Number of refugees fleeing Ukraine reaches 1.5 million


The latest:

  • Number of Ukrainian refugees rises as ceasefire fails.
  • Officials in port city of Mariupol say shelling has again prevented civilians from leaving.
  • WHO says attacks on health centres violate law.
  • IMF to weigh Kyiv’s request for $1.4B in emergency financing.

More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in the space of 10 days, the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday.

That number was announced as Kyiv pressed the West to toughen sanctions and deliver more weapons to repel Russia’s attack, now in its 11th day.

Ukrainian police said there was relentless Russian shelling and air raids in the northeast Kharkiv region, reporting many  casualties, while the UN World Health Organization said there had been several attacks on Ukrainian health-care facilities.

Refugees arrive at Zahony train station as the influx of refugees from Ukraine continues on Saturday in Zahony, Hungary. Over one million refugees from Ukraine have now fled into neighbouring countries such as Hungary. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Moscow and Kyiv have traded blame over Saturday’s failed ceasefire to allow civilians to flee Mariupol and Volnovakha,  two southern cities besieged by Russian forces. Ukraine said more talks were set for Monday, but Russia was less definitive.

A second attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed on Sunday after local authorities said Russian forces continued shelling the port city.

“It is extremely dangerous to take people out under such conditions,” the city council said in an online statement.

People who have been able to escape Ukraine have spilled into neighbouring Moldova, Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Moldova on Sunday, pledging America’s support to the small Western-leaning former Soviet republic, which is also coping with an influx of refugees from neighbouring Ukraine.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was set to depart for Europe on Sunday, stopping first in London for a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, before talking with other European leaders during the week, to discuss ways to provide additional support for Ukraine.

‘Drive this evil out of our cities’

Elsewhere, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on those in areas occupied by Russian troops to fight.

“We must go outside and drive this evil out of our cities,” he said in an address on Saturday night.

In a televised address on Sunday, Zelensky said Russia was preparing to bombard another southern city, Odesa, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

He also renewed calls for foreign countries to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, saying “the world is strong enough to close our skies.”

NATO countries have ruled out policing a no-fly zone, which would bar all unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that Moscow would consider any third-party declaration of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as “participation in the armed conflict.”

British military intelligence said on Sunday that Russian forces were targeting populated areas in Ukraine, comparing the tactics to those Russia used in Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016. But it said Ukrainian resistance was slowing the advance.

“The scale and strength of Ukrainian resistance continue to surprise Russia,” British military intelligence said.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilian areas.

“Attacks on health-care facilities or workers breach medical neutrality and are violations of international humanitarian  law,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter, saying WHO had confirmed attacks on “several” health-care centres, causing multiple deaths and injuries.

He made no mention of Russia in his tweet.

Putin likens sanctions to ‘declaration of war’

Putin, who launched what he calls a “special military operation” on Feb. 24, reiterated that he wanted a neutral Ukraine that had been “demilitarized” and “de-Nazified.” He likened Western sanctions “to a declaration of war,” adding: “Thank God it has not come to that.”

“This is not only a military operation but a war, which is leading to death, destruction and misery,” Pope Francis said in his weekly address to crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

A sports venue destroyed by shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine is seen on Saturday. (Yurii Kochubei/The Associated Press)

Ukraine and Western countries have decried Putin’s reasons as a baseless pretext for the invasion and have imposed sweeping sanctions aimed at isolating Moscow and crippling its economy.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after meeting the U.S. secretary of state at the Ukraine-Poland border on Saturday, said he expected new sanctions and weapons for Ukraine in coming days.

WATCH | Ukrainian president pleads to U.S. senators for planes, drones to fight Russia:

Ukrainian president pleads to U.S. senators for planes, drones to fight Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a ‘desperate plea’ for planes Saturday on a call with more than 300 people that included U.S. senators. He’s also pushed NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his country. 3:58

The United States has promised to send more weapons and has said it could escalate sanctions. President Joe Biden has sought $10 billion US in emergency funding to respond to the crisis.

Washington is working with Poland as Warsaw considers whether to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, the White House said.

Zelensky asked for help securing aircraft from European allies in a video call with U.S. lawmakers. He again called for more lethal aid, a ban on Russian oil, a no-fly zone and an end to Visa Inc and MasterCard Inc privileges in Russia, U.S.

Corporate pullbacks

Visa and MasterCard later said they would suspend credit card operations in Russia, the latest in a dramatic series of  corporate pullbacks over the invasion.

Seeking to mediate, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday and later spoke to  Zelensky.

“We continue dialogue,” Zelensky tweeted after the call.

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan was expected to talk with Putin on Sunday. Turkey, a NATO member, shares a maritime border with Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea.

Russia told the EU and NATO to stop the “pumping of state-of-the-art weapons systems” into Kyiv, foreign ministry  spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, according to RIA.

Russia, citing no evidence, says Ukraine working on ‘dirty bomb’ 

Russian media cited an unidentified source on Sunday as saying Ukraine was close to building a plutonium-based “dirty bomb” nuclear weapon, although the source cited no evidence.

Shortly before the invasion, Putin had said Ukraine was using Soviet know-how to create its own nuclear weapons, and  that this was tantamount to preparation for an attack on Russia.

WATCH | Why Putin drove Russia into war and won’t back down

Why Putin drove Russia into war and won’t back down

Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine without regard for any advice from those around him, longtime observers say. This decision and how the campaign is unfolding, including the threat of nuclear weapons, have some questioning his state of mind. 8:05

Ukraine’s government has said it had no plans to rejoin the nuclear club, after giving up its nuclear arms in 1994 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The International Monetary Fund warned the conflict would have a “severe impact” on the global economy, driving up energy and grain prices. It said it would weigh Kyiv’s request for $1.4 billion in emergency financing as early as this  week.

People hold Ukrainian flags as they attend the Angelus noon prayer recited by Pope Francis from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

Ukraine’s military said more than 11,000 Russian troops had been killed so far and 88 Russian aircraft shot down. Reuters could not corroborate the claim.

In Mariupol, encircled by Russian forces and shelled for days, the situation was grim, with no power or water.

“We can’t collect all the bodies on the street,” Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told CNN, saying it was impossible to count  civilian deaths there.

Hundreds of civilian deaths so far

Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said it was rushing more emergency supplies to Ukraine as hospitals faced shortages.

More than 350 civilians have been killed, according to the UN rights office, with hundreds more injured.

Heavy shelling was heard in the background as residents of Volnovakha tried to flee.

“Help us if you can, we all want to live, we have kids, husbands, we are mothers and fathers, we are also people,” said  one local, Larisa. “Where shall I go?”

The mayor of the western city of Lviv said more than 65,000 refugees passed through its train station on Friday alone.

The UN refugee agency estimated the number of refugees could swell to 4 million by July.

Demonstrations were planned on Sunday in Washington and elsewhere after jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called for worldwide protests on March 6 against the war. Protests were held in Chile, Paris and Israel on Saturday. 

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