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Russia hammers Mariupol, telling Ukraine to surrender to avoid more death

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Rome today, the pope calls this Sunday an Easter of war. Russia is launching artillery and missile strikes against cities and civilians in Ukraine's east and south. And talks of opening a humanitarian corridor in the city of Mariupol have broken down. NPR's Brian Mann joins us now from Odesa. And, Brian, what do we know about what's happening in Mariupol?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, it's really hard to get good information right now. The city's completely cut off, but we know the situation is desperate. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his latest public statement described the situation as inhuman. He says tens of thousands of people - many of them civilians - have already died, and as many as 100,000 people are still trapped by the Russian assault with no safe way out. We did speak to a Ukrainian military officer who told us some civilians are trying to make a 20-mile trek over land. But without that humanitarian corridor, it's very hard and very dangerous. In his latest address, Zelenskyy acknowledged that diplomatic and military efforts to help these people in Mariupol have failed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He says, "Since the siege of Mariupol began, we've tried every day to find a solution to save the people, but there is not a valid option."

RASCOE: And what's the Russian line on all of this?

MANN: Yeah, they're being very aggressive. The Russian military issued a statement to the Russian TASS news agency saying they've given the last Ukrainian soldiers a chance to surrender. They've been given a window of time starting early this Sunday morning to give up. The lives of all those who lay down their arms will be spared, the statement said. So far, no response from the Ukrainian side.

RASCOE: It sounds really horrific. Like, what is the significance in the wider war of this city falling?

MANN: Yeah, for one thing, it would be symbolic. Russia's struggled in the first 50 days of this invasion - losing one of their major ships in the Black Sea, the Moskva. They've seen top military leaders, generals killed in action. They've been forced to retreat, you know, taking heavy casualties without much to show for it. So capturing Mariupol would give Russia an important win, and it would also allow the Russian army to begin to pivot to attacks in the eastern Donbas region and here in the south where I am today.

RASCOE: There have been reports of Russia shelling Kharkiv and other cities. What can you tell us about that?

MANN: Yeah, Russian bombardments have been more intense over the last 24 hours - Russia claiming that they're targeting military installations. But I have to say our reporters on the ground have seen evidence that these strikes are also frequently hitting civilian areas. I was in a zoo yesterday where the groundskeepers had collected wreckage from what appeared to be Russian projectiles.

RASCOE: Wow. We've been hearing for more than a week that Russia is preparing another major offensive. You've been talking to Ukrainian military leaders and civilians who are near the front lines. What are you hearing?

MANN: Yeah, I spoke with a military officer in the city of Nikolayev yesterday, which is about 20 miles from the front, and we could hear the rumble of Russian artillery in the distance while we were talking. Nilolayev was hit with a missile strike while we were there. He told us that Ukraine has used the last month to strengthen its defenses. He wouldn't give details for security reasons but did predict that any Russian advance would cost the Russian army heavily. I did also speak with civilians, though, who've stayed behind in Nikolayev - many of them elderly or disabled. They say they don't want to leave their homes, and many also say they don't have anywhere to go. Here's Vladimir Dmitrievich (ph).

VLADIMIR DMITRIEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: He says, "I'm 85 years old. What am I going to do? If I were younger, I'd go abroad. But I'm stuck."

And a lot of people here are in this situation. They're living very close to this intense fighting. But I have to say, surprising, the morale is very high. I asked his wife, Marisa (ph), if she's scared, and here's what she said.

MARISA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: She didn't talk about her own safety. Instead, she said she's worried about the soldiers. People here believe Ukraine can still win this fight.

RASCOE: OK, that's NPR's Brian Mann in Odesa. Brian, thank you, and please stay safe.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.