UN Secretary-General and Putin agree on major evacuation of Ukraine

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Tuesday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the United Nations said they had agreed to arrange evacuations from a besieged steel mill in India. The ruined city of Mariupol.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Russian leader and the secretary-general discussed “proposals for humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of civilians from conflict areas, in particular regarding the situation in Mariupol”.

He said they also agreed in principle that the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be involved in evacuating civilians from the Azovstal steel complex as Ukrainian defenders in the southeastern city are taking a tough stance.

Dujarric said that discussions will be held with the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs and the Russian Defense Ministry on the evacuation.

During the meeting, which the United Nations said lasted about two hours, Putin and Guterres sat at opposite ends of a long white table in a room with gold curtains surrounded by red. There was no one else at the table.

Guterres criticized Russia’s military action in Ukraine as a flagrant violation of its neighbor’s territorial integrity and urged Russia to allow the evacuation of civilians trapped in the steel plant.

Putin responded by claiming that Russian forces provided humanitarian corridors for civilians holed up at the station. But he said the Ukrainian defenders of the factory were using civilians as shields and not letting them leave.

The sprawling Azovstal position was almost completely destroyed by Russian attacks, but it is the last pocket of organized Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. An estimated 2,000 soldiers and 1,000 civilians are said to be trapped in fortified positions beneath the wrecked buildings.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday ahead of Guterres’ visit, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted the failure of other foreign officials who visited Moscow to produce results, and urged the UN Secretary-General to pressure Russia to evacuate Mariupol. “This is really something the United Nations can do,” Kuleba said.

Guterres flew to Rzeszow, Poland, from Moscow, late on Tuesday, and was received by Polish President Andrzej Duda. He is scheduled to fly to Kyiv for meetings on Thursday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Kuliba, and his meeting with Putin is expected to top the agenda.

Many analysts have low expectations about Guterres’ diplomatic entry into the Ukraine war. But UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq was extraordinarily optimistic on Monday ahead of the Moscow meetings, telling reporters Guterres “believes there is an opportunity now” and he will “make the most” of his time on the ground talking to leaders and seeing what can be done. achieve it.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Guterres has accused the Russians of violating the United Nations Charter, which calls for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

He has also repeatedly called for a cessation of hostilities, most recently appealing in vain last Tuesday for a “humanitarian pause” for four days before Orthodox Easter Sunday.

He followed the UN Crisis Coordinator for Ukraine, Amin Awad, on Sunday with a call for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Mariupol to allow the evacuation of an estimated 100,000 trapped civilians.

Guterres said in a press conference after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier on Tuesday that there is an urgent need for safe and effective humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and deliver aid.

To deal with the “crisis within the Mariupol crisis,” he proposed coordination between the United Nations, the Red Cross, Ukrainian and Russian forces to enable the evacuation of civilians who want to leave “in and out of the Azovstal plant and in the city., in any direction they choose, and to deliver the required humanitarian aid.”

The Secretary-General of the United Nations also proposed the creation of a humanitarian liaison group involving Russia, Ukraine and the United Nations “to seek opportunities to open safe corridors, with a local cessation of hostilities, and to truly ensure their effectiveness.”

Dujarric did not mention a broader evacuation of civilians from Mariupol or Guterres’ humanitarian liaison group, but getting civilians out of the steel plant would be an important step.

On Saturday, a Ukrainian military unit posted a video allegedly taken two days ago, in which women and children holed up underground in the factory, some for two months, said they were eager to see the sun.