Conflict raged near Kyiv on Saturday and Ukrainian officials said heavy shelling and threats of Russian air attacks were endangering attempted evacuations of desperate civilians from encircled towns and cities elsewhere.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia was sending in new troops after Ukrainian forces had put 31 of its battalion tactical groups out of action in what he called Russia’s largest army losses in decades. He gave no details and it was not possible to verify either statement.
Zelenskiy also said he had spoken to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron about pressuring Russia to release the mayor of the city of Melitopol, who Ukraine says was kidnapped on Friday by Russian forces.
More than 2,000 residents of the southern city, which is now under Russian control, protested outside the city administration building to demand the release of the mayor, Ivan Fedorov, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office, said.
A call between Scholz, Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin was underway, the French presidency said. Russia has not commented on the fate of Fedorov, who Ukrainian officials said was kidnapped by Russian forces on false accusations of terrorism.
Zelenskiy said his country could not stop fighting but was upholding a ceasefire around an agreed humanitarian corridor out of the southern port of Mariupol, which has been under an almost two-week siege, and called on Russia to do the same.
Moscow has previously blamed Kyiv for failed evacuations.
Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 in an operation that has been near universally condemned around the world and that has drawn tough Western sanctions on Russia.
The bombardment has trapped thousands of people in besieged cities and sent 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to neighboring countries.
Ukrainian officials had planned to use humanitarian corridors from Mariupol as well as towns and villages in the regions of Kyiv, Sumy and some other areas on Saturday.
But the governor of the Kyiv region said fighting and threats of Russian air attacks were continuing during evacuation attempts and the Donetsk region’s governor said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into Mariupol.
The U.N. humanitarian office said conditions in Mariupol were grim.
“There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city,” the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
“Medicines for life-threatening illnesses are quickly running out, hospitals are only partially functioning, and the food and water are in short supply.”
An adviser to the Ukrainian presidency said earlier that 79 evacuation buses and two trucks with humanitarian cargo had left for Sumy on Saturday. Buses and trucks also left Zaporizhzhia for Mariupol, a video released by the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration on social media showed.
At least 1,582 civilians in Mariupol have been killed as a result of Russian shelling and a 12-day blockade, the city council said in an online statement on Friday. It was not possible to verify casualty figures.
Air raid sirens blared across most Ukrainian cities on Saturday morning urging people to seek shelters, local media reported.
The exhausted-looking governor of Chernihiv, around 100 miles northeast of Kyiv, gave a video update in front of the ruins of its Ukraine Hotel, which he said had been hit on Saturday.
“There is no such hotel any more,” Viacheslav Chaus said, wiping tears from his eyes. “But Ukraine itself still exists, and it will prevail.”
Russian rocket attacks destroyed a Ukrainian airbase and hit an ammunition depot near the town of Vasylkiv in the Kyiv region on Saturday morning, Interfax Ukraine quoted Vasylkiv Mayor Natalia Balasynovych as saying.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians what it calls a special operation to demilitarize Ukraine and unseat leaders it refers to as neo-Nazis. It has not responded to Ukrainian challenges to provide evidence.
Ukraine said it expected a new wave of attacks on the regions around the capital Kyiv, the country’s second city Kharkiv and Donbass in the east, where Russian-backed separatists have expanded their control.
Britain’s defense ministry said on Friday that Russian forces could launch an offensive on Kyiv in a few days. In an update on Saturday, it said fighting northwest of the capital continued, with the bulk of Russian ground forces 25 km (16 miles) from the centre.
The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol remained encircled under heavy Russian shelling, it said.
Close Russian ally Belarus said it was sending five battalion tactical groups to its border with Ukraine but had no plans to send troops in to Russian forces fighting there.
A top Ukrainian security official on Friday warned Belarus not to send troops to Ukraine, saying Ukraine was showing restraint towards Belarus despite the country being used as a launchpad for Russian planes.
Belarus Chief of General Staff Viktor Gulevich said the battalion tactical groups would replace forces already stationed near the border.
“I want to underline that the transfer of troops is in no way connected with (any) preparation, and especially not with the participation of Belarusian soldiers in the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine,” Gulevich said.
Russia repeatedly denied any plan to invade Ukraine before it invaded by land, air and sea.
Efforts to isolate Russia economically have stepped up, with the United States imposing new sanctions on senior Kremlin officials and Russian oligarchs on Friday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would on Saturday suspend Moscow’s privileged trade and economic treatment, crack down on its use of crypto-assets, and ban the import of iron and steel goods from Russia, as well as the export of luxury goods in the other direction.
Moscow said on Saturday the European Union would end up paying at least three times more for oil, gas and electricity.
“I believe the European Union would not benefit from this – we have more durable supplies and stronger nerves,” Russian foreign ministry official Nikolai Kobrinets told Interfax.