Zaporizhzhia (Ukraine) (AFP) -
The United Nations on Thursday said a new convoy was en route to evacuate civilians from the 'hell' of a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, even as Ukraine accused Russia of breaking its promise to pause fire at the site.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have for weeks been holed up at the sprawling factory, trapped under heavy Russian fire, in what has become the last pocket of resistance in the strategically important southern port city.
President Vladimir Putin said Thursday the Russian army was still ready to allow civilians to leave the sprawling complex, while a Kremlin spokesman said humanitarian corridors were 'functioning'.
But a commander of Ukraine's Azov regiment, Svyatoslav Palamar, denied any evacuations were happening. He said Russian soldiers had broken into the Azovstal site three days ago, triggering 'bloody' battles.
The Russian army had earlier announced a daytime ceasefire for three days at Azovstal, that had been due to start on Thursday morning.
'The Russians violated the promise of a truce and did not allow the evacuation of civilians who continue to hide from shelling in the basement of the plant,' Palamar said in a video on Telegram.
Speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Putin said 'the Russian military is still ready to ensure the safe exit of civilians', according to th Kremlin.
'As for the militants remaining at Azovstal, the Kyiv authorities must give them an order to lay down their arms,' Putin said.
- Fresh effort -
The mayor of Mariupol estimates that around 200 civilians are still sheltering in dismal conditions in the complex's Soviet-era underground tunnels. Women and children are among them, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych said the situation on the ground was unclear and incoming information was 'contradictory,' he told Ukrainian television.
Despite the uncertainty, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said a rescue convoy was on its way.
'A convoy is proceeding to get to Azovstal by tomorrow morning hopefully to receive those civilians remaining in that bleak hell... and take them back to safety,' he told a Ukraine's donor conference in Warsaw.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed to AFP 'that a safe passage operation is ongoing' in coordination with the UN.
The two organisations already worked together to evacuate some 100 civilians from the plant at the weekend.
- No 'quick' progress -
Nearly 10 weeks into a war that has killed thousands, flattened cities and uprooted more than 13 million people, the Kremlin conceded Thursday that Kyiv's Western partners had prevented a 'quick' end to Russia's military campaign by sharing intelligence and weapons with Ukraine.
The outside help, nevertheless, was 'incapable of hindering the achievement' of the goals of Russia's military operation, Peskov insisted.
Peskov was responding to a New York Times article on Wednesday that said intelligence provided by the United States has helped the Ukrainian military target 'many' of the approximately dozen Russian generals who have been killed so far in the war.
Since failing to take Kyiv early on in its invasion, which began on February 24, Russia has focused its efforts on the east and south of Ukraine.
Taking full control of the now flattened city of Mariupol would be a major victory for Moscow, allowing it to create a land bridge between separatist, pro-Russian regions in the east and Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
It would also be hugely symbolic as Russia readies to celebrate May 9, when it marks the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis in World War II.
Ukrainian officials have said they believe that Russia is planning to hold a military victory parade in Mariupol that day.
Some 344 people were already evacuated from Mariupol and nearby areas earlier this week, and taken to the Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, Zelensky said Wednesday.
Zelensky, who has tirelessly campaigned for help from allies, on Thursday launched a global crowdfunding platform to help Kyiv win the war and rebuild the country's infrastructure.
- 'One click' -
'In one click, you can donate funds to protect our defenders, to save our civilians and to rebuild Ukraine,' Zelensky said in English in a video on his Twitter page, launching the United24 platform. 'Every donation matters for victory.'
More than six billion euros ($6.3 billion) were collected at the Ukraine donors' conference in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Thursday.
Ukraine's government in April estimated the cost of rebuilding after the war to be at least $600 billion.
Zelensky also invited German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz to visit Kyiv, patching up a diplomatic spat between the two countries.
Steinmeier, a former German foreign minister who for years championed closer ties to Moscow, had last month said his offer to travel to Ukraine to show solidarity had been snubbed by Kyiv.
Fighting continued meanwhile in other parts of Ukraine, especially in the east.
The governor of the Donbas region Pavlo Kyrylenko said at least 25 civilians were wounded in an overnight Russian strike on the city of Kramatorsk.
Elsewhere, the Ukrainian army said it had retaken control of 'several settlements on the border of Mykolaiv and Kherson regions'.
- Oil embargo -
As well as sending money and weapons to Ukraine, Kyiv's allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia to punish it for the invasion.
European Council president Charles Michel on Thursday said the EU should confiscate and sell Russian assets it has seized and use the proceeds to rebuild war-scarred Ukraine.
The European Union on Wednesday proposed a ban on Russian oil imports, in what would be the bloc's toughest move yet.
The plan would ban Russian crude gradually over the next six months and refined fuels by the end of this year, but Hungary and Slovakia -- both highly depending on Moscow's oil exports -- would get until the end of 2023.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said EU countries blocking an oil embargo would be 'complicit' in Russia's crimes in Ukraine.