A group of 2,000 people have made it to safety from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as the success of the wider rescue operation for more than 100,000 trapped civilians still hangs in the balance.
The 42-strong convoy of buses organized by the Ukrainian government and escorted by the Red Cross headed from the nearby Russian-occupied city of Berdiansk to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Friday afternoon, according to the Mariupol city council’s channel on the messaging Telegram app.
Russian forces allowed the vehicles to pass, in what represented a small breakthrough after the failure of several previous evacuation attempts. Those onboard the buses had made it out of Mariupol to Berdiansk on their own, after which they were allowed to leave Russian-controlled territory. A further 631 people managed to flee Mariupol in private cars on Thursday night, the Ukrainian government said.
Up to 170,000 residents remain hemmed in by Russian ground forces in the strategically important coastal city, which before war broke out last month was home to about 430,000 people.
The Kyiv authorities reiterated on Friday that no aid or evacuation convoys had been allowed to reach Mariupol itself, despite reassurances from Russia on a limited ceasefire in the area, and it remained dangerous for the city’s residents to try to leave without assistance. Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies headed for Mariupol, the deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
“We don’t see a real desire from the Russians … to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of the city, wrote on Telegram.
Mariupol has borne some of the worst violence of the conflict so far. Incessant airstrikes and shelling have hit civilian infrastructure, including a maternity hospital, aid warehouse and arts center sheltering displaced people.
At least 5,000 people had died in the brutal assault, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Thursday, while electricity, water, food, fuel and medicine are running out. Ukraine has also accused Russian forces of shelling supposedly safe routes out of fighting hotspots, which Moscow denies. Mariupol city council said on Friday that Russia’s actions in the bombed-out city amounted to genocide.
On Thursday, Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a humanitarian corridor along the route from Mariupol to Berdiansk and then Zaporizhzhia for several hours at 10am (8am BST) on Friday, but other than the the successful evacuation of the 2,000 people who had already made it to Berdiansk , by late afternoon little progress had been made.
A bus convoy had not been able to approach the dividing line into Mariupol, the International Committee for the Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson told reporters in Geneva, with complex logistics and instructions still being worked out and conveyed to military units on both sides. It was not immediately clear whether the convoy to which he was referring was the same one that transported people from Berdiansk.
Earlier in the week, the Kremlin said its goals in its “special operation” in Ukraine had shifted to gaining complete control of the Donbas, where Mariupol is located and where Moscow-backed separatists declared two independent republics in 2014.
Russian air and ground-launched missile attacks on Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine, and suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, have continued despite Moscow’s announced drawdown. Ukrainian forces said they had retaken the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka, south of Chernihiv, on the main supply route to Kyiv, as well as carrying out limited counterattacks to the east and north-east of the capital.
Peace talks aimed at ending the five-week-old war, which has killed thousands and forced 4 million Ukrainians to flee the country, summarized by video link on Friday. Significant progress did not seem likely, however, following the stalled Mariupol evacuation attempt and Russian accusations of a Ukrainian helicopter attack earlier in the day. The alleged gunship assault on an oil depot on the Russian side of the border, in Belgorod, is the first such reported incursion of its airspace by Ukrainian forces.
“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said he could “neither confirm nor reject the claim that Ukraine was involved in this, simply because I do not possess all the military information”.
Negotiations in Turkey earlier this week centered on Ukraine’s willingness to abandon its bid to join Nato. Kyiv also offered proposals to have its neutral military status guaranteed by a range of foreign countries.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism