Civilians trying to escape Russian shelling on the outskirts of Kiev flocked to the capital on Wednesday, some of them crossing the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge, in a fresh effort to evacuate beleaguered towns from ‘Ukraine.
The exodus to the capital came amid warnings from Western officials that the invasion of Moscow could be about to take a more brutal and indiscriminate turn.
Some of the civilians came from the town of Irpin, in the northeast suburb of Kyiv, and had to use the makeshift bridge after the Ukrainians blew up the concrete span connecting the towns to slow the Russian advance.
With sporadic gunfire echoing behind them, firefighters dragged an elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child grabbed the hand of a helping soldier and a woman cradled a fluffy cat in his winter coat. On the other side, they passed a wrecked van with the words “Our Ukraine” written in the dust covering its windows.
“We have a short window of time at the moment,” said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. “Even though there is a ceasefire right now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any time.”
Authorities announced the new ceasefire on Wednesday morning to allow thousands of civilians to escape from towns around Kyiv as well as the southern towns of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha, Izyum in the east and Sumy in northeast. Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors have largely failed due to Russian attacks.
It was not immediately clear if anyone could leave other towns, but people poured in from Kyiv’s suburbs, even as explosions rumbled through the capital and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly .
In the besieged city of Mariupol, local authorities scrambled to bury the dead in a mass grave. City workers dug a trench about 25 meters (yards) long in one of the city’s old cemeteries and made a sign of the cross as they pushed bodies wrapped in mats or sacks over it the edge.
Thousands of people have reportedly been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in the two weeks of fighting since the invasion by President Vladimir Putin’s forces. The UN estimates that more than 2 million people have fled the country, the largest refugee exodus in Europe since the end of World War II.
The fighting cut off power to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, raising concerns about the safety of spent fuel which is stored at the site and must be kept cool. But the United Nations nuclear watchdog said it saw “no critical security impact” from the loss of power.
The crisis in Ukraine is likely to escalate as Russian forces step up their bombardment of cities in response to stronger-than-expected resistance. Russian casualties were “far greater” than Putin and his generals expected, CIA Director William Burns said on Tuesday.
An intensified push by Russian forces could mean “ugly weeks ahead,” Burns told a congressional committee, warning that Putin is likely to “reduce Ukraine’s military regardless of civilian casualties.”
The British Ministry of Defense said on Wednesday that fighting was continuing northwest of Kyiv. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol were heavily shelled and remained surrounded by Russian forces.
Russian forces are placing military equipment in farms and amid residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, the Ukrainian military said. In the south, plainclothes Russians are advancing towards the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of half a million people, he added.
The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, is building defenses in northern, southern and eastern cities, and forces around Kiev are “holding the line” against the Russian offensive, authorities said.
A series of air alerts on Wednesday morning urged Kyiv residents to go to bomb shelters, fearing incoming missiles. Explosions were then heard.
In Irpin, a town of 60,000 people, police and soldiers helped elderly people leave their homes. One man was hoisted out of a damaged structure on a makeshift stretcher, while another was pushed towards Kiev in a shopping trolley. Fleeing residents said they had been without power and water for the past four days.
Regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians was deepening in and around Kyiv, with the situation particularly dire in the suburbs.
“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, preventing the evacuation of people and continuing to shell and shell small communities,” he said.
The situation is even worse in Mariupol, a strategic city of 430,000 inhabitants on the Sea of Azov which has been surrounded by Russian forces for a week.
Efforts to evacuate residents and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine failed on Tuesday due to what Ukrainians said continued Russian attacks.
The city took advantage of a lull in bombardment on Wednesday to hastily bury 70 people. Some were soldiers, but most were civilians.
The work was carried out efficiently and without ceremony. No mourners were present, no family to say goodbye.
A woman stood at the gates of the cemetery asking if her mother was among those buried. She was.
—Vadim Ghirda and Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press