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Ukrainian soldiers holed up in a chemical plant in the embattled city of Severodonetsk were resisting a Russian onslaught on three fronts on Wednesday morning, according to a provincial governor.
More than 500 civilians are trapped inside the Azot factory where Ukrainian troops have resisted weeks of Russian bombardment and assaults that have reduced much of the industrial city in the eastern Luhansk province to ruins.
“It’s getting harder, but our military are holding back the enemy from three directions at once,” Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk, posted online early on Wednesday morning.
Vladimir Putin’s generals have told Ukrainian forces in the plant to stop “senseless resistance and lay down arms” from Wednesday morning.
Civilians would be let out through a humanitarian corridor, âMikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defence Management Centre told the Interfax news agency.
But Ukrainian troops were showing no signs of obeying the Russian ultimatum to surrender the eastern city.
“They’re defending Severodonetsk and not letting them to advance to Lysychansk,” said Mr Gaidai, referring to the twin city held by Ukraine on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.
“Nevertheless, the Russians are close and the population is suffering and homes are being destroyed.”
The Ukrainian general staff said in the early hours that its soldiers were still repelling Russian assaults on the city.
British defence chiefs said the Ukranian fighters in the chemical factory could survive underground, tying down Russian troops and preventing them from being deployed for other offensives as happened for weeks at the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol earlier during the conflict.
In its latest intelligence update, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “After more than a month of heavy fighting, Russian forces now control the majority of Severodonetsk. Russia’s urban warfare tactics, which are reliant on heavy use of artillery, have generated extensive collateral damage throughout the city.
“Elements of Ukrainian Armed Forces, along with several hundred civilians, are sheltering in underground bunkers in the Azot Chemical Plant, in the city’s industrial zone.”
It added: “Russian forces will likely be fixed in and around Azot whilst Ukrainian fighters can survive underground. This will likely temporarily prevent Russia from re-tasking these units for missions elsewhere.
“It is highly unlikely that Russia anticipated such robust opposition, or such slow, attritional conflict during its original planning for the invasion.”
While Mr Putin’s troops are seizing more ground in the eastern Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, they are being hit by counter-attacks in the southern Kherson province.
Mr Putin launched his invasion, which has cost the lives of tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, as well as thousands of civilians, according to reports, on February 24.
But he was forced to abandon his lightning invasion plan after his troops had to retreat from around Kyiv and swathes of northern Ukraine.
He has refocused his military campaign on capturing the Donbas region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014.
The Russian assault on Severodonetsk, a city of barely more than 100,000 people before the war, is the current focal point of what has been called the battle of the Donbas.
Kyiv has said 100-200 of its soldiers are being killed each day, with hundreds more wounded in some of the bloodiest fighting so far in the war.
Ukraine said on Tuesday it was still trying to evacuate civilians after Russian forces destroyed the last bridge linking Severodonetsk with Lysychansk, which lies on higher ground on the western bank of the Siverskyi Donets river.
With all the bridges leading from Severodonetsk now destroyed, Ukrainian forces risk being encircled.
“We have to hold strong ... The more losses the enemy suffers, (the) less strength it will have to pursue its aggression,” Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address late Tuesday.
Kyiv is stepping up its pleas for the United States, Britain and other allies to send more and better artillery as well as tanks, drones and other heavy weapons.
A group of nearly 50 countries were meeting on Wednesday on the sidelines of a Nato summit in Brussels to discuss and coordinate assistance to Ukraine.
The talks were being led by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Western countries have promised NATO-standard weapons, including advanced US rockets.
But deploying them is taking time, and Ukraine will require consistent Western support to transition to new supplies and weapons systems as stocks dwindle of their Soviet-era weapons and munitions.
Mr Zelensky said Ukraine does not have enough anti-missile systems to protect its cities, adding that “there can be no justification in delays in providing them”.
While Western sanctions have hit Russia’s economy hard, resulting global shortages of oil and grain have sent energy and commodity prices soaring, with warnings that millions of people in developing countries could be hit by food shortages due to Mr Putin’s blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.