Nearly 30,000 evacuated from Ukrainian cities

A woman cleans her balcony at a residential building damaged by shelling, in Kyiv, on March 15, 2022, PHOTO: AFP

LVIV, UKRAINE/KYIV (REUTERS, AFP, NYTIMES) -  A total of around 29,000 people were evacuated from Ukrainian cities through humanitarian corridors on Tuesday (March 15), most of them leaving the besieged port of Mariupol, said a senior government official.

Senior Ukrainian presidential official Kyrylo Tymoshenko said in an online post that about 20,000 people had left Mariupol in private cars. Ukraine earlier accused Russia of blocking a convoy trying to take supplies to the city.

Ms Anastasia Kushnir and her family decided it was time to take the opportunity to get out of the besieged coastal city, where they had been struggling to stay alive for the past three weeks.
“There was heavy shelling and aerial bombardment,’’ said Kushnir, who is 21.  “But we made it out, fortunately.”

Kushnir and her family members made it as far as Urzuf, a small beachside town on the Sea of Azov 45km from Mariupol, a way station on their way farther north and west, to safety.

A drive that usually takes 30 minutes took five hours, as their car joined a convoy of thousands of others trying to leave after waiting weeks for a humanitarian corridor to open.

Just over three million have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations, with over 1.8 million arriving in neighbouring Poland. Its prime minister and those of Slovenia and the Czech Republic were in Kyiv on Tuesday to show solidarity.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden will travel to Europe for an extraordinary North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) summit on Ukraine next week.

Nato leaders will meet at the military alliance's headquarters in Brussels on March 24 to discuss the crisis that has prompted fears of wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.

"We will address Russia's invasion of Ukraine, our strong support for Ukraine, and further strengthening Nato's deterrence & defence," Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

White House spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters: "His (Biden's) goal is to meet in person face-to-face and talk about and assess where we are at this point in the conflict." 

Asked if Biden would also visit in Poland, do something tied to Ukrainian refugees or meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Psaki declined to comment, saying trip details were still being worked out.

Russia calls its actions a "special military operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has also called its neighbour a US colony with a puppet regime and no tradition of independent statehood.

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Talks between Russia and Ukraine via a video link resumed on Tuesday. Ukrainian officials played up hopes the war could end sooner than expected, saying Moscow may be coming to terms with its failure to impose a new government by force.

In a hint of a possible compromise, Zelensky said Ukraine was prepared to accept security guarantees from the West that stop short of its long-term objective of joining Nato. Moscow sees any future Ukraine membership of the Western alliance as a threat and has demanded guarantees it will never join.

"If we cannot enter through open doors, then we must cooperate with the associations with which we can, which will help us, protect us... and have separate guarantees," said Zelensky.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was too early to predict progress in the talks. "The work is difficult, and in the current situation the very fact that (the talks) are continuing is probably positive," he said.

Fork in the road?

About half of Kyiv's 3.4 million population has fled and residents are spending nights sheltering in metro stations.

Two powerful explosions rocked the city before dawn on Tuesday and tracer fire lit up the night sky. An apartment block was in flames after being struck by artillery.

Sitting on the ground outside, Igor Krupa said he survived because he had slept under a makeshift shelter of furniture and metal weights.

"All the windows went out and all the debris went into the apartment," he said.

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Zelensky said on Tuesday that 97 children had died so far in the invasion. Hundreds of civilians have been killed.

On the Romanian border, a woman named Tanya said she had fled the southern frontline town of Mykolaiv to save her child. "Because the people that are there now are Russians, Russian soldiers, and they kill children."

Fox News said a second journalist working for the cable network was killed in Ukraine in the same incident in which a Fox cameraman died when their vehicle was struck on Monday by incoming fire.

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One of Zelensky's top aides predicted the war would be over by May or even within weeks as Russia had run out of fresh troops.

"We are at a fork in the road now," Oleksiy Arestovich said in a video. He said he expected either a peace deal within one or two weeks or another Russian attempt with new reinforcements, which could prolong the conflict for another month.

At the United Nations, Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow would end what it calls its "special military operation" when its goals were achieved, including demilitarisation.

Zelensky, who has won admiration in the West for his leadership, called on Russian troops to surrender.

"You will not take anything from Ukraine. You will take lives," he said in a video message. "But why should you die? What for? I know that you want to survive."

Luxury sanctions

In Rivne in western Ukraine, officials said 19 people had been killed in a Russian air strike on a TV tower. If confirmed it would be the worst attack on a civilian target so far in the north-west where Russian ground troops have yet to tread.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

More than 100 buses carrying a few thousand civilians left the besieged northeastern city of Sumy in a "safe passage"operation, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday. They were heading towards Lubny in central Ukraine after Russians gave a green light for the evacuation.

Russia said it now controlled the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. Reuters could not independently verify the report.

The conflict has brought economic isolation upon Russia. The United States, the European Union and Britain announced further sanctions on Tuesday, while Moscow retaliated by putting Biden and other US officials on a "stop list" that bars them from entering Russia.

The latest EU sanctions include bans on energy sector investments, luxury goods exports to Moscow, and imports of steel products from Russia.

They also freeze the assets of more business leaders believed to support the Russian state, including Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.

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