Ukraine has launched a fresh attempt to rescue civilians from Mariupol after the Red Cross warned thousands of lives depend on the successful evacuation of people trapped in the besieged city by Russian forces.
A total of 45 buses are on their way to the nearby south coast city of Berdyansk, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, along with a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which provides humanitarian assistance and assists evacuations. The convoy was due to enter the city on Friday morning after Russia promised a limited ceasefire on the route from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhia.
Repeated efforts to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate up to 170,000 people left behind in Mariupol, which has suffered four weeks of bombing and dwindling supplies, have failed. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of allegedly shelling safe routes away from multiple combat hotspots; Allegations that Moscow denies.
“Time is running out to help these people. This evacuation is extremely important,” said Aliona Synenko, a spokeswoman for the ICRC. “It is important that we get concrete and precise agreements on times and routes from both sides tomorrow. These instructions must be communicated to the military units on the ground and followed.
“We distributed the last supplies we had there two weeks ago. People have nothing now. We are ready to help and hope there is safe passage tomorrow.”
Control of Mariupol, a strategic port that once housed 400,000 people and is still in the hands of the Ukrainian government, would ensure Russian dominance in the inland Sea of Azov.
Along with the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk and other eastern territories recently conquered by Russia, it would create a land corridor from mainland Russia to Crimea. As such, it was a major focus of Moscow’s five-week offensive, and civilians there suffered badly. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday the attack on Mariupol killed at least 5,000 people.
Water, food and medicine are running out, and the ferocity of the Russian attack has left many families unable to bury loved ones killed by airstrikes and shelling. A maternity home, an arts center housing displaced people and a Red Cross warehouse were all attacked, while residents who were able to find fuel and undamaged cars took their lives fleeing.
A successful evacuation on Friday morning would greatly improve the prospects for progress in peace talks, which are also due to continue online tomorrow. For the same reason, another attack on the humanitarian corridor would diminish the prospect of a major breakthrough.
Ukraine and its western allies remain skeptical of Moscow’s offers, which appear to include troop withdrawals from some areas of the country to focus on “liberating” the eastern region.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear company said most of the Russian forces that had seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant shortly after the Feb. 24 invasion had made their way to the Belarusian border and few remained. Russian troops have also withdrawn from the nearby town of Slavutych, where power plant workers live.
Despite claims of a major withdrawal earlier this week, Russian forces have continued to bombard the northern city of Chernihiv, while the region’s governor Viacheslav Chaus said Russian troops were on the move but might not withdraw.
“The enemy is taking casualties. It moves on the territory of Chernihiv region. Can you call that a troop withdrawal? I am not sure. At least it’s regrouping, but it’s possible that it’s retreating. We must not let go of our vigilance,” he wrote on the messaging app Telegram.
Ukrainian officials said there had been artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day and heavy fighting continued in several suburbs of the capital Kyiv, where Ukrainian forces counterattacked.
Unconfirmed images and video that surfaced on Telegram on a Kharkiv news channel on Thursday showed massive damage caused by Russian strikes at a large farm about 30 km northeast of the city. The Russian Defense Ministry also reported new attacks on Ukrainian fuel stocks overnight.
Interior Ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said a corridor between two eastern cities – Izyum and Volnovakha – is becoming an important battle front.
In another sign of Russian intentions, the top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, gave the order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news outlets.
Zelenskyy said Thursday that the ongoing fighting confirmed Ukraine’s suspicions that Russia was using talk of de-escalation as a cover to prepare its forces for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Thousands of Ukrainians and Russian soldiers have died and some 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” his neighbor.
However, faced with fierce Ukrainian resistance, as well as substandard equipment and low morale among Russian troops, Moscow is struggling to take control of a significant territory.
Western intelligence agencies have claimed that Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth about the stalled offensive and the extent of the damage crippling international sanctions have caused to Russia’s economy.