The evacuation of the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol has stazelrted, with an initial group of 100 civilians en route to Ukrainian-held territory, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday.
“Evacuation of civilians from Azovstal began. The 1st group of about 100 people is already heading to the controlled area. Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia,” he tweeted, referring to a city 220 kilometres (130 miles) to the northwest.
“Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant,” he said.
Earlier on Sunday, the United Nations had confirmed that a “safe passage operation is ongoing” at Azovstal which was being coordinated by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross)and Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Separately, Russian media confirmed that 40 civilians had left the Azovstal steel plant and were being taken to Russian-held territories in the east.
The TASS agency said 18 men, 14 women and eight children were taken to Bezimenne, a village halfway between Mariupol and the Russian border.
In a posting on Telegram, Andriy Yermak, head of Zelensky’s office said it was “only the first stage”.
“The evacuation of civilians from the city of Mariupol, in particular from the Azovstal metallurgical plant, began today,” he wrote, saying the move involved “more than 100 women, children and the elderly”.
“It was a difficult operation and there is still a lot of work ahead, but nothing will stop us.”
The vast Azovstal iron and steelworks is the last hold-out of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol after a weeks-long onslaught by the Russian military.
Mariupol is an important strategic hub connecting the Russian-held southern and eastern parts of Ukraine.
Several hundred Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are sheltering in the maze of Soviet-era underground tunnels underneath the steelworks, many of whom require medical attention.
Their fate has drawn worldwide condemnation.
Stretching over 11 square kilometres (4.2 square miles), the Azovstal complex is a sprawling warren of rail lines, warehouses, coal furnaces, factories, chimneys and tunnels seen as ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The United States and allies agreed to impose more sanctions on Moscow on Tuesday as Russia pushed ahead with its new offensive targeting eastern Ukraine in the latest phase of the bloody invasion.
Russia’s defence ministry said that “high-precision air-based missiles” had hit 13 Ukrainian positions in parts of Donbas while other airstrikes “hit 60 military assets”, including in towns close to the eastern frontline.
Ukraine’s armed forces said fighting had increased throughout the east after President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Russia had kicked off the widely anticipated offensive in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
“The Russian occupiers intensified offensive operations along the entire line of contact,” the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a report published early Tuesday.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to acknowledge the new offensive, stating that “another phase of this operation is beginning”, during an interview with media outlet India Today.
Following the new push, the United States and European Union agreed on the need to “increasing Moscow’s international isolation”, during a virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and European leaders.
“We will further tighten our sanctions against Russia and step up financial and security assistance for Ukraine,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.
Separately, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the death of thousands of Ukrainian civilians “a war crime” for which Russian President Vladimir bears responsibility.
Ahead of Russia’s advance, Ukrainian authorities had urged people in Donbas to flee west to escape, even as officials called off evacuations for a third straight day from frontline cities due to ongoing fighting.
In the Donbas town of Novodruzhesk, Nadya, 65, said “we are bombed everywhere”.
“It’s a miracle that we’re still alive,” she said, her voice trembling.
“We were lying on the ground and waiting. Since February 24 we’ve been sleeping in the cellar.”
Control of Donbas and the besieged southern port of Mariupol would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the Crimean peninsula that it annexed in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of much of its coastline and a major revenue resource.
Russia continued its relentless battle to capture Mariupol, as Moscow issued a fresh call for the city’s defenders to surrender and announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who agreed to lay down their arms.
During an interview broadcast on CNN Tuesday, Pavlo Kyrylenko — who oversees the Donetsk region’s military administration — said Mariupol remained contested.
“The Ukrainian flag is flying over the city,” said Kyrylenko.
Putin has said he launched the so-called military operation in Ukraine on February 24 to save Russian speakers in Ukraine from a “genocide” carried out by a “neo-Nazi” regime.
However, organizers of a ceremony marking the liberation of the Nazi Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria said Tuesday that the ambassadors of Russia and Belarus were asked not to attend as their presence would be against the surviving prisoners’ wishes and their belief in peace and freedom.
