Ukraine refuses to return Mariupol as Russia warns of humanitarian ‘catastrophe’

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Band Pavel Polityuk

LVIV, Ukraine, March 21 (Reuters)Ukraine on Monday rejected Russian calls to return the port city of Mariupol, where residents are besieged with little food, water and electricity in a humanitarian crisis that is increasing pressure on European leaders to tighten sanctions against Moscow.

The Ukrainian government has defiantly rejected Russian calls for Ukrainian forces in Mariupol to lay down their arms in return for safe passage out of the city and the opening of humanitarian corridors from 10:00 a.m. Moscow time (0700 GMT) Monday.

“There can be no talk of any surrender, of any arms depot,” the Ukrainska Pravda news portal quoted Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk as saying.

“We have already informed the Russian side about this.”

Mariupol has suffered some of the heaviest shelling since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Many of its 400,000 residents remain trapped as fighting rages in the streets around them.

Vereshchuk said more than 7,000 people were evacuated from Ukrainian towns through humanitarian corridors on Sunday, more than half from Mariupol. She said the government planned to send nearly 50 buses there on Monday for further evacuations.

Russia and Ukraine have agreements throughout the war on humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians, but have accused each other of frequent violations of them.

The crisis in Mariupol and other devastated Ukrainian cities is expected to feature prominently in discussions among European Union leaders this week as they consider imposing tougher sanctions on Russia, including an oil embargo. .

EU governments will resume discussion between foreign ministers on Monday, before US President Joe Biden arrives in Brussels on Thursday for summits with the 30 NATO allies, as well as the EU and in a Group of Seven (G7) format including Japan.

Diplomats have told Reuters that the Baltic countries, including Lithuania, are pushing for an embargo as a logical next step, while Germany warns against acting too quickly due to already high energy prices in Europe. .

In his latest plea for help from abroad, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed Israel’s parliament via video link on Sunday and questioned Israel’s reluctance to sell its Iron Dome missile defense system to Israel. ‘Ukraine.

“Everyone knows that your missile defense systems are the best…and that you can definitely help our people, save the lives of Ukrainians, Ukrainian Jews,” said Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish descent.

Zelenskiy also hailed the mediation efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has had numerous calls with him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said in his daily video address to Ukrainians that “sooner or later we will start having talks with Russia, maybe in Jerusalem.”

The Mariupol council said on Telegram that several thousand residents had been “deported” to Russia over the past week. Russian news agencies said buses had transported hundreds of refugees from Mariupol to Russia in recent days.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN the deportation stories were “disturbing” and “unconscionable” if true, but said Washington has yet to confirm them.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims. Russia denies targeting civilians.

Greece’s consul general in Mariupol, the latest EU diplomat to evacuate the town, said it joined the ranks of places known to have been destroyed in wars.

“What I saw, I hope no one ever sees,” he said.

kyiv and Moscow signaled progress last week towards a political formula that would guarantee Ukraine’s security, while keeping it outside NATO – a key Russian demand – although each side has accused the other to drag things out.

FEW ADVANCES

Capturing Mariupol would help Russian forces secure a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin says Russia’s “special operation” is aimed at disarming Ukraine and rooting out dangerous nationalists. Western nations call it a war of aggression by choice and have imposed punitive sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy.

Ukraine and its Western backers say Russian ground forces made little progress in the past week, focusing instead on artillery and missile strikes.

Zelenskiy’s adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said on Sunday there had been a relative lull in the past 24 hours, with “virtually no rocket strikes on towns”. He said the front lines were “virtually frozen”.

Three civilians were killed and five injured as a result of Russian shelling in the east of the country on Sunday, said Pavel Kirilenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration. In the Kharkiv region, one person was killed and one injured, and in the Lugansk region, two were killed and one injured.

In the capital Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported several explosions in the Podil district and said rescue teams were extinguishing a large fire in the mall. He said at least one person had been killed.

Reuters was unable to verify the information.

The UN human rights office said at least 902 civilians were killed on Saturday, although the true toll was likely much higher.

A five-kilometer area around a chemical plant in the besieged city of Sumy, northeast of the plant, was unsafe due to an ammonia leak, Sumy regional governor Dmytro said. Zhyvytskyy. It was unclear what caused the leak.

About 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced, including some 3.4 million who fled to neighboring countries such as Poland, the UN refugee agency said.

In the southern city of Kherson, video seen by Reuters showed dozens of protesters, some wrapped in Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag, chanting “Go home” in Russian in front of two military vehicles bearing Russian markings. The vehicles turned and drove off.

“I want the war to be over, I want them (Russian forces) to leave Ukraine in peace,” said Margarita Morozova, 87, who survived Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. World War II and has lived in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, for the past 60 years.

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(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry)

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