U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday in Kyiv. Photo courtesy of United Nations/Twitter
April 28 (UPI) -- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other officials on Thursday in Kyiv as Russia attacked the capital with cruise missiles.
The head of the U.N. was in the city as it was bombarded as he sought to improve the humanitarian situation in the war-torn country.
During his multi-day Europe trip, Guterres had secured an agreement "in principle" from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday 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 southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and was in Kyiv to further that agreement.
During a press conference Thursday following talks with Zelensky, Guterres said that as he was speaking there were "intense discussions" ongoing to move that proposal forward.
"Mariupol is a crisis within a crisis. Thousands of civilians need life-saving assistance. Many are elderly, in need of medical care or have limited mobility," he said.
"They need an escape route out of the apocalypse."
Guterres said the U.N. is doing everything possible to help evacuate the Azovstal steel plant.
President Zelensky added that Ukraine is ready for urgent talks to evacuate people from Mariupol, including from the Azovstal plant, but appeared skeptical over Putin's agreement with the U.N.
"We see that despite the words of the Russian president about the alleged cessation of hostilities in Mariupol, the territory of the Azovstal plant is under barbaric bombing by the Russian army," Zelensky said. "And this continued even during the talks of the secretary-general in Moscow."
Zelensky said he also called on Guterres to make efforts to stop the deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia.
Pushed by reporters for details about the agreement in the works, Guterres uncharacteristically snapped back that his one goal is to evacuate Ukrainians from Mariupol and he will not say anything that could potentially compromise that.
"What do you want? Do you want the people to be rescued or do you want me to say something that will be an obstacle to that rescue? At the present moment, I can only tell you that we are doing everything we can to make it happen." he said. "I'm not going to enter into any comment that would undermine that possibility because my first and only priority is the people that suffer and the people that must be rescued."
During his trip to Ukraine, Guterres visited Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka in addition to meeting with Zelnesky and other Ukrainian leaders, including foreign minister Dmytro Kulbea who chastised Russia for attacking Kyiv while the U.N. secretary general and Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov were visiting.
"By this heinous act of barbarism Russia demonstrates once again its attitude towards Ukraine, Europe, and the world," Kulbea tweeted.
The U.N. chief landed in Kyiv late Wednesday after meetings with Putin in Moscow.
"We will continue our work to expand humanitarian support & secure the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones," Guterres tweeted on landing in Ukraine. "The sooner this war ends, the better -- for the sake of Ukraine, Russia and the world."
Guterres had embarked upon his Europe trip Monday, which began with a stopover in Turkey for talks with its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before heading to Moscow for talks with Putin concerning Mariupol and its iron and steel plant where resistant fighters and civilians have sought refuge and Russian attacks have targeted.
The ICRC over the weekend called for immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to allow thousands of civilians and hundreds of wounded to evacuate from the city and the plant.
Fahan Haq, deputy spokesman for Guterres, told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday that the U.N. held follow-up conversations about those evacuations efforts with officials in Moscow and Kyiv, specifically about developing an operational framework for that effort.
"Speed is of the essence," he said, adding they have put people on the ground too in preparation.
"Ultimately, what we want is to make sure a cease-fire would be respected that would allow us to move people safely," he said.
The evacuations, however, depend on the outcome of discussions with both parties, he added.
Guterres' trip to Ukraine comes as the country's defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, warned of "extremely difficult weeks ahead."
"The enemy is fully aware of its strategic defeat, but will still try to harm us as much as possible," he said in a post on Facebook. "Unfortunately, we will still lose members of our armed forces because we achieve victory. There will still be destruction and painful casualties."
Ahead of the trip Haq had told reporters that Guterres believed that there was a "real opportunity" to achieve either a cease-fire or concrete improvements in the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.
Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, resulting in nearly 2,800 civilians killed and more than 5.3 million forced to flee the country, according to U.N. data.
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