While much of the focus has remained in Ukraine’s east, Moscow has also targeted the country’s west with airstrikes, killing at least seven people in the city of Lviv near the Polish border on Monday.
Lviv has largely been spared bombardment since Russia invaded, and the city and its surroundings had become a haven for those seeking safety from the war zone.
The regional governor of the eastern Lugansk region Sergiy Gaiday said Ukrainian forces continued to hold their ground amid heavy fighting.
“We have positional battles in the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna. The enemy cannot do anything though. They are losing people and equipment there,” Gaiday said.
“Our guys are shooting down drones there. Shooting down planes on the border of the Lugansk and Kharkiv regions, so they are holding on,” he added.
Later Tuesday, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres denounced Russia’s ongoing offensive as he issued calls for a four-day truce to mark Orthodox Holy Week.
“Instead of a celebration of new life, this Easter coincides with a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine,” Guterres told reporters.
“The intense concentration of forces and firepower makes this battle inevitably more violent, bloody and destructive,” he said, calling for a “humanitarian pause” from Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday on April 24.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance.”
As fighting raged, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published a grim forecast for the warring nations on Tuesday, while also predicting the conflict would drag down the global economy — hitting the poorest nations the hardest.
The report predicted Ukraine suffering a 35 percent collapse of its economy this year, while Russia’s GDP will drop 8.5 percent — more than 11 points below the pre-war expectations.
AFP journalists in Kharkiv heard a series of constant explosions throughout the morning.
Six people were killed and 24 injured during shelling of the city on Sunday, according to the latest toll from the governor. Three more people were killed in shelling in the surrounding region.
Kharkiv, which has a population of 1.5 million people, was the scene of fierce fighting for several days at the start of the Russian offensive but has always remained under the control of Ukrainian forces.
Following the attack on Lviv, black smoke billowed from the gutted roof of a car repair shop above the railway tracks in the northwest of the city as air raid sirens wailed.
“Fires were set off as a result of the strikes. They are still being put out. The facilities were severely damaged,” the Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said on social media.
In the south, Russia continued its push to capture the besieged city of Mariupol where the last remaining Ukrainian forces in the strategic port prepared for a final stand.
Ukraine has pledged to fight on and defend the strategic port city, defying a Russian ultimatum issued Sunday that called on the remaining fighters inside the encircled Azovstal steel plant to lay down their arms and surrender.
Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.
“The city still has not fallen,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.
“There’s still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end,” he told ABC’s “This Week”.
“We will not surrender.”
While several large cities were under siege, he said, not one — with the exception of Kherson in the south — had fallen, and more than 900 towns and cities had been re-captured.
Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to have a land bridge between the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, and the two Moscow-backed separatist statelets in Ukraine’s east.
‘Last chance to save you’
In the east, Ukrainian authorities urged people in Donbas to move west to escape a large-scale Russian offensive to capture its composite regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
“Russian troops are preparing for an offensive operation in the east of our country in the near future. They want to literally finish off and destroy Donbas,” Zelensky said in a statement late Sunday.
Lugansk governor Sergiy Gaiday said the coming week would be “difficult”.
“It may be the last time we have a chance to save you,” he wrote on Facebook.
Heavy bouts of shelling also resumed in the country’s second city of Kharkiv on Monday morning, according to an AFP reporter in the city.
The shelling comes a day after at least five people were killed and 20 wounded in during a string of strikes in the city just 21 kilometers (13 miles) from the Russian border on Sunday.
Maksym Khaustov, the head of the Kharkiv region’s health department, confirmed the deaths there following the strikes that had ignited fires throughout the city and torn roofs from buildings.
“The whole home rumbled and trembled,” 71-year-old Svitlana Pelelygina told AFP as she surveyed her wrecked apartment. “Everything here began to burn.”
Ukraine officials also said on Monday they were halting the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns and cities in the east of the country for the second consecutive day, accusing Russian forces of blocking and shelling escape routes.
“Unfortunately, today, April 18, there will be no humanitarian corridors. In violation of international humanitarian law, the Russian occupiers have not stopped blocking and shelling humanitarian routes,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a statement on social media.
