Lviv/Kyiv, Ukraine, March 5 (Reuters): Russian President Vladimir Putin said Western sanctions were akin to war on Saturday as his forces pressed on with their assault on Ukraine, where planned civilian evacuations from two besieged cities were called off.
Russia and Ukraine traded blame over the failure to provide safe passage to civilians fleeing the two bombarded cities, on the 10th day of a war that has fuelled Europe’s biggest humanitarian disaster in decades.
Russia’s invasion, which began on Feb. 24, has sent nearly 1.5 million refugees fleeing westward into the European Union and provoked unprecedented international sanctions on Moscow.
The Russian defence ministry said its units had opened humanitarian corridors near the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha, which have been encircled by its troops.
But in Mariupol, the city council said Russia was not observing the ceasefire and it asked residents to return to shelters and await further information on evacuation.
Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukrainian “nationalists” of preventing civilians from leaving, RIA news agency reported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross later said it understood that civilian evacuations from Mariupol and Volnovakha would not now start on Saturday.
The port of Mariupol has endured heavy bombardment, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow due to its position between Russian-backed separatist-held eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Kyiv in 2014.
“This night the shelling was harder and closer,” a staff member from Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said, according to the aid agency. There was still no power, water, heating or mobile phone links and food was scarce.
OFFENSIVE TO CONTINUE
The Russian defence ministry said a broad offensive would 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 from separatist-held Donetsk were tightening the encirclement of Mariupol, Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
A United Nations monitoring mission said at least 351 civilians had been confirmed killed and 707 injured in Ukraine so far since the start of the invasion, adding that the real figures were likely to be “considerably higher”.
The number of refugees could rise to 1.5 million by Sunday night from 1.3 million now, the U.N. refugee agency chief said.
Women and children crossed at the Medyka checkpoint in southeastern Poland in freezing conditions.
One woman, struggling to carry half a dozen bags, wept when the snacks she had packed for her and her young son, who was clutching a green dinosaur toy, fell to the ground. She gave the boy a bag to carry as they trudged slowly on.
The situation was similarly desperate on the other side of the border, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where thousands of women and children numb with exhaustion continued to flood in from war-ravaged eastern regions.
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