Ukrainian officials defiantly rejected a Russian demand that their forces in the besieged strategic port city of Mariupol lay down arms Monday and raise white flags in exchange for safe passage out.
Russia has been barraging the encircled southern city on the Sea of Azov, hitting an art school sheltering some 400 people only hours before offering to open two corridors out of the city in return for the capitulation of its defenders, according to Ukrainian officials.
Fighting for Mariupol has continued to be intense, even as the Russian offensive in other areas has floundered to the point where Western governments and analysts see the broader conflict grinding into a war of attrition.
Ukrainian officials rejected the Russian proposal for safe passage out of Mariupol even before Moscow’s 5 am deadline for a response came and went.
“There can be no talk of any surrender, laying down of arms,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk told the news outlet Ukrainian Pravda. “We have already informed the Russian side about this.”
Mariupol Mayor Piotr Andryushchenko also rejected the offer shortly after it was made, saying in a Facebook post he didn’t need to wait until the morning deadline to respond and cursing at the Russians, according to the news agency Interfax Ukraine.
Russian Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev had offered two corridors—one heading east toward Russia and the other west to other parts of Ukraine. He did not say what action Russia planned to take if the offer was rejected.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said authorities in Mariupol could face a military tribunal if they sided with what it described as “bandits,” the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Previous bids to allow residents to evacuate Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities have failed or have been only partially successful, with bombardments continuing as civilians sought to flee.
Tearful evacuations from the devastated city have described how “battles took place over every street.”
Ahead of the latest offer, a Russian air strike hit the school where some 400 civilians had been taking shelter and it was not clear how many casualties there were, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address early Monday.
“They are under the rubble, and we don’t know how many of them have survived,” he said.
The fall of Mariupol would allow Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine to link up. But Western military analysts say that even if the surrounded city is taken, the troops battling a block at a time for control there may be too depleted to help secure Russian breakthroughs on other fronts.
Ukrainians “have not greeted Russian soldiers with a bunch of flowers,” Zelenskyy told CNN, but with “weapons in their hands.”
Three weeks into the invasion, the two sides now seem to be trying to wear the other down, experts say, with bogged down Russian forces launching long-range missiles at cities and military bases as Ukrainian forces carry out hit-and-run attacks and seek to severe their supply lines.
“The block-by-block fighting in Mariupol itself is costing the Russian military time, initiative, and combat power,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a briefing.
In a blunt assessment, the think tank concluded Russia failed in its initial campaign to take the capital of Kyiv and other major cities quickly, and its stalled invasion.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukrainian resistance means Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “forces on the ground are essentially stalled.”
“It’s had the effect of him moving his forces into a woodchipper,” Austin told CBS on Sunday.
The strike on the art school was the second time in less than a week that officials reported an attack on a public building where Mariupol residents had taken shelter. On Wednesday, a bomb hit a theater where more than 1,000 people were believed to be sheltering.
There was no immediate word on casualties in the school attack, which The Associated Press could not independently verify. Ukrainian officials have not given an update on the search of the theater since Friday, when they said at least 130 people had been rescued and another 1,300 were trapped by rubble.
City officials and aid groups say food, water and electricity have run low in Mariupol and fighting has kept out humanitarian convoys. Communications are severe.
The city has been under bombardment for over three weeks and has seen some of the worst horrors of the war. City officials said at least 2,300 people have died, with some buried in mass graves.
Some who were able to flee Mariupol tearfully hugged relatives as they arrived by train Sunday in Lviv, about 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the west.
“Battles took place over every street. Every house became a target, ”said Olga Nikitina, who was embraced by her brother de ella as she got off the train. “Gunfire blew out the windows. The apartment was below freezing.”
In Ukraine’s major cities, hundreds of men, women and children have been killed in Russian attacks.
In Kyiv, emergency services reported four people killed by shelling not far from the center of the capital Sunday. Loud explosions were heard as a shopping center and cars in a parking lot caught fire, they said.
In Kyiv, emergency services reported four people killed by shelling not far from the city center Sunday. Loud explosions were heard as a shopping center and cars in a parking lot caught fire, they said.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the Russian shelling also hit several houses in the densely populated district, Podil.
Russian troops have been shelling Kyiv for a fourth week now and are trying to surround the capital, which had nearly 3 million people before the war.
The UN has confirmed 902 civilian deaths in the war but concedes the actual toll is likely much higher. It says nearly 3.4 million people have fled Ukraine. Estimates of Russian deaths vary, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands.
Some Russians also have fled their country amid a widespread crackdown on dissent. Russia has arrested thousands of antiwar protesters, muzzled independent media and cut access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and other AP journalists around the world contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.