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Ukrainian officials refuse to surrender Mariupol to Russian forces

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the big picture, Russian forces invading Ukraine have shown almost no signs of advancing in the last week, according to a senior U.S. defense official today. But that defense official also noted that Russia has increased artillery shelling lately, including against civilians. Yesterday, a deadly attack in Kyiv flattened a shopping center in the capital. In the southern port city of Mariupol this weekend, bombs targeted an art school, which was sheltering about 400 displaced people. Food and water are running low in Mariupol. Electricity is out, but Ukrainian and local officials refuse to surrender the city. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us from Lviv in western Ukraine. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Help us understand this latest round of Russian artillery attacks, given that this U.S. defense official is saying it has not resulted in military advances.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, there really haven't been big advances, as you mention. But what is happening at the moment is that you're getting these artillery strikes on multiple fronts. And while the forces seem to have been stalled on the outskirts of Kyiv, these missiles, these mortars, these shells are coming in very close to neighborhoods that are right near the center of the city. You're also getting intense fighting and shelling continuing along the eastern side of the country, facing the border with Russia. You know, cities such as Kharkiv, Sumy - they're getting shelled pretty intensely.

Here in Lviv, the air raid sirens went off five times today, and everyone had to trudge down to the bomb shelters. You know, Russia also launched airstrikes north of here in what both Ukrainian and Russian officials say was on a military training facility. But what was different about that was that this was in an area of the country that had been pretty calm, hadn't had many missile strikes, and it contains one of Ukraine's nuclear power plants.

SHAPIRO: Let's zoom in to the city of Mariupol, which has been under siege for weeks. There are reports of a humanitarian crisis. What can you tell us about the situation there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, some of the most intense fighting and shelling is going on in Mariupol. You know, it sits on the Sea of Azov. And Russian warships - they are offshore. Russian planes are pounding it from the air. Russian ground troops claim they're tightening a noose around it on land. Yesterday, officials in Moscow called for the Ukrainian troops in Mariupol to surrender. Ukrainian officials, in much more colorful language than this, said no way. And the two sides also can't agree on a cease-fire to allow the tens of thousands of civilians who remain there - trapped there - to leave.

Today in the largest soccer stadium here in Lviv, I met a group of neighbors who just fled out of Mariupol. They'd spent two weeks sheltering in the basement of their apartment block as Russian troops and planes pounded the city with mortars and artillery. Tetiana Myhalyova says it was hell on earth.

TETIANA MYHALYOVA: (Through interpreter) There is no water, no heating, no gas, no anything. And under the shelling, we try to prepare food on open fire to be able to eat at least once a day. We were all covered in dirt. And the person who never experienced such a thing, it's even hard to, like, imagine what it's like.

BEAUBIEN: She says out on the streets of Mariupol, in her words, everything was in ruins. Buildings were on fire. Others were burned out. Ukrainian troops continued to patrol in tanks, but Russian aircraft buzzed over the city. Her mother-in-law went out to try to find food and never returned. Dead bodies lay uncollected in the street.

MYHALYOVA: (Through interpreter) There was a man who was lying on the street near us for two days. Nobody could take him away.

BEAUBIEN: When Myhalyova's apartment took a direct hit from a projectile, the group of neighbors started to worry that the five-story building might collapse on top of them, and they decided they had to leave.

MYHALYOVA: (Through interpreter) Under the constant shelling, first, we took our car from the garage. And right away, the shell attacked it and totally destroyed the car. So we were left without the car, so our brother gave us his car.

BEAUBIEN: One of the other cars ran over shrapnel and destroyed its tires. In the end, 13 of them packed into a pair of cars. There were eight people in a tiny Soviet-era boxy Lada and five in a Skoda sedan as they drove towards the line of Russian troops blocking the road north into the heart of Ukraine.

MYHALYOVA: (Through interpreter) Russians stopped our car. They checked other documents, asked did we have any weapons or anything like knives and stuff. And then they just let us go.

BEAUBIEN: When they got to Lviv two days ago, they used some of their savings to stay in a hotel room for the night. Muhalova says they all needed to soak in the shower. But today they're here at the soccer stadium. Their only worldly goods were some clothes jammed into plastic bags at their feet, and they were waiting for the volunteers at this assistance center to find them a place to sleep tonight.

SHAPIRO: That's our correspondent Jason Beaubien, who is in western Ukraine, reporting there on people who have fled the city of Mariupol. Jason is still with us, and I'd like to ask you about something we've heard reports of, which is that people from Mariupol are being forced to go to Russia. Is there evidence that that is happening?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's very hard to get solid information out of Mariupol right now. The Russians are saying Ukrainians are voluntarily leaving Mariupol for Russia. Ukrainian officials say, without offering really any solid evidence, that people are getting shipped to Siberia. You know, there are no aid agencies or other independent sources there right now. One of Myhalyova's neighbors that I talked to at the soccer stadium today, he said he's heard some of these rumors that people are being forced to go to Russia. But he said, you know, in the midst of this ferocious aerial bombardment, the bottom line is that people in Mariupol currently face a choice, he said. You try to get through Ukraine. You try to get through Russia, or you die.

SHAPIRO: And in the meantime, as you say, there is no agreement on any kind of humanitarian corridor that would allow people to escape.

BEAUBIEN: That's right. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Lviv in western Ukraine, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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