Ukraine has ruled out agreeing to a ceasefire with Russia – and said it will not accept any deal with Moscow that involves giving up territory.
It came as Russia intensified its offensive in the eastern Donbas region and as fears grew for the Ukrainian fighters who became prisoners at the end of the brutal three-month siege of Mariupol.
After ending weeks of resistance by the last Ukrainian fighters in the strategic southeastern city of Mariupol, Russia is now waging what appears to be a major new offensive in Luhansk, one of two provinces in Donbas.
Russian-backed separatists already controlled swathes of territory in Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk province before the invasion on 24 February, but Moscow wants to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in Donbas.
Zelenskyy vows Russian victories are ‘very temporary’ – live Ukraine updates
The Russians have already secured the land bridge from Crimea to Donbas, which will prove difficult for Ukraine to take back.
“The situation in Donbas is extremely difficult,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address.
“The Russian army was trying to attack the cities of Sloviansk and Sievierodonetsk, but Ukrainian forces were holding off their advance,” he added.
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Earlier, Mr Zelenskyy told local television that while the fighting would be bloody, the end of the war would come only through “diplomacy” and that the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory would be temporary.
His adviser Mykhailo Podolyak ruled out agreeing to a ceasefire, as he said making concessions would backfire on Ukraine because Russia would only hit back harder after any break in fighting.
He added that Kyiv would not accept any deal with Moscow that involved ceding territory.
Meanwhile, concern is mounting for the Ukrainian fighters taken prisoner after Russia claimed full control of the Azovstal steel plant, which for weeks was the last holdout in Mariupol and had become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance.
The strategic port city is now in ruins with more than 20,000 residents feared dead.
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The Russian Defence Ministry released video of Ukrainian soldiers being detained after announcing its forces had removed the last fighters from the steel plant’s extensive underground tunnels.
Moscow-backed separatist leaders have vowed the soldiers will face tribunals.
‘Justice must be restored’
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin head of an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, claimed 2,439 people were in custody.
As fears grow over their treatment, family members of the steel mill fighters, who came from a variety of military and law enforcement units, have pleaded for them to be given rights as prisoners of war and eventually returned to Ukraine.
Russian officials and state media have sought to characterise the fighters as neo-Nazis and criminals.
Russian state news agency Tass quoted Mr Pushilin as saying: “I believe that justice must be restored.”