Kyiv silent on airstrike in Russia, 3,000 flee Mariupol

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Ukraine’s president refused Friday to say whether he had ordered an airstrike on Russian soil, as a bus convoy navigated a tortuous evacuation to help thousands flee the besieged city of Mariupol.

Peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials resumed via video, but the Kremlin warned the helicopter attack on a fuel depot in the town of Belgorod would hamper negotiations.

Kyiv would not be drawn on whether it was behind the attack, with President Volodymyr Zelensky telling US network Fox News: “I’m sorry, I do not discuss any of my orders as commander in chief.”

With the prospect of war expanding across Ukraine’s borders, progress appeared stalled in one of the country’s most pressing humanitarian disasters, in the shattered southern city of Mariupol.

But late Friday people who managed to flee Mariupol to Russian-occupied Berdiansk were from there carried on dozens of buses to Zaporizhzhia, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the northwest, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.

“I am just crying. I just saw my granddaughter,” said Olga, who was waiting for relatives at a centre for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia.

“Her mother’s family are still in Mariupol and we don’t know if they are alive.”

The evacuation of 3,071 people, according to figures announced by Zelensky, escaping the ferocious Russian shelling of Mariupol, was a rare success in a city that has faced weeks of bombardment.

At least 5,000 residents have been killed, according to local authorities, and the estimated 160,000 who remain face shortages of food, water and electricity.

The international Red Cross said a team heading to the city to conduct a separate evacuation effort was forced to turn back Friday after “arrangements and conditions made it impossible to proceed”.

The Red Cross said its team will try again Saturday.

– Russia regrouping? –

After five weeks of a military campaign that has reduced parts of Ukraine to rubble, Moscow said this week it would scale back attacks on the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv.

But Zelensky said Russia was consolidating and preparing “powerful strikes” in the east and south, joining a chorus of Western assessments that Moscow troops were regrouping, not withdrawing.

On Friday he played host to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola in Kyiv, hailing her “heroism” for visiting the war zone.

“We are glad that you are on the side of the light and the good,” Zelensky told Metsola.

“Courage, strength, resolve,” Metsola said on Twitter, posting a photograph of her and Zelensky shaking hands.

The airstrike in Russia hit energy giant Rosneft’s fuel storage facility in the western town of Belgorod, around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the border with Ukraine.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an aide to Ukraine’s president, said in a Twitter video that “for what’s happening on Russia’s territory, the responsibility lies with Russia, and it’s up to them to deal with.”

But the consequence on peace negotiations was swiftly made clear by Moscow. “This is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of negotiations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia launched its invasion on February 24, expecting to quickly take Kyiv and topple Zelensky’s government.