More than 100 buses, carrying a few thousand civilians, have left the besieged city of Sumy in northeastern Ukraine, in a “safe passage” operation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said.
The buses bearing the Red Cross emblem were heading towards Lubny, a city in central Ukraine, but might not be able to take a direct route, ICRC spokesperson Jason Straziuso said on Tuesday, adding the Russian side had given a green light for the evacuation.
He had earlier said the destination of the buses, which are full of women and children, was Poltava. Men have stayed behind.
“In total more than 100 buses are travelling in two different convoys, a joint operation between us and the Ukrainian Red Cross,” Straziuso said.
UNDERWAY: We’re escorting hundreds of people out a safe passage from Sumy with @RedCrossUkraine.
Some are on buses, others chose to walk.
All need a respite from the fighting.
We hope this is one of many operations to help civilians find the safety they so urgently need. pic.twitter.com/5tRIQREpxf
— ICRC (@ICRC) March 15, 2022
Some three million Ukrainians have fled their homeland since Russian forces invaded on February 24, the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
They include 1.8 million Ukrainians now in Poland, the UN refugee agency said, with 300,000 moving on to Western Europe.
Among the refugees are 1.4 million children, meaning 73,000 children have become refugees on average each day since the invasion – almost one per second, United Nations Children’s Fund spokesperson James Elder said.
Evacuations continue in Mariupol
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said hundreds of civilians managed to leave Mariupol in cars for the second successive day, but the aid convoy trying to reach the port city was stuck at nearby Berdyansk as Russian shelling continued.
“Our side ensures a complete ceasefire,” Vereshchuk said. “Russia, as usual, is cynically lying, thinking that people and the world do not see it and do not understand.”
Russia did not immediately comment on the situation around Mariupol.
Ukrainian servicemen and volunteers carry a man injured during a shelling attack into a hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 15, 2022 [Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]
It denies targeting civilians and has blamed Ukraine for the repeated failure to establish safe passage for civilians and humanitarian convoys since it invaded the country.
Vereshchuk said the majority of residents do not have cars, so there was a need for buses to reach the city in convoys so that they could be evacuated.
Russian forces agreed on Monday to allow the creation of a humanitarian corridor out of Mariupol. The first evacuation convoy then left, after more than a week of failed attempts to do so, but Ukrainian officials were unable to deliver any aid.
About 300 civilians had by Tuesday morning reached the city of Zaporizhzhia, about 225km (140 miles) from Mariupol, the Mariupol city council said.
By early afternoon on Tuesday, about 2,000 cars had left Mariupol and a further 2,000 were waiting to leave, it said.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Zaporizhzhia, said many of the people displaced had lived in their towns and villages in Mariupol “all their lives and have nothing else”.
“We also have people that have been displaced a number of times, because this fighting in the east of the country has been going on since 2014. So many people left there to other safer parts of Ukraine – and now again, they’ve been forced to leave,” he added.
Bombing of Kyiv
Meanwhile in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Russian air strikes and artillery fire smashed into buildings.
At least five people were killed in the bombardments on Kyiv on Tuesday, the 20th day of the Russian assault, authorities said. Buildings were set ablaze and people were buried under the rubble.
Despite the danger, the leaders of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic arrived in the city in a show of solidarity with its people.
A Ukrainian soldier passes by a destroyed trolleybus and taxi after a Russian bombing attack in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 14, 2022 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]
“We must stop the tragedy that is happening in the east as soon as possible,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook.
Their visit was a symbol of Ukraine’s success so far in fending off an assault that Western countries believe was aimed at seizing the city weeks ago.
About half of Kyiv’s 3.4 million population has fled and residents are spending nights sheltering in metro stations.
In the country’s east, Russian forces launched more than 60 strikes overnight on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, according to regional administration chief Oleh Sinehubov.
The strikes hit the city’s historical centre, including the main marketplace.
Sinehubov said fires were raging and rescuers pulled dozens of bodies of civilians from the ruins of destroyed apartment buildings.
NATO membership compromise
Talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations via a video link resumed on Tuesday.
Ukrainian officials played up hopes the war could end sooner than expected, saying Moscow may be coming to terms with its failure to impose a new government on Kyiv by force.
In a hint of compromise, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv was prepared to accept security guarantees that stop short of its long-term objective of membership of the NATO alliance, which Moscow opposes.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced its members’ leaders would meet in Brussels on March 24 to discuss the invasion and show support for Ukraine.