Russia announces ceasefire in 2 Ukrainian areas for evacuations

By YURAS KARMANAU

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday warned that Ukrainian statehood was under threat, likening Western sanctions against Russia to a “declaration of war” amid a promised ceasefire in the besieged port city of Mariupol amid terror scenes collapsed .

As Kremlin rhetoric intensified and a respite from the fighting ebbed, Russian troops continued to shell encircled towns and the number of Ukrainians displaced from their lands rose to 1.4 million.

Abandoned mothers mourned slain children, wounded soldiers were fitted with tourniquets and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones, while desolation and despair pervaded. Putin continued to blame all of this squarely on the Ukrainian leadership, slamming their opposition to the invasion.

“If they continue as before, they will question the future of Ukrainian statehood,” he said. “And if that happens, it will be entirely on their conscience.”

He also attacked Western sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy and plummeted the value of its currency.

“These sanctions that are being imposed are tantamount to a declaration of war,” he said during a televised meeting with flight attendants from Russian airline Aeroflot. “But thank God we’re not there yet.”

Ten days after Russian forces invaded, fighting to enforce the temporary ceasefire in Mariupol and the eastern city of Volnovakha showed the fragility of efforts to end fighting across Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials said Russian artillery fire and airstrikes prevented residents from leaving before agreed evacuations began. Putin accused Ukraine of sabotaging the effort.

A third round of talks between Russia and Ukraine will take place on Monday, according to Davyd Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian delegation. He gave no other details, including where they would take place.

Earlier meetings took place in Belarus and led to the failed ceasefire agreement to create humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of children, women and the elderly from besieged cities, where pharmacies have run empty, hundreds of thousands face food and water shortages and the injured have succumbed to their wounds .

In comments on Ukrainian TV, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said thousands of residents gathered to safely evacuate the city when shelling began on Saturday.

“We value the life of every resident of Mariupol and cannot risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” he said.

The West has largely backed Ukraine, offering aid and arms, and hitting Russia with huge sanctions. But the fight itself was left to the Ukrainians, who expressed a mixture of brave determination and dejection.

“Ukraine is bleeding,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a video released on Saturday, “but Ukraine has not fallen.”

Russian troops advanced on a third nuclear power plant on Saturday, having already taken control of two of the four operating in the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked US lawmakers for additional help, despite insisting the enemy be defeated.

“We’re inflicting casualties on inmates that they couldn’t see in their worst nightmare,” Zelenskyy said.

Russian troops took control of the southern port city of Kherson this week. Despite encircling Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Ukrainian forces have managed to retain control of key cities in central and south-eastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy said on Saturday.

Diplomatic efforts continued when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Poland to meet with the prime minister a day after attending a NATO meeting in Brussels where the alliance pledged to increase support for members of the eastern flank and to meet the Secretary of State.

In Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin in the Kremlin. Israel has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and Bennett has offered to act as a mediator in the conflict, but no details of Saturday’s meeting have emerged.

In the wake of Western sanctions, Aeroflot, Russia’s leading state airline, announced it would suspend all international flights except to Belarus from Tuesday.

The conflict’s death toll was difficult to measure, but had certainly exceeded 1,000.

The UN human rights office said at least 351 civilians have been killed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, but the real number is likely much higher. The Russian military, which does not publish regular reports of casualties, said Wednesday that 498 of its troops had been killed.

Ukraine’s military far outnumbers Russia’s, but its professional and volunteer armed forces have fought back with bitter tenacity. Even in fallen cities there were signs of resistance.

Onlookers in Chernihiv cheered as they saw a Russian military plane fall from the sky and crash, according to video released by the Ukrainian government on Saturday. In Kherson, hundreds of people protested the invasion, waving the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine and shouting, “Go home.”

Zelenskyy encouraged protests that drew thousands to the streets of Russian-held cities.

“Go on the offensive!” he urged. “You should hit the streets! You should fight!”

A huge column of Russian tanks threatening the Ukrainian capital halted outside of Kyiv. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovich said on Saturday afternoon that the military situation had calmed down overall and that the Russian armed forces “had not taken any active measures since the morning”.

While the shelling in Mariupol showed Russia’s determination to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and Sea of ​​Azov and further damage the country’s economy, it was Putin who went most offensively than more hostile with his warning of a no-fly zone act scored.

NATO has said it has no plans to establish such a no-fly zone that would ban all unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine. Western officials said a key reason was a desire not to expand the war beyond Ukraine.

Zelenskyy has called for a no-fly zone over his country, berating NATO for refusing to impose one and warning that “all the people who die from this day on will die because of you too”.

But while the United States and other NATO members are sending arms to Kyiv, the conflict is already drawing countries well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

As Russia cracks down on independent media covering the war, other major international news outlets said they were ceasing to operate there. Putin said nothing justifies imposing martial law at this point.

And in a warning of an impending hunger crisis, the United Nations World Food Program has said millions of people in Ukraine, a key global supplier of wheat, will need food aid “immediately”.

Ukraine’s president briefed U.S. senators via video conference on Saturday as Congress is considering a $10 billion emergency aid request for humanitarian assistance and security needs. The UN said it would step up humanitarian operations both inside and outside Ukraine, and its Security Council scheduled an open session on Monday on the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

Kyiv’s main train station remained crowded with people desperate to flee. “People just want to live,” said one woman, Ksenia.

Elsewhere in the capital, two people froze on a sidewalk at a loud bang in a sign of nerves about to snap. It was a garbage truck tipping over a garbage can.

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Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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