Portugal Colonial - Besieged Ukraine port city Mariupol begins new evacuation bid

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Besieged Ukraine port city Mariupol begins new evacuation bid
Besieged Ukraine port city Mariupol begins new evacuation bid

Besieged Ukraine port city Mariupol begins new evacuation bid

Ukraine's besieged port city of Mariupol began a new attempt at evacuating civilians on Sunday, as fierce battles raged around the country and the Ukrainian president warned that Russian forces were preparing to bombard Odessa on the Black Sea coast.

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Ten days after Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 1.5 million people have fled the former Soviet state, the United Nations said, calling it "Europe's fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II".

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands wounded in the war, now into an 11th day, sending hundreds of thousands of mostly women and children pouring into neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania or Moldova for refuge.

The economic bill is lengthening by the day after the West imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russian businesses, banks and billionaires in a bid to choke off the country's economy.

In the latest efforts to freeze Moscow out of the world economy, US-based card payment giants Visa and Mastercard announced they would suspend operations in Russia, while world leaders vowed further punitive action if Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to change course.

In a sign that sanctions were beginning to bite, the Russian government said Sunday that retailers in Russia will limit sales of essential foodstuff to limit black market speculation.

Putin has equated global sanctions with a declaration of war and has warned that Kyiv is "putting in question the future of Ukrainian statehood" with its actions.

The Ukrainian military said Sunday it was engaged in "fierce battles" with Russian forces for the control of borders at the southern city of Mykolaiv and the Chernihiv in the north.

"The main efforts are focused on defending the (eastern) city of Mariupol," it said in a Facebook post, adding an operation by Ukrainian forces was also under way in the eastern part of the Donetsk region.

- Last bridge -

Efforts Saturday to get people out of Mariupol -- one of the most ferocious scenes of war -- collapsed almost immediately with both sides accusing each other of breaching a ceasefire agreement.

"From 1200 (1000 GMT) the evacuation of the civilian population begins," city officials said in a statement, which said a ceasefire was agreed with Russian-led forces surrounding the city.

The strategic city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea has for days been under siege and without electricity, food and water, with stop-start ceasefires.

Its mayor, Vadim Boitchenko, said in an interview published on YouTube that "Mariupol no longer exists" and that thousands of people have been wounded.

"The situation is very difficult," he said. "I ask our American and European partners: help us, save Mariupol."

Elsewhere, Russian forces have been inching closer to the capital Kyiv in an assault that has become ever-more indiscriminate -- and deadly.

At Bilogordoka on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops have planted explosives on what they say is the last intact bridge standing in the way of Russian forces advancing down the western flank of the capital.

"This is the last bridge, we're defending it and not letting them break through to Kyiv," said a fighter who gave his name as "Casper".

The former paratrooper who joined Ukraine's volunteer territorial defence units said his team will "do everything possible to keep it standing".

- Planes plea -

If the Russians advanced, they will blow it up, he worried, saying they will "make sure to sink as many enemy tanks as we can while we do it."

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the Russians were turning their eyes to the west to the historic port city of Odessa, which has so far been largely spared from shelling.

"Russians have always come to Odessa. They have always felt only warmth in Odessa. Only sincerity. And now what? Bombs against Odessa? Artillery against Odessa? Missiles against Odessa?" raged Zelensky.

"This is going to be a military crime. This is going to be a historical crime."

Kyiv has urged the West to boost its military assistance, with Zelensky pleading for Eastern European neighbours to provide Russian-made planes that his pilots are trained to fly.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was "working actively" on a deal with Poland to supply Ukraine with jets.

Several US media earlier reported Washington is working on a deal in which Poland would send Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine in return for US F-16 fighter jets.

Weapons, ammunition and funds have poured into Ukraine from Western allies as they seek to bolster Kyiv against Moscow's invasion.

Washington last week authorised $350 million of military equipment -- the largest such package in US history.

- 'Corpses all over' -

With a wary eye on Russia's nuclear stocks, however, NATO allies have so far rebuffed Zelensky's call to help set up a no-fly zone.

Putin has threatened "colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world" if a no-fly zone is set up.

"The sanctions against Russia are akin to a declaration of war. But thank God we're not at that point yet," he said.

Working-class towns such as Bucha and Irpin are in the line of fire, and air raids Friday broke many people's resolve to stay.

"They are bombing residential areas -- schools, churches, big buildings, everything," said accountant Natalia Dydenko, glancing back at the destruction she was leaving behind.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in Chernihiv. Those remaining live in craters or among ruins.

"There were corpses all over the ground," a man who gave his name only as Sergei told AFP, as air raid sirens wailed. "They were queueing here for the pharmacy that's just there, and they're all dead."

AFP reporters saw scenes of devastation -- despite Moscow's insistence it is not targeting civilian areas.

- Diplomatic bid -

As frantic, top-level diplomatic talks continued, Zelensky announced on Sunday that he spoke by telephone with US President Joe Biden to discuss further financial support and sanctions against Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Saturday visited the Kremlin for three hours of talks -- Putin's first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since the invasion began.

The Israeli leader later spoke to Zelensky and travelled to Berlin to brief Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Kyiv had asked Israel -- which has strong relations with both Russia and Ukraine -- to launch a dialogue with Moscow.

Visa and Mastercard became the latest companies to announce they were halting operations in Russia. But Russia's major banks -- including its largest lender Sberbank and the Russia Central Bank -- downplayed the effect the suspensions would have on their clients.

The war has already had serious global economic impacts, with the IMF warning that its effects would be "all the more devastating" should the conflict escalate.