Humanitarian crisis in Ukraine worsens as Russia attacks key cities

Conflict has raged near Kyiv as Ukrainian officials say heavy shelling and threats of Russian air attacks are endangering attempted evacuations of desperate civilians from encircled towns and cities elsewhere.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia was sending in new troops after Ukrainian forces had put 31 of its battalion tactical groups out of action in what he called Russia’s largest army losses in decades.

He gave no details and it was not possible to verify either statement.

He also said about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed so far and urged the West to get more involved in peace negotiations.

The President suggested Russian forces would face a fight to the death if they sought to enter the capital.

“If they decide to carpet bomb [Kyiv], and simply erase the history of this region, the history of the Kyivan Rus, the history of Europe, and destroy all of us, then they will enter Kyiv,” Mr Zelenskyy told a news conference.

“If that’s their goal, let them come in, but they will have to live on this land by themselves.”

Mr Zelenskyy also said he had spoken to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron about pressuring Russia to release the mayor of the city of Melitopol, who Ukraine says was kidnapped on Friday by Russian forces.

More than 2,000 residents of the southern city, which is now under Russian control, protested outside the city administration building to demand the release of Mayor Ivan Fedorov, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the President’s office.

Mr Scholz and Mr Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for 75 minutes and demanded an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, a German spokesperson said on Saturday afternoon (local time).

A Kremlin statement on the 75-minute call made no mention of a ceasefire and a French presidency official said: “We did not detect a willingness on Putin’s part to end the war.”

Russia has not commented on the fate of Mr Fedorov, who Ukrainian officials said was kidnapped by Russian forces on false accusations of terrorism.

Mr Zelenskyy said his country could not stop fighting but was upholding a ceasefire around an agreed humanitarian corridor out of the southern port of Mariupol, which has been under an almost two-week siege, and called on Russia to do the same.

Ukraine’s intelligence service accused Russia on Saturday of firing at a convoy of civilian evacuees from the village of Peremoha in the Kyiv region, causing seven deaths.

“After the attack, the occupiers forced the remnants of the column to turn back to Peremoha and are not letting them out of the village,” the intelligence service said in a statement.

Moscow has previously blamed Kyiv for failed evacuations.

Mr Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in an operation that has been near-universally condemned around the world and that has drawn tough Western sanctions on Russia.

The bombardment has trapped thousands of people in besieged cities and sent 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Ukrainian officials had planned to use humanitarian corridors from Mariupol as well as towns and villages in the regions of Kyiv, Sumy and some other areas on Saturday.

But the governor of the Kyiv region said fighting and threats of Russian air attacks were continuing during evacuation attempts and the Donetsk region’s governor said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into Mariupol.

Earlier on Saturday, Ukraine said Russian forces had shelled a Mariupol mosque where 86 Turkish nationals, including 34 children, had taken refuge.

“The mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roxolana (Hurrem Sultan) in Mariupol was shelled by Russian invaders,” the foreign ministry said in a tweet.

The UN humanitarian office said conditions in Mariupol were grim.

“There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city,” the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

“Medicines for life-threatening illnesses are quickly running out, hospitals are only partially functioning, and the food and water are in short supply.”

People were boiling ground water for drinking, using wood to cook food and burying dead bodies near where they lay, a staff member for Doctors without Borders in the city said.

“We saw people who died because of lack of medication,” he said, adding that many people had also been wounded or killed.

“Neighbours just dig a hole in the ground and put the dead bodies inside.”

An adviser to the Ukrainian presidency said earlier that 79 evacuation buses and two trucks with humanitarian cargo had left for Sumy on Saturday.

Buses and trucks also left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol, a video released on social media by the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration showed.

At least 1,582 civilians in Mariupol have been killed as a result of Russian shelling and a 12-day blockade, the city council said in an online statement on Friday.

It was not possible to verify casualty figures.