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Ukrainian evacuation buses held up at Russian checkpoint during limited cease-fire

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Destroyed vehicles line a highway near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. The area is close to a city that was overtaken by Russian forces and then retaken by Ukrainian troops, officials said. Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE
Destroyed vehicles line a highway near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. The area is close to a city that was overtaken by Russian forces and then retaken by Ukrainian troops, officials said. Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE

March 31 (UPI) -- The promise of a humanitarian corridor for civilians out of the war-ravaged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Thursday hit a snag when a convoy of buses headed toward the city was held up at multiple locations by the Russians.

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukrainian minister of reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, said 45 buses sent to pick up civilians were stopped first in Vasylivka and then again outside of the town of Berdiansk. She said the delay in transporting the civilians from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia put the agreed-upon evacuation into jeopardy.

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"Our task is to open a humanitarian corridor and help people survive, especially civilians -- women, children, the elderly," Vereshchuk said, according to CNN.

"Six-hundred people came out from [Berdiansk] to the buses and tomorrow morning should leave for Zaporizhzhia. Over 30 buses are staying at the entrance to Berdiansk city [in advance of going on to] Mariupol and [then back to] Berdiansk [the finally deliver] residents to Zaporizhzhia."

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A limited cease-fire in Mariupol was supposed to give thousands of Ukrainians stranded there a way out.

The Kremlin had agreed to the cease-fire to allow dozens of buses to pick up the civilians. A humanitarian corridor allowing their escape was also part of the agreement and was established from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia through Berdiansk.

A number of previous attempts at ensuring safe passage for Ukrainians have failed, which has made some officials in Kyiv skeptical of Moscow's intentions.

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Vereshchuk also accused the Russian forces of confiscating 12 buses full of humanitarian aid, including food and medicine, that was meant for civilians in Melitopol.

"This is the price for the agreed corridors and for the Red Cross' guarantees that the corridors will be provided and working," she said.

"We are negotiating for the buses to be returned and for the Melitopol residents tomorrow to evacuate using these buses."

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She said 50 private cars and one bus full of children left the town of Enerhodar on Thursday and arrived in Zaporizhzhia. In all, 1,458 people arrived in Zaporizhzhia in their own vehicles Thursday.

Not long after the cease-fire was to take effect Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his doubts about Russia in a national address and said that Russian forces are actually building up in eastern, separatist regions of Ukraine, known as the Donbas.

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In an address to the Australian Parliament Thursday, Zelensky appealed for more aid in the form of armored vehicles and punitive sanctions against Moscow -- something that a number of nations have already done.

Meanwhile, Russian forces escalated the fighting on Thursday on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv, leading some to speculate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the cease-fire to allow his troops to regroup. Russian forces have been met with stiff Ukrainian resistance since the invasion began Feb. 24.

Bereaved relatives are seen Thursday during the funeral of Ukrainian servicemen who died in the Russian war, in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv. Photo by Mykola Tys/EPA-EFE

Ukrainian official David Arakhamia said negotiators from both countries are expected to resume talks virtually on Friday. The most recent peace talks, early this week, were held in person in Turkey. Those talks initially provided glimmers of hope as Moscow vowed to "reduce military activity" in certain parts of Ukraine. But Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, have since said that Moscow isn't doing anything different.

In a separate address late on Wednesday, Zelensky said that defeating Russia on the battlefield -- not negotiating a peace agreement -- is going to be the only way to end the war.

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"We need peace, but it will come only when we will have a strong position on the battlefield," he said, according to the Kyiv Post. "Our spirit is strong, we are sufficiently decisive, but we need help now."

On Thursday afternoon, a missile strike damaged a cultural center in Ukraine that was being used as a military barracks near central Kharkiv. The missile destroyed parked vehicles and nearby buildings.

The United Nations said earlier this week that the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homeland has surpassed 4 million.

"For this humanitarian operation to succeed, we propose to carry it out with the direct participation of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross," Russia's defense ministry said Thursday, according to the Economic Times.

Meanwhile, France and Germany have both rejected a demand by Russia for buyers to pay Russian rubles for Russian-produced natural gas -- a tactic that would ease some of the sanctions against Moscow and add value to the Russian currency.

The European countries' refusal sets up an economic and energy standoff, with Putin threatening to end gas supplies if they are not paid in the Russian currency.

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Scenes from the rubble: Russian forces attack Ukraine capital, Kyiv

Ukrainian service members stand beside a damaged building in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 18. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/UPI | License Photo

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