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Zelenskyy says Mariupol will be remembered as one of modern warfare's ugliest sieges

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last night once again appealed to Russia to end its assault on his country.

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

NADWORNY: "I am sure you understand that negotiations are not easy and pleasant," Zelenskyy said, adding that Ukraine has always sought a peaceful solution. He went on to say that Ukrainians are counting everyone killed, that, quote, "every ruined family, every ruined house matters to us." In the southeast, civilians continue to face suffering and horrors as Russian troops push deeper into the devastated city of Mariupol. Battles are ongoing there following weeks of relentless missiles and artillery barrages. City officials there allege some Ukrainians are being forcibly relocated to Russia. And the Russian military Saturday claimed that it used a hypersonic missile to destroy an underground ammunition warehouse in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk. NPR's Eric Westervelt is there and joins us now.

Good morning, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning.

NADWORNY: So, Eric, let's start with the humanitarian situation in Mariupol, which seems to just get worse by the day. I mean, there are concerns the city could soon fall to Russian forces. What more can you tell us about that?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. The Russian Defense Ministry said this weekend its forces were, quote, "tightening the noose" around Mariupol and Ukraine's government would not disagree. Authorities in Ukraine Sunday say Russian forces bombed an art school there where some 400 people had taken shelter. There is no word yet on how many people there may have been wounded or killed in this latest strike on Mariupol. Similar to the recent bombing of a theater that had become a civilian shelter, the fear is that there may be a lot of people trapped under the rubble. But like so many of the attacks in the city, I mean, the Russians have hit apartment buildings, hospitals and shelters multiple times. It's really hard to verify information. There are few, if any, journalists on the ground right now there. It's just too dangerous.

President Zelenskyy today in his daily video address said Mariupol will go down in history as one of modern warfare's ugliest sieges. He claims the Russians have committed multiple war crimes there, and he continues to appeal for help, really, from around the world. He plans to address the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, later today. And a police officer turned soldier in Mariupol posted a video appeal to President Biden. In it, he's standing next to battered homes. You can hear explosions, gunfire. You see smoke drifting all around. Soldier Michail Vershnin makes an appeal for more and better air defense help from the West.

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MICHAIL VERSHNIN: (Through interpreter) Save the civilian population. Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed. It is wiped off the face of the earth. Or maybe you want a new Aleppo? You have almost received it. Please send us air defense.

WESTERVELT: Aleppo is a reference to the scorched-earth destruction of that Syrian city in 2016. It was a - really a ruthless siege by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, backed and really made possible by Russian forces and their air power.

NADWORNY: Eric, what is the significance militarily for Russia if they're able to seize full control of Mariupol?

WESTERVELT: It's an important port city. I think its capture would allow Russia to link to Crimea, which Russia annexed by force in 2014. It would give the Russian forces control of a big stretch of southern Ukrainian coastline, and it would really be the first major city to fall. Putin's army has struggled mightily to take and to control territory. You know, more than three weeks into this invasion, they captured Kherson. But Mariupol is almost twice the population, with nearly 450,000 people before the fighting. But, you know, if it falls, it'd be hard to call this a victory for Russia. The city's destroyed. Both sides have had heavy losses there. Russia would be taking control of a demolished city where tens of thousands remain trapped and desperate. There are still reports of limited food and water and medicine. And there's concerns, you know, what will happen to those civilians who have not been able to get out yet.

NADWORNY: To that concern, a city official there claims that Russian forces had forcibly taken several thousand residents across the border into Russian territory. What do we know there?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, the city official Pyotr Andryushchenko said several thousand people were taken across the border under duress. His claims can't be verified. We've just been unable to confirm that at this time. But there have been eyewitness accounts from people who've been able to get out of Mariupol that Russia has deployed this tactic before in this war. Russia says they're, you know, liberating these people, and Ukraine says, look, these are forcible deportations. I will add that some efforts to get civilians out of these besieged areas have worked. Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk says 8 of 10 humanitarian corridors were functional this weekend, but the one in Mariupol once again was only partially working. She said Russian troops were not allowing buses to get in. In all, she said, Ukraine's evacuated about 190,000 civilians from all of the frontline areas in the war since the start, including about 40,000 people from Mariupol.

NADWORNY: Eric, on Saturday, there was a Russian missile strike in the region where you are now, in Ivano-Frankivsk. What is the latest on that?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. Russia's defense ministry said Saturday it destroyed an underground storage site in the mountains outside of Ivano-Frankivsk that was holding aviation ammunition and some missiles. They claim this was a hypersonic missile. Ukrainian military officials confirm the strike but, along with the Pentagon say, look. We're assessing what kind of missile this was. We can't yet confirm at this time that it was hypersonic. And Russia, again, today claimed they struck targets in Ukraine with hypersonic missiles. So if true, it marked the second day in a row they've used this, and it would clearly be an escalation. I mean, these missiles fly at five times the speed of sound. They're almost impossible to detect by current air defense systems. They have a range of some 1,200 miles, It may be as much a kind of information operation warning to NATO in the West as they work to get Ukraine better air defense systems, russia essentially sending a signal, sending a message, look. We have these deadly tools. We can use them. They can outsmart your air defenses. And we're willing to deploy them. So we'll certainly keep an eye on whether, you know, this was, in fact, this new type of missile and if it was used this weekend by Russia.

NADWORNY: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. Thanks, Eric.

WESTERVELT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.