LVIV, Ukraine, March 14 (Reuters) – Russian forces let a first column of cars escape Ukraine’s besieged port of Mariupol on Monday but blocked an aid convoy trying to reach the city, Ukraine said, after 10 days of failed attempts to rescue civilians under relentless bombardment.
The southeastern port, totally surrounded by Russian troops since the first week of the invasion, has suffered the worst humanitarian impact of the war, with hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in basements without food, water or shelter.
Local Ukrainian authorities say as many as 2,500 civilians have died so far in the city, a toll that cannot be independently confirmed. Russia denies targetting civilians.
“At one o’clock (1100 GMT) the Russians opened a checkpoint and those who have cars and fuel began to leave Mariupol in the direction of Zaporizhzhia,” Andrei Rempel, a representative of the Mariupol city council who is now in Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian-held city further north, told Reuters.
“In the first two hours, 160 cars left. There are probably already many more now. The city continues to be bombed but this road is not being shelled. We don’t know when the first cars can get to Zaporizhzhia as there are still many Russian checkpoints that need to be passed.”
But Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior aide to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy later said Russia had yet again blocked a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach the city with supplies.
Obtaining safe passage for aid to reach Mariupol and civilians to get out has been Kyiv’s main demand at several rounds of talks. All previous attempts at a local ceasefire in the area have failed.
‘IT’S HARD’ SAYS NEGOTIATOR
Russian and Ukrainian delegations held a fourth round of talks on Monday – by video link rather than in person in neighbouring Belarus as in the past – but no new progress was announced.
“Communication is being held yet it’s hard,” tweeted Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak, who had earlier created some hope of headway by saying on Sunday that Russia was beginning to talk “constructively”.
The talks had paused for the day but would resume on Tuesday. Russia “still has a delusion that 19 days of violence against (Ukrainian) peaceful cities is the right strategy”, he said.
Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky posted on social media that Russia was sticking to its key objectives: “We’re aiming to do everything possible for the achievement of the goals set by Vladimir Putin, for Russia’s peaceful future.”
Russia says it is conducting a “special operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Ukraine and Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of aggression.
France said on Monday EU member states had agreed on a fourth package of sanctions against Russia.
Details were not officially disclosed, but diplomatic sources said they would include an import ban on Russian steel and iron, an export ban on luxury goods, and a ban on investment in the energy sector. Chelsea soccer team owner Roman Abramovich and 14 others would be added to the EU blacklist.
The United States made a public effort on Monday to put pressure on China not to help Russia avert sanctions.
Moscow and Beijing, which signed a friendship pact three weeks before the invasion, both denied accusations from U.S. officials that Russia has asked China for weapons.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome on Monday. The State Deparment said Sullivan’s delegation had “raised directly and very clearly” concerns over Chinese support for Russia.
Nineteen days into Russia’s invasion, its troops have still failed to capture any of Ukraine’s 10 biggest cities, despite hammering several of them with relentless bombardment.
Drone video footage released by Ukrainian forces in Mariupol showed a desolate wasteland of bombed out buildings, many in flames, with smoke pouring into the sky.
Russian forces have been bearing down on Kyiv from the northeast and northwest, but have made little progress so far towards the capital itself, despite heavy fighting that has reduced suburbs on its outskirts to rubble. In Kyiv itself, an apartment block was hit by a missile overnight, killing at least one person, officials said.
Apartment resident Maksim Korovii said he and his mother had run out to the balcony after a staircase collapsed and the building caught fire. “We managed to put on whatever clothes we had at hand and made our way from balcony to balcony.”
In the south, where Russia has made more progress, residents of Odessa, a polyglot Black Sea port of 1 million people, fear their city could be next. They formed a human chain on Monday, singing patriotic songs as they carried sandbags from the beach.
In Donetsk, held since 2014 by Russian-backed separatists, Russia’s defence ministry said at least 20 people had been killed and 28 wounded by what it said was a Ukrainian missile with a cluster charge. It released footage of a missile on a busy street and vehicles destroyed by shrapnel.
Ukraine accused Russia or its allies of carrying out that attack themselves as a pretext: “It is unmistakably a Russian rocket or another munition,” Ukrainian military spokesman Leonid Matyukhin said. Reuters could not verify either account.
PREGNANT WOMAN DIES IN MARIUPOL
The Ukrainian foreign ministry said a pregnant woman who was photgraphed being evacuated wounded from a maternity hospital in Mariupol bombed by Russia last week had since died along with her unborn baby. Reuters was not able to verify this.
Despite video showing at least two pregnant women being carried out of the ruins, Russia has said the hospital was not used at the time and had been occupied by Ukrainian fighters.
The invasion has sent more than 2.8 million people fleeing across Ukraine’s borders and trapped hundreds of thousands in besieged cities.
Financial markets in Europe rallied on Monday on hopes for progress from the talks, although U.S. shares were lower on Wall Street.
Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of combined oil and gas, and Russia and Ukraine together supply nearly a third of the world’s grain exports, as well as metals and chemicals used worldwide in industry and agriculture.
The war has caused a surge in commodity prices, threatening the global recovery at a time when inflation in the developed world is already at its highest since the 1980s and many poor countries are facing a food crisis.
Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Angus MacSwan
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