Ukraine has rejected a Russian demand to surrender the besieged city of Mariupol and raise white flags on March 21, saying there was “no question of any surrender,” even as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy renewed his call for negotiations with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Deadly street fighting raged in Mariupol, a strategic southern port city, where a major evacuation is set for March 21, while Russian forces struck a shopping mall in Kyiv, killing several people.
Residents of Mariupol, which had a population of 400,000 before the war broke out, have for the past two weeks been trapped without basic supplies, such as water, food, and fuel.
Russia is seeking to take control of the city, which would allow it to link Crimea — which it seized in 2014 — with territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian military had given Ukraine until 5 a.m. Moscow time on March 21 to surrender Mariupol, promising that in return it would offer two humanitarian corridors — one heading east toward Russia and the other west to other parts of Ukraine — for civilians to leave the city.
The Russian military did not say what would do if the offer was rejected.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said early on March 21 that “there can be no question of any surrender, laying down of arms,” after the Russian military late on March 20 demanded that the city be given up. “We have already informed the Russian side about this,” Vereshchuk said.
Mariupol Mayor Piotr Andryushchenko also rejected the offer writing on Facebook that he didn’t need to wait until the morning deadline to respond and cursing at the Russians, according to the news agency Interfax Ukraine.
Russia has been bombarding the encircled southern city on the Sea of Azov, hitting an art school sheltering some 400 people on March 20.
Local officials on March 20 said on their Telegram channel that the school’s building was destroyed, and people could remain under the rubble. There was no immediate word on casualties.
“To do this to a peaceful city — what the occupiers did — is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation early on March 20.
The attack on the art school came after Russian air strikes on March 16 flattened a theater in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering. City authorities said 130 people were rescued but many more could remain under the debris. Rescue workers were still searching for survivors.
Earlier in the war, Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in the city, where an estimated 90 percent of the buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
Late on March 20, Ukraine’s central government said it plans to send dozens of buses to Mariupol to aid the evacuation of refugees fleeing fighting there.
Vereshchuk said nearly 50 buses were set to arrive in the city on March 21.
A shopping mall near Kyiv’s center was flattened by Russian bombing late on March 20, and it was still smoldering on the morning of March 21 in the midst of high-rise towers.
Emergency services reported at least four people killed in the shelling. The force of the blast shattered the windows in the high-rise building next door and twisted their metal frames.
Russia denies targeting civilians despite widespread evidence of deadly attacks on nonmilitary sites.
Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials accused Moscow of war crimes after the bombing of the school.
However, the Ukrainian leader renewed his call for negotiations with Putin in an interview with CNN on March 20.
“I’m ready for negotiations with him,” Zelenskiy told CNN as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine entered its fourth week.
“I think without negotiations we cannot end this war,” Zelenskiy said through a translator.
“If there is just 1 percent chance for us to stop this war, I think that we need to take this chance…to have the possibility of negotiating, the possibility of talking to Putin,” he said.
“If these attempts fail, that would mean that this is a third world war.”
Separately Turkey’s foreign minister said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were nearing agreement on “critical” issues and that he was hopeful for a potential cease-fire soon in the conflict.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier this month hosted talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in the Turkish city of Antalya, but those talks did not appear to yield concrete results.
Observers have speculated that Russian military momentum has been stopped by Ukrainian forces in many parts of the country and that the sides could be heading for a long, protracted stalemate in the war, which began on February 24 with Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
About 3.4 million have fled across Ukraine’s borders to neighboring countries, with the bulk of them arriving in NATO and European Union member Poland.
The UN human rights office estimated on March 20 that 902 civilians have been killed and 1,459 injured in Ukraine as of the end of March 19. It said, though, that the actual toll is likely to be much higher as it has not been able to verify reports in several badly damaged cities.
Protests against Russia’s invasion continued in several cities around the world — including in Russia itself despite police crackdowns on demonstrators.
Demonstrations took Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Vladivostok, among other cities, according to OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors arrests during protests.
Since the invasion began on February 24, there have been more than 15,000 detentions at antiwar protests, OVD-Info reported.
Military casualty figures on both sides remain difficult to confirm.
Zelenskiy said in a video message targeting the Russian public on March 20 that some 14,000 Russians have died in the invasion.
Moscow has only acknowledged 498 deaths, a total announced early in the invasion with no subsequent updates.
Ukraine said a week ago that about 1,300 of its soldiers had been killed. That number cannot independently be confirmed.
Ukrainian officials have invited Biden to come to the country to see the situation for himself, but the White House said the president has no plans to visit the war-torn nation during this trip.
With reporting by AP, RFERL, AFP, dpa, BBC, and Reuters
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