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Ukraine latest: Ukraine forces fight to hold onto Mariupol

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today marks Day 53 of the war in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces are desperately trying to hold on to the port city of Mariupol. Taking Mariupol would be a big win for the Russians, who are looking for a victory after many losses. This is all happening as the conflict moves to a new phase, as Russia gears up for its next offensive in the east. Here with more is NPR correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who's in Kyiv. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Describe, if you would, the current situation in Mariupol.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's really bad. Russians have long had Ukrainian forces outgunned, and they appear to be on the verge of taking over the city. They even gave the Ukrainians a deadline to surrender or risk, as one Russian officer put it, be destroyed. You know, if the Russians do take Mariupol, as you know, it would be seen as a major victory, and that's because they've had some big failures, including getting pushback from Kyiv and losing their flagship in the Black Sea. It would also allow Russian forces to relocate more troops in preparation for its next offensive in the eastern Donbas region. Now, Mariupol has already been such a bloody battle. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his address last night, he said conditions were inhumane. But, you know, despite all that suffering, the Ukrainians really continue to fight, and they're defying that Russian deadline.

MCCAMMON: And, Franco, you've been looking into war crimes. What can you tell us about how far those investigations have gone?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, the reality is these investigations are just beginning. Prosecutors and advisers are starting to have their interviews. They're working with outside lawyers, foreign lawyers. They're setting up mobile investigative units. You know, the United States is actually helping provide some of the funding for those outside experts.

I spoke with Oleksandra Matviychuk, who heads the Center for Civil Liberties, which is helping with these investigations, doing some of the leading efforts. She said this is an exhaustive effort but one that needs to be carried out to its conclusion.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIYCHUK: First, we need to restore justice. Justice is always delay in time. But if we will not stop this circle of impunity, we will never recover after this war.

ORDOÑEZ: I was there today with one of the groups in a village called Peremoha, which the Russians occupied for weeks. And there were blown-up Russian tanks all along the road, Russian meal packs discarded around a school, which they had also ransacked. Investigators have been there, speaking with residents and victims about charges that Russian forces were holding people hostage and using seniors as human shields. And people are just really scared. They're particularly afraid that the Russians will come back.

MCCAMMON: And there were some new airstrikes around the Kyiv area today. What can you tell us about those?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. They launched a strike today on a town called Brovary, which actually was about 10 to 12 miles from where I was reporting. It's just another reminder that no part of Ukraine is completely safe. And Russia has warned that it will increase attacks on the capital city. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko is pleading with residents not to ignore warning sirens, and he's also telling people who fled for safety earlier not to return to the city.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Franco Ordoñez reporting from Kyiv. Franco, stay safe.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.

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