Hopes hinge on Ukraine escape routes as war rages

Dave Clark, Dmitry Zaks - Agence France-Presse
Hopes hinge on Ukraine escape routes as war rages
Refugees stand in line in the cold as they wait to be transferred to a train station after crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland, on March 7, 2022. More than 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, according to the latest UN data on March 6, 2022.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia said Monday it would open humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee pummelled Ukrainian cities, but Kyiv accused Moscow of making it impossible for innocent people to escape.

The latest offer brought a glimmer of hope for terrified civilians cowering under a hail of Russian shelling and mortar fire, with numerous women and children among the hundreds already killed.

Russia's defense ministry said it would open the corridors from 0700 GMT Tuesday, subject to Ukraine's approval, listing routes from Kyiv as well as the cities of Mariupol, Kharkiv and Sumy — all of which have been under heavy attack. 

Ukraine did not initially respond to the offer, with President Volodymyr Zelensky instead accusing Moscow's troops of scuppering evacuation efforts — mining roads and destroying buses meant to carry people to safety.

Kyiv had rejected a previous proposal for evacuation corridors from the same four cities, as many of the routes led straight into Russia or its ally Belarus.

Addressing the Security Council, the UN's top humanitarian official Martin Griffiths said civilians must be allowed to leave in the direction they wish, and safe passage be granted for vitally needed humanitarian and medical supplies.

The carnage continued on day 12 of the war, with 13 people killed in shelling on an industrial bakery in the town of Makariv and the mayor of the town of Gostomel killed while delivering bread to civilians.

According to the latest tally from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which believes the real figures to be "considerably higher", 406 civilians have died since the start of Russia's assault on its ex-Soviet neighbour.

The invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin has pushed more than 1.7 million people across Ukraine's borders in what the UN calls Europe's fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.

International sanctions intended to punish Moscow have done little to slow the invasion, and energy-hungry Western nations are still weighing whether to ban Russian oil imports.

The conflict pushed oil prices to a near 14-year high, while gas prices also rocketed and stock markets around the world plunged.

Abandoned pushchairs

Outgunned Ukrainian forces have been trying to hold back Russian troops pushing up from the east and south in an attempt to encircle the capital Kyiv.

AFP journalists witnessed thousands of civilians on Monday fleeing fighting via an unofficial escape route from Irpin, a suburb west of Kyiv, towards the capital.

A day earlier eight people died there in shelling, Ukrainian officials said. Images of the killing of one family of four shocked the world.

"There was firing on all sides when we were on the road, but we got across," Tetyana, 51, told AFP after crossing icy water on a rickety plank, over which thousands have fled Russian bombardment.

"I told myself that if I was killed on the spot, so be it, but if I'm wounded, I'll have to crawl," she said.

Children and the elderly were carried on carpets used as stretchers on the route, which leads over the makeshift bridge and along a single path secured by the army and volunteers.

Desperate people abandoned pushchairs and heavy suitcases to cram on buses out of the war zone.

"We had no light at home, no water, we just sat in the basement," Inna Scherbanyova, 54, an economist from Irpin, told AFP.

"Explosions were constantly going off... Near our house there are cars, there were dead people in one of them... very scary."

One Ukrainian paratrooper told of "hand-to-hand" combat in Irpin, saying "we are trying to push (Russian soldiers) out, but I don't know if we'll be fully able to do it".

Two recent attempts to allow some 200,000 civilians to leave the besieged Azov Sea port of Mariupol have also ended in disaster.

Refugees trying to escape the city using agreed escape routes were left stranded as the road they were directed towards was mined, the ICRC said on Monday. 

On the European front, meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the conflict could drive five million Ukrainian refugees into the roads "if the indiscriminate bombardments of cities continues".

Oil exports dilemma

Ukraine's Zelensky renewed calls for the West to boycott Russian exports, particularly oil, and to impose a no-fly zone to stop the carnage.

"How many more deaths and losses must it take to secure the skies over Ukraine?" the president said in a video message.

While NATO countries have pumped weapons into Ukraine, they have so far rebuffed Ukraine's calls for a no-fly zone, fearing a widening war against nuclear-armed Russia.

Western allies have instead imposed unprecedented sanctions against businesses, banks and billionaires in a bid to choke the Russian economy and pressure Moscow to halt its assault.

But the leaders of Germany, Britain and the Netherlands warned Monday against a ban on Russian oil, saying it could put Europe's energy security at risk.

US President Joe Biden's spokeswoman said no decision had been taken, while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak warned any oil ban would have "catastrophic consequences" on prices.

Meanwhile, Moscow has been forced to restrict sales of essential goods to limit black market speculation, while a stream of foreign companies halted business in Russia.

While Japanese casualwear giant Uniqlo defended its decision to stay, calling clothing "a necessity of life", US jeans brand Levi's became the latest to join the exodus.

"I came to buy my favourite brands one last time," 19-year-old student Filippova told AFP at a mall in Moscow.

Putin has equated sanctions with a declaration of war and put nuclear forces on alert, pledging the "neutralisation" of Ukraine "either through negotiation or through war".

Despite harsh punishments for those voicing dissent, protests in Russia against the Ukraine invasion have continued, with more than 10,000 people arrested since it began.

The International Court of Justice meanwhile heard Ukraine's appeal for it to order Russia to halt the fighting, but Moscow declined to attend the sitting of the UN's top court, in The Hague.




As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes that Moscow and the West could find a solution to the raging security crisis over Ukraine, but also accused Washington of using Kyiv as a "tool" against Russia.

"I hope that in the end we will find a solution, although it will not be simple," Putin says, indicating he was ready for more talks with the West, which has accused Moscow of massing more than 100,000 troops on the border and plotting to invade Ukraine.

"It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine... but its main task is to contain Russia's development," Putin says. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

A ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain has sailed from Ukraine's port of Berdyansk, currently controlled by Russian forces, the region's Moscow-appointed official said on Thursday.

"After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tonnes of grain are heading toward friendly countries," Evgeny Balitski, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 8:46am

Britain pledges another $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine to help it fend off Russia's invasion, including air-defense systems and drones.

The fresh funds will bring Britain's total military support to Kyiv since the start of the war in late February to £2.3 billion, Downing Street says in a statement. — AFP

June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

A Russian missile strike on a crowded mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk killed at least 16 people, the head of emergency services says early Tuesday, sparking international outrage.

"The Russian strike today on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk is one of the most brazen terrorist acts in European history," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening broadcast posted on Telegram.

"As of now, we know of 16 dead and 59 wounded, 25 of them hospitalised. The information is being updated," emergency services chief Sergiy Kruk says. — AFP

June 27, 2022 - 1:20pm

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a "crime" not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

"You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying 'no swimming' — but you see someone drowning. It's a crime not to help. That's how I see it," he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a "patriot", he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

"I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help," he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea's passport law to leave as equivalent to a "traffic violation". — AFP

June 26, 2022 - 2:40pm

Indonesian President and G20 chairman Joko Widodo set off on Sunday to Europe where he said he plans to visit Russia and Ukraine and meet with the countries' leaders to urge peace talks. 

Widodo departed for Germany to attend as a guest for the G7 summit from June 26 to 27, and he will then go to the Ukraine capital Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

"The mission is to ask... President Zelensky to open a dialogue forum for peace, to build peace because the war has to be stopped," he told a press conference in Jakarta. 

The two leaders will also discuss the food supply chain "that needs to be reactivated" soon, Widodo said. From Kyiv, Widodo is scheduled to visit Moscow and meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. 

The visit to Moscow is planned for June 30, Indonesian authorities said earlier. — AFP

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