MARIUPOL/LVIV/KYIV — Ukraine said it would not accept ultimatums from Russia 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,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in Mariupol.
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.
“Thanks to their dedication and superhuman courage, tens of thousands of lives have been saved across Ukraine. Today Mariupol saves Kiev, Dnipro and Odessa,” said Reznikov.
A portion of Mariupol now held by Russian troops and reached by Reuters on Sunday was an eerie 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 amid the rubble, bundled up in coats.
A group of men dug graves by the side of the road.
In a dark basement full of families, Irina Chernenko, a university librarian, said she had been there for 11 days.
“Everything has been destroyed. Where can we go?” she said. “We’re cooking over a fire – for now we have some food and some firewood.”
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.
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.
Kharkiv mayor Igor Terekhov said hundreds of buildings, including many homes, had been destroyed. “It is impossible to say that the worst days are behind us, we are constantly being bombed,” he said.
On Monday evening, a witness in the city said she saw people throw grenades or similar ammunition 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 to the sound of distant artillery fire.
Firefighters have extinguished small fires around the building, hunting for survivors. Ukraine said at least eight people were killed.
“It’s hard for me to talk because my kid worked here. She was at work yesterday,” said a tearful spectator Valentina Timofeyevna.
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.
In another part of Kiev, a man collected items from a second-floor apartment that, like the rest of the block, had no front wall after it had been torn away by shelling.
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 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 there was progress in negotiations on a formula that would include some sort of “neutrality” for Ukraine, though details were scarce.
Talks resumed on Monday and Ukraine’s Vereshchuk said eight evacuation and supply corridors for besieged cities had been agreed, but Mariupol was not among them.
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.
US President Joe Biden discussed Russia’s “cruel tactics” in Ukraine with European leaders on Monday, and Britain said they reaffirmed their support for 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.
“We are ready to take further (measures) with our partners,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told reporters after the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, without going into details.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Lviv, James Mackenzie in Kiev, a Reuters journalist in Mariupol and Reuters agencies Writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher Editing by Mark Heinrich, Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O’Brien)