(Reuters) - The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol could fall to Russian forces within days, a European official said on Tuesday, saying it may suffer more than the town of Bucha, where Russian forces have been accused of atrocities that the Kremlin has denied.
"At the end of the day, we do expect a complete destruction of the city and many civilian casualties in Mariupol," said the European official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"My fear is that it is going to be worse than Bucha. And by May 9, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin could declare he liberated the city of Mariupol ... So, I guess Mariupol will be controlled in the coming days," the European official told U.S. reporters.
Local authorities say thousands of people have been killed in the siege of Mariupol and Russia has given the last Ukrainian defenders at a steel works an ultimatum to surrender or die. Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Moscow denies targeting civilians in what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine, which it claims is aimed at demilitarizing Ukraine and rooting out dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and the West dismiss Russia's stance as a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
The European official said he believed Russia's medium-term objective was to control the Luhansk and Donetsk territories in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and to secure a landbridge between Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014, and the Donbas.
This would likely take four to six months, the official said, adding that the conflict could then result in a stalemate.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minn.; Editing by Bernadette Baum)