LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Buses carried civilians out of one embattled Ukrainian city Tuesday and supplies toward another, as officials tried to move people away from a Russian onslaught and ease the dire humanitarian situation for those still stuck. But reports of renewed Russian attacks on the port of Mariupol threatened to again derail the efforts.
On the 13th day of the invasion, Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II grew even more severe, with U.N. officials reporting that 2 million people have now fled Ukraine.
Demands for ways to safely evacuate civilians have surged along with intensifying shelling by Russian forces, who have made significant advances in southern Ukraine but stalled in some other regions. Efforts to put in place cease-fires along humanitarian corridors have repeatedly failed amid Russian shelling.
Since the invasion began, more than 400 civilian deaths have been recorded by the U.N. human rights office, which said the true number is much higher. In addition to humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ukraine, the fighting has sent energy prices surging worldwide and stocks plummeting, and threatened the food supply and livelihoods of people around the globe who rely on crops farmed in the fertile Black Sea region.
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Western countries have decried the invasion and sought to support Ukraine with weapons — and punish Vladimir Putin’s Russia with sanctions. The measures have dealt a blow to the Russian economy, as companies pull out of or sharply curtail their business there. In a further sign of the country’s economic isolation, Shell announced Tuesday it would stop buying oil and natural gas from it.
On Tuesday, a convoy of buses packed with people moved along a snowy road from the northeastern city of Sumy, according to video from the Ukrainian communications agency. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said they were headed southwest to the Ukrainian city of Poltava, and included students from India and China.
Meanwhile, buses emblazoned with red cross symbols carrying water, basic food staples, and medicines moved toward the besieged southern port of Mariupol, scene of some of the worst desperation of the war. Vereshchuk said the vehicles would then ferry civilians out of the city.
But soon after officials announced that buses were en route, the Ukrainian president’s office said it had been informed of shelling on the escape route. It is unclear whether the supply convoy made it to Mariupol — or whether civilians will freely board the buses if the shelling continues.
The mayor also cast doubt on the evacuations, telling the BBC that Russian forces continued to bombard area where people were trying to gather. He said some roads were blocked, others were mined.
“This morning the situation did not change,” Orlov told the BBC. “So we still have … a city in blockade.’’
The situation was growing more and more untenable in the city, which is without water, heat, sanitary systems or phones. Russia on Monday destroyed the natural gas supply.
The battle for Mariupol is crucial because its capture could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. An estimated 200,000 people — nearly half the population of 430,000 — hope to flee.
Oleksiy Kuleba, the governor of the Kyiv region, said Ukraine was also making arrangements to get people out of the suburb of Irpin, although it was not clear if that would be along one of the five official corridors the Russians promised.
There were few signs, in fact, those routes were actually being used, beyond the evacuation from Sumy.
Ukrainian officials had pushed back on the proposals, since several of the routes would funnel people into Russia or its ally Belarus, which was served as a launch pad for the invasion. They have called instead for corridors allowing people to head to western parts of Ukraine not under attack.
“Ukraine has not given permission for evacuation to Russia, we did not agree on those routes. The corridors to Russia have not been agreed upon with the Red Cross either,” said Vereschchuk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Tuesday for the expansion of humanitarian corridors, and more support from the Red Cross.
In a video address from an undisclosed location, he said a child died of dehydration in Mariupol, in a sign of how desperate the city’s population has become.
He said there was no firm agreement on the route out of Mariupol, so “Russian troops can simply shoot on this transport on the way.”
Zelenskyy accused the International Red Cross of “forbidding the use of its emblem on our cars,” but did not give details. Videos of buses heading out of Sumy and toward Mariupol have had signs with a red cross on the side but it’s not clear who pasted them there.
The president again pleaded for air support from Western countries. A top U.S. official said multiple countries were discussing whether to provide warplanes to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said in a statement Tuesday that Ukrainian forces are continuing defense operations in the suburbs of Mariupol.
The general staff said “demoralized” Russian forces are engaging in looting in places they have occupied, commandeering civilian buildings like farm hangars for military equipment, and are setting up firing positions in populated areas. The claims could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian defense forces were also involved in operations in Chernihiv and the outskirts of Kyiv, the general staff said.
In Kyiv, soldiers and volunteers have built hundreds of checkpoints to protect the city of nearly 4 million, often using sandbags, stacked tires and spiked cables. Some barricades looked significant, with heavy concrete slabs and sandbags piled more than two stories high, while others appeared more haphazard, with hundreds of books used to weigh down stacks of tires.
“Every house, every street, every checkpoint, we will fight to the death if necessary,” said Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
On Monday, Moscow again announced a series of demands to stop the invasion, including that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia and recognize the eastern regions controlled by Moscow-supported separatist fighters as independent. It also insisted that Ukraine change its constitution to guarantee it won’t join international bodies like NATO and the EU. Ukraine has already rejected those demands.
This story has been updated to correct that buses an official said were part of Mariupol evacuation efforts did not have people on them. It also corrects that the official who spoke about people leaving Irpin was the regional governor, not the deputy prime minister.
Associated Press reporters from around the world contributed to this report.