Russian forces exert stranglehold on Mariupol after failure of ceasefire

As Putin vows only to halt his offensive if Ukraine lays down its arms and meets his terms, the situation on the ground in Mariupol is “unfit for human life”

.Evgeniy Maloletka (AP)

Mariupol, a strategic port city being besieged and shelled by Russian troops, was facing disaster on Sunday after the failure of a second attempt to organize a ceasefire to evacuate hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the city. Meanwhile, Russian forces have redoubled their assault on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv: Irpin, a city 15 miles to the northwest of Kyiv, was subjected to an intense artillery bombardment on Sunday while civilians desperately attempted to flee the onslaught.

Following a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin stated that he had no intention of halting his offensive. According to a summary of the conversation released by the Kremlin, Russia will only call off its military operations if Ukraine lays down its arms and agrees to Moscow’s demands. Putin maintains that the invasion is going according to plan and within the expected timeframe, adding that he hoped Ukrainian negotiators would “show a more constructive approach, fully taking into account the emerging realities,” on the ground, according to the Kremlin.

Russia and the Ukraine National Guard have accused each other of preventing a humanitarian corridor from being opened up in Mariupol. Television station Ukraine 24 interviewed a member of the Azov regiment of the National Guard who said Russian forces that have surrounded the city of 400,000 inhabitants continued bombing areas that, in theory, should have been protected under the terms of the ceasefire. On the other hand, Russian news agency Interfax cited a member of the separatist administration of Donetsk, who accused Ukrainian forces of causing the collapse of the temporary truce.

Local government workers in Mariupol had planned for a convoy led by the Red Cross to help in getting the civilian population out of the city, which is completely surrounded by Russian forces and has been without water, heating, electricity or cell phone and Internet coverage for several days. On Sunday morning, local authorities had instructed residents to gather in three separate areas of Mariupol and to be ready to be evacuated, according to The New York Times. However, confused reports from the ground confirmed that the evacuation failed to materialize.

The ceasefire and safe passage of civilians had been agreed on Saturday and in the small town of Volnovaja, where conditions are also critical, an evacuation plan was also abandoned because of the failure of the five-hour ceasefire, which had been agreed between Moscow and Kyiv. The Ukrainian government accused Russia of bombing the area set aside for the humanitarian corridor and of deploying “heavy artillery and missiles” against Mariupol. Putin countered that the Ukrainian authorities had “sabotaged” the ceasefire and the window for the evacuation of civilians and the resupply of medical equipment and basic necessities.

A desperate situation

Hundreds of thousands of people in Mariupol have been holding out in extreme conditions for four days. “Yesterday we drank melted snow and rainwater. Today we tried to get water from the distribution points, but the queues were huge,” a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) worker said in a release from the NGO on Saturday. A woman who managed to flee Mariupol on Saturday night said that gunfire in the streets was non-stop, that supermarkets are out of stock and are selling what it left, a lot of it past its sell-by date, reported Margaryta Yakovenko.

Local residents and workers told The New York Times conditions in the city have become “nightmarish” after four days of bombardment. “People are drinking from puddles in the street,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol. “There is no electricity, heating or telephone connections. It’s absolutely horrific.” Russian artillery has left a neighborhood on the left bank of the city “unfit for human life,” Andryushchenko added.

Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to press in on Kyiv. Mortars were fired during Sunday morning at the road where civilians in Irpin are being evacuated, causing at least three deaths on the main crossroads outside the town of Romanov, local reporters confirmed to EL PAÍS. Their bodies were covered outside the local church, outside which stands a monument to those who fell in the Second World War. A few meters away, a Ukrainian army reserve detachment is billeted, from which soldiers form a constant stream toward the front lines.

Mortars also feel repeatedly on the same place where over the past few days thousands of people have passed through on their way to Kyiv. The majority are women and children, accompanied by men who, after the journey is completed, return to Irpin to occupy the defenses. Before the Russian assault was launched on February 24, Romanov has around 2,000 inhabitants. There were also two bridges giving access to Irpin, which the Ukrainian military demolished last week to halt the Russian advance.

The flow of refugees from Ukraine to nearby countries also continues to rise. Filippo Grandi, Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Sunday that 1.5 million people had now fled the fighting in Ukraine, causing the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two.

The director of operation for MSF, Christine Jamet, on Sunday urged evacuations to be reinitiated. “People seeking safety need to be able to do so without fear of suffering the effects of the violence.” The NGO says that the humanitarian corridors are not sufficient. “Safe passage and access for humanitarian aid must be a right, not a privilege,” it said in a statement.

“Several times we have witnessed civilians encouraged to leave through time-bound civilian evacuation corridors, and then those who could not or would not flee were met with extraordinary and indiscriminate violence unleashed on everyone and everything left behind. As a result, many people were killed or maimed, including many medics and other civilians,” said Stephen Cornish, general director of MSF, which called on all combatants in the conflict to respect the rules of war and take all necessary precautions to avoid inflicting casualties on the civilian population.

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