Effort to relieve encircled Ukrainian port put in jeopardy

A man lights a fire under the kettle in a yard of an apartment building hit by shelling

A man lights a fire under the kettle in a yard of an apartment building hit by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

An attempt to evacuate civilians from the bombarded port of Mariupol and deliver food, water and medicine was thrown into jeopardy Tuesday by what Ukraine said was continued shelling by Russian forces as conditions inside the strategic city of 430,000 grew more desperate.

Corpses littered the streets of Mariupol, where besieged residents have increasingly turned to breaking into stores to try to feed themselves. People got water from streams or by melting snow.

Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II grew even more severe, with U.N. officials reporting that 2 million people have now fled Ukraine.

Moscow’s forces have laid siege to Ukrainian cities and cut off food, water, heat and medicine in a growing humanitarian disaster. But for days, attempts to create corridors to safely evacuate civilians have stumbled amid continuing fighting and objections to the proposed routes.

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People cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing the town of Irpin
People cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing the town of Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

One evacuation attempt Tuesday did appear at least partially successful: A convoy of buses packed with people fleeing the fighting moved along a snowy road from Sumy, a northeastern city of a quarter-million people, according to video from the Ukrainian communications agency.

The Russian military said 723 people were evacuated from Sumy to the Ukrainian city of Poltava. It identified them as mostly citizens of India, with the rest from China, Jordan and Tunisia. It made no mention of any Ukrainians among those evacuated.

Hours before the convoy reached Sumy, overnight strikes killed 21 people there, including two children, Ukrainian authorities said.

Ukrainian officials also said a safe corridor had been opened from the embattled town of Irpin, outside Kyiv, but it was not clear for how long it remained open and how many people used it

Meanwhile, buses emblazoned with red cross symbols carried water, medicine and food toward an encircled Mariupol, scene of some of the worst desperation. Vereshchuk said the vehicles would then ferry civilians out of the southern city, situated on the Sea of Azov, which opens onto the Black Sea.

But soon after officials announced that buses were on their way, Ukrainian authorities said they had learned of shelling on the escape route.

It was unclear whether the supply convoy made it to Mariupol. And it appeared unlikely that civilians would be able to board the buses to get out.

The deputy mayor of Mariupol told the BBC that Russian forces continued to pound areas where people were trying to gather ahead of being taken out. He said some roads were blocked, while others were mined.

“So we cannot establish a sustainable cease-fire and safety route at the moment,″ Serhiy Orlov said. “So we still have … a city in blockade.’’

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The city is without water, heat, working sewage systems or phone service. Authorities planned to start digging mass graves for all the dead.

A Ukrainian police officer helps people as artillery echoes nearby while fleeing Irpin in the outskirts of Kyiv
A Ukrainian police officer helps people as artillery echoes nearby while fleeing Irpin in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

With the electricity out, many people are relying on their car radios for information, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists.

Theft has become widespread for food, clothes, even furniture, with locals referring to the practice as “getting a discount.”

Ludmila Amelkina walked along an alley strewn with rubble, with walls pocked by gunfire, as she described the destruction inside the city and the conditions residents faced.

“We don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have medicine. We’ve got nothing,” she said.

The exact status of the humanitarian corridors was not clear. The Russian military said it proposed safe corridors from Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol — two for each city, one leading toward Russia and the other toward the West.

It said that the Ukrainian side accepted only one of those 10 corridors — the one leading from Sumy to Poltava. Ukrainian officials have rejected the idea of sending civilians to Russia, but there was no immediate word on whether they had turned down those other corridors.

Nearly two weeks into the fighting, Russian forces have captured a swath of southern and coastal Ukraine in an apparent bid to cut off the country’s access to the sea. But they have seen their advances stopped in many areas — including around Kyiv, the capital — by nimble Ukrainian fighters targeting Moscow’s armored columns.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, though the actual number remains unknown.

The fighting has caused global economic turmoil, with energy prices surging worldwide and stocks plummeting. It also threatens the food supply of millions around the globe who rely on crops farmed in the fertile Black Sea region.

Western countries have rushed weapons to Ukraine and moved to slap Vladimir Putin’s Russia with sanctions.

In a further effort to punish Russia, U.S. President Joe Biden decided to ban Russian oil imports, calling it a “powerful blow” against Russia’s ability to fund the offensive. He warned that Americans will see rising prices, saying: “Defending freedom is going to cost.”

Also, Shell announced it will stop buying oil and gas from Russia.

Ukraine’s military said Ukrainian forces continued defense operations in the Mariupol suburbs. The military said “demoralized” Russian forces are engaging in looting, commandeering civilian buildings and setting up firing positions in populated areas. The claims could not be independently verified.

The battle for Mariupol is crucial because its capture could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Oleksiy Kuleba, governor of the Kyiv region, said Ukraine was also making arrangements to get people out of the suburb of Irpin.

Late Tuesday, Zelenskyy released a video showing him standing near the presidential offices in Kyiv. Behind him were piles of sandbags, a snow-dusted fir tree and a few cars.

It was the second video in 24 hours showing him near the country’s seat of power, apparently made to dispel any doubts about whether he had fled the city.

“Snow fell. It’s that kind of springtime,” he said in a soft voice. “You see, it’s that kind of wartime, that kind of springtime. Harsh. But we will win.”

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Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

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