The Ukrainian port city of Mariupol will evacuate residents on Saturday after invading Russian forces declared a temporary ceasefire to open a corridor for civilians to flee one of the fiercest battles of the war.
Russia had blocked the strategic city, which proudly resisted a siege by Moscow-backed rebels during a conflict in 2014, but became a target again, cutting off electricity, food, water and heating in the dead of winter.
The evacuation will be seen as a prelude to a final assault by Russian forces who, if successful, will see their invading army move north from occupied Crimea, join forces from the east and regain control of the Ukrainian coast. get the Sea of Azov.
After the Russian Defense Ministry declared a ceasefire to allow “humanitarian corridors” from Mariupol and neighboring Volnovakha, Mariupol officials announced on social media that the city’s 450,000 population as of 0900 GMT with private transport could depart.
The siege of Mariupol came as more Russian troops moved closer to the capital Kiev, meeting fierce resistance and shelling civilian areas in the western suburbs and the northern city of Chernihiv, which has seen heavy civilian casualties in recent days.
A group of AFP reporters who visited the city on Saturday saw scenes of devastation – despite Moscow’s insistence that it not target civilian areas – and fears are mounting in Kiev that the capital will suffer the same fate as Russian rocket artillery within range is deployed.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov claimed that Russia changed its tactics after meeting tough Ukrainian resistance that thwarted its apparent plan to quickly storm major cities and overthrow President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.
“Yes, the enemy has advanced in some directions, but he controls only a small area. Our defenders are expelling and expelling the occupiers,” he said in a Facebook post.
“The aggressor is making extensive and active use of its air and missile potential. Aircraft of all kinds are bombing cities, towns and civilian infrastructure,” he said, calling the Russian military “cowardly” and only capable of attacking “children, women, unarmed civilians.”
Since President Vladimir Putin’s army invaded on February 24, Russia has crushed Ukrainian cities, killed hundreds of civilians and even attacked Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, raising fears of a catastrophic nuclear accident.
Moscow captured two key cities during its 10-day invasion, Berdiansk and Kherson on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast.
But capturing Mariupol would come at a greater cost to Russian forces, as it would deal a heavy blow to Ukraine’s naval access and link forces from annexed Crimea and the Donbas.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said late Friday that Moscow is waiting for a third round of talks with Ukraine in Belarus, and one of Kiev’s negotiators said it hopes to hold it this weekend.
“The third leg could take place tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we are in constant contact,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Friday.
In a hospital in the Ukrainian capital, wounded soldiers told AFP about their grim struggle against the Russian advance and vowed to return to the front line.
“We were reconnaissance and encountered an enemy column that had made a breakthrough,” said Motyka, 29, who was hit on his right by shrapnel.
“We fought them and killed their soldiers on foot, but they shelled us with mortar fire.”
Zelensky would appeal to Washington on Saturday for more help. He will address the US Senate as some lawmakers urge President Joe Biden to take tougher measures, including a ban on oil imports from Russia.