Teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross are poised to “facilitate the safe passage of civilians” from Ukraine’s strategic port city of Mariupol, the aid agency said Thursday, after a local temporary cease-fire agreement was reached.
“For logistics and security reasons, we’ll be ready to lead the safe passage operation tomorrow, Friday, provided all the parties agree to the exact terms, including the route, the start time and the duration, the ICRC said in a statement.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Thursday several dozen Ukrainian buses would transport civilians from the besieged city after Russia's military pledged a cease-fire from the southern Black Sea port city to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia beginning Friday morning.
Vereshchuk said Wednesday the two sides had agreed to open three evacuation corridors and that one corridor would be used for the evacuation of Mariupol and delivery of humanitarian aid to Berdyansk, about 85 kilometers southwest of Mariupol.
Similar evacuation plans collapsed over accusations of fighting along the corridor to Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people have been trapped for weeks without food, water and heat while under attack.
“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place,” the ICRC said. “The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”
Russian forces also damaged a Red Cross warehouse in Mariupol, the Ukrainian government and the ICRC said Wednesday. The agency said it distributed all the supplies from the warehouse earlier in March and that no staff members have been at the site since March 15.
Continued Russian attacks
One day after Ukrainian officials said Russia has violated its promise to scale back military operations on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv, Britain’s defense ministry said Thursday that “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes have continued” in Chernihiv.
Britain’s defense ministry also said “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv, despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units.”
Heavy fighting continued in Mariupol but Ukrainian forces remained in control of the city’s center, the ministry said.
In an early Thursday morning video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country’s forces are preparing for more Russian attacks in southeastern Ukraine after Russia’s attacks on Kyiv were repelled.
There is “a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas and we are preparing for that," Zelenskyy said of the southeastern region that Russia has demanded from Ukraine.
Newly declassified U.S. intelligence suggests that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its sixth week, is causing rifts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his senior military advisers.
“There is now persistent tension between Putin and the MOD (Ministry of Defense)” a U.S. official confirmed to VOA on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the information.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield expanded on that to reporters Wednesday.
“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth,” Bedingfield said. “So, it is increasingly clear that Putin's war has been a strategic blunder that has left Russia weaker over the long term, and increasingly isolated on the world stage.”
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday with Zelenskyy about U.S. fulfillment of the “main security assistance requests by Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
The two leaders also discussed “continued efforts by the United States with allies and partners to identify additional capabilities to help the Ukrainian military defend its country,” according to the statement.
“President Biden informed President Zelenskyy that the United States intends to provide the Ukrainian government with $500 million in direct budgetary aid,” the White House added, noting the Ukrainian leader updated Biden on the status of negotiations.
In a video address Wednesday, Zelenskyy said, “I've thanked the U.S. for the new package of humanitarian aid worth $1 billion dollars and an additional $500 million in direct budgetary aid. I've also underlined that now is the turning point.”
On the diplomatic front, Russia said Wednesday there was no sign of a breakthrough in in-person peace talks with Ukraine hosted earlier this week by Turkey in Istanbul.
Turkey's top diplomat, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a televised interview Thursday that Turkey is working to bring the two sides back to the bargaining table within two weeks. But the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, said Thursday that talks would resume Friday by video conference.
VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer and White House correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this report.