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Ukrainian refugees near 1.5 million as Russian assault enters 11th day

Ukrainian refugees near 1.5 million as Russian assault enters 11th day

People cross a destroyed bridge as they try to leave the city of Irpin, in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 5, 2022. Jedrzej Nowicki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS

KYIV: The number of Ukrainian refugees was expected to reach 1.5 million on Sunday (Mar 6) as Russia continued its attack 11 days after invading Ukraine and Kyiv pressed for further Western action, including more sanctions and weapons.

Moscow and Kyiv traded blame over a failed ceasefire on Saturday that would have let civilians flee Mariupol and Volnovakha, two southern cities besieged by Russian forces. Ukrainians who could escape spilled into neighboring Poland, Romania, Slovakia and elsewhere.

Ukrainian negotiators said a third round of talks with Russia on a ceasefire would go ahead on Monday, although Moscow was less definitive.

In a televised address on Saturday night, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on people in areas occupied by Russian troops to fight.

"We must go outside and drive this evil out of our cities," he said, vowing to rebuild his nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier reiterated that he wanted a neutral Ukraine that had been "demilitarised" and "denazified," and likened Western sanctions "to a declaration of war," adding: "Thank God it has not come to that."

Ukraine and Western countries have decried Putin's reasons as a baseless pretext for the invasion he launched on Feb 24 and have imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and crippling its economy.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after meeting with Us Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Ukraine-Poland border, said he expected new sanctions and weapons for Ukraine in coming days.

The United States has said it would give Ukraine more weapons and has repeatedly warned it could escalate sanctions, with President Joe Biden seeking US$10 billion in emergency funding to respond to the crisis.

Washington is working with Poland as Warsaw considers whether to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, a White House spokesperson said late on Saturday, adding that the United States could replenish Poland's supply of jets if they did, although challenges remain given the contested airspace.

Zelenskyy had asked for help securing aircraft from European allies in a video call with US lawmakers earlier on Saturday. He also called again for more lethal aid, a ban on Russian oil, a no-fly zone and an end to Visa Inc and MasterCard Inc privileges in Russia, US media reported.

Both Visa and Mastercard later said their credit card operations would be suspended in Russia.

Biden spoke with Zelenskyy for about 30 minutes on Saturday evening in Washington, the White House said. They discussed security, financial support for Ukraine and the continuation of sanctions against Russia, Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter.

NATO, which Ukraine wants to join, has resisted Zelenskyy's appeals to impose a no-fly zone over his country, saying it would escalate the conflict outside Ukraine.

Seeking to mediate, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday and later spoke to Zelenskyy, Bennett's spokesperson said.

"We continue dialogue," Zelenskyy tweeted after the call.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a six-point plan to respond to Russia's invasion ahead of meetings with leaders from Canada, the Netherlands and Central Europe in London this week.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is expected to talk with Putin on Sunday. Turkey, a NATO member, shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea.

FIERCE FIGHTING

Russia's Defence Ministry said its forces were carrying out a wide-ranging offensive in Ukraine and had taken several towns and villages, Russian news agency Interfax said.

The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said the military shot down two Russian planes and five helicopters on Saturday and also carried out air strikes against 15 motorised brigades. Reuters had no way to corroborate the claim.

In Kherson, southern Ukraine, the only regional capital to have changed hands since the invasion, several thousand people demonstrated on its main square on Saturday, chanting "Kherson is Ukraine" and demanding Russian forces withdraw.

Eyewitnesses cited by Interfax said Russian troops fired automatic rifles into the air in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the crowd and later left.

Concerns over nuclear dangers remained after Russia seized Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with a top U.S. official saying on Friday that Russian troops were about 32km from Ukraine's second-largest nuclear facility.

Russia was warning the EU and NATO again to stop the "pumping of state-of-the-art weapons systems" into Kyiv, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, according to RIA.

Putin, in one of several decrees signed on Saturday, also gave his government two days to draw up a list of nations engaged in "unfriendly acts" towards Russia, its news agencies reported.

GLOBAL ECONOMIC IMPACT

The International Monetary Fund warned the conflict would have a "severe impact" on the global economy, driving up energy and grain prices. It said it would weigh Kyiv's request for US$1.4 billion in emergency financing as early as next week.

Many Russians, reeling from a 30 per cent fall in the rouble's value, money transfer curbs and the exit of a growing number of Western companies from IKEA to Microsoft, have expressed fear for their economic future.

Software maker Adobe halted Russian sales, while Fortnite-maker Epic Games said it would stop commerce with Russia but not block access to its games, saying the world should keep all communication lines open.

Elon Musk has promised to deliver more Starlink satellite internet terminals to Ukraine next week, Zelenskyy said on Saturday. That could help shore up Ukraine's internet access but also poses potential security risks, experts say.

'HELP US IF YOU CAN'

Heavy shelling was heard in the background as residents of Volnovakha tried to flee the fighting.

"Help us if you can, we all want to live, we have kids, husbands, we are mothers and fathers, we are also people," said one local, Larisa. "Where shall I go? What's on me and a bag of things is all I got. That's all I have."

Blinken, following a meeting in Brussels of counterparts from NATO, the G7 and the European Union, met refugees staying in a disused shopping mall in Poland, which has taken in the vast majority of the Ukrainians forced to flee their country.

As night fell, more refugees crossed into Moldova, Blinken's next stop.

"I'm scared," one mother fleeing from Odessa said, adding she would keep going to Poland.

The World Health Organization said 249 civilians had been killed so far and 553 injured as of Mar 3. It put the number of refugees at 1.2 million and said another 160,000 people had been internally displaced.

"The human cost is likely much higher as access and security challenges make it difficult to verify the actual number of deaths and injuries," it said in a statement.

On Sunday, demonstrations were planned in Washington and elsewhere after jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called for worldwide protests on March 6 against the war. 

Source: Reuters/rw

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