Russia, Ukraine agree to ceasefire to allow civilians to escape fighting in areas including Mariupol

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KYIV (REUTERS, AFP) - Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday (March 9) agreed a day-long ceasefire around a series of evacuation corridors to allow civilians to escape the fighting, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

She said Moscow vowed to respect the truce from 9am to 9pm (3pm Wednesday to 3am Thursday Singapore time) around six areas that have been heavily hit by fighting.

Ms Vereshchuk said the corridors that would open would go from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia - both in south-eastern Ukraine; Enerhodar to Zaporizhzhia - both in south-eastern Ukraine; north-eastern Sumy to central Poltava; Izyum to Lozova - both in eastern Ukraine; Volnovakha to Pokrovsk - both in eastern Ukraine; and from several towns around Kyiv which she identified as Vorzel, Borodyanka, Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel to the capital. 

Civilians in private cars have begun leaving the city of Sumy following the opening of the corridor, the city's mayor Oleksandr Lysenko said in televised comments.

Earlier on Wednesday, Russia said it would provide humanitarian corridors for people fleeing Kyiv and four other Ukrainian cities. The only operating corridor is that from the city of Sumy, which opened on Tuesday.

Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defence Control Centre, was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency that Russian forces would “observe a regime of silence” from 10am Moscow time (3pm Singapore time) to ensure safe passage for civilians wishing to leave Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol.

Civilians fled the besieged city of Sumy on Tuesday in the first successful “humanitarian corridor” opened since Russia’s invasion. Ukraine accused Russian forces of shelling another evacuation route, from Mariupol in the south of the country.

Ms Vereshchuk said on Tuesday that authorities had once again not been able to evacuate civilians from Mariupol. 

Mr Mizintsev earlier said Ukrainian authorities had endorsed only one civilian evacuation route from areas affected by fighting out of 10 that were proposed, including five towards territory controlled by Kyiv.

The first convoy carrying civilians from Sumy in northern Ukraine arrived via a humanitarian corridor in the central city of Poltava, Ukraine's presidency said late on Tuesday.

"The first column of 22 buses has already arrived in Poltava," the president's deputy chief of staff Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on Telegram, hailing this as "good news".

He added that 1,100 foreign students would travel onwards by train to Lviv in Western Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a second convoy of buses reached Poltava region, the presidential administrator said.

The humanitarian corridor was also used by drivers of civilian vehicles, he added.

Sumy, 350km east of Kyiv, has experienced days of heavy fighting.

The Ukrainian authorities said that 21 people, including two children, were killed in air strikes in the besieged city on Monday.

"I am glad that the work of the evacuation team at this stage was completed successfully," Tymoshenko said.

Evacuations also took place outside the capital Kyiv.

But attempted evacuations from the port town of Mariupol have failed on several occasions in recent days, with both Kyiv and Moscow blaming the other side for the failures.

More than two million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on Feb 24.

A senior Ukrainian government official said the country must hold off Russia's attack for the next seven to 10 days to deny Moscow claiming any sort of victory.  

Mr Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said Russia was desperate for at least some kind of victory, citing the cities of Mariupol or the capital Kyiv as the most likely targets.  

"They need at least some victory before they are forced into the final negotiations," he wrote on Facebook. "Therefore our task is to stand for the next 7-10 days." 

Britain on Wednesday said Ukraine’s air defences were having success against Russian jets, likely preventing Russia from controlling the airspace.  

"Ukrainian air defences appear to have enjoyed considerable success against Russia’s modern combat aircraft, probably preventing them achieving any degree of control of the air," the Ministry of Defence intelligence update posted on Twitter said.  

Britain’s assessment also said Russian forces had failed to make any significant breakthroughs in fighting north west of Kyiv.

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In the US, President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House that "Russia may continue to grind out its advance at a horrible price, but this much is already clear: Ukraine will never be a victory for Putin”.

“Putin may be able to take a city, but he’ll never be able to hold the country,” Biden said.

The US has banned imports of Russian oil in a major new step in the Western-led effort to halt the war by crippling Russia's economy, sparking a further increase in the oil price.

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Prices have surged more than 30 per cent since Russia - the world's second-largest crude exporter - invaded its neighbour on Feb 24. 

Despite the prospect of higher household bills, Biden said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin needed to face consequences for the assault.

“The American people will deal another powerful blow to Putin’s war machine,” he said.

Britain said it would phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022, while the European Union published plans to cut its reliance on Russian gas by two-thirds this year.

Addressing Britain’s Parliament via videolink, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the world to increase the sanctions.

He said his people would fight to the end against the Russian invaders but it needed help, including no-fly zones.

“The question for us now is to be or not to be,” said Mr Zelensky, quoting Shakespeare. “I can give you a definitive answer: it’s definitely to be.”

Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.

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