Monday, May 23, 2022

Ukraine war: ‘Tens of thousands’ of lives at stake in Mariupol evacuation effort – as Russian troops ‘leave Chernobyl with radiation sickness’

There are hopes of rescuing more people from the besieged city of Mariupol and saving “tens of thousands” of lives as a convoy of buses heads towards the city amid promises of a ceasefire.

Russia’s defense ministry said it would pause attacks to allow people to leave, while Norway’s prime minister said President Vladimir Putin had assured him humanitarian access would be granted.

Thousands have managed to leave the city in recent weeks, but Ukraine has said other efforts to get people out have come under fire.

“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place. The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it,” said Ewan Watson, from the international Red Cross, which is leading the mission.

Forty-five buses are on their way for Friday’s rescue effort, said Ukraine deputy PM Iryna Vereshchuk. Humanitarian supplies will also be delivered to try to relieve chronic shortages of food, water and other items.

Around 170,000 are estimated to still be trapped in apocalyptic-like conditions after weeks of constant shelling, which have knocked out power and sanitation as people hunker down in basements.

Ukraine live news: ‘Butcher of Mariupol’ among those hit by new UK sanctions

In other developments:

, Putin demands payment in roubles for gas or contracts will be ‘stopped’
, Advisers too afraid to tell truth to Russian president
, UK announces 14 new sanctions
, India shouldn’t be ‘sitting on the fence’, says trade secretary
, Delays in UK visa scheme labeled ‘shambolic’

Ukraine map

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his country is now preparing for Russia to refocus its offensive on the eastern Donbas region after efforts to breach Kyiv, the capital, had been unsuccessful.

Russia has also said it will concentrate on “liberating” Donbas – where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for years.

After peace talks this week in Istanbul, it pledged to de-escalate operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations”.

“We know that this is not a withdrawal but the consequences of being driven out,” said Mr Zelenskyy. “But we are also seeing that Russia is now concentrating its forces for new strikes on Donbas, and we are preparing for this.”

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Russia being ‘pushed back’

‘Russia has repeatedly lied’ – NATO chief

The West is also highly sceptical of Russia’s claims, with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg saying troops were not withdrawing from Ukraine but repositioning to bolster attacks in the east.

“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions, so we can only judge Russia on its actions, not on its words,” said Mr Stoltenberg.

“According to our intelligence, Russian troops are not withdrawing but repositioning.”

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‘Putin has made two big mistakes’

Attacks around Chernihiv were also continuing, according to British intelligence.

“Despite Russian statements indicating an intended reduction of military activity around Chernihiv, significant Russian shelling and missile strikes have continued,” said the UK Ministry of Defense.

Mr. Stoltenberg also defended the alliance against criticism from a former British general that it had failed to prevent Russia from “trampling all over Ukraine”.

Meanwhile, hopes of Russia reducing its manpower in Ukraine appear to have been dealt a blow as President Putin signed a decree ordering 134,500 new conscripts into the army.

The defense ministry claimed the call-up had nothing to do with the war and was part of its spring draft.

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‘Putin not the force he used to be’

Troops ‘leave Chernobyl with radiation sickness’

Most of the Russian forces that took over Chernobyl – site of the world’s worst-ever nuclear accident – have now left, Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom said on Thursday.

“The information is confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the exclusion zone, have set off in two columns towards the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus,” it added.

It claimed troops had received “significant doses of radiation” after digging trenches and other fortifications in the highly contaminated Red Forest area around the plant.

A satellite image shows a closer view of sarcophagus at Chernobyl, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine, March 10, 2022. Pic: Maxar Technologies
A satellite image shows Chernobyl on 10 March. Pic: Maxar Technologies

Energoatom said signs of illness had “showed up very quickly”, prompting the soldiers to “panic” and start to leave.

The claim could not be independently verified.

However, workers at the site told Reuters this week that a convoy had driven through the Red Forest without radiation gear – which they called “suicidal” as radioactive dust would have been thrown up.

One also said that the regular soldiers did not know about Chernobyl’s history.

Russia seized the plant at the start of the war but have also now left the nearby town of Slavutych, which was captured last week, Energoatom added.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, said it was consulting with local authorities to send an “assistance and support mission” to Chernobyl in the next few days.

Meanwhile, amid claims of low morale among Russian troops, a UK spy chief has claimed soldiers have accidentally shot down their own aircraft, sabotaged kit, and refused to carry out orders,

Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, said President Putin’s advisers were also afraid to tell him the truth about how badly things are going.

Sir Jeremy made similar remarks in his speech at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“It looks increasingly like Putin has massively misjudged the situation” in Ukraine, he said.

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