Plans to evacuate civilians from a besieged port city in Ukraine failed to materialize Sunday for the second time along with an expected Russian ceasefire, a Ukrainian official said, as officials tried to persuade Russia to agree on establishing other evacuation routes near Ukraine’s capital.
Residents expected to leave the port city of Mariupol during a 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. local ceasefire, Ukrainian military authorities said earlier in the day. Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said the planned evacuations were halted because of an ongoing assault by Russian troops.
At least three people are reportedly killed fleeing the town of Irpin after Russian mortar shells targeted a damaged bridge they were using.
The news dashed hopes of progress in easing, nevertheless ending the war in Ukraine, which is now in its 11 days and has caused 1.5 million people to flee the country. The head of the U.N. refugee agency on Sunday called the exodus “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
The presidents of Turkey and France, as well as Pope Francis, appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate to end the conflict.
Separately, Ukraine’s national security service says Russian forces fired rockets at a physics institute in the city of Kharkiv that contains nuclear material and a reactor. Russian troops already took control of the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine, as well as Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
The security service said a strike on the nuclear facility in Kharkiv could lead to a “large-scale ecological disaster.” The service said on Facebook Sunday that the Russians were firing from Grad launchers. Those missiles do not have precise targeting, raising concern that one would go astray. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated a request for foreign protectors to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which NATO so far has ruled out because of concerns such an action would draw the West into the war.
Putin warned Saturday that Moscow would consider a third-party declaration to close Ukrainian airspace to be a hostile act.
The disappointment for women, children and older adults who waited to leave Mariupol and the nearby city of Volnovakha while able Ukrainian men stayed behind to fight came after a similar cease-fire deal collapsed Saturday and foreign leaders sought to bring diplomacy to bear on ending the war.
Putin told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be halted only “only if Kyiv ceases hostilities and fulfills the well-known demands of Russia,” according to the Kremlin’s readout of the phone call the two leaders held on Sunday.
Putin earlier listed “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states as the Kremlin’s main demands.
In a highly unusual move, Pope Francis said Sunday that he had dispatched two cardinals to Ukraine, saying the Vatican was willing to do everything it could to bring peace to end a conflict that began on Feb. 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine.
In Mariupol, bereft mothers mourned slain children, wounded soldiers were fitted with tourniquets, and doctors worked by the light of their cellphones as bleakness and desperation pervaded.
Attacks on healthcare workers are a violation of international humanitarian law, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter.
British military officials on Sunday compared Russia’s tactics in Ukraine to those used in Chechnya and Syria, where surrounded cities were pummeled with airstrikes and artillery after Russian forces faced unexpected resistance.
The strength of Ukrainian resistance continues to surprise Russian forces, and they have responded by targeting populated areas, including the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Mariupol, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence briefing.
“This is likely to represent an effort to break Ukrainian morale,” the ministry said. “Russia has used similar tactics in Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016, employing both air and ground-based munitions.” The death toll of the conflict is difficult to measure. The U.N. human rights office said at least 351 civilians have been confirmed killed, but the true number is probably much higher. Russian and Ukrainian defense officials have not provided information on their military causalities.