Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed “in principle” to UN and International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) involvement in the evacuation of civilians from a besieged steel plant in Ukraine’s southern city of Mariupol, the United Nations has said.
During a meeting in Moscow, Putin and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres discussed the situation at the huge Azovstal steel plant, where the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are holed up after months of Russian siege and relentless bombardment.
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“Follow-on discussions will be had with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Russian Defence Ministry,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement after the meeting.
Earlier on Tuesday, Putin told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that there were no military operations under way in Mariupol and that Kyiv should “take responsibility” for the people in the Azovstal steel plant.
Ukraine on Monday appealed for the UN and the ICRC to be involved in the evacuation of civilians from Azovstal. Guterres is expected to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Thursday.
During a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Guterres said he has proposed a “Humanitarian Contact Group” of Russia, Ukraine and UN officials “to look for opportunities for the opening of safe corridors, with local cessations of hostilities, and to guarantee that they are actually effective”.
Moscow describes its February 24 invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” and has denied targeting civilians. It has blamed Ukraine for the repeated failure of humanitarian corridors.
On April 21, Russia declared victory in Mariupol although remaining Ukrainian forces held out in a vast underground complex below Azovstal.
Russia said on Monday it would open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave the steel plant, but Ukraine said there was no such agreement and that Russia was still attacking it.
Putin says ‘hopeful’ over talks
In televised remarks, Putin told Guterres that he still had hope for negotiations to end the conflict.
“Despite the fact that the military operation is ongoing, we still hope that we will be able to reach agreements on the diplomatic track,” Putin said.
“We are negotiating, we do not reject [talks].”
Putin noted that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators made what he described as a “serious breakthrough” in their talks in Istanbul, Turkey, last month.
He claimed, however, that the Ukrainian side later walked back on some of the tentative agreements reached in Istanbul.
In particular, Putin said Ukrainian negotiators have changed their position on the issue of the status of Crimea and separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, offering to leave it for the countries’ presidents to discuss.
The Russian president charged that the shift in the Ukrainian stand makes it hard to negotiate a future deal.
Putin has demanded that Ukraine recognise Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and recognise the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as part of a future agreement on ending the hostilities.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that those issues could only be decided by a future referendum.
Ukraine had proposed an international agreement whereby other countries would guarantee its security. In return, Kyiv would not join NATO or host foreign military bases and become a neutral, non-nuclear state.