Russia plans to hold sham independence vote in southern Ukraine, Zelenskiy says

Ukraine president warns citizens against handing over personal information, as satellite images of mass graves emerge near Mariupol

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has accused Russia of planning to “falsify” an independence referendum in the partly occupied southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, telling Ukrainians there not to give personal information to occupying forces.

The warning came after Mariupol’s mayor accused Russia of hiding evidence of its “barbaric” war crimes by burying the bodies of up to 9,000 civilians in a new mass grave, allegations backed up by satellite images from US company Maxar.

The Ukrainian president said in a video message on Thursday evening: “Be very careful about what information you provide to the invaders. And if they ask you to fill out some questionnaires, leave your passport data somewhere, you should know – this is not to help you …”

“This is aimed to falsify the so-called referendum on your land, if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a show. And this is the reality. Be careful.”

Any attempt at a new annexation would lead to powerful new sanctions on Russia, he said, making “your country as poor as Russia hasn’t been since the 1917 civil war”.

Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, estimated that more than 20,000 residents had been killed there, while about 100,000 people remained in Russian-occupied areas in the city. Another 100,000 had successfully escaped, mostly in private cars, while 40,000 had been forcibly deported to Russia. Others were being held in Russian “filtration camps” outside the city, he said.

Deputy Commander Svyatoslav Palamar from Ukraine’s Azov regiment told the BBC that civilians were trapped in bunkers under the wreckage of the steelworks in the city, with some as young as three months old. Hundreds of fighters were seriously wounded and medicine was running out, he said. Killed fighters were not being buried because it was important to bury them “with dignity in Ukraine-controlled territory”, he said. It was not possible to verify his claims.Russian troops to blockade Mariupol ‘so that a fly can’t get through’ says Putin – video report

On Thursday, Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to blockade the steelworks where the Ukrainians are holding out having refused an earlier ultimatum to surrender or die.

In a televised meeting at the Kremlin, Putin said it was unnecessary to storm the industrial zone containing the Azovstal steel plant.

“There’s no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities … Block off this industrial area so that not even a fly can get through,” he said.

The US has said Russian claims that it had full control of the city was “disinformation”.

On Thursday night, Zelenskiy said he was still hopeful for peace even after Moscow rejected a proposed truce this weekend, when the Orthodox Easter is celebrated.

Russia had rejected a similar request this week from UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, called for one to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and safe passage for civilians attempting to flee. “The four-day Easter period should be a moment to unite around saving lives and furthering dialogue to end the suffering in Ukraine,” he said.

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, claimed the request was not “sincere” and was intended to give Ukrainian fighters more time to arm themselves.

Meanwhile, the cost of the damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure has reached $60bn, World Bank president David Malpass has said. The early estimate of “narrow” damage costs did not include the growing economic costs of the war, he said. During an address to leaders of the World Bank and IMF via video link on Thursday, Zelenskiy said Ukraine needs $7bn each month to keep its economy afloat.

In other developments:

  • Seven people have been killed after a huge fire broke out at a key Russian defence research institute north-west of Moscow, state media reported. Photographs of the main building showed it completely gutted by fire. Ageing wiring was blamed as a contributing factor. The incident was followed hours later by unconfirmed reports of a fire at one of Russia’s largest chemical plants, north-east of Moscow.
  • The US defence secretary will host defence talks with allies in Germany next week, the Pentagon has confirmed. Lloyd Austin will meet with allies on 26 April at the Ramstein air base to discuss “the latest Ukraine defence needs”, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
  • Joe Biden has announced $800m in new arms supplies and said he will go to Congress to ask for more funding to help fend off the renewed Russian offensive in the east and south. The new US weapon deliveries will include 72 howitzers and their towing vehicles along with 144,000 artillery rounds and more than 120 drones tailored for Ukraine’s needs.
  • Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers are in the UK, learning how to use 120 British armoured vehicles before returning with them to fight in the war against Russia, Boris Johnson has said. British forces are also training Ukrainian counterparts in Poland on how to use anti-aircraft missiles.
  • Russian troops have used a number of weapons widely banned across the world, which have killed hundreds of civilians in the Ukrainian region of Kyiv, research by the Guardian suggests.

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