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Russia declares temporary ceasefire in Mariupol to allow civilians to leave

Russia called a temporary halt to its bombardment of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol on Saturday, enabling thousands of civilians to take advantage of the brief break in fighting to flee the besieged city.

Mariupol has been subjected to a barrage of Russian shells for the past five days. Russia said it would also stop firing on the eastern town of Volnovakha, another key target of Russian forces.

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister for reintegration, told local media that the Russian ceasefire would last from 9am until 4pm Kyiv time and allow 200,000 people to be evacuated from Mariupol and more than 15,000 from Volnovakha. She said civilians would pass through a “green corridor” from both places to the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia.

The move comes amid mounting fears of an unfolding humanitarian disaster in Ukraine as food, water and medicine run short. More than 1.2mn refugees have fled their homes in search of safety.

In Russia, thousands of people have travelled to neighbouring states as an intensifying crackdown on the country’s independent media forced a growing number of news outlets to suspend their work.

Moscow announced on Friday that it was banning Facebook and restricting access to Twitter. The authorities have also shut down liberal media outlets such as Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, while some websites have been blocked, including British broadcaster the BBC.

Russian and western journalists left for Latvia, Georgia, Armenia and other destinations after Moscow imposed a new law that threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for those spreading “fake news”.

Governments around the world have condemned Russian president Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine, especially the indiscriminate shelling of cities that has laid waste to residential areas and caused heavy casualties among the civilian population. The US estimates that Russia has unleashed more than 500 missiles since the start of the invasion.

Authorities in Mariupol, a city of about 450,000 people, say it is entirely encircled by Russian forces, which have pounded it with heavy artillery for days. Residents have been left without electricity, heating and water, with most confined to freezing bomb shelters.

The UK’s defence ministry said Russian forces were likely to advance on two more port cities in Ukraine, following their assault on Mariupol.

Russia is “probably advancing” towards the southern port city of Mykolaiv, the ministry said on Saturday, but there was a “realistic possibility” that some Russian forces would bypass the city and push towards Odesa.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on Saturday reiterated his calls for Nato to impose a no-fly zone over his country — which the alliance has so far rejected.

“We have seen the opinion of ordinary people in America who support ordinary people in Ukraine,” he said. “What else is needed to make a decision?”

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Nato members were “perfectly aware of the impossibility of their direct involvement in the Ukraine events”, according to Interfax, the Russian news agency.

Zelensky said Ukrainian forces continued to control key cities including Kharkiv in the east, Mykolayiv in the south and Chernihiv in the north.

“We are inflicting losses on the occupiers that they did not imagine in their worst dreams,” he said.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said on Friday that Russia’s “barbaric” invasion was “the ugly face of war”, adding: “The Russians are bombing and shelling everything — hospitals, houses, schools.”

Military analysts said Russia’s main objective remained the encirclement of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, an advance that western officials say has made little discernible progress for several days because of tactical and logistical failures. A US official said Russian soldiers also remained 10km from the centres of both Chernihiv and Kharkiv, which are under bombardment from the air.

Russia’s war in Ukraine triggered global alarm this week after Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, Europe’s largest, in an assault that briefly set fire to a building in the complex.

In Russia, citizens crowded into airports, seeking a way out of the country.

“People are trying to escape before it’s too late,” said one London-based Russian who did not want to be named. His sister had fled to Finland and was trying to persuade others in his family to leave.

“Right now Europe is fully closed [to Russians],” he said. “The few options are Kazakhstan, Turkey, the [United Arab] Emirates and Thailand.”

Russians began to leave the nation this week when rumours started circulating in Moscow that the authorities might be about to declare martial law.

“A number of my colleagues in Moscow just ran out of the office in what they were wearing to cash machines to take out what money they could, and started heading for the borders,” said one senior member of a professional services firm.

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