NEBI KEN and JURAS KARMANOV
Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Negotiations to end fighting in Ukraine resumed on Friday as another desperate attempt to rescue civilians from besieged Mariupol failed, and the Kremlin accused Ukrainians of attacking a fuel depot on Russian soil from a helicopter.
Ukraine denies responsibility for the blast, but if Moscow’s allegations are confirmed, it will be the first known attack in the war, during which Ukrainian aircraft entered Russian airspace.
“Of course, this is not something that can be seen as creating comfortable conditions for the talks to continue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said five weeks after Moscow began sending more than 150,000 troops across Ukraine’s border.
Russia, meanwhile, has continued to withdraw some of its ground forces from areas around Kyiv after announcing earlier this week that it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to boost confidence at the negotiating table.
While the Russians continued to bomb the two zones, Ukrainian troops took advantage of the retreat on the ground, organizing counterattacks and recapturing a number of towns and villages.
However, Ukraine and its allies have warned that the Kremlin is not de-escalating, but replenishing supplies and relocating its troops to the east of the country for an intensified attack on the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region in the east, which includes Mariupol.
The last talks took place in video mode. At a round of talks earlier this week, Ukraine said it was ready to abandon its application for NATO membership and declare itself neutral – Moscow’s main demand – in exchange for security guarantees from a number of other countries.
The invasion left thousands dead and expelled more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Mariupol, a devastated and besieged southern port city, has endured some of the hardest sufferings of the war. His capture will be the main prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will give his country an intact land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The fate of Mariupol may determine the course of negotiations to end the war, said the head of the Ukrainian think tank Penta Vladimir Fesenko.
“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance,” Fesenko said, “and without his conquest, Putin cannot sit down at the negotiating table.” The fall of Mariupol, he said, “will pave the way for a peace agreement.”
On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it could not conduct an operation to remove civilians from Mariupol by bus. It says the team was on its way but had to turn back.
City officials said the Russians were blocking access to Mariupol.
“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their companions to allow Mariupol residents to evacuate to the territory controlled by Ukraine,” Mariupol Mayor’s Adviser Petro Andryushchenko wrote in the Telegram program. .
He said that Russian forces “categorically do not allow any humanitarian cargo into the city, even in small quantities.”
It is estimated that about 100,000 people remain in the city compared to 430,000 pre-war, and weeks of Russian bombing and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors experienced by the people of Mariupol,” said Red Cross spokesman Ewan Watson.
On Thursday, Russian troops blocked a convoy of 45 buses trying to evacuate people from Mariupol and confiscated 14 tons of food and medicine bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
As for the explosion at the fuel depot, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Kanashenkov said two Ukrainian combat helicopters flew very low and attacked a civilian oil depot on the outskirts of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the border with Ukraine.
The governor of the region said that two depot workers were injured, but the state oil company Rosneft denies that anyone was injured.
Secretary of the National Security Council of Ukraine Alexei Danilov said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say we did it, but in fact it is not true.”
Russia has previously reported cross-border shelling from Ukraine, including last week’s incident that killed a military chaplain but not an invasion of its airspace.
Against the background of Russia’s retreat on the ground and its prolonged bombing, the Ukrainian military said it had returned 29 settlements in the Kiev and Chernihiv regions.
Russian forces in the northeast also continued shelling Kharkiv, while in the southeast they sought to capture the cities of Papasna and Rubezhnoye, as well as Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said.
Meanwhile, Russia on Friday began its annual spring call, which aims to gather 134,500 people for one year of military service. Russian officials say recruits will not be sent to the forefront or “hot spots”, but many young Russians are skeptical and fear that they may be drawn into the war.
On the outskirts of Kiev, where Russian troops were withdrawn, damaged cars stood on the streets of Irpen, a suburban area popular with young families, now in ruins. MOE workers carried the elderly on a stretcher across the destroyed bridge to safety.
Three wooden crosses next to the apartment building, which was damaged by shelling, are marked by the graves of mother and son and an unknown man. A resident, who named her last name only after Lila, said she helped hastily bury them on March 5, just before the entry of Russian troops.
“They were hit by artillery and they were burned alive,” she said.
A resident of Irpen, who named his name only according to Andrei, the Russians gathered the equipment and left on Tuesday. The next day, they shelled the city for almost an hour before it was returned by Ukrainian soldiers.
“I don’t think it’s over,” Andrei said. “They’ll be back.”
`Pockets reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa of Irpen, Ukraine, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the coverage of the AP war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine