UN seeks humanitarian contact group for Ukraine

Aid agencies have warned of the need to protect and evacuate civilians in the conflict. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths announced on Monday (April 17) that he will meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey this week to push for the creation of a "humanitarian contact group" involving Ukraine and Russia.

Such a group would "meet convened by the UN to discuss on a virtual or actual basis at any time to discuss humanitarian issues", Mr Griffiths told reporters in New York.

That could include ceasefire monitoring, safe passage, humanitarian corridors or other issues between the two warring sides, he said.

Mr Griffiths did not say when he would meet Mr Erdogan, but initially said he planned to arrive in Turkey on Wednesday and leave on Thursday.

However, he tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after his announcement, forcing him to postpone his trip to an unspecified date, his team told AFP.

Mr Griffiths and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had spoken with Mr Erdogan by phone on Sunday to discuss the initiative.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 and since then has been repeatedly accused of targeting civilians. Aid agencies have warned of the need to protect and evacuate civilians in the conflict.

Mr Griffiths had visited Moscow in early April before a trip to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, to try to obtain a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate other aid interventions.

Last week, however, Mr Guterres admitted that a halt to the fighting seemed unlikely - and on Monday, Mr Griffiths confirmed that Moscow was "not putting local ceasefires at the top of their agenda. Not yet".

Ukraine has agreed to most of the UN's humanitarian proposals, but not Russia yet, he said, warning that it was too easy for the two sides to "blame each other when it goes wrong".

The official said he planned to visit Russia again after his trip to Turkey.

He said Turkey was also involved in a naval effort to rescue some 800 people from the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.

Mr Griffiths also said that keeping the port of Odessa open was of the "highest importance". Odessa is home to full grain silos storing Ukraine's harvest, he said, calling it a "lifeline" to countries whose food supply has been impacted by the war.

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