Thousands of civilians left trapped in Mariupol after evacuation stalls

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 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

An agreed humanitarian corridor to evacuate citizens from the besieged city of Mariupol has failed after Russian forces violated a ceasefire, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister has claimed.

Iryna Vereshchuk said that Vladimir Putin’s troops had not held a ceasefire as authorities attempted to rescue civlians from the Azovstal steelworks, which is the city’s last Ukrainian stronghold.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said that that some 1,000 civilians are sheltering underneath the vast steel plant, where the city’s last defenders are continuing to resist the Russian invasion.

Mr Zelensky suggested he was ready to swap Russian prisoners in exchange for safe passage for the trapped civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.

"We are open to different formats of exchange of our people for Russian people, Russian military that they have left behind," he said.

A European official warned earlier this week that the city could fall in days.

Mariupol city authorities on Wednesday claimed that they had hoped to evacuate about 6,000 people under a preliminary accord with Russia - the first in weeks - on establishing a safe corridor. The city has been the centre of a humanitarian catastrophe and seen some of the war’s most fierce fighting.

But the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol, Svyatoslav Kalamar, later told Ukrainian TV that civilians were too frightened to make their way to the agreed evacuation points because Azovstal was under constant bombardment.

He said that a number of bunkers under the plant still held 80-100 people each.

Serhiy Volny, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, said in a video that his troops may only be able to hold out for a few hours.

“This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left,” he said.

“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.”

Local authorities say tens of thousands of people have been killed in the siege of the city and Russia on Tuesday gave the last Ukrainian defenders an ultimatum to surrender or die. Kyiv claims that Russia has been hitting the steel works site with bunker-buster bombs.

The city is seen as a strategic asset by the Kremlin as it would help Russia establish a land link between territory it controls in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014. Thousands of civilians are feared dead following weeks of indiscriminate artillery fire by Mr Putin’s forces.

Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko said 200,000 people had already left the city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000.

Moscow has withdrawn its troops from northern Ukraine after failing to achieve its military objective of capturing Kyiv. Ukrainian forces were able to successfully repel the advance of Russian soldiers, but Mr Zelensky’s army now faces a major battle in the Donbas region.

Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's eastern border continues and fighting in the southeastern Donbas region is intensifying, the Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Russia successfully tested its Sarmat intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile as Mr Putin warned the west to “think twice” about threatening his country.

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