LVIV, Ukraine — Russian forces will observe a temporary ceasefire on Sunday in two Ukrainian cities, an official in one of the country’s two pro-Russia separatist regions said after an agreement to allow civilians to evacuate collapsed a day earlier amid continued shelling.
Eduard Basurin, the head of the military in separatist-held Donetsk territory, said safe passage corridors for residents of the besieged port city of Mariupol and the city of Volnovakha would reopen Sunday. He did not say for how long nor whether a ceasefire would accompany the evacuation.
Ukrainian officials confirmed that evacuations from Mariupol would take place starting at noon local time. Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said a ceasefire would be in effect between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m.
A promised ceasefire in Mariupol failed amid scenes of terror on Saturday. Ukrainian officials said the evacuation was aborted because the city remained under attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the failure and warned that the country’s ongoing resistance since Russia invaded its ex-Soviet neighbor on Feb. 24 was putting the country’s future as a nation in jeopardy.
“If they continue to do what they are doing, they are calling into question the future of Ukrainian statehood,” the Russian leader said Saturday. “And if this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”
With the Kremlin’s rhetoric growing fiercer and a reprieve from fighting dissolving, Russian troops continued to shell encircled cities.
The United Nations said Sunday that the number of people fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has topped 1.5 million, making it Europe’s “fastest growing refugee crisis” since World War II.
“More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighboring countries in 10 days —- the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II,” it said in a statement on Twitter.
By nighttime on Saturday, Russian forces had intensified their shelling of Mariupol, while dropping powerful bombs on residential areas of Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said.
Sunday’s evacuations were announced along with a third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine. Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, said the meeting would take place Monday. He gave no additional details, including the location of the talks.
Previous meetings held in Belarus had led to a ceasefire agreement to create humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and older people from Ukrainian cities, where pharmacies have run bare, hundreds of thousands face food and water shortages, and the injured have been succumbing to their wounds.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents had gathered for safe passage out of the city of 430,000 on Saturday when shelling began and the evacuation was stopped. Later in the day, he said the attack had escalated further.
“The city is in a very, very difficult state of siege,” Boychenko told Ukrainian TV. “Relentless shelling of residential blocks is ongoing, airplanes have been dropping bombs on residential areas. The Russian occupants are using heavy artillery, including Grad multiple rocket launchers.”
Plans for Sunday’s evacuation called for the route from Mariupol to extend to Zaporizhzhia, a city 227 kilometers (141 miles) away.
World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Sunday that his office has confirmed that multiple health-care sites in Ukraine have come under attack, “causing multiple deaths and injuries.”
“Attacks on healthcare facilities or workers breach medical neutrality and are violations of international humanitarian law,” Ghebreyesus tweeted.
Russia has made significant advances in the south, seeking to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Avrov in the south. Capturing Mariupol could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Ukrainians in cities taken over by the Russian forces to resist.
“It is a special kind of heroism — to protest when your city is occupied,” Zelensky said Saturday night in his latest video address to the nation. “Ukrainians in all of our cities that the enemy has entered, go on the offensive! You should take to the streets! You should fight!”
Ukrainians march towards Russian soldiers while getting shot at. Everyone must watch this video. pic.twitter.com/gclsykDS9P
— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) March 5, 2022
Thousands of Ukrainians accepted the president’s request and demonstrated on Saturday. Some climbed Russia’s military vehicles and waved Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag. Many of the videos could not be independently verified.
In the southern port city of Kherson, a city of 300,000 where Russian troops took control this week, the soldiers were reported to have fired warning shots to disperse the crowd, but the protesters were unfazed.
Russian forces also had encircled Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, as of Saturday, while Ukrainian forces had managed to keep control of key cities in central and southeastern Ukraine, Zelensky said.
The head of the Chernihiv region said Russia dropped powerful bombs on residential areas of the city, which has a population of 290,000. Vyacheslav Chaus posted a photo online of what he said was an undetonated FAB-500, a 1,100-pound (500-kilogram) bomb.
“Usually this weapon is used against military-industrial facilities and fortified structures,” Chaus said.
The West has broadly backed Ukraine, offering aid and weapons and slapping Russia with vast sanctions. But the fight itself has been left to Ukrainians, who have expressed a mixture of courageous resolve and despondency.
“Ukraine is bleeding,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a video released Saturday, “but Ukraine has not fallen.”
Zelensky pleaded with US lawmakers Saturday for additional help, specifically fighter planes to help secure the skies over Ukraine, even as he insisted Russia was being defeated.
“We’re inflicting losses on the occupants they could not see in their worst nightmare,” Zelensky said.
US President Joe Biden called Zelensky early Sunday, Kyiv time, to discuss Russia sanctions and speeding US assistance to Ukraine. The White House said the conversation also covered talks between Russia and Ukraine but did not give details.
The death toll of the conflict has been difficult to measure. The UN human rights office said at least 351 civilians have been confirmed killed since the Feb. 24 invasion, but the true number is probably much higher.