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Ukraine halts Mariupol evacuation, accusing Russia of violating local ceasefire

Officials say city, humanitarian corridor under attack; Zelensky to address US Senate; UN says 1.37 million refugees fled across border, 230 civilians killed in war

Smoke rise after shelling by Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Smoke rise after shelling by Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

A strategic Ukrainian city put off a planned evacuation of residents Saturday, blaming Russia for breaking a temporary ceasefire as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West of a wider war if a no-fly zone is set up.

“Any movement in this direction will be considered by us as participation in an armed conflict by that country,” Putin said.

With his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky criticizing NATO for ruling out a no-fly zone for fear of sparking nuclear conflict, Putin spoke of “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world,” if such a zone was set up.

For Zelensky, on day 10 of the invasion, under an escalating bombardment that has flattened more and more infrastructure and sent nearly 1.4 million civilians fleeing for their lives, the Western military alliance’s “no” to a no-fly zone had essentially given “the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages.”

Under siege, Mariupol proudly resisted Moscow-backed rebels during a 2014 conflict, but the Azov seaport has for days been without electricity, food, and water in the dead of winter and people began gathering for the evacuation.

However, city officials called for a delay in the evacuation, saying: “The Russian side does not adhere to the ceasefire and has continued shelling both Mariupol itself and its environment, and for security reasons, the evacuation of the civilian population has been postponed.”

A medical worker reacts after he failed to save the life of an 18 month-old boy, who was fatally wounded by shelling, at a hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Negotiations were underway “to establish a ceasefire and ensure a safe humanitarian corridor,” Mariupol authorities added.

An evacuation had been seen as a prelude to a final assault that, if successful, would see the Russian army push north from occupied Crimea and link up with their forces from the east and take control of Ukraine’s coast on the Azov sea.

After Russia’s defense ministry declared the ceasefire — to open a humanitarian corridor out of the war’s fiercest battles — officials said the city’s 450,000-strong population could begin to leave by bus and private cars.

“This is not an easy decision, but… Mariupol is not its streets or houses. Mariupol is its population, it is you and me,” said mayor Vadim Boychenko.

Scenes of devastation

The siege came as more Russian forces inched closer to the capital Kyiv amid fierce fighting, particularly in the western suburbs and the northern town of Chernihiv.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in shelling, missile attacks, and air raids, and those remaining live among the town’s ruins and in craters.

“There were corpses all over the ground,” Sergei told AFP, as air raid sirens wailed once more. “They were lining up here for the pharmacy that’s just there, and they’re all dead.”

AFP reporters saw scenes of devastation — despite Moscow’s insistence it is not targeting civilian areas.

People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022, 10 days after Russia launched a military invasion on Ukraine. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

Fears are rising in Kyiv that the capital will suffer the same fate once Russian missile artillery is deployed within range.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov alleged Russia had changed tactics after encountering tough resistance.

Ukraine, he said, had defeated plans to quickly storm major cities and overthrow Zelensky’s government, forcing Moscow to resort to “cowardly” attacks on civilians.

Zelensky remains defiant, announcing Saturday that Ukrainian forces were counter-attacking around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which has seen Russian incursions and fierce bombardments, as well as other parts of the country.

Video published by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry showed a Russian military helicopter being shot down, with British investigative website Bellingcat saying the incident occurred north of Kyiv, in the town of Kozarovychi.

It is not immediately clear when the video was taken.

The low-flying helicopter is seen being hit by a missile, before crashing moments later.

Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were holding key cities in the central and southeastern part of the country Saturday, while the Russians were trying to block and keep encircled Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy.

“We’re inflicting losses on the occupants they could not see in their worst nightmare,” he said.

He alleged that 10,000 Russian troops were killed in the 10 days of the war, a claim that could not be independently verified. The Russian military doesn’t offer regular updates on their casualties. Only once, on Wednesday, did they reveal a death toll, numbering nearly 500.

“This is horrible,” Zelensky said. “Guys 18, 20 years old… soldiers who weren’t even explained what they were going to fight for.”

Ukrainian servicemen walk as fire and smoke rises over a building following shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

Since Putin’s army invaded on February 24, Russia has pummeled Ukrainian cities, with officials reporting hundreds of civilians killed. Europe’s largest atomic power plant has even come under attack sparking fears of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

But Moscow has so far only seized two key cities in its 10-day-long invasion — Berdiansk and Kherson on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast.

Capturing Mariupol represents a bigger prize for Russian forces, as it would deal a severe blow to Ukraine’s maritime access and connect with troops coming from annexed Crimea and the Donbas.

However, it seems Russia is not in complete control of Kherson, with videos on social media showing thousands of Ukrainians protesting in the city Saturday morning, several days after its capture.

One video posted online showed a protester jumping on top of a Russian military vehicle while waving a Ukrainian flag.

The Kremlin said it was waiting for a third round of talks with Ukraine in Belarus, and one of Kyiv’s negotiators said it hoped to hold them this weekend.

“The third leg could take place tomorrow or the day after, we are in constant contact,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said Friday.

Zelensky was to appeal to Washington for more assistance Saturday with an address to the US Senate after some lawmakers urged US President Joe Biden to take tougher measures, including banning Russia’s oil imports.

With fears growing of direct conflict between Western forces and Russia — both nuclear-armed — the US and Moscow have set up a new direct phone line to reduce the risks of “miscalculation,” the Pentagon said Friday.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks at a press conference about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Russian forces attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on Friday, pushing Kyiv to accuse Moscow of “nuclear terror.”

Ukrainian monitors say there has been no spike in radiation after a fire in a training facility.

Moscow denied it had shelled the plant.

Media exodus

Russian authorities have imposed a news blackout and several media outlets have halted operations.

Multiple media websites were partially inaccessible in Russia. Twitter was restricted and Facebook blocked.

The Russian national tricolor flag flutters on top of the building of the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, in central Moscow on the evening of March 3, 2022. (AFP)

The BBC, Bloomberg, and German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, as well as Italy’s Rai, said they were suspending work in Russia after lawmakers in Moscow passed legislation to impose fines and jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing “fake news” about the army.

CNN said it would halt broadcasting in Russia, while independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta said it would remove Ukraine content.

The Kremlin on Saturday defended the new law, saying it was “necessary as the country was facing “an unprecedented information war.”

Global hunger

Putin has been unmoved as Russia has become isolated in economic, sporting, and cultural fields.

Spanish clothing giant and Zara fast-fashion chain owner Inditex on Saturday joined the list of major companies suspending operations in Russia.

Flagship airline Aeroflot said it was suspending all its international flights from March 8, citing “circumstances that impede the operation of flights.”

Aeroflot’s passenger planes are parked at Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, Russia, on March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

At the Winter Paralympics in Beijing, Ukrainian athletes overcame all the hurdles to hit the top of the medal table with a haul of seven on day one.

In the men’s vision-impaired biathlon race, Vitalii Lukianenko took gold and said: “I want to dedicate this medal to the guys who protect our cities.”

Casualties

Russia said Wednesday that 498 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine, its first announced death toll.

Ukraine and Western sources claim that the real toll is far higher. Ukraine says around 10,000 Russian soldiers have been killed.

Ukrainian servicemen carry a baby stroller after crossing the Irpin river on an improvised path under a bridge that was destroyed by a Russian airstrike, while assisting people fleeing the town of Irpin, Ukraine, on March 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The UN said Wednesday it had recorded nearly 230 civilian deaths in Ukraine, including 15 children, warning the true toll was likely far higher.

Almost 1.37 million refugees have fled Ukraine in the week since the invasion, with over half going into Poland, according to the UN refugee agency.

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