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Putin agrees 'in principle' for U.N., ICRC to aid with evacuations from Mariupol

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Putin agrees 'in principle' for U.N., ICRC to aid with evacuations from Mariupol
Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle to United Nations' involvement in evacuating civilians from Mariupol. Photo courtesy of United Nations Spokesperson/Twitter

April 26 (UPI) -- The United Nations said that Russian President Vladimir Putin "agreed in principle" during a Tuesday meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to allow the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross to be involved in evacuating civilians from an iron and steel plant in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

A U.N. readout of Guterres' meeting with Putin described it as a "tete-a-tete" during which they discussed proposals for humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones, especially Mariupol, located in the separatist-held Donbas region that Russia has been bombarding for weeks as it seeks to gain its full control.

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Russian attacks have targeted the Azovstal plant where resistance fighters have sought refuge while fighting off the Kremlin's advances on the city.

On Sunday, the ICRC said immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access was "urgently required" to allow thousands of civilians and hundreds of wounded out of the city and from the plant.

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Further discussions will follow on the plan between the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Russian Defense Ministry, the readout said.

Lesia Vasylenko, a prominent Ukrainian member of parliament, warned via Twitter in response to the agreement that it needs to be remembered that Putin "is a chronic liar."

She also said amid reports of thousands of Ukrainians forcibly displaced into Russia that it is not evacuations but deportations if the civilians are removed into the invading nation's borders.

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Guterres had left for the trip Monday, having stopped over first to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara before heading on to Moscow where he had a working meeting and lunch Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before he was received by Putin.

The U.N chief told reporters that he had a "very frank discussion" with Lavrov that made clear they disagree on the nature of the fighting with Russia still claiming it to be a so-called special military operation to denazify Ukraine and the U.N. describing it as a Russian invasion in violation of its charter and its neighbor's territorial integrity.

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Guterres told Lavrov his concerns of possible war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine and the need for humanitarian corridors to safely evacuate citizens.

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"The United Nations is ready to fully mobilize its human and logistical resources to help save lives in Mariupol," he said.

Lavrov said that they discussed ways to strengthen cooperation while also stating Russia is in support of cease-fire negotiations, but that they will not happen as long as countries continue "pumping" Ukraine with weapons.

On Thursday, Guterres will travel to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for Guterres, told reporters during a press conference ahead of the Tuesday meetings that the secretary general embarked upon this trip as he feels there's an opportunity to achieve progress toward a cease-fire or improving the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country.

"He is going in the anticipation that there is a real opportunity that is availing itself and we will see what we can make of it," Haq said.

"We'll see what we can do, whether we can get a concrete improvement in the humanitarian situation, whether we can get fighting to stop for any period of time," he added.

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Guterres' trip comes as the war enters its third month and after Russia failed to heed his calls for a cease-fire or humanitarian pause to the fighting over the Orthodox Easter weekend.

Haq called the present moment in the war "delicate" and said that it's important for Guterres to speak with both sides to see what progress can be achieved.

"Ultimately, the end goal is to have a halt to fighting and to have ways to improve the situation of the people in Ukraine, lessen the threat they are under and provide humanitarian aid towards them," he said, adding he didn't want to "oversell" the upcoming meetings.

"Those are the goals we're trying and there's certain ways we'll try to move those forward," he said.

After the trip was announced last week, Zelensky chastised Guterres for visiting Russia before Ukraine, stating "there is no justice or logic in this order."

"The war is in Ukraine. There are no bodies in the streets of Moscow," he said during a press conference. "It would be logical to go first to Ukraine, to see the people there, the consequences of the occupation."

Haq told reporters that both sides agreed to the schedule and that there's "no significance" in visiting one country before the other.

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On Monday, Guterres spoke with Erdogan in a meeting in which they reaffirmed their objective to end the war, Haq said.

Turkey has been the closet agent to what could be described as a mediator between the two countries, and has received praise from U.N. officials for acting in this capacity.

Martin Griffiths, the under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was supposed to have visited Turkey last week to speak with Erdogan on hosting humanitarian talks between the warring nations, but canceled the trip after contracting COVID-19.

Haq told reporters that Guterres expressed his support for Turkey's diplomatic role in the conflict and the pair on Monday "stressed the urgent need for effective access through humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians and deliver much-needed assistance to impacted communities."

More than 2,660 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24, with Guterres' trip occurring at a time when there seems to be no stop to the fighting in the immediate future.

Dmitry Polyansky, Russia's permanent representative to the U.N., told reporters Monday that he doesn't think a cease-fire is "a good option right now," stating it would only give Ukraine an advantage in the war.

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"Frankly, it's not up to me to decide, but I don't see any reasons on this right now," he said.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv and announced an additional $300 million in military financing and $165 million in ammunition for Ukraine.

"We want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory," Austin told reporters during a press conference. "We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine."

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