But Lugansk governor Gaiday announced earlier that he had proceeded with evacuations.
“At our own peril and risk, we took out several dozen people anyway, but it’s already dangerous,” he told Ukrainian media.
During an interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday, Zelensky said he had invited his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron to visit Ukraine to see for himself evidence that Russian forces have committed “genocide” — a term Macron has avoided.
“I talked to him yesterday,” Zelensky told CNN in an interview recorded on Friday and broadcast Sunday.
“I just told him I want him to understand that this is not war, but nothing other than genocide. I invited him to come when he will have the opportunity. He’ll come and see, and I’m sure he will understand.”
Zelensky, describing the situation in Mariupol as “inhuman”, has called on the West to immediately provide heavy weapons — a request he frequently airs.
But Russia has warned the United States this week of “unpredictable consequences” if it sent its “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine.
Its defence ministry claimed Saturday to have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane in the Odessa region that was carrying weapons supplied by Western nations.
On Sunday, spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian missiles had destroyed ammunition, fuel and lubricant depots in eastern Ukraine and 44 Ukrainian military facilities, including command posts.
Russian air defence systems shot down two Ukrainian MiG-29 aircraft in the Kharkiv region and a drone near the city of Pavlograd, he added.
The Minister recalled that when Russian launched the assault last week, the Federal Government condemned the action, recognizing the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
“We made that very clear, we condemned it. First of all, military force is not the solution. We have spoken up abut the territorial integrity that we recognize the integrity of Ukraine,” he said.
“As we speak, in the UN General Assembly, there is a resolution on this whole issue. Nigeria’s position on the resolution is very clear, that we do not condone this military intervention in another country.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine has demanded an immediate Russian ceasefire and troop withdrawal as its delegation arrived in Belarus for talks with Russian negotiators on the fifth day of the Kremlin’s offensive.
Ukraine’s delegation is set to meet Russian representatives for the first talks since Moscow’s invasion, as the fighting for several Ukrainian cities continues and the Russian ruble collapses.
The meeting will take place just across the border in neighbouring Belarus, a key Kremlin ally that has allowed Russian troops passage to attack Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his defence chiefs to put the country’s nuclear “deterrence forces” on high alert Sunday and accused the West of taking “unfriendly” steps against his country.
International tensions are already soaring over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s order will cause further alarm.
Moscow has the world’s second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and a huge cache of ballistic missiles which form the backbone of the country’s deterrence forces.
“I order the defence minister and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces to put the deterrence forces of the Russian army into a special mode of combat service,” Putin said.
“You see that Western countries are not only unfriendly to our country in the economic sphere — I mean illegitimate sanctions,” he added, in a televised address.
“Senior officials of leading NATO countries also allow aggressive statements against our country.”
Defence Minister Shoigu replied: “Affirmative.”
The Russian president on Thursday ordered the invasion of Ukraine, sending shockwaves around the world.
Russian ground forces have pressed into Ukraine from the north, east and south but have encountered fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops, the intensity of which has likely surprised Moscow, according to Western sources.
Ukrainian authorities describe some Russian troops as demoralised and exhausted, claiming that dozens have surrendered.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday accused Ukrainian authorities of wasting “an opportunity” to hold talks after Moscow’s invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
The Kremlin said that Putin had briefed Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett about “the course of a special military operation to protect Donbas”.
During the call, the statement said, he “also noted that the Russian delegation is in the Belarus city of Gomel and is ready for negotiations with representatives of Kyiv, who, showing inconsistency, have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity”.
Bennet for his part proposed that Israel act as a mediator in talks between Russia and Ukraine “in order to halt the hostilities”, the Kremlin said.
Bennett’s office said the two men “discussed the situation between Russia and Ukraine”.
The call followed reports that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked Israel to play a mediation role following the Russian invasion.
Bennett and Zelensky spoke on Friday.
Russia wants to hold talks with Kyiv authorities in Belarus, which has allowed Russian troops passage to invade Ukraine.
