A second attempt to evacuate civilians from a besieged town in southern Ukraine failed on Sunday as Russian attacks halted plans to create a humanitarian corridor, a Ukrainian government official said.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has called for an end to the “rivers of blood and tears” created by the war and has sent two cardinals to Ukraine.
Food, water, medicine and almost all other supplies were desperately short in the port city of Mariupol, where Russian and Ukrainian forces had agreed to an 11 a.m. ceasefire to allow the evacuation of civilians and injured. But Russian attacks quickly closed the corridor, Ukrainian officials said.
“There can be no ‘green corridors’ because only the diseased Russian brain decides when to start shooting and at whom,” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said on Telegram.
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The news dashed hopes that more people could escape the fighting in Ukraine, where Russia’s plan to quickly invade the country has been thwarted by fierce resistance. Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine and along the coast, but many of its efforts have stalled, including a huge military convoy that stood almost motionless for days north of Kiev .
The war, now in its eleventh day, has caused 1.5 million people to flee the country. The head of the UN refugee agency called the exodus “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II”.
As he has often done, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the fighting on Ukraine, telling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday that the invasion could be stopped “only if Kiev ceases hostilities”. according to a Kremlin statement over the phone. call.
He said Ukraine must meet “Russia’s well-known demands,” which include what he calls the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine.
The Turkish and French presidents, as well as Pope Francis, have called on Putin to negotiate.
In a highly unusual move, the pope said he had sent two cardinals to Ukraine, saying the Vatican would do everything it could to end the conflict.
“In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears flow,” said the pontiff in his traditional Sunday blessing. “This is not just a military operation, but a war that sows death, destruction and misery.”
After the collapse of the ceasefire in Mariupol on Saturday, Russian forces stepped up their shelling of the city and dropped massive bombs on residential areas in Chernihiv, a town north of Kiev, Ukrainian officials said.
British military officials have compared Russia’s tactics to those used by Moscow in Chechnya and Syria, where encircled towns have been pulverized by airstrikes and artillery.
“It will probably represent an effort to break the morale of Ukrainians,” said the British Ministry of Defense.
Separately, Ukraine’s national security service said Russian forces in the city of Kharkiv fired rockets at a physics institute that contains nuclear materials and a reactor.
Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy has reiterated a demand for foreign protectors to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which NATO has so far ruled out due to fears such action could lead to a much larger war.
“The world is strong enough to close the sky to us,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in a video address.
Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said Ukrainian officials and international aid organizations were working with Russia through intermediaries to establish humanitarian corridors from Bucha and Hostomel, which are Kyiv suburbs where heavy fighting has taken place. occurred.
As Russian forces surrounded several Ukrainian towns, Zelenskyy appeared on television Saturday night and rallied his people to remain defiant.
“The Ukrainians in all our towns where the enemy has entered – go on the offensive! said Zelenskyy, who was wearing his usual military green t-shirt. “You should take to the streets!” You should fight! … It is necessary to go out and chase this evil from our cities, from our land.
Ukraine’s resistance force continues to surprise Russian forces, and they have responded by targeting populated areas including the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence briefing.
The death toll is difficult to measure. The UN human rights office said at least 351 civilians were killed, but the true number is likely much higher.
Ukraine’s army is vastly outmatched by Russia’s, but its professional and volunteer forces have fought back with fierce tenacity. In Kiev, volunteers lined up on Saturday to join the army.
Even in the fallen cities there were signs of resistance.
Onlookers in Chernihiv cheered as they watched a Russian military plane fall from the sky and crash, according to video released by the Ukrainian government. In Kherson, hundreds of protesters waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and shouted, “Go home.”
Russia has made significant progress in southern Ukraine as it seeks to block access to the Sea of Azov. Capturing Mariupol could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 in a move most other countries considered illegal.
The West has largely backed Ukraine, offering aid and arms shipments and hitting Russia with sweeping sanctions. But no NATO troops were sent to Ukraine, leaving the Ukrainians to fight Russian troops alone.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent the weekend visiting NATO member countries in Eastern Europe that have taken in refugees from Ukraine. In Moldova on Sunday, he pledged support for the Western-leaning former Soviet republic which is watching Russia’s actions in Ukraine warily.
The World Health Organization on Sunday condemned attacks on healthcare workers in Ukraine, saying it verified at least six such attacks that killed six people and injured 11 others.
Attacks on health workers are a violation of international humanitarian law, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
The UN has said it will increase its humanitarian operations inside and outside Ukraine, and the Security Council has scheduled a meeting on Monday on the worsening situation.
The United Nations World Food Program has warned of a looming hunger crisis in Ukraine, a major global supplier of wheat, saying millions of people will need food aid “immediately”.