(Reuters) – Ukraine accused Russian forces on Wednesday of failing to observe a local ceasefire agreement long enough to allow large numbers of women, children and elderly people to flee the besieged city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials said on Wednesday morning they had secured Russia’s agreement to open a safe corridor out of Mariupol. They hoped to use 90 buses to evacuate about 6,000 of the 100,000 civilians believed to still be trapped there.
But regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said fewer buses than planned were able to reach Mariupol and fewer people than hoped were evacuated. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the humanitarian corridor “did not work as planned today”.
“Due to the lack of control over their own military at the place, the occupiers were unable to ensure a proper ceasefire,” she wrote on Facebook.
“Also due to their own disorganisation and negligence, the occupiers could not provide the timely transport of people to the meeting point where dozens of our buses and ambulances were waiting.”
Russia did not immediately respond to Vereshchuk’s remarks. It denies targeting civilians and has blamed Ukraine for the failure of earlier attempts to organise humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol.
City Mayor Vadym Boichenko, who has left Mariupol, said about 100,000 civilians remained in the city on the Sea of Azov and that tens of thousands had been killed there since Russia invaded. The numbers could not be verified by Reuters.
Those left have been without power, heat and supplies for weeks, local authorities say. Vereshchuk described the situation earlier on Wednesday as “catastrophic”.
The remaining fighters holed up in a vast steel works in Mariupol have ignored an ultimatum by Russia to surrender. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said an estimated 1,000 civilians are also sheltering there.
In a video posted online, Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th marine brigade which is still fighting in Mariupol, urged the international community to help evacuate wounded Ukrainian fighters and their families.
“This is our appeal to the world. It may be our last. We may have only a few days or hours left,” he said, dressed in a camouflage jacket. “The enemy units are dozens of times larger than ours, they have dominance in the air, in artillery, in ground troops, in equipment and in tanks.”
Reuters could not independently verify the video posted on the Telegram messaging app.
Civilians have been able to escape to other parts of Ukraine only in their own vehicles, while tens of thousands have been bussed to Russia in what Moscow calls humanitarian evacuation and Kyiv calls illegal forced deportation.
Moscow says its “special military operation” is aimed at demilitarising Ukraine and rooting out dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and the West dismiss Russia’s stance as an unjustified pretext for an invasion.
The capture of Mariupol would give Russia full control of the Sea of Azov coast, and a secure overland bridge linking mainland Russia and territory held by pro-Russian separatists in the east with the Crimea peninsula that Moscow seized in 2014.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Jane Merriman and Cynthia Osterman)