Zelenskiy says Russia wants to ‘destroy’ Ukraine’s entire Donbas region

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has accused Russia of wanting to “destroy” the entire eastern region of Donbas, as the last remaining forces in the strategic port of Mariupol prepared to stage a final defence of the city.

With missiles hitting Lviv on Monday morning and Kharkiv subject to further shelling, Moscow is pushing for a major victory in the southern city as it works to wrest control of Donbas and forge a land corridor to already-annexed Crimea.

Ukraine has pledged to fight on and defend the city, defying a Russian ultimatum on Sunday that called on the remaining fighters inside the encircled Azovstal steel plant to lay down their arms and surrender.

Ukrainian authorities have urged people in Donbas to move west to escape a large-scale Russian offensive to capture its composite regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Russian troops are preparing for an offensive operation in the east of our country in the near future. They want to literally finish off and destroy Donbas,” Zelenskiy said in an evening statement, in which he repeated a plea for foreign governments to send weapons for his troops.

Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on 24 February.

“The city still has not fallen,” the prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, said on Sunday. “There’s still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end,” he told ABC’s This Week. “We will not surrender.”

While several large cities were under siege, he said, not one – with the exception of Kherson in the south – had fallen, and more than 900 towns and cities had been recaptured.

Following Ukrainian fighters’ refusal to surrender Mariupol, Russian troops will reportedly close the city for entry and exit on Monday and issue “movement passes” to those who remain, an adviser to the mayor has said.

Petro Andriushchenko made the claim in an update over the Telegram messaging app on Sunday, sharing a photo that appeared to show a line of people waiting for passes.

The governor of Luhansk, Sergiy Gaiday, said the coming week would be “difficult”. “It may be the last time we have a chance to save you,” he wrote on Facebook.

Russian forces continued to shell the eastern Luhansk region and two people died in the town of Zolote, Gaiday told Ukrainian media earlier in the day.

Two people also died and four were wounded in attacks on the towns of Marinka and Novopol, west of Donetsk, the regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Telegram. An air strike hit an armaments factory in the capital, Kyiv.

Five missiles reportedly struck Lviv on Monday morning, according to the city’s mayor, adding that authorities were seeking more detailed information.

In Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, at least five people were killed and 20 wounded in a series of strikes 21km (13 miles) from the Russian border.

Maksym Khaustov, the head of the Kharkiv region’s health department, confirmed the deaths there following a series of strikes that journalists on the scene said had ignited fires throughout the city and torn roofs from buildings.

“The whole home rumbled and trembled,” 71-year-old Svitlana Pelelygina told Agence France-Presse as she surveyed her wrecked apartment. “Everything here began to burn.”

“I called the firefighters. They said: ‘We are on our way but we were also being shelled.’”

Meanwhile, Ukraine has completed a questionnaire that will form a starting point for the European Union to decide on its membership.

“Today, I can say that the document has been completed by the Ukrainian side,” Ihor Zhovkva, the deputy head of Zelenskiy’s office, told the Ukrainian public broadcaster on Sunday.

The European Commission would need to issue a recommendation on Ukraine’s compliance with the necessary membership criteria, he added. “We expect the recommendation … to be positive, and then the ball will be on the side of the EU member states.”

Zhovkva said Ukraine expected to acquire the status of a candidate country for EU accession in June during a scheduled meeting of the European Council meeting.

Residents of the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine have been urged to evacuate immediately. The head of the region’s military administration, Sergei Gaidai, maintained that the “decision is yours” but warned that the cemetery was “getting bigger by the day”.

“Next week may be difficult. [This] may be the last time we still have a chance to save you,” he said in a statement late on Sunday.

In the city of Kramatorsk, also in the east, Orthodox Palm Sunday granted its residents some respite before the expected Russian onslaught. In the Orthodox Svyato-Pokrovsky church, about 40 people – mostly women wearing colourful headscarves – attended the service.

“It’s very hard and scary right now,” a congregant said as she arrived at the red-brick church topped with four gleaming domes.

One young mother, Nadia, said she refused to be evacuated for fear of travelling alone with her two children and leaving her relatives in Kramatorsk. “We don’t go to the basement each time there’s a [bomb] siren. It’s too stressful for them [the children],” she said.

“We have our spot in the basement just in case, but we prefer to stay in the house if possible. We dim the lights.”

The Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk has urged Russian forces to let residents flee besieged Mariupol, saying that humanitarian corridors allowing civilians to escape would not open on Sunday after failing to agree terms with Moscow forces.

The UN World Food Programme says more than 100,000 civilians in Mariupol are on the verge of famine and lack water and heating. Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said the city was on “the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe”, adding there was compiling evidence of alleged Russian atrocities there.

“We will hand everything over to The Hague. There will be no impunity.”

The mayor of Bucha – a town near Kyiv where the discovery of dead civilians sparked international condemnation and war crimes accusations – said Russian troops had raped men as well as women and children there.

Zelensky said he had invited his French counterpart to visit Ukraine to see for himself evidence that Russian forces have committed “genocide” – a term president Emmanuel Macron has avoided.

“I talked to him yesterday,” Zelensky told CNN in an interview recorded on Friday but broadcast on Sunday. “I just told him I want him to understand that this is not war, but nothing other than genocide. I invited him to come when he will have the opportunity. He’ll come and see, and I’m sure he will understand.”

But Russia has warned the US of “unpredictable consequences” if it sent its “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine.

Its defence ministry claimed on Saturday to have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane in the Odessa region carrying weapons supplied by western nations.

On Sunday, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian missiles had destroyed ammunition, fuel and lubricant depots in eastern Ukraine and 44 Ukrainian military facilities, including command posts.

He said Russian air defence systems shot down two Ukrainian MiG-29 aircraft in the Kharkiv region and a drone near the city of Pavlograd.


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