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Ukraine fights on in Sievierodonetsk as Russia’s ‘surrender’ ultimatum passes

By Pavel Polityuk

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine showed no signs of obeying a Russian ultimatum to surrender the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk on Wednesday as NATO defence ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss sending more heavy weapons to replenish Kyiv’s dwindling stocks.

Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant in the shattered city to stop “senseless resistance and lay down arms” from Wednesday morning, pressing its advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Plans announced by Moscow to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians holed-up in the plant were disrupted, Russian-backed separatists said, blaming shelling by Ukraine.

Ukraine says more than 500 civilians are trapped alongside soldiers inside the Azot chemical factory where its forces have resisted weeks of Russian bombardment and assaults that have reduced much of Sievierodonetsk to ruins.

The mayor of Sievierodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said after the early morning deadline passed that Russian forces were trying to storm the city from several directions but Ukrainian forces continued to defend it and were not completely cut off.

“We are trying to push the enemy towards the city centre,” he said on television, without referring to the ultimatum. “This is an ongoing situation with partial successes and tactical retreats.”

“The escape routes are dangerous, but there are some,” he said.

His comments echoed those by Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region containing Sievierodonetsk, posted online just before Russia’s 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT) deadline.

He said the army was defending Sievierodonetsk and keeping it from Lysychansk, the twin city held by Ukraine on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.

“Nevertheless, the Russians are close and the population is suffering and homes are being destroyed.”

Luhansk is one of two eastern provinces Moscow claims on behalf of separatist proxies. Together they make up the Donbas, an industrial Ukrainian region where Russia has focused its assault after failing to take Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in March.

British intelligence said the fighters in the chemical plant could survive underground and Russian forces would likely remain focused on them, keeping them from attacking elsewhere.

Reuters could not immediately verify the battlefield accounts.

ECHOES OF MARIUPOL

The Azot bombardment echoes the earlier siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian shelling. Those inside surrendered in mid-May and were taken into Russian custody.

Those holed up in Azot were surviving from water from wells, generators and supplies of food that had been brought in, the city’s mayor, Stryuk, said.

“The humanitarian situation is critical,” he said.

The Russian assault on Sievierodonetsk – a city of barely more than 100,000 people before the war – is the current focal point of what has been called the battle of the Donbas.

Kyiv has said 100-200 of its soldiers are killed each day, with hundreds more wounded in some of the bloodiest fighting since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

Ukraine said on Tuesday it was still trying to evacuate civilians after Russian forces destroyed the last bridge linking Sievierodonetsk with Lysychansk, which lies on higher ground on the western bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.

“We have to hold strong … The more losses the enemy suffers, (the) less strength it will have to pursue its aggression,” Zelenskiy said in an address late Tuesday.

‘BRUSSELS, WE ARE WAITING’

Western countries have promised NATO-standard weapons – including advanced U.S. rockets. But deploying them is taking time, and Ukraine will require consistent Western support to transition to new supplies and weapons systems as stocks dwindle of their Soviet-era weapons and munitions.

The meeting in Brussels on Wednesday on the sidelines of a NATO defence ministerial is being led by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. It is the third time the group of nearly 50 countries are meeting to discuss and coordinate assistance to Ukraine.

In May, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to provide $40 billion in additional aid to Ukraine, including $15 billion for defense measures, and has promised longer-range rocket systems, drones and advanced artillery.

But Zelenskiy said Ukraine does not have enough anti-missile systems, adding that “there can be no justification in delays.”

His advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, said the defenders of Sievierodonetsk wanted to know when the weapons would arrive. “Brussels, we are waiting for a decision,” he wrote on Twitter.

‘UNABLE TO LEAVE’

Russia gives no regular figures of its own losses but Western countries say they have been massive as President Vladimir Putin seeks to force Kyiv to cede full control of the Donbas and a swathe of southern Ukraine. Putin calls the war a special military operation against Ukrainian nationalists.

In Sievierodonetsk, momentum has shifted as Russia concentrated overwhelming artillery firepower on urban districts and then sent in troops vulnerable to counter-attacks.

Elsewhere in the Donbas, Ukraine says Russia plans to assault Sloviansk from the north and along a front near Bakhmut to the south.

In Donetsk province, infrastructure including homes, schools, hospitals and markets have been attacked over the past week, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

“This has made life nearly unbearable for people who are also facing severe water shortages, and at times are unable to leave their homes for days on end,” Dujarric said.

To the south, Ukraine’s military said it conducted three air strikes against troop concentrations, fuel depots and military equipment in the Kherson region.

The conflict has sent grain prices soaring and Western sanctions against Russia have driven up oil prices. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum was due to open on Wednesday without the usual high-level Western participation but a speech by Putin on Friday will be closely watched.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Rami Ayyub, Stephen Coates and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Grant McCool, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frank Jack Daniel)

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