Red Cross plans fresh evacuation effort from Ukraine’s Mariupol

A child is helped off a bus at the registration center in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on April 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
The ICRC said that major details were still being worked out such as the exact timing and destination of the convoy. PHOTO: AFP

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (REUTERS) - A Red Cross convoy will make another attempt to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol on Saturday (April 2) as Russian forces looked to be regrouping for new attacks in southeast Ukraine.

Mariupol, encircled since the early days of Russia's five-week-old invasion, has been Moscow's main target in Ukraine's southeastern region of Donbass. Tens of thousands there are trapped with scant access to food and water. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sent a team on Friday to lead a convoy of about 54 Ukrainian buses and other private vehicles out of the city, but they turned back, saying conditions made it impossible to proceed.

“They will try again on Saturday to facilitate the safe passage of civilians,” the ICRC said in a statement on Friday. A previous Red Cross evacuation attempt in early March failed.

An advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was hopeful about the Mariupol evacuations.

“Our delegation has reached an agreement in Istanbul (during Ukraine-Russia peace talks) to provide evacuations,” Oleksiy Arestovych told Ukrainian television.

“I think that today or maybe tomorrow we will hear good news regarding the evacuation of the inhabitants of Mariupol,” he said.

Russia and Ukraine have agreed to humanitarian corridors during the war that have facilitated the evacuation of thousands of civilians, but have often traded blame when the corridors have not been successful.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said seven such corridors have been planned for Saturday. 

They will include one for people evacuating by private transport from the city of Mariupol and by buses for Mariupol residents out of the city of Berdyansk, Vereshchuk said.   

In an early morning video address, President Zelensky warned that Russian troops have moved towards the Donbass region and northeast in the direction of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, where previous Russian strikes badly damaged urban areas.

"I hope they may still be solutions for the situation in Mariupol," Mr Zelensky said. "The whole world has to react to this humanitarian catastrophe."

Shift from Kyiv

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops on Feb 24 for what he calls a "special operation" to demilitarise Ukraine.

The West calls it an unprovoked war of aggression that has killed thousands, uprooted a quarter of Ukraine's population and brought tensions between Russia and the United States to their worst point since the Cold War.

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Aiming to lower nuclear tensions with Russia, the US military has cancelled an intercontinental ballistic missile test that it had initially aimed only to delay, the Air Force told Reuters.

But the United States and its European allies have sent Ukraine military assistance, including an additional US$300 million dollars in aid announced by the Pentagon late on Friday.

The new aid includes laser-guided rocket and anti-drone systems.

On Saturday, Ukraine said Russian forces are making a “rapid retreat” from areas around the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv in northern Ukraine.

“With the rapid retreat of the Russians from the Kyiv and Chernigiv regions... it is completely clear that Russia is prioritising a different tactic: falling back on the east and south,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on social media.

At peace talks this week, Russia said Donbass, where it has backed separatists since 2014, would now be the focus of its war efforts. Russian troops left behind shattered villages and their own abandoned tanks as they moved away from the capital Kyiv.

"You see that (the) enemy overestimates its potential around Kyiv at least. And we keep going forward liberating our cities and evacuating our people," said Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin.

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After failing to capture a single major city, Russia has painted its draw-down of forces near Kyiv as a goodwill gesture in the peace negotiations.

Ukraine and its allies say Russian forces have been forced to regroup after suffering heavy losses due to determined Ukrainian resistance.

Across the border from Kharkiv in the Russian city of Belgorod, Moscow said Ukrainian helicopters struck a fuel depot on Friday, causing a huge fire. Ukraine denied responsibility for the incident, the first of its kind in the war.

The fire destroyed several oil tanks and will likely add short-term strain to Russia's already stretched logistics chains, particularly operations in Kharkiv, Britain's defence ministry said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the incident could jeopardise the peace talks. Russia will strengthen its western borders so it won't "cross anyone's mind to attack," Mr Peskov said later.

Odessa strikes

As Ukrainian forces recaptured more territory around Kyiv on Friday, officials in the Black Sea port of Odessa said anti-air defences thwarted an attempted attack on critical infrastructure in the city. Reuters could not immediately verify the account.

Odessa's governor, Maksym Marchenko, said three missiles had hit a residential district, causing casualties. He said the missiles were fired from an Iskander missile system in Crimea, the southern Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.

Russia denies targeting civilians. Odessa and Mariupol straddle the Black Sea and have been primary targets of Russia due in part to their strategic location.

Facing unprecedented sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia had threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe unless buyers paid with roubles. Europe vowed to stay united against Russia's demand, and Moscow said it would not halt supplies until new payments are due later in April.

Mediators from Turkey, where the most recent round of face-to-face peace talks were held, and the United Nations have been pressing for a pause in fighting.

United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths will travel to Moscow on Sunday and then to Kyiv as the UN pursues a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters.

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