Buses have begun leaving two devastated Ukrainian cities in a fresh attempt to evacuate civilians, as the number of people fleeing the country from Russia’s onslaught passed 2 million and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Ukraine was running out of vital medical supplies.
The Ukrainian state communications agency posted video of people with bags and suitcases fleeing the north-eastern city of Sumy, 30 miles (50km) from the Russian border, along one of five “humanitarian corridors” promised by the invading forces.
“Sumy was given a green corridor, the first stage of evacuation began,” the agency tweeted. The governor of the Kyiv region also said civilians were being evacuated from Irpin, near the capital, with more than 150 having left the town on Tuesday.
More than 30 buses were also travelling to the southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities said, with a second “humanitarian corridor” reportedly due to open between the encircled city and Zaporizhzhia, (155 miles) 250km to the north-west, local agencies reported.
There was no certainty, however, how long the evacuations would last. Previous efforts were abandoned after Russian forces continued to bombard residential areas, and civilians trying to take the routes to safety themselves came under fire.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk warned that the Russian side was “preparing to disrupt the work of humanitarian corridors” and a spokesperson for the presidency in Kyiv said success would depend on how long the routes remained safe.
There was also disagreement about what routes had been agreed. Moscow said its troops would enter “silent regime” from 10am local time to allow corridors out of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol, mostly leading to Russia or Belarus.
Vereshchuk, however, suggested only a route out of Sumy leading to Ukrainian city of Poltava had been agreed, and reiterated the Kyiv government’s position that any evacuation routes leading to Russia or its ally Belarus were unacceptable.
Demand for safe routes out of Ukraine’s battered population centres has increased rapidly as Russia has intensified its missile attacks and heavy artillery shelling of residential areas, creating a humanitarian crisis of fast-dwindling food, water and medical supplies.
In the encircled southern port of Mariupol, which has been without power, water or heating since Friday, an estimated 200,000 people – nearly half the city’s population – are waiting to flee, with Red Cross officials awaiting news on a safe corridor out.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Tuesday a child had died from dehydration in the city. “In 2022, from dehydration,” Zelenskiy said in a video address, likening Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis to that created by the Nazi invasion during the second world war.
Further ceasefire talks between the two sides are expected in the coming days but after a third round failed on Monday, negotiators warned not to expect subsequent efforts to bring any rapid breakthroughs. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers are expected to meet in Turkey on Thursday.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Tuesday that the number of people who had fled Ukraine since the invasion began on 24 February had reached 2 million. Poland said on Tuesday it had welcomed about 1.2 million people, including 141,500 on Monday alone.
The Romanian government said 291,081 Ukrainians have crossed its border since the start of the conflict, while the EU’s top diplomat warned that as many as 5 million Ukrainians could flee the country if the invasion continues.
Grandi said that after the first exodus, a second would follow consisting of more vulnerable refugees. “If the war continues we will start seeing people that have no resources and no connections,” he said.
“That will be a more complex situation to manage for European countries going forward, and there will need to be even more solidarity by everybody in Europe and beyond,” he added.
The WHO on Tuesday said attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities in Ukraine had surged, with at least at least nine people dying in 16 attacks on healthcare facilities since the start of the invasion, and warned the country was running short of vital medical supplies such as oxygen, insulin, personal protective equipment, surgical supplies and blood products.
The WHO’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, said the agency was particularly concerned about the health needs of women, including maternal health and emergency obstetric care. “Past conflicts have shown us that adolescent girls, women with disabilities and elderly women are in the most vulnerable situation,” he said.
Russia has made significant advances in southern Ukraine as it seeks to block access to the Sea of Azov and establish a land corridor to Crimea. Elsewhere, however, progress has become stalled, including a long military convoy that has been almost motionless for days north of Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers have fortified the capital with checkpoints and barricades designed to block a takeover of the city of nearly 4 million people, using sandbags, stacked tires and spiked cables. “Every house, every street, every checkpoint, we will fight to the death if necessary,” said the mayor, Vitali Klitschko.
Ukraine said on Tuesday its forces had killed more than 12,000 Russian troops since the start of the conflict as well as destroying 48 aircraft, 80 helicopters, 303 tanks, 1,036 armed vehicles, 120 artillery pieces and 27 anti-aircraft warfare systems. Moscow has so far confirmed about 500 of its soldiers dead.
Ukraine’s intelligence service on Monday claimed its forces had killed a second senior Russian army commander, saying Maj Gen Vitaly Gerasimov, chief of staff of the 41st Army, had been killed outside Kharkiv.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces were showing exceptional courage. “The problem is that for one soldier of Ukraine, we have 10 Russian soldiers, and for one Ukrainian tank, we have 50 Russian tanks,” he told ABC News in an interview on Monday night.
Zelenskiy will address British MPs via video link on Tuesday, the first time a president of another country has addressed the House of Commons. Formal parliamentary business will be suspended and MPs will be given headsets for simultaneous translation
The British defence minister, Ben Wallace, said on Tuesday the UK would support Poland if it decided to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, but warned it could bring the country “into direct line of fire”.
As western governments have moved to isolate Moscow diplomatically and economically, Moscow stoked fears of an energy war by threatening to close a major gas pipeline to Germany after the US pushed its European allies to consider banning Russian oil imports over its invasion of Ukraine.
In an address on Russian state television, the Russian deputy prime minister, Alexander Novak, said on Monday night: “A rejection of Russian oil would lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market,” and claimed the price of oil could rise to more than $300 a barrel.
Novak’s comments followed remarks by the European Commission’s climate policy chief, Frans Timmermans, who said the EU could wean itself off Russian gas – which accounts for about 40% of Europe’s supply – within years and start curbing its reliance within months.
The commission is due to propose plans on Tuesday to diversify Europe’s fossil fuel supplies away from Russia and move faster to renewable energy.