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Concerns on Mariupol relief effort as Russia accuses Ukraine of oil depot strike

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said the alleged air strike caused multiple fires and two people were injured.

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A woman rides a bicycle past a burned bus after fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, in territory under control of the separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

A woman rides a bicycle past a burned bus after fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, in territory under control of the separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

A woman rides a bicycle past a burned bus after fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, in territory under control of the separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

Emergency relief and evacuation convoys for the besieged city of Mariupol remain in doubt after reports of Russian interference, while Moscow officials accused Ukraine of flying helicopter gunships across the border and striking an oil depot.

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region said the alleged air strike caused multiple fires and two people were injured.

A Kremlin spokesman said the incident on Russia’s territory could undermine negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian representatives that resumed by video link on Friday.

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Firefighters work at the site of a fire at an oil depot in Belgorod (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service/AP)

Firefighters work at the site of a fire at an oil depot in Belgorod (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service/AP)

AP/PA Images

Firefighters work at the site of a fire at an oil depot in Belgorod (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service/AP)

“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied when asked if the strike could be viewed as an escalation of the war.

It was not immediately possible to verify the claim that Ukrainian helicopters targeted the oil depot or several nearby businesses in Belgorod.

Russia has reported shelling from Ukraine before, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but not an incursion into its air space.

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The latest negotiations follow a meeting of Russian and Ukrainian delegations in Turkey on Tuesday where Ukraine reiterated its willingness to abandon a bid to join Nato and offered proposals to have its neutral military status guaranteed by a range of foreign countries.

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(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

Press Association Images

(PA Graphics)

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, wrote on social media that Moscow’s positions on retaining control of the Crimean peninsula and expanding the territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists “are unchanged”.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said complex logistics were still being worked out for the operation to get emergency aid into Mariupol and civilians out of the city, which has suffered weeks of heavy fighting with dwindling water, food and medical supplies.

“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” ICRC spokesperson Ewan Watson said during a UN briefing in Geneva.

“The situation is horrendous and deteriorating, and it’s now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”

He said the group had sent three vehicles towards Mariupol and a front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces, but two trucks carrying supplies for the city were not accompanying them.

Dozens of buses organised by Ukrainian authorities to take people out had also not started approaching the dividing line, Mr Watson said.

On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to take people out of Mariupol after the military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area, and only 631 people were able to leave in private cars, the Ukrainian government said.

Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies trying to reach Mariupol, deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

The city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. Tens of thousands of residents have managed to leave in the past few weeks through humanitarian corridors, reducing the population from a pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 by last week, but continued Russian attacks have repeatedly thwarted aid and evacuation missions.

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Damaged buildings on the outskirts of Mariupol (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

Damaged buildings on the outskirts of Mariupol (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

AP/PA Images

Damaged buildings on the outskirts of Mariupol (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said its “main goal” is gaining complete control of the Donbas, where Mariupol is located.

The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 and have declared two areas as independent republics.

Western officials said there were growing indications Russia was using its talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as cover to regroup, resupply and redeploy its forces for a stepped-up offensive in the east.

Russian forces have subjected Chernihiv in northern Ukraine and the capital of Kyiv to continued air and ground-launched missile strikes, despite Moscow saying on Tuesday that it planned to reduce military activity in those areas.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have retaken the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka, south of the besieged northern city of Chernihiv and along one of the main supply routes between the city and Kyiv, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.

Ukraine has also continued to make successful but limited counter-attacks to the east and north east of Kyiv, the ministry said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian withdrawals in the country’s north and centre were just a military tactic to build up strength for new attacks in the south east.

“We know their intentions,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us.”

Hours later, Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the fire at the oil depot “occurred as a result of an air strike from two helicopters of the armed forces of Ukraine, which entered the territory of Russia at a low altitude”.

The depot run by Russian energy giant Rosneft is about 20 miles north of the Ukraine-Russia border.

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The Chernobyl plant (Alamy/PA)

The Chernobyl plant (Alamy/PA)

Alamy Stock Photo

The Chernobyl plant (Alamy/PA)

Ukraine’s state power company, Energoatom, said Russian troops had pulled out of the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site in northern Ukraine early on Friday after receiving “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches in the exclusion zone around the closed plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it could not independently confirm the exposure claim. Energoatom gave no details on the condition of the soldiers, and did not say how many were affected.

The UN agency said it had been informed by Ukraine that Russian forces at Chernobyl had transferred control of the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster to the Ukrainians in writing.

Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site soon after invading Ukraine on February 24, raising fears they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation.

Five weeks and one day into a conflict that has left thousands dead and driven more than four million refugees from Ukraine, there seemed little faith that the two sides would find agreement on their respective demands any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said conditions were not “ripe” for a ceasefire and he was not ready for a meeting with Mr Zelensky until the negotiators do more work, Italian premier Mario Draghi said after a Thursday telephone conversation with the Russian leader.


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