LVIV, Ukraine — The first cease-fire attempted in Ukraine to evacuate desperate civilians collapsed Saturday amid ongoing shelling as Russian and Ukrainian officials traded blame and Moscow tightened its grip on the war-battered country’s strategic seacoast.
It was difficult to enforce the cease-fire at the port of Mariupol in the southeast and Volnovakha in the east. This showed that efforts to stop fighting throughout Ukraine were failing. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine reached 1.4 million within a mere 10 days of Russian troops entering.
Officials in Ukraine claimed that residents were prevented from leaving the area by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the effort and claimed the actions of Ukraine’s leadership called into question the future of the country’s statehood.
“If this happens, it will be entirely on their conscience,” Putin said.
The Russian defense ministry had earlier announced that it had reached an agreement with Ukraine regarding evacuation routes from the cities. Before the announcement, Russia’s days-long assault had caused growing misery in Mariupol, where AP journalists witnessed doctors make unsuccessful attempts to save the lives of wounded children, pharmacies ran bare and hundreds of thousands of people faced food and water shortages in freezing weather.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Bouchenko stated that thousands of people had sought refuge from the shelling on Saturday.
“We value the life of every inhabitant of Mariupol and we cannot risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” he said.
In recent days, Ukraine had urged Moscow to create humanitarian corridors to allow children, women and the older adults to flee the fighting, calling them “question No. 1.”
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, suggested that negotiations with Russia might lead to a prolonged but limited ceasefire on Saturday. He stated that Ukrainian forces had taken control of key areas in central and southern Ukraine and the Russians tried to keep Sumy and Mykolaiv, Chernihiv or Chernihiv in encirclement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday said Russia was ready for a third round of talks on that and other issues, but he asserted that “the Ukrainian side, the most interested side here, it would seem, is constantly making up various pretexts to delay the beginning of another meeting.”
After attending NATO’s Brussels meeting, where NATO pledged support to eastern flank countries, diplomatic efforts were continued in Poland as U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken visited Poland.
In the wake of Western sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship state-owned airline, announced that it plans to halt all international flights. Except for Belarus, it will be halting all international flights starting Tuesday.
At least 351 civilians have been confirmed killed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, but the true number is probably much higher, the U.N. human rights office has said.
Zelenskyy stated Saturday that 10 000 Russian troops died during the conflict, but this claim was not verified independently. “We’re inflicting losses on the occupants they could not see in their worst nightmare,” the Ukrainian leader said.
The Russian military, which doesn’t offer regular updates on casualties, said Wednesday that 498 of its troops had been killed.
Ukraine’s military might is vastly outmatched by Russia’s, but its military and volunteer forces have fought back with fierce tenacity since the invasion. Even in Russian cities, signs of resistance were evident.
Chernihiv’s citizens cheered when a Russian military airplane fell from the skies and crashed, according to a Saturday video by the Ukrainian government. In Kherson, hundreds of people protested the invasion, shouting, “Go home.”
A vast Russian armored column threatening Ukraine’s capital remained stalled outside Kyiv. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said the military situation was more quiet overall Saturday and Russian forces “have not taken active actions since the morning.”
While the shelling in Mariupol showed Russia’s determination to cut Ukraine off from access to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, further damaging the country’s economy, it was Putin who was most on the offensive with his comments warning that a no fly zone would be considered a hostile act.
NATO said that it does not intend to establish a no-fly zone which would prohibit any unauthorized aircraft flying above Ukraine. According to Western officials, the main reason for this decision is not to increase tensions with Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has pleaded for a no-fly zone over his country and lashed out at NATO for refusing to impose one, warning that “all the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you.”
But as the United States and other NATO members send weapons for Kyiv, the conflict is already drawing in countries far beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Russia clamps down on international media reporting about the conflict, and more news agencies around the world have stated that they are halting their coverage. Putin stated that there is no reason to impose martial law.
And in a warning of a hunger crisis yet to come, the U.N. World Food Program has said millions of people inside Ukraine, a major global wheat supplier, will need food aid “immediately.”
Ukraine’s president was set to brief U.S. senators Saturday by video conference as Congress considers a request for $10 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian aid and security needs.
A U.N. Security Council open meeting was scheduled for Monday to discuss the worsening humanitarian conditions. According to the United Nations, 12 million Ukrainians and 4,000,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries will require humanitarian assistance in the next months.
Kyiv’s central train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” one woman, Ksenia, said.
Two people were walking along a street in central London when they heard a loud bang. A garbage truck was breaking open the bin.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine