Ukraine delays key port evacuation as Putin warns of no-fly zone peril

A child looks on as residents evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022, 10 days after Russia launched a military invasion on Ukraine. (Photo: AFP)
KYIV — A strategic Ukrainian city put off a planned evacuation of residents Saturday blaming Russian forces for breaking their temporary ceasefire as the Russian leader warned the West of a wider war if a no-fly zone is set up.اضافة اعلان

"Any movement in this direction will be considered by us as participation in an armed conflict by that country," President Vladimir Putin said.

With his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky criticizing NATO for ruling out a no-fly zone for fear of sparking nuclear conflict, Putin spoke of "colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world", if such a zone was set up.

For Zelensky, on day 10 of the invasion, under an escalating bombardment that has flattened more and more infrastructure and sent nearly 1.4 million civilians fleeing for their lives, the Western military alliance's "no" to a no-fly zone had essentially given "the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages".

Under siege, Mariupol proudly resisted Moscow-backed rebels during a 2014 conflict, but the Azoz seaport has for days been without electricity, food, and water in the dead of winter and people began gathering for the evacuation.

However city officials called a delay in the evacuation, saying: "The Russian side does not adhere to the ceasefire and has continued shelling both Mariupol itself and its environs, and for security reasons, the evacuation of the civilian population has been postponed."

Negotiations were underway "to establish a ceasefire and ensure a safe humanitarian corridor", Mariupol authorities added.

An evacuation had been seen as a prelude to a final assault that, if successful, would see the Russian army push north from occupied Crimea and link up with their forces from the east and take control of Ukraine's coast on the Azov sea.

After Russia's defense ministry declared the ceasefire — to open a humanitarian corridor out the war's fiercest battles — officials said the city's 450,000-strong population could begin to leave by bus and private cars.

"This is not an easy decision, but... Mariupol is not its streets or houses. Mariupol is its population, it is you and me," said mayor Vadim Boychenko.

Scenes of devastation

The siege came as more Russian forces inched closer to the capital Kyiv amid fierce fighting, particularly in the western suburbs and the northern town of Chernihiv.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in shelling, missile attacks, and air raids, and those remaining live among the town's ruins and in craters.

"There were corpses all over the ground," Sergei told AFP, as air raid sirens wailed once more. "They were queuing here for the pharmacy that's just there, and they're all dead."

AFP reporters saw scenes of devastation — despite Moscow's insistence it is not targeting civilian areas.

Fears are rising in Kyiv that the capital will suffer the same fate once Russian missile artillery is deployed within range.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov alleged Russia had changed tactics after encountering tough resistance.

Ukraine, he said, had defeated plans to quickly storm major cities and overthrow Zelensky's government, forcing Moscow to resort to "cowardly" attacks on civilians. 

Zelensky remains defiant, announcing Saturday that Ukrainian forces were counter-attacking around Kharkiv, the country's second largest city, which has seen Russian incursions and fierce bombardments.

"We inflict such losses on the invaders that they have not seen even in their worst dream," he said.

Since Putin's army invaded on February 24, Russia has pummeled Ukrainian cities, with officials reporting hundreds of civilians killed. Europe's largest atomic power plant has even come under attack sparking fears of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

But Moscow has so far only seized two key cities in its 10-day-long invasion — Berdiansk and Kherson on Ukraine's southern Black Sea coast.

Capturing Mariupol represents a bigger prize for Russian forces as it would deal a severe blow to Ukraine's maritime access and connect with troops coming from annexed Crimea and the Donbas.

The Kremlin said it was waiting for a third round of talks with Ukraine in Belarus, and one of Kyiv's negotiators said it hoped to hold them this weekend.

"The third leg could take place tomorrow or the day after, we are in constant contact," Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said Friday.

Zelensky was to appeal to Washington for more assistance Saturday with an address to the US Senate after some lawmakers urged President Joe Biden to take tougher measures, including banning Russia's oil imports.

With fears growing of direct conflict between Western forces and Russia — both nuclear-armed — the US and Moscow have set up a new direct phone line to reduce the risks of "miscalculation", the Pentagon said Friday.

Russian forces attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on Friday, pushing Kyiv to accuse Moscow of "nuclear terror".

Ukrainian monitors say there has been no spike in radiation after a fire in a training facility. 

Moscow denied it had shelled the plant. 

Media exodus

Russian authorities have imposed a news blackout and several media outlets have halted operations.

Multiple media websites were partially inaccessible in Russia. Twitter was restricted and Facebook blocked.

The BBC, Bloomberg, and German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF as well as Italy's Rai said they were suspending work in Russia after lawmakers in Moscow passed legislation to impose fines and jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing "fake news" about the army.

CNN said it would halt broadcasting in Russia, while independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta said it would remove Ukraine content.

The Kremlin on Saturday defended the new law, saying it was "necessary as the country was facing "an unprecedented information war".

Global hunger

Putin has been unmoved as Russia has become isolated in economic, sporting, and cultural fields.

Spanish clothing giant and Zara fast-fashion chain owner Inditex on Saturday joined the list of major companies suspending operations in Russia.

Flagship airline Aeroflot said it was suspending all its international flights from March 8, citing "circumstances that impede the operation of flights".

At the Winter Paralympics in Beijing, Ukrainian athletes overcame all the hurdles to hit the top of the medal table with a haul of seven on day one. 

In the men's vision-impaired biathlon race, Vitalii Lukianenko took gold and said: "I want to dedicate this medal to the guys who protect our cities."

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