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Ukrainian refugees nearly 1.5 million as Russian attack enters 11th day

People fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine arrive at the Siret border crossing
A child looks on board a bus that will take her and her family to a nearby town after fleeing Ukraine to Romania following the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the border crossing in Siret, Romania March 5, 2022. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

March 6, 2022

By Pavel Polityuk and Aleksandar Vasovic

LVIV/Kyiv, Ukraine (Reuters) – The number of Ukrainian refugees is expected to reach 1.5 million on Sunday as Russia continued its assault 11 days after invading Ukraine and Kyiv urged more Western action, including more sanctions and weapons .

Moscow and Kyiv on Saturday traded blame for a failed ceasefire that would have caused civilians to flee Mariupol and Volnovakha, two southern cities besieged by Russian forces. Ukrainians who managed to escape were spilled into neighboring Poland, Romania, Slovakia and elsewhere.

Ukrainian negotiators said a third round of talks with Russia on a ceasefire would be held on Monday, though Moscow was less definitive.

In a televised speech on Saturday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on people in the areas occupied by Russian troops to fight.

“We must go outside and drive this evil out of our cities,” he said, vowing to rebuild his nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin previously reiterated that he wanted a neutral Ukraine that had been “demilitarized” and “denazified,” likening Western sanctions “to a declaration of war,” adding, “Thank God it didn’t come to that.”

Ukraine and Western countries have denounced Putin’s rationale as an unfounded pretext for the invasion he launched on February 24 and imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and crippling its economy.

After meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Ukraine-Polish border, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he expected new sanctions and weapons against Ukraine in the coming days.

The United States has said it will give Ukraine more guns and has repeatedly warned sanctions could escalate, with President Joe Biden seeking $10 billion in emergency funding to respond to the crisis.

Washington is working with Poland while Warsaw is considering providing fighter jets to Ukraine, a White House spokesman said late Saturday, adding that the United States could top up Poland’s supply of jets if it did so, although given the… contested airspace, challenges remain.

Earlier on Saturday, Zelenskyi asked US lawmakers in a video call to help secure planes belonging to European allies. He also called again for more deadly aid, a ban on Russian oil, a no-fly zone and an end to Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc.’s privileges in Russia, US media reported.

Both Visa and Mastercard later said their credit card operations in Russia would be suspended.

Biden spoke to Selenskyj for about 30 minutes in Washington on Saturday evening, the White House said. They talked about security, financial support for Ukraine and the continuation of sanctions against Russia, Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.

NATO, which Ukraine wants to join, has resisted Zelenskyy’s calls to impose a no-fly zone over his country, saying it would escalate the conflict outside Ukraine.

To mediate, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday and later spoke with Zelenskyy, Bennett’s spokesman said.

“We continue the dialogue,” Zelenskyy tweeted after the call.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has released a six-point plan to respond to the Russian invasion before meeting leaders from Canada, the Netherlands and central Europe in London this week.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is expected to speak with Putin on Sunday. Turkey, a NATO member, shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea.

HEAVY FIGHTS

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces were conducting a wide-ranging offensive in Ukraine and had taken several towns and villages, Russia’s Interfax news agency said.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said the military shot down two Russian planes and five helicopters on Saturday and also carried out airstrikes against 15 motorized brigades. Reuters could not confirm the claim.

In southern Ukraine’s Kherson, the only regional capital to have changed hands since the invasion, several thousand people demonstrated in the main square on Saturday, shouting “Kherson is Ukraine” and demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces.

Eyewitnesses cited by Interfax said Russian troops fired automatic rifles into the air in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the crowd and later left.

Concerns about nuclear dangers remained after Russia seized Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. A senior US official said Friday that Russian troops are 20 miles from Ukraine’s second largest nuclear facility.

Russia has again warned the EU and NATO not to “stop pumping state-of-the-art weapons systems” to Kyiv, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, according to RIA.

Putin also gave his government two days in one of several decrees signed on Saturday to compile a list of nations involved in “acts unfriendly” towards Russia, his news outlets reported.

GLOBAL ECONOMIC IMPACT

The International Monetary Fund warned that the conflict would have a “severe impact” on the global economy, pushing up energy and grain prices. It said it would consider Kyiv’s request for $1.4 billion in emergency funding as early as next week.

Many Russians, battered by a 30% depreciation of the ruble, restrictions on money transfers and the exit of a growing number of Western companies from IKEA to Microsoft, have expressed fears for their economic future.

Software maker Adobe halted sales in Russia, while Fortnite maker Epic Games said it would halt trade with Russia but would not block access to its games and said the world should keep all lines of communication open.

Elon Musk has promised to ship more Starlink satellite internet terminals to Ukraine next week, Zelenskiy said on Saturday. That could help boost Ukraine’s Internet access, but also poses potential security risks, experts say.

“HELP US IF YOU CAN”

Heavy shelling could be heard in the background as Volnovakha residents tried to flee the fighting.

“Help us if you can, we all want to live, we have children, husbands, we are mothers and fathers, we are people too,” said a local, Larisa. “Where should I go? What I’m wearing and a bag full of stuff is all I have. That’s all I have.”

Following a meeting in Brussels of colleagues from NATO, the G7 and the European Union, Blinken met refugees staying at a disused shopping center in Poland that has taken in the vast majority of Ukrainians forced to flee their country.

As night fell, more refugees arrived in Moldova, Blinken’s next stop.

“I’m afraid,” said a mother fleeing Odessa, adding that she would go on to Poland.

The World Health Organization said as of March 3, 249 civilians had been killed and 553 injured. She put the number of refugees at 1.2 million and said another 160,000 people were internally displaced.

“The human cost is likely to be much higher as access and security issues make it difficult to verify the true number of deaths and injuries,” it said in a statement.

Demonstrations were planned in Washington and elsewhere on Sunday after jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called for global anti-war protests on March 6.

(Reports by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, Simon Lewis on the Polish-Ukrainian border; Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty, Matthias Williams in Medyka, Guy Faulconbridge and William Schomberg in London, John Irish in Paris, Francois Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Jarret Renshaw, Idrees Ali and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and other Reuters bureaus; writing by Susan Heavey; editing by Daniel Wallis and Kim Coghill)

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Bobby Allyn

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