© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A child sits on a man’s shoulders near a building damaged during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
By Pavel Polityuk and James Mackenzie
MARIUPOL/LVIV/KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine said Monday it would not obey Russia’s ultimatums after Moscow demanded to stop defending besieged Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering from Russian bombing that ravages their city.
Mariupol has become a focal point of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but Monday attacks on the country’s second city, Kharkov, are also said to have intensified.
The conflict has displaced nearly a quarter of the 44 million Ukrainians from their homes, and Germany predicted that the number of refugees could rise to 10 million in the coming weeks.
Europe said Russia is using refugees as a tool and is willing to take more action on top of existing sanctions to isolate Russia from global finance and trade.
The Russian army had ordered the residents of Mariupol to surrender before 5 a.m. local time Monday, saying those who did could leave, while those who remained would be handed over to tribunals led by Moscow-backed separatists.
The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy replied that it would never bow to ultimatums, saying that cities like the capital Kiev, Mariupol and Kharkov would always defy the occupation.
“There can be no surrender” in Mariupol, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The Russian invasion, now in its fourth week, has largely ground to a halt, with no major city taken but residential areas devastated.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov where 400,000 people lived, is short of food, medicine, electricity and water. Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said his “heroic defenders” had helped thwart Russia elsewhere.
A portion of Mariupol now held by Russian troops and reached by Reuters on Sunday was a terrifying wasteland. Several bodies lay along the road, wrapped in blankets. Windows were thrown out and walls were blackened. People coming out of basements sat on benches among the rubble, bundled in coats.
However, some manage to escape.
A total of 8,057 people were safely evacuated Monday through seven humanitarian corridors from cities under attack, Vereshchuk said. Among those taken to safety were 3,007 residents of Mariupol.
US-RUSSIA WAR OF WORDS
Russia calls the war, the biggest attack on a European state since World War II, a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from “Nazis”.
The West calls this a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression by President Vladimir Putin.
President Joe Biden told companies to be alert to possible cyberattacks by Russia and to do more to protect themselves.
“It’s part of Russia’s playbook,” he said in a statement.
“My government is reiterating those warnings based on evolving information that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyber-attacks.”
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin on Monday to a request for comment from Reuters after office hours.
Russia has previously dismissed similar allegations, including that it was responsible for hacks on Ukrainian banks and government websites in February.
In response to Biden calling Putin a “war criminal” last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday it had summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan.
“Such statements by the US president, who is unworthy of a statesman of such high rank, put Russia-US relations on the brink of severance,” the report said.
Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in an interview on MSNBC that Russia’s response “just shows how desperate President Putin is getting.”
In a number of places the conflict rages on.
The eastern cities of Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv have also been hard hit by Russia’s tactics of shelling urban areas with artillery, as its forces have previously done in Syria and Chechnya.
On Monday evening, a witness in Kharkiv said she saw people throw grenades or similar ammunition onto the street on the roofs of apartment buildings.
A second witness, outside the city, reported hearing more intense explosions than at any time since Russian forces began attacking last month.
Reuters was unable to immediately verify the accounts.
In Kiev, six bodies were laid on the sidewalk of a shopping center that was hit by Russian shelling overnight. Emergency services combed the wreckage for the sound of distant artillery fire.
Firefighters have extinguished small fires around the building, looking for survivors. Ukraine said at least eight people were killed.
Russia said the center was being used as a weapons storage facility. Ukraine said there were no strategic military objects in the area. Neither report could be independently verified.
Officials imposed a day and a half curfew in the capital from Monday evening, citing the likelihood of more shelling. Britain said there was heavy fighting in the north, but Ukrainian forces had repelled an advance and most of the Russian forces were more than 25 km (15 miles) from the city center.
Ukrainian officials hope Moscow, which failed to secure a quick victory, will cut its losses and negotiate a withdrawal. Both sides hinted last week that negotiations were progressing over a formula that would include some sort of “neutrality” for Ukraine, though details were scarce.
West of Mariupol, the governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya region said shelling had hit buses evacuating civilians from frontline areas and four children were injured in separate incidents he blamed on Russia. Reuters could not independently confirm the report. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
Biden discussed Russia’s “cruel tactics” in Ukraine with European leaders on Monday, and Britain said it has reaffirmed its commitment to support Ukraine militarily, diplomatically and economically.
But European Union foreign ministers disagreed on whether and how to include energy in sanctions, with Germany saying the bloc was too dependent on Russian oil to declare an embargo.
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