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Ukraine makes fresh move to help civilians leave ‘apocalyptic’ Mariupol | Ukraine

Ukraine will try to evacuate civilians from six besieged cities, including the port of Mariupol where conditions are described as “apocalyptic”, along safe routes agreed with Moscow, the country’s deputy prime minister has said.

Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukrainian forces would hold their fire in the areas concerned during a 12-hour window from 9am until 9pm local time on Wednesday, and she appealed to Russian forces to observe their “official public commitment” to do the same.

Referring to several previous attempts to evacuate civilians that were aborted after so-called “humanitarian corridors” came under fire, she said Ukraine already had “negative experiences of when commitments undertaken did not work”.

Ukrainian authorities said the routes should allow civilians from heavily bombed Mariupol, Enerhodar, Sumy, Izyum and Volnovakha to leave, and residents of several towns around Kyiv, including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, to get to the capital.

Initially at least, the civilians would be evacuated to destinations inside Ukraine. Kyiv has repeatedly rejected proposals from Moscow for safe routes offering fleeing civilians escape only to Russia or its ally Belarus, calling the plans “cynical and immoral”.

After buses carried about 7,000 civilians – including 1,700 foreign students – out of Sumy on Tuesday, the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Lysenko, said on Wednesday that civilians in private cars were starting to leave along the same corridor, with priority for pregnant women, women with children, and elderly and disabled people.

The mayor of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, said a temporary ceasefire was in force that would allow buses with humanitarian supplies into the south-eastern city, which has been under heavy fire. “On the way back they will pick up civilians who want to leave” for the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, he said.

International aid groups were most concerned, however, to ensure the successful evacuation of encircled Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of residents have been sheltering from brutal Russian shelling and missile attacks for more than a week without water, power or heating. Phone signals are also down.

Attempts on Tuesday to begin the process of bussing about half the besieged city’s 400,000 desperate inhabitants out via a “humanitarian corridor” were abandoned after the Ukrainian government accused Russian forces of shelling it.

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The Red Cross has described conditions in Mariupol as “apocalyptic”, while Vereshchuk said the humanitarian situation in the besieged city was “catastrophic” and Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, compared levels of devastation and suffering to those caused by the Nazis in the second world war.

Journalists in the city described corpses lying in the streets and hungry people breaking into stores in search of food and melting snow for water, while thousands sheltered in basements. Authorities are reportedly planning to start digging mass graves.

The head of the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, said on Wednesday that up to 2.2 million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on 24 February. “The time is now to try to help at the border” rather than get involved in discussions on the division of refugees between countries, he said.

As fighting continued across the country, Ukraine’s general staff said on Wednesday that its armed forces were building up defences in cities in the north, south and east, and that forces around Kyiv were “holding the line” and resisting an apparently stalled Russian offensive with unspecified strikes.

While the capital has been relatively quiet in recent days, Russian forces have continued to pound its outskirts and suburbs. The head of the Kyiv regional government, Oleksiy Kuleba, said on Wednesday that Russia was “artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region”.

Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling had made it impossible to move the bodies of five people who died when their vehicle was fired upon on the outskirts of Kyiv as well as the bodies of 12 patients of a psychiatric hospital where about 200 patients remain without food and medicine.

The British Ministry of Defence said in its latest assessment of the military situation that fighting north-west of Kyiv was “ongoing” and Russian forces were “failing to make any significant breakthroughs”.

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”, it said, but it added that the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol “remain encircled and continue to suffer heavy Russian shelling”.

The US on Tuesday rejected a proposal to provide Washington with MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland, saying it was “not tenable” for jets to take off from a US airbase in Germany and fly into contested Ukrainian airspace. Poland reiterated on Wednesday that it was ready to act, “only within the framework of Nato”.

Ukraine has asked western countries to provide fighter jets to respond to the Russian invasion. But on Tuesday, after Poland said it was ready to deploy all of its MiG-29 jets to Ramstein airbase in Germany for the US and urged other Nato members to do the same, the Pentagon dismissed the offer.

Three rounds of peace talks between the two sides have so far yielded no progress, with Moscow continuing to insist Ukraine must “demilitarise” and enshrine neutrality in its constitution before it will halt what it calls a “special military operation” aimed at ensuring Russia’s security.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was due to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, and the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on the sidelines of a summit being hosted on Wednesday in the resort city of Antalya by Turkey, a Nato member.

Russia said on Wednesday that it was working on a “broad response” to an unprecedented range of international financial and economic sanctions that appear certain to plunge Russia’s economy into its gravest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The US president, Joe Biden, this week imposed an immediate ban on Russian oil and other energy imports, while Shell, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are temporarily suspending their businesses in Russia.

Britain unveiled new aviation sanctions on Wednesday that will give it the power to detain any Russian aircraft and ban aviation or space-related exports to Russia.

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