Ukraine called off an attempt to evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol after accusing Russia of violating a ceasefire and attacking the escape route for hundreds of thousands of beleaguered civilians.
The struggle to enforce the ceasefire further worsened conditions in the city, which has borne the brunt of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine. Strategically located on the Sea of Azov, it is completely encircled by Russian forces and has endured near-constant shelling that has reduced many residential areas to ruins.
The barrage knocked out Mariupol’s power supply, disabled mobile connections and left many people who had taken cover in bomb shelters without heat or electricity.
The 10-day war has targeted some of Ukraine’s largest population centres and driven 1.2mn people to flee their homes. International aid organisations warned that Ukraine could face a humanitarian disaster as food, water and medicine run short in the worst-affected areas.
The UN said 351 civilians have been confirmed killed, although the true number was probably much higher.
But most Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv and second city Kharkiv, remain under government control.
On Saturday morning, Russian officials announced they had reached agreement with the Ukrainian authorities on a temporary ceasefire in Mariupol and another town besieged by Russian forces, Volnovakha, so that civilians could be evacuated.
But hours later, Mariupol’s local government said the evacuation was “being rescheduled [because the Russians] . . . have continued to fire” on the city.
Vadym Boichenko, Mariupol’s mayor, told Ukrainian TV that thousands of people had gathered for safe passage and buses had been departing when the Russian shelling resumed. “We value the life of every inhabitant of Mariupol and we can’t risk it, so we stopped the evacuation,” he said.
Russia’s defence ministry insisted it had stopped firing and accused “Ukrainian forces and national battalions of taking advantage of the declared ‘quiet regime’ to regroup on defensive positions”.
Mariupol is considered an important prize for the Russian army because capturing it would deny Ukraine access to the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, damaging its economy.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister for reintegration, said attempts to move people to safety had been thwarted by fighting along parts of the humanitarian corridor between Mariupol and the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia. She appealed to the Russians to “stop the shelling . . . so that women, children and the elderly can leave”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that “safe passage operations from Mariupol and Volnovakha will not start today”. It said it was ready to help facilitate the evacuation of civilians “once the parties have reached an agreement”.
Médecins Sans Frontières warned that pharmacies in Mariupol were “out of medicine” and there was “no power, water, heating and mobile connection”. “The war arrived so suddenly that many [people] could not even flee,” said Christine Jamet, MSF director of operations.
Governments around the world have condemned Russian president Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine, especially the indiscriminate shelling of cities. The US estimates that Russia has unleashed more than 500 missiles since the start of the invasion.
Ukraine has urged Nato to impose a no-fly zone to deter air bombing — a request the alliance has firmly rejected.
In a call with US lawmakers on Saturday Zelensky pressed them to help Ukraine obtain more aircraft. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said Zelensky made a “desperate plea” for eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes.
A senior US defence official said the Pentagon had already delivered $240mn in military assistance and weapons from the $350mn that President Joe Biden recently approved, and the remaining $110mn would most likely be sent to Ukraine over the next week.
Putin warned on Saturday that if any country attempted to impose a no-fly zone, “we would consider them participants in the military conflict” — whatever military alliance they belonged to.
He added that he hoped “people understand that, and don’t go there”.
Military analysts said Russia’s main objective remained the encirclement of Kyiv, but western officials said its advance on the capital had made little discernible progress for several days because of tactical and logistical failures.
Meanwhile in Russia, thousands of people have travelled to neighbouring states as an intensifying crackdown on the country’s independent media forced a number of news outlets to suspend their work.
Moscow announced on Friday that it was banning Facebook and restricting access to Twitter. The authorities have also shut down liberal media outlets such as Echo of Moscow and TV Rain, while some websites have been blocked, including British broadcaster the BBC.
Russian and western journalists left the country after Moscow imposed a new law that threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for those spreading “fake news”.
Russians began to leave the nation this week after rumours circulated in Moscow that the authorities might be about to declare martial law.
“A number of my colleagues in Moscow just ran out of the office in what they were wearing to cash machines to take out what money they could, and started heading for the borders,” said one senior member of a professional services firm.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo and Stefania Palma in Washington