Russia has announced a local ceasefire to allow civilians to be evacuated from Ukraine's besieged port city of Mariupol, calling on Kiev to respect the truce, as the conflict between the neighbors rages on.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, via the Russian-controlled port of Berdiansk, would be open from 10 am (0700 GMT) Thursday.
"For this humanitarian operation to succeed, we propose to carry it out with the direct participation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross," the ministry said.
Moscow has urged Kiev to guarantee the "unconditional respect" for the ceasefire through written notification to the Russian side, the UNHCR and ICRC before 6 am local time, the ministry said, adding that the Ukrainian side should also ensure the security of the bus convoys along the designated corridor.
Russia has also agreed to a proposal from Ukraine to open four new humanitarian corridors from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, the Russian ministry added.
Mariupol, home to about 400,000 people, has been under heavy bombardment for weeks. Civilians trapped there have been sheltering in basements with little food, power or running water. Previous attempts to arrange safe passage out of the port city have failed.
Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the occasional failure of humanitarian corridors in recent weeks.
Separately on Wednesday, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram that the country had established three humanitarian corridors so that civilians could be evacuated from besieged towns and cities.
According to Vereshchuk, two corridors were set up in the southern Zaporizhzhia region so that Ukrainian civilians could flee Melitopol and Energodar. The third corridor was established in the eastern Donetsk region to evacuate people from Mariupol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" in Ukraine on February 24. The conflict has provoked a unanimous response from Western countries, which have imposed a long list of sanctions on Moscow.
Russia says it will halt the military operation instantly if Kiev meets Moscow’s list of demands, including never applying to join NATO.
The military conflict has so far displaced more than 3.5 million people in what the United Nations has described as the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Ukraine preparing for new Russian offensive in east
Meanwhile, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced that Ukrainian forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the east of the country, as Moscow builds up its troops there after suffering setbacks near the capital, Kiev.
In an early morning video address on Thursday, Zelensky said that Russian troop movements away from Kiev and the northern city of Chernihiv were not a withdrawal but rather "the consequence of our defenders' work."
He added that Ukraine was seeing "a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbass and we are preparing for that."
Zelensky's remarks came after Russia said at peace talks in the Turkish city of Istanbul this week that it would “radically” reduce military activity around Kiev and Chernihiv to build trust.
Negotiators from Moscow and Kiev have held several rounds of talks to end the conflict, but they have failed to produce a breakthrough so far, as both the warring sides have refused to compromise on their respective redlines.
ICRC calls on Ukraine, Russia to agree safe evacuations, aid
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has urged Ukraine and Russia to agree on the safe evacuation of civilians from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol and other frontline areas, as the conflict enters its fifth week.
ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini made the appeal on Tuesday, calling on the warring sides to urgently meet their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect the civilians caught in the conflict and to facilitate neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian aid.
"People are caught and trapped in the line of fire. And it is happening unfortunately in many places today in Ukraine, not only in Mariupol," Mardini said.
"What we expect and what is needed for civilians is that there is a clear and explicit agreement by the two sides on safe evacuations of civilians," he added.
Mardini further said there was an "outrageous" disinformation campaign against the ICRC on social media and politicization of humanitarian work that was raising risks for aid workers.
He explained that the ICRC was in talks to open an operational base in Rostov in southern Russia as part of its regional scale-up, stressing that the humanitarian organization had not been involved in any forced evacuation or transfer of civilians into Russia from Mariupol or any other Ukrainian city.
Mardini further urged Kiev and Moscow to let the ICRC visit prisoners of war, as it does worldwide in line with the Geneva Conventions, and return the remains of the dead.
"It's always sensitive but I think there is also a humanitarian imperative for detainees, for families, to have news of their loved ones," he said.