Members of Ukraine’s team with negotiating Russia say they are ready to head to Mariupol to negotiate the evacuation of troops and civilians from the last main pocket of resistance in the destroyed southeastern city.
“Mykhailo Podolyak and I are ready to arrive in Mariupol to hold talks with the Russian side on the evacuation of our military garrison and civilians,” Ukrainian presidential adviser David Arakhamia said on Telegram on Wednesday evening.
“We are ready to arrive for such negotiations at any time as soon as we receive confirmation from the Russian side.”
For his part, Podolyak said on Twitter they were ready to hold a “special round of negotiations” in Mariupol “to save our guys”.
The strategic port city has been taken over by Russian forces, except for a small group of fighters holding out in the Azovstal steel plant.
Ukrainian authorities say some 1,000 civilians are also present in the hideout, which is under relentless attack with heavy artillery, while Russia said some 2,500 Ukrainian fighters and 400 foreign mercenaries remain holed up.
A top ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin forecast that the plant would be seized on Thursday.
“Before lunchtime, or after lunch, Azovstal will be completely under the control of the forces of the Russian Federation,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechen republic, whose forces have been fighting in Ukraine.
Mariupol would be the biggest city to be seized by Russia since it attacked Ukraine eight weeks ago, in an invasion that has seen some five million people flee the country and turned cities into rubble.
Its capture would be a big strategic prize and would link territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea region that Moscow annexed in 2014.
On Wednesday morning, Serhiy Volyna, commander of the remaining marines in the city, asked for an evacuation to a third country. We “may be facing our last days, if not hours”, he said, as Russia issued a new ultimatum to lay down arms.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on social media four buses carrying evacuees from Mariupol had left.
“Four evacuation buses managed to leave the city yesterday through the humanitarian corridor,” Vereshchuk said, adding that evacuations of women, children and the elderly would continue on Thursday.
“The security situation is difficult. Things may change,” she added.
The southeastern port city has endured the fiercest fighting of the war as Russian forces try to take full control.
The city and port are largely considered to have been destroyed in weeks of Russian bombing and shelling.