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Hopes hinge on Ukraine escape routes as war rages

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A father says goodbye to his daughter on an evacuation train leaving Odessa — feared to be the next target of Russia’s offensive in the south

Russia said Monday it would open humanitarian corridors for civilians to flee pummelled Ukrainian cities, but Kyiv accused Moscow of making it impossible for innocent people to escape.

The latest offer brought a glimmer of hope for terrified civilians cowering under a hail of Russian shelling and mortar fire, with numerous women and children among the hundreds already killed.

Ukraine did not initially respond to the offer, with President Volodymyr Zelensky instead accusing Moscow’s troops of scuppering evacuation efforts — mining roads and destroying buses meant to carry people to safety.

Addressing the Security Council, the UN’s top humanitarian official Martin Griffiths said civilians must be allowed to leave in the direction they wish, and safe passage be granted for vitally needed humanitarian and medical supplies.

According to the latest tally from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which believes the real figures to be “considerably higher”, 406 civilians have died since the start of Russia’s assault on its ex-Soviet neighbour.

International sanctions intended to punish Moscow have done little to slow the invasion, and energy-hungry Western nations are still weighing whether to ban Russian oil imports.

– Abandoned pushchairs –

AFP journalists witnessed thousands of civilians on Monday fleeing fighting via an unofficial escape route from Irpin, a suburb west of Kyiv, towards the capital.

“There was firing on all sides when we were on the road, but we got across,” Tetyana, 51, told AFP after crossing icy water on a rickety plank, over which thousands have fled Russian bombardment.

Children and the elderly were carried on carpets used as stretchers on the route, which leads over the makeshift bridge and along a single path secured by the army and volunteers.

“We had no light at home, no water, we just sat in the basement,” Inna Scherbanyova, 54, an economist from Irpin, told AFP.

One Ukrainian paratrooper told of “hand-to-hand” combat in Irpin, saying “we are trying to push (Russian soldiers) out, but I don’t know if we’ll be fully able to do it”.

Refugees trying to escape the city using agreed escape routes were left stranded as the road they were directed towards was mined, the ICRC said on Monday. 

– Oil exports dilemma –

“How many more deaths and losses must it take to secure the skies over Ukraine?” the president said in a video message.

Western allies have instead imposed unprecedented sanctions against businesses, banks and billionaires in a bid to choke the Russian economy and pressure Moscow to halt its assault.

US President Joe Biden’s spokeswoman said no decision had been taken, while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak warned any oil ban would have “catastrophic consequences” on prices.

While Japanese casualwear giant Uniqlo defended its decision to stay, calling clothing “a necessity of life”, US jeans brand Levi’s became the latest to join the exodus.

Putin has equated sanctions with a declaration of war and put nuclear forces on alert, pledging the “neutralisation” of Ukraine “either through negotiation or through war”.

The International Court of Justice meanwhile heard Ukraine’s appeal for it to order Russia to halt the fighting, but Moscow declined to attend the sitting of the UN’s top court, in The Hague.



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