Ukraine attempted once more to evacuate citizens from its shattered cities Wednesday while continuing to plead with NATO to close its skies to Russian aircraft.
Ten humanitarian corridors were supposed to open at 9 a.m. local time, five of them to allow women and children to leave the war-battered suburbs Irpin, Hostomel, Bucha, Borzel and Borodyanka – all northwest of Kyiv – and travel to the relative safety of the centre of the capital.
Separate corridors were due to see civilians leave the frontline cities of Mariupol, Sumy, Enerhodar, Izyum and Volnovakha, all in eastern Ukraine.
“I appeal to the Russian Federation: You have undertaken official public commitments to cease fire from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. We have had negative experiences when the commitments that were undertaken did not work,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, referring to previous evacuation efforts that collapsed when Russian forces continued to fire in the direction of fleeing civilians.
A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity hospital Wednesday in the besieged port city of Mariupol and injured at least 17 people, Ukrainian officials said. Police and soldiers rushed to the scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher.
President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Twitter that there were “people, children under the wreckage” of the hospital and called the strike an “atrocity.”
Meanwhile, a convoy of evacuees left Enerhodar – the site of Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, which Russian forces seized last week – through a humanitarian corridor Wednesday, Mayor Dmytro Orlov said in a statement on social media. “Mostly women and children, the elderly, left the city,” he said.
But the planned evacuation of civilians from Izyum, in the eastern Kharkiv region, was held up by Russian shelling Wednesday, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said in an online post. ”Buses are still waiting at the entrance to Izyum,” he said, adding that negotiations with the Russians were under way with the support of the Red Cross.
In the nearly two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, some 2 million people have fled the country, nearly half of them children.
Heavy fighting continued in other parts of the country Wednesday, and Kyiv awoke to the sound of multiple loud explosions.
Separately, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser Mr. Zelensky, said the International Atomic Energy Agency had lost contact with the monitoring systems at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which is north of Kyiv and under Russian military control.
“At the moment no one understands what is happening in Chernobyl and what is threatening the region. An extremely dangerous situation,” he wrote on Twitter.
The decommissioned nuclear plant was knocked off the power grid Wednesday and forced to switch to generators. That raised alarm about the plant’s ability to keep its nuclear fuel cool, though the UN nuclear watchdog said it saw “no critical impact on safety” from the power cut.
One evacuation that did take place Tuesday saw some 5,000 people escape Sumy in private cars. Dmitry Zhyvitsky, the head of the city’s administration, said Wednesday that the evacuation south to the city of Poltava was ongoing.
“The negotiating team worked all night and the corridor from Sumy to Poltava was extended today, March 9, 2022, from 9:00 to 21:00,” he wrote on Telegram. “You can leave by your own transport. In addition, at about 2:00 p.m. we will load up pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and people with disabilities!”
Sumy, 330 kilometres east of Kyiv, has been under assault since the first hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border on Feb. 24. It’s unknown how many people have been killed in two weeks of fighting in the city of 250,000, though at least 22 civilians, including three children, died in an airstrike Monday.
The British Ministry of Defence, in an update posted Wednesday on its official Twitter account, said “fighting northwest of Kyiv remains ongoing with Russian forces failing to make any significant breakthroughs.” It added that the cities of Kharkiv, Sumy and Mariupol, as well as Chernihiv, close to the Belarusian border in the north, remain encircled by Russian forces and are being heavily shelled.
The British assessment said Ukrainian air defences “appear to have enjoyed considerable success” against Russia’s air force, “probably preventing them from achieving any degree of control of the air.”
Ukraine’s military says it has inflicted heavy losses on the invading army but needs protection from Russia’s much larger air force, as well as cruise missile attacks.
On Tuesday the United States rejected a surprise offer from Poland to send all its Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets – which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly – to the U.S. air base in Rammstein, Germany, so they could be transferred from there to Ukraine.
“We do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. He added that warplanes flying from a U.S. airbase “into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.”
Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told The Globe and Mail Wednesday that he hoped the U.S. would reconsider the offer from Poland.
“We need more air defence capabilities, and these jets are perfect for intercepting the other planes in the air and even some missiles. So, of course, this would be a great addition to our air defence capabilities,” he said. “All this humanitarian crisis is partly caused by daily bombing and nightly bombing of Ukrainian cities – which we could address and that would be a huge part of our war effort.”
Russia on Wednesday claimed that its invasion of Ukraine had prevented a Ukrainian attack on the Russian-controlled breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region, which only Moscow recognizes as independent. During multiple visits by The Globe to the Donbas frontline in the days before the war, there was regular outgoing artillery fire from the separatist-controlled regions but no evident Ukrainian preparations for a counterattack.
The West has responded to Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine with unprecedented sanctions, including a U.S. ban on the import of Russian oil, the closure of European and North American skies to Russian air carriers and the withdrawal of Visa, Mastercard and American Express from the Russian market.
Tuesday’s announcement by McDonald’s that it was closing its 850 restaurants across Russia was particularly symbolic – the opening of the first McDonald’s in central Moscow in 1990 was seen as marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Starbucks, Heineken, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other big Western brands have also announced they are leaving Russia.
Russia’s currency, the ruble, has lost more than 40 per cent of its value against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year. The country’s main stock market, the Moscow Exchange, has remained closed since Feb. 25. By comparison, the New York Stock Exchange closed for four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Thursday could see the highest-level diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine since the war began, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expected to meet in the Turkish city of Antalya along with Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
With reports from Reuters and The Associated Press
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