Sirens in Ukraine’s capital as civilians try to flee cities

LVIV, Ukraine — Air raid sirens sounded over the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday and officials said they had beefed up defenses in key towns threatened by Russian forces, as authorities renewed efforts to evacuate civilians from besieged urban areas.

Ukrainian officials have announced that Russia has agreed to a new one-day ceasefire along several evacuation routes for people fleeing cities including Mariupol, scene of some of the war’s worst despair. Russian shelling destroyed buildings there, leaving the port without water, heating, a working sewage system or telephone service. Local officials said they planned to start digging mass graves for the dead.

Thousands of people have reportedly been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in the two weeks of fighting since the invasion by President Vladimir Putin’s forces. The UN estimates that more than 2 million people have fled the country. Many more found themselves trapped in towns bombarded and surrounded by Russian forces, who saw their advance slowed by fiercer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance.

On Wednesday morning, back-to-back alerts urged residents of the capital, Kyiv, to hurry to bomb shelters, fearing incoming missiles. The green light was given each time, but the intermittent alerts kept people on edge. Kyiv has been relatively calm in recent days, although Russian artillery has pounded the outskirts of the city.

A new effort is planned on Wednesday to create safe corridors allowing people to flee Mariupol, Sumy in the northeast, Enerhodar in the south, Volnovakha in the southeast, Izyum in the east and several towns in the Kyiv region, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. mentioned.

The crisis is deepening in the capital for civilians, with the situation particularly dire in the city’s suburbs, Kyiv regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said.

“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, preventing the evacuation of people and continuing to shell and shell small communities,” he said.

On the outskirts of town on Tuesday, police and soldiers helped elderly residents out of their homes and people made their way along a destroyed bridge as they tried to escape from Irpin, a city of 60,000 inhabitants which was the target of Russian bombardments.

Meanwhile, Russian forces placed military equipment on farms and among residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in a statement. In the south, Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing towards the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of half a million people, he added.

The Ukrainian army is building defenses in northern, southern and eastern cities, and forces around kyiv are “holding the line” against the Russian offensive, the general staff said.

The fighting has largely thwarted earlier attempts to create corridors to evacuate civilians safely.

An evacuation appeared successful on Tuesday, with Ukrainian authorities saying 5,000 civilians, including 1,700 foreign students, managed to escape from Sumy, a city of a quarter of a million people that has come under heavy shelling.

That corridor will reopen for 12 hours on Wednesday, with the buses that took people southwest from the city of Poltava the day before returning to pick up more residents, regional administration head Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said.

Priority is given to pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In the south, Russian troops advanced deep along the Ukrainian coast in an attempt to establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014. As part of these efforts, the port of the Mariupol’s Sea of ​​Azov has been surrounded by Russian soldiers for days and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding for the 430,000 residents.

Corpses lie in the streets and starving people burst into shops in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands of people huddle in the basements, shivering to the sound of Russian shells hitting this strategic port city.

“Why shouldn’t I cry? Goma Janna asked as she wept by the light of an underground oil lamp, surrounded by women and children. “I want my house, I want my job. I am so sad for the people and for the city, the children.

Tuesday brought no relief: An attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver much-needed food, water and medicine through a designated safe corridor failed, with Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces fired on the convoy before until he reaches the city.

Mariupol, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, is in a “catastrophic situation”.

Natalia Mudrenko, a senior official in Ukraine’s UN mission, told the Security Council that the people of Mariupol had “effectively been taken hostage” by the siege. Her voice shook with emotion as she described the death of a 6-year-old girl shortly after her mother was killed by Russian shelling. “She was alone in the last moments of her life,” she said.

Theft has become widespread for food, clothing and even furniture, with locals referring to the practice as “getting a discount”. Some inhabitants are reduced to drawing water from streams.

With the electricity out, many people rely on their car radios for news, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists.

Ludmila Amelkina, who was walking along an alley strewn with rubble and walls riddled with gunfire, said the destruction had been devastating.

“We don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have medicine. We have nothing, she said looking up at the sky.

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

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Christi C. Elwood