Ukraine has rejected out of hand an ultimatum from Moscow to surrender the devastated city of Mariupol, as authorities in Odesa accused Russia of striking residential areas in what would be the invading forces’ first attack on the Black Sea port.
Odesa city council said on Monday apartment blocks in the city’s outskirts had been hit by airstrikes, causing no casualties but starting a fire. Overnight shelling in Kyiv, reduced a large shopping mall to rubble and killed at least eight people.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the government had “of course” rejected a Russian ultimatum for people in Mariupol to surrender before 5am on Monday, but said the situation in the besieged city was “very difficult”.
Ukraine also turned down Moscow’s offer to open two humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol in exchange for its residents’ capitulation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been trapped in the city, many without water, heat or power, for more than a fortnight. Officials have said at least 2,300 residents have died, with some buried in mass graves.
“There can be no question of any surrender, laying down of arms” in the stricken Black Sea port, Vereshchuk said. Mariupol’s mayor, Piotr Andryushchenko, said in a Facebook post that he did not need to wait until the 5am deadline to reject the offer.
As EU foreign and defence ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss further sanctions on Moscow, authorities in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, said airstrikes in the Podil district had flattened a shopping centre and severely damaged several apartment blocks.
“According to the information we have at the moment, several homes and one of the shopping centres were hit,” Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said, adding that rescue services were still putting out a large fire at the shopping centre.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general said eight people had died in the bombardment. The prosecutor also said a Russian shell had struck a chemical plant outside the eastern city of Sumy at about 3am on Monday, causing a leak in a 50-ton tank of ammonia.
A Russian military spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, claimed the leak was a “planned provocation” by Ukrainian forces to falsely accuse Russia of a chemical attack, adding that Russian forces had killed 80 foreign and Ukrainian troops in an overnight cruise missile strike on a military training centre in the Rivne region of western Ukraine.
Military experts have warned that Moscow’s forces, denied an early victory, are increasingly turning to the scorched earth tactics of previous offensives in Syria and Chechnya, pulverising population centres with airstrikes and artillery bombardments.
Russia’s ground advance has stalled along most fronts, with its forces held up by highly effective Ukrainian resistance and major logistical problems, so far failing to capture a single major Ukrainian city since the invasion started on 24 February.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Monday Russia’s assault on Kyiv had largely ground to a halt, although heavy fighting was continuing near Hostomel, a suburb to the north-west. It has warned, however, of more “indiscriminate shelling of urban areas, widespread destruction, and large numbers of civilian casualties” to come.
The UN has said more than 10 million people, a quarter of Ukraine’s prewar population, have been displaced by the conflict, including 3.4 million who have fled abroad, mainly to Poland. It has also confirmed more than 900 civilian deaths, though the actual figure is likely be significantly higher.
Conditions in some encircled and heavily bombarded cities in the south, such as Mariupol, and east, such as Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv, are atrocious, with whole urban areas pulverised by airstrikes and artillery shells.
The mayor of Kharkiv, Igor Terekhov, said hundreds of buildings, many of them residential, had been destroyed in the country’s second largest city. “It is impossible to say that the worst days are behind us. We are constantly being bombed, there was shelling again overnight,” he said.
Manolis Androulakis, Greece’s consul general in Mariupol and the last EU diplomat to leave the city, said that what he had seen “I hope no one will ever see. Mariupol will become part of a list of cities that were completely destroyed by war. I don’t need to name them: they are Guernica, Coventry, Aleppo, Grozny, Leningrad.”
Russian airstrikes have hit a theatre in Mariupol where more than 1,300 civilians were thought to be sheltering and an art school sheltering a further 400 people. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Monday people were “still under the rubble, and we don’t know how many of them have survived”.
On the diplomatic front, the US president, Joe Biden, was due to call the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Britain on Monday to discuss the war, before travelling later in the week to Brussels and on to Poland for in-person talks.
EU foreign and defence ministers were meeting on Monday to discuss imposing further sanctions on Moscow, in particular whether to introduce an oil embargo. Along with the US, UK and other western countries, the bloc has imposed four rounds of punitive measures on Russia, including freezing the Russian central bank’s assets.
“It’s unavoidable we start talking about the energy sector, and we can definitely talk about oil because it is the biggest revenue to Russia’s budget,” Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said as he arrived at the Brussels meeting.
The EU was also set to approve a new defence strategy aimed at increasing the bloc’s capacity to act, including setting up a 5,000-strong rapid reaction force. “It’s not the answer to the Ukrainian war, but it is part of the answer,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said.