Ukraine has denied reaching an agreement with Russia on evacuating civilians from a steel plant in the besieged port city of Mariupol, and pushed for the United Nations to be the “initiator and guarantor” of any such deal.
Russia’s defence ministry had said on Monday that it would open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave the huge Azovstal steel plant where they are holed up with Ukrainian fighters and are under Russian attack.
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In response on Monday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app: “Today, the Russian side once again announced the existence of a corridor for civilians to leave Azovstal. This could be believed if the Russians had not destroyed humanitarian corridors many times before.
“It is important to understand that a humanitarian corridor opens by the agreement of both sides. A corridor announced unilaterally does not provide security, and therefore is not a humanitarian corridor.”
Separately, Ukrainian presidential aide Oleksiy Arestovych said Russian forces were continuing to attack the Azovstal steel plant on Monday.
“The enemy continues to attack our defences in the area of the Azovstal plant, using aircraft, artillery … firing with tanks and trying to advance with assault groups, violating the order of their own supreme commander,” Arestovych said in a video address.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had said last week that it was unnecessary to storm the plant, where the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are hunkered down following two months of Russian siege and bombardment.
Ukraine has appealed for the United Nations “to be the initiator and guarantor of the humanitarian corridor from Azovstal for civilians”, said Vereshchuk. She said officials from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be present when any corridor is established.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has been seeking a humanitarian truce in Ukraine, is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Thursday.
Russia’s RIA news agency cited the Russian foreign ministry as saying Moscow intended to discuss issues related to Mariupol and the Azovstal plant.
Guterres met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday and they “stressed the urgent need” for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and deliver aid, the United Nations said.
However, Russia’s deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said a truce would only allow Ukrainian forces to regroup.
“We don’t think that a ceasefire is a good option right now,” Polyanskiy told reporters, while also noting it was “not up to me to decide”.
Since the war began in February thousands have fled Mariupol while some 100,000 still remain in the city with scant food, water or heat.
Ukrainian authorities estimate that more than 20,000 residents have been killed. Recent satellite images showed what appeared to be mass graves to the west and east of Mariupol.
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians. It blames Ukraine for the repeated failure of humanitarian corridors.