KYIV (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Civilians will start leaving the besieged Ukrainian city of Sumy on Tuesday (March 8) under an agreement with Russia on the establishment of a "humanitarian corridor", Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
"It has been agreed that the first convoy will start at 10am (4pm, Singapore time) from the city of Sumy. The convoy will be followed by the local population in personal vehicles," she said in a televised statement.
Civilians have been trapped by fighting since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb 24.
Russia had proposed giving the residents of Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine, and Mariupol, a southern port city, the choice of moving elsewhere in Ukraine on Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported.
Other humanitarian corridors proposed by Russia would travel through Russia or Belarus, something Ukrainian authorities have previously rejected.
The Interfax news agency on Tuesday quoted the Russian defence ministry saying Russia opened "humanitarian corridors" from Kyiv and four other Ukrainian cities: Cherhihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
The defence ministry added that Russian forces in Ukraine had introduced a "silent regime" from 0700 GMT (3pm, Singapore time), Interfax reported.
At least nine people, including two children, died in an overnight air strike on Sumy, the rescue services said on Tuesday.
"Enemy planes insidiously attacked apartment buildings" on Monday night, the rescue services said on Telegram.
Sumy, near the Russian border, has been the scene of heavy fighting for days.
More than 1,000 students, including those from India and Nigeria, remain stranded in the city.Russia on Monday threatened to cut natural gas supplies to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline as part of its response to sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine, a move that could heighten the turmoil in energy markets and drive consumer prices even higher.
Russia has the right to take actions that "mirror" the penalties imposed on the Russian economy, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak - who’s also in charge of energy affairs - said in a televised speech.
“A ban on Russian oil will lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market. The surge in prices will be unpredictable - more than US$300 (S$408.59) per barrel, if not more,” Mr Novak said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
Mr Novak added that it would be “impossible” to quickly replace Russian oil on the European market
“It will take more than one year and it will be much more expensive for European consumers,” he said.
“European politicians should then honestly warn their citizens, consumers what awaits them and that prices at gas stations, for electricity, for heating will skyrocket.”
Meanwhile in Ukraine, the United Nations (UN) said it needs safe passage to deliver humanitarian aid to conflict zones, a senior official with the organisation told the Security Council on Monday as Russia bombed a bread factory in Ukraine killing 13 people.
“Civilians in places like Mariupol, Kharkiv, Melitopol and elsewhere desperately need aid, especially life-saving medical supplies,” undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Martin Griffiths told an emergency meeting on the disaster sparked by Russia’s invasion.
“Many modalities are possible, but it must take place in line with the parties’ obligations under the laws of war,” he added.
The strike on the factory in Makariv, just west of the capital Kyiv, took place as the number of refugees fleeing across borders from the Russian assault on Ukraine passed 1.7 million, according to UN figures.
Russian forces pressed on with their sieges and bombing of Ukrainian cities on the 11th day of the war. In the encircled southern port city of Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of people remained trapped without food and water under regular bombardments.
“They’re bombing the life out of everything that is moving,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Reuters was not able to verify the reported bakery attack but local emergency services said the bodies of at least 13 civilians were recovered from rubble after it was hit.
Five people were rescued of the 30 believed to have been there at the time. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Zelensky, speaking on a zoom call with a Jewish group in the United States, said: “The bakery was eliminated. And this is happening in different cities.”
In the eastern city of Kharkiv, police said a further 10 people had been killed over the past day, taking the total death toll there from Russian bombardment to 143 since the start of the invasion. It was not possible to verify the toll.
Meanwhile, Russia has committed nearly all its combat power stationed along the border into Ukraine, the Pentagon said on Monday as it announced 500 more US troops were deploying to Europe to boost Nato security.
The US Defence Department has assessed that of the Russian forces built up along the border - estimated by Western nations at over 150,000 troops - Russian President Vladimir Putin has "got nearly all the mass combat power that he had assembled inside Ukraine", Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
And as Mr Putin intensifies operations, the US Defence Department also warned that Russian strikes on civilians were mounting and that Moscow was seeking to recruit foreign fighters, notably Syrians, for the war.
But the deadly invasion has slowed to a slog, and apart from some wins in southern Ukraine, Russian forces "really haven't made any noteworthy progress in the last few days", Kirby said.
The United States has already deployed 12,000 additional soldiers to Europe since February, but President Joe Biden has stressed that US troops will not engage in a conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.
Over the weekend, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin ordered roughly 500 additional military personnel to locations in Europe, particularly Nato's eastern flank, "to augment US forces that are already in theatre", Kirby told reporters.
"These additional personnel are being positioned to respond obviously to the current security environment caused by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and certainly to help reinforce and bolster deterrence and defence capabilities of the Nato alliance."
With Ukrainians trying to hold the assault at bay, Russia has engaged in more long-range attacks - a mix of bombardments, rocket launches, artillery strikes and more than 625 missiles - to make up for their lack of movement on the ground, the Pentagon said.
"We do believe... that they are having morale problems, they are having supply problems, they are having fuel problems, they're having food problems," he added.
"They're meeting a very stiff and determined Ukrainian resistance."
Bombardments have increased around the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv in the north, and Mykolaiv and Mariupol in the south, and they "are having an increased effect on civilian casualties" and destroying homes, churches, hospitals and schools, Kirby said.
"The bottom line is, more civilians are being killed and wounded," he added.
"And Mr Putin still has a choice here: Not to escalate... but to find a diplomatic path forward and end the invasion."
With enormous firepower at Putin's disposal, the Pentagon said it was noteworthy but nevertheless unclear why he would find it necessary to bring in foreign fighters.
"We know that they're trying to recruit Syrians for the fight," a senior US defence official said.
Meanwhile concern has grown that Odessa, the country's main port and a crucial economic hub, is in Russia's sights.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Sunday that Moscow was "preparing to bomb Odessa". But the US official said the Pentagon has "not seen any evidence of a movement on Odessa" yet.