Zelensky said Sunday that Ukraine was willing to hold talks with Russia, but rejected convening them in neighbouring Belarus.
Ukrainian authorities on Sunday launched a website to help Russian families track down soldiers who have been killed or captured fighting in Moscow’s invasion of the pro-Western country.
The site — 200rf.com — contains pictures of the documents and corpses of Russian soldiers Ukraine said had been killed since President Vladimir Putin launched the attack.
It also has videos of soldiers Ukraine says it has captured.
“I am talking to you in Russian because this site was created for you,” Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to the interior minister, said in a video posted on the site.
“I know that many Russians are worried about how and where their children, sons, husbands are and what is happening to them — so we decided to put this online so that each of you could search for your loved one who Putin sent to fight in Ukraine.”
Street fighting raged in Ukraine’s second-biggest city on Sunday after Russian forces pierced through Ukrainian lines, as both sides said they were ready for talks to halt a conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
Machine gun fire and explosions could be heard in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine and an AFP journalist saw the wreckage of a Russian armoured vehicle smouldering and several others abandoned.
On the fourth day of an invasion by Russia that has sent shockwaves around the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned down Moscow’s offer of a meeting in Belarus, which has allowed Russian troops passage to attack Ukraine.
Zelensky said Ukraine had proposed Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul and Baku as possible alternative locations for any talks.
“Any other city in a country from whose territory missiles do not fly would suit us,” Zelensky said.
“The past night in Ukraine was brutal,” he said. “They fight against everyone. They fight against all living things — against kindergartens, against residential buildings and even against ambulances.”
Ukraine has reported 198 civilian deaths, including three children, since the invasion began.
But President Vladimir Putin has pressed ahead with the assault, defying crippling Western sanctions that have plunged Russia into pariah status.
Many NATO members are sending arms and ammunition to Ukraine and have offered humanitarian assistance, but they have said they will not intervene militarily.
NATO has also said it will for the first time deploy part of its 40,000-strong rapid response force to Eastern Europe in a move to reassure rattled countries that were once part of the Communist bloc.
A day after Berlin said it would send anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the world was in a “new era” and warned of possible “further sanctions”.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the conflict could last a “number of years”.
Curfew in Kyiv
Apart from the attack on Kharkiv, located near the Russian border, Moscow also claimed it was “entirely” besieging the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and the city of Berdyansk in the southeast.
Both are located close the Crimea peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian officials also said that a gas pipeline in eastern Kharkiv and an oil depot near the capital Kyiv were targeted by Russian forces overnight.
The claims could not be independently verified.
Many Kyiv residents spent another night in shelters as Ukrainian forces said they fought off Russian “sabotage groups”, but Sunday was relatively calm compared to previous days.
The city is under a blanket curfew until Monday but some residents ventured out regardless.
Out for a walk in a park, 41-year-old Flora Stepanova said staying at home watching the news all the time “will drive you crazy”.
Foreigners invited to fight
Russia on Saturday ordered its forces to advance further into Ukraine “from all directions” but soldiers have encountered fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops, the intensity of which has likely surprised Moscow, according to Western sources.
Ukraine’s army said it held the line against an assault on Kyiv, but was fighting Russian “sabotage groups” that had infiltrated the city.
“We will fight until we have liberated our country,” a defiant Zelensky said in a video message on Saturday.
He also said Ukraine had “derailed” Moscow’s plan to overthrow him and urged Russians to pressure Putin into stopping the conflict.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s general staff said the 44-year-old leader was urging any foreigners to come to Ukraine “and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against Russian war criminals”.
“There is no greater contribution which you can make for the sake of peace,” the general staff said in a Facebook post, adding that the foreign fighters would form part of an “International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine”.
‘I was trembling’
The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) says the conflict so far has left at least 240 civilians wounded, including 64 killed.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says more than 368,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, while over 160,000 are estimated to be displaced within Ukraine.
Pope Francis called for the “urgent” opening of humanitarian corridors for Ukraine to allow even more to leave.
