(Reuters) – Ukraine denied on Monday reaching an agreement with Russia on evacuating civilians from a steel plant in the southern city of Mariupol, and said the United Nations should be the “initiator and guarantor” of any such deal.
Russia had said earlier on Monday that it would open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave the huge Azovstal steel plant where they are holed up with Ukrainian fighters and are under Russian fire.
“Today, the Russian side once again announced the existence of a corridor for civilians to leave Azovstal. This could be believed if the Russians had not destroyed humanitarian corridors many times before,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
“It is important to understand that a humanitarian corridor opens by the agreement of both sides. A corridor announced unilaterally does not provide security, and therefore is not a humanitarian corridor.”
Shortly after she made her comments, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian forces were attacking the steel plant from the air and with artillery and tanks.
Russia was “trying to advance with assault groups,” political adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video address, despite Russia President Vladimir Putin saying last week it was unnecessary to storm the plant.
Vereshchuk said the United Nations should oversee any safe corridor arrangements.
Ukraine has “appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to be the initiator and guarantor of the humanitarian corridor from Azovstal for civilians,” she said.
Representatives of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be present when any humanitarian corridor was established, she said.
Guterres is due to hold talks in Russia and Ukraine this week. Russia’s RIA news agency cited the Russian foreign ministry as saying Moscow intended to discuss issues related to Mariupol and the Azovstal plant.
The last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are holed up in the plant following two months of Russian siege and bombardment.
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians. It blames Ukraine for the repeated failure of humanitarian corridors.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)