Russian forces have seized control of the city of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the area, as Moscow launches a new phase of its military offensive in the former Soviet republic.
The regional governor made the announcement on Tuesday, saying Kreminna, a city of more than 18,000 people about 574 km southeast of the capital, Kiev, was captured after Russian forces attacked "from all sides."
"Kreminna is under the control of the Russians. They have entered the city," Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Lugansk region, told a briefing. "Our defenders had to withdraw. They have entrenched themselves in new positions and continue to fight the Russian army."
Kreminna appears to be the first city captured in new Russian operations in eastern Ukraine.
The seizure of the Ukrainian city took place hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia's launch of another stage of its offensive against Ukraine targeting the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics, which Moscow has recognized as "independent states."
"Another stage of this operation in eastern Ukraine is beginning and I am sure this will be a very important moment of this entire special operation," Lavrov said speaking in an interview with India Today television channel.
Russia's defense minister also confirmed the new phase of the offensive and said Moscow was seeking to "liberate" eastern Ukraine. He said the offensive had been prolonged because the West was supplying Kiev with arms.
"We are gradually implementing our plan to liberate the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics," Sergei Shoigu said in a televised meeting with Russian military commanders. "We are taking measures to restore peaceful life."
Shoigu laid the blame for the bloodshed in the Ukrainian war on Washington and its Western allies, accusing them of providing arms and weaponry to the Ukrainian forces.
"The United States and Western states under its control are doing everything to drag out the military operation for as long as possible," he said. "The growing volume of foreign weapons supplies graphically demonstrate their intention to provoke the Kiev regime to fight to the last Ukrainian."
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" against Ukraine on February 24. The United States and its European allies have introduced waves of unprecedented sanctions against Moscow.
The Kremlin says it will halt the operation instantly if Kiev meets Russia's list of demands, including never applying to join NATO.
Russia urges Ukraine to 'immediately' lay down arms
The Russian Defense Ministry called on Ukrainian forces to "immediately" lay down arms on Tuesday, issuing a new ultimatum for the defenders of the besieged southern city port city of Mariupol to surrender.
"We once again call on the Kiev authorities to show reason and give the corresponding orders to fighters to cease their senseless resistance," the ministry said in a statement. "But, understanding that they will not get such instructions and orders from the Kiev authorities, we call on the fighters to voluntarily take this decision and to lay down their arms."
Since the launch of Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, some of the heaviest fighting between the two sides has been focused around Mariupol, located in southeastern Ukraine and on the north coast of the strategic Sea of Azov.
The port offers a land bridge between Moscow-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which joined Russia in a 2014 referendum.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces holed up inside the devastated city's main metallurgical plant were facing a "catastrophic situation.”
"The Russian armed forces once again offer the nationalist battalions and foreign mercenaries a chance to stop all military activity and to lay down their arms, starting at noon," the ministry said. "Everyone who lays down their arms will be guaranteed survival."
UN: Nearly five million Ukrainians flee war
The United Nations (UN) said on Tuesday that nearly five million Ukrainians have fled the war since Russia's military campaign, warning about the rapid exodus and voicing concern that the situation may exacerbate.
The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) said 4,980,589 Ukrainians had left since February 24.
The UNHCR figures show women and children account for 90 percent of those who fled, with men aged 18 to 60 eligible for military call-up and unable to leave. Nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have been forced from their homes, including those still inside the country.
"The key is that the borders remain open, people can access safety and when they get to the neighboring countries they have access to assistance," UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told reporters in Geneva. "We're watching with concern to see what will happen but it's quite alarming that within the space of a few weeks, we are approaching five million refugees from Ukraine."
Officials call it the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.