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Ukraine-Russia peace talks go nowhere, civilians flee war zone

A meeting between the top diplomats of Ukraine and Russia ended in Turkey with no progress on bringing the catastrophic war to an end. Fighting continued but so did evacuations from besieged cities.

(CN) — Peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow on Thursday ended with neither side budging in a war that seems set to escalate further as Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes on with his invasion of Ukraine despite suffering heavy losses on the battlefield.    

Meeting in Turkey, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sat down for about an hour and a half and made little to no progress on ending the war through diplomacy.    

“I want to repeat that Ukraine has not surrendered, does not surrender, and will not surrender,” Kuleba told reporters after his meeting with Lavrov, which he described as “difficult.”  

Lavrov used the occasion to lash out at the West for its economic blockade and vowed that Russia will “emerge from this crisis with a healthier psychology and a healthier consciousness” by never becoming “dependent on the West.”  

“We will not be under the slightest illusion that the West can be a reliable partner,” Lavrov said. “We will have no illusions that the West will betray at any moment – betray anyone and betray its own values.”  

In Ukraine, the fighting continued amid more reports of horrific shelling and a growing humanitarian disaster, especially in the bombarded southern port city of Mariupol where officials say 1,200 bodies have been removed from the streets.     

Speaking to the BBC, Serhiy Orlov, the city’s deputy mayor, said the city’s most recent figure for those killed is 1,207. He said 47 bodies, some unidentified, were buried in a mass grave because burial sites outside the city cannot be reached. Russian troops and pro-Russian separatist fighters from Donbas have surrounded the city and are smashing it with bombs.     

The city is being held by ultranationalist Ukrainian forces affiliated with the Azov Battalion, a national guard militia group seen as among Ukraine’s most war-hardened soldiers and accused of harboring neo-Nazi views. For Russia, seizing Mariupol would be a strategic triumph because it would help complete a land bridge between Crimea and Donbas, parts of Ukraine that Russia and pro-Russian forces have occupied since 2014 when the country fell into chaos following the overthrow of a pro-Russian president during the so-called “Maidan Revolution.”     

He said hundreds of thousands of people lack food, water, heat, electricity and medical care.     

Efforts to evacuate people in Mariupol failed again on Thursday as fighting continued and both sides accused the other of violating ceasefires.     

Other than Mariupol, efforts to get trapped civilians out of besieged towns and cities in other parts of Ukraine seemed to be more successful. The mayor of Kyiv said about half of the capital's 3 million residents have left.    

Sasha Volkov, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s delegation in Mariupol, described awful scenes of looted food stores and pharmacies, people fighting each other for food, siphoning gas from other people’s cars and hunkering down in a city terrified by bombing.      

A Ukrainian serviceman takes a photograph of a damaged church after shelling in a residential district of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“Some people still have food but I’m not sure for how long it will last,” he said in a three-minute audio message broadcast by the Red Cross. He spoke via a satellite phone on Wednesday, the Red Cross said. 

“People started to attack each other for food. People started to ruin someone’s car to take the gasoline out,” he said.     

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Volkov said children are going without food, diabetes and cancer patients are without medicine and illness is setting in due to the freezing temperatures and humidity. The city is able to deliver some water, but it is insufficient, he said.     

“It’s really cold. We still have some fuel for generators so we have electricity for three hours a day,” he said.     

He said some hospitals are partially functioning, but he said medical supplies are running out.     

 On Thursday, Ukrainian officials said a Russian strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol on Wednesday killed three people, including a child. Russia accused Ukrainian soldiers of taking up position in the hospital.  Russia even suggested that Ukraine staged a fake evacuation of pregnant women from the hospital. Twitter quickly blocked the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom from making such a claim, saying it violated its guidelines.  

Images of the destroyed Mariupol hospital and pregnant women being carried out of its ruins further shocked the world and put more pressure on the West to do more to support Ukraine, even possibly by sending NATO warplanes into combat to stop Russian bombing. But such a move – though championed by many – remains highly unlikely because doing that would bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia.    

According to the United Nations, over 500 civilians have been killed by Russia since the start of the war. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service puts the civilian death toll at over 2,000. Ukraine says 71 children have been killed and more than 100 wounded.  

The number of refugees continues to climb with more than 2 million people having left Ukraine since Putin ordered an invasion a fortnight ago, according to U.N. figures. This is the biggest movement of people in Europe since World War II, surpassing the more than 1 million people who arrived fleeing the Syrian civil war in 2015.    

