A view shows a Ukrainian flag near a destroyed building in Mariupol A view shows a Ukrainian flag near a destroyed building in Mariupol  (ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

Russia issues Easter ultimatum to Ukraine fighters in Mariupol

Pope Francis's Easter prayer for peace in war-torn Ukraine comes as Ukrainians feared more destruction on Sunday. Russia has issued an Easter ultimatum saying it will spare the lives of Ukrainian soldiers in the besieged city of Mariupol only if they lay down their arms on Sunday. However, Ukraine says its soldiers won't surrender.

By Stefan J. Bos  

In Ukraine's battered port city of Mariupol, residents live between destroyed buildings and fresh graves.

People watched in horror here as Mariupol, which became a symbol of resistance, appeared on the brink of falling to Russian forces Sunday after seven weeks under siege. That building there needs to be demolished as it is totally destroyed," said resident Galina Vassilieva. And there are burned up people lying in there."

Tatiana agrees, saying: "We lived through horror. And we don't know what will happen next. We're living as if we are on top of a volcano. We had people from our building die. And we buried them directly in the courtyards."

The Russian military claimed about 2,500 Ukrainian fighters holding out at a hulking steel plant with a warren of underground passageways provided the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol.

Russia gave an Easter deadline for their surrender, saying those who put down their weapons were "guaranteed to keep their lives." However, major General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry's spokesman, warned that "All those who will continue resistance will be destroyed."

He said intercepted communications indicated there were about 400 foreign mercenaries and the Ukrainian troops at the Azovstal steel mill. But that claim couldn't be independently verified.

Ukraine refusing to surrender

However, Ukrainian legislator Oleksiy Goncharenko said that Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol won't surrender to Russia. And an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol said the defenders continue to hold the defense.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky warned earlier that eliminating Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol would end peace talks. City officials said Russia is planning to restrict access to Mariupol from Monday.

Capturing Mariupol would free up Russian forces to weaken and encircle Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has focused its war aims.

It would also give Moscow a crucial success in Ukraine following a botched attempt to storm the capital and the loss of the Russian navy's Black Sea flagship.

The fighting in Mariupol, where authorities say 20,000 people died, and clashes elsewhere have overshadowed Easter celebrations. Yet Christians were seen praying in even destroyed or damaged churches.

Addressing the persecution of Christians, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a special message for Ukrainian believers. "And of course, the Christians of Ukraine, whether they're marking Easter today or its Orthodox equivalent later this month, for whom Christ's message of hope – the triumph of life over death and good over evil – will resonate this year perhaps more than any other," he said.

"Easter tells us there is light beyond the darkness, that beyond the suffering lies redemption." Speaking in Ukrainian, the Prime Minister quoted Psalm 31 as he said: "Be strong and have courage in your heart, all you who trust in the Lord."

It comes after Johnson, who recently visited the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and his senior ministers were banned from entering Russia. Ukrainian authorities said recently that Russian attacks had hit at least 59 religious sites such as churches, mosques, and synagogues.

Moscow has denied shelling civilian cities, but there is evidence of widespread damage to houses of worship.

17 April 2022, 16:07