Soldiers besieged in Mariupol call to be evacuated with civilians

Metalworks is refuge for Ukrainian troops and locals as latest Russian deadline passes

The last Ukrainian soldiers in besieged Mariupol have called on world leaders to help evacuate them and trapped civilians from the devastated city, as a top European Union official said the bloc would do everything in its power to ensure Ukraine won its war with Russia.

Fierce artillery exchanges shook eastern Ukraine on Wednesday as Russian forces attacked Ukrainian lines in the Donbas region and around the major city of Kharkiv, having failed to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of an invasion that began on February 24th.

Ukrainian officials said hopes of evacuating some 6,000 people from Mariupol were dashed due to continued Russian shelling of the ruined port city, where about 100,000 residents are still believed to be living.

About 1,000 civilians are thought to have taken refuge in the tunnels and bunkers of the vast Azovstal metalworks, which has also become the last redoubt of Ukrainian troops who on Wednesday ignored the latest in a series of Russian deadlines to surrender.

"This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left," Maj Serhiy Volyna of the Ukrainian marines said in a video messages posted from the factory turned fortress.

War ‘atrocities’

“The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks,” he said, making an “appeal to world leaders” to arrange for civilians and soldiers in Azovstal to be evacuated “to a third country”.

Russia accuses Ukrainian troops in Mariupol of using civilians as hostages and “human shields” and denies striking civilian targets in a city where at least one hospital and a theatre where hundreds of people were sheltering were destroyed by bombs, and residential districts have been severely damaged.

After visiting areas outside Kyiv where Russia is also accused of killing large numbers of civilians, European Council president Charles Michel said: "These are atrocities. These are war crimes. They must be punished . . . They must pay for what they have done there, and in many other cities and other locations in Ukraine.

"I think of the people, the soldiers, but also the civilians in the Donbas, in Mariupol and in other cities who are fighting for their lives, who are fighting for the sovereignty of Ukraine. And I know very well, they are fighting for our European values, for freedom, for democratic principles," he said beside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Heavy weapons

“We are determined to do everything we can to support Ukraine because we want victory for Ukraine. And that is why we will use all the possible tools in our hands.”

Kyiv is pressing all its allies to send more heavy weapons urgently to help it resist Russia's onslaught in eastern Ukraine, and it is pushing EU states to impose a full embargo on Russian oil imports and impose tougher sanctions all Moscow's banks. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday said the country would halve oil imports from Russia by the summer and stop altogether by the end of the year.

US president Joe Biden has said weapons and ammunition are flowing into Ukraine on a daily basis to help fight the Russian invasion.

The president was speaking at the start of a meeting with his top military chiefs as reports in the US suggest his administration is expected to announce a further $800 million package of weapons, ammunition and equipment.

This would come only a week after the last $800 million military aid initiative was announced by the US. This package included artillery systems, artillery rounds, armoured personnel carriers and unmanned coastal defence boats.

If the expected new military assistance is as large as expected, it would bring the total level of US military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February to well over $3 billion.

Unity

Speaking at the meeting with his military chiefs on Tuesday, Mr Biden said Nato was more united that he had seen previously following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He said he was confident that Russian president Vladimir Putin had not counted on the level of unity shown by the western alliance before he ordered his troops into Ukraine.

Separately, the US is expected to target Russian companies involved in digital currency operations, as well as a network of Russian entities and individuals attempting to evade penalties as part of a new round of sanctions to be put in place by the Biden administration.

Mr Putin frames his invasion as a "special military operation" to protect Russian speakers in Donbas, to "demilitarise" and "denazify" Ukraine – which is a pro-western democracy – and to prevent it and other countries in eastern Europe joining Nato.

After Russia test-launched the Sarmat, a new nuclear-capable intercontinental missile, Mr Putin said it was “a truly unique weapon” that would “ensure Russia’s security from external threats and provide food for thought for those who . . . try to threaten our country”. – Additional reporting: Reuters