By Emma Farge and Pavel Polityuk
GENEVA/LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been released after being held in the Ukrainian town of Manhush while trying to reach the Russian-besieged city of Mariupol.
A senior member of Ukraine’s government said the ICRC team had been freed overnight after being detained by Russian forces occupying Manhush, about 20 km (12 miles) from Mariupol.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team that was held by police in Manhush on Monday was released last night. This is of great relief to us and to their families,” the Geneva-based ICRC said in a statement.
It said the team was focused now on “continuing the humanitarian evacuation operation” from Mariupol, where tens of thousands of residents are trapped with few supplies after weeks of bombardment by Russian forces surrounding the port city.
“This incident yesterday shows how volatile and complex the operation to facilitate safe passage around Mariupol has been for our team, who have been trying to reach the city since Friday,” the statement said.
The ICRC did not say how many of its personnel had been held in Manhush. It said last week that its team trying to reach Mariupol consisted of nine people.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the ICRC team had been sent back to the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is under Ukrainian government control and much further from Mariupol than Manhush.
“After negotiations, they were released during the night and sent to Zaporizhzhia,” she said.
‘VERY DIFFICULT’ SITUATION
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Tuesday Ukraine’s efforts to push back Russian troops from Mariupol were facing difficulties and that the military situation there was “very difficult.”
He said Turkey had proposed a plan to help remove the wounded and dead from the city on the Sea of Azov, but cautioned that the initiative depended on the will of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Each side has blamed the other for the failure of repeated efforts to open “humanitarian corridors” to deliver supplies to Mariupol and evacuate civilians.
Reuters witnesses in Mariupol, where the city mayor says up to 170,000 people are trapped without power and have limited food, Russian-backed troops have been collecting bodies of local residents and what appeared to be Ukrainian soldiers.
A local resident, whose mother was killed, said she was planting tulips to raise her spirits. “What else should I do now, just lie down and wait? We already have somebody lying over there. Waiting to be collected,” she said.
Mariupol is seen as a strategic prize for Russian forces that invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 as capturing it would create a bridge between Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and two Russian-backed separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
The mayor’s office in Mariupol has estimated that nearly 5,000 people have been killed in the city since Russian forces laid siege to it.
Russia says it does not target civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say the invasion was unprovoked and unjustified.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Lviv and Emma Farge in Geneva, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Mark Heinrich)