- Putin says he wants to ‘demilitarize’ Ukraine
- Russia and Ukraine blame each other for evacuation problems
- Up to 1.5 million refugees expected by Sunday evening
- US Secretary of State Blinken in Poland for crisis talks
- NATO says ‘no’ to no-fly zones over Ukraine
LVIV/KIEV, Ukraine, March 5 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday Western sanctions amounted to war as his forces continued their assault on Ukraine, where planned civilian evacuations from two towns besieged were cancelled.
Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for failing to provide safe passage for civilians fleeing the two bombed towns, on the 10th day of a war that has fueled Europe’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe in decades.
The Russian invasion, which began on February 24, has sent nearly 1.5 million refugees west towards the European Union and prompted unprecedented international sanctions against Moscow.
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The Russian Defense Ministry said its units had opened humanitarian corridors near the towns of Mariupol and Volnovakha, which were surrounded by its troops.
But in Mariupol, the city council said Russia was not respecting the ceasefire and asked residents to return to shelters and await further information on evacuation.
The Russian Defense Ministry has accused Ukrainian “nationalists” of preventing civilians from leaving, the RIA news agency reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross later said it understood civilian evacuations from Mariupol and Volnovakha would not begin on Saturday.
The port of Mariupol has come under heavy shelling, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow due to its position between eastern Ukraine, held by Russian-backed separatists, and the Black Sea Crimean peninsula, that Moscow seized from Kiev 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. There was still no electricity, water, heating or cell phone, and food was scarce.
OFFENSIVE TO CONTINUE
The Russian Defense Ministry has said a broad offensive will continue in Ukraine, where it denies attacking civilians or invading, calling its actions a “special military operation”.
Russian forces were carrying out strikes on military infrastructure and forces in separatist-held Donetsk were tightening the encirclement of Mariupol, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
A United Nations monitoring mission said at least 351 civilians had been confirmed killed and 707 injured in Ukraine since the start of the invasion, adding that the true figures were likely “considerably higher”.
The number of refugees could rise to 1.5 million by Sunday evening, from the current 1.3 million, the head of the UN refugee agency said.
Women and children crossed at the Medyka checkpoint in southeastern Poland in freezing conditions.
A woman, struggling to carry half a dozen bags, cried when snacks she had prepared for her and her young son, who was holding a green dinosaur toy, fell to the ground. She gave the boy a bag to carry as they walked slowly.
The situation was just as desperate across the border in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where thousands of women and children numbed by exhaustion continued to pour in from areas war-torn eastern regions.
“I’ve barely slept for 10 days,” said Anna Filatova, who arrived with her two daughters from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s heavily bombed second city near its eastern border with Russia. “The Russians want to flatten Kharkiv… We hate Putin.” Read more
Putin said on Saturday he wanted a neutral, “demilitarized” and “denazified” Ukraine, adding: “These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war, but thank God it hasn’t come to that.” .
Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had accused the West of “economic banditry” and threatened to retaliate, without giving details. Read more
The Russian Foreign Office has accused Britain of “sanctions hysteria” and promised tough but proportionate action against British interests in Russia. Britain plans to strengthen its laws to make it easier to crack down on Russian oligarchs in London.
Italian police have seized villas and yachts worth at least $153 million belonging to four Russian figures on an EU sanctions list, sources said on Saturday.
The conflict has rattled international diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, one of the few areas where Russia and the United States have worked together to curb what the West suspects is Iran’s plan to develop nuclear weapons. .
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that new Western sanctions imposed on his country had become a stumbling block to reaching a nuclear deal with Iran.
In other diplomatic fallout from the war, the prime ministers of non-NATO nations Finland and Sweden said on Saturday they would step up security cooperation because of Russia’s actions, although that they have not committed themselves to joining the Atlantic alliance. Read more
“PLEASE CLOSE THE SKY”
Ukraine says Russian forces have focused their efforts on encircling Kiev and Kharkiv, 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 President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was expected to press Washington for more help during a video call with the US Senate 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.
“Please close the sky…because people are dying,” said Solomiya Zdryko, 18, who fled Lviv, western Ukraine. Read more
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting Poland, discussed security and humanitarian assistance with senior local officials and also met with refugees staying at a disused shopping mall near the border. Poland hosted the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees. Read more
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said 66,224 Ukrainian men had returned from abroad to join the fight against the Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian military said the armed forces are “fighting hard to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers”, counterattacking in some areas and disrupting communications.
He said at least 39 Russian planes and 40 helicopters were destroyed, while Russia said it destroyed 82 Ukrainian planes, 708 armored vehicles, 74 multiple rocket launchers and 56 drones. Reuters was unable to independently verify the accounts of either side.
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Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, Matthias Williams in Medyka, Guy Faulconbridge and William Schomberg in London, John Irish in Paris, François Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and other offices from Reuters by Kim Coghill, Philippa Fletcher and Gareth Jones Editing by William Mallard, Frances Kerry and William Maclean
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