In a new troubling twist, Ukraine and the West are warning that Russia may be preparing a pretext for the use of chemical weapons.  

For its part, the Kremlin says it has evidence that the United States and NATO were operating bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine and even concocting diseases targeted to affect Slavs.   

Lavrov put forward these allegations at a news conference in Turkey following talks with Kuleba.  

A woman covers herself with a blanket near a damaged fire truck after shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday, March 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

He accused the Pentagon of funding biological laboratories in Ukraine “to experiment with pathogens that can later be used to create biological weapons.”  

“Of course, the Americans carried out their activities in deep secrecy,” he said.  

Following Russia’s accusations that it has found information about alleged bioweapons labs in Ukraine, China demanded the U.S.  open up laboratories funded by its military, reopening debates over how the novel coronavirus emerged in China in 2019. The U.S. accused China of manufacturing the deadly virus and Beijing accused the U.S. of bringing it to Wuhan. The origins of the virus remain a mystery.  

The White House called Russia’s claims lies to create a pretext for the use of chemical weapons.  

However, apparently there were some kind of laboratories operating in Ukraine, as acknowledged by U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday. Russian media seized upon her comments.  

Nuland is a controversial figure because under the Obama administration she was instrumental in efforts to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected pro-Russian president in Ukraine when the Maidan Revolution erupted.   

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“Ukraine has biological research facilities which, in fact, we’re now quite concerned Russian troops, Russian forces may be seeking to gain control of, so we are working with the Ukrainians on how we can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach,” Nuland said.  

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Twitter.   

In an interview on Sky News, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said using chemical weapons “is straight out of their playbook.”  

“They start saying that there are chemical weapons that have been stored by their opponents or by the Americans. And so when they themselves deploy chemical weapons, as I fear they may, they have a sort of maskirovka, a fake story, ready to go,” he said.  

Putin's invasion of Ukraine is in its 15th day and Russian troops continue to make slow progress in seizing eastern and southern Ukraine and encircling Kyiv. There is some evidence that a large number of Ukrainian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine are in danger of getting surrounded.    

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia has lost up to 4,000 soldiers. Russian media is beginning to acknowledge that the invasion isn't going well, though the official line from the Kremlin says its so-called “special military operation” is going according to plan. It is now a crime in Russia to describe the invasion as a “war” and numerous journalists, including New York Times staff, have fled the country for fear of imprisonment. More than 13,000 Russians have been jailed for protesting against the war.    

Ukrainian confidence is growing as its army holds off Russian troops and digs in around Kyiv in preparation for what could be a devastating and protracted battle for Ukraine's central city and government. Ukrainians have blocked streets into the city center with anti-tank obstacles, known as Czech hedgehogs, buses and sandbags.     

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remains in Kyiv, where he daily encourages his people to continue to fight, vowing that his country will beat back the invasion and claim victory.    

The animosity between Ukraine and Russia seems only set to grow with Zelenskyy accusing Russia of perpetrating genocide against Ukrainians.     

Zelenskyy is pushing the West to put Putin on trial as a war criminal, something that is being investigated by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.     

“Absolutely there should be an investigation, and we should all be watching,” said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris during a news conference in Poland, where she met Polish President Andrezj Duda. “I have no question [that] the eyes of the world are on this war and what Russia has done in terms of this aggression and these atrocities.”     

In the past fortnight, the Ukrainian side has potentially violated international law too. For instance, it has paraded captured Russian soldiers and posted online their telephone conversations with family members back in Russia. The Geneva Convention forbids such actions. 

Ukrainian agents also apparently killed a member of a five-person ceasefire delegation it sent to meet with Russian negotiators on the grounds that he was an alleged “traitor” and “spy.” A pro-Russian mayor was also shot to death in a street. In addition, there have been disturbing reports and images of suspected pro-Russian traitors and spies being shot and abused.       

For its part, Russia accuses Ukraine of committing war crimes and it is establishing procedures to set up a war crimes tribunal in Ukraine. It accuses Ukrainian forces of shelling civilians in eastern Ukraine and of committing atrocities against eastern Ukrainians.      

On Thursday, Zelenskyy signed a decree into law allowing Ukraine to seize the property of the Russian government and even its citizens, a move that will further deepen existing hatreds.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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