Ukraine rejects ‘immoral’ stunt after Moscow says it will let civilians flee to Russia

Civilian death toll from hostilities since invasion is at least 364, says United Nations

Russia announced new "humanitarian corridors" on Monday to transport Ukrainians trapped under its bombardment – to Russia itself and its ally Belarus, a move immediately dismissed by Kyiv as an immoral stunt.

The limited ceasefire announcement came a day after hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians attempting to flee to safety were forced to shelter from Russian shelling of cities in the centre, north and south of the country.

Ahead of a third round of talks planned for Monday, the Russian defence ministry said a ceasefire would start in the morning, and safe passages would open for civilians from the capital of Kyiv, the southern port city of Mariupol, and the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.

Some of the evacuation routes, however, would funnel civilians towards Russia or its ally Belarus — unlikely destinations for many Ukrainians who would prefer to head towards countries on the western and southern borders.

A senior Ukrainian official rejected those proposals.

A top official with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says one of its teams attempting to lead a group of civilians out of the embattled port city of Mariupol discovered the road they were to take out was mined — a “hugely dangerous situation”.

Dominik Stillhart, ICRC’s director of operations, said the incident underpinned calls from the humanitarian group for the fighting sides to “agree on the details for safe civilian passage, including what time, exactly what road, who can leave, and if medical supplies can come in”.

“Without this kind of agreement the situation is extremely perilous for civilians,” Mr Stillhart said.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba plan to meet on the sidelines of a diplomatic forum in the Turkish resort of Antalya on March 10th, Russian news agencies reported on Monday.

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy also asked the international community on Monday to provide Ukraine with military aircraft and to boycott Russian oil, oil products and other exports. "If the invasion (of Ukraine) continues and Russia has not abandoned its plans against Ukraine, then a new sanctions package is needed ... for the sake of peace," he said in a video address.

Meanwhile, Poland has not and will not send its fighter jets to Ukraine to support the embattled country's defence against Russia, Polish government officials said on Monday.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said Washington was looking at a proposal under which Poland would supply Kyiv with Soviet-era fighters and in turn receive American F-16s to make up for their loss.

Poland has been less than enthusiastic about the idea, at least publicly, largely because Russia has warned that supporting Ukraine’s air force would be seen in Moscow as participating in the war and could create a risk of retaliation.

Fierce resistance

Well into the second week of war, Russia’s plan to quickly overrun the country has been stymied by fierce resistance.

Its troops have made significant advances in southern Ukraine and along the coast but many of its efforts have become stalled, including an immense military convoy that has been almost motionless for days north of Kyiv.

The fighting has sent energy prices surging worldwide, stocks plummeting, and is threatening the food supply and livelihoods of people around the world who rely on farmland in the Black Sea region.

The death toll from the fighting remains unclear. The civilian death toll from hostilities across Ukraine since Russia launched the invasion was 364, including more than 20 children, the United Nations said on Sunday, adding that hundreds were wounded, but also warned that the number is a vast undercount

Police for the Kharkiv region said on Monday that 209 people have died there alone — 133 of them civilians.

The Russian invasion has also pushed 1.5 million people to flee the country, creating what the head of the UN refugee agency called "the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II".

But many others have become trapped in cities under fire. Food, water, medicine and almost all other supplies were in desperately short supply in the southern port city of Mariupol, which an estimated 200,000 people are trying to flee but where an earlier ceasefire collapsed.

The Russian taskforce said the new pledge for humanitarian corridors was announced at the request of French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin on Sunday. Mr Macron's office said he asked for a broader end to military operations in Ukraine and protections for civilians.

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Irina Vereshchuk called the proposed evacuation routes to Russia and Belarus “unacceptable”. Belarus is a key ally of Mr Putin and served as a launching ground for the invasion.

The Ukrainian government is proposing eight humanitarian corridors, including from Mariupol, that would allow civilians to travel to the western regions of Ukraine where there is no Russian shelling.

The Russian proposal was reminiscent of similar ones in Syria. In 2016, a joint Russian and Syrian proposal to set up humanitarian corridors out of besieged opposition-held eastern Aleppo was criticised on humanitarian grounds.

Human rights activists said the tactic, coupled by brutal sieges, effectively gave residents a choice between fleeing into the arms of their attackers or dying under bombardment.

Rocket attacks

Meanwhile Russian forces have opened fire on the city of Mykolaiv, 480 kilometres south of the capital of Kyiv, Ukraine’s General Staff said on Monday morning. Rescuers said they were putting out fires in residential areas caused by rocket attacks.

Shelling also continued in the suburbs of Kyiv, including Irpin, which has been cut off from electricity, water and heating for three days.

“Russia continues to carry out rocket, bomb and artillery strikes on the cities and settlements of Ukraine,” the General Staff said. “The invaders continue to use the airfield network of Belarus to carry out air strikes on Ukraine.”

The Russians have also been targeting humanitarian corridors, taking women and children hostage and placing weapons in residential areas of cities, according to the General Staff.

Moscow has warned that it will view any bid by the West to guard Ukraine's airspace as an act of hostility, as the United States said it was seeking ways to help Poland provide warplanes to its neighbour and Kyiv pleaded for Nato help against Russian bombardment.

Russia’s ground forces face fierce resistance from Ukraine’s troops 11 days after invading, but Moscow’s air power is inflicting a heavy toll on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, as well as on military sites.

Ukrainian officials said plans to evacuate 200,000 civilians from the port of Mariupol failed for a second day because of Russian shelling on Sunday, when missiles also destroyed Vinnytsia airport and hit Irpin, 25km from Kyiv, as residents tried to flee. At least three civilians were killed.

“Eight missiles against our city, against our peaceful Vinnytsia, which has never posed a threat to Russia in any way. A brutal, cynical missile strike has completely destroyed the airport,” said Mr Zelenskiy.

“We repeat every day: ‘Close the sky over Ukraine! ’ Close it for all Russian missiles, Russian combat aircraft, for all these terrorists... You can do it,” he added in a video address to western leaders.

Mr Putin spoke to the leaders of France, Turkey and Israel but made clear he intended to continue an invasion of Ukraine that has killed thousands of people and displaced about 1.5 million.

His attack on Ukraine – with the supposed aim of “denazifying” and “demilitarising” the pro-western democracy of 41 million people – has been accompanied by a further crackdown on dissent in Russia, where thousands have been arrested at anti-war protests.

Pope Francis has sent two cardinals to Ukraine, where he said "rivers of blood and tears are flowing" – Additional reporting from AP/Reuters