Buses have begun leaving two devastated Ukrainian cities in a fresh attempt to evacuate civilians, as the number of people fleeing the country from Russia’s onslaught passed 2 million and the WHO warned Ukraine was running out of vital medical supplies.
The Ukrainian state communications agency posted video of people with bags and suitcases fleeing the north-eastern city of Sumy, just 30 miles (50km) from the Russian border, along one of five “humanitarian corridors” promised by the invading forces.
“Sumy was given a green corridor, the first stage of evacuation began,” the agency tweeted. The governor of the Kyiv region also said civilians were being evacuated from Irpin, near the capital, with more than 150 having left the town on Tuesday.
More than 30 buses were also travelling to the southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities said, with a second “humanitarian corridor” reportedly due to open between the encircled city and Zaporizhzhia, 250km to the north-west, local agencies reported.
There was no certainty, however, how long the evacuations would last. Previous efforts were abandoned after Russian forces continued to bombard residential areas, and civilians trying to take the routes to safety themselves came under fire.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk warned that the Russian side was “preparing to disrupt the work of humanitarian corridors” and a spokesperson for the presidency in Kyiv said success would depend on how long the routes remained safe.
There was also disagreement about what routes had been agreed. Moscow said its troops would enter “silent regime” from 10am local time to allow corridors out of Kyiv, Cherhihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol, mostly leading to Russia or Belarus.
Vereshchuk, however, suggested only a route out of Sumy leading to Ukrainian city of Poltava had been agreed, and reiterated the Kyiv government’s position that any evacuation routes leading to Russia or its ally Belarus were unacceptable.
Demand for safe routes out of Ukraine’s battered population centres has increased rapidly as Russia has intensified its missile attacks and heavy artillery shelling of residential areas, creating a humanitarian crisis of fast-dwindling food, water and medical supplies.
In the encircled southern port of Mariupol, which has been without power, water or heating since Friday, an estimated 200,000 people — nearly half the city’s population — are waiting to flee, with Red Cross officials awaiting news on a safe corridor out.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Tuesday a child had died from dehydration in the city. “In 2022, from dehydration,” Zelenskiy said in a video address, likening Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis to that created by the Nazi invasion during the second world war.
Further ceasefire talks between the two sides are expected in the coming days but after a third round failed on Monday, negotiators warned not to expect subsequent efforts to bring any rapid breakthroughs. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are expected to meet in Turkey on Thursday.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Tuesday that the number of people who have fled Ukraine since the invasion began on 24 February had reached 2 million. Poland said on Tuesday that it had welcomed about 1.2 million people, including 141,500 on Monday alone.