MOSCOW: The Russian military has told Ukrainian troops in the besieged port of Mariupol that if they lay down their weapons they will be "guaranteed to keep their lives."
The Russian Defense Ministry made the announcement early Sunday. Col Gen Mikhail Mizintsev said that the Ukrainians encircled at the giant Azovstal steel factory were given until 1 pm (1000 GMT) to surrender.
It was the latest such offer to the Ukrainian defenders of the key Sea of Azov port during a siege that has lasted for more than 1½ months.
Capturing Mariupol is a key strategic goal for Russia, allowing it to secure a land corridor to Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014. The fall of Mariupol would also free the Russian forces involved in the siege for a planned offensive in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.
The giant Azovstal steel mill that covers an area of more than 11 square kilometers (over 4.2 square miles) is the last major section of Mariupol still under Ukrainian control.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said Saturday that about 2,500 Ukrainian troops remain at Azovstal, a claim that couldn't be independently verified. The Ukrainian officials didn't mention any numbers for the city defenders.