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Russia announces another ceasefire although evacuation routes mostly lead to Russia and its ally Belarus, drawing withering criticism from Ukraine and others

Residents cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate from the town of Irpin, near Kyiv, March 7, 2022.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

Gunfire and mortar rounds struck civilians attempting to escape Ukrainian cities over the weekend, killing both adults and children as they fled homes laid to waste by punishing Russian attacks.

The mounting civilian deaths prompted new accusations that Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine, after 11 days of an attack ordered by President Vladimir Putin that has destroyed apartment blocks and driven more than 1.5 million Ukrainians into neighbouring countries, the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Four people, including two children, were among those who died Sunday, killed as lines of people with suitcases and pets evacuated on foot from Irpin, a small city on the outskirts of Kyiv. The city’s mayor blamed Russian forces. In southern Ukraine, the evacuation of people in 30 buses from the city of Mariupol was abruptly halted amid a hail of Grad rockets. Ukraine and Russia traded blame for the breached calm.

Dramatic video shows the moment a shell exploded near civilians trying to flee Irpin, Ukraine, killing at least three, with photos of the aftermath showing bodies with suitcases. Earlier, a group of journalists was near shelling in the city as the Russian invasion pushed toward Kyiv.

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It was the second failed attempt to create a safe corridor out of Mariupol, a city under Russian siege where people have grown so desperate they are melting snow for drinking water. A first evacuation effort on Saturday was also halted by shelling.

Russia announced yet another ceasefire and a handful of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee Ukraine starting Monday, although the evacuation routes were mostly leading to Russia and its ally Belarus, drawing withering criticism from Ukraine and others.

It was not immediately clear if any evacuations were taking place. Russian forces continued to pummel some Ukrainian cities with rockets even after the new announcement of corridors and fierce fighting continued in some areas, indicating there would be no wider cessation of hostilities.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday civilians would be allowed to leave the capital of Kyiv, the southern port city of Mariupol, and the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy. Most of the evacuation routes, however, were toward Russia or its ally Belarus, a move Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk called “unacceptable.” Belarus served as a launching ground for the invasion.

Russia and Ukraine planned to meet for another round of talks Monday, though hopes are dim that a breakthrough is imminent. Their foreign ministers are also scheduled to meet in Turkey on Thursday, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Negotiators for Russia and Ukraine had agreed to the establishment of temporary ceasefires for evacuation in talks last week, a rare sign of hope in a war that has killed thousands. Instead, the eruptions of violence that blocked civilian flight stirred dark anxieties among Ukrainians about what the Russian invasion is meant to achieve.

“Every day confirms the feeling that this is genocide – that they are destroying and want to destroy everything and everyone,” said Oleksii Sonko, an immigration lawyer who himself fled Irpin on Saturday.

“I see it as Putin’s personal hatred. He hates Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation.”

The Russian shelling of cities has persisted despite global condemnation. The U.S. has “seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians which would constitute a war crime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it “is absolutely essential to establish a pause in the fighting in Ukraine to allow for the safe passage of civilians” from places caught in the conflict. At the Vatican, Pope Francis lamented the “rivers of blood and tears” flowing in Ukraine. “War is madness, please stop,” he said.

But Mr. Putin has vowed to continue, telling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the invasion would continue until Kyiv’s surrender.

Shelling on civilians departing Irpin on Sunday killed at least three people, including two children, according to a local media report distributed by the Ukrainian parliament.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

In some Ukrainian cities, the devastation is already nearly complete. “Only around 15 to 20 per cent of buildings are left undamaged” in Volnovakha, a city of 20,000 in eastern Ukraine, local resident Ivan Verveyko said. Three hours after he fled Volnovakha, a shell struck his apartment.

Now, “the district where my family and my grandmother lived no longer exists,” he said. “Everything is destroyed.” Still, he said, Russian forces have taken aim at those seeking safety. He has joined volunteer efforts to negotiate brief cessations of hostility to bring out women, children and people who are disabled and elderly.

“However, the invaders are shooting the transport convoys during these ceasefire periods,” he said. “The cars have white flags all over them and signs saying ‘children’ – everything we can to show that the cars are for civilians only.”

Continuous attacks have made movement dangerous across the country. On Sunday, Russian missile strikes destroyed the civilian airport at Vinnytsia, which is located along one of the evacuation routes from Kyiv. A westbound train from Kyiv was forced to stop on the tracks when shelling broke out at the Korosten station in the Zhytomyr region.

“Instead of humanitarian corridors, they can only make bloody ones,” Mr. Zelensky said in a Sunday video address. He accused Russian forces of firing at the family in Irpin as if they were in “a shooting club. When they were just trying to get out of town, to escape.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry warned on Sunday of new attacks on military-industrial targets in Ukraine. The Kremlin claimed that Russian troops are “doing everything possible to preserve the lives and guarantee the security of civilians,” striking “exclusively the facilities of military infrastructure.”

But the pummelling of cities persists. Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol “have seen pure evil atrocities,” Mr. Zelensky said. Ukraine is in a fight to defend the borders “between life and slavery,” Mr. Zelensky said.

A house is on fire after heavy Russian shelling on the only escape route used by locals to leave the town of Irpin, near Kyiv, on March 6.CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

He repeated his call for Western countries to enforce a no-fly zone – a suggestion rejected by NATO for fear of engaging in direct conflict with Russian forces. He accused Moscow of pursuing a calculated strategy, citing maps and other documents found on hundreds of captured Russian soldiers and pilots.

“That is not an improvisation,” he said. “They prepared this invasion.”

Russian forces have laid siege to several urban areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, and on Saturday night, conducted heavy shelling of Izyum, a city of 45,000 located roughly 120 kilometres to the southeast of Kharkiv. Military authorities reported a barrage of Russian artillery, rockets and bombs that struck residential areas and the city’s centre.

Further south, Mariupol has now been without electricity, heat and water for six days. “People are literally being forced to live off snow,” Laurent Ligozat, an emergency co-ordinator in Ukraine with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), said in an interview published by the humanitarian group.

The isolation of Mariupol and Volnovakha has been so complete that local authorities say they cannot provide information on the numbers of killed or wounded.

Aid groups, meanwhile, say international support has been slow in coming.

Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press

The UN World Food Programme expects to spend US$500-million on Ukraine over the coming three months, based on projections that it could soon need to feed three million Ukrainians. The international community has so far pledged just US$50-million, and has delivered none of that to date. Canada is among the countries that has yet to make a formal pledge.

“Despite all the attention, the money’s not flowing,” said Robert Turner, chief of staff to WFP executive director David Beasley. He said the agency could continue its operations in Ukraine for only “a matter of weeks” without an injection of cash.

Those trapped by the violence, however, said the most pressing need is for evacuation routes that will not be shelled.

In the northeastern city of Sumy, hundreds of Indian students are at a local medical university, where they have unsuccessfully begged governments to secure their safe exit.

With no running water, they have taken to using donated drinking water to flush toilets, said Mohammad Mahtab Raza, who is in his fourth year of medical studies.

Students are having panic attacks. “If we leave the city, they will shoot us,” he said.

“We don’t know if we will live or die,” he said. “But we are trying to give our message to the world. Please save us.”

With reports from Mark MacKinnon in Lviv, Ukraine, and The Associated Press

  • Abandoned strollers are pictured under a destroyed bridge as people flee the city of Irpin, west of Kyiv.ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

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