russia said Ukraine lost more than 4,000 troops in Mariupol on Saturday. kyiv says between 2,500 and 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died so far in the nationwide war

It was not known how many soldiers were in the steelworks. Satellite images showed smoke and fire coming from the area, which is riddled with tunnels below.

Mariupol’s defenders included Ukrainian marines, motorized brigades, a National Guard brigade, and the Azov Regiment, a militia created by far-right nationalists that was later integrated into the National Guard.

Elsewhere in Ukraine, more long-range Russian strikes were reported on Sunday.

Local media reported an explosion in the capital kyiv, although Deputy Mayor Mykola Povoroznyk said air defense systems thwarted Russian attacks. The mayor of the town of Brovary, near kyiv, said a missile attack damaged infrastructure.

And Russia said it had destroyed an ammunition factory near the capital, according to the RIA news agency.

Ukraine resisted Russian ground advances early in the war, in part by successfully deploying mobile units armed with Western-supplied anti-tank missiles against armored convoys confined to roads by muddy terrain.

Despite the dire situation in Mariupol, Ukraine says it has so far held back Russian forces elsewhere in the Donbass regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Western sanctions weighed on the Russian economy but failed to pressure Putin to step down.

New European Union sanctions to come will target banks, including major institution Sberbank, as well as oil, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

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