Ukraine says Russia refuses to guarantee humanitarian access

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LVIV — Ukraine said on Thursday Moscow had snubbed its plea for humanitarian access to rescue hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped under bombardment, as the opposing sides yielded nothing at the highest level talks since the Russian invasion began.

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Russia’s war in Ukraine entered its third week with none of its stated objectives reached, despite thousands of people killed, more than two million made refugees and thousands cowering in besieged cities under relentless bombardment.

After meeting Russia’s Sergei Lavrov in Turkey, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov had refused to promise to halt firing so aid could reach civilians, including Kyiv’s main humanitarian priority – evacuating hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the besieged port of Mariupol.

“I made a simple proposal to Minister Lavrov: I can call my Ukrainian ministers, authorities, president now and give you 100% assurances on security guarantees for humanitarian corridors,” he said.

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“I asked him ‘can you do the same?’ and he did not respond.”

At his own simultaneous news conference in a separate room, Lavrov showed no sign of making any concessions, saying the operation was going to plan and repeating Russian demands that Ukraine be disarmed and accept neutral status.

Lavrov said Kyiv appeared to want meetings for the sake of meetings, and that a ceasefire was not meant to be on the agenda in Turkey.

Russia calls its actions a special military operation to disarm its neighbor and dislodge leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Kyiv and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext to invade a country of 44 million people.

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Aid agencies say humanitarian help is most urgently needed in Mariupol, where 400,000 people have been trapped for more than a week with no food, water or power. The city council said the port had come under fresh air strikes on Thursday morning, a day after Moscow bombed what Ukraine called a functioning maternity hospital there.

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Lavrov said the building was no longer used as a hospital and had been occupied by Ukrainian “radicals.” The Kremlin did not initially repeat that denial and said the incident was being investigated.

“What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals, is afraid of maternity hospitals, and destroys them?” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a televised address late on Wednesday, after posting footage of the wreckage.

Ukraine said a convoy trying to reach the city had again been turned back by Russian fire on Thursday, and accused Moscow of deliberately blocking aid. Daily attempts at a local humanitarian ceasefire have failed since Saturday.

Lavrov repeatedly lashed out at the West, accusing Western countries of inflaming the situation by arming Ukraine. Asked if the conflict could lead to nuclear war, he said: “I don’t want to believe, and I do not believe, that a nuclear war could start.”

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Moscow’s stated objectives of crushing Ukraine’s military and removing its leaders have remained out of reach, with Zelenskiy unshaken and Western military aid pouring across the Polish and Romanian borders.

Russian forces have advanced in the south but have yet to capture a single city in the north or east. Western countries have said they believe a planned lightning strike on Kyiv failed in the early days of the war, and Moscow has instead turned to tactics involving far more destructive assaults.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday that a large Russian column northwest of Kyiv had made little progress in over a week and was suffering continued losses. It added that as casualties mount, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to draw from across the armed forces to replace the losses.

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Western-led sanctions designed to cut the Russian economy and government from international financial markets have bitten hard, with the rouble plunging and ordinary Russians rushing to hoard cash.

Britain added several Russian businessmen to its blacklist on Thursday, including Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea soccer team. The sanctions would block an attempt to sell the club, but a special license would let it keep playing.

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Ukrainian officials said Russian aircraft bombed the children’s hospital on Wednesday in Mariupol, injuring pregnant women and burying patients in rubble despite a ceasefire deal to allow people to flee. The regional governor said 17 people were wounded.

The attack underscored US warnings that the biggest assault on a European state since 1945 could become increasingly attritional after Russia’s early setbacks.

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The White House condemned the bombing as a “barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians.”

The UN Human Rights body said it was trying to verify the number of casualties, while voicing “deep concerns about indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas.”

Russia has repeatedly pledged since Saturday to halt firing so at least some trapped civilians could escape Mariupol. Both sides have blamed the other for the failure of the evacuations.

Half of the more than 2 million total refugees from Ukraine are children. The International Committee of the Red Cross said houses had been destroyed all across Ukraine. “Hundreds of thousands of people have no food, no water, no heat, no electricity and no medical care,” it said.

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Survivors of the worst-hit cities are among the refugees, many suffering physical injuries and psychological trauma. At the Polish border, Valera, a grey-haired carpenter in his 50s and one of a few men to cross from Ukraine where those of conscription age are generally obliged to stay, looked on nervously as his daughter Anna was carried on a stretcher.

It was two days since they had left Kharkiv, where Anna, 24, who has cerebral palsy, broke her leg as they ran to a bomb shelter.

“There is positional fighting during the day, air raids in the evenings, they are shelling from everything, fighter aircraft,” he said. “The center is ruined, the outskirts have already been bombed.”

Russia has been hit by Western sanctions and the withdrawals of foreign firms, the latest including Nestle, cigarette maker Philip Morris and Sony.

Rio Tinto on Thursday became the first major mining company to announce it was cutting all ties with Russian businesses.

The US House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to rush $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine, sending the legislation to the Senate.

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