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Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol defy surrender-or-die demand

Firefighters work to extinguish fire at an apartments building after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

rainian fighters holed up in a steel plant in the last known pocket of resistance inside the shattered city of Mariupol ignored a surrender-or-die ultimatum from the Russians on Sunday and held out against the capture of the strategically vital port.

The fall of Mariupol, the site of a merciless, 7-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Moscow’s biggest victory of the war yet and free up troops to take part in a potentially climactic battle for control of Ukraine’s industrial east.

As its missiles and rockets slammed into other parts of the country, Russia estimated 2,500 Ukrainian troops and about 400 foreign mercenaries were dug in at the hulking Azovstal steel mill, which covers more than 4 square miles and is laced with tunnels.

Moscow gave the defenders a midday deadline to surrender, saying those who laid down their arms were “guaranteed to keep their lives.” The Ukrainians rejected it, just as they did with previous ultimatums.

“We will fight absolutely to the end, to the win, in this war,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal vowed on ABC’s “This Week.” He said Ukraine is prepared to end the war through diplomacy if possible, “but we do not have intention to surrender.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent Easter greetings via Twitter, saying: “The Lord’s Resurrection is a testimony to the victory of life over death, good over evil.”

If Mariupol falls, Russian forces there are expected to join an all-out offensive in the coming days for control of the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin is bent on capturing after failing in its bid to take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

The relentless bombardment and street fighting in Mariupol have killed at least 21,000 people, by the Ukrainians’ estimate. A maternity hospital was hit by a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.

An estimated 100,000 remained in the city out of a prewar population of 450,000, trapped without food, water, heat or electricity in a siege that has made Mariupol the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war.

“All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, said in announcing the latest ultimatum.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar described Mariupol as a “shield defending Ukraine” as Russian troops prepare for battle in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatists already control some territory.

Russian forces, meanwhile, carried out aerial attacks near Kyiv and elsewhere in an apparent effort to weaken Ukraine’s military capacity ahead of the anticipated assault.

After the humiliating sinking of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet last week in what the Ukrainians boasted was a missile attack, the Kremlin had vowed to step up strikes on the capital.

Russia said Sunday that it had attacked an ammunition plant near Kyiv overnight with precision-guided missiles, the third such strike in as many days.

Explosions were also reported overnight in Kramatorsk, the eastern city where rockets earlier this month killed at least 57 people at a train station crowded with civilians trying to evacuate ahead of the Russian offensive.

A regional official in eastern Ukraine said at least two people were killed when Russian forces fired at residential buildings in the town of Zolote, near the front line in the Donbas.

At least five people were killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Sunday, regional officials said.

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