LONDON (Reuters) -A Russian-backed separatist leader said on Wednesday that 140,000 people had left the Ukrainian city of Mariupol for Russia or the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic since Russian forces began besieging it, the Interfax news agency reported.
The port city of Mariupol, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000, is a key target for Russia in its apparent attempt to create a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said on Russian television that “about 140,000 left Mariupol … Both towards the DPR and towards Russia”, Interfax reported.
There was no way to verify Pushilin’s statement. Ukraine has previously accused Moscow of forcing Mariupol residents into Russian-backed rebel territory and Russia against their will.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the DPR and the adjacent Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states three days before he sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Moscow says one of the aims of its military campaign is to “liberate” largely Russian-speaking places such as Mariupol from the threat of genocide by what it calls Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – himself a native Russian speaker – has rejected those claims, saying they are just a pretext for Russia’s invasion.
The mayor’s office estimated on Monday that nearly 5,000 people had been killed in Mariupol since the start of the siege and that about 170,000 people remained trapped amid ruins without food, heat, power or running water after 290,000 left.
Safe evacuation corridors have functioned only sporadically at best.
(Writing by Kevin LiffeyEditing by Gareth Jones)