AFP saw stationary queues of cars stretching for dozens of kilometres going up to Ukraine’s border crossings with Poland.
“Attacks were everywhere,” said Diana, 37, who fled the Ukrainian capital.
“My mother is still in Kyiv.”
In neighbouring Romania, Olga, 36, was among hundreds to have crossed the Danube river with her three young children to safety.
“My husband came with us as far as the border, before returning to Kyiv to fight,” she said.
Residents of the capital have sought sanctuary in subway stations and cellars and Zelensky announced a baby girl had been born on the metro.
Yulia Snitko, a pregnant 32-year-old, said she had sheltered in the basement of her Kyiv apartment block, fearing premature labour.
“It was more than one hour of huge explosions. I was trembling,” she said.
Crippling bank sanctions
Responding to the invasion, the West said it would remove some Russian banks from the SWIFT bank messaging system, and froze central bank assets — hitting some of Russia’s global trade.
A senior US official said the measures would turn Russia into a “pariah”, adding that a task force would “hunt down” Russian oligarchs’ assets.
Germany had previously resisted the SWIFT removals over concerns Russia could cut off key gas supplies.
There have also been sanctions and boycotts in the cultural and sporting spheres as well as international travel, with several countries banning Russian airlines from their airspace.
In the latest punishment for Putin, a keen judoka, the International Judo Federation said he has been suspended as its honorary president.
The Kremlin has so far brushed off sanctions, including those targeting Putin personally, as a sign of Western impotence.
Putin has said Russia’s actions are justified because it is defending Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In an address to parishioners on Sunday, Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill voiced his support, calling Moscow’s opponents “evil forces”.
The rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for eight years in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
Claiming that two rebel statelets of Donetsk and Lugansk were under threat from Kyiv, Putin recognised their independence on Monday.
President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday urged foreigners to head to Ukrainian embassies worldwide to sign up for an “international brigade” of volunteers to help fight to invade Russian forces.
“All foreigners wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers and protect global security are invited by the Ukrainian leadership to come to our state and join the ranks of the territorial defence forces,” Zelensky said in a statement.
“A separate unit is being formed from foreigners — the International Brigade of the territorial defence of Ukraine. This will be a key testimony of your support for our country.”
Zelensky insisted that Ukrainians were courageous enough to face Russia alone, but said: “This is not just a Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is the beginning of a war against Europe”.
He said anyone interested in joining should get in contact with the military attache at their nearest Ukrainian embassy.
Greece will send Ukraine “defence equipment” and humanitarian aid, the prime minister’s office said Sunday, as Athens formally protested the deaths of 10 ethnic Greeks during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ office said two military transport planes were to depart for Poland with “defence equipment” for Ukraine, without adding further details about what they would be carrying.
A separate shipment of humanitarian aid was also to be sent the same day, accompanied by Deputy Defence Minister Nikos Hardalias, the premier’s office added.
Also on Sunday, the Greek foreign ministry said it had presented an official complaint to the Russian ambassador over Saturday attacks it said had killed 10 members of the 100,000-strong ethnic Greek community in Ukraine.
On Saturday, Greece accused Russia of “murder” over the deaths in the southeastern Ukrainian villages of Sartana and Buhas.
“The ministry expresses its disgust at these unprovoked military attacks and calls on Russia to respect international humanitarian law and to stop attacks against the civilian population,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Mitsotakis tweeted on Saturday that “10 innocent civilians of Greek origin” had been killed “by Russian airstrikes close to Mariupol”.
Six other ethnic Greeks, including a child, were also injured, the foreign ministry said.
The mayor of Sartana has called for an evacuation to the nearby city of Mariupol, it added.
The Russian embassy in Athens has insisted that Moscow is “exclusively” targeting military units and installations in Ukraine.
But Greek foreign ministry spokesman Alexandros Papaioannou on Sunday accused the embassy of lying.
“What the embassy said, I am sorry to say, is fake news. We have proof,” Papaioannou told Skai TV. “Orthodox bombs killed Orthodox ethnic Greeks.”