ZAPORIZHZHIA: After nearly two months under siege, the southern city of Mariupol could fall to Russian hands in “hours”, a Ukrainian official said, as the two sides agreed on Wednesday on a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to flee the city devastated port.
As fighting raged in the east and south of the country, European Council President Charles Michel arrived in kyiv, in the latest sign of strengthening ties between Ukraine and the EU.
“In kyiv today. In the heart of a free and democratic Europe,” he wrote on social media.
Michel’s visit comes as the West continues to pour weapons into Ukraine amid a renewed Russian push into the eastern Donbas region, where a new offensive launched this week has led to an uptick in fighting.
Hours before Michel’s arrival, the Pentagon said Ukraine had recently received fighter jets and spare parts to bolster its air force, following repeated orders for heavier weapons from kyiv.
The Pentagon refused to specify the number of planes and their origin.
The announcement came as the battle for Mariupol appeared to be reaching a turning point, after months of devastating fighting that has trapped untold numbers of civilians.
Control of Mariupol and the separatist-controlled Donbas region in the east would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean peninsula it annexed in 2014, depriving Ukraine of much of its coastline.
In the latest ultimatum issued in its battle for the capture of Mariupol, Moscow issued another call to the city’s defenders to surrender on Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. Moscow time (11:00 GMT) and announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who agree to lay down their arms.
As the deadline approached, a commander at the besieged Azovstal steel plant issued a desperate plea for help, saying his marines were “perhaps facing our last days, if not hours.”
“The enemy outnumbers us 10 to one,” said Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.
“We call on and plead with all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the extraction procedure and take us to the territory of a third state.”
Thousands of soldiers and civilians remain hidden in the plant.
An aide to the mayor of Mariupol described a “horrible situation” in the surrounded complex, reporting that up to 2,000 people, mostly women and children, lack “normal” supplies of clean water, food and fresh air.
During an interview broadcast on CNN on Tuesday, Pavlo Kyrylenko, who oversees the military administration of the Donetsk region, insisted that Mariupol remained in question.
“The Ukrainian flag flies over the city,” he said.
“There are certain districts where street fighting continues. I can’t say that the Russians are controlling them.”
Offering some respite, kyiv said Wednesday morning that it had agreed with Russian forces to open a safe route for civilians to flee the devastated city.
“We have managed to get a preliminary agreement on a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram.
‘We are bombarded everywhere’
Elsewhere on the front, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported that its troops had repulsed a Russian attack on the city of Izium, south of the partially blockaded second city of Kharkiv in the east.
kyiv also claimed enemy losses in a Ukrainian counterattack near the Donetsk town of Marinka.
The governor of the eastern Lugansk region, Sergiy Gaiday, said Ukrainian forces were holding firm in the face of heavy fighting.
Meanwhile, Russian forces said on Wednesday that their forces had launched 73 airstrikes in Ukraine, hitting dozens of places where troops were massing.
Further from the front lines, residents were still reeling near the capital kyiv, weeks after Russian forces withdrew from the area.
At a morgue in Bucha, families carefully searched body bags and examined corpses for missing loved ones.
In the parking lot of the small communal morgue, body bags arrived by cart or piled into trailers, vans and unrefrigerated trucks.
400 bodies have been discovered since the Russians withdrew on March 31, local police chief Vitaly Lobas told AFP. About a quarter of them are still unidentified.
“Most died a violent death” and were shot, Lobas said, declining to give a concrete number at this time.
President Vladimir Putin has said he launched the so-called military operation in Ukraine in February to save Russian-speakers in the country from “genocide” carried out by a “neo-Nazi” regime.
But his forces have faced accusations of war crimes, most recently by the EU’s Michel during his visit to kyiv on Wednesday, where he toured the nearby devastated town of Borodianka.
“In Borodianka. Like Bucha and many other cities in Ukraine. History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here,” Michel wrote on Twitter.
“There can be no peace without justice,” he added.
Ukrainian authorities have said that more than 1,200 bodies have been found in the kyiv region so far.