Russia declares limited ceasefire in two Ukrainian towns to allow civilians to flee

  • Russia says forces stop firing to allow evacuations from two Ukrainian towns
  • Ukrainian officials say the firing has not been fully stopped
  • Russia blocks Facebook, BBC and Deutsche Welle websites
  • NATO says ‘no’ to no-fly zones over Ukraine

LVIV/KIEV, Ukraine, March 5 (Reuters) – Russia said its forces on Saturday stopped firing near two besieged Ukrainian towns to allow safe passage for civilians fleeing the fighting, but town officials said Moscow was not fully respecting the partial ceasefire.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its units had opened humanitarian corridors near the towns of Mariupol and Volnovakha which were surrounded by its troops, Russian news agency RIA reported.

In Mariupol, citizens would be allowed to leave for a five-hour window, citing city officials, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its 10th day.

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The southeastern port city has come under heavy shelling, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow due to its position between Russian-backed separatist territory in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow has seized in Ukraine in 2014.

“Last night the shelling was harder and closer together,” said a member of staff from Médecins sans frontières/Médecins sans frontières (MSF), according to the aid agency, adding that there was still no no electricity, water, heat or cell phone and food was scarce.

The Ukrainian government has said the plan is to evacuate around 200,000 people from Mariupol and 15,000 from Volnovakha, and the Red Cross is the guarantor of the ceasefire.

But the city council later said Russia was not fully respecting the ceasefire. “We are negotiating with the Russian side to confirm the ceasefire along the entire evacuation route,” he said. There was no direct response from the Russian side.

The Ukrainian government was examining reports from its army that Russian troops were using the ceasefire to advance towards Mariupol, said Ukraine’s Minister for the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories Iryna Vereshchuk.

The Russian Defense Ministry has said a broad offensive will continue in Ukraine, where it denies targeting civilians.

“The armed forces of the Russian Federation have continued to carry out strikes against the military infrastructure of Ukraine,” Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, adding that the Donetsk forces, held by the separatists in eastern Ukraine continued to tighten the encirclement of Mariupol.

Mariupol city authorities have urged civilians to leave.

“We are simply destroyed,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said.

Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster across the country as food, water and medical supplies run out. More than 1.2 million refugees have fled to neighboring European countries, the UN refugee agency said on Saturday.

President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 after weeks of gathering troops near Ukraine and his actions have drawn near universal condemnation around the world. Ukrainian officials have reported thousands of dead and injured civilians and many countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia.

Moscow says its goal is to disarm its neighbour, counter what it sees as NATO aggression and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis.

NO TO NO-FLY ZONES

Ukraine says Russian forces have focused their efforts on encircling Kyiv and Kharkiv, the second-largest city, while aiming to establish a land bridge to Crimea.

Kiev, in the path of a Russian armored column that had been stuck for days outside the Ukrainian capital, came under attack again, with explosions audible from the city center.

Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne quoted authorities in Sumy, about 300 km (190 miles) east of Kyiv, as saying there is a risk of fighting on the streets of the city, urging residents to stay in shelters .

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was expected to press Washington for more help during a video call with the US Senate at 9:30 a.m. ET (1430 GMT) on Saturday.

At a meeting on Friday, NATO allies rejected Ukraine’s call for no-fly zones, saying they were increasing support but that intervening directly could worsen the situation.

“We have a responsibility (…) to prevent this war from spreading beyond Ukraine, because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and cause even more human suffering,” the secretary general said. of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.

Zelenskiy criticized the summit, saying “It was clear that not everyone sees the battle for Europe’s freedom as the number one goal”.

The United States is weighing cuts to Russian oil imports and ways to minimize the impact on global supplies and consumers as lawmakers fast-track a bill that would ban Russian energy imports. Global oil prices jumped more than 20% this week on concerns over supply shortages, posing a risk to global economic growth. Read more

A FIERCE DEFENSE

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said 66,224 Ukrainian men had returned from abroad to join the fight against the Russian invasion. “It’s 12 more combat and motivated brigades! Ukrainians, we are invincible,” he said in an online message.

The Ukrainian military said the armed forces are “fighting hard to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers”, counterattacking in some areas and disrupting communications.

“The units of the invaders are demoralized, soldiers and officers of the occupation army continue to surrender, to flee, leaving weapons and equipment on Ukrainian soil,” he said, adding that at least 39 Russian planes and 40 helicopters had been destroyed.

Russia said it destroyed 82 Ukrainian aircraft, 708 armored vehicles, 74 multiple rocket launchers and 56 drones.

Reuters has not been able to independently verify these accounts on either side.

Thousands of people waited for hours on Friday outside the station in the western city of Lviv to board trains bound for Poland. The families arrived with few possessions. Some were in wheelchairs, others accompanied by pet dogs and cats, uncertain of their fate.

“We only took with us what was strictly necessary,” said Yana Tebyakina. “A change of clothes. That’s it. Everything else we left behind, our whole life stayed at home.” Read more

Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they this week captured their first major Ukrainian city, Kherson. Shelling has worsened in recent days in the northeastern cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv.

Russia’s parliament on Friday passed a law imposing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for intentionally spreading “false” information about the military.

“This law will impose penalties – and very severe penalties – on those who have lied and made statements discrediting our armed forces,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Russia blocks Facebook for restricting state-backed channels and the websites of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.

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Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, John Irish in Paris, François Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and other Reuters offices Writing by Kim Coghill and Philippa Fletcher Editing by William Mallard and Frances Kerry

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