Ukraine has offered to hold a “special round” of talks with Russia in the besieged city of Mariupol after an ultimatum issued by Russia for the surrender of the last remaining troops in the city expired on April 20.
Ukrainian Chief Negotiator and Presidential Assistant Mykhailo Podoliak said the Ukrainian side is ready to hold the talks without conditions.
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“One against one. Two against two. To save our guys, Azov, military, civilians, children, alive and wounded. Everyone. Because they are ours. Because they are in my heart. Forever, ” Podolyak said on Twitter.
Another key Ukrainian negotiator, David Arakhamia, said on Telegram that he and Podolyak “are ready to arrive in Mariupol to talk with the Russian side about the evacuation of our military garrison and civilians.”
Arakhamia said he and Podolyak were in constant contact with Ukrainian forces in the city.
“Today, during a conversation with the defenders of the city, a proposal was put forward to hold direct negotiations, on the spot, on the evacuation of our military garrison,” he said.
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow to the proposal.
Russia said earlier that it had presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands to end the conflict.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the ball is in their court. We are waiting for an answer. He gave no details about the project.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had not seen or heard of the proposal, although one of his top advisers said the Ukrainian side was considering it.
Kyiv and Moscow have not held one-on-one peace talks since March 29. Each side blames the other for the breakdown of negotiations, raising fears of a protracted war.
The fall of Mariupol would be a strategic prize and a huge morale boost for Moscow, helping to connect territory held by Russian-backed separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
The Ukrainian military said earlier on April 20 that Russian forces were continuing their assault on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops and civilians would resist.
A Ukrainian commander at the Azovstal plant has appealed desperately for help, saying his marines “may be facing our last days, if not hours”.
“The enemy outnumbered us 10 to 1,” said Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.
One of the victims of the intense battle was Vanda Obyedkova, 91, who 81 years earlier had survived the Nazi invasion of Mariupol.
Media site Chabad.org said on April 19 that Obyedkova had died 15 days earlier when she succumbed to a lack of water and basic necessities while hiding in a basement. in Mariupol while waiting for the end of the fighting.
“Mom didn’t deserve such a death,” said her daughter Larissa, who risked her own life to bury her mother in a nearby park less than a mile from the sea.
WATCH: Ukrainian soldiers dug in and prepare for battle in the eastern region of Luhansk as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian forces had launched their offensive in Donbass. RFE/RL journalist Maryan Kushnir visited Ukrainian trenches outside the city of Kreminna on 18 April.
Ukraine has accused Russian forces of not honoring a ceasefire agreement long enough to allow large numbers of women, children and the elderly to flee Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials had hoped to use 90 buses to evacuate around 6,000 of the 100,000 civilians who would be trapped there. But regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said fewer buses than expected were able to reach Mariupol and fewer people than expected were evacuated.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the humanitarian corridor “did not work as expected today” and said it was due to “disorganization and negligence” by Russian forces.
There was no response from Russia, which denies targeting civilians and blames Ukraine for the failure of previous attempts to organize humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol.
A group of Russian activists and artists have called for a ceasefire ahead of Orthodox Easter. Human rights activist Zoya Svetova, philosopher Mikhail Epshtein and actor and director Aleksandr Feklistov are among those who signed an open letter published by the European edition of Novaya gazeta.
The call calls for a ceasefire at least until the Orthodox Easter on April 24.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces repelled 10 attacks by Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk in the past 24 hours, the Ukrainian military said.
On the diplomatic front, the President of the European Council Charles Michel arrived in Kyiv on April 20 during a demonstration in support of Ukraine.
“In kyiv today”, Michel tweeted under a picture of him at a train station. “At the heart of a free and democratic Europe.”
Michel then met Zelenskiy.
“There are no words (…) to explain how I feel,” he told a joint press conference with Zelenskiy, referring to his visit to Borodyanka, northwest of kyiv. “These are atrocities. These are war crimes. This must be punished. This will be punished,” Michel said.
Michel’s trip follows visits this month to Kyiv by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.
“You are not alone,” Michel said, praising the courage of the Ukrainian people. “We are with you and will do everything possible to support you and ensure that Ukraine wins the war.”
Ukraine suspects Russian troops of committing atrocities in Borodyanka and Bucha, another town near the capital. Moscow described the allegations as fabricated by kyiv to justify more sanctions against it.
A recent withdrawal of Russian forces from towns such as Bucha and Borodyanka revealed heartbreaking evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting, which Michel said would be met with justice.
“Like Bucha and too many other cities in #Ukraine. History will not forget the war crimes that were committed here. There can be no peace without justice,” Michael tweeted after visiting Borodyanka.
After failing to capture Kyiv and other major strategic cities in its nearly eight-week war, Moscow now says its aim is to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which are at the center Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden summoned US military leaders to an annual White House policy meeting that has taken on particular significance amid the war in Ukraine.
A “variety of topics” were to be discussed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military officials, a spokesman for the Council of Defense said. national security.
Opening the meeting, Biden extolled the toughness of Ukraine’s military and said NATO unity had shocked Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They’re tougher and prouder than I thought; I’m amazed at what they’re doing with your help,” Biden said. “I don’t think Putin hoped he could keep us together.”
Russia said on April 20 that it had conducted the first test launch of its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, a new addition to its nuclear arsenal.
President Vladimir Putin was shown on television being told by military officials that the missile was launched from Plesetsk in the northwest and hit targets on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East.
Putin called the missile “truly unique” and said it would “enhance the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably guarantee Russia’s security against external threats and give food for thought to those who, in the fire of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, attempt to threaten our country.”
The Sarmat has been in development for years, so the test comes as no surprise to the West, but it comes with high tensions during the war.
Russia correctly briefed the United States before its launch, the Pentagon said, adding that it viewed the test as routine and not a threat to the United States.