KYIV (REUTERS) - Russia announced new "humanitarian corridors" on Monday (March 7) to transport Ukrainians trapped under its bombardment - to Russia itself and its ally Belarus, a move immediately denounced by Kyiv as an immoral stunt.
Russian and Ukrainian delegations assembled for a third round of talks in Belarus, both sides said.
Two previous rounds yielded little beyond pledges to open routes for humanitarian access that have yet to be successfully implemented.
"In a few minutes, we will start talking to representatives of a country that seriously believes large-scale violence against civilians is an argument,” Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. "Prove that this is not the case."
Russia’s announcement of new corridors came after two days of failed ceasefires to let civilians flee the besieged city of Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands are trapped without food and water, under relentless bombardment.
The new "corridors" would lead from the capital Kyiv, the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Sumy, as well as Mariupol, Russia’s defence ministry said.
According to maps published by the RIA news agency, the corridor from Kyiv would lead to Belarus, while civilians from Kharkiv would be directed to Russia.
"Attempts by the Ukrainian side to deceive Russia and the whole civilised world... are useless this time," the ministry said.
A spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the move "completely immoral", saying Russia was trying to "use people’s suffering to create a television picture".
"They are citizens of Ukraine, they should have the right to evacuate to the territory of Ukraine," the spokesperson told Reuters.
Russia’s invasion has been condemned around the world, sent more than 1.5 million Ukrainians fleeing abroad, and triggered sweeping sanctions that have abruptly isolated Russia to a degree never before experienced by such a large economy.
Global share prices plunged on Monday after Washington said it was considering extending its sanctions to Russia’s energy exports, until now carved out from trade bans.
Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of oil and gas. Brent crude prices surged above US$139 a barrel on Monday, the closest they have come in 14 years to the all-time high of US$147.
Investment banks say prices could approach US$200 this year if Russian supply evaporates, with dire consequences for the global economy.
Both Russia and Ukraine are also among the world’s main exporters of grain, edible oils and industrial metals.
The war threatens to send global food prices skyrocketing and complicate industries’ recovery from the pandemic crisis.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians. It calls the campaign it launched on Feb 24 a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and remove leaders it describes as neo-Nazis.
Ukraine and its Western allies call this a transparent pretext for an invasion to conquer a nation of 44 million people.
The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said Russian forces were "beginning to accumulate resources for the storming of Kyiv", a city of more than 3 million, after days of slow progress in their main advance south from Belarus.
In a speech to the nation late on Sunday, Mr Zelensky described one family cut down there as they tried to escape.
Russians responsible for such atrocities would never be forgiven, he said.
"For you there will be no peaceful place on this earth, except for the grave."
In a later address, Mr Zelensky called for a blanket ban on trade with Moscow: "Boycott imports to Russia. If they do not adhere to civilised rules, then they should not receive goods and services from civilisation. Let the war feed them."
Ukraine said on Monday its forces had retaken control of the town of Chuhuiv in the north-east, site of heavy fighting for days, and of the strategic Mykolayiv airport in the south, which the regional governor said was under tank fire.
Neither claim could immediately be verified.
‘No peaceful place on this Earth'
International attention has focused on Irpin, a Kyiv suburb where residents have been scrambling across a river to flee Russian bombardment.
Ukraine said 2,000 civilians had been evacuated from Irpin, a Kyiv suburb that has been under heavy attack.
Reuters journalists in the town on Sunday witnessed residents running for their lives, carrying small children, pets and bags of belongings. Families dove for cover as explosions burst in the town and flames shot up into the sky.
Panting with exhaustion and shock, they were helped onto buses by Ukrainian troops.
The situation was quieter on Monday. Ukrainian police released footage of more civilians making their way out.
The United Nations called for safe passage to reach people cut off from lifesaving aid across Ukraine.
In a humanitarian update it described one psychiatric hospital 60km from Kyiv, running out of water and medicine with 670 people trapped inside, including bedridden patients with severe needs.
The WHO said at least six people had been confirmed killed in nine attacks on health care facilities since the start of the war.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters Moscow would halt operations if Ukraine ceased fighting, amended its constitution to declare neutrality, and recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the independence of regions held by Russian-backed separatists.
While Russia’s advance in the north on Kyiv has been stalled for days with an armoured column stretching for miles along a highway, it has made more progress in the south, pushing east and west along the Black and Azov Sea coasts.
In Mariupol, residents still trapped are sleeping underground to escape more than six days of shelling by Russian forces that has cut off food, water, power and heat.
About half of them were due to be evacuated on Sunday, but that effort was aborted for a second day when a ceasefire plan collapsed with both sides accusing each other of failing to stop shooting and shelling.
Ukrainian authorities said on Monday the southern city of Mykolayiv was being shelled.
Mr Zelensky has warned that Russia’s next big target could be Odessa, an historic Black Sea port of 1 million people. Moscow has acknowledged nearly 500 deaths among its soldiers.
Ukraine says the true toll is many thousands.
Death tolls cannot be verified, but footage widely filmed across Ukraine shows burnt wreckage of Russian armoured columns and Ukrainian cities reduced to rubble by Russian strikes.
In Russia itself, the authorities have imposed a near total blackout on non-official information.
The last significant independent broadcasters of the post-Soviet era were shut last week, and a new law threatens long jail terms for reporting deemed by the authorities to discredit the military.
Many foreign news organisations have suspended reporting from Russia.
Western countries have sent weapons to Ukraine but have so far rejected Kyiv’s calls for a no-fly zone, which Nato leaders say would lead to open conflict with Russia.
"Apparently, it’s a pleasure for our friends to sit in a cozy cafe in Paris, Berlin, New York or Budapest, slowly drinking coffee with a croissant and looking at photographs of Ukrainian cities that are being destroyed at that very moment," Mr Zelensky adviser Mihkhailo Podolyak said in a social media post.
"But our cities, dying, are still fighting."