Ukraine rejected Moscow’s offer to create humanitarian corridors from several bombed cities on Monday after it emerged that flight routes would lead refugees to Russia or Belarus.
Russia’s proposal for safe passage for people from Kharkov, Kiev, Mariupol and Sumy came after terrified Ukrainian civilians came under fire over previous failed ceasefire attempts.
Violence raged for 12 days into the war, even as a third round of peace negotiations began on Monday and Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers watched talks in Turkey later this week.
The Russian invasion has pushed more than 1.5 million people across Ukraine’s borders in what the UN calls Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, fueling fears of a bigger conflict.
International sanctions designed to punish Moscow did little to slow the invasion, and Washington said it was now in talks with Europe about a ban on Russian oil imports.
The developments pushed oil prices to nearly a 14-year high, while stock markets plummeted.
As international pressure mounted over the horrific scenes of civilians fleeing, Moscow’s defense ministry announced plans for humanitarian corridors and said a “regime of silence” had begun at 0700 GMT.
But several routes led to Russia or its ally Belarus, raising questions about the safety of those who might use them.
“This is not an acceptable option,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The Russian negotiator at the peace talks, Vladimir Medinsky, in turn accused Ukraine of the “war crime” of blocking the corridors.
Expectations remained low for the talks, which were set to begin at 1400 GMT at the Belarus-Poland border, and which Medinsky said would focus on evacuation routes.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sunday, accused Putin of hypocrisy and cynicism about the offer.
“This is all not serious, it is moral and political cynicism, which I find unacceptable,” he told LCI television in an interview.
AFP journalists saw thousands of civilians flee the fighting early Monday through an unofficial humanitarian corridor in Irpin, a strategic suburb west of Kiev.
“I’m so glad I got out,” said Olga, a 48-year-old woman who is leaving with her two dogs.
Children and the elderly were carried on carpets used as stretchers on the route, which leads over a makeshift bridge and then a single path secured by the military and volunteers.
Desperate people left prams and heavy suitcases behind to make sure they could get on the buses from the war zone.
“We had no light at home, no light, no water, we were just sitting in the basement,” Inna Scherbanyova, 54, an economist from Irpin, told AFP.
“There were constant explosions going off… Near our house are cars, there were dead people in one of them… very scary.”
The day before, a family of two adults and two children was killed by a grenade as they tried to leave the war-torn area.
“They are monsters. Irpin is at war, Irpin has not surrendered,” Mayor Oleksandr Markushyn said on Telegram, adding that he had seen the family killed with his own eyes.
Two recent attempts to evacuate some 200,000 civilians from the beleaguered seaport of Mariupol in Azov have also ended in disaster.
Refugees trying to escape Mariupol through humanitarian corridors became trapped when the road they targeted was reclaimed, the ICRC said Monday.
‘Secure the air’
Violence continued overnight as Ukrainian forces, aided by military supplies from Western countries, try to hold back Russian forces.
Aerial sirens have sounded in cities across the country and there have been intense aerial bombardments in Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, which has endured almost non-stop fire in recent days.
“The enemy continues the offensive operation against Ukraine, focusing on the encirclement of Kiev, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mykolayiv,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a statement.
The mayor of Gostomel, the city north of Kiev with a crucial military airport, was shot dead along with two other people by Russian troops as they “distributed bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick,” local officials said.
Nine bodies – five civilians and four soldiers – were found in the rubble of the Vinnytsia airport in central Ukraine after it was destroyed in a Russian missile attack on Sunday, rescue services said.
Meanwhile, fears were rising that Odessa’s main port, dubbed the “pearl of the Black Sea,” would be the next target of the Russian offensive to the south. Officials said Russia shelled the village of Tuzly in the Odessa region from the sea, with no injuries.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again called on the West to boycott Russian exports, especially oil, and impose a no-fly zone to stop the massacre.
“How many deaths and losses are still to come to secure the skies over Ukraine?” he said in a video message.
Twelve days of fighting killed hundreds of civilians and injured thousands. An endless stream of people – mainly women and children – has poured into neighboring countries, especially Poland.