The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it hopes to lead an evacuation of thousands of civilians from the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol – but warned that major obstacles remained.
ICRC said on Friday a team of nine staff members was heading towards the southeastern city from Zaporizhzhia, more than 200km (124 miles) away, in three cars.
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It said its vehicles would lead a convoy of 54 buses and many more civilian vehicles out of the strategic city – where up to 170,000 people are without power and have limited food, according to the mayor – but added it was not yet certain that the operation could go ahead.
“This effort has been, and remains, extremely complex. There are a lot of moving parts and not all of the details are yet in place to ensure that this happens in a safe manner,” ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson told reporters in Geneva.
“We remain hopeful, we are in action, moving towards Mariupol. That is obviously a good thing. But it’s not yet clear that this will happen today.
“If and when it does happen, the ICRC role as a neutral intermediary will be to lead the convoy out from Mariupol to another city in Ukraine. We’re unable to confirm which city at the moment.
“This is something the parties must agree to.”
Previous attempts to evacuate residents from the city, which has been under intense Russian bombardment for weeks, have collapsed, though some have made the dangerous dash to freedom alone.
The ICRC said it would use its vehicles as a humanitarian protection marker to remind all sides of the non-military nature of the operation.
But Watson warned the operation was stalled by two main problems: first, Ukrainian and Russian officials had agreed to a so-called “humanitarian corridor”, but it was still not clear if the message had been received by their ground troops, and second, the destination for where the people would be taken to had not been completely worked out.
“In order for us to start leading civilians out at the top of that convoy, we will need to have assurances that the route we are taking is safe,” said Watson, adding: “We’ll need to know where we’re going.”
Also, there must be the “voluntary consent of the people concerned”, Watson said.
Meanwhile, local officials in Mariupol reported that some designated escape routes remained blocked by Russian forces.
Following the invasion on February 24, Russian forces have encircled and relentlessly bombarded Mariupol to try to capture the city.
Much of the city has now been reduced to rubble, with tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside with little food, water or medicine.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered. The situation is horrendous and deteriorating,” said Watson.
“It’s now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”
However, the ICRC said it had not received permission to bring aid into Mariupol on Friday to help civilians still surviving in the city.
The organisation had two trucks filled with food, medicine and relief items but they remained behind in Zaporizhzhia.
“Time is running out for the people of Mariupol. They are desperately in need of assistance,” said Watson.
Mariupol came under heavy fire from Russian forces shortly after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Nearly 5,000 people have been killed and buildings across the city destroyed, according to the city’s mayor.
Mariupol’s capture could enable Russia to create a land bridge between two separatist, self-proclaimed people’s republics in the eastern region of Donbas and Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
This would give Russia control of the Ukrainian coast on the Sea of Azov and cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea after Russian forces captured the port of Kherson.