Fighting continues before new talks, “catastrophic” situation in Mariupol

Ukrainian authorities were concerned on Monday about a worsening situation in the besieged port of Mariupol and new fighting around Kyiv, on the eve of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Istanbul.

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Moscow’s announcement on Friday of “a concentration of its efforts on the liberation of Donbass” raises fears of a “worsening” of the situation in Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of ​​​​Azov located at the extreme south of this mining basin , warned Oleksiï Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, in a video message on Telegram.

More than a month after the start of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced a total blockade of this city, which the Russian army has been trying to seize since the end of February, and where around 160,000 people are still stuck, according to the mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boitchenko.

“All the entrances and exits of the city are blocked (…) it is impossible to bring food and medicine into Mariupol,” said Mr. Zelensky on Sunday evening. “Russian forces are bombing the humanitarian aid convoys and killing the drivers,” he added, indicating that the streets were littered with “corpses” that it was impossible to bury.

“People are struggling to survive. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic,” said the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on Twitter. “The Russian Armed Forces are turning the city to dust.”

According to a town hall report in mid-March, more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mariupol since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

We still do not know, nearly two weeks after the bombardment of its theater, the fate of the hundreds of civilians who had taken refuge there: the municipality, citing witnesses, said it feared around 300 dead. But an elected municipal official from Mariupol who fled the city on the day of this bombardment told AFP that any count of the victims was impossible, given the faulty communications and the absence of local authorities.

The French president said on Sunday that he would speak to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday or Tuesday to organize an evacuation operation from the city.

Emmanuel Macron, who has already spoken eight times with Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the Russian invasion, remains convinced that the path of dialogue with Moscow is still possible, “to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, without doing the war”.

fierce fights

New fighting was also taking place in several localities around Kyiv, notably in Stoyanka, on the western edge of the capital.

“The enemy is trying to make a breakthrough around Kyiv and block the roads,” said Ganna Malyar, Deputy Minister of Defense on Ukrainian television, assuring that “the defense of Kyiv” continued.

Two high voltage lines were damaged in the fighting, depriving 82,000 inhabitants of the right bank of the capital of electricity.

In Stoyanka, turned into a ghost town after being shelled for days, residents were returning after hearing that Ukrainian forces had driven out Russian troops. But at a checkpoint, a Ukrainian fighter warned them against the Russian snipers, who continued to hold the deserted streets in their sights.

Fierce fighting was also taking place in the east of the country, especially on Sunday evening near Izioum. In Oskil, a nearby village, seven people were killed and five injured in Russian artillery fire, according to the regional prosecutor’s office.

About a hundred kilometers away, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, close to the Russian border, is shelled almost every day. On the north-eastern outskirts of this city, Saltivka, a working-class district of tall buildings, was no more than a ghost town swept by the winds where only a handful of traumatized old men survive, holed up in the cellars, found AFP.

In the south of the country, on the other hand, the Russian noose seemed to loosen around certain cities, such as Mykolaiv, a lock-up city on the road to Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port, where the inhabitants found a little hope, after terrible weeks during which the Russian army tried in vain to take the city.

The front has even retreated significantly, with a Ukrainian counter-offensive on Kherson, some 80 km to the south-east, the only major city for which the Russian army has claimed total capture since February 24.

Ukraine’s neutrality on the table

On the diplomatic front, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are due to arrive in Istanbul on Monday for a new round of talks to try to end a conflict that has already forced nearly 3.9 million Ukrainians to flee their country, according to the UN. , and caused some 63 billion in damage to the country’s infrastructure, according to a study by the Kyiv School of Economics.

One of the important points of the negotiations, which should begin on Tuesday, concerns “security guarantees and neutrality, the nuclear-free status of our state”, President Zelensky told Russian media on Sunday.

This point “is being studied in depth,” he said. But it will require a referendum and security guarantees, he warned, accusing Vladimir Putin and his entourage of “dragging things out”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, tempered expectations on Monday, saying negotiations so far had not produced “significant progress”.

The head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov said that a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, whom the latter calls for, would be “counterproductive” for the time being. He conditioned it on the adoption of Moscow’s demands in the negotiations: protection of the populations of Donbass, “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine.

A negotiating session had already taken place on March 10 in Turkey, in Antalya, at the level of foreign ministers, but had not resulted in any concrete progress. Since then, the discussions have continued by videoconference, deemed “difficult” by both sides.

On the eve of these new talks, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk indicated that Kyiv had given up opening humanitarian corridors on Monday, fearing possible “provocations” from Russian troops.

“Escalation of Words and Actions”

Visiting Warsaw on Saturday, US President Joe Biden violently attacked the master of the Kremlin, calling him a “butcher” and judging that he could “not stay in power” after his invasion of Ukraine.

Remarks described as “alarming” Monday by the Kremlin spokesman, while Moscow has eliminated almost all the voices of opposition to this war.

The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, is the latest to announce on Monday that it will suspend its online and print publications until the end of the military operation in Ukraine.

Emmanuel Macron had warned him on Sunday against “an escalation of words and actions”.

The White House had to very quickly qualify the comments made by Mr. Biden. “What the president meant was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” she assured, “he was not talking about Putin’s power in Russia or of regime change.

As Kyiv continues to put pressure on Western companies that have remained in Russia, Dutch brewer Heineken announced on Monday that it would leave Russia, where it has 1,800 employees, followed soon after by Danish brewer Carlsberg.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced on Monday a direct aid plan of six billion euros for households and businesses, including fuel subsidies, to compensate for the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.

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