ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine: The Red Cross was renewing efforts to evacuate civilians in a convoy from the besieged port of Mariupol on Saturday as Russian forces looked to be regrouping for fresh attacks in southeast Ukraine.
Encircled since the early days of Russia’s five-week old attacks, Mariupol has been Moscow’s main target in Ukraine’s southeastern region of Donbas. Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped there with scant access to food and water.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sent a team on Friday to lead a convoy of about 54 Ukrainian buses and other private vehicles out of the city, but they turned back, saying they were unable to proceed.
“They will try again on Saturday to facilitate the safe passage of civilians,” the ICRC said in a statement on Friday. A previous Red Cross evacuation attempt in early March failed.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was hopeful about the Mariupol evacuations.
“I think that today or maybe tomorrow we will hear good news regarding the evacuation of the inhabitants of Mariupol,” Oleksiy Arestovych told Ukrainian television.
Russia and Ukraine have agreed to establish various humanitarian corridors during the war to allow the evacuation of civilians from cities, and have traded blame when evacuations failed.
Seven such corridors were planned, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, including one for people leaving Mariupol by private transport.
After failing to take a major Ukrainian city since launching the attacks on February 24, Russia says it has now shifted its focus to the southeast, where it has backed separatist forces since 2014.
In an early morning video address, Zelenskiy said Russian troops had moved towards Donbas and the heavily bombarded northeastern city of Kharkiv.
The war has killed thousands, uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s population and devastated cities such as Mariupol.
More than 4.1 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, United Nations figures show.
In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, people started buying alcohol again after mayor Vitali Klitschko relaxed a month-long ban.
Russia has depicted its drawdown of forces near Kyiv as a goodwill gesture in peace negotiations. Ukraine and its allies say Russian forces have been forced to regroup after suffering heavy losses.
In the early hours of Saturday, Russian missiles hit the cities of Poltava and Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, Dmitry Lunin, head of the Poltava region, wrote in an online post.
He said infrastructure and residential buildings had been east of Kyiv, but he had no casualty estimates. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
In the Dnipro region of southeastern Ukraine, missiles hit an infrastructure facility, wounding two people and causing significant damage, Valentyn Reznichenko, head of the region, said in an online post.
Russia’s defence ministry said high-precision air-launched missiles had disabled military airfields in Poltava and Dnipro.
Before dawn, as sirens sounded across Ukraine, the Ukrainian military reported Russian air strikes on the cities of Severodonetsk and Rubizhne in the Luhansk region.
Pro-Russian separatists declared breakaway republics in both Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow recognised just before its invasion.
The Ukrainian military also said defenders had repulsed multiple attacks in both provinces on Friday, and that Russian units in Luhansk had lost 800 troops in the past week alone.
Reuters was unable to verify those claims.
British military intelligence said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces continued to advance against withdrawing Russian forces near Kyiv, and that Russian troops had abandoned Hostomel airport in a northwestern suburb of the capital, where there has been fighting since the first day.
The British daily assessment also said Ukrainian forces had secured a key corridor in eastern Kharkiv after heavy fighting.